Text, Typos and Transmission: Why You Can Trust the New Testament

Rev. Mark Pierson

I remember when it first dawned on me that there might be “problems” with the New Testament. As I casually flipped through the red-lettered words of Jesus in my parents’ study Bible, something surprising caught my eye. There, in the Gospel of John, I noticed a particularly strange footnote. It said something like, “This part is not the same in all ancient manuscripts.” This struck me as rather odd and out of place. Why would a note like that be in the New Testament? Does this mean we don’t know the whole truth about Jesus? Can a book that contains typos really be God’s holy Word?

Not all of these questions were at the forefront of my mind that day, but years later they popped up. In fact, one of the most common misconceptions about the New Testament (NT) is that it has been copied, translated, and altered so many times that it no longer resembles what the original authors wrote. Thankfully, an apologist—a defender of the faith—explained to me why the NT is actually the most trustworthy collection of texts from the entire ancient world.

The Older the Better: The Earliest NT Manuscripts
Have you heard those radio ads telling you to back up your computer before it crashes and all your data is erased? Well, as far as we know, the original writings of the NT have been erased from existence. Copies were made, but since neither computers nor the printing press existed back then, everything was preserved by hand for centuries. So how do we know some drunken monks from the Middle Ages didn’t change the text? Maybe somewhere along the line people put words into the mouth of Jesus, having Him claim to be God, or that His death would pay for our sins, when He himself never said such things. Could it be that the text was tampered with and we just don’t know it? The answer is NO, for at least two reasons.

First, the oldest surviving parts of the NT date all the way back to the beginning of the second century. This may seem like it’s still not early enough, since Jesus and the apostles lived in the first century. But keep in mind that most of the NT was written in the latter half of that century, such that only a couple of decades separate the last living apostle from our earliest copies. (In fact, even as I write this article, scholars are claiming a new discovery—a portion of Mark’s Gospel from the first century. The official report will come out next year, but this new find could make any time gap completely negligible.) Second, since discovering the Dead Sea Scrolls we have learned that texts could be used for a hundred years before they wore out and disintegrated. This means our oldest copies of the NT were likely made when the originals were still being read in the churches. Thus, it is far-fetched to think significant changes crept into the NT so soon after the apostles died while their original writings remained in circulation. Plenty of people who knew the apostles firsthand lived into the second century and could have prevented this from happening.

Too Much of a Good Thing? The Number of NT Manuscripts
“Thou shalt commit adultery.” How’s that for a commandment? This is what one version of the Bible actually said, due to a printer’s error. But what if this was our only copy of the Ten Commandments? Or what if we only had one other copy, which said “Thou shalt not commit adultery?” The fewer the manuscripts, the harder it is to know what the text initially said. On the other hand, if there are lots of copies to compare with each other, reconstructing the original is much easier. So how many NT manuscripts are there, and how well do they match?

Currently, there are 5,700 NT manuscripts in ancient Koine Greek (its original language). Add to that all the early translations into other languages, as well as quotations made by early Christians, and we have around 25,000 sources for the NT text. In fact, if all Greek copies were permanently destroyed, almost the entire NT could be reconstructed from these other sources alone. Scholars have even admitted that they are embarrassed by such a large quantity of manuscripts. After comparing them, altogether 99 percent of the NT has been established with confidence.

Quantity vs. Quality: The Variants in the NT Manuscripts
Returning to that footnote from the Gospel of John, I later learned that it was called a “variant.” Variants occur whenever there is not a letter-for-letter or word-for-word match between copies. Such discrepancies are actually quite common in the NT—a fact which some skeptics have pounced on and made into a big deal. “There are more variants in the New Testament,” they’ll say dramatically, “than there are words in the New Testament!” This is true, but also entirely misleading. The reason for so many variants has to do with the vast number of copies, not with a vast number of errors in the text.

For example, this article contains over 1,000 words. If someone were to copy it by hand and make only one mistake, that copy would be 99.9 percent accurate. Then let’s say 2,000 people copied this article, with each of them making one mistake. This would create twice as many variants as words, but each copy would remain 99.9 percent accurate. So the real question is not how many variants there are, but how significant the variants are.

Almost all variants in the NT have absolutely no bearing on what the text means. The most common of these are spelling mistakes and changes in word order. (In Greek, you can speak like Yoda and still make perfect sense). So can you tell what this verse is saying? “God gave his only Son, for love the world so much he did that whosever beleives in him will have life etneral and perish not.” Though this is an exaggerated example of a variant, you probably had no trouble figuring out what it means (“typos” and all). And of those few variants where scholars remain divided on what the original text said, none of them brings into question anything Christians believe about Jesus. You could literally 
cut out each of these variants from your Bible and your understanding of Jesus would remain the same.

Putting it into Perspective
To realize how well preserved the NT is, it should be compared with other ancient manuscripts from about the same time. Three historians who lived in the first century, Josephus, Suetonius, and Tacitus, make for helpful examples here. The time gap between them and the oldest surviving copies of their works is 800 to 1,000 years. For the number of manuscripts, there are 133 of Josephus’ writings, 200 for Suetonius, and only three for Tacitus. Reconstruction of Suetonius’ text often rests on speculation, and too few copies of Tacitus remain for comparison. Josephus is the best preserved of these, but that is largely due to the efforts of Christian copyists. Professional historians accept these texts as generally reliable sources, and yet the NT clearly has much stronger credentials.

It is evident that the New Testament has been preserved with remarkable accuracy. There is simply no reason to think we cannot know what the original texts said. The Jesus we find in our modern Bibles is the same Jesus who once walked this earth, who has taken away the sins of the world, and who is present in the midst of His church for you today. The Word who became flesh among us for our salvation has preserved His Word in the pages of the Bible to make sure that salvation is delivered to you!

Rev. Mark Pierson is currently working toward a Ph.D. in New Testament studies. He also has a passion for evangelism and apologetics. You can email him at markapierson@gmail.com.