Can We Trust the New Testament Manuscripts?

Manuscript Evidence*

Here is a comparison of manuscript evidence for the New Testament compared to the manuscripts of other ancient works.

Author/Work Date Written Earliest Fragments and Copies Approximate Time Gap Number of Manuscripts
Tacitus (Annals) c. AD 100 c. AD 900 ~750 years 2
Plato (Dialogues) c. 350 BC c. AD 900 ~1,200 years 7
Herodotus (Histories) c. 430 BC c. AD 900 ~1,300 years 9
Julius Caesar (Gallic Wars) c. 50 BC c. AD 900 ~900 years 10
New Testament c. AD 45–95 c. AD 125 ~50 years** ~26,000

* The figures for the number of manuscripts has recently been updated. The latest numbers can be found here.

** Currently, our earliest fragment is from John’s Gospel known as Rylands P52 (c. AD 125). The earliest substantially complete manuscript of the entire New Testament dates to approximately AD 350.

Manuscript Differences

What about all the differences between the manuscripts? Don’t they prove the manuscripts are not trustworthy?

Some critics claim that there are hundreds of thousands of differences, called variants, between these copies. But the reason a high number of these variants have been found is because there are so many manuscripts. The critic is essentially trying to turn a great argument for the reliability of the text into a liability. We can compare and contrast these manuscripts to figure out the original wording in nearly every case.

Here are two important points to know about these differences. First, we know where they are and what they are. In fact, most study Bibles include text notes indicating where differences appear. The differences are not some great conspiracy as alleged by many critics.

Second, since we know what they are, we also know that the differences are insignificant and rarely have any bearing on the meaning of the passage. Even Bart Ehrman, perhaps the best known textual critic, has said that “essential Christian beliefs are not affected by textual variants” in the New Testament (Bart Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus [New York: HarperCollins, 2009], 252).

More Resources

Articles Addressing the Reliability and Authenticity of the Bible

Were New Testament Books Forged?

A response to Bart Ehrman’s book, Forged, which claims most of the New Testament books were written by someone other than the traditionally assigned authors.

Is the Bible Authoritative and Inerrant?

A feedback article to a question about how Christians should respond to charges against inerrancy, based on textual variants.