Is the New Testament reliable?

This podcast is the backstory behind today’s blog post:

How can we trust the Bible when we don’t have the original copies??

We can work from what we do we have: Manuscript copies (MSS)

In order to do so…

We must examine two things to answer this…

  1. How reliable are the copies that we do have?
  2. What is the interval of time between the originals and the existing copies (extant)

Let’s first examine the RELIABILITY…

There are four elements that can show us whether an ancient writing is reliable or not:

  1. Antiquity (how old are the manuscripts we are dealing with?)
  2. Multiplicity (how many manuscripts do we have to deal with?)
  3. Trustworthy methods (What do we do with the manuscripts?)
  4. Quality and Quantity of the variants (judging the differences between the manuscripts)

Let me explain each of these four…

1) Antiquity

The New Testament has manuscripts that are very old. For example…

  • The oldest extant manuscript that we have is P52 (John Rylands Manuscript, which is a papyrus fragment measuring only 2.5 by 3.5 inches and containing only a few verses from the Gospel of John (18.31-3, 37-8). It is dated to 125 A.D. [1]
  • The oldest extant manuscript we have of the entire New Testament is Codex Sinaiticus which also contains portions of the Old Testament. This MSS is from the fourth century. [2]


Well, to give you and idea of how good this is, let’s compare the antiquity of the New Testament to the antiquity of some other ancient classical literature:

‘If someone were to claim that we can’t have confidence in the original content of the Gospels because the existing manuscripts are far too removed from the autographs, then that person would also have to cast doubt upon our knowledge of almost all ancient history and literature.’ [4]

Let’s look at the second element…

2) Multiplicity

There are 5,700 manuscripts of the Greek New Testament alone! If you count all the translations, there roughly 25,000 total!! So when Textual Critics (The scholars who research this kind of thing) are comparing copies to get an idea of what the original said, they aren’t just dealing with a handful to go with. They have thousands!

Compare this to some other Greek writings:

Let’s look at the third element…

3) Trustworthy scholarly methodology

The method being used in all of this is the science of textual criticism. The scholars involved in this science seek to recover what the original document actually said, with the greatest accuracy possible. And it’s not a guessing game…

‘Though there is certainly a measure of subjectivity in text criticism, it is by far the most objective discipline in New Testament studies. If you were to take two different teams of text critics and ask them to work independently on a critical edition of the Greek New Testament, they would agree more than 99 percent of the time’ [6] – Mark D. Roberts

Let’s look at the last element…

4) Quantity & Quality of variants

The truth is, there are a lot of variants (differences) to work with.

Some scholars have lost trust in the New Testament because of the amount of variants:

‘What can we say about the total number of variants known today? Scholars differ significantly in their estimates- some say there 200,000 variants known, some say 300,000, some say 400,000 or more! We do not know for sure because, despite impressive developments in computer technology, no one has yet been able to count them all. Perhaps, as I indicated earlier, it is best simply to leave the matter in comparative terms. There are more variations among manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament.” – Bart Ehrman [7]

But most conservative New Testament scholars are not shaken by this at all.

And neither should we be. Here are some reasons why…


Listen to F.F. Bruce on this subject: ‘if the great number of MSS increases the number of scribal errors, it increases proportionately the means of correcting such errors, so that the margin of doubt left in the process of recovering the exact original wording is not so large as might be feared; it is in truth remarkably small.’ 

For example, I found five manuscript copies of this sentence in my backyard:

  1. Jesus Christ Loves Joseph Smith
  2. Jesus Christ Loves Joseph Smiht
  3. Jesus Christ Love Joseph Smith
  4. Jesus Christ Loves Joe Smith
  5. Chris Jesus Joseph Smith

They seem to differ in several areas. In fact, if you only found the last manuscript (#5), you would think it was referring to four different people! But with five copies, we are then able to compare them to each other and accurately conclude that the original did indeed say: Jesus Christ Loves Joseph Smith.

Now… imagine the accuracy you would have with 5,700 Greek copies! (and many, many more translations).

One liberal textual critic remarks about the quantity of variants:
‘Most of these differences are completely immaterial and insignificant. A good portion of them simply show us that scribes in antiquity could spell no better than most people can do today’[8]


Take some of the most famous variants, for example…

  • Mark 16:8 (the ending)
  • John 7:53-8:11
  • John 5:3b-4

Most of these passages were not found in the earliest and best manuscripts that we have available to us. But even then, these aren’t verses that give us our founding doctrines of the faith. It’s not like we look to these verse to articulate the doctrine of justification, you know?

In addition to that, they can often be supported by other Scriptural references, and in some cases (e.g., John 7:53-8:11), are simply later insertions of true historical events.

It’s not like there are a bunch of unidentified variants floating around the Bible that we can’t find. They are carefully noted and documented in the margins of your own study Bible.

Those significant variants only make up less than 1% of the Bible. That means that the Bible you have in your hands is 99.5% accurate in what it says! And the other half of a percentage does not even change any doctrine that Christianity adheres to at all.

If anything, we should be impressed that over the course of thousands of years, the sovereign hand of God used idiots to write a Bible for him, and kept it preserved for us to this very day.

If you want a quick read on this subject, one of the best books I’ve read is by Mark D. Roberts, entitled, Can We Trust the New Testament Gospels? 

Works Cited
1~ Metzger, Bruce M., and Bart D Ehrman. The Text of the New Testament. 55.
2~ Metzger, Bruce M., and Bart D Ehrman. The Text of the New Testament. 62.
3~ Price, Randall. Searching for the Original Bible.
4~ Roberts, Mark D. Can We Trust the New Testament Gospels? 30-31.
5~ Roberts, Mark D. Can We Trust the New Testament Gospels?31.
6~ Metzger, Bruce M., and Bart D. Ehrman. The Text of the New Testament. 51.
7~ Ehrman, Bart D. Misquoting Jesus. 89-90.
8~ Ehrman, Bart D. Misquoting Jesus. 10-11.

About Lazo

Lazo is the pastor for preaching and vision at Reality SB. He is committed to spreading the value of our union with Christ in Santa Barbara, through the expository preaching of God's Word. You might like these blog posts, 5 Wrong Ways To Comfort Hurting People, or Daisy Love and the Magic Eraser. You can follow Chris on twitter at @LazoChris.

Posted on October 14, 2011, in erratic and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Is the New Testament reliable?.

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