There are over 24,000 ancient fragments and manuscripts of the New Testament in existence today. We find additional Biblical documents all the time; our collection continues to grow. Compared to other ancient texts (like the Iliad, for example, with less than 2,000 ancient fragments or copies), the New Testament is singularly unique among ancient literature. The robust number of copies we possess is important and directly related to the level of confidence we can have about the original text. Given the number of manuscripts we have to compare to one another, we can rest assured that the New Testament we read today is a reliable reflection of the original text. I sometimes use analogies from cold case crime scenes to illustrate this point, but over the years, one simple analogy seems to work best. Let me share it with you.
Imagine that my son, a med school student contacts me because he is in desperate need of money to continue his education. After going to the bank and withdrawing $5,000.00, I decide to meet him on Wednesday at the Starbuck’s on Main Street. I send him the following text on my iPhone:
I got the %,000.00 you needed. Meet me at Starving on Main Street next Wednesday @ 4pm
Unfortunately, my typing skills are less than perfect, and I’ve inserted a few typos. To make matters worse, the iPhone has auto-corrected one of my words and made the sentence even more confusing. After texting me that he doesn’t understand, I send my son another text:
I got the 5,000.00 you needed. Meet me at Starbucks on Main Street next Weakness @ 4pm
I’ve now managed to correct the two errors I made in the first text, but have inadvertently mistyped “Wednesday”. The perfectionist in me compels me to make another effort so I quickly try it again:
I got the 5,000.00 you nerds. Meet me at Starbucks on Main Street next Wednesday @ 4pm
My son thinks I’m pretty funny by now, but it’s no laughing matter to me; I want to get it right. I make yet a third attempt:
I got the 5,000.00 you needed. Meet me at Starbucks on Main Streak next Wednesday @ 4pm
Ugh. Yet another mistake, in yet another location in my sentence! OK, one last attempt:
I got the 5,000.00 you needed. Meek me at Starbucks on Main Street next Wednesday @ 4pm
Enough already; I give up. Despite my best efforts, I’ve managed to mistype yet another word in the text. But let me ask you an important question: where do you think my son will be next Wednesday at 4pm? He’ll be at the Starbucks on Main Street waiting for his $5,000.00! My son understands the original message I intended because he had 5 copies to compare to one another. This comparison quickly revealed the precise location of my typos; he was able to reconstruct the exact, correct meaning of my text, even though he didn’t have a single copy that was without error.
When scholars compare the thousands of New Testament texts to one another, they too are able to quickly identify the precise location of the copyist variants. Once identified, these variations can be easily resolved, and the original message can be reconstructed. Like my son, Biblical scholars have assurance in the meaning, even though the manuscript copies contain variants. The more copies we have to compare with one another, the more confidence we have in the original message.