Matthew Ferguson has been blogging brilliantly lately on how to study the New Testament from the perspective of classical literature (just check out his blog; you’ll find weeks of must-read articles lined up there, all fascinating stuff). But even his older stuff is awesome. Way back in 2012 he published Leveling a Mountain of Manuscripts with a Small Scoop of Context, and it long reminded me of how non-experts can be manipulated by Christian apologists, because laypeople don’t know basic things about paleography that we experts take for granted (so much that we forget not everyone is aware of them). This includes new things, developments in the field, that aren’t found in most books because those books were written a decade ago or more.
Christian apologists exploit this fact often. Just as when they keep citing “experts on Josephus” saying the Testimonium Flavianum (or TF) must derive from some authentic core, even though the “experts” they are citing are either long dead or expressed their only opinions on the matter a decade ago or more and may have changed their minds since—because more recent developments have radically altered the data; and only experts aware of those developments can have informed opinions worth counting. For example, a flurry of positive opinion arose about ten or twenty years ago from excess enthusiasm over the purported discovery of an earlier version of the text in Arabic translation that supposedly “proved” the passage predated Eusebius and said something different. But by 2008 that “discovery” had been debunked in the peer reviewed literature by Josephus expert Alice Whealey: that Arabic translation was in fact of a Syriac translation of Eusebius, and the changes were thus made after him, either by a telephone game of transmission error or by scribal attempts to make the passage more believable. This means all those published opinions before were based on a falsehood. Those opinions therefore can no longer be cited in favor of the passage. Expert opinion has to be re-polled. And obviously, only experts aware of this development should be polled.
This has happened in New Testament (or NT) studies, too. For example, many papyrus fragments, once dated overly early, have been dated decades or even a century later than previously claimed, after the poor logic and unchecked bias of earlier estimates was exposed. This was well reported by Neil Godfrey, in New Date and More on Dating, which articles are also very educational on what the peer reviewed literature says about the problems dating NT manuscripts. (BTW, Wikipedia will often keep you more up to date than many experts are, with a wonderful catalog of entries on all New Testament papyri, uncials, minuscules, and lectionaries.) As another example, sixteen years ago David Trobisch published evidence changing the way we understand extant NT manuscripts; and it’s taken a decade for his results to filter into expert knowledge. Interestingly, Trobisch has been tapped to curate Hobby Lobby’s new Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C., despite him in no way being a fundamentalist but an actual legit scholar and justifiably renowned expert on biblical manuscripts. Anyway, his book in 2000 presents evidence that makes a significant difference in how we interpret the surviving manuscripts of the Bible.
Today this will be my lesson number one. My lesson number two will highlight the similarly field-changing work of paleographers who’ve established that the earliest NT manuscripts were also the least professionally copied, producing a startling fluidity of errors and alterations at a faster pace than was typical for most other books in antiquity, which would more typically be transmitted by polished professionals, often working for supervised publishing houses, a development that would not reach Christian publishing until the end of the third century. My lesson number three will then draw on Ferguson’s article about counting manuscripts, which I just referenced above, thus tying the end of my article to its beginning.
1. Everything We Have Comes from the Same Edition
The first thing to know about NT manuscripts is that, so far, every single one we have is a copy (of a copy of a copy of a copy…) of the same single edition, organized and edited by a single person or focus group, and published between 140 and 170 A.D., in part as a response to an earlier edition (produced by Marcion around 140 A.D.), the first ever known, that has been completely lost (see this excellent article at the Westar Institute for more on that backstory). This has tremendous significance. A significance I may have to explain for the average reader. Now, this is not saying that the books of the NT were written by these people and at that time. Rather, what we are talking about is an organized edition. Meaning, someone made a choice of which books to bundle together, and how to alter or arrange them (and even how to name them), and then started knocking out and disseminating copies of that. And that edition completely displaced all other editions and textual traditions before it.
