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The Bibliographical Test Updated

Article ID: JAF4353 | By: Clay Jones
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Rage Against God

This article first appeared in Christian Research Journal, volume 35, number 03 (2012). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal go to: http://www.equip.org


The bibliographical test examines manuscript reliability, and for more than a generation Christian apologists have employed it to substantiate the transmissional reliability of the New Testament. The bibliographical test compares the closeness of the New Testament’s oldest extant manuscripts to the date of its autographs (the original handwritten documents) and the sheer number of the New Testament’s extant manuscripts with the number and earliness of extant manuscripts of other ancient documents such as Homer, Aristotle, and Herodotus.

Since the New Testament manuscripts outstrip every other ancient manuscript in sheer number and proximity to the autographs, the New Testament should be regarded as having been accurately transmitted. However, although apologists have stayed abreast of the dates of the earliest extant manuscripts and latest New Testament Greek manuscript counts, we haven’t kept up with the increasing numbers of manuscripts for other ancient authors that are recognized by classical scholars. For example, although apologists rightly claim that there are well over five thousand Greek manuscripts of the New Testament, they have reported the number of manuscripts for Homer’s Iliad to be 643, but the real number of Iliad manuscripts is actually 1,757.

Further, the numbers of manuscript counts for the New Testament’s translation into other languages has not remained static. Thankfully, even though many numbers that apologists have employed are often significantly changed, the New Testament still has the best-attested manuscript transmission of any ancient document and the bibliographical test still remains a reliable indicator that the New Testament has been accurately transmitted to this day.

For more than forty years Christians have appealed to what is called the “bibliographical test” as a means of establishing the New Testament’s (NT) transmissional accuracy. The bibliographical test examines the overall number of extant manuscripts (sometimes abbreviated to MSS or MS for the singular) and the difference between the date of the autograph (original handwritten document) and the date of the earliest surviving, or extant, manuscript. Since we do not possess the autograph of even one ancient document, this test best determines transmissional accuracy for any ancient document.


Christians argue that if historians will consider an ancient document to have been accurately transmitted whose manuscripts are few and far between the date the autograph was penned and its earliest extant copy, then they should accept documents as accurately transmitted whose manuscripts are comparatively many and comparatively near their autographs. For many years Christian apologists have employed the bibliographical test to argue that the NT has, indeed, been accurately transmitted: the NT surpasses all other ancient documents in sheer number of manuscripts and the nearness of the date between the autographs and extant manuscripts.1

The trouble is that the numbers and dates that apologists use for other ancient documents to compare them to the NT are woefully out of date. Christian apologists must be careful to be accurate.

Homer (Ninth or Eighth Century BC), Iliad

Homer authored the Iliad and the Odyssey and for years apologists have claimed that while there are over 5,500 manuscripts of the Greek NT, there are, by comparison, only 643 manuscripts of Homer’s Iliad. For example, a recent Google query of Homer 643 manuscripts turned up 143,000 results, and a review of the first hundred of those results revealed that all of them related to whether the NT has been accurately transmitted.2

But things have changed: the more recent number of Iliad manuscripts is 1,757. Martin L. West, senior research fellow, All Souls College, Oxford, cataloged a total of 1,569 papyri.3 But this is a papyri only count and not a total manuscript count.4West said that he didn’t believe there was a more recent nonpapyri count than that found in T. W. Allen’s Homeri Ilias, which contains 188 items.5 Thus 1,569 papyri, plus 188 parchment manuscripts, comes to a total of 1,757.6

Sophocles (c. 496–406 BC), Tragedies

Sophocles was a Greek playwright best known for his drama Oedipus the King. The count for the manuscripts of Sophocles remains at around 193.7 The earliest dates from the tenth century except for some fragments from the third century BC.8

Herodotus (c. 484–c. 425 BC), History

Herodotus produced one of the great narrative histories of the ancient world and is often called the “father of history.” There are forty-nine papyrus fragments of Herodotus and there are about sixty other nonpapyrus manuscripts (up from eight).9 The earliest surviving manuscript dates from the tenth century AD.10

Thucydides (c. 460–c. 404 BC),
History of the Peloponnesian War

Thucydides chronicled the Athenian war against the Peloponnesians. The text of  Thucydides is still based primarily on eight manuscripts but it is important to note that some papyri fragments exist with a third century BC date.11 These papyri narrow the previously reported date by 1,150 years!

