New Testament Manuscripts

New Testament Manuscripts Trustworthy?We often see challenges to the trustworthiness of the New Testament manuscripts with statements like this from an atheist website:

“The New Testament has been translated so many times and modified by copiers in so many ways over the past 2,000 years, that it is impossible to have any confidence in its accuracy.”

Such statements are usually coupled with the old game where a row of people whisper a story from one to the next until the last person receives something very different. Communication is hard. People make mistakes when they tell someone else what happened. To believe that the New Testament is still accurate after nearly 2,000 years is more than many people can accept.

The problem is that most of us are ignorant about how we got the Bible. When you whisper a story from person A to person B to C, and so forth, you are using linear transmission. The problem with going through 10 linear transmissions is that each person in the chain can add his own error, and the end product gets further and further away from the original.

When I was a kid, my father handed me a board that was the right length for the roof of the chicken coop we were making. He told me to cut ten boards to the same length. I took the one he gave me and marked the second board and cut it. Then I took the second board and marked the third board and cut it. Then I took the third board and marked the fourth board and cut it. By the time I got to the tenth board, I had added a foot to the length of the board. Each cut added its own error. Could the same problem have taken place in the transmission of the New Testament documents?

The transmission of the biblical text was geometric, not linear. What we mean is that the original manuscript was copied many times, not just once. In the previous example, if I had taken the first board and used it to mark each of the ten boards, there would have been no problem. In the New Testament documents, the copiers took the first copy and made 50 copies. Those 50 copies were copied by people at different places producing perhaps 250 copies. This is a geometric progression, not a linear one.

Gregory Koukl in an excellent article “Facts for Skeptics of the New Testament” in Christian Research Journal (volume 27, number 3, page 10) gave a great illustration of how geometric progression can help us determine the actual content of an original document. It is called “Aunt Sally’s Letter,” and it goes like this:

Aunt Sally invents a fantastic recipe. She makes 30 copies of the recipe and gives it to her friends. Each of her friends makes 30 copies of the one they were given and give it to 30 of their friends. Aunt Sally comes home one day and discovers that her dog has eaten the only copy of the recipe she has. She calls her 30 friends she gave the recipe to and asks them to send their copy back so she can remake her own copy. Twenty-seven of the copies are exactly the same. The three that are different have different problems. One has a misspelled word. One has an inverted phrase (“mix and then chop” instead of “chop and then mix”). One has an ingredient that is not in any of the other recipes.

Can Aunt Sally reconstruct her original recipe from what she has? To assume that the copy with the added ingredient is right, would be inconsistent. There is too much evidence that the added ingredient was not in the original with only one out of 30 copies having it. The other two mistakes are common human errors, and it does not make any sense to leave them in the recipe.

That story illustrates in simplified form what scholars call “textual criticism.” It is a careful literary process scholars use on all kinds of documents to correct copying errors. Because the Bible s copied in geometric form, it is a prime candidate for this kind of work. Variations in New Testament manuscripts are greatly exaggerated. Atheist and skeptic websites report that there are 300,000 individual variations of the New Testament text in the manuscripts. They present this seemingly massive amount of variations to show that there can be no confidence in the New Testament manuscripts.

Dr. Daniel Wallace in an article in Bibliotheca Sacra (“The Majority Text and the Original Text: Are They Identical?” 148,590 [1991]:page 157) pointed out that most of the differences are spelling errors and minor phrasing problems equaling a total of about 400 words in about 40 lines of original text. This is out of 20,000 lines of text, meaning that the Greek text of the New Testament is 99.5% pure. There are very few historical documents of any kind which come close to this level of purity.

Biblical manuscript evidence is massive. Here is a conservative summary of textual evidence:

Different Greek manuscripts available: 5,366
Complete New Testament manuscripts from ninth to fifteenth centuries: 34
Earliest complete New Testament date: A.D. 340
Oldest fragment of the New Testament date: A.D. 117-138
Translations into Latin, Coptic, Syriac, Armenian, Georgian: A.D. 300-400

Much of the support for the accuracy of New Testament manuscripts comes from fragments. A good example is the John Rylands Papyri, which contains all of John 18:31-33. Paleographic dating puts the age of this fragment at “earlier than A.D. 117.” This fragment is about three inches square but gives us a picture of one small piece of the New Testament. The Bodmer Papyri II manuscript contains the first 14 chapters of the Gospel of John. The Chester Beatty Papyri includes most of the New Testament and dates to the middle of the third century. The amount of evidence for New Testament manuscripts is greater than any other manuscript of the same age.

No scholar would discard a secular document of an age before A.D. 1,000 with that much documentation because there was insufficient evidence for it. Skeptics are totally inconsistent when they attempt to discredit the Bible in this way. We can be confident about the validity of the scriptures we have. While atheists might disagree with the teachings of Jesus, they cannot claim with integrity that we do not know what Jesus taught.
— John N. Clayton © 2019