“Dear Father, I have always wondered how we can be sure that our texts of the New Testament bear any resemblance to the originals written two thousand years ago. Can you help me?”
You ask a very important question. Most of us accept without questioning that the texts we use today are a faithful rendering of the originals, which of course are no longer in existence. Naturally, if we don’t have the originals we cannot be absolutely sure that our texts match them perfectly, but that is the case with all ancient writings. In the case of the New Testament, we are on very solid ground, much more solid than with practically any other ancient writing.
When a document was written thousands of years ago it was copied successively many times, with the first copies being copied again, and all this was done of course by hand. It is only natural that when copies are made of other copies errors can creep in. But when the extant copies are numerous, and they come from widely differing geographical regions, and moreover they date back to a time close to when the original was written, we can be more confident that they are a faithful copy of the original. That is the case with the New Testament.
Added to this, when there are translations of the documents made relatively early on, the translations can be compared with each other and so it is possible to work back to the original, even if there are no extant copies in the original language. In the case of the New Testament, practically all of which was written in Greek, in addition to numerous Greek manuscripts we also have early translations in such languages as Latin, Syriac and Coptic, and then secondary translations made from these in languages like Armenian, Gothic, Georgian, Ethiopic…
But that is not all. In the case of the New Testament, even if we didn’t have any of these manuscripts, there are still numerous quotations of New Testament writings in the many commentaries on Scripture, sermons, letters and other writings of the early Church Fathers, so that we could reproduce a great part of the New Testament from them. When all of these writings are compared with each other, it is possible to establish with great accuracy the original text.
If we look at other ancient writings, we see how blessed we are with the New Testament. For example, of the Roman historian Tacitus’ Annals of Imperial Rome, written around 116 AD, there is only one extant manuscript of the first six books and it was copied around 850 AD. Of books eleven to sixteen there is another manuscript dating from the eleventh century, while books seven to ten are lost altogether.
And of Josephus’ The Jewish War, written around 75 AD in Aramaic or Hebrew, there are only nine Greek manuscripts in existence, dating from the tenth, eleventh and twelfth centuries, plus a Latin translation from the fourth century.
By comparison, we have over five thousand manuscripts of the New Testament in Greek alone. The earliest of these were written on papyrus, which grew in the Nile delta in Egypt.
The most significant are the Chester Beatty Biblical Papyri, which date back to the beginning of the third century and were discovered in 1930. They contain portions of the four Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, the letters of St Paul, Hebrews and the book of Revelation. Moreover, there are other papyrus manuscripts which date back to the beginning of the third century as well.
The very earliest fragment of a papyrus manuscript, containing five verses of chapter eighteen of St John’s Gospel, is dated between 100 and 150 AD, judging from the style of the script. Considering that the Gospel itself was probably written towards the end of the first century in Ephesus in Asia Minor, that is a very early copy indeed and it was made in Egypt, a long way from where the Gospel itself was written.
As regards the number of extant manuscripts of other ancient works, next after the New Testament comes Homer’s Iliad, of which there are fewer than 650 manuscripts, some of them quite fragmentary. The work was written around 800 BC and the manuscripts are from the second and third centuries AD, a long time after the original was written.
So we are on very solid ground indeed in knowing the original text of the New Testament.