How Does Criticism Of The New Testament Relate To Its Reliability? Examining Manuscript Evidence

I remember the first time I heard an atheist state that the New Testament was not reliable because the text has been changed. I wondered if the Bible I had been trusting in was really true. That was some 40 years ago.

What I discovered over the following years is that critics of the Bible often inflate and exaggerate alleged problems that are asserted. The following are a few of the objections that critics of the New Testament make concerning the testimony about Jesus in these 27 books:

Objection By Critics: “The New Testament Has Been Changed”

You will often hear the term, “textual variant,” by Bible critics, which means that the text of the New Testament varies in copies that have survived time and decay.

Have you read different versions of the New Testament; the New King James Version, The New Living Translation, or The New International Version?

Read the following verse of scripture from the Gospel of John from the NKJV and NLT, and you will see that both communicate the same meaning, but use slightly different words and arrangement of words in their sentences:

John 3:16 (NLT) “For this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.

John 3:16 (NKJV) For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.

When we compare these different modern translations of the New Testament, we find that they all tell the same story of Jesus, but use slightly different words or sentence structure. The story of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection is still the same, regardless of which version you read.

Some versions of the Bible, like the King James, stay closer to the literal meaning of words in the original languages. This does not, however, make the New King James a different story of Jesus.

When we examine the texts that are alleged as textual variants by critics, we find that the various copies of the New Testament that exist today from the historical record, have these same variations in words or sentence structure that we have just seen in today’s modern versions. This tell us that the earlier people of earth, did precisely the same thing that we do today to make the New Testament easier to understand; they used different words and sentence structure, but this did not change the story of Jesus.

In truth, what is described by critics as textual variants, are nothing more than translations of the New Testament from these past generations that were written to make the text easier for those readers to understand.

These variants do not change the fundamental story of Jesus who came into the world as a baby, was born of a virgin, grew into a man who was sinless, lived a perfect life, performed miracles to validate His claim to be God, fulfilled over 400 Hebrew prophecies for Messiah, was crucified according to these prophecies, was raised from the dead on the third day according to these prophecies, and was seen by more than 500 eyewitnesses.

Here are several examples from Matthew’s Gospel that are described as a “textual variants:” You will see that none of these variants changes the meaning of what is being said.

  • Matthew 1:18
    Christ Jesus
    Jesus Christ
  • Matthew 1:21
    Then she will bring forth to you a son
    Then she will bring forth a son
  • Matthew 1:23
    you will call his name
    they will call his name
  • Matthew 1:24
    was awakened
  • Matthew 3:5
    the children of Jerusalem
    the Jerusalemites
    all Jerusalem
    all of Jerusalem
  • Matthew 3:6
    into the Jordan
    in the Jordan
  • Matthew 4:6
    throw yourself down from here
    throw yourself down
  • Matthew 4:18
    while passing
    while walking
  • Matthew 5:11
    for the sake of my name
    for the sake of righteousness
  • Matthew 6:1
    your righteousness
    your giving
    your gifts
  • Matthew 6:8
    open your mouth
    ask him
  • Matthew 6:9
    the heaven
    the heavens
  • Matthew 7:22
    Lord, lord, did we not eat and drink in your name? And did we not prophesy in your name?
    Lord, lord, did we not prophesy in your name?
  • Matthew 7:23
    away from me, all of you
    away from me
  • Matthew 8:5
    But he was entering into Capernaum
    But when he was entering into Capernaum
    When Jesus was entering into Capernaum
    But after these things, then he [went] into Capernaum
  • Matthew 8:15
    she was serving him
    she was serving them
  • Matthew 8:28
  • Matthew 9:11
    How come you are eating and your teacher is drinking with tax collectors and sinners?
    Why are you eating and drinking with tax collectors and sinners?
    Why is he eating with tax collectors and sinners?
    Why are you seated with tax collectors and sinners?
    Why is your teacher eating with tax collectors and sinners?
  • Matthew 10:3
    Thaddaeus who is surnamed Lebbaeus
    Lebbaeus who is surnamed Thaddaeus
    Judas the Zealot
    Judas who is also Lebbaeus who is surnamed Thaddaeus
  • Matthew 10:4
  • Matthew 11:8
    Moreover, why did you go out? To see a man…
    Moreover, what did you go out to see? A man…
  • Matthew 11:8
    in delicacies
    in delicate garments
  • Matthew 12:2
    Why do your disciples
    Look, your disciples
  • Matthew 12:4
    they ate
    he ate
  • Matthew 12:13
    it was restored healthy
    it was restored, like the other
    his hand was restored, healthy like the other
    it was restored, healthy like the other
  • Matthew 12:32
    against the Holy Spirit, it will not in any way be forgiven to him.
    against the Holy Spirit, may it not in any way be forgiven to him.
    against the Holy Spirit, it will not be forgiven to him.
  • Matthew 13:9
    The one having ears must listen
    The one having ears to hear must listen
  • Matthew 13:21
    But he does not have root within
    But it does not have root in him
    But he does not have root in himself
  • Matthew 14:3
    into prison
    into prison and put away
    and put in prison
    and put away into prison
    and put away into prison
    and put away in prison
  • Matthew 15:31
    speaking, the crippled healed
    speaking, and the crippled healed
    hearing, the crippled healed
    hearing and speaking, the crippled healed
  • Matthew 16:12
    leaven of bread
    leaven of bread of the Pharisees and Sadducees
    leaven of the Pharisees
  • In Matthew 17-25, there are no significant variants regarding Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, Parables about the kingdom, or the events of the last days
  • Matthew 26:28
    new covenant
  • Matthew 27:4
  • Matthew 28:19
    Go therefore, make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them into the name of the father and of the son and of the holy spirit.
    Go make disciples of all the nations in my name.

