Suppose you own a Bible, but it’s translated in a style that’s difficult to understand. Or maybe your Bible has simply worn out from years of usage. If so, you can easily walk into any Christian bookstore and pick up a different version of the Bible.
The earliest Christians couldn’t do that.
There was no “Polycarp Standard Version” or “Saint James Study Bible with Limited Edition Camel-Knee Binding” on anyone’s bookshelf, and there were no printing presses or photocopy machines. Early Christians read the Scriptures from codexes and scrolls. These copies of the Scriptures were hand-written from whatever manuscripts the copyists happened to possess when a copy was needed. And so, it was crucial for copyists to reproduce these texts accurately.
But did they?
What if the copies of the New Testament were corrupted over the centuries?
Certain skeptics give the impression that ancient copyists changed the biblical texts in ways that ought to worry Christians today. Here’s how one agnostic scholar describes the status of the New Testament manuscripts:
Not only do we not have the originals [of the Greek manuscripts of the New Testament], we don’t have the first copies of the originals.… What we have are copies made later—much later. … These copies differ from one another in so many places that we don’t even know how many differences there are. … Christianity … is a textually oriented religion whose texts have been changed, surviving only in copies that vary from one another, sometimes in highly significant ways.
Such statements suggest that the process of copying the Scriptures worked something like the Telephone Game (much like skeptics have depicted the oral histories you learned about in a previous chapter). In the Telephone game, of course, you might start with “I like pepperoni pizza” but end up with “Don’t let the purple aliens build pyramids when the zombies attack.” Could it be that the verses in the New Testament have been similarly corrupted by careless copyists? If so, even if the original New Testament texts told the truth, how can we be sure that what we read in the New Testament today is true, since it may have changed over the centuries? Has the message of Jesus been lost in transmission?
Truth be told, the skeptics’ claims are overblown. The New Testament has not changed significantly over the centuries, and nothing essential to the message of Jesus has been lost in transmission. In the first place, manuscripts weren’t copied a single time and then tossed aside, like the individual sentences whispered around the circle in a Telephone Game. Manuscripts were kept, repeatedly copied, and sometimes used to check later copies.
What’s more, textual critics today don’t start with the manuscripts left over at the end of the copying process, like the last sentence uttered in the Telephone Game. The Greek text that stands behind today’s New Testament is the result of careful reconstruction using the earliest surviving manuscripts, not a few leftovers at the end!
So, yes, copyists made mistakes, and some copyists even altered texts. And yet, such lapses were relatively rare. Copyists worked hard to keep their copies correct and, for the most part, they got it right. Even when they didn’t get it right, most of their mistakes were mere misspellings or slips of the pen—variants that are easy to spot and easily corrected. When it comes to more difficult variants, so many manuscripts and fragments of the New Testament have survived that scholars can almost always reconstruct the original reading of the text. In those few instances where uncertainty about the right reading remains, none of the possibilities changes anything that Christians believe about God or about his work in the world.
Many Manuscripts Means Many Variants
So did copyists make changes in the manuscripts?
Of course they did!
The copyists were human beings, and being human means making mistakes. Since God chose not to override their humanity as they copied the New Testament, these human beings were every bit as prone to short attention spans, poor eyesight, and fatigue as you or me. They had no eyeglasses or contact lenses to sharpen their vision, and they relied on the flickering light of lamps to see.
Since God did not “re-inspire” the text each time it was reproduced, sometimes the copyists miscopied their sources. Once in a while, they even tried to fix things that weren’t broken by changing words that they thought a heretic might misconstrue. The result is hundreds of thousands of copying variants scattered among the New Testament manuscripts.
One popular skeptic’s much-repeated soundbite is that “there are more variations among our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament”; this statement is technically true but—unless his listeners are aware of the vast number of New Testament manuscripts that survive today—it’s also a bit misleading. There are around 138,000 words in the Greek New Testament, and hundreds of thousands of variants can be found scattered among the Greek manuscripts— but that number of variants comes from adding up every difference in every surviving manuscript from the Greek New Testament. Well over 5,000 Greek New Testament manuscripts have been preserved as a whole or in part—more than any other text from the ancient world! With so many surviving manuscripts, it doesn’t take long for the number of variants to exceed the number of words in the Greek New Testament.
If only one manuscript of the New Testament had survived, there would have been zero variants (and this single manuscript would probably have become an idol to which people would make pilgrimages today!). But early Christians believed that all of God’s Word should be accessible to all of God’s people. And so, every church seemed to have possessed its own codexes of apostolic texts—and that’s why more than 5,000 whole or partial manuscripts survive today.
Spread across millions and millions of words in more than 5,000 manuscripts, the variations represent a small percentage of the total text. According to one scholar, the New Testament text is 92.6% stable. In other words, all these differences affect less than 8% of the New Testament text! What’s more, the overwhelming majority of these differences have to do with words that are misspelled or rearranged—differences that have no impact on the translation or meaning of the text.
What this means practically is that the text of the New Testament has been sufficiently preserved for us to recover the words that God intended and inspired. What’s more, several portions of the New Testament survive from the second century—a century or less after the time when God first inspired eyewitnesses of the risen Lord to write! The New Testament is, in fact, the best preserved text from the ancient world. Greek scholar D.A. Carson sums up the issue in this way: “The purity of text is of such a substantial nature that nothing we believe to be true, and nothing we are commanded to do, is in any way jeopardized by the variants.”
Portions of this blog post were contributed by Elijah Hixson.
 Bart Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2005), 7, 10–11, 69, 132, 208.
 See also Daniel B. Wallace, “Lost in Transmission,” Revisiting the Corruption of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2011), 31–33; Darrell Bock, (Nashville: Nelson, 2010), 71.
 See Bart Ehrman’s scholarly work The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993). In those relatively few instances where the text has been intentionally altered, it was not primarily heretics altering New Testament texts to fit their beliefs; it was often the orthodox altering texts for the perceived purpose of preventing misuse of the text by heretics. While one may take issue with some of Ehrman’s specific applications, his overall case is well-argued.
 Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus, 90.
 Ehrman (Misquoting Jesus, 89) places the high end of his estimate at 400,000. Careful statistical analysis by Peter Gurry has resulted in an estimate between 500,000 and 550,000, not including misspellings (“Demanding a Recount,” presentation, Evangelical Theological Society, 2014).
 The listing in 2003 included a total of 5,735 manuscripts of the Greek New Testament represented in whole or in part (Bruce Metzger and Bart Ehrman, The Text of the New Testament 4th ed. [New York: Oxford University Press, 2005], 50).
 K. Martin Heide, “Assessing the Stability of the Transmitted Texts of the New Testament and The Shepherd of Hermas,” The Reliability of the New Testament, ed. Robert Stewart (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2011), 138. This percentage coheres well with the seven percent figure for variants suggested by Paul Wegner, A Student’s Guide to Textual Criticism of the Bible (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2006), 231.
 Wallace, “Lost in Transmission,” 20–21.