New Testament Manuscripts and Backing Up Your Computer

A few days ago, I noticed that the automatic Time Machine backup on my Mac had failed. It happens every few months where I have to setup Time Machine again, and do a new full backup. It got me thinking about how computer backups are analogous to how the New Testament manuscripts were spread in the early history of the church.

When you backup a file on your computer, you’re essentially making a copy of the file. What is cool about Apple’s “Time Machine” is it makes backups that preserve the version of file (or your entire computer) over time. Let’s say I create a new Word document for a blog post I'm writing about computer backups. I create the initial version on Monday, and I make a backup of the file. Then I make a change to the document on Wednesday, and make another backup. Then I make the final edits on Friday, and make a backup. But then I decide I don’t like the edits I made on Friday. With Time Machine, I can restore the copy from Wednesday.  What is interesting with this method of backing up files is I can also tell whether or not a file was changed over time (intentionally or unintentionally). Backups are a great tool for preserving data, and if you aren’t backing up your computer, or at least your important files, you’re really doing yourself a disservice.

So what does this have to do with the manuscripts of the New Testament?   Well, the New Testament manuscripts are like a backup of the originals (called autographs); but in this case we’ve lost the originals. The interesting thing is, there are actually thousands of copies of New Testament manuscripts, both fragments as well as larger copies. In fact, the oldest manuscript of the NT is a fragment from the Gospel of John dating back to the first half of the second century.

With so many copies of the New Testament (Dr. Gary Habermas notes there are more than 5,500 copies and partial copies of Greek NT manuscripts) it’s actually possible to reconstruct the original New Testament with over 99% reliability. How is this possible?

Consider the following verse from the Gospel of John:  “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”

(John 1:1, ESV).  Let’s make three copies of it, but destroy the original.

Can we assume we know the original text, based on these copies? Sure. We have accurate copies of the original.

Now, lets make five copies of Copy 1, four copies of Copy 2, and three copies of Copy 3, and destroy the first copies. Now our manuscript evidence looks like this:

Can we reconstruct the original now? Certainly. We have even more copies, in this example twelve, and they all agree with each other.

Let’s supposed another round of copies was made, and shortly after several were destroyed in a fire.  Here’s what our manuscript evidence looks like now:

Hopefully, you’re getting the point. The further we progress, the more copies are made. Even if we lose the first few generations of copies, we still have a high level of certainty in the content of the original.  And even if errors creep into parts of the text, we can still reconstruct the original.

For example:

C1: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, andd the Word was God

C2: In the beginning was thee Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God

C3: In the beginning was the Word, and the Wrd was with God and the Word was God

You can see that even if there are small errors, we can still derive the original text. This is a simplistic example of how the New Testament manuscripts give us an accurate picture of the original autographs of the New Testament.