The Textual Reliability of the New Testament
By: Dr. John Weldon
|By: Dr. John G. Weldon; ©2001|
|the uniquely large number of New Testament manuscripts and their comparative proximity to the time of writing establish the textual reliability of the New Testament, including a 99%-plus fidelity to the divinely inspired New Testament as originally written.
If you placed the manuscript copies of the average ancient author it would form a pile four feet high. However, the NT manuscripts and translations would reach a mile high. – Dr. Daniel Wallace, New Testament manuscript expert
- 1 The Textual Reliability of the New Testament
The Textual Reliability of the New Testament
The Bible always has been and always will be the most important, influential and essential book in the world because it is literally God’s own word to us. This is demonstrated by its many unique characteristics such as specifically fulfilled predictive prophecies given 400-1500 years in advance. These constitute often-detailed predictions of the future that only God could provide, as established by the facts of history (such as the accurate dating of individual biblical books and the literal fulfillment of the prophecies), plus the impartial use of probability theory.
The only thing more important than God’s word is God. In the Old Testament God Himself spoke openly and directly to his servant Moses on the mountaintop for 40 days, and in the Tabernacle at the place of atonement (Ex. 24:18; 34:28; Deut. 10:10; Num. 7:89). Imagine having God Himself speak directly to us. Yet this is just what God has done in His word, the Bible. Because of its unique authority, we neglect it to our loss. To be sure, there is probably no folly greater than to take the word of God lightly, yet millions do so.
Author and Christian apologist Dan Story once commented that, “All Christian truth-claims ultimately rest with the reliability of the Bible.” In other words, we can hardly argue that the history and teachings recorded by the Bible are accurate unless it is first established that the text itself has been recorded accurately over the centuries. Because everything related to the truth of the Christian religion is directly related to biblical authority, it is critical to definitively establish biblical textual accuracy. This is especially so given large number of regular attacks against biblical authority (and textual accuracy) by an increasing number of skeptics, including atheists, liberal theologians, humanists, Muslims and others.
To be sure, notwithstanding the critical importance of the Old Testament, it is in the New Testament in particular that we find what is most vital to us. This includes the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ; the truth that salvation is not something earned by our good works or personal merit, but is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone; Jesus’ atoning death for our sin on the cross of Calvary; and His bodily resurrection from the dead. This latter event is something that constitutes tangible proof of Jesus’ personal claims to be Messiah, Savior and God incarnate.
Together these facts of history prove the possibility of our inheriting eternal life as a free gift through God’s grace, if we will but trust Jesus Christ as our personal Lord and Savior for forgiveness of sins and eternal life (John 3:16; 5:24; 6:47; 1 John 5:13). That’s why the textual reliability and authority of the New Testament is one of the most important subjects for every person on earth.
Although New Testament reliability is sufficiently well established that it would stand cross-examination in a modern law court (as would Christ’s bodily resurrection from the dead), our concern here is with specifically documenting the dependability of the New Testament through its textual transmission. Given the established credibility of the New Testament writers as e.g., eyewitnesses of the events recorded, through archaeology and other means, this would prove that what the New Testament records Jesus as saying and doing He really said and did. This simple fact gives us only two ultimate options concerning the Person of Jesus Christ: God incarnate or utterly mad. And virtually no one believes Jesus was utterly mad.
Manuscripts Numbers and Transmission: Unique in the World?
Despite being almost 2,000 years old (written ca. 45-90 A.D.), with thousands of Greek manuscripts and other translations in existence, the text of the New Testament today remains essentially unchanged. As of 2014, there are 5,840 Greek manuscripts and portions. In addition, the New Testament was copied in different languages (Latin, Ethiopian, Slavic, Armenian, Syriac, etc.) and these copies total over 19,000 additional manuscripts. In other words, today, in total, we have over 25,000 complete or partial New Testament manuscripts.
Given the uniquely large number of manuscripts, the relatively short length of time involved in many cases from composition to manuscript, and the ravages of history, this is something unparalleled – true for no other ancient book in the world, religious or secular.
