Do We Have What The New Testament Authors Wrote?

This entry is part 35 of 36 in the series What is Textual Criticism?

I’ve spent over a year researching and writing about Greek New Testament Manuscripts1 and New Testament Textual Criticism2. My goal was to find out if the New Testament has been reliably transmitted to us over nearly two thousand years. The simple answer is: yes!

There were many, many mistakes made in copying the New Testament, but mistakes in an individual manuscript3 can be corrected using other manuscripts that don’t have errors in the same place. In my article Was the Bible Copied Like Links in a Chain or a Tangled Ball of String?, I showed that scribes didn’t simply copy errors in a manuscript, and make new errors, but often used multiple manuscripts to verify their work was accurate. Later scribes, called correctors, would also correct mistakes the original scribe made. If the Bible had been copied like links in a chain, each link completely depending on the last link, one link breaking would mean there’s corruption in the text. On the other hand, if a few threads in the ball of string break, there are many other threads holding the ball together.

The first article I wrote about textual criticism was about a year before I started my current studies, and it was titled What is “Aunt Sally’s Secret Sauce”?. The article is a simple analogy showing how the original manuscripts could have been lost, but the contents of the manuscripts could still have been reliably reproduced.

No one knows how long the autographs4 of the New Testament lasted5, but some of them may have been around for a few centuries. The Church Father Tertullian lived about A.D. 155-240, and wrote about the authentic writings of the Apostles. Tertullian claimed the Apostolic writings were still available 100 years or more (possibly closer to 175 years) after the New Testament authors wrote their books.

Come now, you who would indulge a better curiosity, if you would apply it to the business of your salvation, run over the apostolic churches, in which the very thrones of the apostles are still pre-eminent in their places, in which their own authentic writings are read, uttering the voice and representing the face of each of them severally. Achaia is very near you, (in which) you find Corinth. Since you are not far from Macedonia, you have Philippi; (and there too) you have the Thessalonians. Since you are able to cross to Asia, you get Ephesus. Since, moreover, you are close upon Italy, you have Rome, from which there comes even into our own hands the very authority (of apostles themselves).6

Peter, Bishop of Alexandria, martyred in A.D. 311, claims the autograph of the Gospel of John was still available for people to see in Ephesus.

…John, the divine and evangelist, teaches us in the Gospel written by him, where he thus speaks: “Then led they Jesus from Caiaphas unto the hall of judgment: and it was early; and they themselves went not into the judgment-hall, lest they should be defiled, but that they might eat the passover.” And after a few things more. “When Pilate therefore heard that saying, he brought Jesus forth, and sat down in the judgment-seat, in a place that is called the Pavement, but in the Hebrew, Gabbatha. And it was the preparation of the passover, and about the third hour,” as the correct books render it, and the copy itself that was written by the hand of the evangelist, which, by the divine grace, has been preserved in the most holy church of Ephesus, and is there adored by the faithful.7

The official catalog of Greek New Testament manuscripts, the K-List8, lists 20 existing manuscripts of the Gospel According to John written before A.D. 300. Could any of them have been copied directly from the original referred to by Bishop Peter? It’s possible. How Many New Testament Manuscripts Exist? There are over 5,000 Greek New Testament manuscripts, and over 20,000 manuscripts in other languages.

The time gap between the autographs and the earliest extant copies is quite close—no more than 100 years for most of the books of the New Testament. Thus, we are in a good position to recover most of the original wording of the Greek New Testament. Such optimism was held by the well-known textual critics of the nineteenth century—most notably, Samuel Tregelles, B. F. Westcott, and F. J. A. Hort, who, although acknowledging that we may never recover all of the original text of the New Testament books with absolute certainty, believed that the careful work of textual criticism could bring us extremely close. In the twentieth century, two eminent textual critics, Bruce Metzger and Kurt Aland, affirmed this same purpose, and were instrumental in the production of the two critical editions of the Greek New Testament that are widely used today. Tregelles, Hort, Metzger, and Aland, as well as Constantine von Tischendorf, the nineteenth-century scholar who famously discovered Codex Sinaiticus, all provided histories of the transmission of the New Testament text and methodologies for recovering the original wording. Their views of textual criticism were derived from their actual experience of working with manuscripts and doing textual criticism in preparing critical editions of the Greek New Testament. Successive generations of scholars, working with ever-increasing quantities of manuscripts (especially earlier ones) and refining their methodologies, have continued with the task of recovering the original wording of the Greek New Testament.9

The evidence shows the New Testament (actually, the whole Bible) has been transmitted to us reliably, in spite of many unintentional mistakes, some well-intentioned revisions, and some deliberate attempts to corrupt the Bible. The Greek New Testaments that modern English translations are based on have some errors in them, but none that falsify Christianity, or change any major doctrine.


Series Navigation<< What is the Purpose of Textual Criticism?Is New Testament Textual Criticism Important? >>


  1. What are New Testament Manuscripts?
  2. What is Textual Criticism?
  3. A manuscript is any handwritten document. For the purposes of New Testament Textual Criticism, a manuscript is part of the New Testament, handwritten before the first printed Bible in 1455.
  4. The first copy, by the original writer or approved by the author.
  5. How Long did the Autograph or Original New Testament Manuscripts Last?
  6. Tertullian (A.D. 155-240). The Prescription Against Heretics, Chapter 36 (CCEL)
  7. Peter of Alexandria. Fragment 5, Section 1, Paragraph 7. (CCEL) (emphasis added)
  8. What is the Kurzgefasste Liste der griechischen Handschriften des Neuen Testaments?
  9. Andrews, Edward D. From Spoken Words to Sacred Texts: Introduction-Intermediate to New Testament Textual Studies (Cambridge, Ohio: Christian Publishing House, 2020; Kindle) Location 2532.(Amazon)

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