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The Text of the New Testament

(Adapted from  Evidence for the Bible by Elgin L. Hushbeck, Jr.)

When we examine the New Testament, we find the evidence for it to be even stronger than that for the Old Testament. The oldest complete New Testament is the Codex Vaticanus. Located in the Vatican, it is believed to have been copied around A.D. 325. This shows that only a few hundred years after the books of the New Testament were written, they were already being collected as a complete unit. If we look at portions of the New Testament, we move even closer to the originals.  

 Most scholars beleive that the oldest fragment of the New Testament we have is the John Rylands Manuscript, which contains a portion of the book of John (18:31-33, 37-38). This fragment dates from about A.D. 125-130, (1) which is less than 40 years after John wrote it. (2) Other early manuscripts of the Bible continue to be found.  

 In 1972, the papyrologist Jose O’Callaghan claimed that a small manuscript fragment found in among the Dead Sea Scrolls(called 7Q5) was actually from the Gospel of Mark (Mark 6:52-53) and was copied somewhere between A.D. 50 and A.D. 68 when the caves were sealed. If correct, this would be truly astounding since the range of dates for Mark run from the mid 40s to the mid 70, with most scholars dating Mark during the 60s. As such, O’Callaghan's identification caused a lot of controversy, and in fact was largely rejected by New Testament scholars who claimed this was just too early and that the manuscript fragment was too small to make such identification certain.  

 The case for the identification of 7Q5 with Mark was strengthened recently when the fragment was examined using special equipment. Much of the dispute turns on the identification of one of the letters which has been damaged. If the disputed letter was the Greek letter nu (N) then the text would be consistent with the text of Mark. The problem is that much of the right hand portion of the letter is missing and to some it looks like an itoa (I), which would not match the text of Mark. Recent examinations using advance technology have shown that the disputed letter is in fact a nu and thus is consistent with the text of Mark. As a result, among papyrologists (those specifically trained in this area) there is growing support for O’Callaghan’s identification.(3)  

 In late 1994, Carsten Thiede, Director of the Institute for Basic Epistemological Research in Paderborn, Germany, announced a startling discovery about a different manuscript. Thiede dated the Magdalen papyrus, which contain portions of the Gospel of Matthew (26:7-8, 10, 14-15, 22-23, 31), to A.D. 66 or slightly earlier.(4) Again, as with O’Callaghan’s identification of 7Q5 with Mark, this has caused considerable controversy for the range of dates given for Matthew are from the 40s to 90s with most liberal scholars dating Matthew in the 70s and most conservative scholars dating it in the 60s.  

 One of the significant aspects of the Magdalen fragments is that they are from a codex (similar to a book) and not from a scroll This indicates that these are at least second generation copies and gives us an indication of how rapidly the Gospels were copied and spread throughout the Roman world, which as we shall see shortly is important for establishing their reliability.  

 Whether or not the work of O’Callaghan, Thiede and other scholars who support the early date of these and other manuscripts stands up to the examination of other scholars, what is clear is that the textual evidence for the New Testament is far and away stronger than for any other ancient work. By 1989, scholars had catalogued 54883F  (5) early Greek manuscript portions of the New Testament. These manuscripts, along with about 20,000 translations, which include over 10,000 copies of the Latin Vulgate, provide a truly phenomenal record of the text of the New Testament. (6)  

 As a comparison, let us look at a few other ancient works. About 100 years before the New Testament was written, Julius Caesar wrote his account of the Gaulic Wars. Of this work we have about 10 copies, made about 1000 years after Caesar wrote them. We have about 7 copies of the works of Plato that date approximately 1200 years after Plato died. For any single work of Aristotle we have about 50 copies, written about 1400 years after his death.(7) Clearly the text of the New Testament is much more established than any of these works. For most of the ancient writers, we have tens of copies made a thousand years after they were written. For the New Testament, we have thousands of copies, beginning tens of years after they were written.  

 Besides the thousands of early manuscripts of the New Testament, we also have another way by which we can confirm these texts. The early church fathers wrote frequently, and when they wrote they often quoted Scripture. From these early quotations, nearly the entire New Testament can be reconstructed. These quotes act as a second witness for the text.  

