Most of the books included in the New Testament were composed in the latter half of the first century. However, none of these ancient documents have survived. All we have are copies. Furthermore, for well over 1,000 years, these copies were made by hand. Scribes often made mistakes, and sometimes they even changed the text intentionally. Thus the surviving manuscripts contain many thousands of discrepancies.
When people hear this information, they often imagine that the text has been hopelessly corrupted, just like the final message in the telephone game. However, the telephone game is actually a poor analogy for the transmission of the New Testament.
In the telephone game, each person in the chain passes the message on to only one other person. For this reason, a change introduced by any one person will propagate through the entire chain. Furthermore, the message is only reported by the final person in the chain. Thus the original message is lost beyond recovery.
However, as Christianity spread throughout the Roman world, New Testament manuscripts were copied multiple times. For this reason, a change introduced by any one scribe could only affect a portion of the tradition. Furthermore, while only one person reports the message in the telephone game, over 5,000 Greek manuscripts have survived. Thus, while the original documents are lost, the original message is preserved.
Consider again the telephone game. On this model, the English New Testament is based on a single Greek manuscript. This manuscript, moreover, is the last in a very long chain. It is the least reliable copy - the copy that is furthest removed from the original. But in reality, the English New Testament is not based on any single manuscript. As stated before, over 5,000 manuscripts have survived. Many of these are quite early, and some are even from the second century. The modern text of the Greek New Testament has been carefully reconstructed from these manuscripts.
In a modern edition of the Greek New Testament, you will find the reconstructed text on which your English translation is based. However, you will also find below the text a list of the variant readings that are preserved in the manuscripts. Would you like to be able to examine these variants yourself? In order to do that, you need to learn how to read the Greek New Testament. Check out the resources for learning Greek at murrayvasser.com.
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