The Manuscript Evidence of the Greek New Testament

Copyright © 2005, 2006, 2015 by Larry G. Overton

manuscript evidenceThe authenticated, original signed copy of the apostle Paul’s letter to the Galatians no longer exists. The same may be said of the apostle John’s first edition of the Gospel that bears his name, or of any other of the originals of New Testament books. The original or autographic manuscripts of the books of the New Testament (hereafter, NT) have not survived. And this comes as no surprise, given the fact that the books of the New Testament were originally composed over the span of a single generation in the last half of the first century AD. They are the better part of 2,000 years old. It is understandable, then, that the original manuscripts disappeared a long time ago.

Should this fact be cause for concern for the Christian? No, not at all. The NT is no less reliable than any other literary work from antiquity. You see, the same thing may be said concerning the autographs of most every other piece of ancient literature. Whether one considers ancient literary works written in Greek (from Homer on down to Plutarch) or in Latin (from Julius Caesar to Marcus Aurelius), the originals have not survived down to our day. So it may truthfully be said that other ancient works have this in common with the NT. And taking a closer look at the documentary evidence for the NT—the wealth and antiquity of Greek manuscripts that are extant, the versions and quotations that exist—only serves to strengthen one’s faith in the reliability of the NT text.

Surviving Manuscripts

First of all, whenever the subject of discussion turns to the attestation of an ancient work by means of manuscripts (hereafter, MSS; singular, MS), there is no comparison. The manuscript evidence attesting to other ancient works of the Greco-Roman world don’t even come close to evidence available for the NT. The number of Greek MSS extant is well over 5,700.[1] Granted, most of these MSS do not contain the whole NT. Many are quite fragmentary. Even so, there are literally thousands of Greek MSS attesting to the NT in whole or in part, and the sheer number of MSS available provides us with a large base of evidence for comparing and correlating the readings of the Greek text of the NT.

Chronological Proximity

And in addition to the sheer number of MSS of the Greek NT that have survived, there is the matter of their chronological proximity to the original writings. In other words, how near in number of years the surviving MS copy is to the original document, the date of composition. In this respect also, the NT is better attested than any other ancient work.

Consider Homer’s Iliad, perhaps the best attested ancient work next to the NT. There are more than 600 MS copies of it extant. The earliest MS copy of Homer’s writings is a fragment of a single leaf of a papyrus codex, generously dated to the second century AD, a gap of nearly a thousand years between the original composition and the oldest copy.[2] Most ancient works don’t even fare that well. Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars is known to us primarily from only 9-10 good MSS, and the oldest of them is some 900 years removed from the original. Both the Histories and the Annals of Tacitus are dependent on just two MSS, one from the ninth century AD and the other from the eleventh, 800 and 1,000 years later than the originals.[3]

The NT, by contrast, has good MS attestation in this respect also. The earliest uncial MSS date from the mid to late fourth century AD, and the papyri MSS date from very early in the second century AD (P52, the John Rylands Fragment) to the third century, which translates into a proximity of a few decades to a couple of centuries. Thus the body of MS evidence for the NT enjoys not only a wealth of MS copies in terms of sheer numbers, but is also rich in terms of the chronological proximity of its copies to the autographs.

The Evidence of Versions

Besides the evidence of the Greek MSS, there are tens of thousands of MS copies of ancient translations of the NT. The most famous of these is Jerome’s Latin Vulgate. Something like 8,000 MS copies of the Vulgate have survived. Many MSS of “Old Latin” versions that predated Jerome have also survived. Then there are the Syriac (dialects of Aramaic) versions, the most famous of which is the Peshitta (“simple”), a product of the fifth century AD. Also, there are numerous MSS of ancient versions in the dialects of Coptic and in Ethiopic (North African languages), as well as Armenian, Georgian and Gothic versions.

The Evidence of Quotations

There are hundreds upon hundreds of thousands of quotations from the NT in the writings of ancient theologians (a group typically referred to by the misnomer “Church Fathers”). It has been said that even if all other forms of witness to the text of the Greek NT were to be destroyed, virtually the whole of it could be reproduced just from these ancient quotations.

The logical conclusion drawn from all this evidence is a renewed confidence in the NT text. In terms of the sheer number of MSS of the Greek NT that have survived, in terms of their chronological proximity to the autographs, and in terms of attestation in quotations and in ancient translations, the NT is the best attested, most reliably transmitted ancient book in the world. To say otherwise betrays either an ignorance of the facts or a prejudice against the NT.

 [1] The current count (accessed 03-21-2015) of cataloged MSS in each of the four categories is according to Daniel Wallace, founder of The Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts ( See also the Institut für Neutestamentliche Textforschung (“Institute for New Testament Textual Research”) in Münster, Germany, and the Nestle-Aland Novum Testamentum Graece, 28th edition.

  • Papyri                     128
  • Uncials                    322
  • Minuscules            2,926
  • Lectionaries          2,462
  • Total                    5,838

However, this count needs some qualification. As Rodney J. Decker observed on his web page “Resources for New Testament Studies” in 2005, “It should be noted that the actual number of MSS in some cases are slightly less than this, since some MSS originally cataloged separately have since been identified as belonging to the same MS. Also, a few numbers in some of the sequences have not been used.”

[2] Bruce M. Metzger, The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration, p. 34; Alan J. B. Wace & Frank H. Stubbings, A Companion to Homer, 229-232 (notes 3, 4, 40); Norman L. Geisler & William E. Nix, A General Introduction to the Bible, pgs. 404f, 408.

[3] F. F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? p. 16.