One of the more common criticisms made of the Bible is the idea that the text of
the Bible has somehow changed since it was written. The usual statement is that there
are long gaps between the writing of the originals and the manuscripts available
and that there are great differences between the different manuscripts. However,
the evidence is that the text of the Bible has not been changed in any significant
way since it was written.
The Old Testament and the New Testament were copied by different communities who
used different methods. As a result the evidence for them is different for them both.
However, the New Testament was all copied by the same kinds of people, so there is
no difference between the evidence for the reliability of the text of the Gospels
and that of the rest of the New Testament.
The Reliability of the New Testament Text
The evidence for the reliability of the New Testament depends on the large number
of manuscripts that have been made of it. There are more than 5,800 manuscripts in
Greek and another 18,000 manuscripts of translations into ancient languages. The
oldest substantial manuscripts date from the end of the second century, less than
a century and a half after the originals were completed. The combination of a very
large number of manuscripts and a short gap between the writing and the earliest
witnesses to the text is unique among ancient documents. If one were to reject any
document which had fewer than a thousand witnesses or a period of over four centuries
from the first writing the New Testament would be the only book before the time of
printing that could survive! The evidence for the reliability of the New Testament
text is far better than the witness to any other ancient text.
The Reliability of the Old Testament Text
The text of the Old Testament has a different history from that of the New Testament.
The Jewish copyists of Hebrew manuscripts carried out an extremely accurate process
for copying the text of the Old Testament. As a result there is no variation at all
in the text of official Hebrew manuscripts of the Old Testament. The accuracy of
the text is also shown by translations into other ancient languages including Aramaic,
Greek and Latin. These translations were copied completely separately from one another
by religious communities who were not friendly to one another. As a result there
are independent witnesses to the accuracy of the text of the Old Testament. The final
evidence is from the Dead Sea Scrolls, a substantial portion of which are scrolls
of the Old Testament. Some of these were copied before 250BC. These also testify
to the accuracy of copying of the Old Testament.
Papyrus P72 - manuscript of the letters of Jude and Peter from about 300AD