 This is why it can be stated that the claims of those who say that the Bible has been rewritten or edited by this or that church council are simply not supported by the evidence. While the church councils began in the fourth century, we have copies of the Bible and the writings of the church fathers beginning no later than the early part of the second century. If any changes had been made at the councils, they would be very easy to find. We would only have to compare the copies of the Bible made before the councils, to the copies made after, and any changes would instantly become apparent. There are no signs that the text of the New Testament was altered, much less altered so as to remove the teaching of reincarnation or any other doctrines.  

 Still some point to the lack of the originals and the gap, however small, between the originals and the earliest manuscripts as evidence of unreliability. It is claimed that without the originals, we really can never be sure the text was not changed. The problem with such claims is that we do not have just a single line of manuscripts but many parallel lines, each confirming the others.  


The figure shows an example of this. From a single original, many copies were made and distributed. From the first generation copies, second, third and forth generation manuscripts were made. For this example, say that many years later, only three manuscripts remain (mss #1, #2, & #3), all fourth generation copies. Does this mean we cannot be sure of the text before the fourth generation? Not at all. By comparing these manuscripts, we can determine how accurately the text was copied.  

 When two manuscripts agree, the reading they have in common must be earlier than the manuscripts themselves. In our example, when mss #2 and #3 agreement, they reflect a reading found in the first generation. When all three agree they reflect the reading found in the original. This example demonstrates a very important concept: there is a difference between the date of a manuscript and the date of a reading found in the manuscript. That a particular manuscript was written in the second century does not mean that the text it contains is from the second century. This difference between the date of the reading and the date of the manuscript is very important in bridging the gap.  

 The books of the New Testament were copied and distributed widely during the lifetime of the apostles. Any early changes would have been resisted by them. After their death, there were already copies spread throughout the Roman world. To have changed them all so as to completely eliminate the original readings would have required a tremendous effort. As a result, those who claim that text has been change must face a major problem with their theory.  

 To successfully change all the texts of the Bible would have required a large organized effort, yet no such organization existed in the early church. By the time anything approaching the level of organization that would have been required was reached, this would have been well past the time of what are now our earliest manuscripts. Even if such an organized effort had been able to change the Bible used at the time, they could not have changed manuscripts that had already been lost, but would be rediscovered in the last two centuries. As such these early manuscripts show that no such editing occurred.  

 One final problem is the fact that early Christians did consider the Word of God to be important and many died to protect it. For example, in 303 A.D. the Roman Emperor Diocletian ordered that all Christian scripture be destroyed. While some Christians complied with the Emperor’s order, many suffered torture and martyrdom to protect God’s word. After Diocletian’s persecution failed, the reaction against those Christians who had turned over scripture to the Romans from other Christians was so strong that it caused a controversy within the church for many years after. In fact it was so strong that a new word entered into our vocabulary. Those who turn over the word of God were called “those who delivered” which in Latin is traditores and has come into English as traitors.  

 The idea that roughly twenty years after the persecution of Diocletian and at the same time that the church was struggling to deal with the traditores, the church councils would have rewritten the Bible without leaving any trace and without anyone complaining is simply impossible. The simple fact is that there were too many Christians throughout the world who where willing to suffer and even die to protect Scripture, as many had so recently done.  

 When we consider the thousands of manuscripts and translations that have survived from these various sections of the early church, we can be sure the texts were copied accurately during the very small gap that remains between the originals and the earliest manuscripts.  

 This is not to say that the Bible we have today is exactly the same as when it was written down by the apostles and prophets. In some places there are still some questions concerning the text. These questions arise when there are minor differences between the various ancient manuscripts, and scholars are unsure as to which one is actually correct.  

 Scholars who evaluate the thousands of manuscripts, translations, and quotations and from them attempt to assemble the original text are called textual critics. For the vast majority of the Bible (probably over 95 percent) there is no doubt concerning the ancient reading of the text. In those sections about which there is still some question, the differences found among the various manuscripts are minor and have no effect on the teachings of the church, regardless of which reading is correct.  

 Even here there is no secrecy or attempt to deceive. Both major Greek texts of the New Testament give the reader what scholars believe is the original text of the New Testament. (8)    Interestingly, even though these Greek New Testaments were prepared by different groups of scholars, the text of the New Testament is identical. In addition to the text they also include all of the major variations, a listing of the manuscripts in which these variations are found, plus the church fathers who quote them. This information is accessible to even those with only a limited knowledge of New Testament Greek.  

