How does the Bible size up with other books from the ancient world?

Is it really true that the New and Old Testament is the book from the ancient world that has the largest amounmt of extant manuscripts?

Into how many ancient languages has the Bible been translated?

And finally, if we did not have all the manuscript evidence some believe we could still get the gist of the New Testament from early church correspondence. If this is true how does this improve or maintain the general case for an historically accurate New Testament?

  • Let me see... I have at least 15. Full Bibles: 1 KJV-1611, 1 Amplified, 1 NASB, 1 NIV, 2 ESV, 1 Russian Synodal, 1 New Russian. New Testament Only: 1 NIV, 6 Greek Texts.
    – Narnian
    Jun 3, 2013 at 20:36
  • @Narnian: <pedantic>I'm willing to bet that none of those are true manuscripts.</pedantic> Jun 3, 2013 at 20:45
  • @JonEricson But if I copied them by hand in Greek, would they count?
    – Narnian
    Jun 3, 2013 at 20:52
  • @Narnian: A manuscript is something that was originally written by hand.
    – user900
    Jun 4, 2013 at 1:45

3 Answers 3


Old Testament

The Dead Sea Scrolls currently housed in the Israeli Dead Sea Scroll museum and available online, is a collection of 972 manuscripts from the period 408 - 308 BC. Seeing as the Old Testament itself consists of books written between 1000 - 600 BC and the late 450s, this is a pretty good collection. There are others, but this is the most well-known and complete collection.

New Testament

According to the site Christian Apologetics Research Ministry, there are currently 5,686 known fragments of New Testament manuscripts. That site also shows how much closer to the date of composition these manuscripts are than many other contemporary texts. The earliest of these (p52) dates to sometime between 96 and 125 AD. Seeing that some people date John to the 90s (others to the 60s), the gap is extremely small indeed.

More interestingly, a good apparatus (like this) can actually show you every variation on the texts, and you will see they are few and far in between. This question shows how an apparatus works.

Other Questions

Finally, you said that we could probably piece together the gist of the bible from early church correspondance. This is completely accurate - as many of the early church fathers were already quoting New Testament Scripture by 100 AD (Martyrdom of Polycarp? 1 Clement? the Didache!) Indeed, Contra Celsius, in 150 is sometimes used to verify reconstructions.
Even the existence of extra-biblical works, both pro and con lend credence to the theory that at least "something" was already going on about Jesus pretty shortly after the events of the New Testament.

More importantly, however, is the fact that much of the New Testament actually is correspondance between churches. Epistles are just that - letters (often from Paul) to churches that predate the Gospels and give a "second witness" to the Good News.

  • Why not, here's a badge. Merry Christmas.
    – user3961
    Dec 24, 2014 at 21:14

No ancient literature has survived in its original form and all are derived from copies of the originals. The NT is no exception. However, in comparison with any other ancient literature, the NT is without a peer—both in terms of the chronological proximity and the surviving number. For clarity here is table from an answer from David Startton here:

enter image description here

The earliest copies of Quran are dating back to 688 A.D., a time span of 56 years after the death of Mohammad or a time span of more than 56 years after it was written on fragmented parchments, scapula, leafstalks of date palms etc.

As can be seen from above table all the ancient authorities are preserved in only a handful of manuscripts whereas for NT there are approximately 24,000. About 5,500 Greek manuscripts, ranging in date from the second century AD into the middle ages. Besides the Greek manuscripts, there are nearly 30,000 versional copies (e.g., Latin, Coptic, and Syriac), and over 1,000,000 quotations from the NT in the church Fathers.

The Greek manuscripts are by far the most important as they are earliest manuscripts and since they involve direct reproduction from Greek to Greek. There are four kinds of Greek manuscripts: papyri, uncials (or majuscules), minuscules (or cursives), and lectionaries.

Papyri: Literally thousands of papyrus fragments have been found of which approximately 100 contain portions of the New Testament. Actually, taken together, these 100 fragments constitute over half of the New Testament and all but four are in the form of codices. Though many of them are somewhat fragmentary, and at times the copying was looser than one would like (i.e., they were done before the canon was officially recognized), they are nevertheless extremely important for establishing the text of the New Testament—if for no other reason than the fact that they represent some of the most ancient manuscripts we possess. Five important papyri are illustrated in the chart below.

enter image description here

Uncials: Here are approximately 300 uncials known to exist today that contain portions of the New Testament and one uncial that contains the entire NT. Unlike the papyri they were written on animal skins or vellum. The most important uncials are Aleph or Sinaiticus and Vaticanus of 4 th century.

