The New Testament versus Shakespeare

The Bible is under attack, whether that be historically, textually or morally, however there’s something curious that’s occurred during such intense, persistent fire, that which we casually call the Bible has emerged unique amidst every book of the world, The Book of Books as it’s been written elsewhere! Modern nations forbid the reading of it, world powers have set its manuscripts ablaze only to later embrace its message of redemption, and internet infidels pour over its pages everyday both in the hope of understanding, and with an overwhelming want to disprove its historical narrative. Nevertheless this Book of Books remains for generations to study and decide upon for themselves, although others would certainly enjoy an opportunity to remove their choice. Furthermore, and perhaps more startlingly for the critics of the Biblical writings, the object of their fury has emerged renewed and revitalized due to their various methods of criticism, moreover much of which the critics wouldn’t hope to diminish in value they have, this being due to their supernatural scepticism regarding the Bible’s supernatural narrative. Proving this bold claim will be none other than William Shakespeare, or rather his body of written works, and considering how the printing press had been invented by 1439, over 100 years before Shakespeare’s day, we’d expect to see the poet’s works well preserved from jot to tittle.

Tale of the tape: Shakespeare’s thirty-seven plays

  1. 1000509261001_2013980530001_William-Shakespeare-The-Life-of-the-Bard
  2.  Authors: One (Playwright and poet)
  3.  Works: Thirty-seven
  4.  Earliest writing: Henry VI Part II (1591)
  5.  Latest writing: The Tempest (1610–11)
  6.  Elapsed time between first and last writings: Twenty years

Twenty-seven books of the New Testament

  1. bible_miniseries_wide
  2.  Authors: Eight (Historian, Physician, Pharisee, Rabbi, Missionaries, Fishermen, Tax collector)
  3.  Works: Twenty-seven
  4.  Earliest writings: Paul’s letters, The Gospel of Mark (50-60 A.D)
  5.  Latest writing: The Book of Revelation (95-96 A.D)
  6.  Elapsed time between first and last writings: Forty-six years

Background as to why the above facts are important should briefly be noted, one of the various methods used in an attempt to undermine the Bible, or more specifically the New Testament, is the accusation that because ancient writings were first written on perishable parchment, and needed then to be copied and recopied for extended periods of time, that that which we call The Bible today wasn’t what the original authors actually authored, rather what’s taken place was Chinese whispers (or the telephone game) on an awesome scale, one which has spanned centuries before being finalized, with most hoping this to have happened upon 325 AD. Rather than highlighting the 325 myth, since its refutation is commonplace, let’s revisit both Shakespeare and the New Testament.

Considering the perishability of papyrus manuscript evidence stands central to the objection, anybody hopeful to judge either’s credibility can venture to few other sciences. And since critics are held to study the evidence with equal weights and measures, and they’ve judged the New Testament evidence as inadequate, Shakespeare’s words and all others of antiquity shall assuredly be attested to by overwhelming evidence! John Lea, in The Greatest Book in the World offers fantastic insight into whether or not scepticism regarding New Testament evidence could impact William Shakespeare’s body of literary works, he begins with the words: ‘In an article in the North American Review, a writer had made some interesting comparisons between the writings of Shakespeare and the Scriptures, which show that much greater care must have been bestowed upon the biblical manuscripts than upon other writings, even when there was so much more opportunity of preserving the correct text by means of printed copies than when all the copies had to be made by hand. He said: “It seems strange that the text of Shakespeare, which has been in existence less than two hundred years, should be so far more uncertain and corrupt than that of the New Testament, now over eighteen centuries old, during nearly fifteen of which it existed only in manuscript…With perhaps a dozen or twenty exceptions, the text of every verse in the New Testament may be said to be so far settled by general consent of scholars, that any dispute as to its readings must relate rather to the interpretation of the words than to any doubts respecting the words themselves. But in every one of Shakespeare’s thirty-seven plays there are probably a hundred readings still in dispute, a large portion of which materially affects the meaning of the passages in which they occur.”‘

How extraordinary to read of so much discrepancy invading Shakespeare’s thirty-seven masterworks. Which brings about another quotation, one so self evident its very mention opens an impassable gulf none of Shakespeare’s literature could hope to traverse: ‘Such things as people believe possessing value will be preserved by their contemporaries.’ Therefore Shakespeare, having had his contribution to literature undervalued during his lifetime, although that isn’t to say he wasn’t successful, leaves mankind without clear indication regarding much of that which he’d penned. Could the New Testament better satisfy the above-mentioned truism, if so we have an argument outside of the manuscript evidence that confirms the New Testament to be of immeasurable worth to the very people who were best placed to preserve its content. 2 Peter 3:14-16 renders for us a verdict beyond reasonable doubt, proclaiming how Paul, according to the wisdom given to him, writes of things difficult to understand, nevertheless Peter continues, expounding upon how untaught and unstable people twist Paul’s many writings to their own destruction, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures. Concluding and affirming the truism Peter’s words confirm how Paul’s writings were considered so authoritative that to manipulate them for one’s own purposes was tantamount to perverting anything of the Torah scrolls! Whether that be Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus or anything otherwise which the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob had confirmed by way of signs and wonders. Recap once more how writings that people believe to be valuable are preserved, whereas those which lack recognition within the lifetime of the writer, as we see in the life of William Shakespeare, are widely left unpreserved. Yet for the Bible sceptic to concede this is to admit Paul’s writings, which make the bulk of the New Testament, are prime examples of an ancient text others would tirelessly preserve.

