F.F. Bruce (died 1990) spent most of his career as Rylands Professsor of Biblical Criticism and Exegesis at England’s University of Manchester. An accomplished scholar of Greek who authored over 40 books, he argued for the historical trustworthiness of the New Testament, which he saw as essential to Christian faith.
He published his first book, “The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable?” in 1943. It rapidly became something of a classic and has remained influential through multiple editions. (In this column, I draw from the 1994 printing of the fifth revised edition.)
In it, Bruce observes that “The New Testament was complete, or substantially complete, about A.D. 100, the majority of the writings being in existence 20 to 40 years before this.”
For example, he dates 10 of Paul’s epistles to the period between A.D. 48 and A.D. 60. Additionally, he cites a majority of modern scholars as dating the gospel of Matthew to roughly A.D. 85-90, Mark to around A.D. 65, Luke to approximately A.D. 80-85, and John to about A.D. 90-100. Bruce himself favors earlier dates for the three synoptic gospels (Mark, 64-65; Luke, just before 70; Matthew, shortly after 70).
“But even with the later dates,” he writes, “the situation is encouraging from the historian’s point of view, for the first three Gospels were written at a time when many were alive who could remember the things that Jesus said and did, and some at least would still be alive when the fourth Gospel was written.”
Moreover, he adds, “If it could be determined that the writers of the Gospels used sources of information belonging to an earlier date, then the situation would be still more encouraging.” And, in fact, he believes that such information sources are detectable in the Gospels.
“The evidence for our New Testament writings is ever so much greater than the evidence for many classical authors, the authenticity of which no one dreams of questioning," he writes. "And if the New Testament were a collection of secular writings, their authenticity would generally be regarded as beyond all doubt.”
Specifically citing the surprised reaction of A.N. Sherwin-White, a prominent historian of ancient Rome, to the approach of many biblical scholars, Bruce comments on the “curious fact that historians have often been much readier to trust the New Testament records than have many theologians.”
He also comments on the state of the New Testament manuscript evidence, which hasn’t changed substantially since he wrote.
For Julius Caesar’s “Gallic War,” written between 58-50 B.C., nine or 10 decent manuscripts exist, the earliest of which was created nine centuries after Caesar. Of the 14 books of the “Histories” of Tacitus (d. ca. AD 100), only four completely survive — in just two manuscripts, from the ninth century and the 11th. Beyond a few papyrus scraps from roughly the time of Jesus Christ, the great fifth-century B.C. history of Thucydides is known to us through just eight manuscripts, the earliest of which was created around A.D. 900. The same is true of his great contemporary, Herodotus, often called “the Father of History.”
“Yet,” Bruce comments, “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 any use to us are over 1,300 years later than the originals.”
By contrast, over 5,000 entire or partial manuscripts exist for the New Testament. The Codex Bezae, for instance, contains the Gospels and Acts in both Greek and Latin and was created in the fifth or sixth century. The Codex Alexandrinus was produced in the fifth century. The Codex Sinaiticus and the Codex Vaticanus date to around A.D. 350.
But there’s considerable evidence from one or even two centuries earlier still. Portions of the Chester Beatty Biblical Papyri, which contain most of the New Testament, date as far back as the early A.D. 200s. In fact, certain papyrus fragments that may reflect a knowledge of the four Gospels have been dated to no later than A.D. 150. One such fragment, kept in the John Rylands Library at Manchester, has been assigned a date of A.D. 130; it contains verses from John 18. Papyrus Bodmer II, from around A.D. 200, contains the first 14 chapters of John, with only one relatively small gap.
Greek and Roman history are routinely discussed and taught on the basis of manuscript evidence that isn’t remotely as solid and secure as this.