Debunking the Evidence for a Historical Jesus, Part 2: "But We Have 24000 Manuscripts!"
How Many Copies do we Have - And Are they Reliable?
Christians claim that, with over 24000 manuscripts of the New Testament, it is therefore historically reliable and verifiable. Nothing could be further from the truth. When considering the manuscripts that we do have, we have to consider when they were written, who they were copied by and how they compare to other copies - and the fact that the large majority of them are nothing more than fragments, it leaves a lot to be desired.
As far as the number of manuscripts - sure, the numbers seem impressive until you consider something. for up until 300 years after christ's death, there were no professional scribes to preserve them. According to renowned scholar and author, bart ehrman, there are more differences in our manuscripts than there are words in the new testament. While minor spelling mistakes are relatively insignificant, there are also a huge amount of deliberate alterations that need to be taken seriously. There are no existing New Testament manuscripts from the 1st century, and there are no originals. the first documents that we have are fragments - not entire copies, and they date to 100-200 years after the 1st century. There is around a 300 year period of nothing at all - and any number of changes, alterations, additions or subtractions could have occurred the early stages.
Forgeries and Fragments
Additionally, there are evidences of forgeries in the new testament itself. Paul's letters warn against false teachers that are writing in his name. This goes to show that textual forgeries were already occurring at the time the earliest pieces of the New Testament were being written. In fact, a large majority of biblical scholars today discount half of Paul's letters were not written by Paul - in addition to the letters of James, Peter, John and Jude. Although christian apologists claim that a lot of people wrote scripture under a famous or recognizable name, the practice was almost universally condemned in the ancient world - sometimes to the point of death.
Lee Strobel in the "case for Christ" is quoted as saying: "What the New Testament has in its favor, especially when compared with other ancient writings is the unprecedented multiplicity of copies that have survived...the quantity of NT material is almost embarrassing in comparison with other works of antiquity" Which seems to be the exact argument that you're using.
However, the oldest complete texts of the bible are the Codex Siniaticus and Codex Vaticanus - which date to the 4th century. That's hardly a few generations after the death of Christ. It's a gap of 3-400 years.
The earliest "manuscript" in existence is, in fact, a scrap. It's called P52, and it could fit on a credit card. It's a scrap of the gospel of John and that fragment is dated at the earliest to 150 AD. A whole hundred years after Christ's supposed death and resurrection.
None of the remaining fragments in existence date earlier than 125 Ad - so none of them exist from the lifetime of eyewitnesses. The SECOND oldest fragment, after P52 is the Egerton Papyrus 2 does not come from any known gospel at all. When you count fragments as documents, the number is inflated to impressive numbers, sure. The uncomfortable fact remains that for the first thousand years of christianity only fragments and scraps remain, and they cannot possibly assist in the reliability of the original manuscripts. There simply are not entire books of the new testament dating from the first century lying around to be examined.
the 24000 manuscripts seem impressive - until you realize that they all came centuries later. The 2856 Greek text manuscripts (or fragments thereof) were all written in the 9th century - or even later. All of the 24000 intact copies are younger (by several hundred years) than the oldest complete bibles mentioned above, which themselves date back to 300 AD or later.