Overview > Is
the New Testament reliable? > Bibliographical Test
This is an examination of the textual transmission by which the documents
reached us. As we no longer have the original documents, how reliable
are the copies we currently have? How can we be sure that the documents
we have, are accurate copies of the originals? How can we be sure that
there have not been significant changes or errors made in the process
of copying over the years?
The Bibliographical test examines textual transmission i.e. do we
have accurate copies of what was originally recorded?
- How many copies of the document are available and what variances
exist between the copies?
- More than 24000 manuscript copies in multiple languages /
translations. Located over a wide geographical area (Egypt,
Palestine, Syria, Turkey, Greece, Italy)
- Textual criticism (examining copyist errors, corruptions)
finds that there are only minor variations (spelling, phraseology,
etc.) and is able to state that we can be 99% sure that we have
accurate copies of the originals. What's more, no core belief
of Christianity is dependant on any textual variant.
- What length of time is there between the original and our
earliest existing copy?
- Several fragments have been dated within 50-150 years of
the original documents. Several nearly complete NT manuscripts
dating within 300-400 years of the original. In fact, there
are 500 different copies of the NT that are earlier than 500
- Other classical manuscripts considered historically trustworthy
- Iliad - earliest copy 500 years and 642 current copies
- Pliny - 750 years and 7 copies
- Plato - 1200 years and 7 copies
- Livy - 350 years and 20 copies
- Additional evidence against the claim that there were purposeful
- Practically impossible
- All copies and language versions agree in content
- T can be reconstructed from the early Church Fathers writings
- No time for the falsifications to occur or any evidence evidence
to support this claim.
In order to establish that we have accurate copies of the original
documents, the Bibliographical test examines the following questions:
- How many copies of the document in question are available and what
variances exist between the copies? 
This enables us to compare the copies with each other. The more copies
we have the better the comparisons that we can make. If the copies
of a document are filled with significant differences, then it would
not be possible to know what the original author wrote! But if the
variances are few and minor, then the process of copying over the
years has been faithful to the original.
- What length of time passed between the original and the earliest
If the earliest copies we have were written hundreds of years after
the original, a lot of changes could have been made and we wouldn't
know about it. But a short interval of time would increase our assurance
in the reliability of the copies.
How many copies of New Testament manuscripts are available?
There are now over 5,300 known Greek manuscripts; over 10 000 Latin
Vulgate manuscripts and at least 9300 other early versions (e.g. Ethiopic,
Slavic, Armenian, Arabic). If we add these all together, there are more
than 24 000 manuscript copies of portions of the New Testament in existence
today! [5 p. 39]
Lets us compare this amount with the number of copies of other ancient
historical writings: [5 p. 42]
a) The 'Iliad' by Homer has the second greatest number of
manuscript copies of any work of antiquity. There are 643 manuscript
copies. Here are some examples of other works of antiquity:
b) Caesar's "Gallic wars" (10 manuscript copies)
c) Livy (20 manuscript copies)
d) Plato's 'Tetralogies' (7 manuscript copies)
e) Pliny The Younger's 'History' (7 manuscript copies)
f) Sophocles (193 manuscript copies)
The number of manuscript copies of the New Testament far surpasses
the number of copies of any other ancient document.
What length of time passed between the original and the earliest copies?
Several papyrus fragments, which contain significant portions of the
New Testament, have been dated to within 50-150 years of the original
New Testament documents.  Examples
a) John Ryland's MS (130 AD) contains a portion of the Gospel
of John and was found in Egypt
b) Bodmer Papyrus II (150-200 AD) contains most of John
c) Chester Beatty Papyri (200 AD) contains major portions of the New
We also have several nearly complete New Testament Greek manuscripts,
which were copied within 300-400 years of the originals ,
a) Codex Sinaiticus (350 AD), found near Mt. Sinai
b) Codex Alexandrinus (400 AD), found near Alexandria in Egypt
c) Codex Vaticanus (325-350AD), located at the Vatican in Rome
In fact, there are 500 different copies of the New Testament that
are earlier than 500 AD. [1 p. 162]
Let us again compare this with other classical manuscripts :
a) The 'Iliad' by Homer - the earliest copy is 500 years
removed from the original
b) Caesar's "Gallic wars" - 1000 years
c) Livy - 350 years (and the earliest copy is only a fragment).
d) Plato's 'Tetralogies' - 1200 years.
e) Pliny The Younger's 'History' - 750 years.
