The Gospels: Can We Trust the Gospels?

Are the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John historically reliable documents?
Has modern New Testament scholarship undermined the historical reliability of the Gospels?
Can the Scriptures be taken seriously as historical records?

It is fair that the historical reliability of the Bible should be tested by the same criteria that are used to test other historical documents. In his definitive work, Introduction to Research in English Literary History, Professor Charles Sanders explains three basic principles involved in evaluating the reliability of historical documents (p.143 ff.). They are the bibliographic test (have the original manuscripts been handed down faithfully?), the internal evidence test (what the books tell us about themselves) and the external evidence test (an examination of other sources that shed light – such as contemporary ancient literature).

In this article we focus on the bibliographic test – how historically reliable the Gospels are in terms of manuscript witnesses to the New Testament in general.

The bibliographic test is an examination of the textual transmission by which the documents have reached us. In other words, since we do not have the original documents (called autographs), how reliable are the copies we have in regard to the number of manuscripts and the time interval between the original and the copies we have?

Let’s take a closer look at what biblical scholars call manuscript attestation and time interval.

1. How many manuscripts of the Greek New Testament exist today?

There are more than 5,300 known Greek manuscripts of the New Testament. If we add over 10,000 manuscripts of the Latin Vulgate and at least 9,300 other early versions, then we have more than 24,000 manuscript copies of portions of the New Testament. No other document of antiquity even begins to approach such numbers and attestation. In comparison, Homer’s Iliad comes second, with only 643 surviving manuscripts. Even then, the first complete preserved text of Homer dates from the 13th century AD.

It is no wonder that S.E. Peters observes that: “On the basis of manuscript tradition alone, the works that made up the Christians’ New Testament were the most widely circulated books of antiquity” (The Harvest of Hellenism, p. 50).

And F.J.A. Hort adds that, “… in the variety and fullness of the evidence on which it rests, the text of the New Testament stands absolutely and unapproachably alone among ancient prose writings” (The New Testament in the Original Greek, p. 561).

Bruce Metzger, Emeritus Professor of New Testament Language and Literature at Princeton Theological Seminary, also stresses the uniqueness of New Testament textual witnesses compared with other writings of antiquity. He states: “The works of several ancient authors are preserved for us by the thinnest possible thread of transmission” (The Text of the New Testament, p. 34).

Dr. Metzger gives three pertinent examples: The History of Rome, by Vellius Paterculus, survived to modern times through only one incomplete manuscript – a manuscript that was subsequently lost in the seventeenth century after being copied by Beatus Rhenanus at Amerbach. A second example is the Annals of the famous historian Tacitus, the first six books of which are in a single manuscript dating from the ninth century. And the only known manuscript of the Epistle to Diognetus, an early Christian composition which editors usually include in the corpus of the Apostolic Fathers, perished in a fire at the municipal library in Strasbourg in 1870.

Metzger writes: “In contrast with these figures, the textual critic of the New Testament is embarrassed by the wealth of his material” (p. 34).

2. How long is the interval of time between the composition of the books of the New Testament and the dates of the earliest of our manuscripts?

The great biblical scholar Sir Frederic G. Kenyon, who was the director and principal librarian of the British Museum, and second to none in authority for issuing statements about manuscripts, concluded that:

“… besides number, the manuscripts of the New Testament differ from those of the classical authors, and this time the difference is clear again. In no other case is the interval of time between the composition of the book and the date of the earliest extant manuscripts so short as in that of the New Testament” (Handbook to the Textual Criticism of the New Testament, p. 4).

Dr. Kenyon goes on to explain that the books of the New Testament were written in the latter part of the first century. He points out that “… the earliest extant manuscripts, trifling scraps excepted, are of the fourth century – say from 250 to 300 years later.”

This may seem a considerable interval, but it is nothing compared with the gap that separates the great classical authors from the earliest surviving manuscripts of their works. For example, scholars believe that they have, in all essentials, an accurate text of seven plays of Sophocles. Yet the earliest substantial manuscript upon which it is based was written more than 1,400 years after the poet’s death!

Writing along similar lines, F.F. Bruce, former Professor of New Testament Studies at the University of Manchester, explains that, of the 14 books of the Histories of Tacitus (circa A.D. 100), only four and one-half survive (The New Testament Documents, p.16). And his minor works (Dialogus de Oritoribus, Agricola, Germania) all descend from a 10th-century copy.

Bruce also points out that The History of Thucydides (circa 460-400 BC) comes to us from eight manuscripts, the earliest dating from circa A.D. 900 along with a few papyrus scraps from the beginning of the Christian era.

Articles about the four Gospels

For articles about specific chapters within the Bible, see

“The same is true for Herodotus,” Bruce says, “Yet no classical scholar would listen to an argument that the authenticity of Herodotus or Thucydides is in doubt because the earliest manuscripts of their works which are of use to us are over 1,300 years later than the originals” (pp. 16-17).

Harold Greenlee agrees with Bruce, and states the obvious conclusion: “Since scholars accept as generally trustworthy the writings of the ancient classics—even though the earliest manuscripts were written so long after the original writings, and the number of extant manuscripts is in many cases so small – it is clear that the reliability of the text of the New Testament is assured” (Introduction to New Testament Textual Criticism, p. 16).

Gospel truth

As we mentioned earlier, the bibliographic test examines the quality of the textual transmission by which documents reach us. And in this context, the New Testament – including the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – sits right at the top of the class.

