There are only two brief passages in the whole New Testament that might be regarded as substantive textual variations, namely the last twelve verses of Mark’s Gospel and the account of the adulterous woman in John 7:53–8:11. To put this in perspective, if the average printed Bible consists of around 1,200 pages, these two paragraphs comprise less than half a page! Considering the volume and antiquity of the biblical writings and the countless number of times they have been hand-copied, recopied, and passed down through the centuries in the harshest of circumstances, the amount of variant readings is negligible.
The Gallic Wars of Julius Caesar is preserved in only ten surviving manuscripts, the earliest of which is about nine centuries removed from the original. There are merely seven extant copies of Pliny’s Natural History, with a gap of around 750 years between the initial work and the oldest available manuscript. The History of Thucydides and the History of Herodotus are known from only eight copies each that are separated from the originals by approximately 1,300 years. And despite the scant textual evidence supporting these ancient works, one would be hard pressed to find a reputable historian, classicist, or even theologian who would dare question their historical value and credibility.
In comparison, the number of surviving manuscripts of the New Testament is exceedingly greater than that of any other ancient literary work. Not counting texts inscribed on potsherds and amulets, there are no less than 5,735 Greek New Testament manuscripts, the earliest of which date back to within decades of the originals. To this can be added the thousands of manuscripts translated into Syriac, Latin, and other languages, plus plethoric quotations from early ecclesiastical writers. The unique challenge of New Testament textual criticism is not the scarcity of the documentary evidence but the unparalleled quantity! As the late F. F. Bruce has pointedly observed, "if the New Testament were a collection of secular writings, their authenticity would generally be regarded as beyond all doubt" (New Testament Documents 10).
--Kevin L. Moore
1 See The Ending of Mark Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.
Related Posts: Changes in the Bible? Part 1, Oral Transmission