Ever hear the argument that our earliest copy of the historian Tacitus’ Annals (c. 116 CE) dates to the 9th century, seven hundred years later, but we have early copies of the Gospels dating to only a couple centuries after their composition? How about that we only have 9 Greek manuscripts of the historian Josephus’ Jewish War, but we have over 5,800 Greek manuscripts of the New Testament? Clearly we trust the historical information of Tacitus and Josephus, so we should trust the New Testament too, right? Wrong. Once more, apologists have blown up a big number, divorced it from context, and created a misleading argument that can be torn down by three simple points of clarity.
1. Factoring in Sample Bias
It is true that many more New Testament texts come down through medieval manuscripts than Pagan texts, but it seldom seems to dawn on apologists to ask why this is the case. When analyzed in context, the paucity of Pagan texts is due primarily to the fact that the main apparatus of textual transmission during the medieval period was Christian monks and the church . Accordingly, there was more interest in preserving Christian texts than Pagan ones. If any apologist is interested in learning more about Classical textual transmission, it would behoove him or her to pick up a copy of Reynolds and Wilson’s Scribes and Scholars: A Guide to the Transmission of Greek and Latin Literature. As Reynolds and Wilson (pg. 48) explain, “There can be be little doubt that one of the major reasons for the loss of classical texts is that most Christians were not interested in reading them, and hence not enough new copies of the texts were made to ensure their survival in an age of war and destruction.”
Now it is perfectly understandable that, since the machinery of textual transmission was in the hands of church monks for over a millenium, more manuscripts of the New Testament come down to us than other texts. The Bible was what was being read and copied in the Christian Middle Ages and it is no surprise that more manuscripts of it survive. Other ancient texts were neglected and took a back seat to the biblical manuscripts, which accounts for there being fewer copies. If anything, the paucity of surviving classical manuscripts is an embarrassing reflection on the Christian dominated society of the Middle Ages, which did not make use of the philosophical and literary achievements of its predecessors.
Unfortunately, many Pagan texts were lost during this bottleneck, but this does not represent what the ratio of texts were in antiquity. But let’s just say, however, for the sake of argument, that remarkably a fringe, radical religion had managed to produce more copies of their texts in antiquity than other authors at the time. So what? Do we trust books today based on the number of copies that we have of them? If so, I would encourage any apologist to vouch for Quotations from Chairman Mao, one of the most widely published books in world history. This leads to my next point:
2. Textual Accuracy Does Not Equal Historical Accuracy
One of the biggest misconceptions in this issue is that apologists mistake the fact that the New Testament is for the most part textually accurate, due to the multitude of manuscripts, with a confused notion that this somehow makes it historically accurate. For example, Christian apologist Norman Geisler (Christian Apologetics, chapter 18) claims, “We can be assured that the New Testament documents are historically reliable, for we have more, earlier, and better-copied manuscripts for it than any other book from antiquity.” However, textual transmission only means that we have a fairly good idea of what the original authors wrote. If what the original authors wrote was non-historical, then accurately preserving their words still doesn’t make them true. I often give this analogy to illustrate this concept: if you have 10,000 early copies of the National Enquirer versus 1 late copy of the Wall Street Journal, which would be more factually accurate?
A late copy of a historian like Tacitus, even if it has missing sections and a few grammatical errors, is infinitely more historically reliable than several early copies of works that were never historical or factual in the first place. Put simply: accurate textual transmission can preserve the historical accuracy of a work that was originally historically reliable, but it can do nothing to improve or save the historical accuracy of a work that was originally based on ahistorical legends.
Now, if someone argues that the New Testament can’t be trusted, as a whole, because it has been textually corrupted, then I agree that apologists are correct in responding that this is false, because we have (mostly) reliable manuscripts. However, more erudite skeptics do not make this claim, but instead argue that the original text was not historically reliable. So the whole apologetic argument is irrelevant.
3. Textual Criticism Is Not a Wholistic Approach
Often times apologists claim that the text of the New Testament is 99% accurately preserved. First, this would be impossible to prove, since we don’t have the original autograph manuscripts. But more importantly, I think that this is the wrong way to look at the data. Textual criticism is more concerned with focusing on individual passages and whether there is a case to be made for an interpolation, rather than making vague generalizations about the whole. The New Testament has a number of fascinating interpolations within it that reflect later theological redactions. Anyone interested in this should pick up a copy of Bart Erhman’s Misquoting Jesus.
