By Dr. Rick Cornish
(”5 Minute Apologist”—2005)
The New Testament is a collection of twenty-seven documents written by Christ’s apostles and their friends 2,000 years ago. Their original writings, called autographs, no longer exist. Today we read copies of copies translated from Greek into English or other modern languages. But copyists make errors. How can we know that today’s versions accurately record what the authors wrote so long ago? When we read the New Testament, is it what God intended us to have.
Scholars use two tests to evaluate a document’s reliability. One is the number of ancient manuscripts that still exist. Do we have only 5 or 20 or 100 or 1000? The second test is the date of these manuscripts compared to the date of the original. Are they 100 years, 500 years, 1000 years after the original was written? The more copies we have and the closer in time they are to the original, the greater our ability to reconstruct what the original said. So let’s hold a competition among ancient writings.
Aristotle taught and wrote in the fourth century BC, but we have only five copies to study, and our earliest copy is from AD 1100. That’s fourteen centuries after his original. The Greek historian Herodotus wrote in the fifth century BC. But only eight copies exist today, the earliest dated AD 900, 1,300 years later. We have ten copies of Caesar’s Gallic War, written about 50 BC. But our earliest copy is also from AD 900, almost 1,000 years after he wrote.
These figures are typical for ancient writings. Investigative journalist Lee Strobel summarizes the evidence: “There is but the thinnest thread of manuscripts connecting these ancient works to the modern world.”
Our competitions two finalists are Homer’s Illiad and the New Testament.
The Illiad comes from about 800 BC, and earns second place with over 600 copies still existing. But the earliest of these is from the second century AD, a millennium after the original.
Our contest winner is the New Testament. It was written in the mid and late first century AD. We have 5,664 Greek manuscripts or partial manuscripts. If we include Latin and other ancient languages, the number rises to 24,000. Nearly complete Greek New Testaments exist from the fourth century, only 300 years after the original. Some fragments are dated within one century, one to a mere generation, after the original. No other ancient document comes close to the New Testament.
By examining so many manuscripts that close to the autographs, scholars can reconstruct the original New Testament with amazing precision. They can determine the exact wording to 99.5 percent accuracy, less than one word per page variation. The remaining differences are mostly spelling discrepancies and no doctrine is affected. The New Testament we read today is reliable and there for trustworthy. When we study it, we are learning what God intended.