By Elias Ayala (MDiv & M.A.T.)
The reliability of the New Testament is a central point of interest and importance in apologetics. If the New Testament is not a reliable historical source about the life and ministry of Jesus and the life and belief of the early church, then there is a clear problem and difficulty in defending the New Testament’s truth claims.
When examining an ancient document to check for reliability of transmission and accuracy of copying, it is extremely helpful to have a lot of copies. The more copies there are of the ancient manuscript the better. Multiplicity of manuscripts places us in a better position to check for accuracy and identify changes if there were any within the manuscript transmission and copying process.
The New Testament is extremely well attested and it fulfills the ideal demand for multiplicity of manuscripts whole or in part. Of the Greek manuscripts alone we have well over 5,800 manuscripts. We have over 10,000 copies in Latin, and between 5,000-10,000 copies in other languages. This places us in a very good place to start as the New Testament is examined for reliability.
Suppose however, that we did not have the New Testament. The amazing thing is that we have over a million quotations from the New Testament from the Early Church Fathers alone such that practically the entirety of the New Testament could be reconstructed from their quotes save a very small amount of omissions. That is quite incredible and really places the New Testament in a league of its own when compared to anything else we have from antiquity.
Such plenteous copies help us to be able to trace any intentional or accidental corruption of the text by comparing the vast copies with other copies from differing regions. Indeed, this point is key since contrary to popular opinion, there was never a time where a single man or group had control over the New Testament such that they could add or take away various doctrines and impose those changes upon the church at large.
During the first few centuries of Christianity, the Christians were a persecuted minority, hardly in a position to engage in such textual control and manipulation. The copying and transmitting of the New Testament documents enjoyed what some have called, multi-focality. That is to say that the copying and transmission of the New Testament was not a centralized process but rather occurred over a wide geographical plane where complete control was almost impossible. If changes were made, they for the most part could be identified via the discipline known as textual criticism.
Of course, entire books have explored the question of the reliability of the New Testament, and indeed, the mention of the fact that the New Testament is the best attested writings of all antiquity does not necessarily prove that its contents are true; but it is a good place to start when beginning to explore whether the New Testament is reliable. I for one feel very comfortable with the wealth of evidence in favor of the reliability of the New Testament, some of which we have only scratched the surface.