The Four Gospels as Reliable Testimony, Part 2: Do We Have Accurate Copies of the Gospels?

The New Testament gospels accurately reflect the original writings. We have several reasons to say this. First, even with the passage of almost 2,000 years, the words were preserved through history by multiple manuscripts. “Manuscripts” refer to hand-written copies of the gospels. That was the only way to do it in a world without the printing press or the computer. Many New Testament manuscripts were written on papyrus, a crude, fragile form of paper made from reeds that grew along lakeshores and riverbanks. [1]

Of course, hand copying was difficult work, and the scribes sometimes made mistakes. But this hand copying was a reliable process in the ancient world, and we have many reasons to trust this reliability. The original text can be reconstructed by comparing the individual manuscripts with each other. [2]

Thankfully, for the New Testament we have a wealth of manuscripts. In fact, we have over 5,600 manuscript copies of the New Testament available for comparison. We have fragments of individual books from as early as 125 A. D., within one or two generations of when the gospels were written. We have partial copies of books from as early as the 150s. We have complete copies of the entire New Testament from as early as 325. That is within 250 years of the original composition, and that is very close for a book from antiquity. [3]

How does this compare with other books for the ancient world? One example is the Gallic Wars by Caesar. We have only ten manuscript copies of this book, and the earliest one is dated over 1,000 years after the original composition. For Tacitus, an early historian, we have only 20 manuscripts, and the earliest one was written about 1,000 years after the original writings as well. Most historians accept that we have accurate copies of these books, so we should accept that we have accurate copies of the New Testament. [4]

Bruce Metzger compares the “New Testament with Homer’s Iliad.” He counts about 20,000 lines in the New Testament, and “of these only 40 are in doubt (i.e., about 400 words).” For comparison, “The Iliad possesses about 15,600 lines with 764 of them in question.” When we do the math, “Homer’s text is only 95 percent pure or accurate compared to over 99.5 percent accuracy for the New Testament manuscript copies.” The Mahabharata, “the national epic of India” is “some eight times the size of the Iliad, of which some 26,000 lines are in doubt.” Again, with the math, we have “roughly 10 percent textual corruption.” We can clearly see the superiority of the New Testament writings, and we can trust the gospels as a result. [5]

[1] Josh McDowell, The New Evidence That Demands a Verdict. (Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1999), 17-19.

[2] Mark D. Roberts, Can We Trust the Gospels?: Investigating the Reliability of Matthew, mark, Luke, and John (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 2007), 27-28.

[3] Josh McDowell, Evidence, 34-38.

[4] Ibid. 37-38.

[5] As quoted in Norman L. Geisler, Christian Apologetics. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker , 1976), 308. [words like publisher, book house, inc, etc., aren’t necessary.]

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