Plato (428/427—348/347 BC), Tetralogies

Plato wrote seven tetralogies.12 The Plato Microfilm Project lists 210 manuscripts,13 rather than the previously reported seven.14 The oldest surviving manuscript was copied by John the Calligrapher in 895, leaving the gap unchanged.”15

Demosthenes (384–322 BC), Speeches

Demosthenes was an Athenian statesman and Greek orator whose speeches reveal much about life in fourth-century Athens. There are at least 340 MSS for Demosthenes (up from two hundred) dating from the tenth or late ninth century and some rather unhelpful fragments that date to the first century BC.16

Caesar (c. 100–44 BC), Gallic Wars

From 58–50 BC Julius Caesar conquered much of Gaul and described his success in On the Gallic War. Instead of 10 there are 251 manuscripts (nearly a 2,500-percent increase!) beginning from the ninth century (the majority belong to the fifteenth century).17

Pliny the Elder (AD 23/24–79), Natural History

Pliny the Elder (Gaius Plinius Secundus) authored Natural History, which was regarded as a scientific authority up to the Middle Ages. Apologists have sometimes confused him with his adopted son Pliny the Younger (Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus). Instead of seven, there are approximately two hundred MSS of his Natural History, mostly from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. However, an MS fragment from the end of the fifth century survives, which narrows the previous gap by 250 years.18

Livy (59/64 BC—AD 17), History of Rome

Livy wrote a history of Rome that survives in around one hundred MSS beginning in the early fifth century and more than sixty copies19 (up from one partial, nineteen copies).20 Daniel B. Wallace, director of The Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts, explains that unlike classic texts, which often have few manuscripts and many copies of those manuscripts, “NT scholars know of very, very few MSS that are direct copies of other MSS.”21

Tacitus (AD 56–c. 120), Annals

Tacitus was a Roman orator and public official who from AD 14 to 68 chronicled the Roman Empire in his Annals. University of Michigan Greek and Latin professor David Potter wrote: “Tacitus’s historical works descend in two manuscripts, one for books 1-6, another for 11-16 and the surviving portions of the history.”22 The first is c. 850; the other is mid-eleventh century.23 From those two manuscripts spring “thirty-one fifteenth-century manuscripts” (up from twenty).24


Of course, when it comes to the bibliographical test, the NT wins the race when others have barely left the starting gate. Bruce M. Metzger and Bart D. Ehrman put it in perspective:

In contrast with these figures [of other ancient works], the textual critic of the New Testament is embarrassed by a wealth of material. Furthermore, the work of many ancient authors has been preserved only in manuscripts that date from the Middle Ages (sometimes the late Middle Ages), far removed from the time at which they lived and wrote. On the contrary, the time between the composition of the books of the New Testament and the earliest extant copies is relatively brief. Instead of a lapse of a millennium or more, as is the case of not a few classical authors, several papyrus manuscripts of portions of the New Testament are extant that were copied within a century or so after the composition of the original documents.25


Many Christian apologists base the number of NT manuscripts on the work of Kurt Aland and Barbara Aland of the Institute for New Testament Textual Research in Münster, Germany. Their latest tally from February 4, 2010: minuscules (lower case letters) = 2,903; majuscules (uncials or capital letters) = 320; papyri = 127; lectionaries = 2,445 for a total of 5,795.26 The earliest NT Greek MS we have is still the John Ryland’s Papyrus (P52), which Bart Ehrman dates to “125-130, plus or minus twenty-five years.”27


Numbers in parentheses are the previously reported dates.28




Date Written

Earliest MSS

Time Gap

Old #29




800 BC

c. 400 BC






480–425 BC

10th C






496–406 BC

3rd C BC






400 BC






Gallic Wars

100-44 BC

9th C





History of Rome

59 BC–AD 17

Early 5th C


  1 Partial,   19 copies




AD 100

1st half:850, 2nd: 1050 (AD 1100)



2 + 31 15th C

Pliny, the Elder

Natural History

AD 49–79

 5th C fragment: 1;  Rem. 14–15th C

400 (750)





460–400 BC

3rd C BC (AD 900)

200 (1,350)





300 BC

   Some fragments from 1 C. BC. (AD 1100)

1,100+ (1,400)




AD 50–100

AD 130 (or less)31




But the text of the NT is also supported by translations into other languages.