To illustrate, this is particularly true for the Scriptures of other world religions such as Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism and Daoism. In contrast with the Bible, their sacred Scriptures cannot be considered textually trustworthy. The manuscript evidence is too sparse, too far from the original, and/or too contradictory to retain reliability or authority. As a result, contrary to the apologetic arguments given for the truth of these religions, they do not possess an alleged divine revelation that is established as both historically/textually accurate and objectively knowable. In essence they lack an authoritative teaching, because it is impossible to determine what the teachings of the original purported revelation were in the first place.
Comparable ancient secular manuscripts, with the exception of the Iliad, generally total in the single digits to scores, occasionally hundreds. One of the nation’s top experts on New Testament manuscripts is Dr. Daniel Wallace. As noted by our introductory citation, he has illustrated the gap between the New Testament manuscripts and other ancient secular manuscripts by noting that “If you placed the manuscript copies of the average ancient author it would form a pile four feet high. However, the NT manuscripts and translations would reach a mile high! In other words, numerically, the manuscript attestation for the New Testament is over a thousand times greater compared to the average ancient author.
Since historians and classical scholars do not doubt the essential authenticity of ancient secular authors based on a mere handful of manuscripts (sometimes only one), how could they possibly doubt the authenticity of the New Testament with 24,000 manuscripts that reach a mile high? It’s not reasonably possible. In addition it is the very largess of the manuscript evidence that provides the authoritative means for ascertaining the original. As Drs. Geisler and Nix conclude, “… the abundance of manuscript copies makes it possible to reconstruct the original with virtually complete accuracy.”
The Time Gap
Further, the time gap between the originals and the surviving manuscripts for the ancient classical works is generally at least 700 years. But this often extends into the Middle Ages or late Middle Ages, even 1,000 years to as much as 1,500 years or more after the originals were first written, as for Plato, Aristotle and others.
In stark contrast, with the New Testament manuscripts, the time gap is greatly condensed. The earliest complete New Testaments – e.g., Codex Vaticanus and Codex Sinaiticus (the latter containing half the Old Testament) are dated 325-350 A.D., about 250 years after the originals. Codex Alexandrinus is dated about 50 years later. The Chester Beatty and Bodmer Papyri include most of the New Testament, dating only some 100-175 years after the New Testament. The earliest fragment of the New Testament dates from 115-38 A.D. or earlier (i.e., the John Rylands Papyri) while others date from A.D. 250-200 or earlier. These numbers close in on the time gap of several decades after the originals were first penned. All this is historical, textual proof of the manuscript uniqueness of the New Testament.
In fact, it’s at least possible we may have some manuscripts or portions from the first century itself. Although modern scholarship generally believes no first century manuscript or portion has yet been found, there are valid reasons to at least question the absolute nature of this conclusion. The fact that textual critics and their discipline have various presuppositions (ranging from liberal to conservative), methodologies and controversies, just like biblical critics generally, or that manuscript dating has its own unique set of problems, indicates scholarly consensus may not always be correct (even as in the discipline of science today with its generally accepted but impossible theory of evolution.) And regardless, it’s just possible that reliable evidence of a first century manuscript will be published in the next few months.
The Testimony of the Fathers
But there is another important point. Dr. Wallace estimates there are about one million additional New Testament citations in all the Church Fathers (some 43% of them before 250 A.D.). Despite their use of some loose translations, the New Testament could essentially be reconstructed from these alone. Dr. Bruce M. Metzger (d. 2007) was a world-class authority on biblical textual criticism and author of the first three editions of The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption and Restoration (Oxford). He observes, “Indeed, so extensive are these citations that if all other sources for our knowledge of the text of the New Testament were destroyed, they would be sufficient alone for the reconstruction of practically the entire New Testament.” This conclusion is shared by other scholars.
Stability of the Text
The massive New Testament textual tradition has a unique feature (one of many), i.e., the New Testament readings and text types tend not to change over time but exhibit an unexpectedly high degree of stubbornness and tenacity. This argues strongly for both the transmission accuracy and the stability of the text overall, something I personally believe was divinely superintended, just as for the Old Testament manuscript tradition. In other words, as New Testament manuscripts were copied by the thousands and sent throughout the world, the fact of their resulting stability indicates extreme care in copying and helps us get as close to the originals as possible.
