How do I know the Bible is true (part 2)?
This eight-part series answers common objections to the Bible as the Word of God.
Objection 2: The Bible has been copied so many times, with so many variations, there’s no way to know what was originally scripted.
Mormons and Muslims allege that the Bible’s documents were substantially corrupted in their transmission, but there is overwhelming evidence that proves these claims false. Scholars of almost every theological persuasion attest to the profound care with which the Old and New Testament documents were copied and preserved.
To begin, it’s important to know that the texts of the Old and New Testaments were written – under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit – by some 40 authors over a period of more than 1,500 years. With thousands of ancient copies in existence, it is a monumental task to establish the accuracy and truthfulness of these manuscripts. Textual criticism is the science of examining the books of the Bible and their origins. “It has to do with the reliability of the text, that is, how our current text compares with the originals and how accurately the ancient manuscripts were copied,” according to Paul E. Little in Know Why You Believe.
The Old Testament
Let’s begin with the Old Testament, copies of which were written on clay and wooden tablets, papyrus and parchment, even pottery pieces and beaten metal fragments. Scribes, or copyists, were devout Jews with the highest professional standards and the utmost dedication to dealing with the Word of God. Their habits included wiping a pen clean before writing the name of God, copying one letter at a time, and counting the letters of both the original and the copy. If there were discrepancies, the copy was destroyed.
The earliest and most complete copy of the entire Hebrew Old Testament dates from around 900 A.D. and is known as the Masoretic text. All of the present copies of the Hebrew text we have today are in remarkable agreement with this text. But even earlier texts have now been found. The discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls in 1947 resulted in the earliest manuscript copy yet of the complete book of Isaiah. Later discoveries at the Dead Sea unearthed fragments of every book in the Old Testament except Esther. Since these scrolls date from a group of dedicated Jews living at Qumran from about 150 B.C. to 70 A.D., the discoveries closed the gap in the age of manuscripts by about 1,000 years. A careful comparison of the Qumran manuscripts with the Masoretic texts shows remarkable similarity.
Other texts fortify our confidence in the reliability of the Old Testament manuscripts. The Septuagint is a Greek translation of the Old Testament dating from about the third century B.C. For a Hellenized Hebrew culture whose people often knew only Greek, the Septuagint became a bridge for understanding the Hebrew history and theology of the Old Testament. In addition, the Syriac version of the Old Testament, written in the Aramaic language of Syria, followed, as did a Samaritan version. With all of these texts existing in 200 B.C., what does it mean for the accuracy of the Scriptures?
R. Laird Harris writes: “We can now be sure that copyists worked with great care and accuracy on the Old Testament, even back to 225 B.C. Although some differed among themselves, it was so little, we can infer that still earlier copyists had also faithfully and carefully transmitted the Old Testament text. Indeed, it would be rash skepticism that would now deny that we have our Old Testament in a form very close to that used by Ezra when he taught the Law to those who had returned from the Babylonian captivity – about B.C. 457 (Ezra 9-10)” (“How Reliable is the Old Testament Text?” in Can I Trust My Bible, p. 124).
The New Testament
For the New Testament, the original documents were written and copied in Greek, and later translated and preserved in Syriac, Coptic, Latin and a variety of other ancient European and Middle Eastern languages. In the Greek alone, more than 5,000 manuscripts and manuscript fragments of the New Testament have been preserved from the early centuries of Christianity.
As William Lane Craig explains, “The oldest of these is a scrap of papyrus containing John 18:31-33, 37-38, dating from A.D. 125-130, no more than forty years after John’s Gospel was most probably written. More than thirty papyri date from the late second through early third centuries, including some which contain good chunks of entire books and two which cover most of the gospels and Acts or the letters of Paul. Four very reliable and nearly complete NTs date from the fourth and fifth centuries” (“The Historical Reliability of the New Testament,” Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics, p. 194).
While it’s true there are variations among the manuscripts, the vast majority have to do with changes in spelling, grammar, and style, or accidental omissions or duplications of words or phrases. Only about 400 variants have any significant bearing on the meaning of the passage, and most of these are noted in the footnotes or margins of modern translations and editions of Scripture. The only textual variants that affect more than a sentence or two are John 7:53-8:11 and Mark 16:9-20.
