Devoted to the Propagation and Defense of New Testament Christianity
December 13, 1962
NUMBER 32, PAGE 2,10a

The Historicity Of Our New Testament

James E. Cooper

In a previous article we discussed "The Integrity of the New Testament Text," and briefly considered the efforts of textual critics to give us as far as humanly possible the original text of the New Testament. Scholars agree that the King James Version is valuable as a great literary and religious classic, but that the American Standard Version is the most literal, word-for-word translation available.

We are now ready to review some evidence for the antiquity of the 27 books of our New Testament. How far back can they be traced? Historicity means "Actual occurrence or existence; historical genuineness." We shall present some of the historical evidence (apart from the internal evidence of the books themselves) for the antiquity of the books. Such evidence is abundant concerning the existence, use and recognition of the books of the New Testament.

Testimony From Manuscripts

As every book is admittedly as old as its oldest existing copy, the MSS themselves stand as witnesses. We mention four of the great unicial MSS.

Codex Sinaiticus, written about 325-350 A. D., is the oldest complete MS of the New Testament. It contains a large portion of the Greek version of the Old, and all of the New, plus the Epistle of Barnabas and the Shepherd of Hermes.

Codex Vaticanus, dated about 350 A. D., originally contained the entire Bible. It now lacks Genesis, chapters 1-46, Psalms 106-138, Hebrews, chapter 9-13, the Pastoral Epistles and Revelation.

Codex Alexandrinus, dated about 400 A. D., now lacks all of Matthew up to 25:6, John 6:50-8:52, 2 Corinthians 4:13-12:6. This was the first unicial M S to be used by modern Biblical scholars. It was given to James 1 of England in 1624 and is now in the British Museum.

Codex Ephraemi, belonging to the 5th century, now contains only 64 pages of the Old Testament, and fragments of every book of the New except 2 Thessalonians and 2 John. These testify that the entire New Testament existed and was used in the period from 350-400 A. D.

We may go back of the great unicial MSS by a study of those written on papyrus, which was the material of writing before 300 A. D. The most important papyri MSS are the Chester Beatty Papyri, containing 126 leaves of New Testament books and parts of 8 Old Testament books. "The material is dated by U. Wilcken c. A.D. 200 (Archiv fuer Papyrus-forschung 11, 1935, p. 112), and gives a text 125-150 years earlier than that of Codex Vaticanus. P45 Chester Beatty Papyrus I, originally contained all the Gospels and Acts, but is extant only in about one-seventh of its original content. P46 Chester Beatty Papyrus II, contains most of the Pauline Epistles in an aggregate of eighty-six leaves out of a total of 104, Philemon and the Pastorial Epistles not being included. P47 Chester Beatty Papyrus III, contains a considerable portion of the book of Revelation (9:10-17:2)." (Unger's Bible Dictionary, p. 985) These are not the only papyri available for study today as "There survive about 175 papyri from the 2nd to the 4th centuries." (Harper's Bible Dictionary, p. 748) Many of these are mere fragments, but they do give evidence of the existence and use of these books at this time. The oldest fragment known is believed to be a part of a single papyrus leaf dated before 150 A. D and containing only John 18:31-32, 37f and now in the John Rylands Library in Manchester England.

Testimony From Versions

Since a book must exist before it can be translated into another language, the ancient versions can also testify to the antiquity of our New Testament books. It is generally admitted that a Syriac version existed in the 2nd century. Scholars of today feel that the Peshito Syriac is a revision of the Old Syriac and was made in the 4th century. It lacks 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, Jude and Revelation. Another revision of the Old Syriac was made about 508 and includes all 27 of our books. The Old Latin version was made in the 2nd century (before 170) and was in general use in North Africa in the time of Tertullian (c. 160-240). Fragments, representing almost every book of the New Testament, remain and their existence testifies to the existence of the New Testament books in Africa at such an early date. It was replaced by the Vulgate, translated by Jerome in 382-385, who said he made use of "ancient Greek manuscripts." The Coptic, or Egyptian, versions are also dated from the 2nd to 3rd centuries. Hence, we have four versions that date previous to Codex Sinaiticus.

Testimony From Ancient Authors

As no book can be quoted before it exists, the evidence of ancient Christians who quoted and alluded to Scripture in their writings is valuable, for what it includes. By their writings we can trace the New Testament books back to much earlier date than any extant manuscript or version.

Clement of Rome (c. 30-100), in his Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians, makes use of the first three Gospels, five of Paul's Epistles (Romans, 1 Corinthians, Ephesians, Titus and Hebrews), 1 and 2 Peter. He makes no reference to the writings of John, but this is understandable as they went into circulation about the close of the first century.

Polycarp (c. 69-155) was personally acquainted with the apostle John. His Epistle to the Philippians has been preserved, and in it he refers to the first three Gospels, Acts, all of Paul's Epistles, 1 Peter and 1 John. He also had Clement's Epistle.

Papias (c. 80-155) wrote The Exposition of Oracles of the Lord, which is preserved by quotations from it by early writers, chiefly Eusebius. We know that he made use of all the Gospels but Luke's, 1 Peter, 1 John and Revelation.

This evidence traces all the books of the New Testament back to contemporaries of the apostles, with the exception of Philemon, Jude and 2 and 3 John. 2 John can be traced back to the time of Iranaeus (c. 135-200), who was taught by Polycarp. The fact that these books were not mentioned in the writings of the contemporaries of the apostles does not mean that they did not exist at that time. Their value is on account of what they include, not what is omitted. They may have known of the other books and yet did not use them, or if they did use them, we have no record of it.

Other evidence from ancient authors is gathered from catalogues made by them. The earliest writer who set forth a formal list of the books he accepted as authorative was the heretic, Marcion, who came to Rome from Pontus about A. D. 140. He was already widely known. In opposing the Judaizers, he went to the other extreme, and this resulted in his accepting only the writings of Luke and Paul, except the Pastoral Epistles and Hebrews. But, the fact that he accepted some and rejected others gives evidence of the existence of all.

The earliest formal catalogue now extant is a document called the Muratorian Canon, which is dated not later than 170 A.D. It testifies to the existence of all our New Testament books except the two Epistles of Peter, 1 John, James and Hebrews. However, it does refer to 2 and 3 John, and Philemon. Since some parts of this MS are missing, it is possible that the missing part contained references to the omitted books.

Tertullian (c. 160-240) mentions all new Testament books except 2 Peter, James and the two shorter Epistles of John.

Clement of Alexander (c. 165-220) in his writings named and quoted from every book of the New Testament except Philemon, James 2 Peter and 3 John.

Origen (185-254) catalogued all the books of the New Testament. Hence, these five catalogues mentioned by name all the books of our New Testament. Since they speak from Rome, Africa, Egypt and Palestine, their testimony shows that the books of the New Testament were widely circulated and read, in general use among the churches, at such an early time. Since it would naturally take some little time for copies of the books to be made and distribution made to all parts, the books themselves must have been in existence and in use some time previous to their catalogues.


The books of the New Testament are historical documents, being traced back to the time of their reputed authors. There is evidence, both external and internal, of their apostolic origins. We do not depend upon the decree of man for the authority of the books of the New Testament. Their authority is dependent upon their inspiration. They were recognized as authoritative by those Christians who lived closest to the apostles, and the books were generally circulated and used by Christians long before any church council ever dreamed of formulating an authoritative list of acceptable books.

We again conclude, therefore, that when we believe and practice what we find in our New Testament, we can be assured that we are doing what our Lord requires.

— Box 36, Clarkson, Kentucky