The Christian New Testament has, without question, exerted great influence upon Western life and culture. And yet the text of no other body of ancient literature exists in so many different versions. This is, in the main, the result of the almost embarrassing number of variant copies of the New Testament that have been unearthed from ancient times and from the Middle Ages.
The New Testament is now known, in whole or in part, in over three thousand Greek manuscripts. Each one of these hand-written copies differs from every other one. (The Interpreters Dictionary of the Bible, Abingdon Press, 1962 edition in 4 volumes, under the heading 'Text, NT'. The work is a compilation of over 200 contributors, including Professors of Old Testament Literature, Biblical Language, Church History and New Testament Language and Literature.) In addition to these Greek manuscripts, the New Testament is found in more than ten thousand manuscripts of the early versions and in thousands of quotations of the Church Fathers. These manuscripts of the early versions and quotations of the Church Fathers differ from one another just as widely as do the Greek manuscripts. (ibid)
It has been estimated that New Testament manuscripts differ among themselves from between a staggering 150,000 to 250,000 times. (ibid) The actual figure is perhaps much higher. A study of 150 Greek manuscripts of the Gospel according to Luke has revealed more than 30,000 textual differences alone. (ibid) Each manuscript studied and unearthed inevitably adds substantially to the list of differences. So much so that The Interpreters Dictionary of the Bible unavoidably concluded that: "It is safe to say that there is not one sentence in the New Testament in which the manuscript tradition is wholly uniform." (ibid) Many of the differences arose at a very early stage. Prior to the invention of the printing press (15th century) all copies of Bibles show considerable textual variations. Such differences, so much a part of the history of the transmission of the New Testament, continue to live on in modern day copies.
Of the manuscripts to date, only about 50 contain the entire 27 books of the New Testament. Some contain additional books and gospels that were later expunged as fabrications. In these documents, there were originally no spaces between either letters or words, no punctuation, no accents or breathing marks on the Greek words (there was only a continuos flow of letters) and no chapter or verse divisions. In fact, the system of chapters in the New Testament now in use was invented by Cardinal Hugo de S. Caro in 1328. The Cardinal also divided each chapter into paragraphs marked by letters but this was superseded by the verse system introduced by Robert Stephanus in 1551. Subsequently, where each verse was printed as a separate paragraph it led to fragmentation of the original documents and to the interpretation of verses out of context. (ibid, and Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1983 edition in 30 volumes, under the heading 'Biblical Literature')
The original copies of the New Testament books have long since disappeared. (ibid) Even the true identity of their authors is to a large extent a matter of debate. The time gap between the original accounts of the events and today's surviving manuscripts is a period of over 200 to 300 years. (ibid) Before this time no written witnesses are available to establish the authenticity of Christian claims. With the exception, that is, of tiny papyrus fragments from the Gospel of John (three verses) and (so its is claimed) from the Gospel of Mark. Because of their fragmentary nature, they are of no great value in establishing the texts of even these two Gospels, let alone the New Testament as a whole.
Fragmentary papyrus of this nature have been unearthed dating from the second to eighth centuries, with more than half of them dating from the third and fourth centuries. No early papyrus, however, contains any complete book of Christian scripture. The papyrus New Testament manuscripts extant today were found in Egypt and undoubtedly were written there. They prove conclusively that in Egypt, particularly in the second, third and fourth centuries, no one type of New Testament text was dominant. In those early centuries many types of text flourished side by side. Two early papyri, which overlap across seventy verses of John's Gospel, differ at no less than seventy places (even after obvious scribal errors are accounted for); an average of one variation in each verse. If texts were being changed and edited to this degree, even a gap of a century between an original and its first survival on a papyrus fragment is a long and potentially disastrous time. We simply do not know what may have happened to the words at important places. (Paragraph adapted from Robin Lane Fox, The Unauthorized Version, 1992, pp.139-140)