How can we be sure the Bible we have today is the same Bible they had back when it was written?
This question usually flows from the fact that we don’t have any of the original documents of the Bible. Those crumbled into dust long ago, so how can we know the message hasn’t changed? This bothered me—until I learned there are no originals left of any ancient literature. Instead, we have handwritten copies—manuscripts.
“What the New Testament has in its favor, especially when compared with other ancient writings, is the unprecedented multiplicity of copies that have survived,” Dr. Daniel B. Wallace explained to me. “We have more witnesses to the text of the New Testament than to any other ancient Greek or Latin literature. It’s really an embarrassment of riches!”
Obviously more copies means a greater chance of accuracy. “How many exist?” I asked Wallace.
“We have more than 5,700 Greek copies of the New Testament [now 5,800]. There are another 10,000 copies in Latin. Then there are versions Coptic, Syriac, Armenian, Georgian, and so on. These are estimated to number between 10,000 and 15,000. So right there we’ve got 25,000 to 30,000 handwritten copies of the New Testament.”
I asked about the dating of the copies.
“Through the first three centuries, we have nearly fifty manuscripts in Greek alone,” Wallace explained, adding that several papyri of the New Testament have been dated to the early second century—the most famous being the John Rylands fragment of the gospel of John, found in Egypt and dating to a few decades after the original.
“So we have a really small gap between the earliest papyrus and the New Testament,” I summarized.
“Right. There’s just no comparison to others,” he said. “The average Greek author has fewer than twenty copies of his works still in existence, and they come from no sooner than five hundred to a thousand years later.”
We really do have a wealth of evidence—an embarrassment of riches—for the New Testament, and the Old Testament has similar support. Translation: the Bible you read today is a trustworthy rendition of the original writings.
“Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.”
Jesus, in Mark 13:31