Can’t Touch This – Part 3

The recto of Rylands Library Papyrus P52 from ...

The recto of Rylands Library Papyrus P52 from the Gospel of John. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Tests for the Reliability of New Testament Texts

There are two primary ways to measure how reliable an ancient manuscript is, these are called bibliographic tests. The first test is the quantity of ancient manuscripts and manuscript fragments in existence. The second is their age relative to the original date of authorship. The New Testament is in a class of its own in both of these tests. There are far more, and far older, manuscripts of the New Testament than any other ancient document. To put it another way, the New Testament is the most bibliographically reliable ancient book in existence.

Manuscript and Manuscript Fragment Quantity

The first test is manuscript quantity. There are thousands of ancient copies of the New Testament. A.T. Robertson, who taught at The Southern Baptist Seminary in the 19th century, wrote that “there are some 8,000 manuscripts of the Latin Vulgate and at least 1,000 for the other early versions. Add over 4,000 Greek manuscripts and we have 13,000 manuscript copies of portions of the New Testament.”[1] Bruce Metzger, who taught at Princeton Theological Seminary, wrote that there are more than 5,000 Greek manuscripts.[2] This puts the New Testament manuscript and manuscript fragment count at 14,000+. This puts the New Testament in first place. In second place is the Iliad by Homer with 643 ancient manuscripts and manuscript fragments.[3]

There is also a difference in how well the New Testament has been preserved as compared to the Iliad. There are occasional discrepancies, called textual variants, from one manuscript to the next. This means that some manuscripts may have slightly different wording from others, or add or omit small portions of books. However, once they are all added up, the textual variants account for one half of 1 percent of all ancient New Testament manuscripts. All ancient documents have textual variants and the New Testament has the fewest.  For example, 5 percent of the text of the Iliad is in question.[4]

Even the textual variants in New Testament manuscripts do not concern most scholars. There is no question that over 99 percent of the words of the Bible have remained unchanged. In dealing with textual variants, usually the oldest or most common wording among them is correct.  In the more difficult to determine cases, the context usually makes it clear. In any case, textual variants have caused scholars to study the manuscripts very carefully. This has given them more confidence in the reliability of the Bible than before.[5] Finally, according to Craig Blomberg of Denver Seminary, “no Christian doctrine or ethic depends solely on one of the doubted texts.”[6]


[1] Josh McDowell, Evidence that demands a verdict (San Bernardino, 1972), 46.

[2] McDowell, 47.

[3] McDowell, 51.

[4] McDowell, 51.

[5] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, 1994), 96.

[6] “A Closer Look: The Historical Reliability of the New Testament,” Ed Stetzer – A LifeWay Research blog, http://www.edstetzer.com/2012/02/a-closer-look-the-historical-r.html (accessed February 15, 2012).

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One response to “Can’t Touch This – Part 3

  1. Pingback: agapè: the true meaning of love « Word and sentence

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