Table Of Extant Greek New Testament Manuscripts

These Variants Are Not Changes To Jesus’ Story

As you can see, these variants in words or sentence structure do not change the story. These variants only make the story of Jesus easier to understand, just as our modern translations do today.

Critics use the phrase, “Textual Variant,” because it makes the New Testament sound like it is unreliable, has been changed, or is a fabrication. From the examples above, you can see for yourself that those who state that the New Testament is not reliable because it has been changed, are not telling the truth. Despite these variations in the text, we have the same main character: Jesus. We have Jesus claiming to be God; we have Jesus performing miracle to prove He is God; we have Jesus crucified; we have Jesus risen from the dead; we have Jesus seen alive by many witnesses, some 500 all at the same time.

Objection by Critics: “The New Testament Was Written Too Late To Be Reliable”

The New Testament exists today because of surviving copies of the original autographs. Jesus instructed the disciples to record an accurate record of all He said and did and to be witnesses to others, immediately.

Then Jesus said to them, “Thus it is written, and thus it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead the third day, and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. And you are witnesses of these things.” ~Luke 24:46-48

Jesus Said: “But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” ~Acts 1:8

How Did The Disciples Remember All That Jesus Said And Did?

Jesus told the disciples who had been with Him for the three and one-half years before He was crucified and risen from the dead, that after He was raised, He would bring all these things to their remembrance so that they could accurately write a permanent record for the world.

Jesus Said: “These things I have spoken to you while being present with you. 26 But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all things that I said to you.” ~John 14:25-26

It is certain that these first copies, called “Autographs,” were written not long after Jesus had been raised from the dead.

Paul’s Epistles Match The Four Gospels

A vigorous and compelling proof for the earlier writing of the four Gospels is also supported by Paul in his epistles.

In Paul’s letter to Timothy, chapter 5, verse 18, he quotes from Luke’s gospel.

Paul: For the Scripture says, “You shall not muzzle an ox while it treads out the grain,” and, “The laborer is worthy of his wages.”  ~1 Timothy 5:18

When we examine Luke’s gospel we find that Paul was referencing a quote by Luke in his letter he wrote to Timothy. This means that Luke’s gospel must have already been written by the time that Paul wrote 1 Timothy.

Luke: And remain in the same house, eating and drinking such things as they give, for the laborer is worthy of his wages. Do not go from house to house.  ~Luke 10:7

Eusebius wrote that Paul was beheaded under Caesar Nero, who was assassinated in 68 A.D.25

After Paul’s fifth missionary journey ended in 67 A.D., Eusebius states that Paul was beheaded by the Romans under Emperor Nero. This date was near May or June of 68 A.D., Nero forced his private secretary, Epaphroditos, to kill him on June 9th of the 68 A.D.25

Since Paul died by 68 A.D. and he wrote text that came from Luke’s Gospel, it is certain that Luke penned these words before 68 A.D. It is highly probable that Luke wrote his gospel near the same writing of Matthew’s Gospel in 60 A.D.

These facts of history are empirical evidence that Luke’s Gospel was already written while Paul was still alive..

By this corroboration from the historical record, we learn that Luke’s Gospel is certified as written before 68 A.D., when Paul was killed. Confirmation of these facts are made by a letter from Eusebius.

