For more than forty years Christians have appealed to what is called the “bibliographical test” as a means of establishing the New Testament’s (NT) transmissional accuracy. The bibliographical test examines the overall number of extant manuscripts (sometimes abbreviated to MSS or MS for the singular) and the difference between the date of the original writing, called the autograph, and the date of the earliest surviving, or extant, manuscript. Since we do not possess the autograph of even one ancient document, this test best determines transmissional accuracy for any ancient document.
Christians argue that if historians will consider an ancient document to have been accurately transmitted whose manuscripts are few and far between the date the autograph was penned and its earliest extant copy, then they should accept documents as accurately transmitted whose manuscripts are comparatively many and comparatively near their autographs. For many years Christian apologists have employed the bibliographical test to argue that since the NT surpasses all other ancient documents in sheer number of manuscripts and the nearness of the date between the autographs and extant manuscripts that the NT has been accurately transmitted.
However, some of the numbers that apologists appeal to are woefully out of date. For this post I will provide just on example. Those who wish to see the updated numbers for others ancient authors and the updated numbers for the New Testament’s translations into other languages can find the fuller research in my article in the Christian Research Journal. You can listen to a radio interview here.
Homer authored the Iliad and the Odyssey and for years apologists have claimed that while there are over 5,500 manuscripts of the Greek NT, there are, by comparison, only 643 manuscripts of Homer’s Iliad. For example, a recent Google query of Homer 643 manuscripts turned up 143,000 results, and a review of the first one hundred of those results revealed that all of them related to whether the NT has been accurately transmitted.1
But things have changed: the more recent number of Iliad manuscripts is 1,757.
Martin L. West, senior research fellow, All Souls College, Oxford, cataloged a total of 1,569 papyri.2 But this is a papyri only count and not a total manuscript count.3 West said that he didn’t believe there was a more recent nonpapyri count than that found in T. W. Allen’s Homeri Ilias, which contains 188 items.4 Thus 1,569 papyri, plus 188 parchment manuscripts, comes to a total of 1,757.5
Although there has been an increase in the number of non–NT ancient manuscripts, nothing has changed regarding the applicability of the bibliographical test. Even Homer’s Iliad, which has seen the greatest manuscript increase, is still dwarfed by the NT, which has more than three times the Greek manuscripts as the Iliad. When one adds the fifteen thousand manuscripts in other languages, and then considers that almost the entire NT could be reproduced by the quotations of the early church fathers, one must maintain that, despite the increase of non-NT ancient manuscripts, the NT remains in a class by itself: it is by far the most attested ancient work.
This troubles skeptics because if they reject the transmissional reliability of the NT, then they must also consider unreliable all other manuscripts of antiquity. As John Warwick Montgomery has often related: “Some years ago, when I debated philosophy professor Avrum Stroll of the University of British Columbia on this point, he responded: ‘All right. I’ll throw out my knowledge of the classical world.’ At which the chairman of the classics department cried: ‘Good Lord, Avrum, not that!’”6
- Conducted on August 26, 2011. [↩]
- Martin L. West, Studies in the Text and Transmission of the Iliad (München: K. G. Saur, 2001), 86. [↩]
- Even though manuscript literally means handwrite, scholars like West sometimes use manuscript to refer only to nonpapyri manuscripts. Papyri manuscripts they only call papyri. [↩]
- Thomas W. Allen, Homeri Ilias (1931; repr., New York: Arno, 1979), 11–55. Personal correspondence with West on October 30, 2010. [↩]
- West also lists 142 Homeric papyri (glossaries, commentaries, scholia minora) and 47 witness papyri (“miscellaneous papyri and inscriptions in which verses of the Iliad are quoted”), ibid., 130. [↩]
- John Warwick Montgomery, Human Rights and Human Dignity (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1986), 139. [↩]