How Our New Testament Came to Us

HOW OUR NEW TESTAMENT CAME TO US

by Wayne S. Walker

     The previous couple of articles in this series discussed how we got our Old Testament. The other main division of the Bible is the New Testament or new covenant. The Old Testament was God’s covenant revealing His will to the Hebrew people. The New Testament is God’s covenant revealing His will for all mankind today. In 2 Corinthians 3:6 Paul wrote of God, "Who also made us sufficient as ministers of the new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life." Can we be as sure of the validity of it as we are of the Hebrew scriptures?

     "In spite of the time lapse between the writing of the New Testament and our oldest MS, the New Testament is the best preserved book of antiquity. Witness this affirmation in the following: between the time of Sophocles and the first MS of him 1,400 years pass by; from the writing of Aeschylus to his first MS is 1,500 years; from the writing of Horace to his first MS 900 years elapse; from the writing of Livy to his first MS 500 years go by; of Virgil, we have one fourth century MS and two fifth MSS, and yet, Virgil lived in the eighth century B.C.! My initial statement of this paragraph appears very evident when one considers that the oldest New Testament MS is admittedly dated about A.D. 340 or 350 (Codex B), and a fragment is dated even as early as A.D. 150!" (Edgar V. Srygley, quoted by Ferrell Jenkins in The Theme of the Bible, p. 7; note: MS is the abbreviation for manuscript).

     The New Testament was written in the common Koine Greek of the ordinary people, as demonstrated by Adolph Deissmann in his examination of the non-literary papyri from the first century. It consists of 27 books: four accounts of Jesus’s life ascribed to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John; a history of the early church known as Acts ascribed to Luke; thirteen epistles addressed to churches or individuals ascribed to Paul; an epistle to the Hebrews of unknown authorship; seven general epistles ascribed to James (one), Peter (two), John (three), and Jude (one); and the book of Revelation ascribed to John. The autograph copies or original manuscripts of these books have apparently been lost and are therefore not available to us.

     The documents available to us are in a number of forms. Most of them, including the earliest fragments, are on papyri made from the papyrus reed (2 John v. 12). A few works are on parchment made from sheep or goat skin (2 Timothy 4.13). Others are on vellum, made from calf or antelope skin; ostraca, which were pieces of unglazed pottery used for writing by the poor; and wax tablets. True paper, as we know it, was invented in China in the second century B.C. and was not introduced into the western world until the tenth century AD. Papyrus or parchment sheets were often pasted or sewed together to make a roll or scroll as long as needed (Hebrews 10:7). Sometimes, especially later, papyrus sheets were made into a leaf book known as a codex.

     As noted, the earliest fragments of the New Testament are papyri, of which there are around 120 known. The most ancient is the John Rylands fragment of the book of John, dating from around A.D. 125-130. Others of importance are the Bodmer papyri containing most of the gospel of John and a section of the gospel of Luke, dating from the second to the fourth centuries, published in 1956 and kept in the Bodmer Library, Geneva, Switzerland; and the Chester Beatty papyri, consisting of portions of the gospel, Acts, most of the Pauline epistles, Hebrews, and Revelation, dating from the third century (around A.D. 200), discovered in 1931, and kept in the Beatty Library, Dublin, Ireland.

    The significance of these early papyri is emphasized by Edward Tesh. "For years it was argued by some that the fourth gospel in the New Testament was written some time after A.D. 150–much too late for its author to have been the apostle John. But in 1920 a bit of papyrus was found in Egypt upon which are a few verses of John 18. This fragment has been dated from about A.D. 130. Not only had John written this account of the gospel by this time, therefore, but it had been copied and circulated until it had found its way to Egypt. This particular papyrus fragment is now in the John Rylands Library in Manchester, England" (How We Got Our Bible, p. 62).

     These papyri serve important functions. First, as Tesh noted, their early date places the writing of the New Testament books well within the time span claimed for them, in contrast to the later dates affirmed by liberal critics. (Even without this newer evidence, J. W. McGarvey makes the same kind of case in his Evidences of Christianity.) And they emphatically confirm the accuracy of the Greek New Testament as we know it today. F. F. Bruce wrote, "The evidence for our New Testament writings is ever so much greater than the evidence for many writings of classical authors, the authenticity of which no one dreams of questioning. And if the New Testament were a collection of secular writings, their authenticity would generally be regarded as beyond all doubt" (quoted by Ferrell Jenkins in Introduction to Christian Evidences, p. 77). (—taken from With All Boldness; March, 1999; Vol. 9, No. 3; p. 12)

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