The Accuracy of the New Testament Manuscripts



The New Testament is more accurately copied than any other book from ancient history. Professor Bruce Metzger of Princeton conducted a research project comparing the accuracy of the copies of the New Testament to other ancient works. He concluded that the Hindu Mahabharata "was copied with about 90 percent accuracy and Homer's Iliad with 95 percent accuracy."1 This is a more than sufficient degree of accuracy to convey the essential teaching of the originals.


By contrast, scholars have estimated that the New Testament was copied with up to 99 percent, or even greater, accuracy. Nineteenth-century British manuscript experts Westcott and Hort estimated that only about one-sixteenth of the variants rise above "trivialities," which would make copies 98.33 per cent accurate.2 Ezra Abbots figures yield an estimate that the text is 99.75 percent pure.3 The great New Testament Greek scholar A.T. Robertson declared that "the real concern is with a "thousandth part of the entire text." That statement would translate to 99.9 percent accuracy on anything of real concern.4


What is more, even Bart Ehrman, the renowned New Testament scholar who argues against the rehability of the New Testament, admits that the manuscript variants do not affect the central message of the New Testament:


It would be a mistake... to assume that the only changes being made were by copyist with a personal stake in the wording of the text. In fact, most of the changes found in our early Christian manuscripts have nothing to do with theology or ideology.5


Misleading Statistics


In view of the foregoing evidence, particularly that in the previous chapter, one can see how misleading statistics from critics such as Bart Ehrman really are. To speak of 200,000 to 400,000 errors in the Bible is completely misleading. First of all, most of the differences are not errors, but simply variant readings. Second, these variants do not represent 200,000 plus places in the Bible. Rather, if one word is misspelled in 3,000 manuscripts, this is counted as 3,000 errors. By this same type of calculation, it has been shown that Ehrman has 1.6 million errors in the first edition of his own book. Mariano Grinbank discovered 16 errors in Ehrman's book Misquoting Jesus.6 Since the first edition is reported to have sold 100,000 copies in its first three months, this would mean (the way Ehrman counts errors in the Bible manuscripts) that there are 1.6 million errors in Ehrman's book! Yet no reasonable person would argue that because of this we cannot trust the copies to convey Ehrman's original thoughts on the matter.


Actually, the more so-called errors (really, variants) there are, the more certain we are of the original. For example, if one received a message like this, one would have no problem collecting the money:


Y#U HAVE WON 10 MILLION DOLLARS

Why? Because, even with the error, 100 percent of the message comes through. And if one received a message like this it would remove all doubt:


Y#U HAVE WON 10 MILLION DOLLARS

YO# HAVE WON 10 MILLION DOLLARS

And the more lines we have (with errors in a different spot), the more we would be sure of the message.


Ehrman also makes an issue over the so-called biases of the manuscript copiers. Yet, as it turns out, their bias does not affect the basic message of the Bible. 


Consider the following illustration:


1. YOU HAVE WON TEN MILLION DOLLARS


2. THOU HAST WONTEN MILLION DOLLARS

[Notice the King James bias here]


3. Y'ALL HAVEWON $10,000,000

[Notice the Southern bias here]


Observe that of the 28 letters in line 2, only 5 of them [in bold] are the same in line 3. That is, about 19 percent of the letters are the same. Yet, despite the bias, the message is 100 percent identical! The lines are different in form but not in content. Likewise, even with the many differences in the New Testament variants, 100 percent of the message comes through. In the light of all the above evidence, it is fair to say that the New Testament is the most accurately copied book from the ancient world. For it survives in more copies, earlier copies, and more reliable copies than any other work from antiquity by comparison with other classic works from the ancient world, most of which survive on only 10 to 20 manuscripts. Compare the evidence in the following chart:


Author

Ancient title

Date of original

Date of

earliest manuscript

Time gap from original

Manuscript copies extant

Plato

Dialogues

4th century BC

AD 900

c. 1,250 years

20

Homer

Iliad

9th century BC

400 BC

c.500 years

643

Herodotus

The Histories

484 to 425 BC

AD 900

c. 1,350 years

  8

Aristotle

Assorted works

4th century BC

AD 1100

c. 1,400 years

5

Thucydides

History of the Peloponnesian Wars

460 to 400 BC

AD 900

0,1,300

years

                           8

Aristophanes

Assorted works

448 to 385 BC

AD 900

c. 1,300 years

10

Sophocles

Assorted works

496 to 406? BC

AD 1000

c. 1,400 years

193

Julius Caesar

The Gallic Wars

58 to 44 BC

AD90O

c.950 years

10

Tacitus

Annals  of Imperial Rome

AD 58 to 120

AD 1100

c. 1,000 years

20

Pliny the Younger

History of Rome

AD 62 to 113

AD 850

c.750 years

7

Suetonius

The Twelve Caesars

AD 70 to 140?

AD 950

c.900 years

8



Total manuscripts for ancient sources

932

Greek NewTestament manuscripts

AD 45 to 100

AD  117 to 325

30 to 300 years

5,800-pIus

Non-Greek NewTestament




19,200-plus

manuscripts








Total New Testament manuscripts

25,000-plus


Chart adapted from Norman Geisler, General Introduction to the Bible (Chicago: Moody Press, 1986), 408, by H. Wayne House and Joseph M. Holden, Charts of Apologetics and Christian Evidences (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing, 2006), chart 43. Used by permission of Zondervan.



Conclusion


In the light of all the available evidence, we can agree with, the great Greek manuscript expert Sir Frederic Kenyon, who declared:


The interval then between the dates of original composition and the earliest extant evidence becomes so small as to be in fact negligible, and the last foundation for any doubt that the Scriptures have come down to us substantially as they were written has now been removed. [Thus] both the authenticity and the general integrity of the books of the New Testament may be regarded as finally established.7


In short, we can trust the Bible in our hands as an accurate copy of the original in all essentials. As the famous scholar Philip Schaff noted of the variant readings known in his day, only 50 were of real significance, and there is no "article of faith or a precept of duty which is not abundantly sustained by other and undoubted passages, or by the whole tenor of Scripture teaching. "8


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