Recently, Bart Ehrman, the country’s leading scholar of biblical unbelief, used his blog to argue that it is impossible to know whether the New Testament that exists today is the one that was written by the first-century authors. Atheists, Muslims, and authors of popular fiction have all put this same argument forward. There is just one problem: It is not accurate.
Christians should be careful of either side of the spectrum when we speak about the reliability of New Testament manuscripts. On the one hand, we must avoid the radical skepticism of those like Ehrman. On the other hand, we must avoid the absolute certainty of those who simply ignore the fact that there are real textual problems.
In short, there are differences between the thousands of Greek manuscripts that we have today, but the vast majority of those variants make no difference at all. They are differences in spelling, the use of the definite article, the use of proper names, and things of this sort. Dan Wallace, one of the leading textual critics in the United States, has argued that less than one percent of the variants make a real difference in the meaning of the text.
The New Testament is the best preserved of any ancient document by a long, long way. In fact, the reason that there are textual variants is that so many of the documents have been preserved. The average classical work has less than 50 surviving copies. The New Testament has nearly 6,000 surviving hand written copies.
I must admit that this is an oversimplification of a very complex issue. Those who would like to learn more about the text of the New Testament should plan on studying New Testament Greek with me at Knox Seminary or by reading some technical works on textual criticism by Dr. Wallace.
In short, however, Christians today can hold to the New Testament with the confidence that what we have today is what was written two thousand years ago. Christian scribes have spent their lives copying the word of God so that it would be available to us today. We thank God for the knowledge that in essentials, what we have today is what the New Testament authors wrote.
Samuel Lamerson, Ph.D.
Professor of New Testament
Photo Credit: Stephen Radford