Author: Rick Brannan with John D. Barry
The New Testament didn’t drop out of heaven. It was written and reproduced by people who were following God’s will and the leading of His Spirit. And the people who wrote it were persecuted, beaten and murdered for their beliefs. Likewise, many people who copied New Testament books, used them, and stored them, did so knowing that they could die for possessing this holy text. Some Roman authorities were not too pleased to have a Jewish teacher called the Son of God instead of Caesar. And they also didn’t like people following His way and rule over the regulations they had put in place. Because of this, the Christian faith was often perceived as being anti-empire.
Yet we still have many ancient copies of the New Testament. Our oldest fragment is called P52 (papyrus fragment 52). It contains John 18:31–33 and 37–38. It dates from 100–125 AD, which is shorter than a lifetime after John would have died—which means it could be one of the first copies of John’s Gospel. In total, 93 papyri dating to the 5th century or earlier that contain sections of the New Testament have been discovered.1
Our oldest nearly complete bibles, named Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus, date from the 4th century. A third nearly complete Bible, called Codex Alexandrinus, is from the 5th century. Another 69 manuscripts written on animal skins that date within the same chronological range are known to scholars. In total, 162 textual witnesses to the New Testament books produced in the 5th century or earlier have been discovered.1
Let’s take a look at one New Testament book, the Gospel of John. Among the manuscripts noted above, 38 of them contain portions of the Gospel of John. By comparison, there are only three copies of the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas in its original language and only one of another Gnostic gospel, the Gospel of Mary. The infamous Gospel of Judas only has one translation (in Coptic) attesting its existence. It isn’t hard to figure out which gospels were more widely used and highly regarded.
1 This figure combines fragments that are likely one manuscript: P1/P64/P67; P15/P16; P49/P65; and P77/P103. With these manuscripts not combined, this figure is increased to 98, and the total to 167.
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Article courtesy of Bible Study Magazine published by Faithlife Corporation. Originally published in print, Vol. 2 No. 1