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General reliability method

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The general reliability method is textual critical apologetics which view the New Testament as literature with very unique features. Seen as ancient literature the New Testament is compared and contrasted with other ancient literature of the classical period of history (roughly 800 BC to 500 AD). Classical antiquity created many great works of literature, including the New Testament. The general reliability method found formulation over a thousand years later during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The general reliability method finds itself fully immersed in the whole range of textual criticism. So much so that the general reliability method is sometimes interchangeably referred to as textual criticism of the New Testament. The general reliability method is employed by careful sophistication by apologists with the minimal facts method as well, which combines textual criticism with historical criticism.

The general reliability method, and textual criticism generally is based on extant copies of ancient literature. From Homer, Plato, and to Tacitus, Livy and even Plutarch of the second century, their great works and surviving manuscripts are rarely questioned and viewed from a heavily skeptical point of view as the New Testament. The goal of the general reliability method is to be fairly critical about the manuscripts and reconstruction of other ancient works of literature, and on that same level show the New Testament as textually unique. The general reliability method does not simply say that the New Testament has more manuscripts and so is better than classical works. The kind of reconstruction of classical works based on extant manuscripts is a critical task that textual critics engage in. The result is not only a properly reconstructed text that is as close as the original manuscript as possible, but from that foundation historical reliability is approachable. The general reliability method in of itself does not demonstrate historical reliability, but rather textual reliability, thus validity on the textual critic level. Extant manuscript copies of an ancient text are used by textual critics to reconstruct what the extinct original autographs actually contained. But if what has been reconstructed from copies can be shown to lack textual stability or sometimes called textual reliability along the path from original to reconstruction, historicity is even less likely to be found. Therefore textual reliability is necessary for the internal logic and application of the general reliability method but also, more specifically, textual reliability is a foothold toward the path of historicity.


Within the general reliability method of any ancient literature there are two main categories of criteria. One being the chronological gap, or how long from the original autographs to the first available extant manuscript copy or copies. Secondly the amount of manuscript copies that do exist for the text in question. These categories are expressed in four criteria, which are:

  1. The alleged date of the original manuscript autograph(s)
  2. The date of the earliest extant manuscript copies of the autograph(s)
  3. The amount of time that has passed, or the chronological gap, from autograph(s) to the earliest extant manuscript copies
  4. The total number of the extant manuscript copies in their original languages

Chronological gap

Contemporary writings within one hundred years, pre and post New Testament, can be compared and contrasted under specific criteria for a general reliability method. The New Testament produces unique numbers when other ancient literature is taken into account.


  • Gaius Julius Caesar
  • Titus Livius (Livy)
  • Cornelius Tacitus
  • Pliny Secundus (Pliny the Younger)
  • Lucius Mestrius Plutarchus (Plutarch)
  • New Testament Authors

Classical works

  • Gallic Wars
  • History of Rome
  • Annals
  • Natural History
  • Lives
  • New Testament

Original autographs

  • 100 - 44 BC
  • 30 BC - 17 AD
  • 100 AD
  • 61 - 113 AD
  • 46 - 120 AD
  • 50 - 100 AD

Earliest copies

  • 900 AD
  • 900 AD
  • 900 AD
  • 1100 AD
  • 900 AD
  • 100 - 300 AD

Time from autograph to copy

  • 900 - 1,000 years
  • 900 - 1,000 years
  • 800 years
  • 1,000 years
  • 800 years
  • 50 to 250 years

Total surviving manuscript copies

The oldest surviving or extant New Testament copy, is a fragment, called the John Rylands Papyrus Fragment (called P52 for short). It is a piece of the Gospel of John, dating to the second century.[1] The front (recto) contains parts of seven lines from the Gospel of John chapter 18, verses 31–33. On the back (verso) contains parts of seven lines from verses 37–38 of John chapter 18, all in Greek. The chronological gap sets a new standard not exceeded by any of the other great works of ancient literature. The time between the original autograph of the New Testament book of John, and the earliest surviving copy fragment is under 100 years. No other writing of the classical time period of ancient history is even close when compared. Non-existent autographs of classics such as Plato, Caesar, Livy, and even Plutarch for examples all have a gap of around 1,000 years until their copy or copies, which are then what are used in attempt to reconstruct the original text.

In contrast with these figures, the textual critic of the New Testament is embarrassed by the wealth of material.

In­stead of the lapse of a millennium or more, as is the case of not a few classical authors, several papyrus manuscripts of portions of the New Testament are extant that were copied within a century or so after the composition of the original documents.[2]

Manuscript amount

The amount of manuscripts of the New Testament written in Greek, the original language, was more than 5,600 manuscripts[3] but has risen, as of 2003, to more than 5,700. There are 116 papyri, 310 and 2877 Majuscule and Miniscule MSS, and 2432 Lectionary MSS with more being discovered and translated all the time.[4] Other languages such as Latin and then another group of languages such as Syriac, Coptic, Armenian, Gothic and others taken into consideration brings into the fold more than 10,000 and 5,000 manuscripts respectively. The staggering number of available papyrus (from the pith of the papyri plant) of the Greek language alone gives the New Testament a credible stance from the point of view of textual criticism. The Greek text of the New Testament has the most available copies of the original autographs when other ancient texts are compared during roughly the same time period from which the New Testament was produced.

