Archaeological and historical evidence has given us more than enough reason to find the Bible trustworthy. If we take a look at the number of manuscripts of the New Testament and the closeness of those manuscripts to their original copy we can clearly see that the New Testament is reliable. Counting Greek copies only, the New Testament is preserved in 5,656 partial and complete manuscript portions copied by hand from the second through the fifteenth centuries. There are also over 10,000 Latin Vulgate and 9,300 other early versions and 25,000 manuscript copies of portions of the New Testament in existence today (McDowell). This may all sound a bit confusing, but if we compare the closest document of antiquity in number of manuscripts and corroboration it doesn’t even come close. Homer’s Iliad has only 643 manuscripts that are still around today and the first complete text dates only to the thirteenth century (McDowell). John Warwick Montgomery says, “to be skeptical of the resultant text of the New Testament books is to allow all of classical antiquity to slip into obscurity, for no documents of the ancient period are as well attested bibliographically as the New Testament.”
Besides number of manuscripts, we must consider the interval of time between the original and earliest manuscripts. Sir Frederic G Kenyon (second to non in authority for issuing statements about manuscripts) says, “The books of the New Testament were written in the latter part of the first century; the earliest extant manuscripts (trifling scraps excepted) are of the fourth century – say from 250 to 300 years later. This may sound a considerable interval, but it is nothing to that which parts most of the great classical authors from their earliest manuscripts. We believe that we have in all essentials an accurate text of the seven extant plays of Sophocles; yet the earliest substantial manuscript upon which it is based was written more than 1400 years after the poet’s death” (McDowell).
Dockery, Mathews, and Sloan write, “It must be said that the amount of time between the original composition and the next surviving manuscript is far less for the New Testament than for any other work in Greek literature…. Although there are certainly differences in many of the New testament manuscripts, not on fundamental doctrine of the Christian faith rests on a disputed reading” (McDowell, 35).
This list shows books of antiquity and the earliest manuscripts and their time gap from the original copies.
1) Homer’s Illiad, written in 800 B.C., earliest copies: c. 400 B.C., time gap: c. 400 years, number of copies: 643
2) Herodotus’ History, written 480-425 B.C., earliest copies: c. A.D. 900, time gap: c. 1,350 yrs, number of copies: 8
3) Thucydides’ History written 460-400 B.C., earliest copies: c. A.D. 900, time gap: c. 1,300 yrs, number of copies: 8
4) Plato’s works, written 400 B.C., earliest copies: c. A.D. 900, time gap: c 1,300 years, number of copies: 7
5) Demosthenes, written 300 B.C., earliest copies: c. A.D. 1100, time gap: c. 1,400 yrs, number of copies: 200
6) Caesar’s Gallic Wars written 100-44 B.C., earliest copies: c. A.D. 900, time gap: c. 1,400 yrs, number of copies: 10
7) Livy’s History of Rome written 59 B.C.- A.D. 17, earliest copies: 4th century and mostly 10th century, time gap: c. 400-1,000 years, number of copies: 1 partial from the 4th and 19 copies form the 10th century
8) Tacitus’ Annals written A.D. 100, earliest copies: A.D. 1100, time gap: c. 1,000 years, number of copies: 20
9) Pliny Secundus’ Natural History written A.D. 61-113, earliest copies: A.D. 850, time gap: c. 750 years, number of copies: 7
10) New Testament, written A.D. 50-100, earliest copies: c. 114 (fragment) – c. 200 (books) – c. 250 (most of the N.T.) – c. 325 (complete N.T.), time gap: 50 years for the fragments – 100 years for the books – 150 years for most of the N.T. – 225 years for the complete N.T., number of copies: 5366
(List from “The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict” by Josh McDowell, p.38)
This chart clearly shows the Bible as the best attested writing of antiquity. If we can’t trust what the Bible says then can we trust what the other writings say?
There is also evidence from early Christian writers outside of the Bible. Irenaeus, for example, was martyred in A.D. 156 and had been a Christian for 86 years. He was even a disciple of John the Apostle. Irenaeus, wrote, “So firm is the ground upon which these Gospels rest, that the very heretics themselves bear witness to them, and, starting from these [documents], each one of them endeavours to establish his own particular doctrine” (McDowell, p.53). Another example is Ignatius, the Bishop of Antioch. He knew all the apostles and was a disciple of John the Apostle as well. He lived A.D. 70-110 and was martyred for his faith in Christ (McDowell, p.54).
Along with early Christian confirmation there is also early non-Christian confirmation! One example is from Tacitus, a first century Roman historian. He was considered to be one of the more accurate historians as well. In his following quotation he takes about the fire of Rome. He writes, “Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the word find their center and become popular.” The ‘mischievous superstition’ is most likely a reference to the resurrection of Jesus! (McDowell, p.55).
Archaeology cannot always prove that events happened, but it can show that the details of an account (like the Bible) fit the time and culture of the text. It also shows that we should be careful to say that there are errors in the Bible simply because the Bible is the only book we have found so far that attests to that event. For example, there was debate about a pool in John 5:2 with five porticoes in Jerusalem called Bethesda or Bethsaida. It was widely confirmed in ancient tradition, but many still questioned its existence until excavations in 1957-1962 found two pools large enough to hold a great amount of water and people. Today virtually nobody doubts the existence of the pool mentioned in John 5:2.
There is so much evidence to support the truthfulness of the Gospel message that it’s hard to deny its claim. If in fact one does try to deny the Gospel message they will have to deny much of history as we know it.