Have you ever heard anyone say: “You can’t trust the Bible because all we have are copies from hundreds of years after the events”? In response, I’d ask another question: “How does the reliability of existing copies of the New Testament stack up in comparison with other ancient documents?”
You may find the answer surprising: The transmission of the text from the original to present day is extremely well attested, better than any other ancient writing.
The New Testament was written about 2,000 years ago. We no longer have the originals. The printing press wasn’t invented by Gutenberg until the mid-1400s, so before that time, all books had to be hand-copied from an earlier one. People aren’t perfect, so of course, some errors occurred in the process.
Scholars have developed a system to judge the reliability of the existing copies, analyzing three different factors: The Bibliographic Test, Internal Evidence Test, and External Evidence Test.
The measure or way to judge the accuracy of the transmission of copies, is called the Bibliographic Test (biblio = book; graphic = writing), and has three parts:
1) The quantity of manuscripts of the New Testament is dramatically better than for any other ancient record.
A manuscript is a book or document written by hand, coming from the medieval Latin manus = hand and scribere = writing. The New Testament was written in Greek, which was the universal language of that time, sort of like English is now. The quantity of New Testament Greek manuscripts is fantastic – over 5,000 partial and complete Greek manuscripts, some of these date from the second or third centuries. In addition there are 19,238+ New Testament manuscripts of early translations into other languages
How does this compare to the Greek and Roman manuscripts of other ancient writers —
2) The quality of Biblical manuscripts is much superior. Due to the high number of New Testament manuscripts, textual criticism can determine the original reading in the vast majority of cases. It seems strange that having a huge number of manuscripts with numerous differences would make the quality MORE reliable, until you realize that we can compare where the various copies came from, trace how the error crept in, and determine the most likely original meaning. None of the variations are significant enough to affect our understanding of any major doctrine. Josh McDowell explains the situation this way:
“By far the most significant category of variants is spelling differences. The name John, for example, may be spelled with one n or with two. Clearly, a variation of this sort in no way jeopardizes the meaning of the test. Spelling differences account for roughly 75 percent of all variants. That’s between 225,000 and 3000,000 of all the variants! Another large category of variants consists of the synonyms used across manuscripts. For instance, some manuscripts may refer to Jesus by his proper name, while others may say “Lord” or “he.” Such differences hardly call the meaning of the test into question. When all variations are considered, roughly one percent involve the meaning of the text. But even that can be overstated. For instance, there is disagreement about whether 1 John 1:4 should be translated, “Thus we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete” or “Thus we are writing these things so that your joy may be made complete.” While this disagreement does involve the meaning of the passage, it in no way jeopardizes a central doctrine of the Christian faith. This is why the authors of Reinventing Jesus conclude, “The short answer to the question of what theological truth are at stake in these variants is – none.”” Josh McDowell, More Than A Carpenter (Tyndale House, 2009 re. ed.) p. 76-77.
3) Time Span. The early New Testament manuscripts date from the second and third centuries AD. The John Rylands Fragment of the Gospel of John dates to within a few decades after the gospel was written. Most of the copies date from less than 200 years after writing and some within 100 years. As seen from the above chart, the average gap for other ancient writings from this era is over 1000 years.