How many surviving New Testament manuscripts are there?

46 is the earliest (nearly) complete manuscrip...

{46} is the earliest (nearly) complete manuscript of the Epistles written by Paul in the new testament.

How Many and How Old? (bold type emphasis mine) From Stand to reason website (Greg Koukl)

The ability of any scholar to do effective textual criticism depends on two factors.  First, how many existing copies are there to examine and compare?  Are there two copies, ten, a hundred?  The more copies there are, the easier it is to make meaningful comparisons.  Second, how close in time are the oldest existing documents to the original?

If the numbers are few and the time gap is wide, the original is harder to reconstruct with confidence.  However, if there are many copies and the oldest existing copies are reasonably close in time to the original, the textual critic can be more confident he’s pinpointed the exact wording of the autograph.

To get an idea of the significance of the New Testament manuscript evidence, note for a moment the record for non-biblical texts.  These are secular texts from antiquity that have been reconstructed with a high degree of certainty based on the available textual evidence.

The important First Century document The Jewish War, by Jewish aristocrat and historian Josephus, survives in only nine complete manuscripts dating from the 5th Century–four centuries after they were written.[3] Tacitus’ Annals of Imperial Rome is one of the chief historical sources for the Roman world of New Testament times, yet, surprisingly, it survives in partial form in only two manuscripts dating from the Middle Ages.[4] Thucydides’ History survives in eight copies.  There are 10 copies of Caesar’s Gallic Wars, eight copies of Herodotus’ History, and seven copies of Plato, all dated over a millennium from the original.  Homer’s Iliad has the most impressive manuscript evidence for any secular work with 647 existing copies.[5]

{P 52} is the oldest known surviving manuscript of the New Testament

Bruce’s comments put the discussion in perspective:  „No classical scholar would listen to an argument that the authenticity of Herodotus or Thucydides is in doubt because the earliest manuscripts of their works which are of any use to us are over 1300 years later than the originals.”[6]

For most documents of antiquity only a handful of manuscripts exist, some facing a time gap of 800-2000 years or more.  Yet scholars are confident of reconstructing the originals with some significant degree of accuracy.  In fact, virtually all of our knowledge of ancient history depends on documents like these.

The Biblical Manuscript Evidence

By comparison with secular texts, the manuscript evidence for the New Testament is stunning.  The most recent count (1980) shows 5,366 separate Greek manuscripts represented by early fragments, uncial codices (manuscripts in capital Greek letters bound together in book form), and minuscules (small Greek letters in cursive style)![7]

Among the nearly 3,000 minuscule fragments are 34 complete New Testaments dating from the 9th to the 15th Centuries.[8]

Uncial manuscripts provide virtually complete codices (multiple books of the New Testament bound together into one volume) back to the 4th Century, though some are a bit younger.  Codex Sinaiticus, purchased by the British government from the Soviet government at Christmas, 1933, for £100,000,[9] is dated c. 340.[10] The nearly complete Codex Vaticanus is the oldest uncial, dated c. 325-350.[11] Codex Alexandrinus contains the whole Old Testament and a nearly complete New Testament and dates from the late 4th Century to the early 5th Century.

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.

The Roman Empire

From PBS Frontline

The most fascinating evidence comes from the fragments (as opposed to the codices).  The Chester Beatty Papyri contains most of the New Testament and is dated mid-3rd Century.[12] The Bodmer Papyri II collection, whose discovery was announced in 1956, includes the first fourteen chapters of the Gospel of John and much of the last seven chapters.  It dates from A.D. 200 or earlier.[13]

The most amazing find of all, however, is a small portion of John 18:31-33, discovered in Egypt known as the John Rylands Papyri.  Barely three inches square, it represents the earliest known copy of any part of the New Testament.  The papyri is dated on paleographical grounds at around A.D. 117-138 (though it may even be earlier),[14] showing that the Gospel of John was circulated as far away as Egypt within 30 years of its composition.

Keep in mind that most of the papyri are fragmentary.  Only about 50 manuscripts contain the entire New Testament, though most of the other manuscripts contain the four Gospels.  Even so, the manuscript textual evidence is exceedingly rich, especially when compared to other works of antiquity.

Ancient Versions and Patristic Quotations

Two other cross checks on the accuracy of the manuscripts remain:  ancient versions and citations by the early church Fathers known as „patristic quotations.”

Early in the history of the Church Greek documents, including the Scriptures, were translated into Latin.  By the 3rd and 4th Centuries the New Testament was translated into Coptic, Syriac, Armenian, Georgian, etc.  These texts helped missionaries reach new cultures in their own language as the Gospel spread and the Church grew.[15] Translations of the Greek manuscripts (called „versions”) help modern-day textual critics answer questions about the underlying Greek manuscripts.

