We have more handwritten manuscripts of the New Testament than any other ancient writings. For example, we only have 9 copies of The Jewish War by Josephus, and the first copy comes almost 1,000 years after the original. Other than the New Testament, we have the most manuscripts of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey – 2,400 copies combined. But for the New Testament, we have up to 30,000 handwritten manuscripts, including 5,700 of the earliest Greek copies. About 10 percent of those come from the first millennium, starting in the 2nd century. On top of that, we have a million quotations of the New Testament in the writings of early church fathers, starting at the turn of the first century.
Look at it this way: if you stacked the number of manuscripts of the average Greek author in a pile, it would reach about four feet tall. Stack up copies of the New Testament, and they would reach more than a mile high – and that doesn’t include any quotations from the early church fathers. When you have that many copies, it’s fairly straightforward to compare and contrast to determine what the original said.
Now, let’s talk about variants. Each and every time a manuscript or church father has a different word in one place, that’s counted as a variant. Yes, there are between 200,000 to 400,000 of them. But that’s because there are so many manuscripts, which is a good thing!
What’s more, up to 80 percent of variants are minor spelling errors that can’t even be translated into English. Sometimes John is spelled with two n’s. So what? We know the reference is to John, not Mary! Many other variants are merely quirks of Greek grammar that don’t make any difference in English. Only 1 percent of variants affect the meaning of the text to some degree and have a decent chance of going back to the original text.
But even these are rather insignificant issues. For example, here’s one of “big ones” that scholars grapple with: does Romans 5:1 say, “We have peace,” or, “Let us have peace?” The difference is one letter in Greek. Scholars are split over this, but there’s nothing at stake that affects the teachings of Scripture.