 Of course, when a translation is done, a choice must be made between the different (or variant) readings. Because of this, many modern translations include the alternative readings in a footnote. An example of this can be seen in Matthew 15:5-6. The New International Version translates this verse as: (Note: Superscript numbers represent the verse numbers.)

5But you say that if a man says to his father or mother, "Whatever help you might otherwise have received from me is a gift devoted to God," 6he is not to "honor his father" with it.

 The New International Version also includes the following footnote for verse 6, which states that some manuscripts read: “he is not to ‘honor his father or his mother’ with it.” As you can see, while the reading is different, it makes no difference to the meaning of the passage as a whole, since the mother had already been mentioned in verse 5.  

 If you suspect that I have chosen a simple passage as an example, it is easy enough to check this for yourself. All you need do is to look through one of the many modern translations that include the variant readings and compare these to the text. It has been my experience that the vast majority of these variant readings make no difference at all, much less a difference that would affect the teachings of the Bible.  

 In a very small number of cases the difference is significant enough to change the meaning of the passage. Perhaps the most well known example of this is 1 John 5:7-8. The New International Version translates these verses as: (Note: Superscript numbers represent the verse numbers.)  

7For there are three that testify: 8the Spirit, the water and the blood; and the three are in agreement.

 The accompanying footnote points out that in a few very late Greek manuscripts (sixteenth century or later) the verse reads as follows:  

7For there are three that testify in heaven: The Father, the Word and the Holy Spirit, and these three are one. And there are three that testify on earth: 8the Spirit, the water and the blood; and the three are in agreement. (Added text is in Italics)

 This is a significant change. Still the difference should not be exaggerated. The additional words are a clear reference to the Trinity, but the shorter reading cannot be taken as a denial of the Trinity. Rather it simply lacks a reference to it. More importantly, regardless of which reading was the original (and it is certainly the shorter reading) this variant does not alter the overall teachings of the Bible in any way. The doctrine of the Trinity is taught throughout the New Testament, and to some extent in the Old Testament, and does not depend on a single verse. No major teaching of the church depends on a single verse, much less a verse in which there is a variant reading.  

 The recent discoveries of archaeology, and the work of textual critics, have shown that the text of the Bible is thoroughly reliable. They have shown that, despite claims to the contrary, the text of the Bible has not been changed or altered so as to distort the original message. While the ancient manuscripts did reveal a limited number of minor problems, which have since been corrected, they mainly have served to confirm the accuracy of the overall text. As a result, the text of the New Testament we have today is, for all practical purposes, the same as it was when it was written by the apostles.  


1 Dates for this fragment range from A.D. 95. to A.D. 130.

2 This is based on the traditional date for John of A.D. 90 - 100. A few scholars are now suggesting that John may have been written as early as A.D. 55, which would be about 70 year before the John Rylands Manuscript was made, and only about 25 years after the resurrection of Jesus.

3 For a discussion of the issues surrounding these texts and the arguments for an early date see: Cartsen Thiede & Matthew D’Ancona, Eyewitness to Jesus (New York: Doubleday, 1996) For the arguments against the early date see: G. Stanton, Gospel Truth? New Light on Jesus and the Gospels (London, 1995)

4 See note 6

5 Some manuscript portions are separate fragments from the same manuscript that were acquired at different times. As such, this number is not the total number of manuscripts. While the exact number of separate manuscripts is not known for certain, it is around 5000. Bruce K Waltke, The Textual Criticism of the Old Testament in The Expositor's Bible Commentary Vol. 1 ed. Frank E. Gaebelein (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1979) p. 218

6 Bruce M. Metzger, The Text of the New Testament, 3rd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992) p. 262

7 Josh McDowell, Evidence That Demands a Verdict (San Bernardino, CA: Here's Life, 1979) pp. 39-41 and Gordon D. Fee, The Textual Criticism of the New Testament in The Expositor's Bible Commentary Vol. 1 ed. Frank E. Gaebelein (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1979) p. 218

8 The two major Greek texts of the New Testament are the Nestle-Aland Novum Testamentum Graece and the United Bible Society's The Greek New Testament.