As noted elsewhere, Kurt and Barbara Aland are among the world’s leading authorities in textual criticism, although they come from the old German school infected with the destructive skepticism of higher biblical criticism. The central purpose of their German Institute for New Testament Textual Research (INTF) is “[T]o research the textual history of the New Testament and to reconstruct its Greek initial text on the basis of the entire manuscript tradition [and] the early translations and patristic citations.” In other words, they are not just looking at the 5,840 Greek manuscripts, but most of the 19,000 translations and perhaps up to one million citations of the church fathers as well. Their Novum Testamentum Graecum Editio Critica Maior constitutes a massive 70-year project that is well on its way, having begun in 1958. Still, the project will not be complete until as late as 2030. In 2007 it came under the leadership of the State Academy. The North Rhine-Westphalian Academy of Sciences and Arts, an association of leading researchers, accepted the massive undertaking as one of its 20 major scientific projects, reporting proudly that: “For the first time in the history of science [it has been made] possible that all of the available manuscript material as well as a very large number of handwritten citations [of e.g. early] Christian writers and the old translations of the texts, especially in Latin, Coptic and Syriac [could be used] and evaluate[d] in the reconstruction of the original text.”
The fact that the Alands were selected for major involvement in this unparalleled project is an indication of both their textual expertise and the high regard in which they are held in New Testament textual studies.
In their vast studies of the manuscripts they point out “one of the characteristics of the New Testament textual tradition is tenacity, i.e., the stubborn resistance of readings and text types to change…. This is what makes it possible to retrace the original text of the New Testament through a broad range of witnesses.” And, “The transmission of the New Testament textual tradition is characterized by an extremely impressive degree of tenacity. Once the reading occurs it will persist with obstinancy…. It is precisely the overwhelming mass of the New Testament textual tradition which provides an assurance of certainty in establishing the original text.”
Dr. Daniel B. Wallace makes a similar point specifically with the papyri:
As with all the previously published New Testament papyri (127 of them, published in the last 116 years), not a single new reading has commended itself as authentic. Instead, the papyri function to confirm what New Testament scholars have already thought was the original wording or, in some cases, to confirm an alternate reading—but one that is already found in the manuscripts…. In other words, the papyri have confirmed various readings as authentic in the past 116 years, but have not introduced new authentic readings. The original New Testament text is found somewhere in the manuscripts that have been known for quite some time. These new papyri will no doubt continue that trend.
This tenacity and stability of the papyri relative to the original text is also acknowledged in a recent mainline scholarly text published by Oxford University:
Over two decades ago [biblical literature expert Eldon Jay] Epp noted that the early papyri “contribute virtually no new substantial variants” to the collection of variants already known from the later tradition. Even with the discovery of many more papyri the situation has not changed. Thus, it is not uncommon for experts to observe that, in spite of the mounting evidence from the early period, the critical editions of the NT have changed relatively little since the work of Wescott and Hort (in the 1800s).
Another point bears mentioning. The two primary editions of the Greek New Testament are the Nestle-Aland and the United Bible Society. They are widely used in American colleges, universities, Bible schools and seminaries and also by biblical and Greek scholars of liberal to conservative persuasion. Such widespread usage in itself would seem to tell us something: apart from scholars whose rationalistic or other bias requires a different conclusion that is not based upon a fair reading of the manuscript evidence, the essential validity of the Greek New Testament text seems to be generally conceded by the prevalent use of these standard critical editions of the Greek text.
Estimates of New Testament textual accuracy may vary slightly based on certain factors. However there seems to be a consensus among many conservative scholars as to the high degree of accuracy enjoyed by the New Testament when it comes to textual reliability.
Noted Christian apologist and philosopher Dr. Norman Geisler summarizes some of the statements given over the years by important New Testament textual researchers: “… Greek expert Ezra Abbott said about 19/20 (95 percent) of the readings are “various” rather than “rival” readings, and about 19/20 (95 percent) of the rest make no appreciable difference in the sense of the passage. Thus the text is 99.75 percent accurate. Noted NT Greek scholar A. T. Robertson said the real concern is with about a “thousandth part of the entire text.” So, the reconstructed text of the New Testament is 99.9% free from real concern. Philip Schaff estimated that of the thousands of variations in all the manuscripts known in his day, only 50 were of real significance and of these not one affected ‘an article of faith.’”
