Revisiting the Manuscript Argument for the Reliability of the New Testament

An issue that comes up quite frequently is whether the New Testament manuscripts have been transmitted accurately. In this case, copies of the completed Gospels were distributed throughout the world. The greater the quantity of ancient manuscripts, the greater the potential database of our textual comparisons and reconstructions. E. J. Epp has noted that the “riches in NT manuscripts, however, are not only in their quantity but also their quality”—that is, the abundance of relativity early texts.  We have over 5,700 Greek manuscripts ranging from a small fragment of a few verses to entire New Testaments. There are approximately another 20,000 manuscripts, with the same spectrum of length and detail, which are translations from the Greek into other ancient Middle Eastern, Eastern, or Southern European languages.[1] Of the more than 80 New Testament papyri, over 20 containing portions of one of more of the Gospels can be dated to the 3rd and 4th centuries. By contrast, the earliest copy of Homer’s Iliad that we possess dates approximately 900 years or more after the original.[2]

Bruce Metzger, the foremost Bible critic in history, did a detailed comparative study of Homer’s Iliad and the New Testament. He found that the Iliad has 15,600 lines compared to the 20,000 lines in the New Testament. In comparing these two works, 764 lines in the Iliad are contested while there are only 40 lines (about 400 words) that are contested in the New Testament.[3]Phillip Schaff once said that of these 400 words, “none of them affected any 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.”[4]

Marin L West notes:

“Homer’s Iliad is by far the best attested ancient writing outside the New Testament, but even the Iliad has only about 2,200 total extant manuscripts (Wallace 2011, 30 n. 27). The earliest manuscripts for the Iliad are papyri fragments from the third century BC (Dué 2010), some five centuries after its composition—and the earliest manuscripts that are close to complete date from the tenth century AD, nearly two millennia after it was written. (5)

One thing that critics have rightly pointed out is that  an abundance of early manuscripts that show accurate transmission doesn’t mean the authors have recorded an accurate event. For example, Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon Church, claimed to have received personal revelation from God based on two visions (the first allegedly given to him in 1820, and the second one in 1823).  Conceivably, we could have 50,000 early manuscripts recording this event, but that would by no means make Mormonism true. Therefore, other tests for historicity must be considered to establish the authenticity of the event. We discuss some of these issues here. 


[1] J.E. Komoszewski, M.J. Sawyer and D.B. Wallace, Reinventing Jesus: What the Da Vinci Code and Other Novel Speculations Don’t Tell You (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2006), 82.

[2] Boyd and Eddy, 382-384.

 [3] N. L. Geisler, and W. E. Nix, A General Introduction to the Bible (Chicago: Moody Press, 1986), 475.

[4] Phillip Schaff, Companion to the Greek New Testament and the English Version, 3rd ed., rev. (New York: Harper, 1883), 177.

5. West, Martin L. Studies in the Text and Transmission of the Iliad. München and Leipzig: K. G. Saur, 2001), 139-140.