A Note on the Percent of Accuracy of the New Testament Text
by Norman L. Geisler
Some have challenged the accuracy of the New Testament (NT) manuscripts based on a statement in our book A General Introduction to the Bible that inadvertently attributed to Bruce Metzer the figure that the NT is copied with 99.5 percent accuracy. However, this is an inconsequential criticism for several reasons. First, NT textual authorities Westcott and Hort estimated that only about one-sixtieth rise above “trivialities” and can be called “substantial variations.” In short, the NT is 98.33 percent pure. Second, Greek expert Ezra Abbott said about 19/20 (95 percent) of the readings are “various” rather than “rival” readings, and about 19/20 (95 percent) of the rest make no appreciable difference in the sense of the passage. Thus the text is 99.75 percent accurate. Third, noted NT Greek scholar A. T. Robertson said the real concern is with about a “thousandth part of the entire text.” So, the reconstructed text of the New Testament is 99.9% free from real concern.
Philip Schaff estimated that of the thousands of variations in all the manuscripts known in his day, only 50 were of real significance and of these not one affected “an article of faith.” Even agnostic NT critic Bart Ehrman admits that “In fact, most of the changes found in early Christian manuscripts have nothing to do with theology or ideology. Far and away the most changes are the result of mistakes pure and simple-slips of the pen, accidental omissions, inadvertent additions, misspelled words, blunders of one sort of another” (Misquoting Jesus, 55).
Famous British manuscript expert Sir Frederick Kenyon summed up the matter well when he declared that: “The interval between the dates of original composition and the earliest extant evidence becomes so small as to be in fact negligible, and the last foundation for any doubt that the Scriptures have come down substantially as they were written has now been removed.Both the authenticity and the general integrity of the books of the New Testament may be regarded as finally established” (Kenyon, The Bible and Archaeology, 288).
Consider the following message:
Y#U HAVE WON TEN MILLION DOLLARS.
Notice that even with the error in the text, 100% of the message comes through.
Consider also this message with two lines and two errors.
Y#U HAVE WON TEN MILLION DOLLARS
YO# HAVE WON TEN MILLION DOLLARS
Here we are even more sure of the message with two errors in it. In fact, the more errors like this, the more sure one is of the message since every new line brings a confirmation of every letter except one. The NT has about 5700 manuscripts. which provides hundreds, in some cases even thousands of confirmations, of every line in the NT.
As a matter of fact, there can be a high percent of divergence in letters and yet a 100% identity of message. Consider the following lines:
YOU HAVE WON TEN MILLION DOLLARS
THOU HAST WON 10 MILLION DOLLARS
Y’ALL HAVE WON $10,000,000
Notice that of the 27 letters and numbers in line two only 7 in line three are the same. That is little more than 25% identity of letters and numbers, yet the message is 100% the same. They differ in form, but they are identical in content. The same is true of all the basic teachings of the NT.