Thanks to Vinny for pointing out an error I made in a claim in point 1 regarding classical scholars and reliability. I had left out an entire quote and sentence, that is updated now. Also, I found that we have about 643 manuscripts of Homer's Illiad. I think that's the next best ancient text next to the NT.
A good friend of mine posed this question to me the other night at the local watering hole. I think it is a question that is more prominently on people’s minds in our day than one might think. It is definitely a question I had to work through and know that many of my friends of the same age are trying to work through. Moreover, with the recent high-profile questioning of the reliability of the NT documents by notable ex-evangelical songwriter David Bazan who stated this issue as one of many things that has caused him to leave the faith of his youth, I have thought about the issue in the past few days and wanted to respond.
The argument basically goes like this: We do not have the original autographs (the autographa) of the New Testament writings, thus those documents have probably been corrupted in being passed down, how reliable can they really be?
Not claiming to be exhaustive I would just make a few points to this idea:
1) It is true. We don’t have the autographs. Anyone saying we do is delusional. But what we do have is about 5,000+ ancient copies of the Greek NT. This absolutely dwarfs any other piece of ancient literature ever written in terms of manuscript evidence. I believe the closest runner-up (correct me if I am wrong) is Homer’s Illiad with around 500 or so. Moreover, in comparison with other ancient literature, the latest possible dates for the earliest manuscripts of the NT (around 250 yrs. after the originals were written) we have are far closer to the originals than other ancient documents. Take the important ancient document, Ceasar’s Gallic War. This text is believed to have been composed around 58-50 BC. The earliest manuscript evidence we have of that text is from 9 or 10 good manuscripts 900 yrs. later. Or take the History of Thucydides (c. 460-400 BC) which is known to us from eight mss., the earliest belonging to about c. AD 900, and a few papyrus scraps belonging to the beginning of the Christian era. The same is true of the History of Herodotus (c. 488-428 BC). Yet as distinguished classicist scholar FF Bruce writes, "no classical scholar would listen to an argument that the authenticity of Herodotus or Thucydides is in doubt." So one can see, when it comes to the NT, no ancient document compares in the amount of copies that attest to it and in the proximity of those copies to the originals. All this evidence serves to solidify and not nullify confidence in the NT. Why?
2) In ancient times copies could only be produced by hand. Errors were bound to crop up. That was the nature of the business. So the plethora of copies actually helps to determine the original. A friend of mine gave me an example to explain this idea: Say I write a one-page letter. I then hire a copyist to make 10 copies of this letter. The original letter is then lost and so we are forced to come up with the original based on 10 copies. More than likely, any errors the copyist made will be in different spots in those 10 copies. Thus, we can put together the original based on comparing and contrasting the copies (this is the process of text criticism). Now if we only had 1 copy this would be impossible. If there was an error in that copy, we would not have anything to compare it to. Now think of the NT. We have 5,000+ copies, that is truly solid ground to stand on. We believe the autographa is contained in those copies. This is why we must undergo the messy job of text criticism of which some scholars have dedicated their entire lives to do.
3) Of all the text variants known to humanity, not one undermines any core doctrine of Christian orthodoxy. As NT scholar Dr. Steven Baugh has said, “no variant introduces insoluble heresy.” Moreover, of the variants we have to deal with, a vast majority make no difference to the meaning of a biblical passage. And many variants that do make a difference in the meaning of a passage, do not undermine a truth that can be found elsewhere in Scripture where there is not a variant reading. This should cause bible believing folks to have great confidence in what has been passed down.
4) We must remember that inerrancy is located in the autographs. Not the process of transmitting those autographs. But we know from comparing and contrasting the vast manuscript evidence that these autographs are contained in the Greek NT text as they stand or in the text variants found in the footnotes of our Greek bibles. That is why good English versions of the bible provide footnotes giving alternative readings due to text variants. You can be rest assured dear English reader, your bible is sound. Thus, as Dr. Baugh has said, “there are places where we have real doubts about what the original reading of the biblical text might be. Yet in no case can anyone responsibly assert that our Bible is full of errors which could undermine anyone's faith in the inerrant Word of God. If they do have doubts, it is not because of the facts of the case.”
In conclusion, it is true that we do not have the autographs of the NT. But when one takes a look at the evidence of the NT we do have, the facts do not destroy but support the reliability of the NT.
For further reading I recommend F. F. Bruce’s short book, "The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable?" And Dr. Steven Baugh’s short essay found here: http://www.wscal.edu/alumni/facreflections/baugh_variations_inerrancy.php. For people enjoying longer works, read Richard Bauckham’s book, "Jesus and the Eyewitnesses" or Craig Blomberg's "Historical Reliability of the Gospels."
Remember, just click on those book links, and I will receive points, its that easy...