This challenge is best put forth by New Testament critic Bart Ehrman, who writes that “Not only do we not have the originals, we don’t have the first copies of the originals. We don’t even have copies of the copies of the originals, or copies of the copies of the copies of the originals.”
Ehrman isn’t entirely incorrect here, but the truth is that we have Greek manuscripts, thousands of them, some going as far back as the 2nd century. And we have very ancient translations directly from the Greek that give us a good sense of the Greek text that would have been available in those regions where that early version was used. These include Latin, Syriac, and Coptic. Altogether, we have at least 20 000 handwritten manuscripts in Greek, Latin, Syriac, Coptic and other ancient languages that help us to determine the wording of the original. Almost 6000 of these manuscripts are in Greek alone. We also have more than one million quotations of the New Testament by the early church fathers. It has been widely established that in the context of manuscript attestation there is nothing in the Greco-Roman world that comes even remotely close to this wealth of data.
The quotations we find in the letters of the church fathers are hugely significant as it allows us to construct much of the New Testament itself. Interestingly, Sir David Dalrymple (1726 – 1792AD) a Scottish judge and historian who wrote three volumes on early Christian Church history and wrote that “…as I possessed all the existing works of the Fathers of the second and third centuries, I commenced to search, and up to this time I have found the entire New Testament, except eleven verses.” This was seen by Jim Wallace. Wallace explains that he “focused on the work of Ignatius, Polycarp and Clement and isolated the content of their non-canonical writings to the early Church. What did they say about Jesus? Did they ever reference the writings of the New Testament? It turns out that the Early Church Fathers did, in fact, quote the scripture as it was handed down to them.“ From the church fathers alone we are able to sketch a portrait of Jesus:
• Jesus was Predicted by the Old Testament as described in the New Testament.
• Jesus is Divine as described in the New Testament.
• Jesus Taught His Disciples as described in the New Testament.
• Jesus Worked Miracles as described in the New Testament.
• Jesus was Born of a Virgin as described in the New Testament.
• Jesus Lived, Ministered, Was Crucified and Died as described in the New Testament.
• Jesus Rose from the Dead and Demonstrated His Deity as described in the New Testament.
In hindsight of this Wallace explains that “We don’t need to reconstruct the entire New Testament to have great confidence that the writings of the New Testament have been delivered to us accurately. The Early Church Fathers confirm this for us, even if they don’t repeat every line of the canonical narrative.”