As with all other writings from ancient times, we are dependent upon handwritten copies for our text of the Bible. Some people today justify their skepticism about the Bible on the basis that we don’t have the originals, or photocopies of the originals. If, however, we throw out the Bible because we object to handwritten copies of texts, logic dictates that we throw out all the ancient writers listed below first because we have weaker textual evidence for them than for the Bible.
Who would be willing to say, “We aren’t sure enough about Plato’s texts to know what he was saying,” or “It’s useless to talk about Aristotelian logic because Aristotle’s original texts are lost to us”? Who would be willing to throw out all the writers of the Greco-Roman world because they wrote in a world without a printing press?
Apply the same degree of skepticism to all the other works of antiquity that some want to apply to the Bible and here is a partial list of the historians, philosophers, statesmen, dramatists, and others whose thoughts you will need to do without. (While the authors of the Old and New Testament documents are indeed “authors of antiquity,” their names are obviously excluded from this list.)
The footnotes will take you to sources that specify the number and dating of oldest manuscripts for the author relative to the New Testament.
(Though the purpose of this post is not to corroborate the historicty of Jesus, those non-Christian authors who make some historial reference to Him are underlined.)
Aeschylus (525-456 BC) – Greek playwright; one of three greats (along with Euripides and Sophocles).
Aristophanes² (446-386 BC) – Greek playwright.
Arrian (86-160 AD) – Greek historian. A biographer of Alexander the Great (356-323 BC), as was Plutarch. (As for Alexander the Great, the early surviving biography we have is that written by Diodorus Siculus in the 1st Century BC; thus, the earliest biography we have of Alexander was written three centuries after his death while we have four gospels of Jesus written in the generation of his contemporaries.)
Cato (the Elder) (234-149 BC) – Roman statesman.
Cicero (106-43 BC) – Roman philosopher, politician, and orator.
Demosthenes² (4th Century BC) – Greek statesman and orator.
Epicurus (341-270 BC) – “Greek philosopher as well as the founder of the school of philosophy called Epicureanism. Only a few fragments and letters of Epicurus’s 300 written works remain. Much of what is known about Epicurean philosophy derives from later followers and commentators.” (Source: Wikipedia)
Herodotus², ³ (484-425 BC) – Greek historian; wrote The Histories, considered the foundational work of history in Western literature. He is thus called “the father of history,” and, along with Thucydides, who was 24 years his junior, is considered among the first true historians. The two are often compared, one distinction being that while Herodotus might attribute certain outcomes to the gods, Thucydides did not. We have 26 manuscripts attributed to Herodotus, the earliest of which is 1,500 years after the original were written.
Hippocrates (460-370 BC) – Greek physician in the Age of Pericles.
Homer¹, ², ³ (7th or 8th Century BC) – Greek poet; author of the Iliad and the Odyssey. Citing the work of British scholar Sir Moses Finley (1912-1986), Wikipedia says, “Fragments of Homer account for nearly half of all identifiable Greek literary papyrus finds.” I have to presume that this excludes biblical texts. The Iliad, at 643 manuscripts, is second among documents from antiquity. David Limbaugh in Jesus on Trial (2014; Kindle edition location 3979) says recent discoveries from the period 300-150 B.C. have brought this total to 1,800. Yet this number is just under a third of the number of Greek manuscripts we have of the New Testament.
Horace (65-8 BC) – Roman poet.
Josephus (37-100 AD) – Roman-Jewish historian. Our oldest copies of his writings are dated 800 years after he lived.
Livy² (64 BC – 17 AD) – Roman historian.
Lucian (120-180 AD) – Lucian of Samostata was a rhetorician and satirist.
Lucretius² (99-55 BC) – Roman poet and philosopher.
Mara bar Serapion (1st-2nd Century AD) – A Stoic philosopher from the Roman province of Syria.
Pausanias (110 – 180 AD) Greek geographer. Our oldest copies of his work are dated 1,400 years after he lived.
Philo of Alexandria (25 BC – 50 AD) – Hellenistic Jewish philosopher.
Phlegon (2nd Century AD) – Phlegon of Tralles was a Greek writer quoted by Eusebius.
Pliny the Elder (23-79 AD) – Roman author, naturalist, and philosopher; uncle to Pliny the Younger. Our oldest copies of his writing are dated 700 years after he lived.
Plutarch (46-120 AD) – Greek historian and biographer. A biographer of Alexander the Great (356-323 BC), as was Arrian. Our oldest copies of his writing are dated 800 years after he lived.
Polybius (200-118 BC) – Greek historian. Our oldest copies of his writing are dated 1,200 years after he lived.
Ptolemy (90-168 AD) – A Greco-Egyptian mathematician, geographer, astronomer, and astrologer.
Seneca the Elder (54 BC – 39 AD) – Roman rhetorician and writer. Father of Seneca the Younger.
Seneca the Younger (4 BC – 65 AD) – Roman Stoic philosopher, statesman, and dramatist; also a tutor of Nero. Son of Seneca the Elder.
Thallus (1st Century AD) – Roman historian. “In his Chronicle from about the year 800 the Byzantine chronicler Georgius Syncellus cites a passage from a book, no longer extant, entitled A History of the World, which was written around 220 by the church father Julius Africanus, himself an able historian, who in turn reports that the Roman historian Thallus, who wrote on the history of the Ancient Near East, tries in the third book of his History, a work also no longer extant, to explain away the darkness at the time of Christ’s death as due to a solar eclipse.” (Reasonable Faith, William Lane Craig)
Thucydides¹, ², ³ (460-395 BC) – Greek historian, philosopher, and general. His History of the Peloponnesian War recounts the 5th century BC war between Sparta and Athens. He is often compared to Herodotus (see above) who was 24 years older.
Varro (116-27 BC) – Also known as Marcus Terentius Varro, he was a Roman scholar and writer. He is sometimes called Varro Reatinus to distinguish him from his younger contemporary Varro Atacinus. Augustine uses Varro as an example – along with Hippocrates, Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero – of ancient authors in Contra Faustum. See Augustine on Authorship (Contra Faustum 33:6).
Velleius (19 BC – 31 AD) – Also known as Marcus Velleius Paterculus or Gaius Velleius Paterculus. Roman historian, most useful for the life of Augustus Caesar.
Virgil (70-19 BC) – Roman poet.
Xenophon (430-354 BC) – historian and soldier; student of Socrates. The earliest manuscripts we have are 1,800 years after he wrote.
¹ Is Our Copy of the Bible a Reliable Copy of the Original? by Rich Deem (Evidence for God)
² Manuscript evidence for superior New Testament reliability by Matt Slick (CARM)
³ The New Evidence That Demands A Verdict: The Bible Is True! by Josh McDowell
Why You Can Trust Your Bible | Justin Holcomb (mss. count for Suetonius is 200, for Josephus is 133, and for Herodotus is 75 – all more than 800 years after the originals)