Section 1:8 of the Westminster Confession states that the Scriptures have been, ‘by his singular care and providence kept pure in all ages’. This has been shown, by His Grace, through scholarly discoveries unthought of when the confession was written. As late as 1885 the earliest known text of the Old testament was A.D. 916. Tradition had it that this dated back at least to Jerome about A.D. 400, and there were various other fragments which suggested reasons for believing this to be so. But the discovery of the manuscripts at Qumran showed us just how faithful the copying had been. The same is so with our New Testament texts.
Now, our earliest surviving fragments date back to the early second century, which, for ancient manuscripts is pretty close to the date of composition. Compare, here, Virgil, the earliest surviving manuscript of whose Aeneid dates from at least 350 after its composition; by that date with the New Testament we have whole surviving volumes. Scholars feel free to debate minute turns of phrase in Plato, even though there is a 1300 year gap between composition and the earliest surviving texts. By the standard of those accustomed to dealing with ancient manuscripts, students of the New Testament are extremely fortunate.
There are those who delight in pointing out that there are at least 10,000 textual variants in surviving copies, but that is, itself, testament to the sheer number of surviving copies;as scholars know full well, the fewer copies survive, the fewer variants, and where there is only one text, we can know it absolutely – even though we cannot know whether it really is an accurate copy of the original. With HolY Scripture, the existence of so many copies enables us to be more confident about the accuracy of the text than would be the case were there a single text.
The Church in the West used Jerome’s fine Latin translation (from a Greek text he had himself prepared) until the Reformation, after which Protestants tended to use Erasmus’ Greek version, which was the foundation of the textus receptus, which is the text underlying the King James Bible of 1611. The Greek texts used by Erasmus were quite late ones, and in the late nineteenth century Westcott and Hort argued that the time had come to use the fourth century manuscripts known as the Codex Vaticanus and the Codex Siniaticus. Most of the modern translations into English are based on these texts.
It is clear that there was already a wide variety of variants by the third century, which suggests that there was, at that point, no systematic editing to make it conform to an agreed text; that suggests that the texts go back before they were collected in one volume; the idea that the NT text is in any way doctored to tell a single story is not so. Indeed, on examination, what is remarkable is how few of the variants are anything but orthographic changes; the homogeneity of the texts is what stands out.