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Almost 20 years ago I pasted a crib sheet in the back of my Bible which included most of the evidence to deal with questions I got about the reliability of the Bible.

Included in that crib sheet was a table comparing New Testament manuscripts with manuscript evidence for other classical works. This table below:

Author and Work Date Written Earliest Copy Time Span No. of mss today
Caesar (Gallic War) 100-44 BC 900 AD 1000 years 10
Plato (Tetralogies) 427-347 BC 900 AD 1200 years 7
Tacitus (Annals) 100 AD 1100 AD 1000 years 20
Pliny the Younger (History) 61-113 AD 850 AD 750 years 7
Thucidides (History) 460-400 BC 900 AD 1300 years 8
Sophocles 496-406 BC 1000 AD 1400 years 100
Aristotle 384-322 BC 1100 AD 1400 years 5
Homer’s Iliad 900 BC 400 BC 500 years 643
New Testament 50-90 AD  Fragments 100-125AD, Papyrii 200AD <150 years  Greek – 6000+, Total – 24,000+

Well, as it turns out, a lot of this data is out of date. The table should in fact look more like this one:

Author and Work Date Written Earliest Copy Time Span No. of mss today
Caesar (Gallic War) 100-44 BC  1000 AD 900 years 251
Plato (Tetralogies) 427-347 BC 900 AD 1200 years ?
Tacitus (Annals) 100 AD 850 AD 750 years 33
Pliny the Younger (Letters) 61-113 AD 850 AD 750 years ?
Pliny the Elder (Natural History) 23-79 AD 1000AD 900 years 200
Thucidides (History) 460-400 BC 900 AD 1300 years 50
Sophocles 496-406 BC 800 AD 1200 years 100
Aristotle 384-322 BC 850 AD 1200 years 1000
Homer’s Iliad 900 BC 400 BC 500 years 1757
New Testament 50-90 AD Fragments 100-125AD, Papyrii 200AD <150 years Greek – 5686

The red figures are those that have changed and the question marks are figures I can’t verify (at least not quickly). It is important for us when we present information regarding the reliability of the Bible to make sure we present it accurately, otherwise we fall into the trap of either being naive regarding the trustworthiness of our Scriptures, or even worse, of deliberately presenting a false picture. Especially, as in this case, the figures which have been commonly repeated by Christians overstate the case for the New Testament by some margin. And it is really not necessary, as the New Testament still has more than 3 times as many manuscripts and a third of the time between autograph and earliest manuscript of the next best, which is still Homer’s Iliad.

Thanks to Clay Jones, for pointing out the error regarding the number of manuscripts of Homer’s Iliad, which got me investigating this issue.

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