Scrolls and Trolls
The manuscript evidence for Jesus
BY FR. DWIGHT LONGENECKER
Do you remember the children’s story about the three goats who had to cross a bridge? There was a troll under the bridge who threatened to devour the goats. Nowadays a “troll” is a nickname for someone who trolls through the internet looking for a fight, putting lies and accusations in comment boxes or putting out “fake news.”
I sometimes think the atheists and academics who write fake news about the historical Jesus are trolls. They’re stirring up trouble and causing discord for no real reason. Some of them say Jesus never existed. Others say there is not much evidence about Jesus — so we can know next to nothing about him. Still others say that the documents about Jesus are very few and far between. The trolls suggest that the theology about Jesus is no more than a theory made up by some of the early Christians.
In fact, however, the trolls are answered by the scrolls. Not only is there good archaeological evidence that fits with the New Testament, but there is also a surprising amount of documentary evidence that supports the reality of Jesus and the stories of the Gospels. In addition, not only is there good documentary evidence, but the scholars and archaeologists keep discovering more.
A SCRAP OF PAPYRUS
In the time of Jesus, manuscripts were written either on parchment made from animal skin or more frequently on papyrus — the earliest form of paper, which originated in Egypt. Papyrus is not a very durable material, but in the dry heat of Egypt, it can last a long time.
Therefore, it was in Egypt between 1896 and 1906 that a haul of papyrus documents was excavated from a garbage dump. Among the trash were receipts, financial records, some scraps of classical writings, and a few scraps of the New Testament. The researchers are still sifting through the material, searching in the midst of the trash for some treasures. In 2012 New Testament scholar Dan Wallace announced that the earliest copy of St. Mark’s Gospel had been discovered. It was among the finds in that Egyptian dump.
The tiny scrap of papyrus — smaller than a credit card — certainly had verses from Mark’s Gospel written on it. Wallace thought it dated from around 60 or 70 years after the death of Jesus. Later scholarship has determined that it probably dates from about 100 years later. Even so, it is still the oldest fragment of the Gospel of Mark found so far. The most famous New Testament fragment is the Ryland papyrus, which has a few verses from St. John’s Gospel and dates to A.D. 125.
This is important because the trolls suggest that the New Testament was written many years after the events recorded in the Gospels, and therefore the stories are unreliable because they would have been added to, amended, and exaggerated. If, however, the copies of the Gospels are older than first thought, what is written in the Gospels is far closer to the historical events than previously imagined.
HOW DID WE GET THE BIBLE?
Most of us know that the New Testament dates back to the time of the Roman Empire, and we know that what we read is a translation from ancient languages. However, do we imagine that in a library somewhere there is a “really, really old” New Testament from which all the translations are made?
In the years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, the first Christians shared the stories by word of mouth and preaching. Some of his disciples probably wrote down Jesus’ sayings and stories. This was a commonplace practice in the ancient world. St. Matthew was the first to collect these sayings, along with some of the events of Jesus’ life, into an anthology written in Hebrew or Aramaic.
St. Mark was a companion of St. Peter, and the early traditions say he wrote his Gospel based on the preaching and memories of Peter. St. Luke drew on the same traditions and probably also used St. Matthew’s collection in Hebrew. After the death of the apostles, another version of Matthew, this time written in Greek, was produced. The Gospels of Sts. Mark and Luke may also have been edited and refined at that point by other authors. In the A.D. 90s St. John wrote the fourth Gospel.
In the meantime, before A.D. 65 when he was martyred, St. Paul was writing his epistles to the various churches. The Gospels and St. Paul’s letters were gathered together with some other early Church writings. These books and others from the earliest days of the Church were read during the liturgy. Before the invention of the printing press, copies were made by hand and published for use in the churches.
Eventually the authorities of the Church began to sift out which writings were older and more authentic, and by the end of the 300s, the books of the New Testament were agreed upon by the theologians and bishops of the Church. At that point the final canon of the New Testament was determined.
MANUSCRIPTS BY HAND
The word manuscript means “written by hand,” and with the Protestant Reformation, it became more important for scholars to look for the earliest copies of the New Testament. We now have two full copies of the Bible in Greek, which date from the time the canon was established — around A.D. 350. We have many more that date from later ages and very few that are earlier — from the second and third centuries.
The trolls would have us believe that, because the manuscripts were copied by hand, there must be many mistakes, and they are therefore unreliable. This is not true. While there are a good number of mistakes, the vast majority are typographical errors, minor mistakes in translation and passages that may have been left out unintentionally. What we don’t find are large changes, additions, and major edits for theological reasons.
One of the scholars who has made a name for himself by debunking the New Testament is Bart Ehrman. In one book he says there are thousands of discrepancies between the different ancient manuscripts, but elsewhere he admits that the majority of the discrepancies are minor mistakes and copyist errors, and there is nothing so major that it should challenge a Christian’s faith.
THE SECULAR SOURCES
We can therefore conclude that the Gospels were written within 30 years of Jesus’ death and resurrection, and the copies we have of them — the earliest of which are just a few decades later — are reliable accounts of the words and works of Jesus. While there are some minor copying errors and a few small additions, there are no major difficulties.
However, some atheists or skeptics dismiss the evidence of the Bible because they say it was written by people who already believed in Jesus. Although they may have written truthfully about him, they had an agenda. St. John’s Gospel actually says that these things are written that we might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the son of the living God (see John 20:31).
Therefore, what other documents do we have from the ancient world that witness to the historical life and ministry of Jesus?
First, we have to realize that Jesus of Nazareth, the most famous person in history, was not famous in his own lifetime. He was a small-town preacher who died a shameful death as a political rabble rouser. He would have been regarded as just one among thousands of insurrectionists the Romans had crucified.
Therefore, we cannot expect to have a contemporary historian record much about him. Jesus would not have had a profile in the first-century version of People magazine, nor would he have made Time magazine’s Person of the Year!
However, there are some non-Christian documents that do refer to the historical Jesus. Josephus was a Jewish historian who wrote his book Antiquities of the Jews around the same time John’s Gospel was written — the early A.D. 90s. He mentions Jesus twice. In the first passage he writes:
Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man, for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews, and many of the Gentiles. He was the Christ; and when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him, for he appeared to them alive again the third day, as the divine prophets had foretold these and [10,000] other wonderful things concerning him; and the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct to this day.
Most scholars think this passage is not completely genuine — that Christians may have embellished it over the years.The second, shorter passage is more likely to be original. In it Josephus says, “The brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James.”
An oblique mention of Jesus occurs in The Annals by the Roman historian Tacitus. He describes how the emperor Nero blamed the great fire of Rome on the Christians and says their founder was named Christus (the Christian title for Jesus), that he was executed under Pontius Pilate, and that the movement of his followers, initially checked, then broke out again in Judea and even in Rome itself.
When we combine the documentary evidence with the other historical facts we know from archaeology and other ancient writings, we can affirm not only that Jesus of Nazareth was a real historical personage, but that the stories we have about his life and ministry are accurate.
The accuracy of the Gospel stories matter because our faith is historical. Jesus is not some legendary or mythical figure that some religious people made up to have a god to worship. He is the Son of God and the Son of Mary — who in the fullness of time was sent by God to this world for our salvation.