In Trobisch’s book The First Edition of the New Testament, as Robert Price puts it in his review, “Trobisch argues that the New Testament canon of 27 writings that we use today originated not in the fourth century as the result of a prolonged and anonymous process of debate and ossifying custom, but rather as the work of a single editor and publisher in the late second century.” That means the canon we know was chosen in the mid-second century, and not by any broad-based committee, but by a single person or local group, from a single sect. And not only did they choose what books would go in it (and thus what books wouldn’t go in it), they also chose which manuscripts would be canonized. That is, many manuscript traditions existed, with all kinds of variant readings, all with their own alterations, interpolations, errors, deletions, harmonizations, and everything else. The publisher of the “canonical” edition chose which manuscripts would be treated as authoritative, and thus ossified every error and distortion they contained.
Now, most atheists think they want the reverse to be the case, that the canon not being decided until a committee got at it hundreds of years after the fact is the more embarrassing theory, and gives greater authority to the books excluded. Often they think this was done at the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D., since the myth that that council chose the canon is weirdly common for some reason, but Nicea only decided the creed, and indeed invented the one we now know by merging several others through a committee process, producing an impossible construct whose value was solely political and whose theological meaning was literally vacuous. Nothing at all was discussed about the canon at Nicea. The first time any clear assertion of a canon came from Christian leadership was a letter by Athanasias in 367 A.D., and all he did was endorse the canon already widely in use (against attempts to usurp or alter it). But actually, that the canon was decided a century and a half earlier is almost worse. Because it means fewer people, and less discussion, was involved in its selection and preservation.
There is a parallel case with the manuscripts of Josephus, particularly of the Jewish Antiquities. In a peer reviewed article I wrote for the Journal of Early Christian Studies (reproduced in Hitler Homer Bible Christ), I demonstrated a variety of things that alter how experts must review the evidence for Christianity in Josephus, but I also clearly showed that all extant manuscripts of the Antiquities are copies (of copies of copies of copies…) of the same singular manuscript owned and used by Eusebius at his own Christian library in Caesarea. This means we cannot expect any versions of the text different from or predating that single manuscript to be available to us in any manuscript there is today.
This means all variants prior to that (including the original form of the text as Josephus wrote it) are permanently lost and invisible to us. Every error and distortion and mistaken “correction” that got into the text in that one single Eusebian manuscript, from its own copying from an earlier manuscript in that same library (used by Origen), which said significantly different things, and every error and distortion and mistaken “correction” that got into the text in the long process of transmission down through numerous reproductions before Origen even acquired his copy, will never show in the surviving record. All manuscript evidence there would have been proving those variant readings, has been 100% lost. Probably forever.
That the entirety of all Josephan scholarship is only trying to reconstruct the text as it was in the single centuries-late manuscript held by Eusebius in the early 4th century, and cannot ever reconstruct any version of the text prior (down to and including the original text as known to Josephus in the late 1st century), is an extremely significant thing to realize. Trobisch has given us exactly the same shocking discovery for the NT. This includes evidence like the way the Gospels are named. As Trobisch points out, calling any book “The Gospel According to” was extremely unique and bizarre in the history of ancient literature, so much so that there is no possible way the four Gospels all came to have such a peculiar title form, consistently throughout all known manuscripts, by accident.
Accordingly, this means whoever produced this singular c. 150 A.D. edition (I’ll just call it the C150 edition), also named the four Gospels. And chose to do so by the coy method of declaring them anonymous while seeming to assign them authors, as if to fool the commonly uneducated hearer (since “according to” in Greek was not how authors were designated, but how authors designated their sources; so whoever produced this edition was declaring the contents of the Gospels to be “according to” a named but never actually identified source, while slyly not telling us the name of who actually wrote them).
The evidence verifying Trobisch’s thesis extends far beyond that, and includes aspects of how the materials are arranged in the surviving manuscripts themselves, including specific marking and abbreviation techniques, and order and contents. As Price summarizes:
[Trobisch] has delineated a paradigm that makes good, inductive sense of many hitherto-puzzling bits of evidence. He notes that the New Testament books appear, with very few exceptions, in four groups of codices, and that within each the order of presentation is virtually always the same. There are the four gospels, almost always in the familiar order Matthew, Mark, Luke, John. There is the Acts plus the seven Catholic/General Epistles, again always in the same order. There is the Pauline canon including Hebrews. And then there is the Revelation. (Sometimes the Pauline Corpus precedes Acts/Catholic Epistles.) Such an arrangement is hardly inevitable or obvious. Had various New Testament writings simply circulated independently and then been compiled by different scribes at different times in different regions, we would never see near-uniformity like this. Why would Hebrews be included among the Paulines so often, when Paul’s name never appears in the text? Why would everyone have concluded that what we call Ephesians and Romans were written to those churches when some copies show no destination city? Would every scribe have thought the Corinthian and the Thessalonian Epistles belong in the order in which they always appear? Surely some would have labeled our “First” Thessalonians as Second Thessalonians, they are so much alike.