But the bibliographic test cannot establish the “inspiration” of the Gospels. It can’t even demonstrate that the content of the Gospels – such as the sayings and actions of Jesus – are “historical fact.” Graham Stanton, Professor of New Testament Studies at King’s College, University of London, puts it well:

No amount of historical evidence for the life and teaching of Jesus ever proves “Gospel truth.” After all, some who saw and heard Jesus for themselves drew the conclusion that he was a magician and false prophet. Proof cannot reside either in any new papyrus fragment (however early its date), or in any artifact uncovered by archaeologists. (Gospel Truth, 192)

Dr. Stanton then concludes:

Down through the centuries Christianity has taken many forms – and it still does today. None the less, Christians of all persuasions have always insisted that God has disclosed his purposes for humanity in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. So if historical reconstruction of the actions and teaching of Jesus is at odds with this central theological conviction, then “Gospel truth” is called in question. (193)

The historical reconstruction of Jesus’ life and ministry is not “at odds with this central theological conviction,” but it is in absolute harmony with the most fundamental tenet of the Christian faith, “… that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ …” (2 Corinthians 5:19).

Matthew found at Oxford!

On Christmas Eve, 1994, The Times (London) ran a front-page story entitled: “Oxford papyrus is ‘eye-witness record of the life of Christ.’“ Apparently a German Bible scholar, Carsten Thiede, had found fragments of Matthew’s Gospel at Magdalen College, Oxford. The fragments had been acquired at Luxor in Egypt in 1901 by Charles B. Huleatt, a former scholar at Magdalen. Huleatt gave the fragments to his college that same year.

The first fragment contained parts of Matthew 26:7-8 on one side and parts of Matthew 26:31 on the other. The second fragment contained parts of Matthew 26:10 and of verses 32-33. The third fragment contained parts of Matthew 26:14-15 and of verses 22-23.

They were first published by the famous papyrologist, C.H. Roberts, in 1953. Roberts recognized that, because there was writing on both sides of the fragments, they had come from a codex (the predecessor of the modern book) and not from a papyrus roll.

Collaborating with other scholars of his day, Roberts dated the fragments to the late second century. However, 40 years later, The Times quoted Carsten Thiede as saying that the fragments might date from the middle of the first century, a date which, if confirmed, would revolutionize scholarly understanding of the origins of the Gospels.

The Times pointed its readers to Thiede’s forthcoming discussion of his findings in the January 1995 issue of Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphie (if any of our readers are interested in learning more about Thiede’s views, this article was reprinted in Tyndale Bulletin 46 [1995], pp. 29-42).

As it turned out, there was a serious discrepancy between the sensational claims made in The Times and the cautious tone of the academic journal. Carsten Thiede had actually concluded: “… it may be argued that it (the Matthew papyrus) could be redated from the late second to the late first century, some time after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem (in A.D. 70).” However, most scholars today feel that there is no persuasive evidence in favor of a first-century dating of these Magdalen fragments.

In the words of Graham Stanton: “They are certainly not from the first century. They may well be part of the earliest surviving copy of the four Gospels brought together in one codex: our earliest witness to a momentous development within early Christianity.”

Suggestions for further reading

Aland, Kurt, and Aland, Barbara, The Text of the New Testament, Eerdmans, revised edition, 1989.

Black, D.A., and Dockery, D.S., New Testament Criticism and Interpretation, Zondervan, 1991.

Brown, R.E., The Critical Meaning of the Bible, Chapman and Paulist Press, 1981.

Ladd, G.E., The New Testament and Criticism, Eerdmans, 1966.

Marshall, I. H. (ed.), New Testament Interpretation, Paternoster, 1977, and Eerdmans, 1978.

Metzger, Bruce, The Text of the New Testament, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1964; revised edition, 1992.

Vagnay, L., and Amphoux, Christian-Bernard, An Introduction to New Testament Textual Criticism, Cambridge University Press, 1991.


AUTOGRAPH: A reference to the original manuscript of an author’s work. Since we do not possess any original manuscripts of the Bible, scholars must work with later copies.

BIBLE: From the Latin, biblia, the name given to the Holy Scriptures that include the Old and New Testaments. Originally the term comes from biblos, the center of the papyrus plant, which was used to create writing material. The written product was then referred to as a biblos. John Chrysostom, Bishop of Constantinople from A.D. 397 to 407, is credited with being the first person to use the plural ta biblia (“books”) as a designation for the Old and New Testaments.

CODEX: Ancient manuscripts of either papyrus or vellum (made from the skins of cattle or other animals) that were put into book form rather than a scroll.

CRITICISM: From the Greek, krino, meaning “to judge, discriminate, decide.” Not to be considered as a negative term in New Testament studies.

GOSPEL: From the Greek euangelion, meaning “good news.” Later designated as a book that tells the good news of the life and teaching of Jesus.

PAPYRUS: A plant that grows in the delta area of the Nile in Egypt that was used as a writing material from the fourth century BC to the seventh century AD.

SCROLL, ROLL: The product of pasting parchment or papyrus sheets side by side to form a long continuous strip that could be rolled up to make a scroll.

TESTAMENT: From the Latin testamentum, which was used to translate the Hebrew and Greek words for “covenant.” Since the time of Tertullian it has been used to designate the two main divisions of Scripture: the Old and New Testaments.

VULGATE: The Latin version of the Bible produced by Jerome in the fourth century AD and ratified by the Council of Trent in 1546 as the official Scripture for the Roman Catholic Church.

Author: Jim Herst, 1997


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