The twenty-seven documents of the New Testament, as they came from the pens of the original inspired writers, are referred to as autographs. None of these compositions survive today.
Does that then mean that our copies of the New Testament Scriptures are somehow suspect?
Hardly. If one operated on the premise that no document is genuine unless the original is possessed, he would have to throw away the bulk of ancient literature.
There is but a smattering of historical literary evidence for the Greek and Roman classics, when compared with the document-support for the New Testament. And yet no one dreams of disputing the authorship of the noble compositions of Homer, Aristotle, or Tacitus.
What then ought to be conceded relative to the credibility of the New Testament records? Consider several examples.
Homer, the blind poet of Greece, lived some 900 years before the birth of Christ. He penned the Iliad and the Odyssey. But not a single complete copy of these works exists, that is earlier than the thirteenth century A.D.; and there are no fragmented copies older than the sixth century A.D. This means our modern versions are, at the very least, fifteen centuries removed from the originals.
Plato was one of the most famous of the Greek philosophers. He lived in the early fifth century before Christ. He produced a number of important works, e.g., the Republic, Apology, Laws, etc. Only seven copies of his works have survived, and none of these is earlier than around A.D. 900. There is thus a gap of some 1,300 years between the original composition and the extant copies of today.
Aristotle lived in the fourth century before our Lord. He wrote prolifically on science, politics, ethics, etc. Of the five copies of his works that have survived, the oldest dates from about 1100 A.D. — which is some 1,400 years removed from the original.
Julius Caesar (cir. 102-44 B.C.) penned his Gallic War between 58-50 B.C. There remain only about nine or ten reasonably good manuscripts, and they date to some 900 years this side of the originals.
These four examples surely are illustrative enough to make the point we wish to emphasize. Contrast the statistics sited above with the fact that we now possess, in the various libraries and museums of the world, more than 5,300 copies (substantially complete or fragmented) of the New Testament documents! That is a breath-taking figure compared to the numbers for the classics.
But let me be more precise. There are more than 240 papyri Greek fragments containing portions of the New Testament, and some of them are within decades of the close of the New Testament canon.
- The Chester Beatty papyri contain much of the Gospel records, Acts, the Pauline epistles, and the book of Revelation. They date from the third century A.D.
- Papyrus 52, in the John Rylands Library of Manchester, England, contains a portion of John 18. It dates to the first half of the second century A.D.
- Several papyri in the Bodmer Library in Geneva, Switzerland contain different segments of the New Testament, including the Gospel of Luke, the Gospel of John, the book of Acts, Jude, the epistles of Peter, James, John, and Jude.
Add to the more than 5,300 Greek manuscripts thousands of ancient translations of the Greek New Testament into other languages.
For instance, there are more than 8,000 copies of the Latin Vulgate; it was the most translated work of antiquity. This is an amazing fact in itself since ancient works were rarely rendered from one language to another.
Finally, there are those quotations from the New Testament that are found in the writings of the “church fathers,” i.e., those works produced in the first several centuries of the Christian era. It has been noted that virtually the whole of the New Testament, with the exception of about a dozen verses, could be reproduced from these sources alone.
How astounding is the evidence for the preservation of the New Testament records. We can have every confidence in the reliability of the Book we hold so dear.