The question whether the New Testament manuscripts are reliable is hugely important, and is on the frontal lobe of all sorts of people today, including those who read Bart Ehrman’s ‘Misquoting Jesus’, Muslim apologists, and just the average guy on the street. If you read Dan Brown’s ‘Da Vinci Code’ you hear Sir Leigh Teabing say, “The Bible has been translated and re-translated so many times we cannot possibly know what the original text said.” This seems to be the standard response of people who want to put the Bible at arm’s distance. But there are a lot of myths that go with that.
For one thing, every time the Bible has been re-translated it does not mean those translators burned the manuscripts they copied from. When the King James translators did their work, they based their New Testament on essentially six New Testament manuscripts – the earliest of which came about 500 hundred years earlier. Almost 400 years later, we now have about 1,000 times as many manuscripts as they had. And our earliest manuscripts go all the way down to the 2nd Century. It is a huge difference. So as time goes on we are actually getting closer to the original in both the number of manuscripts and in the dates of those manuscripts. On a general scale, we are making great progress towards the originals.
The question being asked about reliability is a question of how good of a witness are these manuscripts to that original or the autographic text. Since we do not have the originals, we have to estimate. We do not have the absolute facts that say I know for sure on the basis of evidence that this goes back to the original. What we can argue is on the probability. And the probability is so overwhelmingly strong that the manuscripts – at least 98% of the time – go back to the original. It is absolutely overwhelming. To give an illustration, the growth of the text of the New Testament from the 1st Century when they originated, all the way up until 1516 when Erasmus published the first Greek New Testament on the printing press is about 2%. People talk about how the majority text or the manuscripts behind the King James added a lot of material, while King James advocates say others are in fact cutting out parts of the word of God. My argument is not that we only have 98% of the word of God; it is that the KJV has 102%. And we need to cut out 2% of that draw to get to the gold. So that is it – 2% growth over fourteen to fifteen hundred years. Nobody is going to bid on that. That is a terrible investment. So it is not a massive growth like people normally get the image of when they read a book like ‘Misquoting Jesus.’