Sunday, August 20, 2017

The reliability of the New Testament. (2)

This is the sequel to an earlier article on the same topic.

In my previous article I stated, supported by ample evidence,  that the books of the New Testament were all written during the lifetime of the Apostles. A number of their contemporaries mentioned the books of the New Testament by name and often cited pieces of text.

How can we be certain of the integrity of the text of the New Testament?

What I mean by this question is this: how can we be sure that the New Testament contains the same text as the authors (the Apostles) have written? The problem is that there is no surviving copy (from the time of the Apostles) of even one of the books of the New Testament.

After the Apostles died, the following generations of Christians had to rely more and more on the written word the Apostles produced. During the 2nd century AD controversies arose about the interpretation of these texts. Except for Marcion (85-160 AD), who rejected the God of the Old Testament and began to purge the New Testament of Hebrew influence, all debaters based their arguments on the texts of the books of the New Testament. Even Celsus, a 2nd-century Greek philosopher who attacked Christianity, based his arguments on the works of the Apostles and never questioned their authorship. Christians began to write commentaries on the Scriptures (the Old Testament and the New Testament) and to answer critics of the Christian faith. These writings often contained extensive quotes from the books of the New Testament. Furthermore copies were made of the original epistles of the Apostles. These copies were also copied and so on. The same happened to the writings of the early Church Fathers.

For the most part only fragments survived. This seems to be a fatal blow to the integrity of the text of the New Testament. But it is not. There are thousands of fragments found at different places and at different times. From these fragments one has been able to compile three almost identical volumes of the New Testament. The fact that these fragments were found at different places and times is a strong argument against the accusation made by Islam that Christians corrupted the original text of the New Testament. How can that be? There were no central editors who would have altered the text before distribution. The original books of the New Testament were first distributed by the authors (the Apostles) themselves. Copies were later made by the recipient churches in places far remote from each other. These copies were again copied. The thousands surviving fragments of these copies can be compiled to multiple, almost identical, New Testaments. The differences between these copies of the New Testament are minor and not very significant. What seemed to be a weakness for the reliability of the text, the absence of a complete early copy of the New Testament and the need to rely on surviving fragments, is in fact an asset. The accusation that Christians have corrupted the text of the New Testament is absurd.

The books of the New Testament are written by men. The Gospels are as it were, eyewitness reports of the ministry of Christ. Like all eyewitness reports concerning a particular event, they sometimes differ. In this case there are differences but they do not contradict each other. They agree on the main narrative.

My conclusion is that the New Testament that lays in front of me on my desk, shows faithfully what the Apostles wrote.

A very illuminating article "Text and Manuscripts of the New Testament" by Charles Fremont Sitterly can be found here.

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