The famous work of Homer called Iliad contains over 15,000 lines of epic poetry and was written in the 8th century BC (700 to 800 BC). While it was written hundreds of years before the time of the NT, it is considered a very substantial work due to how many copies of it are in existence. However, it comes in a distant second with 650 manuscript copies. The earliest and best manuscripts dating to the tenth century AD.[5] Textual critics generally follow the rule that quantity of manuscripts determine quality of text during the process of reconstruction. So that what is read in the works of Homer or the New Testament in the modern translations of the Illiad or Bible are basically what was originally penned by their authors. In the case of the New Testament specifically it is overwhelmingly viewed by scholars in such a way. The NT has maintained textual stability, constituting what was originally written down approximately 2,000 years ago in the first century AD (0-100 AD).[6]

Textual stability has to do with not English translations, but the variance found within the Greek manuscripts. There are about 138,000 Greek words that constitute the 27 books of the New Testament, and of those that are brought into question is only 1,400 words.[7] The reconstructed text of today, such as the NASB updated edition is the English rendering of Greek texts that are approximately 98% to 99% textually pure. This puts a limit of uncertainty of whether or not what is in the New Testament today reflects what was originally written at only 1% to 2%.[7]

Textual Variants

A textual variant is when at least two manuscripts disagree on the wording, word order and/or spelling of what goes on in a particular passage. Being that there are so many copies of the original New Testament in existence, the result has been mass scrutiny within the critical process of evaluation of the manuscripts called textual criticism. The 5,700 manuscript copies compared and contrasted by textual critics has discovered approximately 300,000 to 400,000 textual variants. There are essentially vastly more variants than there are surviving manuscripts and even words of the Greek New Testament. However of those, about 99% are very trivial.[8] At first the number may seem out of proportion, but what is important to note is that when a variant is found, it is either in the same spot in one or many different manuscripts, or, not found in any other manuscripts. This goes a good length in giving the textual variants predictability and helping the textual critic determine the extent a textual variant had within its own manuscript family, and what exactly it does change, if anything at all, when compared to other manuscript families.

The majority of the variants are generally minor, and can be categorized as merely types of grammatical mistakes. The mistakes have been shown to never disable the content of theological doctrine in any substantial way. The wording surrounding Christ centered salvation issues (as opposed to more basic content) is largely untouched from what was written by Jewish authors 2,000 years ago.

Textual variants in manuscripts of the New Testament are many and varied to be sure, but it is simply a myth to take the variants as Ehrman deals with in his book as evidence that some essential Christian belief was cooked up after the fact and retrojected into the text of the New Testament documents by overzealous and less than scrupulous scribes.[9]

Craig Blomberg in his work called The Historical Reliability of the Gospels synthesizes six volumes of work that came out from 1980 to 1986 called Gospel Perspectives. In reference to The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture: The Effect of Early Christological Controversies on the Text of the New Testament by Bart Ehrman, Blomberg states;

If the original text read 'Lord Jesus' the word 'Christ' might be added; if it read 'Jesus Christ', then 'Lord' might be inserted up front. No new beliefs about Jesus were being created; standard ones were merely reinforced.[10]

Types of variants

There are several types of variant readings. They are separated into two distinct and major groupings; unintentional and intentional. It is the amount of manuscripts dealt with by the discipline of textual criticism that creates variant readings, but at the same time also enables the textual critic to pinpoint specifics of the unintended mistake, or intended alteration to avoid heresy.



Frequency of NT variants

Below is a list of books of the New Testament and the amount of verses that constitute each book, the amount of variant-free verses, percentage of variant-free verses of each book, and then the variant count per page.[11][12] The amount of variant-free verses and the amount of verses are divided to give the percentage of the total amount of non-variant verses in each book of the New Testament. The Gospel of Matthew, for example, may contain 6.8 variants per page, but the percent of verses that are not variants is maintained at 59.9%. The Gospel of Mark seems to have the most variant trouble. Each one of the gospels is seen to contain more variants than any one of the letters of the NT (except 2 Peter). The letters then maintain a considerably higher average of non-variant verses when compared to the gospels. While the book of Revelation, the last book of the New Testament, displays a variant-free percentage of 52.8%, similar to that of the gospels.