Minuscule: There are approximately 2,813 NT Greek minuscule manuscripts known to us today. These copies range in date from the ninth to sixteenth centuries, were produced on vellum or paper, and were written in cursive or a lower-case, flowing hand. Among the more important manuscripts cited are Minuscule no: 33 of 9 th century.

Versional Evidence: Versions were initially prepared for missionary purposes. The history and transmission of versions are often quite complex, and scholars often do not agree on or do not know the particular dates or characteristics of the version. There are nearly 30,000 versional copies (e.g., Latin, Coptic, and Syriac),

Source: Net Bible

  • Regarding the Quran, The mode of preservation of Quran were not books \manuscripts alone, rather Memory 1000s of people memorized the entire Quran and there was never a need to have a book at the time of Muhammad pbuh. This is why the Quran is best preserved document as it did not rely on books for preservation but a crowdsourced failsafe groups of 1000s of reciters who memorized it by hearing it.The large numbers ensured failsafe preservation. Due to later expansion it was written as a book, even then the Quran in book form was not popular at all. Jun 18, 2013 at 7:18
  • Ya Quran was preserved both by memory as well as writing, please read this article as it explains how Quran being the final message was fail safe : themodernreligion.com/basic/quran/quran_proof_preservation.htm Jun 18, 2013 at 8:08
  • It is almost as if some sort of intelligence knew people where going to doubt it.
    – Neil Meyer
    Jun 18, 2013 at 13:38
  • @NotMyWill - but GodsWillBe done Is it? Even if it is so, what's the use of that when it is full of historical errors, full of contradictions within and with other scriptures. This is inspite of it being a result of a project spanning over many years, undertaken under three different Caliphs, when finally the present day standardised version was accepted. If it was readily available in different foolproof sources or if it was delivered by Allah himself, then what was this project of standardisation for? Jun 19, 2013 at 13:46

We have some 10,000 manuscripts of the Gospels alone. There are four major NT families, each stemming from a center of Christianity, that were separated by hundreds of miles. Each center had its own gospel, and traditions. All the manuscripts discovered can be traced back to one of these centers. There are thousands of variations between these manuscripts - some small punctuation differences, but many have different passages. Some manuscripts were included in the oldest bibles but not in our present bibles. The oldest Bible is from the 4th. cent but it is undated. The oldest OT that is dated is from the 5th. cent. (Syrian Aramaic.) Everything that is in the NT can be found in the writings of the Church Fathers between the 2nd and 5th cents. Before the 2nd cent. there are no quotations from the NT as we have it presently. Presently we have hundreds of NT versions many of which are in strong disagreement as to theology. Each church sponsors a translation which supports its particular doctrine. And in fact that was the purpose of the first NT - to support the doctrine of the Church. If you are RC you wouldn't read a Protestant Bible, nor a Protestant read a Mormon Bible. Anglicans read the King James with all 80 books. Evangelicals read the NIV with 67 books.

There is no "original" bible in Christianity. The most ancient Bibles are in Aramaic, and Greek. Followed by Old Latin (3rd cent.,) Classical Latin (5th. cent.)

Bibles have been copyright since the KJV 1611. All churches and their publishers have to circumvent the copyright restrictions by re-translations of non-copyright material. Committees of scholars are paid to come up with variations on the text, so that publication can occur without being stopped by copyright holders.

That is why there has been only one King James text since 1796. The copyright is held by the Crown of England. No variation can be made without an act of Parliament, the agreement of the Queen, and her Bishops.

  • Can you provide an example of NT versions "in strong disagreement as to theology"?
    – Ryan Frame
    Jun 22, 2013 at 1:06
  • And KJV is only still in copyright in England; it's public domain elsewhere (I believe everywhere else, though I could be wrong).
    – Ryan Frame
    Jun 22, 2013 at 1:07
  • I could provide examples of NT in strong disagreement as to theology. I have talked on this subject many times. But you have only to compare Roman Catholic Priests with Evangelical Pastors, to see huge differences in theology. And both Religions support their doctrine from the "Bible" of their own Church. I teach Anglican, Catholic, and Orthodox theology. I have friends who are Pastors in other Religions, and we talk heatedly about the differences. I am not sure this would be beneficial to non "catholic," laity.
    – Waeshael
    Jun 23, 2013 at 14:53
  • Regarding the KJV. The English Authorized Bible of 1769 is not published in America. The AV is only published by the queens printers at Oxford and Cambridge, and there is one other appointed publisher. It is authorized to be read in Churches of the Anglican Communion worldwide. The words in the Bible are not copyright, having mostly been written outside England in the 16th. cent. by a Cambridge cleric. The American KJV is missing 13 books, the chapter headings, the calculation of holy days and the translators notes.
    – Waeshael
    Jun 23, 2013 at 15:00

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