I was recently asked this question by a friend who had been misinformed, being mislead to believe that what the authors originally wrote has since been somehow lost in transmission over the centuries. I reassured him that this was not the case as I explained to him the reality of the situation and pointed him to resources he might find particularly helpful as he explores this issue more on his own. We truly can have confidence that the Bible faithfully preserves what the biblical authors originally wrote. In what follows, I hope to remain accessible as I seek to demonstrate the reliability of the Bible as supported by manuscript evidence.
By adding together the papyri, majuscules, minuscules, and lectionaries a growing number of more than 5,800 Greek New Testament manuscripts have been catalogued. While it’s true that many of these are fragments, it’s also true that the average Greek New Testament manuscript is more than 450 pages long. This leaves us with more than 2.6 million pages of text for the Greek New Testament.
It’s true that many of these are later manuscripts, however the more reliable manuscripts are older. Prior to a recent discovery, for example, the oldest New Testament manuscript, P52, was a fragment from John’s Gospel discovered in 1934 which dates back to the first half of the second century, somewhere around 125 BC. The oldest manuscript witness for Mark was P45, which dates to the early third century, around AD 200-250. But with this recent discovery, we may possibly have a first century manuscript for Mark. If it is, in fact, a first century manuscript for Mark, it would only add to the already unprecedented textual attestation in support of the Bible. Interestingly, apart from the Bible, Homer’s Iliad is the most well attested body of work in the ancient world–and it only has around 2,000 manuscripts.
And that’s just the Greek witnesses for the New Testament. Beginning with the early second century AD, these Greek New Testament translations began to be translated into Latin. Later translations would follow in Coptic, Ethiopic, Syriac, and more. With around 10,000 Latin manuscripts, and more than 9,300 manuscripts from Coptic, Ethiopic, Syriac, and other languages, in addition to more than 5,800 Greek manuscripts, there are more than 25,000 manuscripts that attest to the reliability of the New Testament alone. And, if we lost all of these, we still have over 36,000 Patristic quotations of the New Testament from early Church Fathers and could reproduce nearly the entire New Testament from these later quotations alone.
But we should also note that it is not merely the number of manuscripts which attest to the reliability of the Bible. The number of years that had passed from the time the events took place to the time they were recorded is particularly relevant. Consider how the earliest of around 2,000 manuscript copies of Homer’s Iliad date back to around the second century BC, about 400 years after Homer is even believed to have lived. And these are only fragments. The oldest extant manuscript copy of the Iliad is referred to Venetus A, which was written around the tenth century AD and wasn’t discovered until 1788. This means that the earliest sources for the most well attested body of ancient literature outside the Bible, Homer’s Iliad, dates back to around 400 years after Homer is even believed to have lived. And similar things can be said for among the most major figure in the ancient world, Alexander the Great. There are 5 main sources for Alexander the Great. While he reigned from around 336-323 BC, the earliest of these sources weren’t written until the second century by Arrian and Plutarch– also, approximately 400 years after the events recorded in those texts.
So, then, the earliest sources we have for the events recorded about Alexander the Great’s life, and for the most well attested body of ancient literature apart from the Bible dates to 400 years after the events they record. Meanwhile, P52–which is presently recognized as the earliest manuscript Greek witness for the New Testament–dates back to c. AD 125, just decades after the original document (autograph) for the Gospel according to John is generally believed to have been written which itself is believed to have been written within only decades of the events it records. According to a recent article by Michael Krueger, a biblical scholar specializing in the canon of the New Testament, we have no reason to suspect a great degree of unbridled textual changes taking place in this earliest period.
In this article Krueger quotes New Testament scholar, Craig Evans as stating that, “Autographs and first copies may well have remained in circulation until the end of the second century, even the beginning of the third century…The longevity of these manuscripts in effect forms a bridge linking the first-century autographs and first copies to the great codices, via the early papyrus copies we possess.” At this, Krueger responds by affirming Evans’ research which lends to the possibility that the manuscripts we have today were transmitted with a high degree of accuracy and fidelity and were likely copied directly from the original documents or from manuscripts which were copied from autographs making the gap between autographs and early copies negligible whereby, “The early date of our copies, combined with the likely longevity of the autographs, can give us a high degree of confidence that [we] have access to the New Testament text at the earliest possible stage.”
Speaking of the staggering wealth of material available for determining the wording of the original New Testament, Dan Wallace, who is perhaps the world’s most prominent New Testament scholar specializing in Textual Criticism, wrote, “In comparison with the average ancient Greek author, the New Testament copies are well over a thousand times more plentiful. If the average-sized manuscript were two and one-half inches thick, all the copies of the works of an average ancient would stack up four feet high, while the copies of the New Testament would stack up to over a mile high! This is indeed an embarrassment of riches.”
New Testament scholar, Craig Blomberg has said of this “embarrassment of riches” that, “If we cannot say with confidence that we have the ability to reconstruct a biblical text that is overwhelmingly likely to be very, very close to the original texts of the books of Scripture, then to be consistent we should discard all ancient writings on any topic as being far more suspect – and plead total agnosticism concerning the original contents of any documents produced before the breakthrough of Gutenberg’s printing press in about 1440.” Similarly, Wallace has commented that, “If we have doubts about what the autographic NT said, those doubts would have to be multiplied a hundredfold for the average classical author.” “Technically,” says Wallace “our doubts should be a thousandfold if there are 20,000 NT MSS (in Greek and ancient versions) and less than 20 MSS of an average classical author.”
An embarrassment of riches, indeed. And that’s just the New Testament!
But as noted in, “Facts on the Bible”: “A detailed comparison of the Qumran Old Testament Manuscripts (dating back to the 200s BC) and the Masoretic Old Testament texts (from the AD 900s) reveals, in the words of Dr. Ron Rhodes, that “they are essentially the same, with very few changes,” despite more than 1,000 years of copying. The fact that manuscripts separated by a thousand years are essentially the same indicates the incredible accuracy of the Old Testament’s manuscript transmission.”
Based on the manuscript evidence alone, then, if we can’t have confidence in the reliability of the Bible, we can’t have confidence in any ancient text. The Bible is the most well attested body of work in all of ancient literature. We have reason to have great confidence in the reliability of Scripture, and should remain assured that the Bible faithfully preserves what the biblical authors originally wrote.
Stephen B. Cowan, Terry Wilder, “In Defense of the Bible: A Comprehesive Apologetic for the Authority of Scripture”
Dan Wallace, “Reinventing Jesus: How Contemporary Skeptics Miss the Real Jesus and Mislead Popular Culture”
Craig Blomberg., “Can We Still Believe the Bible? An Evangelical Engagement with Contemporary Questions”
Dan Wallace, “Revisiting the Corruption of the New Testament: Manuscript, Patristic, and Apocryphal Evidence (Text and Canon of the New Testament)”
John Ankerberg, et al., “The Facts on the Bible”