Fiction writers like Dan Brown (The DaVinci Code) and popular scholars like Bart Ehrman (The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture) have convinced many people the New Testament is unreliable
We are led to believe that Emperor Constantine determined the New Testament canon in the fourth century; that Christian leaders, vying for power, changed the Gospels to suit their personal agendas; and that amateur copyists butchered early New Testament manuscripts.
If these charges are true, the Church today is built on the shifting sands of legend, power, and political expediency.
Fortunately, the case for the reliability of Scripture is stronger today than it has ever been, thanks in part to a 2018 Faithlife film, “Fragments of Truth.” In the film, Craig Evans of Houston Theological Seminary takes us on a global journey through time and texts.
This eight-part series answers common objections to the Bible as the Word of God.
Objection 1: No one really knows what the Bible says because the original manuscripts are lost.
The second part of this statement is true: The “autographs,” or original manuscripts, written on a variety of degradable surfaces from parchment to papyrus, no longer exist. But the remarkable number of copies, dating back in some cases to within a generation of their authorship, makes the first half of this objection false. In fact, we have tremendous confidence in the reliability of the Bible because of its manuscript trail. No other book from the ancient world has more, earlier, or better copied manuscripts than the Bible. (The word “manuscript” is used to denote anything written by hand, rather that copies produced from printing presses.)
Do copies count?
Craig L. Blomberg writes, “In the original Greek alone, over 5,000 manuscripts and manuscript fragments or portions of the NT have been preserved from the early centuries of Christianity. 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” (“The Historical Reliability of the New Testament,” Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics, pp. 193-94). Andreas J. Kostenberger adds, “The total tally of more than 6,000 Greek mss., more than 10,000 Latin Vulgate mss., and more than 9,300 early versions results in over 25,000 witnesses to the text of the NT” (“Is the Bible Today What Was Originally Written?” found in www.4truth.net).
So how does the Bible stack up against other ancient manuscripts? According to scholar F.F. Bruce, we have nine or 10 good copies of Caesar’s Gallic Wars; 20 copies of Livy’s Roman History; two copies of Tacitus’ Annals; and eight manuscripts of Thucydides’ History. The most documented secular work from antiquity is Homer’s Iliad with 643 copies. But the New Testament, with its thousands of Greek manuscripts alone, is the most highly documented book from the ancient world (The New Testament Documents, Are They Reliable?, p. 16).
Is older better?
Generally speaking, the older the manuscripts, the better. The oldest manuscript for Gallic Wars is roughly 900 years after Caesar’s day. The two manuscripts of Tacitus are 800 and 1,000 years later, respectively, than the original. The earliest copies of Homer’s Iliad date from about 1,000 years after the original was authored around 800 B.C. But with the New Testament, we have complete manuscripts from only 300 hundred years later. Most of the New Testament is preserved in manuscripts fewer than 200 years after the original, with some books dating from a little more than 100 years after their composition and one fragment surviving within a generation of its authorship. No other book from the ancient world has as small a time gap between composition and earliest manuscript copies as the New Testament.
How careful were the copy makers?
Scholars of almost every theological stripe attest to the profound care with which the Old and New Testament documents were copied. For the New Testament, for example, the books were copied in Greek, and later translated and preserved in Syriac, Coptic, Latin and a variety of other ancient European and Middle Eastern languages.
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).
More will be addressed on the topic of textual variations in our next lesson.
How about hostile witnesses?
Eyewitnesses and contemporaries of Jesus wrote the New Testament. For example, Luke probably wrote his gospel around 60 A.D., before he penned Acts. Since Jesus died around 33 A.D., this would place Luke only 27 years after the events, while most eyewitnesses – and potentially hostile witnesses – were still alive and could have refuted Luke’s record. The apostle Paul speaks of more than 500 eyewitnesses of the resurrected Christ when he wrote 1 Corinthians, which critics date around 55-56 A.D. John and Peter add similar testimonies (1 John 1:1-2; 2 Peter 1:16).
In short, while it’s true we are lacking the “autographs” of scripture, we have sound reasons to be confident that what we read today has been faithfully preserved through thousands of copies, many of them written in close chronological proximity to the time they were originally penned.
“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).
Next: The Bible has been copied so many times, with so many variations, there’s no way to know what was originally scripted.
Copyright 2009 by Rob Phillips