Is what we have now what they had then?
We don’t have the original New Testament manuscripts. We don’t have the copies of the originals. We don’t even have copies of the copies of the copies of the originals. Can we trust what we have today?
When thinking of the reliability of the manuscripts, we should avoid two attitudes:
- Total despair, that we can’t affirm Jesus’ deity, the resurrection, the virgin birth, etc
- Absolute certainty. Scholars don’t always agree on what the original text says, hence the marginal notes in modern translations.
1. How certain are we about the wording of the NT?
Not only do we not have the original NT manuscripts, but we also have between 6-10 differences per chapter for the closest manuscripts. Multiply that by all the chapters, and we have a problem. There are exactly 138,162 words in the Greek NT and about 400,000 textual variants. We have so many variants because we have so many manuscripts: over 5,700 in Greek (and counting) and over 10,000 in Latin. The earliest complete NT is from around 350 A.D.—the Codex Sinaiticus.
If we lost all the Greek and Latin copies, we have 10-15 thousand manuscripts in other languages (Syriac, Armenian, Old Church Slavonic, Georgian, Ethiopic, etc). And if we lost all those manuscripts, we’re not left without an NT, because of the patristic writers. The patristics quoted the 7,341 NT verses over a million times. We could reconstruct the entire NT, with the exception of a half-dozen verses, from the church fathers up to the fourth century. So even though we don’t have the original documents, we have a vast richness of documents.
Compare that with contemporary classic Greek and Roman historians:
- Livy ( 1st century): 27 copies, earliest is over 300 years after he wrote;
- Tacitus (1st century): 3 copies, earliest from the 9th century (800 years after he wrote)
- Suetonius (1st and 2nd century): over 200 copies, earliest from 8 centuries later
- Herodotus: 20 copies, earliest fragments from the 1st century
- Thucydides: 75 copies, earliest fragments from the 1st century
If we’re to be sceptical about what the NT text originally said, based on the manuscript evidence we should be 100 times as sceptical about what we know about history.
Combining all these historians, together they have fewer than 400 copies, with the earliest 300 years after the original. With the NT, we have over 5,700 manuscripts, the earliest fragment being 50 years within the time the NT was written. Additionally, we have 10-15 2nd century fragments of different portions of the NT .
The average classical author has fewer than 20 copies left today, which would form a stack 4 ft/ 1.2m tall. If you stacked up the copies of the NT, you’d have a pile over 1 mile/ 1.6km high.
In 1611 when the King James Version was published, it was translated from 6 Greek manuscripts, the earliest of which dated back to the 10th century. In 1881, a committee-revised translation, the Revised Version, came out. Then, scholars knew of about 2,000 manuscripts, the earliest of which went back to the 4th century. As time goes on, we’re getting closer to the original text. In 2006 when the NET Bible was published, scholars knew of 5,700 manuscripts, the earliest of which came from the 2nd century. The viewpoint that we’re getting further and further away from the original is faulty.
|Posts in this series|
|Part 1||Can we be sure of what the New Testament says?|
|Part 2||What kinds of textual variants are there?|
|Part 3||What is the manuscript evidence for the New Testament?|
|Part 4||What is at stake with the variants?|