The Manuscript Evidence for the New Testament Documents

At this point we need to consider the manuscript evidence for the New Testament (NT). In my last post, I briefly mentioned the historians who lived in the same century as Jesus. Some of these historians talk about Jesus in passing and some don’t. One point I should mention here is that it’s astonishing that anyone mentions Jesus at all, since most historians wrote about famous rulers and not Galilean peasants.

A second thing I did in my last post was examine the manuscript evidence for each relevant first century historian. This is important when considering ancient history because in the first century there were no printing presses, therefore people needed to copy documents by hand. So for example, Josephus wrote his documents within the first century. Someone after Josephus took his works and copied them word for word so that his works would spread. Then after that person, someone else came and copied them again, and so on. Today, the earliest copy we have for Josephus goes back to the 5th century (but this is a Latin manuscript) and we have a total 133 surviving copies. Historians take this information and compare the surviving copies to determine what Josephus actually said. I won’t go into all the details, but through a method known as textual criticism, we have more than enough information to get back to the original words of Josephus.

The reason I mention all this is to provide an overall context for understanding textual criticism as it relates to the NT manuscripts. Time and time again, I hear uninformed critics state that no one knows for sure what the NT authors even wrote. If we accept this criticism as true, then we must also say that no one knows for sure what any ancient historian before the second century wrote. And if that’s true, then 95% of what we know about ancient history is gone. We are left to reconstruct history only by relying upon artifacts found through archeological digs. Of course no professional historian thinks this would be a wise approach, so I won’t take the time defending the importance of written manuscript evidences.

So what manuscript evidence do we have for the NT? As of 2006, it has been recorded that we have 5,700+ Greek manuscripts, 10,000+ Latin manuscripts, and 1,000,000+ NT quotations from church fathers. This doesn’t include the Coptic, Syriac, Armenian, Gothic, Georgian, or Arabic versions. Daniel Wallace, professor of New Testament studies at Dallas Theological Seminary, calls this evidence “an embarrassment of riches”!

Furthermore, the earliest manuscript is a fragment that dates somewhere between AD 100-150. This fragment is known as Papyrus 52 or P52. The P52 fragment is about the size of my hand and contains a section of the Gospel of John. After this fragment, we have between 10-12 manuscripts (depending upon the precise dating) that date back before the forth century. Out of these 12 manuscripts, we have approximately 40% of the NT. By the forth century, we find an abundance of full NT manuscripts.

Based on the information above, I argue that a stronger case can be made for knowing the exact words of the NT authors than for any other ancient historian. This doesn’t mean that we know every single word penned by the NT authors, but it does mean that we have more copies to work with when it comes to the NT than any other historical documents.

In my next post I will consider Bart Ehrman’s criticism that there are more textual variants than words in the NT manuscripts. Scholars say that we have anywhere between 300,000 to 400,000 textual variants in the NT documents. This seems like a lot, especially when we consider that we only have approximately 138,000 words in the in the NT. Ehrman is telling the truth when he explains that there are at least twice as many variants as there are words, so we will need to confront this issue next time.