The Bibliography of the New Testament

The Bodmer PapyrusIn a previous post, we examined the reliability of the Old Testament by testing it bibliographically. We found that despite the small amount of extant manuscripts, the few Massoretic texts that we do have are of outstanding integrity. This is proven by comparison with the Dead Sea Scrolls which predate the oldest Massoretic manuscript by about 1000 years. The reliability of the Old Testament, therefore, is proven bibliographically.

By contrast, the reliability of the New Testament is not only proven by the integrity of extant copies, but it is confirmed even further by an overwhelming number of manuscripts that we have today. It has been said that on the basis of manuscript evidence alone, the documents that make up the New Testament are the most frequently copied and widely distributed books of antiquity.

We will put the New Testament to the same bibliographical test by examining the number of extant manuscripts in comparison to other works of antiquity and by examining the accuracy within those manuscripts. We will also mention the support that is provided by the variety of translations and the writings of the Church Fathers.

Manuscript Evidence

Number of Manuscripts
The very number of known extant manuscripts is mind boggling. No other work comes close. There are over 5,300 known Greek manuscripts of the New Testament. There are over 10,000 copies in Latin, along with 9,300 other early copies in other languages. The estimated total is more than 24,000 manuscript copies of portions of the NT.

Comparison: The next closest work of antiquity would be Homer’s Iliad which has only 643 copies to its name that still survive.

Date of Manuscripts
The two oldest extant manuscripts of the New Testament are Codex Vaticanus and Codex Siniaticus. These are two copies of the entire New Testament which date back to the 4th century. Older than these are the fragments of the New Testament which date from 100 to 200 years (180-225 AD) before Vaticanus and Siniaticus, the most famous of those being the Chester Beatty Papyrus and the Bodmer Papyrus II, XIV, XV.

Do not be fooled by the term fragments. Even without the complete copies of Vaticanus and Siniaticus, those five fragments contain all of Luke, John, Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, Hebrews, and portions of Matthew, Mark, Acts, and Revelation. Only Titus, 1 and 2 Timothy, James, 1 and 2 Peter, 1, 2, and 3 John and Philemon are excluded.

The oldest piece of Scripture surviving dates back to ca. 125 AD. It is known as the Rylands Papyrus and is a fragment of a papyrus codex which contains John 18:31-33 and 37. That puts a fragment within one generation of its original composition, entire books within 100 years of the autograph, and a copy of the entire New Testament within 250 years of the date of its completion.

Comparison: Again, the next closest would be Homer’s Iliad. The first complete preserved text of Homer dates from the 13th century, almost 500 years from the time of the original. The average time between the writing of the original and earliest copy is over 1,000 years for other works of antiquity.

These numbers and comparisons do not seem to mean much until they are held up in chart form. There are many charts out there, and this one will not be much different except for being a little more concise.


Date of Original

Date of Earliest Copy


Number of Copies


100-44 BC

AD 900

1,000 years



59 BC-AD 17


Plato – Tetralogies

427-347  BC

AD 900

12,000 years


Tacitus – Annals

AD 100

AD 1,100

1,000 years


Pliny – History

AD 61-113

AD 850

750 years


Thucydides – History

460-400 BC

AD 900

1,300 years



384-322 BC

AD 1100

1,400 years


Homer – Iliad

900 BC

400 BC

500 years


New Testament

AD 40-100

AD 125

25 years


Accuracy of Manuscripts
Despite the enormous quantity of extant manuscripts, accuracy and consistency between the numerous copies are no less than astounding. The New Testament contains about 20,000 lines. Of those, only 40 are questioned. That leaves the New Testament manuscripts with over 99.5% accuracy.

Comparison: Most books do not have enough manuscripts to provide a good comparison. Those that do simply do not come close to the accuracy of New Testament manuscripts. The closest are the Indian the Mahabharata and Homer’s Iliad. Norman Geisler records Bruce Metzger’s comparison of these two with the Bible. Metzger found the following:


Number of Lines

Lines in Doubt

Percentage of Accuracy





Homer’s Iliad




New Testament




Support of Various Versions

It is common knowledge that ancient literature was rarely translated into another language. However, because of the missionary nature of the Christian faith, versions of the New Testament in Syriac, Latin, and Coptic were prepared for the natives of the respective regions. Syriac and Latin versions of the New Testament were made around AD 150. This brings us back very near to the time of the originals. To date there are more than 15,000 existing copies of the various versions.

Support of Church Fathers

Sir David Dalrymple was once asked the question, “Suppose that they had been destroyed, and every copy of it lost by the end of the third century, could it have been collected together again from the writings of the Fathers of the second and third centuries?” Owning all the works of the Fathers of the second and third centuries, he searched and found the entire New Testament except for eleven verses.

By comparing these numbers, the fact is made crystal clear that concerning its bibliographical integrity, the New Testament is in a class by itself. No other piece of classical literature enjoys that wealth of manuscript attestation. It is not simply that there is more evidence for the bibliography of the New Testament. There is so much more that one has to recognize the striking contrast as telling of the nature of the Bible.

Simply being honest with ourselves leads us to conclude, from the perspective of literary evidence, that the Bible is nothing to disregard as just another religious book. It is in a class all its own. We realize that this does not out and out prove the supernatural origin of the Bible. However, it does go a long way in establishing the reasonableness of believing it to be so.

Concerning Sources:
When it comes to a topic such as this we truly stand on the shoulders of giants. There a number of definitive, reliable sourses on this topic. I relied most heavily upon these three:

  • From God To Us:How We Got Our Bible
    by Norman Geisler & William Nix
  • The Origin of the Bible
    editor – Philip W. Comfort; contributors – F. F. Bruce, J. I. Packer, Carl F. H. Henry, 
  • Evidence for Christianity
    by Josh McDowell

3 comments so far

  1. Martin on

    Asking for permission to use one of your pictures for a presentation on the History of Bible Translation…

    To whom it might concern

    I am a Bibletranslator in Mexiko and am putting together a Powerpoint presentation for indigenous people and churches to learn more about the History of Bible Translation and how God communicates to us. The Powerpoint is not meant to create any financial gains and is not to be sold in any way. I saw a picture and am wondering if I could use it for my powerpoint.

    The picture with the Dead Sea Scroll I would like to use.

    Do you give me permission to use this picture for my powerpoint?
    I would appreciate, if you could let me know as soon as possible.

    Thanks and blessings,

    Martin Eberle

  2. DT on

    The picture is from the internet – we don’t know of its original source. So I don’t know if I can give you permission per se, but I think it’s a public file and can be used.

  3. Wilbur J. McElwain on

    The interval for Plato in the table is incorrect by a factor of 10

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