William Lane Craig further writes in Reasonable Faith, “Neither of these passages is very likely to be what John or Mark originally wrote, though the story in John (the woman caught in adultery) still stands a fairly good chance of being true. But overall, 97-99% of the NT can be reconstructed beyond any reasonable doubt, and no Christian doctrine is founded solely or even primarily on textually disputed passages” (p. 194).
Consider these statements from renowned Bible scholars:
- The New Testament is the most accurately copied book from the ancient world. Textual scholars Westcott and Hort estimate that only one-sixtieth of its variants rise above “trivialities,” which leaves the text 98.33 percent pure. Noted historian Philip Schaff calculates that of the 150,000 variants known in his day, only 400 affected the meaning of a passage; only 50 were of any significance; and not even one affected an article of faith (Companion to the Greek Testament and English Version, p. 177).
- Sir Frederick Kenyon, a New Testament authority, writes, “The number of manuscripts of the New Testament, or early translations from it, and of quotations from it in the oldest writers of the Church, is so large that it is practically certain that the true reading of every doubtful passage is preserved in some one or other of these ancient authorities…. This can be said of no other ancient book in the world” (Our Bible and the Ancient Manuscripts, p. 55).
- Many of the apparent discrepancies in the gospels, Acts and the writings of Paul – minor as they are – disappear once we judge ancient historians by the standards of their day rather than ours. As Craig L. Blomberg writes, “In a world which did not even have a symbol for a quotation mark, no one expected a historian to reproduce a speaker’s words verbatim” (“The Historical Reliability of the New Testament,” Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics, p. 207).
- “The point is simply that the textual evidence for what the NT authors wrote far outstrips the documentation we have for any other ancient writing, including dozens which we believe have been preserved relatively intact. There is absolutely no support for claims that the standard modern editions of the Greek NT do not very closely approximate what the NT writers actually wrote” (Blomberg, p. 194).
- “If we compare the present state of the New Testament text with that of any other ancient writing, we must … declare it to be marvelously correct. Such has been the care with which the New Testament has been copied – a care which has doubtless grown out of true reverence for its holy words…. The New Testament [is] unrivaled among ancient writings in the purity of its text as actually transmitted and kept in use” (Benjamin B. Warfield, Introduction to Textual Criticism of the New Testament, pp. 12-13, quoted in The Case for Christ by Lee Strobel, p. 70).
To summarize, even though there are some discrepancies in copies of ancient Bible manuscripts, the overwhelming number of variations is trivial, such as transposed letters. No discrepancy threatens any Biblical doctrine. Modern equivalents of these minor variants would be the difference between the English words “honor” and “honour,” or receiving a notice in the mail saying “You may have already w-n a million dollars.” The meaning of these sentences is profoundly clear.
For these and other reasons we have not discussed here – archaeological and other scientific evidence, for example – we can be confident that the English translations we hold in our hands come from reliably consistent Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic documents that have been copied meticulously since the originals were penned. We also may take comfort in the knowledge that the same Holy Spirit who inspired the “autographs” of Scripture has taken care to preserve these texts and arrange the “canon” (Lesson 3).
Next: The books of the Bible were chosen arbitrarily by councils of men in highly political processes. As a result, they left out some very good books – perhaps some equally inspired writings.
Copyright 2009 by Rob Phillips
The gist of this article is correct, but some of its claims are incorrect. Schaff’s calculation that only about 400 variants affect the meaning of a passage is wrong; there are over 1,100 meaning-affecting variants just in the Gospel of Mark! Also, Dr. Craig’s comment about John 7:53-8:11 and Mark 16:9-20 makes it sound as if the evidence for Jn. 7:53-8:11 is stronger than the evidence for Mk. 16:9-20, but the situation is just the opposite. Many commentators on Mk. 16:9-20 are grossly misinformed. Some seem unaware that Mark 16:19 was quoted in the 100’s, over a century before the production of the two Greek MSS which lack the passage.