The reality is that when people ask us questions about the Bible, they are asking us about 66 books written over a period of 1,600 years by more than 40 authors who were people from all kinds of different backgrounds ? kings, diplomats, agricultural labourers, fishermen, and a tentmaker. The Bible was originally written in three languages ? Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek, and on three continents ? Asia, Africa and Europe. The vast spread of the Bible’s social, geographical and cultural original contexts is then followed by a multiplication of these diversities as the manuscripts were copied and spread throughout the known world. So when we talk about the Bible, there are a huge number of ancient manuscripts to be examined, so that the actual text we have translated into English is extremely well attested historically.
During the early Christian era, the writing material most commonly used was papyrus. It was relatively fragile, and with multiple usage over generations, could wear out and break. This means that the very earliest manuscripts of the New Testament that survive come to us in fragmentary form.
On 1st February 2012, Dan Wallace made the announcement in a debate with Dr Bart Ehrman in the US, that as many as six previously unknown second-century papyri had recently been discovered. All of them are fragmentary, having only one leaf or part of a leaf, but being such early manuscripts they are really significant. The most exciting find was a fragment from Mark’s Gospel, which a leading palaeographer has dated to the first century. It is a fascinating time to be studying the Bible, as more and more evidence for the historical reliability of the manuscripts emerges.
But having early and reliable manuscripts does not mean that what the New Testament contains is truth rather than legend. We need to dig a bit deeper to see whether there are good reasons to trust the gospel writers in particular as witnesses of history.
New Evidence is emerging all the time for the reliability of the Gospels
According to early Christian traditions, the four Gospels were not all written in Palestine ? it seems that Mark was written in Rome, Luke was written in Antioch, Achaea or maybe Rome, John was written in Ephesus and Matthew was probably written in Judea. But rather than undermining their authenticity, this actually allows us to ask important questions of the writers ? how familiar were they with the land they are talking about? Do they know the geography, agriculture, botany, architecture, economics, language, law, or personal names of the place? ? the culture, if you like. If a person had never visited the place, how would they know the details and write about it with any kind of accuracy?
In 2002 in Germany, a historian made a list of all the names Jewish people were called in first-century Palestine. Using multiple sources, she then put them in order of popularity. The theologian Richard Bauckham took this study in 2006 and correlated it with the Gospels to see if there is a tie-up between what people were called in the New Testament and what they were called in the population at the time in the location of the events. Taking Palestinian Jewish male names in the 1st century we see the order of popularity: Simon/simeon, Joseph/Joses, Lazarus/Elenzar, Judas/Judah, John/Johanan, Jesus/Joshua, Ananias
These popular names frequently appear in the Gospels. This is really good evidence that the writers, despite the fact that they were far away geographically when they write, were actually writing about real events and people. This becomes even clearer when you look at the male Jewish names in a neighbouring country ? Egypt. The most common names in the Jewish inscriptions from Greco-Roman Egypt are: Eleazar/Lazarus, Sabbataius, Joseph, Dositheus, Pappus, Ptolemauis, Samuel.
These names are not the names used frequently by the writers of the Gospels. Why not? Because although they were writing far away, they were writing about real people and real events in Palestine and not people in Egypt. The authors knew what people were called. This is powerful evidence for the eye-witness nature of the gospel.
There is so much more we could say and new evidence is emerging all the time for the reliability of the Gospels. But the real challenge to us today is finding a way to live in such a way that we inspire our friends to pick up a Bible and actually consider it. As someone once said there are five gospels ? Matthew, Mark, Luke, John and your life ? most people will only read one. Will what friends ‘read’ in your life and mine intrigue them enough to investigate?