One of the reasons the find is so significant has to do with a fact that many people don’t know; namely, that the vast majority of ancient works are known to us by copies made many years after the actual writing of the work. A third century document would place it within 1100 to 1200 years of its writing in about 900 BC.
We have documentary evidence for Homer’s Iliad within 400 to 500 years of its original writing. And that is considered good.
But consider others: The histories of Greek historian Herodotus are known to us only from manuscripts copied in 900 AD. He wrote them somewhere around the middle of the 5th century BC. The earliest manuscripts from Demosthenes and Suetonius are dated 800 years after they wrote them. There is a thousand years separating Tacitus’ writing of his histories and the earliest manuscripts we have; a thousand for Caesar; 1200 for Aristophanes, and 1400 for Sophocles.
Yet you seldom hear much about whether the writings of these figures is substantially what they originally wrote. Their reliability is seldom questioned, and we go on in our study of them as if what we have from them is truly theirs.
I think of this every time I hear someone question the reliability of the Bible. All of sudden, when the issue turns from classical literature to the Bible, we suddenly dispense with the confidence and become skeptics.
I remember reading several years ago a book of quotations. One of them was from the New Testament. After the quotation was the attribution: “Jesus (if Luke can be believed).” Just for fun, I turned to a quote of Socrates from the Republic, the attribution of which simply read: “Socrates.” It did not say, “Socrates (if Plato can be believed).” This despite the fact that, while the earliest manuscript we have for Plato’s dialogues is 1200 years after their writing, and we have a manuscript of the Gospel of Luke that is within 200 years of its writing.
We have far better manuscript evidence for the New Testament than any other ancient work, so much better that there really is not much comparison. Not only are there more manuscripts available to us, but they are much closer to the actual writing of them―and to the events they relate.
How close to the original writing are the New Testament documents? We have manuscripts of Romans, Hebrews, I & II Corinthians, Ephesians, Galatians, Philippians, Colossians, and I Thessalonians as close as 150 years to their writing; the Book of Matthew, 95 years; the Gospel of John, 29 years.
No other ancient writing has documentary evidence even remotely that good.
Our knowledge of the ancient world comes from sources far weaker than those for the events of the life of Christ and the apostles. On purely evidential grounds, if you reject the basic historical facts related through the New Testament, then you are going to have to reject the fact that Caesar crossed the Rubicon, that Alexander conquered the world, that Cleopatra ruled Egypt.
It is a double standard that a lot of people don’t want to admit.