There are more than two thousand Armenian MSS (2,587)32 and the number would even be greater, but “commentaries on the New Testament text as well as lectionary manuscripts have been ignored.”33 The oldest extant manuscript dates to AD 887.34

Coptic—around 975

In response to my query of the number of NT manuscripts, University of Salzburg professor Karlheinz Schüssler35 replied, “At the moment I count Sahidic around 700 manuscripts of the NT, Akhmimic, 5; Nubian, 8; Fayumic, 73; Lycopolitan, 3; and Mesokemic, 7.”36 He estimates Bohairic to be between 150 and 200.37 Thus by his count there are approximately 975 Coptic MSS of the NT. Although many are as late as the nineteenth century, others datefrom “the late third century.”38


Metzger and Ehrman comment that “the most nearly complete of the half-dozen extant Gothic manuscripts (all of which are fragmentary) is a deluxe copy dating from the fifth or sixth century….It contains portions of all four Gospels.”39


George Fox University professor Steve Delamarter directs the Ethiopic Manuscript Imaging Project. Delamarter summed up the Ethiopian manuscript status: “Outside of Ethiopia, there are about six hundred Ethiopic manuscripts that contain the text of one or more books of the New Testament.” This is down from 2,000+. Delamarter explained that “within Ethiopia there are perhaps 5,000 yet to be discovered and catalogued. Among these are undoubtedly several hundred from the 17th century and earlier.”40 Although most manuscripts are late, “at least one manuscript of the four Gospels dates to the tenth century and a couple of others date to the eleventh century.”41

Latin Translations—10,000+

Old Latin. Vetus Latina director Roger Gryson catalogues eighty-nine Old Latin manuscripts of the NT. These manuscripts date from the fourth to the thirteenth centuries.42 It is important to note, however, that Old Latin MSS are counted differently than most other MSS in that a single parchment that contains, say, the Gospel of Matthew and Ephesians is counted as two manuscripts.43 Therefore the present count of fifty MSS is a more accurate apples-to-apples comparison.

Vulgate. The number of Latin Vulgate MSS of the NT remains at more than ten thousand.44 The earliest extant copy dates back to the fourth century. By comparison the first Latin manuscript in our possession of Homer’s Iliad dates from the eleventh century.45


Beginning in the fifth century more than 350 Syriac Peshitta NT MSS survive, several of which date from the fifth and sixth centuries.46


There are at least forty-three Georgian MSS beginning at the late ninth century.47


A low estimate of Slavic NT MSS is 4,000+ (unchanged) with some estimates much higher. University of Indiana Slavic professor Henry Cooper writes: “The most thorough description of the manuscript holdings of a Slavic country to date, conducted in 1965 on the territory of the then Soviet Union, yielded in all about 1,500 entries dating before the fifteenth century. More than ninety-nine percent of these manuscripts were translations (usually from Greek), and the vast majority of those were of biblical books, especially portions of the gospels and the Psalms.”48 Cooper added that “a count for the fifteenth century added 3,500 more entries.”49 On the higher end, St. Petersburg University professor Anatolij Alexeev writes that “for the first time in the history of Slavistics the number of selected Gospel manuscripts has reached the significant figure of over eleven hundred.”50 Cooper suggests that Alexeev’s higher numbers “could be so, it seems to me, only if one included sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Slavonic manuscripts: manuscript production in the Slavic world continued long after the introduction of printing in Western, Central, and Southeastern Europe. In any event the later Slavonic manuscripts are of marginal value in tracing the development of the Church Slavonic Bible.”51 The earliest manuscripts date from the tenth and eleventh centuries.52


All told, the sheer number of NT manuscripts and the earliness of the extant manuscripts give us great reason to believe that the NT accurately transmits the content of the autographs. But there’s more than that. Metzger and Ehrman point out the huge number of quotations available from the writings of the early church fathers:

Besides textual evidence derived from New Testament Greek manuscripts and from early versions, the textual critic has available the numerous scriptural quotations included in the commentaries, sermons, and other treatises written by the early Church fathers. Indeed, so extensive are these citations that if all other sources for our knowledge of the text of the New Testament were destroyed, they would be sufficient alone for the reconstruction of practically the entire New Testament.53


Although there has been an increase in the number of non–NT ancient manuscripts, nothing has changed regarding the applicability of the bibliographical test. Even Homer’s Iliad, which has seen the greatest manuscript increase, is still dwarfed by the NT, which has more than three times the Greek manuscripts as the Iliad. When one adds the fifteen thousand manuscripts in other languages, and then considers that almost the entire NT could be reproduced by the quotations of the early church fathers, one must maintain that, despite the increase of non-NT ancient manuscripts, the NT remains in a class by itself: it is by far the most attested ancient work.

