I was excited last week to see an article detailing the discovery of a manuscript of the Gospel of Mark dating to the first century. Dr. Daniel Wallace, one of the country's leading textual critics (and a former seminary professor of mine), mentioned it in a recent debate with well-known skeptic Bart Ehrman. Although the manuscript won't be published until next year, it's exciting to biblical scholars (and to "normal" people like me) for a few reasons.
First, ancient manuscripts help us to more accurately determine when a particular book was written. For example, liberal scholars once believed that the Gospel of John was written late in the 2nd century, if not later. They made this determination based upon the book's Christology, since John is the most explicit of all the New Testament writers on the subject of Christ's deity. However, the discovery of P52, a papyrus fragment dating to the first half of the second century, changed all of that. The fact that the book had been copied and circulated as far as Egypt (where P52 was found) by the early second century meant that the original had to be several years older.
A manuscript of Mark dating from the late first century could help demonstrate that this gospel was written shortly after Jesus' death and resurrection. Conservative scholars have held that position for quite some time, but this new manuscript adds evidence to that belief.
Second, ancient manuscripts help confirm the reliability of the New Testament. Biblical skeptics regularly argue that the Bible has changed dramatically since it was written. It's argued that descriptions of Christ's miracles, most of His teachings, and certainly His claims of deity were added dozens (if not hundreds) of years after the original documents were penned. While this is just one fragment from the book of Mark, it could help show that the document hasn't substantially changed since it was written. In fact, most of the early manuscript discoveries have done just that. None of them vary a great deal from later manuscripts we already possess.
Third, ancient manuscripts make for more accurate translations. Evangelicals believe that the Bible is inerrant in the original manuscripts, which we don't possess. What we do have is a whole lot of copies. There are currently around 6,000 known Greek manuscripts of the Bible, give or take a few hundred. Although these manuscripts agree to about 95% accuracy, there are some variations. Most of the variations are small (for example, one manuscript reads "Christ Jesus" where another reads "Jesus Christ"). Translators look at the evidence and try to discern which readings are most accurate. Even though most of the variations make little difference with regard to significant theological issues, the discovery of early manuscripts makes our translations just a bit more reliable.
We can trust God to preserve His Word for us. Discoveries like this don't make or break our faith. However, they help demonstrate what we've believed all along: God's Word will never pass away.
Does this discovery bolster your confidence in the Scriptures? Do you struggle to believe the Bible is accurate? Why or why not?