This challenge has long been known, but has been amplified by agnostic professor Bart Ehrman in his book Misquoting Jesus—which was the top-selling religion book in America for many weeks.
Ehrman points out that we don’t have the original copies of the New Testament. That’s true—though we don’t have the originals of any ancient writings, sacred or secular. What we have instead are handwritten copies.
Ehrman also states correctly that there are between 200,000 and 400,000 variants, or differences, between the copies that we have. So the implication is clear: How can we trust the Bible if it’s pockmarked with errors? How do we really know what the original documents said if we don’t actually possess any of them?
This has shaken the faith of some people—but need not. We have good reasons to believe the New Testament has been reliably preserved for us.
First, the more copies you have of any document, the more variations you’ll have. So, for example, if you only have a handful of manuscript copies—as in the case of most ancient literature—then there won’t be very many differences either. But when you have over 5,800 manuscript copies of the New Testament, then you’ll also have many more variations between them. So the high number of variants is actually a by-product of the overwhelming quantity of copies that we have—and is a mark of strength.
Second, the more copies you have, the easier it is to determine what the original said, because there’s so much more to compare between them in order to weed out mistakes.
I should add that up to 80 percent of the variants in the New Testament documents are minor spelling errors. And only 1 percent have some chance of affecting the meaning in some way. And even those are largely about insignificant issues—with not a single doctrine of the church in jeopardy.
In the end, the New Testament has unprecedented support for its textual accuracy.
“Blessed is the one who keeps the words of the prophecy written in this scroll.”
Jesus, in Revelation 22:7