How reliable are sources in history?


Table of Contents for: How reliable are sources in history?

The accuracy of historical documents

Many people accept historical documents as being accurate and true representations of battles, leaders and history itself.

But how reliable are sources in history like these ancient documents:

  • Caesar′s manuscripts on the Gallic War
  • Gospels in the Bible
  • New Testament
  • Thucydides′ History of Peloponnesian War
  • Tacitus Histories?

Some question the reliability of the New Testament or the Gospels

How reliable are sources in history? Here's a fragment of a manuscript.
Here’s a fragment of a manuscript.

Some people would question the historical validity of the four Gospels of the Bible (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John), but also the New Testament in general.

So would those same people question the validity of Caesar′s manuscripts on the Gallic War, or Thucydides′ History of Peloponnesian War?

Comparison of historical documents for when written and how long after the event

Let′s see the evidence for these writings, compared with the four Gospels: (Appendix 1 at the bottom of the page details what the image is showing). [1]

Comparison of some historical documents on how soon after the events were they written and oldest surviving documents. See Appendix 1 for full explanation.
Comparison of some historical documents on how soon after the events were they written and oldest surviving documents.

As the chart shows, the time difference between the originals of the gospels, (and New Testament), and the oldest surviving documents is very favourable when compared with the other historical books – of which people do not doubt that they are reliable texts.

Comparison of historical documents for how many exist today

The Gospels and New Testament have an even stronger case of accuracy than these other historic books when you look at the volume of documents in existence. (Appendix 2 at the bottom of the page details what the image is showing).

Comparison of historical documents with number of ancient ones in existence today. See Appendix 2 for full explanation.
Comparison of historical documents with number of ancient ones in existence today.

So we can trust that the copies of the Gospels and the New Testament that we have today, are accurate with the originals that were written.

The Gospels were originally written by four men who were eye witnesses to the phenomenon that was going on. They wrote four separate accounts on Jesus′ life, death, and resurrection from the dead.

Appendix 1

Thucydides′ History of Peloponnesian War was:

  • originally written 430 – 400 BC
  • oldest surviving document are a few 1st century fragments
  • Time between original and oldest surviving 400 years

Caesar′s manuscripts on the Gallic War was:

  • originally written 52 – 51 BC
  • oldest surviving AD 850
  • Time between original and oldest surviving 900 years

Tacitus Histories was:

  • originally written AD 104 – 109
  • oldest surviving document AD 800
  • Time between original and oldest surviving 700 years

The 4 Gospels in the Bible were:

  • originally written AD 65 – 90
  • oldest surviving document AD 130 fragments of John’s Gospel [2]
  • Time between original and oldest surviving 50 years

The New Testament of the Bible was:

  • originally written AD 65 – 90
  • oldest surviving document AD 350 [3]
  • Time between original and oldest surviving less than 300 years

Appendix 2

Thucydides′ History of Peloponnesian War has:

  • 8 surviving documents in existence today

Caesar′s manuscripts on the Gallic War has:

  • 10 surviving documents in existence today

Tacitus Histories has:

  • 2 surviving documents in existence today

The 4 Gospels in the Bible has:

  • 100’s written before AD 1000 [4] of surviving documents in existence today

The New Testament of the Bible has:

  • 5000 [5] surviving documents in existence today

References:
Key to numbers in both charts:-
[1] The Case Against Christ: Some Statements for the Defence. John Young. Falcon, London. ISBN 0 85491 556 7
[2] John Rylands Library in Manchester.
[3] 2 copies of N.T. including Gospels; one in British Museum, & the other in Vatican Library.
[4] Information from Tyndale House in Cambridge, who specialise in Biblical Research.
[5] Professor Bruce of Manchester University; There are about 5000 Greek manuscripts of the New Testament in whole or part. The New Testament Documents: Are they Reliable? by F. F. Bruce IVP.

See the article ‘F F Bruce’ Wikipedia

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