Judaic scholar, archaeologist and linguist Dr. Randall Price concluded: “The New Testament manuscripts agree in 99.5% of the text, a greater percentage by far than for any other ancient literary work.” Further, “Recall that we have all of the variants that make up the Original Bible somewhere in our vast number of manuscripts, and that textual criticism has so far been able to bring our state of the text very close to the wording of the original…. By comparison with secular literature, we have in the Bible, hands down, the best and most complete text in all of human history. That cannot be by random chance!” Indeed.
Textual authorities Wescott and Hort observed that, “The amount of what can in any sense be called substantial variation, is but a small fraction of the whole residuary variation, and can hardly form more than a thousandth part of the entire text.” In other words, the text is 99.99% pure.
The late Bible scholar John Wenham believed the overall biblical text was 99.99 percent pure. Dr. Gary Habermas echoes Wenham in describing describes the text of the New Testament as “incredibly accurate…99.99 percent accurate….”
All this is why Dr. F.F. Bruce, former Rylands Professor of Biblical Criticism and Exegesis at the University of Manchester, asserted of the New Testament: “There is no body of ancient literature in the world which enjoys such a wealth of good textual attestation as the New Testament.” Professor Bruce further comments, “The evidence for our New Testament writings is ever so much greater than the [best] evidence for many writings of classical writers, the authenticity of which no one dreams of questioning. And if the New Testament were a collection of secular writings, their authenticity would generally be regarded as beyond all doubt.”
Further, Dr. Rene Pache (Doctorate of Law, Lausane University) remarks of the great Princeton scholar B.B. Warfield who held four doctorates in theology, that he “goes on to say that the great bulk of the New Testament has been transmitted to us without, or almost without, any variations. It can be asserted with confidence that the sacred text is exact and valid and that no article of faith and no moral precept in it has been distorted or lost.”
In essence, the evidence for the reliability of the New Testament text so compelling that many critical biblical scholars no longer bother to question it. To do so is to throw everything we know of ancient history and they’re not quite willing to do that.
For the most part it’s only those who are rationalistic skeptical theologians, atheists and other skeptics who continue to reject New Testament textual accuracy. Even liberal and critical New Testament scholar Bishop John A.T. Robinson concluded: “The wealth of manuscripts, and above all the narrow interval of time between the writing and the earliest extant copies, make it by far the best attested text of any ancient writing in the world.”
In sum, the manuscript evidence provides us with a unique 99%-plus original (autographic) New Testament.
No other document of the ancient period is as accurately preserved as the Bible.
Still, some people wonder why we don’t possess the actual original, divinely inspired manuscripts of the New Testament.
Good Reasons We Don’t Possess the Originals
There are good reasons (in fact, providential ones) that we do not retain the originally inspired New Testament documents. Here are a number of them relayed by Dr. Randall Price, to which I have made some additional comments.
First, we already possess 100% of the originals in the manuscripts – so, ultimately, how necessary would it be to process the inspired writings? (See below.)
Second, after 2,000 years, how could we be 100% certain the original wasn’t a copy?
Third, God is sovereign over all things, including manuscript transmission. The logical conclusion is that God determined that preserving the originals was not necessary and that it was not His will to do so.
Fourth, if we had the originals, there would be much less labor over the Scriptures – to our detriment (e.g., textual criticism impacts not only the text but hermeneutics and exegesis as well).
Fifth, given human nature, the originals could easily have become venerated or even worshiped, an end in themselves. To illustrate, consider the Isaiah Dead Sea Scroll in Jerusalem. Important as it is, it’s still a copy of the original divinely inspired manuscript of Isaiah. Yet it is kept from public view under 24-hour armed guard (a copy of the copy is put on public display). Or, consider the Sabbath day in rabbinic Judaism. The Sabbath was created to bless men but it had become their curse, enslaving them, even being interpreted as a bride and queen. By the time of Jesus, the Sabbath rest had become, in the words of Edersheim, “an unbearable burden, by endless injunctions of what constituted work and of that which was supposed to produce joy, thereby utterly changing its sacred character.” Appendix 17 of Edersheim’s classic work, Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah goes into the truly appalling details. One cannot help wonder if the original manuscripts would have become an end in themselves, e.g., with millions of yearly visitors attending to the manuscripts but not their meaning.