After defending himself the Apostle was again set on the ministry of preaching…coming a second time to the same city [Paul] suffered martyrdom under Nero. During this imprisonment he wrote the second Epistle to Timothy. (Eccl Hist. 2.22.2)26

We also have the record of the Romans which validates Nero’s death in 68 A.D.26a, a secondary confirmation that when Paul is writing his epistle to Timothy, quoting Luke’s gospel from chapter 10, this text had to be written before Paul was executed in 68 A.D. This is corroboration that Luke’s Gospel was also likely written by 60 A.D.

The majority of New Testament scholars today believe that Paul’s epistles are written from A.D. 48-60. When we examine Paul’s outline for the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, we see that it matches the same timeline as the four Gospels.

The four Gospels are reliable as they were written very near the time of the events they describe. These facts are supported by evidence and impeach the theory that the narratives of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection were written at much later dates.

We Can See How Important These First Written Records Of Jesus Were By How Many Copies Were Made

After the accounts of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection were written, people who read these narratives, wanted copies to be distributed so others could know what Jesus had done. Ten’s of thousands of these copes were made and sent all over the world. The evidence that this is true is observed today by 24,593 surviving manuscript copies.

If someone writes a letter and we find only a few copes, we would conclude that only a few people thought that this information was important enough to copy it a few times.

If we find 24,593 copies from places all over the world, in different languages, that have survived throughout the past 2,000 years; guarded and protected by Christians because of their great value, this is empirical evidence that the originals once existed and they were regarded as extremely valuable. Not only this, the people of that period of time had sufficient evidence to believe that Jesus had risen from the dead. We see historical evidence of this fact in that over 5 million Christians were killed by 10 Roman Emperors, over a 250 year period of time, because they refused to deny that Jesus was a risen Lord and their Savior. These early believers had read the narratives of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection and that actual eyewitnesses had seen Jesus alive after He was killed. This is the only reason that so many were willing to die rather than recant their belief that Jesus was alive.

Yes, some people in history have died for things that were not true, but there is no period of history in which so many were willing to die because there existed such a formidable and well documented record, as is true in the testimony of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Early Christians had empirical evidence and this is why they were willing to die.

A Second Century Copy, Proves A First Century Original

Critics state that the New Testament was written too late to be considered reliable. They do this because the earliest copies we have of the New Testament are said to come from the second century.

A reasonable person understands that if we find copies dated from the second century, the originals must have been written in the first century. Today there are no original autographs for any hand written literature that is 2,000 years old. This includes all secular autographs that were written as originals. All that we have today to prove any ancient event, are manuscript copies. Critics make it sound as though the New Testament should be treated differently from all other ancient literature because it is religious in nature. This is a common bias that critics use regarding the New Testament, although this is not valid criteria in evaluating any work of literature from history. See the article that describes the facts that are used in evaluating whether any ancient manuscripts are valid historical representations.

In one important regard, this is true: The New Testament manuscript copies we have today were written closer to the events they describe, and exist with more copies than any other event of antiquity.

If we are going to disqualify the New Testament for the date of its writing and number of surviving copies, we would also have to disqualify every other work of literature, secular or religious.

We do have two manuscript copies of New Testament text that were written in the first century, but they are only fragments—which is what we would expect to find in original documents so old.

We have complete copies of entire books from the New Testament from before the second century. These extant manuscript copies are identical to our current New Testament.

The Muratorian Fragment

The oldest known list of New Testament books is called the “Muratorian Fragment.” Dated near 170 A.D., and contains a list of the books of the New Testament that were already accepted as canonical by the Christian church by this early date.

In this list, there is a text that describes the facts of Jesus, as witnessed by Peter, that are in Mark’s Gospel.

But he (Peter) was present among them, and so he put [the facts down in his Gospel]”

This text is a reference to Mark’s presence at Peter’s sermons when he was in Rome with Peter and recorded these messages which later became the Gospel of Mark.

The Muratorian Canon or Canon Muratori, is a copy of the oldest known list of  books for the New Testament. This fragment consisting of 85 lines bound in a 7th or 8th century codex from the library of Columbanus’s monastery at Bobbio Abbey, a translation from the original Greek texts.

This fragment contains a list of all the works that were accepted as canonical by the Christian churches who were known by its original assembler. This Fragment was discovered in the Ambrosian Library at Milan, Italy by Father Ludovico Antonio Muratori (1672–1750), who is the most famous of Italian historians in that generation, published in 1740.[1]

The actual formation of the New Testament canon did not take place until 367 A.D., when Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria, in his annual Easter letter, composed the list of 27 books that is still recognized today as the canon of the New Testament.

