Post Author: Bill Pratt
Christians are often confused about this question, so I want to give a quick summary.
The 27 books of the New Testament (NT) were originally written in the common Greek language of the first century. They were all hand-written, likely on papyrus. These hand-written manuscripts were then copied, by hand, for hundreds of years by various Christian laypeople, professional scribes, and even monks. In the middle of the 15th century, the printing press was invented and the NT, from that time onward, was primarily copied on printing presses.
All of the original NT documents have been lost, mostly because papyrus decays rapidly, and must be stored under dry conditions to last more than just decades. However, we have many hand-written copies of the words of the NT that were produced between about A.D. 100 and A.D. 1450.
The words of the NT were preserved in three ways. First, we have copies of partial and complete NT books written in Greek, the original language. We have discovered about 5,800 of these. Second, we have copies of partial and complete NT books written in Latin, Coptic, Syriac, and other ancient languages. These manuscripts number around 19,000 and were produced starting in the late second century. Third, we have the writings of church leaders from the first few centuries. We have enough quotes from the NT in the church fathers (thousands of them) that we could reconstruct a good bit of the NT with just this material.
Modern scholars (called textual critics), using these three sources, then construct a Greek New Testament. Since there are textual variants among the manuscripts, textual critics must apply tests to determine which variants likely represent the original writing of the NT authors (more about these tests in a future blog post).
There are a couple major versions of this Greek New Testament that are used by scholars and Bible translators today: Nestle-Aland (NA 27th edition) and United Bible Societies (UBS 4th edition).
The publishers of an English Bible will use these Greek New Testaments to create their particular translation. Each translation also must decide how they will translate — word-for-word or thought-for-thought or something in between.
Typically a large committee of scholars will actually create the English translation.
It is important to understand that most English translations are using the same Greek New Testament as their source, so the differences among English versions come down to the method of translation employed by the translation committees.
That’s it in a nutshell. Now you know the basics!