Early Christian Accounts
Our second clue is the vast number of early Christian letters, sermons, commentaries, and creeds referring to Jesus as the resurrected Lord. They appeared as early as five years after his crucifixion. Although many writings were burned under the edict of the Roman emperor Diocletian, thousands survived.
The number of these documents is impressive; more than 36,000 complete or partial writings, some from the first century, have been discovered. Their words could replicate virtually the entire New Testament except for a few verses.
So how does that compare with the Gospel of Barnabas? We have already noted that there are only two citations of it prior to the fifteenth century, and it is doubtful those references were to the “Gospel of Barnabas” in question.
The earliest writings outside the New Testament were from men who knew and followed Paul, Peter, John and the other apostles. These early church leaders were not eyewitnesses to Jesus, but learned about him from those who had actually seen and heard him. Significantly, their writings confirm many New Testament details about Jesus, including his crucifixion and resurrection.
The most important of these early writings outside the New Testament are from Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, and Polycarp of Smyrna.
In A.D. 96, Clement of Rome wrote a lengthy letter to the church at Corinth in which he cited Matthew, John, and 1 Corinthians. Some believe he is the Clement mentioned by Paul in Philippians 4:3. Since Clement’s letter was written in A.D. 96, these three books must have been written earlier.
In about A.D. 110, Ignatius of Antioch, a disciple of the apostle John, wrote six letters to churches and one to a fellow bishop, Polycarp, in which he refers to six of Paul’s letters.
Polycarp of Smyrna, also a disciple of the apostle John, makes reference to all 27 New Testament books in his letter to the Philippian church (A.D. 110-135). Therefore, the gospels must have been in existence during the first century while some eyewitnesses (including John) were still alive.
We have seen that no such early reference to the Gospel of Barnabas exists.
Early Manuscript Copies
Our third clue is the abundance of early New Testament manuscripts which have helped scholars determine the approximate time they were originally composed. Archaeologists have discovered over 5,600 manuscript copies of the New Testament in the original Greek language, some complete books, and some mere fragments. Counting other languages, there are over 24,000.
Quite clearly, 5,600 to three is an enormous numerical manuscript advantage for the New Testament. Furthermore, archaeologists have discovered New Testament fragments that date to within a generation or two after Christ, compared with hundreds of years later for the Gospel of Barnabas.
In the early twentieth century, a fragment of the Gospel of John was discovered in Egypt (specifically, P52: John 18:31-33) dated A.D. 117-138. Renowned biblical scholar Bruce Metzger noted the significance of this remarkable discovery:
Just as Robinson Crusoe, seeing but a single footprint in the sand, concluded that another human being, with two feet, was present on the island with him, so P52 [the label of the fragment] proves the existence and use of the Fourth Gospel during the first half of the second century … “
The discovery of this fragment means that within one generation of John writing his Gospel, a copy of it had migrated all the way from Asia Minor to Egypt.
There are many other early manuscripts dated from the late second century to the fourth and fifth centuries. Entire books of the New Testament dated from A.D. 200-1500 are preserved in various museums (Bodmer Papyri).
An even earlier papyrus fragment from the Dead Seas Scrolls (7Q5) has been identified by a paleographer as a piece of the Gospel of Mark dated around A.D. 50, significantly earlier than the P52 fragment of John.
New Testament professor, Daniel B. Wallace, who has studied the Dead Sea Scroll fragment, agrees it is from the first century. Although there is debate over this fragment, the collective evidence from other manuscripts strongly supports a New Testament written in the first century.