Surviving New Testament Manuscripts Dated 130-225 A.D.:

We have P52 from 130 A.D., with the text of Jesus’ trial before Pilate in a Codex. It is certain that there was an original autograph (original writing) that is dated much earlier. It would not be unrealistic to conclude that the original autograph was written in the middle of the first century, immediately after the events of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.

From 150-200 A.D., we have P66, P72, and P75., with most of P66 from John’s Gospel, from 200 A. D., known as a first copy. This is evidence that a early first century original autograph was written for John’s Gospel immediately after Jesus death and resurrection. There are 101 references in John’s Gospel to Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection.

P72 is our earliest copy of Jude’s epistle, with one reference to Jesus’ resurrection, and two epistles of Peter, who vividly describes Jesus death and resurrection in 12 references.

P75, from 175-225 A.D., contains Luke’s Gospel, with 13 references to Jesus’ death and resurrection. Also, the earliest of John’s Gospel with 18 references to Jesus’ death and resurrection.

The Diatessaron, from 170 A.D., contains all four Gospels, and has a total of 301 references to Jesus’ death and resurrection (Matthew: 30, Mark: 37, Luke: 32, John: 101)

From 200 A. D.: P45, P46, and P47, contain surviving manuscript copies from all four gospels, and Acts (P45), with 30 references to Jesus’ death and resurrection,

P46 is the earliest New Testament Codex Manuscript in existence, dated at 175-225 A.D. It contains the following letters written by Paul: 

  1. Romans 1:1–5:17
  2. Romans 5:17–6:14
  3. Romans 6:14–8:15
  4. Romans 8:15–11:35
  5. Romans 11:35–14:8
  6. Romans 14:9–15:11
  7. Romans 15:11–Hebrews 8:8
  8. Hebrews 8:9–9:10
  9. Hebrew 9:10–26
  10. Hebrews 9:26–1 Corinthians 2:3
  11. 1 Corinthians 2:3–3:5
  12. 1 Corinthian 3:6–2 Corinthians 9:7
  13. 2 Corinthian 9:7–end, Ephesians, Galatians 1:1–6:10
  14. Galatians 6:10–end, Philippians, Colossians, 1 Thessalonians 1:1–2:3
  15. 1 Thessalonians 2:3–5:5
  16. 1 Thessalonians 5:5, 23–28
  17. 1 Thessalonians 5:28–2 Thessalonians, Philemon; 1–2 Timothy, and Titus

Within these seventeen examples of surviving manuscript copies, we find an incredible representation of the original writings of these letters by Paul. It is important to remember that these letters were not written as a story to convince an audience that Jesus is God and Savior; they were written as personal correspondence between Paul and people scattered across Asia Minor.

In the historical record, we find that personal letters are the best representations of genuine events. This is due to their nature as communications, not as documentaries or tales. Any person who reads through Paul’s letters in the New Testament, is immediately struck by their sincerity and lack of contrivance. According to the prescribed requirements for valid historical events of antiquity, the New Testament meets and exceeds every standard set.

Within these letters, we find a substantial record of statements which describe Jesus as performing miracles in fulfillment of the Hebrew prophets who predicted that the coming Messiah would retain the ability to perform miracles to validate His identity as the true Messiah. We find 291 references in the New Testament letters that describe Jesus as Crucified according to the prediction of the Old Testament prophets, and risen from the dead on the third day afterwards, also according to the prophecies for Messiah from the Old Testament.

In the following examples, we find evidence from these early manuscript copies of the New Testament that confirm that Jesus was crucified, risen from the dead, and seen by over 500 eyewitnesses at one time, after He was resurrected.

Of P46, Romans 6:5-14, Most Clearly Describe Jesus’ Resurrection:

P46 Papyrus
Date: Between 175 and 225
Location: Dublin, Chester Beatty Library
Shelf Number: CBL BP II (Dublin)
Content: Pauline
Language: Greek
Image Type: Digital
Material: Papyrus
Description: Late second century or early third century (c. 200) manuscript of Paul on papyrus; 86 leaves, single column, 23–26 lines per column. Images are from the Chester Beatty Collection.

