To put this in perspective, most ancient historical writings of high regard have around a couple hundred manuscripts. Plato’s Tetralogies have about 237. The plays of Sophocles have about 226. The next runner-up after the New Testament is Homer’s Iliad, with around 1,900 manuscripts. Compared to the average ancient text, that’s incredible. But compared to the New Testament, it’s really small.We also have a lot of manuscripts written very early after the original. According to New Testament scholar Dan Wallace, a manuscript specialist, “Today we have as many as 12 manuscripts from the second century, 64 from the third, and 48 from the fourth — a total of 124 manuscripts within 300 years of the composition of the New Testament. Most of these are fragmentary, but the whole New Testament text is found in this collection multiple times.” If a manuscript lasts an average of several hundred years, then the earliest manuscripts we have may well be only a small handful of generations removed from the original. If there were only a few generations of copies, we would expect the manuscripts to be pretty close. There would be some spelling differences, some words missing or copied twice by mistake. And for the most part, that’s all we get when comparing our earliest manuscripts. But that’s no reason to doubt our confidence in what the original would have said.
For the sake of example, let’s say I have four different manuscripts which read as follows:
Everyone left for home when the party died down. Everyone left for home as the party died down. Everyone left as the party died down. Everyone left for home when the pary died down.Even after all these differences, do you have a sense of what the original was trying to communicate? Certainly! When the party died down, people went home.
The exact wording is less clear. But the fourth manuscript has an obvious spelling mistake (“pary” instead of “party”). One of them doesn’t mention the people going home, but all the others do. It’s not clear whether people left “when” or “as” the party died down, but the meaning is essentially the same. With actual manuscripts we would have more to go by, like the dating. So let’s imagine that the earliest ones used the word “when,” making reading 1 most likely the closest to the original. If we turned to the internal evidence for these manuscripts, looking at the larger context of the writing, looking at the typical styles and writing behaviors of the authors, we might be able to get even closer to an accurate and confident assessment of what the original text would have said.