Sixth, the originals would neither reduce the differences in interpretation of the Bible among Christians, nor increase our faith. Interpretive differences rarely have to do with textual criticism, but instead with matters of tradition, denominations, interpretation or skepticism (i.e., higher critical influences). Also, consider that throughout the majority of Christian history, no one had actually ever possessed a New Testament except church authorities; its teachings were only known through the church pastors or priests who had manuscript copies. It wasn’t until the invention of the printing press in the 16th century that Bibles could begin to be made in large numbers. Regardless, look at the growth of the Church throughout 20 centuries – God’s plan for the Church has succeeded, even though most Christians never had a Bible.
Seventh, throughout the vast majority of Church history (as it was in Old Testament times), copies of the inspired Scriptures would have been required anyway if the word of God was to go into other nations and cultures. And, at least until there were sufficient printing presses, these copies would have had variations among them.
Eighth, copies would also have been required because even the original divinely inspired manuscripts would have increasingly decayed and been destroyed over time.
Ninth, as Jewish history shows, the copies were regarded as being the same as the originals because they were so carefully replicated and preserved. In the same way, Christians can regard their Bible as the same as the original.
Tenth, the copies might actually have been easier to read than the originals.
Eleventh, even the originals would never have prevented the need for hundreds and hundreds of different translations into other languages or the inherent difficulties that result from the translation process. Due to the Tower of Babel confusion of languages, the fact that no translated copy can ever exactly reproduce the accuracy of the original must be considered the will of God.
Not a Word Lost?
Given the extremely large number of manuscripts and the care of transmission, the odds that even a single word of the original has been lost are enormously improbable, although obviously this can’t be absolutely proved textually since we don’t have the originals. What about all the variations among the manuscripts?
It should be mentioned that the total number of variations among the manuscripts is quite large, a fact typically emphasized by critics, something like 300,000-400,000. The vast majority of these deal with minor misspellings and common errors easily correctable through textual analysis and so they affect nothing. Even the small numbers of what can be termed significant variants are not important for any matter of Christian doctrine or practice. Besides, these numbers are hardly surprising given the number of manuscripts and centuries involved. For example, if there were 20 variations in each of the 5,800 Greek New Testament manuscripts we now possess it would be almost 120,000 variants.
The bottom line is that nothing of the originally inspired New Testament text is missing from our manuscript evidence because the extremely small minority of uncertain readings still remains among the textual variations. In other words, absent the original writings, but given the very large number of manuscripts the original is still somewhere to be found in the variants which can be accessed in a good critical edition of the New Testament. In his book on New Testament textual criticism, David Alan Black concludes “The sheer number of witnesses to the text of the New Testament makes it virtually certain that the original text has been preserved somewhere among the extant (existing) witnesses.” J. K. Elliott and Ian Moir write in their book on New Testament manuscripts that, “recent scholarly attempts to edit the New Testament text is done with the confidence that the original text is there to be discovered in the manuscripts.”
Again, none of the variations affect any Christian doctrine or practice. Why? Because in the miniscule number of cases where they may impinge upon them, the doctrine stands supported by the weight of other New Testament passages. Thus, it is a fact that the manuscript variations never deny or overturn a Christian doctrine or practice.
One of the leading New Testament textual scholars in America, Dr. Daniel Wallace observes, “Ninety-nine percent of the variants make virtually no difference at all…” Or, as two other noted biblical scholars observe: “Although these ‘unresolved’ variants are quite rare, they are the only legitimate places where the New Testament text is genuinely in question…” Regardless, “All the teaching of the New Testament… [is] left unaffected by the remaining unresolved textual variations.… It [the manuscript tradition] is so very close to the originals that there is no material difference between what, say, Paul or John wrote and what we possess today.”
