Is the New Testament (NT) reliable? (Part I: The reliability of the manuscripts)4 min read

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NT critic Bart Ehrman claims that the manuscripts we have today don’t represent the original writings, but in fact are error-ridden copies that cannot be trusted. The number of variations among these manuscripts even exceed the number of words in the NT in its original Greek language. He suggests that there are about 400,000 variations in the manuscripts we have and about 138,200 words of the Greek NT; that means that for every word that exists there’s around 3 options for it! 

However, is that really an indication of the accuracy of the manuscripts? and what do the numbers really mean? 

To answer this question and determine the reliability of the NT manuscripts, we need to look at how historians assess any work of antiquity coming from the ancient world. Historians generally assess any text by looking at three things: A) the number of manuscript copies that exist for the text; B) the time gap between the original text and its earliest surviving copy; and C) the significance of variations between the copies.  

Historians and textual critics have more confidence in the reconstruction of the original text when there are lots of copies, short time gaps, and insignificant variations. If we are to compare the NT manuscripts with the manuscripts citing the work of well-known philosophers, authors or historians like Plato, Homer or Seutonius, whose works are thought to be reconstructed with high degree of accuracy, we’ll find that the NT manuscripts outnumber any of these works and have much earlier attestations than these works as well. To put things into perspective, we have about 250 copies of Plato with the earliest manuscript found after about 1300 years of the original writing. However, for the NT we have over 5,800 manuscripts in the Greek language alone and around 20,000 manuscripts in other languages (e.g. Coptic, Latin, Syriac). In fact, the textual critic, Dan Wallace states that “in comparison with the average ancient Greek author, the NT copies are well over a thousand times more plentiful”. In addition, these manuscripts with all their translations are found to be cited extensively by the early church fathers during the early centuries of Christianity to the extent that Ehrman himself claims that these citations are so extensive that “if all the other sources of our knowledge of the text of NT were destroyed, they would be sufficient alone for the reconstruction of practically the entire NT.” 

Regarding the time gap between the earliest surviving manuscripts and the original manuscripts, we have two manuscripts, P52 and P66, which are dated around 35-40 years after the original manuscripts. In the world of ancient literature, this is considered a blink of an eye. In fact, the average time between the writing of most works contemporaneous with the NT like the works of Pliny, Sueotonius or Tacitus and their first copies is not less than a couple hundred years, so again no other work of antiquity comes close to the early attestation of the NT manuscripts.   

With regards to the textual variants among the manuscripts, yes there are about 400,000 variants in the NT manuscripts, yet the significance of them is what really matters. So let’s first define what a variant is. A variant is any difference between manuscripts. If a scribe spells “John” and another spells it “Johnn”, that’s a variant. If two scribes use two different synonyms for the same word, that’s a variant. If two scribes write the same sentence with the same meaning but use a different word order, that counts as a variant. If a verse or a block of text is found in one copy but not in others, that’s also a variant. 

If we take a closer look at these 400,000 variants, we’ll find that 99% of them don’t impact the meaning of the text whatsoever. Most of them come from spelling and word order. The remaining 1% (only 4,000 variants) are meaningful but none of them affects one single doctrine of the Christian faith. And in fact, considering the vast number of manuscripts that we have for the NT, it logically follows to have a big number of variants. So the large number of variants is due to the fact that the NT has more manuscripts than any other work of antiquity 

In conclusion, based on the rich and early attestation of the NT, as well as the insignificant variations among its manuscripts, we can trust that the NT manuscripts are reliable. In fact, if we do not trust the NT manuscripts, we cannot trust any other work of antiquity. 

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