Rick Brannan with John D. Barry
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 papyri¹dating to the 5th century or earlier that contain sections of the New Testament have been discovered.
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.
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.
Amount of 5th Century and before Copies of New Testament Books
The total tallies represent the amount of copies attesting to each book. Small fragments and whole books count the same. If a manuscript contains more than one book, it has been counted once for each book it contains.
Aland, Barbara, Kurt Aland, Johannes Karavidopoulos, Carlo M. Martini, Bruce M. Metzger, eds. Novum Testamentum Graece, 27th ed. Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1998. Logos.com/NA27
Comfort, Philip W. and David P. Barrett, The Text of the Earliest New Testament Greek Manuscripts.Wheaton: Tyndale House, 2001. Logos.com/EarlyNewTestament
Institute for New Testament Textual Research, “Continuation of the list of manuscripts.” Accessed 7 Sept 2009. Online: http://www.uni-muenster.de/INTF/KgLSGII09_08_28-2.pdf
Niese, Benedikt, David C. Noe, and Laura A. Marshall. Works of Flavius Josephus: Prefatory Material (English). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2008. Logos.com/JosephusApparatus
Robinson, James, ed., The Nag Hammadi Library in English, Fourth revised ed. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1996.Logos.com/NagHammadi
Robinson, James McConkey, Paul Hoffmann, and John S. Kloppenborg. The Critical Edition of Q : Synopsis Including the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, Mark and Thomas With English, German, and French Translations of Q and Thomas. Hermeneia—a Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible. Minneapolis; Leuven: Fortress Press; Peeters, 2000. Logos.com/Hermeneia
Von Tischendorf, Constantin, Caspar René Gregory and Ezra Abbot, eds. Novum Testamentum Graece: Apparatus Criticus. Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2005. Logos.com/TischendorfApparatus