No. A late date for the earliest manuscript of any ancient book could be evidence that the book is a forgery or unreliable;1 but it does not necessarily follow that a late date for an earliest manuscript means the book is a forgery or is unreliable. There is other evidence to take into account.

Some of the evidence that needs to be taken into account, for example, are the quotes and allusions that early Christians take from books of the Bible. The earliest manuscript we have for 1 and 2 Timothy are from c. 350 AD. However, early Christians quote from the letters demonstrating that they have been part of Christian history from before c. 350 AD. Examples can be seen in Polycarp’s  Letter to the Philippians (Polycarp lived c. 69 – 155):

But the love of money is the root of all evils.” Knowing, therefore, that “as we brought nothing into the world, so we can carry nothing out,” let us arm ourselves with the armour of righteousness; [ch. 4]

Here Polycarp quotes from 1 Tim. 6:10 and v7.

He [the Lord] has promised to us that He will raise us again from the dead, and that if we live worthily of Him, “we shall also reign together with Him,” provided only we believe. [ch. 5]

Here Polycarp quotes from from 2 Tim. 2:12.

Other evidence is in the form of canon lists and early translations in other languages. For example, continuing to use Paul’s letters to Timothy as our case study, the Muratorian Canon (c. 170-200 AD) mentions ‘two [letters] to Timothy’.

Both Polycarp and the Muratorian Canon pre-date the 350 AD manuscript of 1 and 2 Timothy, demonstrating that a late date for an earliest manuscript of a book doesn’t mean the book is either unreliable or a forgery.


1. It’s interesting to note that rarely do people lay this charge (that a late date for an earliest manuscript equals unreliability or forgery) at the feet of non-biblical books like Homer’s Iliad (even though the date between the original composition of the Iliad and the earliest manuscript of the book is large [~500 years] — larger than the date between the original composition of the NT books and their earliest manuscripts). Perhaps there’s something about the claims of the Bible that cause people to want to treat it differently (and, perhaps it could be said, unfairly).

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5 Responses to If the earliest manuscript we have for a book of the Bible is relatively late, does that mean the book is a forgery/unreliable?

  1. Jonathan Morgan says:

    Not disagreeing with your main point, but it seems a bit strange to use the dates of Polycarp to establish the dating of epistles with a late manuscript date, rather than using the manuscript date. Do you know the dating for the manuscript of Polycarp’s “Letter to the Philippians”?

    And “canon” usually has two “n”s, not three.

    • Luke Buckler says:

      Hi Jonathan,

      Thanks for the comment.

      I corrected the typo. Thanks.

      I tried to be careful in my words. Sorry if it didn’t come across clearly. When I said, ‘early Christians quote from the letters demonstrating that they have been part of Christian history from before c. 350 AD’ I didn’t mean to imply that the earliest manuscript we have for Polycarp’s letter was earlier than c. 350 AD.

      Rather, if people want to take issue with late extant manuscripts for books of the Bible, I believe they are going to have to claim a wider case of fabrication; a fabrication which, I think, isn’t tenable (without questioning what we know about history, and how we know it, in general).

  2. ez says:

    Out of interest, one of the earliest portions of the Hebrew Bible dates from around 600BC. They were found at the Ketef Hinnom archeological site southwest of Jerusalem in 1979. They are composed of two small silver scrolls inscribed with portions of the Priestly Blessing from Numbers 26:24-26.

  3. James Grigsby says:

    I don’t think its just the date that leads scholars to believe it is a forgery. It is the language and content that lead scholars to question 2 timothy specifically. 1st timothy I think there is little doubt that it was Paul as the author.

    The problem with the Pauline epistles is that there were an abundance of pseudepigraphical works attributed to Paul. 2 Timothy is not commonly regarded as a Forgery either. There is a growing concern that it is, but the jury is still out on that though.

    Honestly, the comparison to the Illiad isn’t really that fair. The importance as to whether or not these are or are not forgeries is because many people in this world take them as the gospel truth(pun intended). That being said it should be important to consider what is and what is not forged. Who cares if the works of Homer are forged they are works of flight and fancy not to be taken as the god’s honest truth(pun intended)

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