In a subsequent article Trobisch even made a case that the editor of this edition of the NT, the sole ancestor of all other versions known to us, in all other manuscripts, may have been the Christian leader Polycarp himself. I’m not as certain, but the case he makes for that conclusion is good enough to warrant at least the suspicion.
This then is why we will likely never find surviving descendants of any manuscript that contained the original text of 1 Thessalonians 2, by which we could verify the obvious interpolation there. Because the editor of the C150 edition chose to use a manuscript that included the interpolation. And the resulting version eclipsed all others in the surviving record. Thus, just as we will never find a version of Josephus that lacks the Testimonium Flavianum, because the Testimonium Flavianum was in the one Eusebian manuscript, and yet all surviving manuscripts today are descendants of that same manuscript (indeed we know the TF was not in the manuscript Origen was using in the very same library a century before—yet the Eusebian manuscript was a copy of that one, or at best a copy of a copy of it), so also we will never find a version of 1 Thessalonians that lacks its anti-semitic interpolation, because all surviving manuscripts of that letter derive from the single manuscript chosen for the C150 edition. The earlier, original version was thus lost forever.
The C150 edition was, of course, still repeatedly meddled with afterward, as we see countless variants and distortions across all surviving manuscripts. For instance, the 150 A.D. edition ended Mark at verse 16:8; the five different revisions to that unsatisfying ending (as I thoroughly document in my chapter on the Markan endings in Hitler Homer) were innovated into subsequent copies of that edition. They therefore do not derive from any earlier manuscript or tradition. It may be remotely possible they did (because, perhaps, someone tried to “fix” the C150 edition against previous textual traditions available to them), but the evidence we have of the overwhelming potency of the C150 edition in eclipsing all others across the whole body of surviving manuscripts, numbering in the thousands, does not make that likely enough to ever count on. What changes had before then and by then been made to the original books (all interpolations, deletions, word substitutions, harmonizations, and beyond) were thus ossified in the edition all our copies today are copies of.
I’m often asked, of course, if someone did thus choose the four Gospels of the known canon to release them in a single edition (with all the other books chosen for the same collection), even indeed to win a propaganda war with competing versions and editions, why did they choose four Gospels that were so contradictory, in both content and constituency? And I have often replied: Politics.
Once Marcion started trying to take over hearts and minds with the idea of a “canon,” a fixed body of scripture of his own choosing and design, his opposition needed to escalate the arms race with their own weapon in kind: they needed their own canon, and they needed it to eclipse his in popularity. The most strategically effective way to do that was to select books for inclusion in it that would win over the largest number of constituents (from all the diverse scattered congregations across three continents), while still not producing so many contradictions (either to each other or to the desired doctrine being fought for) that it no longer became possible to wash them over with clever exegesis and apologetics. Since every region or congregation had likely chosen one or another Gospel as its authoritative holy text, then to bring in the most regions and congregations, the editor of C150 cobbled together a political alliance among the largest possible number of those, using the four Gospels found in our canon. Hence those four were chosen. Because when their constituents were added up, they far outnumbered Marcion’s.
And thus by fierce natural selection, C150 won the popularity contest, and all its competing species went extinct. All Gospels more deviant than those were, of course, rejected. Just like the Council of Nicea cobbled together a contradictory and unintelligible creed in order to unite more factions than the opposition could claim in turn (elegantly shown in the last chapters of Ehrman’s book How Jesus Became God), so the editor of the C150 Bible cobbled together a contradictory and unintelligible canon in order to unite more factions than the opposition could claim in turn. Thus, the Bible we have: Chosen based on political expediency and doctrinal bias; not by applying any historical investigation or textual science to determine the most original or authentic books or versions.
