Manuscript Evidence for the Reliability of the New Testament
Left: a leaf from Codex Vaticanus. Click on the image to see a larger view.
When we say that the Bible has over 25,000 early manuscripts that prove its reliability, we are talking about mainly documents from the fifth century onward. These are “early” compared to the documents supporting most other ancient works. Yet there are about one hundred early manuscripts from the second to the fourth century that were not known to us until the late 1800s and the most significant of these have been rediscovered in the last 60 years.
To understand why so many of the early manuscript copies have been lost, we need to first look at two mediums for writing that were used in ancient times, papyrus and vellum.
Papyrus is similar to modern day paper – it was durable and inexpensive – yet most papyrus could not last more than a few hundred years without crumbling into dust. Therefore, most of the papyrus manuscripts from more than 1500 years ago are fragments, decaying pages or at best books with significant parts missing.
Vellum is made from animal skins processed into parchments used for writing. The oldest scrolls and books from ancient times are parchments of the highest quality. The problem with vellum is that even though it was available during the time of the first writing of the New Testament, it was expensive and only became a common medium for the New Testament when the church became state-sponsored at the time of the Emperor Constantine in 325 A.D.
In fact, Constantine commissioned Bishop Eusebius of Caesarea to produce 50 copies of the complete Bible on vellum in 332 A.D. The two oldest nearly complete biblical manuscripts we have from ancient times, Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus were probably copied sometime between 325 to 350 A.D. Many think that these are copies from one of Eusebius’ manuscripts and perhaps two of the original 50 manuscripts, although some think Vaticanus may be a few years older than Eusebius’ copies.
Codex Vaticanus contains nearly the entire Bible except for Genesis 1:1–46:2 and ends abruptly at Hebrews 9:14 lacking also 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon and Revelation. Thus the beginning and end of the manuscript were lost. Yet despite its great importance, Vaticanus was almost unknown prior to the 1800s. It had been in the possession of the Vatican library since at least the 1300s, hence the name, but no one knew exactly how old it actually was and was inaccessible to scholars until the end of the 1800s.
Likewise, Codex Sinaiticus was discovered in 1859 by Constantin Tischendorf in a convent at the foot of Mount Sinai. Tischendorf wrote that the codex was actually in a pile of parchments waiting to be burned as trash when he rescued it! Sinaiticus contains the entire Greek Bible, plus the Epistle of Barnabas and most of the Shepherd of Hermas (early Christian writings which were widely used in teaching). It is believed to be from the fourth century, but later than Vaticanus. The two great codices are in general agreement and both attest to the general reliability of the received text. In fact, Codex Vaticanus was later used by Hort and Westcott in their edition, The New Testament in the Original Greek (1881).
For those wanting to research for themselves the textual reliability of the New Testament over two millennia, I suggest purchasing an interlinear Greek New Testament that has a literal word for word rendering in English above each Greek word in the text and usually a modern English translation of the scriptures in the side column. The simple conclusion any honest inquirer will draw is that the New Testament scriptures have come down to us in virtually unaltered form.