Historians have roughly 25,000 manuscripts of New Testament books, far more than for any other book from ancient history. Compare that with 2000 copies of Homer’s Iliad, the second-best represented manuscript. Even more poorly represented are the works of Aristotle, Julius Caesar, Herodotus, and other great figures from ancient history, for which we have closer to a dozen manuscripts each.
We don’t conclude that our record of Gallic Wars by Julius Caesar is so unreliable that it can’t inform our understanding of the past. But if that’s the case, we must then accept the far-better attested New Testament story—or so the popular argument goes.
But that argument is flawed. More manuscripts at best increase our confidence that we have the original version, but that doesn’t mean it was history. Far more impressive than a mountain of manuscripts are Egyptian hieroglyphics and Mesopotamian clay tablets that are not only older but original. No one would argue that their mythology must be accurate simply because they’re original, and the same would apply if we had the New Testament’s original.
Let’s return to those 25,000 manuscripts. The originals of every New Testament book were written in Greek, but most of these manuscripts are translations into other languages. A translation means an extra layer of interpretation. Discard these, and we’re down to 5800 Greek manuscripts.
Now consider when these manuscripts were written. The chart below shows the number of Greek New Testament manuscript copies by century. The twelfth century has the most, with 1090 manuscripts. The printing press was invented in the middle of the fifteenth century, which explains the drop on the right of the chart.
There are a hundred manuscripts from the first four centuries, though many of these are just papyrus scraps of less than a page. The first substantial manuscripts with dozens of chapters date to around 200 CE. Only when we get to the fourth century do we find complete (or nearly so) copies of the New Testament. Our view into the past is so hazy that even when they were written is just an educated guess.
When historians weigh evidence, they want the oldest and most reliable manuscripts. The vast majority of the manuscripts shown in the chart are irrelevant, so our 5800 Greek manuscripts have shrunk to the oldest hundred or so from which scholars make their best guess at the originals. Whether we have 1090 copies from the twelfth century or ten times that number, manuscripts that late don’t inform the re-creation of the New Testament originals.
The New Testament does have the most copies, but this isn’t the evidence many think.
Image credit: Unknown author (public domain) via Wikimedia
Manuscript: A manuscript is a handwritten document. The earliest New Testament manuscripts were scrolls made from papyrus. Parchment, made from animal skins and bound into a codex (book), gradually became more popular over the first few centuries CE.
The chart below shows the number of Greek New Testament manuscript copies by century: the data for this chart came from “Biblical manuscript,” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia (Wikimedia Foundation Inc.), en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biblical_manuscript#New_Testament_manuscripts, retrieved November 4, 2013.
25,000 manuscripts sounds like a lot: “List of New Testament papyri,” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia (Wikimedia Foundation Inc.), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_New_Testament_papyri, retrieved June 15, 2018.