Can’t Touch This – Part 4

Modern bronze statue of Julius Caesar, Rimini,...

Modern bronze statue of Julius Caesar, Rimini, Italy. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Relative Age of Manuscripts and Manuscript Fragments

The second bibliographic test is the age of the manuscripts relative to when it was originally written. The New Testament wins here again. Not only are there more manuscripts and manuscript fragments of the New Testament than any other ancient document, the manuscripts and manuscript fragments we have are older than any other ancient manuscript. Sir Frederic G. Kenyon, former director and principal librarian of the British Museum, said “In no other case is the interval of time between the composition of the book and the date of the earliest extant manuscripts so short as in that of the New Testament. 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 250-300 years later.”[1]

250 years later sounds like a long time until you compare it to contemporary sources. No other ancient document has extant ancient manuscripts dating 250 years after it was written – and certainly not hundreds of them. The New Testament is in 1st place with extant manuscripts that old. Caesar’s account of the Gallic War is in 2nd place. According to F.F. Bruce, who was the head of the Department of Biblical History and Literature at the University of Sheffield in the mid-1900’s, our manuscripts of Caesar’s writing are much younger. “For Caesar’s Gallic War (composed between 58 and 50 B.C.) there are several extant [manuscripts], but only nine or ten are good, and the oldest is some 900 years later than Caesar’s day.”[2]

Ancient manuscript fragments of New Testament books are continuing to be found, some of which are very old. For instance, according to one of the world’s leading paleographers, a fragment of Mark was recently discovered that is from the first century AD. The dating is awaiting final confirmation, but if this is proven, it will be the oldest New Testament manuscript fragment ever found. In fact, it will be 100-150 years older than the next oldest fragment of Mark in existence.[3]


[1] Josh McDowell, Evidence that demands a verdict (San Bernardino, 1972), 47.

[2] McDowell, 47.

[3] “Dr. Wallace: Earliest Manuscript of the New Testament Discovered?,” Dallas Theological Seminary, http://www.dts.edu/read/wallace-new-testament-manscript-first-century/ (access February 10, 2012).

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