This troubles skeptics because if they reject the transmissional reliability of the NT, then they must also consider unreliable all other manuscripts of antiquity. As John Warwick Montgomery has often related: “Some years ago, when I debated philosophy professor Avrum Stroll of the University of British Columbia on this point, he responded: ‘All right. I’ll throw out my knowledge of the classical world.’ At which the chairman of the classics department cried: ‘Good Lord, Avrum, not that!’”54

Clay Jones is associate professor in the master of arts in Christian apologetics program at Biola University and teaches the class, In Defense of the Resurrection. Some of his most recent reflections can be found at www.clayjones.net.


  1. For example, see John Warwick Montgomery, History and Christianity (1970, repr., Ada, MI: Bethany House, 1986); Josh McDowell, The New Evidence That Demands a Verdict (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1999). I’m indebted to, and in awe of, Montgomery, McDowell, and others who first researched the immense data needed for the bibliographical test and did so without the aid of computers!
  2. Conducted on August 26, 2011.
  3. Martin L. West, Studies in the Text and Transmission of the Iliad (München: K. G. Saur, 2001), 86.
  4. Even though manuscript literally means handwrite, scholars like West sometimes use manuscript to refer only to nonpapyri manuscripts. Papyri manuscripts they only call papyri.
  5. Thomas W. Allen, Homeri Ilias (1931; repr., New York: Arno, 1979), 11–55. Personal correspondence with West on October 30, 2010.
  6. West also lists 142 Homeric papyri (glossaries, commentaries, scholia minora) and 47 witness papyri (“miscellaneous papyri and inscriptions in which verses of the Iliad are quoted”), ibid., 130.
  7. Alexander Turyn, Studies in the Manuscript Tradition of the Tragedies of Sophocles (Rome: L’erma di Bretschneider, 1970), 5–9. See also Luigi Battezzato, History of Scholarship: A Selection of Papers from the Seminar on the History of Scholarship Held Annually at the Warburg Institute, ed. Christopher Ligota and Jean-Louis Quantin (New York: Oxford, 2006), 92.
  8. Turyn, 102. See also Peter Burian and Alan Shapiro, eds., The Complete Sophocles (New York: Oxford University, 2010), 189.
  9. Leuven Database of Ancient Books, http://www.trismegistos.org/ldab/search.php. Accessed February 2, 2011. See also R. A. McNeal, Herodotus: Book I (New York: University Press, 1986), xiii.
  10. Arthur Milton Young, Echoes of Two Cultures (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh, 1964), 40.
  11. The Leuven Database of Ancient Books lists ninety-six papyrus and parchment manuscripts; http://www.trismegistos.org/ldab/search.php. Accessed February 2, 2011. See also P. J. Rhodes, trans., Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2009), 663.
  12. A tetralogy contains four books.
  13. Plato Microfilm Project of the Yale University Library, Robert S. Brumbaugh and Rolun Wells, eds., The Plato Manuscripts: A New Index (New Haven: Yale, 1968), 11–70. The 210 number does not include Spuria. For a thorough analysis of past catalogs of Plato, see Robert S. Brumbaugh, “Plato Manuscripts: Toward a Completed Inventory,” Manuscripta 34, 2 (July, 1990): 114–21.
  14. Except in the case of Sophocles, the previously reported numbers, which are all in parentheses, come from Josh McDowell, The New Evidence That Demands a Verdict (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1999), 38.
  15. T. H. Irwin, “The Platonic Corpus,” The Oxford Handbook of Plato, ed. Gail Fine (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 71. Irwin further comments that “according to G. Pasquali, Storia della Tradizione e Critica del Testo, 2nd ed. (Florence: Le Monnier, 1952), 247, Plato is the classical author with the richest textual tradition after Homer” (71n41).
  16. Sealy, 222–23.
  17. Virginia Brown, “Latin Manuscripts of Caesar’s Gallic War,” Palaeographia Diplomatica et Archivestica: Studi in onore di Giulio Battelli (Rome: University of Rome, 1979), 105–7.
  18. L. D. Reynolds, Texts and Transmission: A Survey of the Latin Classics (Oxford: Clarendon, 1983), 317. See also, Hilda Buttenwieser, “Popular Authors of the Middle Ages: The Testimony of the Manuscripts,” Speculum 17, 1 (January 1942): 52–53.
  19. Reynolds, “Livy,” Texts and Transmission, 205–14.
  20. McDowell, New Evidence, 38.
  21. E-mail exchange between Daniel Wallace and the author on January 13, 2012.
