For fourteen centuries, The New Testament has been copied by hand before copy machines were invented in the fifteenth century. Hand copying is very difficult due to the surrounding conditions like a poorly written or unclear original manuscript, bad lighting, cold chambers, uncomfortable conditions, and fatigue. One might expect that the manuscripts that came down to us to be full of errors and the text of the current New Testament to be extremely unreliable. However, we have far better evidence for the text of the New Testament than for any other ancient writing, and, as we will see, we have every reason to believe in the basic reliability of the Scripture that we now have.
Nowadays, we do not possess any original manuscripts. We have a large number of copies of copies, usually themselves copies of copies. It is the task of textual criticism to evaluate the textual witnesses available to us and thus to reconstruct the original text as far as is possible. Resources for Textual Criticism of the NT relies on three types of evidence:
1. Direct evidence of Greek manuscripts
2. Indirect evidence of the ancient translations or versions that came out of the Greek original version of the NT
3. Patristic quotations of the Greek NT
We currently possess nearly six thousand Greek manuscripts, and the number continues to grow as more are discovered. These are divided into three basic categories, from earliest to later texts: (1) papyri “the earliest manuscripts were written on papyrus, a writing surface made of dried, flattened strips of the stem of the papyrus plant pasted horizontally over vertical strips. A single papyrus sheet was adequate for a relatively short letter”; (2) majuscule manuscripts “made of animal skin and prepared as a writing surface.” This far more durable material replaced papyri near the beginning of the fourth century CE; and (3) minuscule manuscripts “written in smaller letters, in cursive script” (i.e., connected letters rather than separate capitals). Minuscule manuscripts could be produced more quickly and economically. This style of writing became popular in the ninth century CE. Most of these are partial manuscripts, and some consist of only fragments. An extra group of Greek witnesses to the text, but considered separately because of their indirect character, are the Greek lectionaries, which are worship books containing Scripture passages for reading in church services. The majority of these manuscripts are fragmentary. Of the above total, only about sixty manuscripts contain the entire NT, and of those, only two, Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus are majuscules.
There are also indirect pieces of evidence of many ancient translations such as Old Latin (most probably translated in north Africa in the second century CE), The Vulgate (Saint Jerome’s review for the Old Latin translations in the fourth century CE), The Old Syriac (end of the second century CE), The Coptic (beginning of the third century CE) and other, less important versions may also be listed here: Gothic, Armenian, Georgian, Ethiopian, Arabic, and Old Slavonic. In addition, there are dozens of patristic writers whose manuscripts are yet to be thoroughly studied for their use of New Testament writings.
Many would likely be surprised to learn that there are possibly 500,000 textual variants in the Greek New Testament manuscripts. With over 2,000,000 pages of New Testament manuscripts available for scholars to study. All of these variants were relied on for textual criticism, they were used to reconstruct the canonized scripture that we have now and render it very reliable.