  • Matthew
  • Mark
  • Luke
  • John
  • Acts
  • Romans
  • 1 Corinthians
  • 2 Corinthians
  • Galatians
  • Ephesians
  • Philippians
  • Colossians
  • 1 Thessalonians
  • 2 Thessalonians
  • 1 Timothy
  • 2 Timothy
  • Titus
  • Philemon
  • Hebrews
  • James
  • 1 Peter
  • 2 Peter
  • 1 John
  • 2 John
  • 3 John
  • Jude
  • Revelation

Total Amount of Verses

  • 1071
  • 678
  • 1151
  • 869
  • 1006
  • 433
  • 437
  • 256
  • 149
  • 155
  • 104
  • 95
  • 89
  • 47
  • 113
  • 83
  • 46
  • 25
  • 303
  • 108
  • 105
  • 61
  • 105
  • 13
  • 15
  • 25
  • 405

Amount of Variant-Free Verses

  • 642
  • 306
  • 658
  • 450
  • 677
  • 327
  • 331
  • 200
  • 114
  • 118
  • 73
  • 69
  • 61
  • 34
  • 92
  • 66
  • 33
  • 19
  • 234
  • 66
  • 70
  • 32
  • 76
  • 8
  • 11
  • 18
  • 214

% of Variant-Free Verses

  • 59.9%
  • 45.1%
  • 57.2%
  • 51.8%
  • 67.3%
  • 75.5%
  • 75.7%
  • 78.1%
  • 76.5%
  • 76.1%
  • 70.2%
  • 72.6%
  • 68.5%
  • 72.3%
  • 81.4%
  • 79.5%
  • 71.7%
  • 76.0%
  • 77.2%
  • 61.6%
  • 66.6%
  • 52.5%
  • 72.4%
  • 61.5%
  • 73.3%
  • 72.0%
  • 52.8%

Variants per Page

  • 6.8
  • 10.3
  • 6.9
  • 8.5
  • 4.2
  • 2.9
  • 3.5
  • 2.8
  • 3.3
  • 2.9
  • 2.5
  • 3.4
  • 4.1
  • 3.1
  • 2.9
  • 2.8
  • 2.3
  • 5.1
  • 2.9
  • 5.6
  • 5.7
  • 6.5
  • 2.8
  • 4.5
  • 3.2
  • 4.2
  • 5.1


Translation of the Bible from Hebrew and Greek creates variance not only from construction of the text from original languages of extant manuscripts, but also from different types of English translations. Some are strictly literal renderings from the original languages word for word while others maintain a popular tone giving paraphrasing a substantial role. For instance, the New International Version (NIV) and the King James Version (KJV) of the English Bible differ by their intentional word choice, and because of this definitions derived will also differ. There is also sometimes significant difference of both the NIV and KJV respectively compared to that of the more literal rendering of the original languages within the New American Standard (NASB).[13][14] Continuous lack of interaction with original languages can devolve from appropriate exegesis into common eisegesis very suddenly. It is vital for an informed interpretation to consistently interact with the original Hebrew and Greek language. From the context of those ancient languages and background of the local and global cultures, exegesis of the English biblical text becomes a tool of the critical reader, allowing juxtaposition of the words and definitions of both translated and original languages that makeup the verse or verses in question. Highlighting linguistic differences of original and translated during exegesis can open up incredible depth of study and insight into the Bible. Unaware critics often take advantage of the incongruity between English translations to therefore show internal contradiction of the English biblical text. Often not realizing a proper exegesis in their reading, which would actually interpret from interaction with original languages, reading into the text without historical methods.


  1. The Use and Abuse of P52-Papyrological Pitfalls in the Dating of the Fourth Gospel By Brent Nongbri. Harvard Theological Review / Volume 98 / Issue 01, pp 23-48
  2. Bruce Metzger and Bart Ehrman, The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption and Restoration (Oxford University Press, Fourth Edition 2005), pg. 51
  3. Erwin Fahlbusch, The Encyclopedia of Christianity, Volume 2: E-L (William B. Eerdmans Publishing 1999), pg. 242[1]
  4. Bruce Metzger and Bart Ehrman, The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption and Restoration (Oxford University Press, Fourth Edition 2005), pg. 50
  5. Michael Wood, In Search of the Trojan War (Facts on File 1985), pg. 124
  6. Recent Perspectives on the Reliability of the Gospels by Gary R. Habermas Originally published in the Christian Research Journal / vol. 28, no. 1, 2005.
  7. 7.0 7.1 Establishing the Gospels’ Reliability By William Lane Craig
  8. Brian Auten interviews Daniel Wallace
  9. Ben Witherington, III, What Have They Done with Jesus?: Beyond Strange Theories and Bad History--Why We Can Trust the Bible (HarperOne; First Edition 2006)
  10. Craig L. Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels (IVP Academic, 2nd Edition 2007), pg. 332
  11. Kurt Aland and Barbara Aland, The Text of the New Testament (Eerdmans 1987), pg. 29-30
  12. Textual Reliability of the New Testament By JP Holding. Tektonics Apologetics Ministry
  13. Bible version debate By Wikipedia
  14. New American Standard Bible - Readable, Trusted, Literal, & Timeless By The Lockman Foundation

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