The New Testament Compared to Classical Literature

The amazing preservation of the New Testament documents can perhaps be appreciated best by comparing the evidence for their authenticity with that available for the works produced by the classical writers of antiquity.

One of the greatest textual critics of the past was F. H. A. Scrivener (1813-91). He did much to enhance the science of textual criticism, i.e., the restoration of the original text by the collation of ancient manuscripts (though his attempted defense of the Textus Receptus has been almost universally rejected). In 1883 (prior to numerous more recent manuscript discoveries), Dr. Scrivener wrote:

As the New Testament far surpasses all other remains of antiquity in value and interest, so are the copies of it yet existing in manuscript and dating from the fourth century of our era downwards, far more numerous than those of the most celebrated writers of Greece or Rome. Such as have been already discovered and set down in catalogues are hardly fewer than two thousand [more than five thousand now]; and many more must still linger unknown in the monastic libraries of the East. On the other hand, manuscripts of the most illustrious classic poets and philosophers are far rarer and comparatively modern. We have no complete copy of Homer himself prior to the thirteenth century, though some considerable fragments have been recently brought to light which may plausibly be assigned to the fifth century; while more than one work of high and deserved repute has been preserved to our times only in a single copy. Now the experience we gain from a critical examination of the few classical manuscripts that survive should make us thankful for the quality and abundance of those of the New Testament (1833, 3-4).

In the late 1800s, Benjamin B. Warfield (1851-1921) of Princeton Theological Seminary, from the limited vantage point of his day, wrote:

The most astonishing thing about the manuscripts of the New Testament is their great number: as has already been intimated, quite two thousand of them have been catalogued upon the lists"

  • Archibald, Andrew. 1890. The Bible Verified. Philadelphia, PA: Presbyterian Board of Publication.
  • Bruce, F. F. 1960. The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity.
  • Hall, F. W. 1913. Companion to Classical Texts. Oxford, England: Clarendon.
  • Hastings, H. L. 1890. The Corruption of the New Testament. A Square Talk About the Inspiration of the Bible. Boston, MA: H. L. Hastings.
  • Scrivener, F. H. A. 1833. Introduction to the Criticism of the New Testament. Cambridge, England: Deighton, Bell & Co.
  • Thiessen, Henry C. 1955. Introduction to the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
  • Warfield, B.B. 1898. An Introduction to the Criticism of the New Testament. New York: Thomas Whittaker.
Cite this article
Jackson, Wayne. "The New Testament Compared to Classical Literature." Access date: July 29, 2017.