2. For at Least Two Hundred Years, Christian Scribes Were Sloppy Amateurs
Long ago I debated J.P. Holding on the reliability of the text of the New Testament (video)(slides). Among my arguments were the fact that it is a standard principle in the science of textual criticism that the first decades to a century of a text’s transmission witness the highest rates of distortion in the text (due to it being easier to eclipse competing texts, and easier to get away with it, when so few exist), and the fact that Christians were not professionally transmitting their C150 edition of the Bible for at least a century after it was first published.
The C150 edition’s publication was an amateur affair. And remained so for a century and a half. And that edition was published more or less a century after the books in it were written. Yet there is no evidence any professional efforts to preserve those texts spanned that period either. In fact, if the C150 edition wasn’t being professionally transmitted, despite having the backing of the largest and wealthiest commonwealth of churches, its very unlikely its predecessors and competitors were either. And yet this amateurism resulted in even greater distortions of the text than would be typical for most other books (like the Antiquities of Josephus, which would more commonly have been transmitted by professional scribes and publishing houses and libraries even from the very first autograph edition). This makes the NT in its first two centuries more akin to the so-called vulgar texts of Homer, which, being reproduced by amateurs, deviated considerably and rapidly from the controlled authoritative editions of professional houses (a comparison already made in John Van Seters, ed., The Edited Bible: The Curious History of the Editor in Biblical Critism in 2006; see also pp. 133-35 of vol. 1 of A History of Classical Scholarship by John Edwin Sandys).
This is, again, another new discovery in the evidence that has changed our understanding of the New Testament. Studies have been done with regard to internal evidence of scribal quality and professionalism on the earliest manuscripts and their descendants. And they show increasing professionalism over time observably corresponded with a decreased professionalism in the earlier centuries, resulting in much higher documented rates of accidental error in transmission during that period, and a higher variability of the text (such as freer spelling deviations and harmonizations). This scholarship is surveyed Robert Stewart, ed., The Reliability of the New Testament (esp. 115-16, discussing the work of Barbara Aland) and the chapter in that same anthology by Sylvie Raquel (pp. 173-86), who specializes in these very studies. And as we can see, the poor quality of scribes attending to the task of copying NT manuscripts in its first two centuries would only have increased, not decreased, the rate of error.
By the 4th century Bibles started being produced (not solely, but started) in professional copy-houses, with the standards of quality control and error correction known for most other ancient literature (which standards and practices were developed and had already become the norm for most secular literature in Greek during the 3rd century BC, which disseminated into Latin literary production a century or two later: see Scribes & Scholars: A Guide to the Transmission of Greek and Latin Literature, now in its 4th edition). Eusebius, in fact, may have been the first to have begun professional Bible reproduction, in the early fourth century. Thus receiving a commission from Constantine to a production run of some fifty Bibles at state expense. Before that, it appears, only house amateurs were tasked with creating Bibles for local use or distribution.
The significance of this is that when we look at later centuries (the period of even professional duplication), we can count up an observed rate of known distortion per century. That observed rate will already be smaller than the actual rate (because we only have a small sample of the manuscripts that existed in any given century; thus the distortions we can add up in what we observe, must be a great many times smaller than the actual rate of their occurrence). Yet I found that, for the NT as a whole, the rate of interpolations was at least twenty per century; of harmonizations (sneaking verses from one Gospel into another to eliminate contradictions or fabricate corroborations), also at least twenty per century. I didn’t attempt a count of significant spelling errors (errors that actually change the meaning of a passage), but many of those are known as well; and observed spelling errors in general number in the thousands per century.
Of harmonizations, for example, many early manuscripts (including our earliest whole Bibles, both Codex Vaticanus and Codex Sinaiticus) have Matthew agree with John that Jesus was struck by a soldier’s spear and out came blood and water (in Matthew 27:49). Of interpolations, for example, just a random selection from the Gospels includes John 7:53-8:11 (the Pericope Adulterae, “let he who is without sin cast the first stone,” etc.), John 5:3-4 (someone added a line about an angel stirring the pool of Bethesda), Luke 22:43-44 (someone added a line about Jesus sweating blood), Luke 23:53 (someone added a line saying Jesus’s tomb had “a door that took twenty men to open”), and so on. Of significant spelling errors, my favorite is the accidental dropping of a single letter, that changed the original “peace on earth for those whom God pleases” to “peace on earth and goodwill toward men,” the latter being the mistake! (I discuss this instance, and much else amusing about Biblical criticism, textual and literary, in my Drunken Bible Study video.)
