I watched a debate between a Muslim and a Christian. The New Testament has by far more number of Greek/other manuscripts. The Muslim debater said that 94% of these manuscripts come 9th century onwards. It wasn’t clear if he was referring to the Greek manuscripts alone or every manuscript we have of the New Testament. Do you know what ones he’s referring to? Just the Greek ones or all of them? Is there much reason to be alarmed by this as Christians?


I cannot confirm the precise percentages, but in the broad picture, the number quoted by the Muslim apologist is probably ballpark correct.  In other words, Christian apologists (including myself) often quote something like 6000 ancient Greek manuscripts of the New Testament, whereas, for other ancient documents such as the histories of Thucydides, we only have something like five copies.  This is true, but ithe way we use this data can be somewhat misleading, or it can be used is a somewhat misleading way.  Here is what I mean.  Of the quoted 6000 Greek New Testament texts, 94% (accepting as accurate the Muslim person’s number, and I have no reason to not accept this), only four hundred or so are from before 800 AD.  Those using ancient Greek manuscripts to try to reproduce as accurate as possible a New Testament probably only use the four hundred, not the other five thousand six hundred.  So, the Muslim is arguing that the available useful data is much less than Christians try to claim.
Should this make Christians nervous?  Absolutely not.  Four hundred texts is a LOT of texts.  It is still vastly more than the text of any other ancient document, and the quality of them is vastly greater as well. Perhaps what Christian apologists should do is say something like this:  For Thucydides there are only five texts, all of which are more than 1200 years after the original was composed.  For the New Testament we have 6000, and 400 of them are only 750 years after the original.  That is four hundred manuscripts, all closer to the date of writing of ANY of the manuscripts we have for Thucydides or Herodotus or Aristotle. This might be a slightly less biased way to present the data.  Either way, the data for the New Testament is vastly better than all other ancient documents.  This is not an overstatement.  And, by the way, the other 5600 manuscripts of the NT are closer to the original than any of the texts of Thucydides we have.  But, the Muslim critic might have a point in that we probably do not use these 5600 manuscripts because they are all of a later date, and are therefore not very useful for reconstructing the original NT. Arguably, we should be using a smaller number in our apologetic presentations. Arguably, we should only use the smaller number.
Besides, we have a plethora of other evidence to support our NT text, such as literally thousands of quotes by the early church fathers in the first five centuries from the Greek New Testament.  In addition, we have Coptic, Syriac and Latin translations made in the first four centuries.  All of this adds to the boat load of data we have to support the New Testament.  No other ancient document has this level of support–not even close. So you should not be in the slightest intimidated by the somewhat legitimate point that the Muslim apologist made, but perhaps we should be willing to be more clear in how we use the data so we are not open to this charge.
John Oakes

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