Last week, we looked at the reliability of the Old Testament text that we have; this week, we’ll look at the New Testament, and especially the Gospels. I’ll present the following measures by which we can make a determination of the reliability of the text:
1. The age and number of the available manuscripts
2. The amount of time between the original writing and the earliest known manuscripts.
3. The number and type of differences between available manuscripts
4. Citations or quotations of the NT from other early writers
While none of these alone may provide definitive evidence of the reliability of the text, I believe that the cumulative evidence is more than sufficient to give us reasonable proof that what we have is an accurate text.
FIRST and SECOND- The age and number of the available manuscripts, and the time gap between the available texts and the originals.
We have manuscripts of part of the Gospel of John that dates to within 30 years of the original, many NT manuscripts that are less than 200 years removed from the originals, and none with a time gap of more than 400 years. You will notice that the time gap is very short compared to other writings of the same period, as shown in the chart. Also notice that there are over 5000 early manuscripts of the NT., compared to less than 10% of that for the other authors of that time.
It makes the blatant bias of the critics of the NT clear when they call into question the reliability of the text because of the time gap when many of those same critics accept without question the writings of other ancient writers with much less documentation.
THIRD – the number and type of differences between the available manuscripts.
Estimates of the total number of variations in the extant NT manuscripts vary from 30,00 to 400,00. If you think that 400,00 is a LOT of differences, you are right – there are only 138,162 words in the entire NT in the original Greek!
So how can there be that much discrepancy? Well, there really isn’t. Dr. Daniel Wallace of Dallas Theological Seminary says that 99% of the variations have no impact on the meaning of the text, being spelling or grammatical variations, many of which have no English equivalents. He also says that of the remaining 1%, NOT ONE has any bearing on ANY core Christian doctrine. He explains in the short video below:
Dr. James White, Director of Alpha and Omega Ministries, goes into detail in the hour and a half video below. The relevant portion of his talk begins at about the 13 minute mark. Beware – many of his jokes are even more lame than mine, but the information is fascinating.
4. Quotations from other early sources.
The leaders of the early church often quoted he New Testament, and we have many manuscripts from the 1st-4th century written by these church fathers that quote extensively from the NT. In A General Introduction to the Bible, Revised and Expanded (published by Moody Press in 1986), Dr. Norman Geisler says, “the patristic citations of Scripture are not primary witnesses to the text of the New Testament, but they do serve two very important secondary roles. First, they give overwhelming support to the existence of the twenty-seven authoritative books of the New Testament canon. It is true that their quotations were often loose, although in the case of some Fathers they were very accurate, but they do at least reproduce the substantial content of the original text. Second, the quotations are so numerous and widespread that if no manuscripts of the New Testament were extant, the New Testament could be reproduced from the writings of the early Fathers alone.”
There is NO OTHER ANCIENT TEXT that has anything close to this amount of contemporary quotation.
In summary, it is more than reasonable to state that we have available to us the the text of the original NT manuscripts to a very, very high degree. The next question to address is ‘How historically reliable is the NT narrative?’
The links below give even more information about the reliability of the NT texts.
This CARM article entitled “Manuscript Evidence for Superior New Testament Reliability” contains a chart similar to the one above, but with many more authors shown.
This article at Biblical Theology has a summary of textual, historical, and prophetic evidence for the reliability of Scripture. I include it in this list because of the really good bibliography at the end.
Alpha and Omega Ministries is directed by Dr. James White, and provides excellent apologetic resources
Josh McDowell has a website with a lot of his resources, and you can order New Evidence That Demands a Verdict directly from him. The original version of that book is what got me interested in apologetics.