“The quantity of New Testament material is almost embarrassing in comparison with other works of antiquity,” he said. “Next to the New Testament, the greatest amount of manuscript testimony is of Homer’s Iliad, which was the bible of the ancient Greeks. There are fewer than 650 Greek manuscripts of it today. Some are quite fragmentary. They come down to us from the second and third century A.D. and following. When you consider that Homer composed his epic about 800 B.C., you can see there’s a very lengthy gap.”
“Very lengthy” was an understatement; it was a thousand years! There was in fact no comparison: the manuscript evidence for the New Testament was overwhelming when juxtaposed against other revered writings of antiquity—works that modern scholars have absolutely no reluctance treating as authentic.
My curiosity about the New Testament manuscripts having been piqued, I asked Metzger to describe some of them for me.
“The earliest are fragments of papyrus, which was a writing material made from the papyrus plant that grew in the marshes of the Nile Delta in Egypt,” he said. “There are now ninety-nine fragmentary pieces of papyrus that contain one or more passages or books of the New Testament.
“The most significant to come to light are the Chester Beatty Biblical Papyri, discovered about 1930. Of these, Beatty Biblical Papyrus number one contains portions of the four gospels and the book of Acts, and it dates from the third century. Papyrus number two contains large portions of eight letters of Paul, plus portions of Hebrews, dating to about the year 200. Papyrus number three has a sizable section of the book of Revelation, dating from the third century.
“Another group of important papyrus manuscripts was purchased by a Swiss bibliophile, M. Martin Bodmer. The earliest of these, dating from about 200, contains about two-thirds of the gospel of John. Another papyrus, containing portions of the gospels of Luke and John, dates from the third century.”
At this point the gap between the writing of the biographies of Jesus and the earliest manuscripts was extremely small. But what is the oldest manuscript we possess? How close in time, I wondered, can we get to the original writings, which experts call “autographs”?
THE SCRAP THAT CHANGED HISTORY
“Of the entire New Testament,” I said, “what is the earliest portion that we possess today?”
Metzger didn’t have to ponder the answer. “That would be a fragment of the gospel of John, containing material from chapter eighteen. It has five verses—three on one side, two on the other—and it measures about two and a half by three and a half inches,” he said.
“How was it discovered?”
“It was purchased in Egypt as early as 1920, but it sat unnoticed for years among similar fragments of papyri. Then in 1934 C. H. Roberts of Saint John’s College, Oxford, was sorting through the papyri at the John Rylands Library in Manchester, England. He immediately recognized this as preserving a portion of John’s gospel. He was able to date it from the style of the script.”
“And what was his conclusion?” I asked. “How far back does it go?”
“He concluded it originated between A.D. 100 to 150. Lots of other prominent paleographers, like Sir Frederic Kenyon, Sir Harold Bell, Adolf Deissmann, W. H. P. Hatch, Ulrich Wilcken, and others, have agreed with his assessment. Deissmann was convinced that it goes back at least to the reign of Emperor Hadrian, which was A.D. 117–138, or even Emperor Trajan, which was A.D. 98–117.”
That was a stunning discovery. The reason: skeptical German theologians in the last century argued strenuously that the fourth gospel was not even composed until at least the year 160—too distant from the events of Jesus’ life to be of much historical use. They were able able to influence generations of scholars who scoffed at this gospel’s reliability. — The Case for Christ: A Journalist’s Personal Investigation of the Evidence for Jesus by Lee Strobel