  22. David Potter, Literary Tests and the Roman Historian (Oxford: Routledge, 1999), 72.
  23. M. Winterbottom, “Tacitus,” Texts and Transmission, 406–9.
  24. R. H. Martin, “The Leyden Manuscript of Tacitus,” The Classical Quarterly, 14, 1 (1964): 109.
  25. Bruce M. Metzger and Bart D. Ehrman, The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration, 4th ed. (New York: Oxford, 2005), 51.
  26. The Institute for New Testament Textual Research, http://www.unimuenster.de/INTF/KgLSGII2010_02_04.pdf. Accessed January 9, 2012.
  27. Bart D. Ehrman, The Textual Reliability of the New Testament: Bart D. Ehrman and Daniel B. Wallace in Dialogue, ed. Robert B. Stewart (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2011), 19.
  28. McDowell, The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict, 38.
  29. Numbers are from McDowell, The New Evidence, 38.
  30. McDowell only listed Sophocles in the original Evidence (Arrowhead Springs, CA: Campus Crusade for Christ, 1973), 48.
  31. Daniel Wallace reports that a new fragment from the Gospel of Mark will probably date to the first century AD. Daniel B. Wallace, “Earliest Manuscript of the New Testament Discovered?” http://www.csntm.org.
  32. Metzger and Ehrman, The Text of the New Testament, 117.
  33. Errol F. Rhodes, An Annotated List of Armenian New Testament Manuscripts (Tokyo: Rikkyo, 1959), v.
  34. Metzger and Ehrman, The Text of the New Testament, 117n105
  35. Karlheinz Schüssler, Biblia Coptica: Die Koptischen Bibeltexte Band 3 (Wiesbaden, Germany: Harrassowitz, 2004). There are two subsequent volumes published in 2007 and 2009. Sahidic is the most common of Coptic MSS.
  36. Schüssler, e-mail to me on March 3, 2011.
  37. Schüssler, e-mail to me on March 5, 2011.
  38. Stephen Emmel, “The Christian Book in Egypt: Innovation and the Coptic Tradition,” The Bible as Book: The Manuscript Tradition, ed. John L. Sharpe III and Kimberly van Kampen (New Castle, DE: The British Library and Oak Knoll, 1998), 39.
  39. Metzger and Ehrman, The Text of the New Testament, 115.
  40. From a personal e-mail exchange with the author on March 21, 2011.
  41. Metzger and Ehrman, The Text of the New Testament, 101. See also Bruce M. Metzger, The Early Versions of the New Testament: Their Origin, Transmission, and Limitations (New York: Oxford, 1977), 224–25.
  42. Metzger and Ehrman, The Text of the New Testament, 101. For the fourth-century date see also Aland and Aland, The Text of the New Testament, 187.
  43. Roger Gryson, Altlateinische Handschriften: Manuscrits Vieux Latins (Freiburg, Germany: Herder, 1999), 19–143.
  44. J. K. Elliott, “The Translations of the New Testament into Latin: The Old Latin and the Vulgate,” Aufstieg und Niedergang der Römischen Welt, ed. Widmen Dieses et al. (Berlin: de Gruyter, 1992), 224. See also Metzger, The Early Versions, 293.
  45. Reynolds, “Introduction,” Texts and Transmission, XXXIII. Kurt Aland and Barbara Aland only grant that the number “must be well over 8,000.”Aland and Aland, The Text of the New Testament, 192.
  46. Metzger and Ehrman, The Text of the New Testament, 98.
  47. Metzger, The Early Versions, 186–90.
  48. Henry R. Cooper, Slavic Scriptures: The Formation of the Church Slavonic Version of the Holy Bible (Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2003), 25. Cooper is referring to Lidija P. Zukovskaja et al., eds., Svodnyj Katalog Slavjano-Russkix Rukopisnyx Knig, Xranjaš ixsja [Preliminary List of Slavic Russian Manuscripts] (Moscow: Nauka, 1984), 177–84. I’m indebted to Henry Cooper for guiding me through the literature and to Amy Obrist, Biola University Russian language professor, for her help with Zukovskaja’s article.
  49. Cooper, Slavic Scriptures, 170n61.
  50. Anatolij Alexeev, “The Last but Probably Not the Least: the Slavonic Version as a Witness of the Greek NT Text,” in Methodios und Kyrillos in Ihrer Europaischen Dimension, ed. Evangelos Konstantinou (Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 2005), 248.
  51. Cooper, Slavic Scriptures, 170n61.
  52. Early Versions, 403.
  53. Metzger and Ehrman, The Text of the New Testament, 126.
  54. John Warwick Montgomery, Human Rights and Human Dignity (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1986), 139.

West also lists 142 Homeric papyri (glossaries, commentaries, scholia minora) and 47 witness papyri (“miscellaneous papyri and inscriptions in which verses of the Iliad are quoted”), ibid., 130.