A few years back I was preparing a short talk for an AWANA church group. The audience was 1st through 6th graders. I knew the topic was pretty challenging—the reliability of the New Testament. Now, with over 35 years of teaching children and adults I have found that you can address nearly any subject, just so long you clearly explain your terms. However, with this subject there remains a persistent challenge to clarity. Though the case for the reliability of the New Testament is extremely strong, it’s also abstract. Let me explain.
The way it’s conventionally presented is through what is called the “bibliographical test.” That is, a list of comparable ancient literature with: (1) the date of origin, (2) the date of earliest copy, (3) the time span (origin to oldest copy), and (4) the number of copies. The greater the number of copies and the shorter the time span, the more reliable is the piece of historical literature. In the end, the New Testament (number of copies: 24,633; time span: 25 years) is far superior to the next most reliable historical book of Homer (number of copies: 643; time span: 500 years). I invite you to review the details in the attached (1) PowerPoint slides 5 & 8 or in the original source for this assessment (2).
Again, I believe this is an extremely strong case, but we are still left to make an abstract qualitative assessment. Therefore, what I hereby offer is a new way to handle the same data holistically and quantitatively. In short, by simply taking the ratio of the number of copies with the time span, we can make a direct comparison of the reliability of the New Testament to any other piece of ancient literature. On this basis, the New Testament is found to be 766 times more reliable than Homer. Or far more, the New Testament is 168,912 times more reliable than Plato. So unless we are prepared to throw out all of ancient history, we really must accept the literary reliability of the New Testament.
Further, with this new index, we can measure and more concretely “see” how much more reliable the New Testament is compared to any of the key documents of ancient history. The above picture of a man on a mile high mountain actually shows a height ratio comparable to the reliability of Homer to the towering New Testament!
With this new view, we can finally begin to “see” the relative majesty of God’s Word:
“It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the LORD shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be lifted up above the hills; and all the nations shall flow to it, and many peoples shall come, and say: “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.” – Isaiah 2:2-3
(1) See the original AWANA Council Time Talk (NT Reliability Index) with additional ways to visualize these and other results. See slides 5 & 8. Slides 6-12 provide some additional ways to make this abstract information more concrete for children and adults.
(2) Evidence That Demands A Verdict, by Josh McDowell, 1972, 1979, pp. 42-43.
(3) When additional factors are added to this assessment the case for the reliability of the New Testament remains strong and even increases. One example is the fact that there are over nineteen times more questionable lines of text in Homer than in the New Testament.