Not only is the number of manuscripts significant, but so is the time gap between when the original was written and the date of the copy. Over the course of a thousand years of copying, there’s no telling what a text could evolve into—But over a hundred years, that’s a different story.
German critic Ferdinand Christian Baur (1792–1860) once contended that John’s Gospel was not written until about a.d. 160; therefore, it could not have been written by John. This, if true, would have not only undermined John’s writings but cast suspicion on the entire New Testament as well. But then, when a cache of New Testament papyri fragments were discovered in Egypt, among them was a fragment of the Gospel of John (specifically, P52: John 18:31-33) dated to roughly 25 years after John wrote the original.
Metzger explained, “Just as Robinson Crusoe, seeing but a single footprint in the sand, concluded that another human being, with two feet, was present on the island with him, so P52 [the label of the fragment] proves the existence and use of the Fourth Gospel during the first half of the second century in a provincial town along the Nile far removed from its traditional place of composition (Ephesus in Asia Minor).” Find after find, archeology has unearthed copies of major portions of the New Testament dated to within 150 years of the originals.
Most other ancient documents have time gaps of from 400 to 1,400 years. For example, Aristotle’s Poetics was written about 343 b.c., yet the earliest copy is dated a.d. 1100, with only five copies in existence. And yet no one is going in search of the historical Plato, claiming he was actually a fireman and not a philosopher.
In fact, there is a nearly complete copy of the Bible called, Codex Vaticanus, that was written only about 250 to 300 years after the apostles’ original writing. The oldest known complete copy of the New Testament in ancient uncial script is named, Codex Sinaiticus, now housed at the British Museum.
Like Codex Vaticanus, it is dated from the fourth century. Vaticanus and Sinaiticus, going back to early in Christian history, are like other early biblical manuscripts in that they differ minimally from each other and give us a very good picture of what the original documents must have said.
Even critical scholar John A. T. Robinson has admitted, “The wealth of manuscripts, and above all the narrow interval of time between the writing and the earliest extant copies, make it by far the best attested text of any ancient writing in the world.” Professor of law John Warwick Montgomery affirmed, “To be skeptical of the resultant text of the New Testament books is to allow all of classical antiquity to slip into obscurity, for no documents of the ancient period are as well attested bibliographically as the New Testament.”
The point is this: If the New Testament records were made and circulated so closely to the actual events, their portrayal of Jesus is most likely accurate. But external evidence is not the only way to answer the question of reliability; scholars also use internal evidence to answer this question.