In spite of these facts I’m resolving to sign off by far stronger evidence than all else heretofore, which I’ll set about explaining through the words of research professor of Philosophy John Warwick Montgomery, who’s quoted as follows: ‘To be sceptical of the resultant text of the New Testament books is to allow all of classical antiquity to slip into obscurity, for no documents of the ancient period are as well attested bibliographically as the New Testament.’ Hence the New Testament has far loftier company than merely Shakespeare, moreover to exercise equal scepticism towards other ancient documents, as has been done with the books of the New Testament, would relegate every document and historic event of antiquity to the category of unsearchable fiction! Aristotle, Socrates and Plato, Caesar and Alexander the Great, they’re each merely a fraction of the wealth of knowledge we must dispose of if the methodology of the Bible sceptic is to be followed to its conclusion, events in addition must too be dismissed as distortions of the past passed from generation to generation until ending in the destruction of the truth of the events, how frightening an outcome when you consider it in-depth.

Thankfully the Bible sceptic doesn’t apply their unassailable standard of proof upon other historical documents, merely upon those they find unappealing. If so wild a disparity exists within the writings of antiquity however, and what we call the New Testament perfectly preserved emerges more reliable due its manuscript evidence, then by what margin do the documents of antiquity differ. Hereinafter I’ll list some of the greats, including Homer’s Iliad, which has been singled out as the second best supported book through manuscript evidence.

(1) The Gallic Wars By Julius Caesar

  1.  Author: Caesar.
  2. Date written: 100-44 B.C.
  3.  Earliest manuscript copies: 900 A.D.
  4. Elapsed time between written copies and the original: 1000 years.
  5.  Surviving manuscript evidence: 10 manuscripts.

(2) The Histories of Herodotus

  1.  Author: Herodotus.
  2. Date written: 480-425 B.C.
  3.  Earliest manuscript copies: 900 A.D.
  4.  Elapsed time between written copies and the original: 1,350 years.
  5.  Surviving manuscript evidence: 8 manuscripts.

(3) Annals by Roman historian and senator Tacitus

  1.  Author: Tacitus.
  2. Date written: 100 A.D.
  3.  Earliest manuscript copies: 1100 A.D.
  4.  Elapsed time between written copies and the original: 1000 years.
  5.  Surviving manuscript evidence: 20 manuscripts.

(4) Pliny Secundus’ Natural history

  1.  Author: Pliny the Elder.
  2. Date written: 61-113 A.D.
  3.  Earliest manuscript copies: 850 A.D.
  4.  Elapsed time between written copies and the original: 750 years.
  5.  Surviving manuscript evidence: 7 manuscripts.

(5) Homer’s Iliad

  1.  Author: Homer.
  2. Date written: 800 B.C.
  3.  Earliest manuscript copies: 400 B.C.
  4.  Elapsed time between written copies and the original: 400 years.
  5.  Surviving manuscript evidence: 643 manuscripts.

After having considered the elapsed time between the originals and their nearest surviving copies why hasn’t the precession of Bible critics shown more vocal opposition to the historic outline these writings have painted, or perhaps for the sake of appearing credible sceptics could challenge the authorship of the above writings while yet retaining their histories, or in the case of Homer’s Iliad enjoy it for its stylistic brilliance alone. As an alternative, albeit not one they’d readily admit to, the critics dial up their scepticism at will depending on the material set before them, nonetheless, are such objections salvageable after having compared the New Testament evidence against that of its nearest competitor?

The New Testament

  1.  Authors: Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Peter, James, Jude, Paul.
  2. Date written: 50-96 A.D.
  3.  Earliest manuscript copies: 114 A.D (fragments), 200 A.D (books), 250 A.D (majority of N.T.) 325 A.D (complete N.T.)
  4.  Elapsed time between written copies and the original: + 50 years, 100 years, 150 years, 225 years.
  5.  Surviving manuscript evidence: 5366 manuscripts.

It’s seemingly supernatural when first seeing how far ahead the New Testament evidence is with regards to manuscripts, they’re nearer to the events they record, preserved in wondrous number and so abundant we can easily compare and discern in what ways they might differ, through which we can say with confidence that this is exactly what the disciples of Jesus believed concerning him. Moreover, and undoubtedly putting the fear of God into many an unbelieving sceptic, is that the evidence supporting our current reading of the New Testament extends beyond the popular level scholarship I have already mentioned! Without digressing however, Sir Frederic Kenyon succinctly bookends that which we have already learnt, noting in The Bible and Archaeology: ‘The interval then between the dates of the original composition and the earliest extant evidence becomes so small as to be in fact negligible, and the last foundation for any doubt that the Scriptures have come down to us substantially as they were written has now been removed. Both the authenticity and the general integrity of the books of the New Testament may be regarded as finally established.’

Laying aside accusations of whether or not the writings of Jesus’ early followers have reached us in tact we’re left only with the words of Christ himself, predicting that no matter the travail ‘my words will never pass away.’

― T. C. M

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