P46: Rom 6.5, Rom 6.6, Rom 6.7, Rom 6.8, Rom 6.9, Rom 6.10, Rom 6.11, Rom 6.12, Rom 6.13, Rom 6.14, 1 Thess 5.5, 1 Thess 5.6, 1 Thess 5.7, 1 Thess 5.8, 1 Thess 5.9

P46: (Second Century Manuscript) Roman 6:5-14, Confirming Jesus’ Crucifixion And Resurrection

Romans 6:5-14 For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection, 6 knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin. 7 For he who has died has been freed from sin. 8 Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him, 9 knowing that Christ, having been raised from the dead, dies no more. Death no longer has dominion over Him. 10 For the death that He died, He died to sin once for all; but the life that He lives, He lives to God. 11 Likewise you also, reckon yourselves to be dead indeed to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord. 12 Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body, that you should obey it in its lusts. 13 And do not present your members as instruments of unrighteousness to sin, but present yourselves to God as being alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God. 14 For sin shall not have dominion over you, for you are not under law but under grace.  (NKJV

CSNTM Image Id: 134698
Image Description: Text
Image Type: Digital
Ink: Black
Language: Greek
Material: Papyrus
MS Feature: Ancient Page/Leaf Number

Text: 1 Cor 15.6, 1 Cor 15.7, 1 Cor 15.8, 1 Cor 15.9, 1 Cor 15.10, 1 Cor 15.11, 1 Cor 15.12, 1 Cor 15.13, 1 Cor 15.14, 1 Cor 15.1

1 Corinthians 15:6 Confirming Jesus’ Resurrection And 500 Eyewitnesses

Jesus Was Raised From The Dead, He Will Raise Us

P46: (Second Century Manuscript) 1 Corinthians 15:6 Confirming Jesus’ Resurrection, Seen By Over 500 Eyewitnesses

1 Corinthians 15:6  After that He was seen by over five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain to the present, but some have fallen asleep. (NKJV)

CSNTM Image Id: 134593
Image Description: Text
Image Type: Digital
Ink: Black
Language: Greek
Material: Papyrus
MS Feature: Ancient Page/Leaf Number, Color Chart, Ruler

Text: 1 Cor 6.13, 1 Cor 6.14, 1 Cor 6.15, 1 Cor 6.16, 1 Cor 6.17, 1 Cor 6.18, 1 Cor 6.19, 1 Cor 6.20, 1 Cor 7.1, 1 Cor 7.2

Confirming That Jesus Was Raised From The Dead

P46: (Second Century Manuscript) 1 Corinthians 6:14, Jesus Was Raised From The Dead

1 Corinthians 6:14 And God both raised up the Lord and will also raise us up by His power. (NKJV)

Remember that the above images are the actual surviving Manuscript copies of the New Testament from near the second century. Now let’s be honest here; if we have a second century manuscript which states that Jesus was crucified, and risen from the dead on the third day—seen by over 500 eyewitnesses at the same time—this is conclusive evidence that these events actually took place. It is no stretch of the imagination, nor an abandonment of a reasonable mind to accept that there had to be an earlier original first century writing that this second century manuscript copy came from.

Critics who assert there is no evidence for Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, must ignore a substantial historical record that we can all look at, as we have seen here in this article, in order to continue with such an unfounded assertion.

You can say that you don’t believe these things about Jesus, but you cannot say that there is no evidence to prove these things. If you are an honest person, these surviving manuscripts are more than sufficient to prove Jesus said and did what is written of Him in the New Testament.

This Is Empirical Evidence That Impeaches Every Criticism Of The New Testament As Reliable Representations Of The Actual Events.

Second Century Texts Which Describe Jesus As God, Creator Of The Universe”

Colossians 1:16  For by Him (Jesus) all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. All things were created through Him and for Him.

P46: (Second Century Manuscript): Second Century Text Describing Jesus As Creator/God

There are nearly 500 surviving second century manuscript copies from P46 that fully validate Jesus as saying and doing all of the things that are described in our New Testament today. With this great body of empirical evidence, it is clear that the original writings for these 27 books of the New Testament, have an evidentiary basis to conclude that these events took place.

When we compare the evidence that exists today to support the text we have in our New Testament as actual events of history, with every other surviving manuscript evidence that exists for ancient events, nothing comes close to the New Testament.

A person can say they don’t believe these events in the New Testament are true, but they cannot impeach the surviving evidence for the New Testament that prove the text we have in our modern Bible, is the same as that of the original writings.

See Also:


[1] Muratori, Antiquitates Italicae Medii Aevii (Milan 1740), vol. III, pp 809–80. Located within Dissertatio XLIII (cols. 807-80), entitled ‘De Literarum Statu., neglectu, & cultura in Italia post Barbaros in eam invectos usque ad Anum Christii Millesimum Centesimum’, at cols. 851-56.

Categories: Literary authenticity of the New Testament, New Testament Criticism, Principles of Biblical Interpretation, Reliability of the New Testament, Robert Clifton Robinson, The Historical Jesus

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