One of the most interesting textual discrepancies to me is the extended ending(s) of Mark 16. The Gospel of Mark has two alternate endings that appear in the manuscripts, both of which are later interpolations that change the somewhat abrupt ending of the Gospel, in which the women are too afraid to report the resurrection. The original ending of Mark had no post-mortem appearances of Jesus to his disciples, and later redactors felt the need to change this by adding extended endings to the gospel. That seems like a pretty big chip on textual accuracy to me. How about Jesus’ famous words, “let the one who has never sinned throw the first stone” (John 8:7)? It turns out that this is probably a later interpolation, as it does not appear in the earliest manuscripts.
Then there are potential interpolations that are of a theological character, such as the scene of Jesus’ baptism in Luke 3:22. Following Jesus’ baptism, some manuscripts have God’s voice call down from heaven and say, “You are my Son, today I have begotten you.” This reading was interpreted by early heresiologists, however, to reflect an adoptionist Christology, implying that Jesus did not pre-exist as the Son of God, but was only adopted as such at a later point. Possibly to correct this heresy, other manuscripts have a different reading, in which God’s voice says, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Such a contradiction between the manuscripts certainly is not just a trivial error, and these kinds of variant readings do show that there are substantive, theologically significant differences borne out in NT textual discrepancies.
Simply stating that the whole New Testament is 99% textually accurate takes attention away from key passages where there is a case to be made for theological redaction and not just mere grammatical errors. So my main advice would be to take textual criticism on a case-by-case basis, rather than just making blanket statements about the whole.
Put back into context, the argument from the “mountain of manuscripts” can do nothing that the apologists want it to: the numbers are not surprising when considered in their historical context, they do nothing to improve or save the historical accuracy of the New Testament, and they still do not prevent a number of theological redactions from being exposed when analyzing the text critically. This apologetic talking point is little more than a blown up number designed to dazzle people who are unfamiliar with the subject matter. I’ve told some of my Classics professors — who specialize in philology, paleography, and textual criticism — about this argument (such as the one Geisler made above), and they laugh at all the basic historical misconceptions. Exposing these misconceptions to the public and helping to educate people about actual scholarly methodology is a service that I work to provide.
 When it comes to the “mountain” of 5,800 Greek NT manuscript copies, even conservative textual critic Dan Wallace acknowledges, “it should be pointed out that most of our manuscripts come from the second millennium AD, and most of our manuscripts do not include the whole New Testament.” Here is a summary of the the distribution of the Greek NT manuscripts by date:
As can be seen, the vast majority of these texts date to after the 9th century CE, which was a time when Christian monks were dominating the apparatus of textual transmission in Europe. It is thus not surprising that more copies of the New Testament were produced than other literary works during this period.
If one excludes later medieval manuscripts, Wallace notes that only approximately 124 manuscripts “come within the first 300 years,” which is a considerably smaller number. Nevertheless, Wallace also states, “we have three times more New Testament manuscripts written within the first 200 years of the autographs than the average Greco-Roman writings have within 2000 years.” However, it is important to note that these early manuscripts come solely from the region of Egypt, where the arid climate is especially apt for preserving papyrus. As Classicist Peter van Minnen (“Dating the Oldest New Testament Manuscripts”) explains, “It is to be noticed that all the manuscripts [dating from the 2nd-4th centuries CE] come from Egypt.” Van Minnen also points out that these earliest Egyptian manuscripts do not eliminate the need for later medieval manuscripts:
“That is not to say that we can dispense with later manuscripts of the New Testament. With the exception of Sin. the oldest manuscripts are not complete. Moreover they contain scribal errors of all sorts. P46 is a case in point: it is the manuscript with the largest percentage of blunders on record! Most of this kind of errors can, however, be removed by comparing the readings of the oldest manuscripts. The remaining puzzles can only be solved by taking later manuscripts into account.”
So, these earliest manuscripts of the New Testament are both the most fragmentary and contain a large number of scribal errors. Regardless, the purpose of this article is to point out that, contrary to what Christian apologists like Norman Geisler claim, the increased manuscript copies of the New Testament has nothing to do with the historical accuracy of the text. This conclusion remains true, regardless of the number of NT manuscript copies that were produced in any period.
However, even when one also takes into account why a larger number of NT manuscript copies have survived, most of them were produced in the 9th-16th centuries CE, when Christians dominated the textual apparatus of Europe, and even the 124 (mostly fragmentary) manuscripts that were preserved from the 2nd-4th centuries CE owe their survival to the arid climate of Egypt, which was a large center of Christianity from the 2nd century CE onward.