So if the observed rate of error and distortion over the five centuries after the year 300 was 20 harmonizations, 20 interpolations, and possibly 20 significant spelling errors per century (and this isn’t even including deletions and word substitutions, two other common causes of distortion and error), and the text of the NT went a whole century before being ossified into the single manuscript of the original C150, which single manuscript all surviving manuscripts are copies (by descent), then there are, we can expect, at least 20 interpolations, 20 fake harmonizations, and 20 significant spelling errors in the NT that will have no manuscripts telling us that. Which means, any given verse you are looking at, might be one of those. We have no way of knowing.
And mind you, I said at least. Remember, that rate is an undercount of the actual (due to the paucity of surviving manuscripts), and is for professional reproduction, in the later (and thus most stable) centuries of textual transmission. Since textual critics know that for all books, the rate is higher in its first century of transmission than later centuries, and since we know that, even worse, Christians were using amateurs to reproduce their texts and were not substantially engaging professional reproduction controls (and we can observe today this was producing a higher rate of distortion), the NT error rate in its first century must have been substantially higher than the already-expected 20 interpolations, 20 harmonizations, and 20 substantive spelling errors.
It just gets worse when we try to check the manuscripts against quotations in the Church Fathers. Because…guess what? The patristic texts have also been subject to error and distortion, and in fact we have documented their manuscripts were particularly prone to being re-harmonized to later versions of the Biblical text! In other words, we can’t cite, say, Irenaeus as confirming an early reading of an NT book…because medieval scribes may have altered what Irenaeus wrote to “agree” with their text of the Bible! Yup. (See Hitler Homer, pp. 290-91 for scholarship on this embarrassing revelation.)
3. Counting Manuscripts Is as Useless as Counting Xeroxes
Finally, the third thing to know, is that the number of manuscripts we have of the NT is largely useless. It allows us to see through some of the distorting filters of the Middle Ages. But it doesn’t help us with the crucial two to three first centuries of the text’s transmission, because the text was so hugely subject to distorting pressures (being perpetually at the center of a propaganda war), transmitted unprofessionally, and all textual traditions preceding the single manuscript of the C150 archetype are lost. Their numerical count today is zero. And yet those are the manuscripts we most desperately need to see to establish what the original authors wrote.
Parts of the New Testament have been preserved in more manuscripts than any other ancient work, having over 5,800 complete or fragmented Greek manuscripts, 10,000 Latin manuscripts and 9,300 manuscripts in various other ancient languages including Syriac, Slavic, Gothic, Ethiopic, Coptic and Armenian.
Ever hear the argument that our earliest copy of the historian Tacitus’ Annals (c. 116 CE) dates to the 9th century, seven hundred years later, but we have early copies of the Gospels dating to only a couple centuries after their composition? How about that we only have 9 Greek manuscripts of the historian Josephus’ Jewish War, but we have over 5,800 Greek manuscripts of the New Testament? Clearly we trust the historical information of Tacitus and Josephus, so we should trust the New Testament too, right? Wrong. Once more, apologists have blown up a big number, divorced it from context, and created a misleading argument that can be torn down by three simple points of clarity.
Ferguson focuses on the incorrect conclusions often launched from these numbers (such as confusing textual accuracy with historical accuracy). But even the numbers are a trick pulled on the unaware. As Ferguson says (my emphasis):
When it comes to the “mountain” of 5,800 Greek NT manuscript copies, even conservative textual critic Dan Wallace acknowledges, “it should be pointed out that most of our manuscripts come from the second millennium AD, and most of our manuscripts do not include the whole New Testament.” Here is a summary of the the distribution of the Greek NT manuscripts by date:
As can be seen, the vast majority of these texts date to after the 9th century [A.D.], which was a time when Christian monks were dominating the apparatus of textual transmission in Europe. It is thus not surprising that more copies of the New Testament were produced than other literary works during this period. If one excludes later medieval manuscripts, Wallace notes that only approximately 124 manuscripts “come within the first 300 years,” which is a considerably smaller number. [Credit to Bob Seidensticker for supplying the chart.]