In addition, there are ancient extra-biblical sources–characteristically catechisms, lectionaries, and quotes from the church fathers–that record the Scriptures.  Paul Barnett says that the „Scriptures…gave rise to an immense output of early Christian literature which quoted them at length and, in effect, preserved them.”[16] Metzger notes the amazing fact that „if all other sources for our knowledge of the text of the New Testament were destroyed, [the patristic quotations] would be sufficient alone for the reconstruction of practically the entire New Testament.”[17]

The Verdict

What can we conclude from this evidence?  New Testament specialist Daniel Wallace notes that although there are about 300,000 individual variations of the text of the New Testament, this number is very misleading.  Most of the differences are completely inconsequential–spelling errors, inverted phrases and the like.  A side by side comparison between the two main text families (the Majority Text and the modern critical text) shows agreement a full 98% of the time.[18]

Of the remaining differences, virtually all yield to vigorous textual criticism.  This means that our New Testament is 99.5% textually pure.  In the entire text of 20,000 lines, only 40 lines are in doubt (about 400 words), and none affects any significant doctrine.[19]

Greek scholar D.A. Carson sums up this way:  „The purity of text is of such a substantial nature that nothing we believe to be true, and  nothing we are commanded to do, is in any way jeopardized by the variants.”[20]

This issue is no longer contested by non-Christian scholars, and for good reason.  Simply put, if we reject the authenticity of the New Testament on textual grounds we’d have to reject every ancient work of antiquity and declare null and void every piece of historical information from written sources prior to the beginning of the second millennium A.D.

Has the New Testament been altered?  Critical, academic analysis says it has not.

The early spread of the Gospel

The Jewish Diaspora

By the end of the first century BCE, Rome had taken over the eastern Mediterranean and the Jewish population was spread through many cities of the east. In the third and fourth centuries CE there were substantial Jewish settlements in most major eastern cities and many western provinces as well.


Related articles:

  1. …some Church history – Spread of the Bible
  2. The Bible- bestselling book of all time Part 1
  3. The Bible- bestselling book of all time Part 2
  4. Ignatius (35 AD-107 AD)- Bishop of Antioch (used gospel in his 1st century writings)
  5. Athanasius (296 A.D.-373 A.D.)- defending orthodoxy
  6. J.I.Packer- the interpretation of Scripture

[2]Bruce, F. F., The New Testament Documents:  Are They Reliable? (Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 1974), 19.

[3]Barnett, Paul, Is the New Testament History? (Ann Arbor:  Vine Books, 1986), 45.

[4]Geisler, Norman L., Nix, William E., A General Introduction to the Bible (Chicago:  Moody Press, 1986), 405.  Note:  Bruce records two existing copies of this document (p. 16) but Barnett claims there’s only one (p. 45) and that single copy exists in partial form.  To be conservative, I’ve cited Geisler & Nix’s statistics.

[5]Metzger, Bruce M., The Text of the New Testament (New York and Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 1968), 34.  This number consists of 457 papyri, 2 uncials and 188 minuscule manuscripts.

[6]Bruce, 16-17.

[7]Geisler & Nix, 402.


[9]Metzger, 45.

[10]Geisler & Nix, 392.

[11]Ibid., 391.

[12]Ibid., 389-390.

[13]Metzger, 39-40.

[14]Geisler & Nix, 388.

[15]Barnett, 44.

[16]Ibid., p. 46-47.

[17]Metzger,  86.

[18]Wallace, Daniel, „The Majority Text and the Original Text:  Are They Identical?,” Bibliotheca Sacra, April-June, 1991, 157-8.

[19]Geisler and Nix, 475.

[20]Carson, D.A., The King James Version Debate (Grand Rapids:  Baker, 1979), 56.

Greg Koukl – Moral Relativism lecture to University students

An outstanding lecture for University students who seldom or never get exposed to Moral Relativism from an Evangelical perspective (not even from their churches). While seasoned Christians may not need to learn and articulate Christian apologetics, our High School and College students need to understand their faith from an apologetics’ perspective in order to become discerning of the lectures they are exposed to from their secular/atheist and sometimes communist (I mention communist because this is from a personal family experience of one top University) professors.  As parents, along with ceaseless prayer and Bible devotion, we need to be informed in order to support our children during this, the most vulnerable period of their lives. Talk to your children daily about what they are learning and what troubles them, and test their faith, be proactive  and pray without ceasing.

Greg Koukl, Founder and President, Stand to Reason

Greg started out thinking he was too smart to become a Christian and ended up giving his life for the defense of the Christian faith. A central theme of Greg’s speaking and writing is that Christianity can compete in the marketplace of ideas when it’s properly understood and properly articulated. He is adjunct professor in Christian Apologetics at Biola University.

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