Bible Think

The Text of the New Testament

The New Testament was originally written in Greek and completed in the first century AD. The original documents (known as the “Autographs”) were copied, probably many times, and the copies were themselves copied. The autograph copies are now lost, but a very large number of manuscripts is known and these are available for study.


There is a regular perception that the text of the New Testament has changed significantly since the Apostles and Evangelists wrote it. In fact this is untrue. There are places where variants appear, but the overwhelming majority of these variants are minor - matters of spelling and style in the Greek language. Only a very small part of the New Testament is disputed. The New Testament contains about 138,000 words. Of these fewer than  900 words are disputed.



The Text of the New Testament

A 14 page article in pdf format which shows evidence for the reliability of the New Testament Text.


A single sheet pdf file which summarises the evidence for the reliability of both the Old and New Testaments.


Textual Reliability

Click here to link to the main page on textual reliability for the Bible.

The Text of the Old Testament

Click here to go to a page which discusses the evidence for the reliability of the text of the Old Testament.

The Reliability of the Bible

The Bible is textually accurate and contains a reliable account of the matters it describes. Click here to go to the home page for evidence on this.


Undesigned Coincidences

Undesigned coincidences are based on tiny and insignificant details in Bible accounts. More than a small amount of textual inaccuracy would destroy undesigned coincidences. The fact that they exist shows that the text of the Bible is reliable. Click here to go to the main page for evidence of undesigned coincidences.


The Evidence

The primary evidence for the text of the New Testament is the set of Greek manuscripts which contain it, either in full or in part. Over 5,800 Greek manuscripts of the New Testament are known. The earliest fragments of the New Testament come from the second century and a substantially complete text of most of the New Testament is available from manuscripts written before the middle of the third century. We have a substantially complete New Testament made from manuscripts copied less than two centuries after the original autographs were written.


In addition to this the New Testament was translated into various ancient languages, including Latin, Coptic, Syriac, Georgian and Armenian. These translations are known as “versions”. The churches which used these languages were often on poor terms with one another, which means that their copying traditions were completely independent of one another. All together there are some 20,000 manuscripts of the Bible translated into ancient languages.


In addition to ordinary manuscripts there are places where early authors wrote books which comment on the New Testament. Often these writers will quote from the passage that they are interpreting; these are known as citations and can be used as evidence for the existence of some particular variant. However, they need to be used with care because the commentator may by quoting from memory, and his memory may be defective.


The comparison of all these manuscripts requires a considerable amount of effort. This has been done by scholars and various editions of the Greek New Testament which contain a Greek text constructed from the witnesses and summaries of how different witnesses vary from the main text are noted in the margin. These are known as “Critical editions”. The two most commonly used critical editions are Nestle-Alland and the United Bible Societies editions. The main text in these is identitcal, but variants are presented differently.


The text of the New Testament is better attested and more reliable than that of any other document from before 1000AD (apart from the text of the Old Testament). There are more witnesses to it and less variation within these witnesses.

The Oldest Manuscript of the New Testament

This picture shows P52, the Rylands fragment. This is the oldest undisputed papyrus fragment of the New Testament, dated confidently to the eary part of the second century AD. It contains a portion of John’s Gospels (John 18:31-33,37-38). The fragment is too small to provide much evidence about the text, but it shows that the Gospel must have been completed in the first century AD. A later papyrus manuscript from around 200AD (P66) contains an almost complete text of the whole Gospels.


Other fragments of New Testament manuscripts from the second century exist. Claims of even earlier dates have been made for a few other papyrus fragments. However, the claims of these manuscripts are not supported by the majority of  scholars.

Is the New Testament Text reliable?

Watch this space for an article in pdf format which gives a detailed account of the study of the New Testament text.


Date Completed

Oldest Fragement

Oldest Full Text

Gap to oldest full text

Number of Manuscripts

New Testament




 180 years

5800 +





1300 years


Tacitus Annals




1000 years






 740 years


Caesar’s Gallic War




 943 years


Evidence for the Gospels

The Gospels contain a very accurate record of the doings and teaching of Jesus. Click here for evidence to show the accuracy of the Gospels.

Manuscript of John’s Gospel from c200AD

The Text of the New Testament