And all of those manuscripts come from Egypt, a single province and region of the Roman Empire. More importantly, almost every single one of those manuscripts is not really a Bible or even a book, but just a fragment, often just a tiny shred, in some cases containing hardly even a single whole word. For example, the earliest fragment, P52, now dated to around 150 A.D. (and thus possibly from the first run of the C150 edition), is a tiny rip of papyrus, barely the size of a credit card, containing only 31 words (front and back)—and apart from “and,” “the,” “from,” “so,” “that,” and “him,” only two of those words appears complete, the words “said” and “anyone.” Not exactly a bonanza of evidence. As you can see for yourself, not a single manuscript from before the time of Eusebius contains even a whole book, other than P46 (and it only has some of the Epistles, many still damaged or fragmentary) and P66 (most of the Gospel According to John), both dated to around 200 A.D., and P87 (just the paltry Epistle to Philemon), dating to about 250 A.D. Of anything like near complete Bibles, only a handful predate the Middle Ages.
In fact, let’s fully consider what that “5,800 manuscripts” really means (and thus how it’s a scam to cite it as if it meant anything):
- Nearly five thousand of those are actually copies of manuscripts we already have, and are therefore useless. Since we actually have the originals they copied from, so we don’t need them. This is akin to xeroxing an existing manuscript of Tacitus a million times and claiming we have “a million manuscripts of Tacitus, which is totes more than the Bible!” Although unlike xeroxing, we can use those otherwise superfluous hand-copied manuscripts to study the rate and nature of errors and alterations in transmission, akin to studying the distortions caused by the Xerox machine; but they don’t tell us anything useful at all about the one Eusebian manuscript we are able to try and reconstruct from its surviving descendants. So we shouldn’t even be counting them.
- When we look at the thousand or so remaining manuscripts, nearly all of them are from the Middle Ages, in fact most by far are eight or more centuries later than the original texts they purport to contain. All they show us is how the text was transformed by error and alteration in the Middle Ages, representing the stabilization of the text that medieval Christendom wanted, rather than any effort at determining their accuracy in respect to the originals. Some of those medieval manuscripts will by accident preserve early readings, which makes them at least useful as a check against some of the errors and meddlings of all the others, but again, only in respect to dermining what the text looked like in that one single late 2nd century manuscript created and edited for propaganda purposes. Though it’s theoretically possible some preserve corrections to that text in later copies against earlier copies, but that’s both unlikely and impossible to ever determine has happened.
- That leaves us with that paltry 124 manuscripts that are not Medieval and not copies of manuscripts we already have. So we’ve gone from nearly six thousand to barely more than a hundred
- And almost all of those are just tiny random scraps, not full manuscripts of even a single book. Some of these (the smallest at least) could derive from pre-C150 edition manuscripts (as does, for example, the aberrant Egerton Gospel, which may be an earlier version of John: OHJ, p. 492, n. 217), but there is no way to tell, and they contain too little information to be of much use even if they did.
As for the manuscripts in other languages, as translations they are almost all late productions, and almost all Medieval, and often highly deviant. Indeed especially the earliest, tend to be the weirdest (as I show for the endings of Mark, for example, in Hitler Homer). And for all we can tell, they, too, are just translations of the standard C150 edition, or derivations therefrom. They can put a check on later Medieval excesses. But they aren’t much useful beyond that.
In final analysis, the number of manuscripts we have that contain even a whole book of the NT and aren’t Medieval and thus just as comparably late as almost any other book from antiquity, is maybe closer to the same number as we have for Josephus. The one advantage we have for them, is that they are earlier. But that advantage is wiped out by the fact that unlike Josephus, the NT manuscripts were under intense pressure to alter them, and were unprofessionally transmitted for centuries in the throes of a continual propaganda war. And hundreds of variant readings remain for which we cannot be sure what was in even that one anti-Marcionite manuscript; and scores more deviations from the originals must exist for which we will have no manuscript evidence at all.