Renowned textual critic Dr. Bruce M. Metzger of Princeton Theological Seminary, one of the most influential New Testament scholars of the 20th century, observed the following in an interview with former atheist Chicago Tribune legal editor turned Christian apologist Lee Strobel: “The more significant variations do not overthrow any doctrine of the church. Any good Bible will have notes that will alert the reader to variant readings of any consequence. But again, these are rare.” “Then Strobel started to ask, again, if scholarship has diluted Metzger’s faith. He jumped in before I [Strobel] could finish my sentence. ‘On the contrary,’ [Metzger] stressed, ‘it has built it. I’ve asked questions all my life. I’ve dug into the text, I’ve studied this thoroughly, and today I know with confidence that my trust in Jesus has been well placed.’… Then he added, for emphasis, ‘Very well placed.’”
To demonstrate further, of the 138,020 words in the New Testament, only 400 words are in some degree of doubt – that’s about 1 word in 1,000 words. In such cases, textual critics continue to work hard to ascertain the original. Put another way, of 20,000 lines of the New Testament, only 40 are in doubt. To argue that these few remaining differences in our textual tradition have any relevance at all is like arguing Noah never needed the ark for the worldwide Flood.
The secular and religious critics who claim the New Testament is unreliable because the text has been corrupted have, regrettably, either been misinformed or have allowed unjustified or hostile assumptions to color their interpretations of the data (whether of materialism, humanism, rationalism, anti-supernaturalism, etc.). It is they who should not be trusted rather than the Bible. For example, the highly influential and hyper-skeptical New Testament textual critic Bart Ehrman wrote The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, a scholarly work that he utilized for his very popular if highly misleading Misquoting Jesus. Critical treatments of his work show that his conclusions are without foundation.
It is perhaps fitting to conclude this article with the words of Sir Frederic Kenyon G.B.E., K.C.B., D.Litt., LL.D., F.B.A., F.S.A. First, a little bit about Dr. Kenyon: He was a well-known paleographer and biblical and classical scholar who studied the Bible his entire life. Even after retirement he continued to analyze and publish ancient papyri. A Fellow at Oxford University, he was Director and Principal Librarian of the British Museum, where he was also Assistant in the Department of Manuscripts. He was the President of four scholarly societies: the British Academy, the Hellenic Society, the British School of Archaeology in Jerusalem and the Victoria Institute. He published three books on biblical textual criticism; four others on the Bible, including one on biblical archaeology; two on Greek paleography, plus many others indicative of his depth of learning, including books on the British Academy, literary criticism, classical texts from papyri in the British Museum, Aristotle on the Athenian Constitution, the life and letters of Robert Browning, education, the Codex Alexandrinus, and the Chester Beatty biblical papyri.
At the Jubilee Dinner of the Society for Old Testament Study in January 1950, he exhorted members “with no little moral fervor to do all in their power to restore a reasonable and intelligent faith in the trustworthiness of the Holy Scripture by making the reassuring results of modern biblical study as widely known as possible.” One hundred and twenty years ago he well summarized the situation, a conclusion even better supported, if possible, today: “The number of manuscripts of the New Testament, of early translations from it, and of quotations from it in the oldest writers of the Church, is so large that it is practically certain that the true reading of every doubtful passage is preserved in some one or another of these ancient authorities. This can be said of no other ancient book in the world.” As a result: “[The uncertain] passages are an infinitesimal portion of the whole and may be disregarded. The Christian can take the whole Bible in his hand and say without fear or hesitation that he holds in it the true word of God, faithfully handed down from generation to generation throughout the centuries.”
In other words, we can trust every word of the New Testament – and this is precisely what we should do. We should do this first and foremost because it is the word of God. But if not for this reason, then for no other reason than that the textual, archaeological, prophetic, legal and other historical data requires it.
Incidentally, the same should be true for the Old Testament. (For documentation of the textual, archaeological and other reliability of the Old Testament – of which there are about 3,000 Masoretic text manuscripts and 200 Dead Sea scroll manuscripts, among others – see the authoritative works by the following distinguished scholars: Kenneth A. Kitchen, On the Reliability of the Old Testament; Walter C. Kaiser Jr., The Old Testament Documents: Are They Reliable & Relevant?; Gleason Archer, A Survey of Old Testament Introduction and Robert Dick Wilson, A Scientific Investigation of the Old Testament.)