Since scholars accept as generally trustworthy the writings of the
ancient classics, even though the earliest manuscripts were written
so long after the original writings and the number of existing manuscripts
is in many instances so small, it is clear that the reliability of the
text of the New Testament is likewise assured.[6
What variances exist between the copies of the New Testament
The process of critically studying a text, examining the copyists'
errors, omissions, additions and other corruptions which have crept
into the text since it was first written is known as textual criticism.
Scholars use this process to determine how much of the document we are
able to recover and designate as authentic.
With respect to the New Testament, there are some variations between
the many thousands of manuscripts available. However, the vast majority
are very minor (spelling, differences in phraseology, etc.) and modern
translations of the New Testament text often note the differences in
Textual criticism of the New Testament documents is no different from
textual criticism of any other secular texts. 
Having said this, it is significant to note that textual criticism has
been able to recover the New Testament text with 99% accuracy. We are
able to say that 99% of our current copy of the New Testament documents
is an accurate copy of the originals! Furthermore, no doctrine (core
belief) of Christianity is dependent on any textual variant. 
Comments on Collusion
One objection that is sometimes raised is that the later church conspired
to eliminate discrepancies and made purposeful changes to the text of
the New Testament. Although we examine this claim more thoroughly in
the Internal Evidence Test (the section on possible Gospel Fictions),
it is worth making certain points here.
Textual conspiracies such as are often suggested would be practically
impossible - there is no way that the church could have eliminated ALL
known readings of a given text! 
No other ancient work is available in so many copies and languages,
and yet all these various versions agree in content. [1
The numerous manuscripts were located over a wide geographical distribution
(for example Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Turkey, Greece, and Italy). Yet,
there are only trifling discrepancies. The differences that do exist
are quite minor and are predominately the result of unintentional mistakes.
[1 p. 194] & 
The New Testament documents could not have been corrupted without
a great outcry on the part of all orthodox Christians. [1
The quotations of the New Testament books by the early church Fathers
all coincide. [1 p. 195] In fact, the
early church Fathers quote the New Testament so extensively that all
of the New Testament, except for eleven verses, can be found in their
existing works. [5 p. 51]
There is no precise time when the falsification could have occurred
as the New Testament documents are cited by the church Fathers in regular
and close succession. The text could not have been falsified before
the church Fathers writings, as then the apostles were still alive and
could refute such tampering. [1 p. 195]
Also working against any idea that some important text was lost or
added is evidence that textual criticism was already in process as early
as the second and third century. Origen complains of negligence and
audacity by scribes; Jerome takes note of various scribal errors, and
so on. They were on guard against any variations. 
The text of the New Testament is every bit as reliable as the text
of the classical works of antiquity. To reject the textual reliability
of the New Testament would be to reverse all the rules of criticism
and to reject all the works of antiquity, since the text of those works
is less certain than that of the New Testament. [1
There is no solid textual evidence to support the idea that the church
made deliberate changes to the New Testament. 
Bibliographical Test Conclusion
The evidence for our New Testament writings is so much greater than
the evidence for many writings of classical authors, the authenticity
of which no one dreams of questioning. 
Most historians accept the textual accuracy of other ancient works
on far less adequate manuscript grounds than is available for the
The New Testament passes the tests for historical documents better
than any other ancient historical document, and we can safely say
that our present New Testament text is a very accurate copy of the
Now that we have established the textual reliability of the New
Testament, we need to establish whether its accounts are historically
reliable. This leads us to the internal and external evidence tests.