So again, all we can determine from extant NT manuscripts (no matter how many we have) are the decisions of a single person or focus group around 150 A.D., who chose, for each book they selected to include, a single manuscript from all those in circulation at the time, which they themselves may well have edited further, and all based on accident (the manuscript that just happened to be known to them or close at hand) and their own peculiar dogma and politics (their current political needs and doctrinal presuppositions, which all differed substantially from those of the original authors), and not on paleographic science—even though that science was invented in antiquity and well available to them, had they wished to apply it.
So when Christian apologists make hay out of the big number of Bible manuscripts, they are pulling wool over your eyes (and the eyes of their congregations, and possibly even themselves). That number is meaningless. It has nothing to do with the reliability of transmission or the reliability of the surviving texts. Similarly, all the manuscripts we have of Josephus all derive from the single manuscript used by Eusebius around 300 A.D. at the Library of Caesarea, a library he curated. Thus, two hundred years of manuscript variants for Josephus are lost to us. And no amount of citing how many manuscripts we have can get us passed that choking singularity. All those manuscripts of Josephus that we have, can only help us reconstruct what was in the one single manuscript of Eusebius in 300 A.D. (and often, not even that, as many readings remain obscure or undecidable among the variants known, just as is the case with the NT).
Likewise, no count of NT manuscripts can get us passed the choking singularity of the Anti-Marcionite Edition of about 150 A.D., and all its transmission errors and political and doctrinal choices, changes, and idiosyncrasies. All those manuscripts we do have, can only help us reconstruct that single manuscript. A manuscript dating one to two whole lifetimes after the books in it were written. A manuscript assembled and edited by persons with a definite propagandistic agenda, and no professional or scientific concern to ascertain its textual accuracy. And, like for Josephus, in many cases we don’t even have that. For there remain countless instances in the NT where we do not know which variants known to us actually appeared in that edition. And in some cases, it’s statistically possible, none of the variants extant today is what was originally in it. And yet what was in it, is just what was in it. What was in the original versions of the books it assembled, we literally cannot know. At most we can bank on the probability that massive changes might have been unsuccessful; but countless small ones would have; and we know for a fact they were—as in the case of the Christian edition of the OT, the Christians kept insisting it had passages in it that Jewish versions didn’t (see OHJ, pp. 90-92), which of course they blamed (implausibly) on the Jews changing their versions. Because everyone’s edition was, when their own, “obviously” the unsullied original.
So those big numbers? Useless. Meaningless. Showy fantastical blather.
And so also goes into the bin the claim that the Christians carefully and meticulously and reverently preserved even that edition. They doctored and meddled with it repeatedly. And did so more blatantly and recklessly in its first hundred years of publication, as in that period they didn’t even employ professionals to oversee the accuracy of its reproduction. Such professional care only entered the scene in the 4th century. And even then errors and alterations remained common.
Like I said when someone at the Holding debate asked me why I don’t distrust secular manuscripts, like the Annals of Tacitus, for the same reasons I distrust the Bible: the Annals are also lousy with transmission errors and possible interpolations and deletions. “If the Annals of Tacitus were instructions for building a rocket, I would not get on that rocket.” I wouldn’t base my life on it. It would be foolish to. I trust it to a certain probability, because as an ancient historian I don’t need to be certain of anything I reconstruct about ancient history, I can be fine with balances of probability; I’m comfortable with ambiguity. But for a worldview instruction manual, on which you will gamble your entire life, and govern your entire conduct, and use as an overriding rule over all your opinions, the Bible would only be trusted in such a capacity by a fool. Because it would be foolish to trust even Tacitus in that capacity. And the Bible is far worse. The Annals of Tacitus were not transmitted for a century and a half by unprofessional amateurs before benefiting from professional publishing controls. And the Annals of Tacitus were not edited and transmitted for hundreds and hundreds of years by persons obsessed with altering it to suit their ever-changing fanatical, political, and doctrinal needs. And above all, the one edited variant of the Annals of Tacitus that we get any chance of seeing was not chosen two lifetimes after Tacitus by a single person or cabal obsessed with using it to win a political propaganda war with the convenience of its contents.
So here we are. Three things you should know about the New Testament manuscripts…their number is useless, they all come from the same late and flawed edition, and they are more riddled with error and distortion than the most competently transmitted of secular texts would have been. And that is the very worst kind of book to base your life on. Even besides all the stupid and shitty things it says.