The New Testament was completed by the end of the first century. How do we know that the documents have come down to us with integrity over the past twenty centuries? It is a fascinating study. The evidence is stunning.
The amazing preservation of the New Testament documents can perhaps be appreciated best by comparing the evidence for their authenticity with that available for the works produced by the classical writers of antiquity.
One of the greatest textual critics of the past was F. H. A. Scrivener (1813-91). He did much to enhance the science of textual criticism, i.e., the restoration of the original text by the collation of ancient manuscripts (though his attempted defense of the Textus Receptus has been almost universally rejected). In 1883 (prior to numerous more recent manuscript discoveries), Dr. Scrivener wrote:
As the New Testament far surpasses all other remains of antiquity in value and interest, so are the copies of it yet existing in manuscript and dating from the fourth century of our era downwards, far more numerous than those of the most celebrated writers of Greece or Rome. Such as have been already discovered and set down in catalogues are hardly fewer than two thousand [more than five thousand now]; and many more must still linger unknown in the monastic libraries of the East. On the other hand, manuscripts of the most illustrious classic poets and philosophers are far rarer and comparatively modern. We have no complete copy of Homer himself prior to the thirteenth century, though some considerable fragments have been recently brought to light which may plausibly be assigned to the fifth century; while more than one work of high and deserved repute has been preserved to our times only in a single copy. Now the experience we gain from a critical examination of the few classical manuscripts that survive should make us thankful for the quality and abundance of those of the New Testament (1833, 3-4).
In the late 1800s, Benjamin B. Warfield (1851-1921) of Princeton Theological Seminary, from the limited vantage point of his day, wrote:
The most astonishing thing about the manuscripts of the New Testament is their great number: as has already been intimated, quite two thousand of them have been catalogued upon the lists—a number altogether out of proportion to what antiquity has preserved for other ancient books (1898, 28).
Commenting upon the comparison between the Bible and the classical writings, Andrew Archibald in 1890 declared:
None of the original manuscripts of the Bible have been preserved. Shall we therefore reject this book? As well might we throw away the works of Homer, who flourished from eight to nine hundred years before Christ, but of whose writings we have no complete copy older than the thirteenth century, and no fragments even older than the sixth century—fifteen centuries after the blind poet died. Of the history by Herodotus there is no manuscript extant earlier than the ninth century, but this historian lived in the fifth century before the Christian era. There is no copy of Plato previous to the ninth century, and he wrote considerably more than a thousand years before that (29).
In more recent times, the late F. F. Bruce, who served as professor of biblical criticism and exegesis at the University of Manchester, stated:
The evidence for our New Testament writings is ever so much greater than the evidence for many writings of classical authors, the authenticity of which no one dreams of questioning. And if the New Testament were a collection of secular writings, their authenticity would generally be regarded as beyond all doubt. It is a curious fact that historians have often been much readier to trust the New Testament records than have many theologians.
Perhaps we can appreciate how wealthy the New Testament is in manuscript attestation if we compare the textual material for other ancient historical works. For Caesar’s Gallic War (composed between 58 and 50 BC) there are several extant MSS [manuscripts], but only nine or ten are good, and the oldest is some 900 years later than Caesar’s day. Of the 142 books of the Roman History of Livy (59 BC – AD 17) only thirty-five survive, these are known to us from not more than twenty MSS of any consequence, only one of which, and that containing fragments of Books iii-vi, is as old as the fourth century. Of the fourteen books of the Histories of Tacitus (c. AD 100) only four and a half survive; of the sixteen books of his Annals, ten survive in full and two in part. The text of these extant portions of his two great historical works depend entirely on two MSS, one of the ninth century and one of the eleventh. The extant MSS of his minor works Dialogus de Oratoribus, Agricola, Germania all descend from a codex of the tenth century. The History of Thucydides (c. 460-400 BC) is known to us from eight MSS, the earliest belonging to C. AD 900, and a few papyrus scraps, belonging to about the beginning of the Christian era. The same is true of the History of Herodotus (c. 480-425 BC). Yet no classical scholar would listen to an argument that the authenticity of Herodotus or Thucydides is in doubt because the earliest MSS of their works which are of any use to us are over 1,300 years later than the originals (1960, 15-17).
An abundance of additional material on the manuscript availability for the classical writings can be found in F. W. Hall’s Companion to Classical Texts.
The accumulation of manuscript evidence has been so vast and the work of the scientific textual critic so precise, that we may express complete confidence in the reliability of the New Testament text. While it is true that some minor manuscript variations exist, they are negligible. Westcott and Hort felt that the significantly debatable portions of the New Testament text could hardly amount to more than a thousandth part of the whole—the equivalent of a little more than half a page in the Greek New Testament (Thiessen 1955, 77).
Let me emphasize how impressive this fact really is. The New Testament documents have been in existence almost nineteen hundred years. For fifteen of these centuries they were replicated solely by hand. In spite of this, there are only some twelve to twenty significant textual variations in the entire New Testament, and none of these affect an important doctrinal matter. On the other hand, consider the works of William Shakespeare. These writings have existed less than four centuries (and since the invention of the printing press) and yet:
[I]n every one of Shakespeare’s thirty-seven plays there are probably a hundred readings still in dispute, a large number of which materially affect the meaning of the passages in which they occur (Hastings 1890, 13; emphasis original).
We can only stand in awe of the providential preservation of the sacred text of the word of God. We can trust the Bible. It is a book by which we can both live and die.