It’s a question many scholars and laypeople have debated and discussed over the years: Can we trust the New Testament we possess today to be true to the original documents?
You might think there’s no way the New Testament is reliable. You might excuse away any evidence offered toward this topic. You’re not alone.
There is much opposition to the possibility that the New Testament is trustworthy. But after researching the topic myself, this is what I have concluded: We can stand upon the New Testament’s reliability with full confidence.
Apart from having faith that God can and will preserve his Word, there are four arguments that build a rock-solid case for why we can trust the New Testament.
First, the time gap between when the original Greek New Testament was estimated to have been written and our earliest surviving manuscript copies is very small—likely about 40-80 years! In contrast, Sophocles’ plays have a time gap of 100–200 years, and Homer’s Iliad and Livy’s History of Rome have time gaps of 400 years.
Second, the number of manuscripts we possess in comparison to other ancient texts is significantly higher. The New Testament wins every time by a landslide. We have about 5,800 Greek manuscripts of various lengths cataloged. The New Testament also was translated into other languages early on. Sophocles’ plays have roughly 190 manuscripts, Homer’s Iliad has over 1,800 manuscripts, and Livy’s History of Rome has about 150 manuscripts.
Why does this matter? With many manuscripts we can compare them with each other and find our way back to the original.
Third, when comparing the Greek New Testament manuscripts, you’ll find about 400,000 variants. Anyone would think this is an alarming number and wonder how we can be confident the text is reliable. But reliability is determined not by the number of variants, but their nature.
Most variants are misspellings or improper word order. In fact, 99% don’t affect the texts’ meaning. And if a variant has an effect on the text, there’s no hiding it. As you read the New Testament, you’ll find there are footnotes that indicate if a variant has any bearing in the text.
Fourth, outside sources, both Christian and non-Christian, affirm historical events in the New Testament. A couple of examples come from Cornelius Tacitus and Pliny the Younger.
In his Annals, Cornelius Tacitus, a non-Christian historian from A.D. 56–120, affirmed the existence of Jesus and the persecutions that early Christians endured (Annals 15:44).
Another non-Christian source is Pliny the Younger. This Roman governor wrote in a letter to Emperor Trajan what he learned from observing Christians. His excerpt affirms Christians met on a fixed day for worship, they believed Jesus to be God, and they held Jesus’ teachings in high regard (Book Ten, Letter 96).
So then, can we trust the New Testament?
The answer is a resounding “Yes!”
The New Testament manuscript copies we have were written relatively close to their originals, and we possess more manuscript copies than any other document of antiquity. Fewer than 1% of its variants are meaningful, and it has both Christian and non-Christian sources that affirm the events of the biblical account. If we are to question the reliability of the New Testament, I argue we should then question every other historical work, too, because the New Testament surpasses in authenticity any other work of antiquity.