The Textual Reliability of the New Testament

The aim of this page is to put into context the textual reliability of the New Testament documents. By and large, the text of the New Testament is pretty well fixed, but what is the evidence for this and what does it mean?

If you can't fix it, flaunt it

Here are three events to consider

The evidence for the first two is pretty good. The evidence for the third is not so good. Which of these three events is the natural one for Christians to choose when comparing evidence for the New Testament? F.F.Bruce, Josh McDowell, Nicky Gumbel etc. all go for Herodotus , where the third story , and other equally unbelievable stories, come from . Time and time again, the evidence for the text of the New Testament is compared to the text of Herodotus, or Thucydides etc, but never to something for which there is good evidence.

We do not have autograph copies of the Gospels. I wish we did. It seems that the god of the Christians has not chosen to preserve first century Christian documents . First century documents from other religious groups have been preserved, notably the Dead Sea Scrolls, but not Christian documents.

Following the well-known advertising motto - "If you can't fix it, flaunt it" , Christian apologists point out how many copies of the New Testament books there are, and hope to skate over the fact that there are no originals.

Even if we had the original copies of the New Testament books, that would not prove them true. A sceptic is not someone who believes that the original autographs of the Bible were true, but have been altered to some extent by later copying. Someone who believes that is called a fundamentalist.

5,000 plus and counting

Nickey Gumbel, a well-known British evangelical writes in his book, "Questions of Life", (100,000 + sold) that there there are over 5,000 Greek manuscripts. As there are 20 times as many copies of his book, does that make his book 20 times as good?

He contrasts that with, among others, Herodotus (naturally), and Tacitus. Surprisingly, he gives Tacitus as a reference for the New Testament just before he points out how few manuscripts of Tacitus there are. This acknowledges that the number of manuscripts is not evidence one way or the other.

It is very obvious that there will be far more Greek manuscripts of the New Testament than of Tacitus or Herodotus. Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire , so people wrote Bibles.

The Greek Manuscripts

Of the 5,487 Greek manuscripts, no two, apart from the very tiniest fragments, are identical. Furthermore, until beyond the 7th century, there is not one Greek manuscript that contains the books of the New Testament and just those books in their present order. The Codex Sinaiticus comes close, but it also contains the Epistle of Barnabas and the Shepherd of Hermas, works rejected nowadays.

2,811 of these manuscripts are in the minuscule writing. This tiny writing was only used from the 9th century onwards. 2,279 manuscripts are lectionaries and only about 30 (thirty) lectionaries date from before the 9th century. It smacks of desperation for Mr. Gumbel to claim that 5,000 Greek manuscripts from AD 800 or later count as any sort of evidence for what happened in first century Palestine. Be assured that if he had any better arguments, he would use them.

The Early Greek Manuscripts

There are a number of early Greek manuscripts, dating from the second century. In the notes below, p46 stands for papyrus number 46,p72 stands for papyrus number 72. It is the universally noted method of numbering the papyrus fragments.

This is hardly a substantial witness to the New Testament. Fragments of the Gospels, excluding Mark, the tiniest part of Acts and nothing from Revelation or 1 or 2 Peter. Most importantly, there is nothing from any of the Gospel Resurrection accounts.

The Third Century

There are more and bigger manuscripts from the third century, or possibly the late second century. The most important three are p66 , p72 and p75.

P66, from about AD 200, contains these portions of John's Gospel

In 'The Text of the New Testament - Its Transmission, Corruption and Restoration', Bruce Metzger points out that there are also fragments of other pages. He writes 'Since most of these fragments are small, some of them mere scraps, the amount of text of John xiv-xxi which has been preserved is not great.'.

P72 contains Jude and 1 and 2 Peter and various non-canonical works, such as The Nativity of Mary,the eleventh Ode of Solomon,Melito's Homily on the Passover,the Apology of Phileas etc.

p75, usually dated at 175 AD - 225 AD contains from Luke's Gospel

and from John's Gospel

Here is what Robin Lane Fox says about p66 and p75 on page 139 of 'The Unauthorised Version'. "We have two early papyri which overlap across seventy verses of John's Gospel, and even if the plain errors of their copyists are excluded, they differ at no less than seventy small places.". 70 differences in 70 verses!

Perhaps these changes are not big, but they are numerous.

P72 is interesting. It is often claimed that no textual variation is important for Christian doctrines. However, it seems that p72 does not like the orthodox Christian doctrine that God the Father is distinct from Jesus the Son of God. In 2 Peter 1:2, other manuscripts read "May grace and peace be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God and of our Lord Jesus." p72 drops the "and' to read "God, our Lord Jesus". This is no accident. p72 altered Jude 5 to say that the saviour of the people from Egypt was "the God Christ". p72 altered 1 Peter 5:1 to say that Peter was a witness to the "sufferings of God", and not the "sufferings of Christ", as all later manuscripts read.

It seems, contrary to the claims of many Christian apologists, that the very earliest manuscripts often have divergent, almost heretical, readings, rather than being the most reliable manuscripts.

The Big Books in the Fourth Century

By the time we get to AD 350 - AD 500, the situation has improved a lot. There are four main Bibles (known as Codices) containing most of the New Testament. Interestingly, the one which contains all of the New Testament is the Codex Sinaiticus, which stayed locked in a monastery until 1844. It seems that God has seen to it that most Christians in history have had to do without the one Codex which contains the entire New Testament!

Here is a picture of the first page of the Epistle of Barnabas in Codex Sinaiticus. It is rather faded, but the manuscript is over 1600 years old.

Picture of the Epistle of Barnabas

Here is a picture of the first page of Ephesians in Codex Sinaiticus. Note that somebody has added the words 'in Ephesus' in between the columns.

Picture of Ephesians

There is also the Codex Washingtonensis (5th century). This contains (in this order) Matthew, John, Luke, Mark.

The Church Fathers

It is often claimed that the text of the New Testament can be reconstructed from the citations of the New Testament by the early Church Fathers.

Let us look at one example - Matthew 19.17 /Mark 10.18/Luke 18.19

I wonder why this verse was changed. Bibles of today read that no one is good except God alone. This is fine for Christians who believe that Jesus is God. But if the manuscripts read that no one is good except the Father, then there would be trouble for Trinitarians, who believe Jesus is God, but not God the Father. So it was changed.


I have outlined the main manuscript evidence for the textual reliability of the New Testament. Compared to other works of ancient history, it is very good, but this is because other works of ancient history have very few manuscripts. Is it the sort of evidence that an omniscient, omnipotent God would leave behind? I think not. Even the very earliest manuscripts we have diverge in text from each other.

Of course, textual reliablilty does not imply historical reliability. In another article I examine the claim that the text is established to the extent that there are no points of doctrine about which there are textual disputes. I show that this statement conceals as much as it reveals.

Further reading

Bart D. Ehrman, Neglect of the Firstborn in NT Studies

Comments to Steven Carr