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While it is often alleged that the Bible is simply a compilation of books that are terribly marred from constant translation and re-translation, that belief is simply false. It has been debunked time and time again, but continues to be a cherished view by those who simply need a reason to deny the Bible’s credibility.
In reality, biblical translations are not completed by copying the most recent editions, or by appealing to someone’s subjective opinion about the meaning of the texts. Instead, our modern translations are created by going back to the source: back to the most ancient texts we have. By referencing those texts—and meticulously comparing them over and against one another—new translations arise.
So, what ancient texts are referenced in this process? How many are involved? The answer to the first question is that the earliest manuscripts are being used in this process. As biblical skeptics are extremely quick to point out, a “manuscript” is classified as either a full-length copy of a text or a fragment of a text. Yes, this means that many sources we have from antiquity are bits and pieces of biblical texts. The same applies to every comparable ancient text imaginable.
The available manuscripts can vary in categories like the date of writing, who wrote them, the language they used, and the location at which they were written. We have none of the original writings, which are called “autographs.” The documents literally penned by the biblical authors, like most other writings from that day and age, were lost to time.
By all professional accounts, there are at least 5,600 Greek manuscripts in existence. Further, there are more than 19,000 additional copies existing in languages like Latin, Syriac, Coptic, and others. This means at least two very important things. First, it means that we have nearly 25,000 total manuscripts of the New Testament, in various languages and from various times. The naysayers will retort to this fact, saying that having tons of manuscripts does not make it true! I have heard this time and time again.
Correct—having more copies of something does not, in and of itself, mean any of it is true. Not only could this be said of every text in existence, this objection also falls incredibly flat in another sense. Having all of these manuscripts allows us to compare and contrast them, to deduce what might be later additions or faulty translations, and to ascertain what the original content most likely was. It is sort of like having hundreds of testimonies, from many people, as opposed to having only a couple from one or two sources.
When you can compare and contrast a variety of sources, you have a much better basis for determining the actual events. It is difficult to tell if a couple of people are lying about what they saw, but it is much easier to tell who is lying when you have many voices to consider. Certain views are going to line up, exposing those that deviate.
In short, having more manuscripts does mean that we can be surer of what the original authors intended to say. Like it or not, the manuscripts matter.
This point leads us naturally to the second important thing: our wealth of copies shows us just how little we know about other aspects of ancient history. You know, concerning the types of things that most of us—especially those who doubt the Bible’s credibility—take for granted as historical fact.
Compare the Bible with other ancient works of the day, and this becomes all the more obvious. The writings of the esteemed Greek philosopher, Plato, would have been written between 427-347 B.C.. What about the earliest copy of his writings? That would date to about 900 A.D.—more than 1,200 years later. How many copies do we have? Answer: seven. Let’s look at Plato’s student, Aristotle. His writings would have come from 384-322 B.C., but the earliest copy we have of any of them is from about 1100 A.D.: a separation of 1,400 years or so. Oh yeah, we have only about forty-nine copies of his work.
Clearly, both the dates of the writings and the number of copies are not boding well. What about the second place author and his works? How does the runner-up behind the New Testament fair against it? Homer’s epic poem, the Iliad, takes the prize. This was generally believed to have been written near 900 B.C., and the earliest known manuscript we have is from 400 B.C.: 500 years later. We know of 643 copies of this text. In full transparency, we know of more than 2,000 copies of all of Homer’s works combined, but most are from far after the earliest copy.
As impressive as the evidence is for Homer’s writings, this pales in comparison to the near 25,000 manuscripts of the New Testament, and to the earliest copies we have. The earliest surviving manuscript of the New Testament is Rylands Library Papyrus P52, and it comes from about 125 A.D.. This is a fragment of the Gospel of John. That would mean the manuscript was written well within a century of the initial autograph (first writing), and perhaps less than thirty years after.
This is not to impugn the credibility of these other works (I tend to trust them), but it does show us that we have much less reason to question the credibility of the Bible, particularly the New Testament (which affirms the Old Testament). The funny thing is, I never hear people question whether or not we can trust the philosophical teachings of Plato or Aristotle, or state that the Iliad has been too tampered with to extract its original meaning. We don’t hear this about almost anything coming from the ancient world. The Bible appears to be unique in this regard as well.
There seems to be a rather prominent agenda to discredit this particular text—the hardest ancient text to ridicule in terms of its historical veracity—and to cast doubt on its reliability. Hmm . . . I simply can’t imagine why that would be.
Naturally, others have challenged the notion that our modern biblical translations accurately reflect what was originally recorded (in the autographs). Their reasoning is almost always the same: as time went on, scribes introduced alterations (and errors) into their translations. Like the old “telephone game,” the idea is that the more people you involve, the more errors in the original message that will result.
Perhaps most notably, agnostic scholar, Bart Ehrman, has popularized the view that many changes were made to the texts as the translation process progressed over the years. In fact, hundreds of thousands—as many as 400,000—discrepancies are alleged to exist between the many ancient manuscripts (see note below, “Ehrman claim”).
This assertion is true in some respects, but is also completely false in more important ways. In all, this view is extremely misleading, and the people who make the case know it. The fact is that the vast majority of places where different manuscripts vary are absolutely small and meaningless. Most of these variations consist of things like adding a word or letter (particularly the Greek letter ν, or our n), subtracting a word or letter, transposing the order of the words or letters, or substituting a word (often synonymous) or letter.
This combination of variations are said, by some, to have made the Bible into an error-ridden collection of books.
Textual critic and professor, Dr. Maurice Robinson, ran a test to see just how often meaningful changes were really made in any of these aspects. In order to do so, he took thirty random manuscripts (or, MSS) from the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD, an era proposed (by Ehrman and others) to have seen a great increase in textual variations. He compared those manuscripts against what is called the Byzantine Textform. The reason why this was a good comparison is that none of those texts are known to have arisen earlier than the middle of the 4th century AD, so they are able to compare a good cross range of texts. As Robinson said, “the amount of textual diversity and divergence should be maximized in such a test.”
Each of these manuscripts contained at least five passages, and he compared them based on the known variations above (addition, subtraction, transposition, and substitution). He used Matthew 13, Acts 13, Romans 13, Hebrews 13, and Revelation 13.
Robinson found that there is a 92.2% average stability in the text during the time when the largest number of variants are alleged to have arisen. Robinson summarized what this means quite well:
“The present experiment has shown that the text as a whole remains remarkably consistent — not merely between the early papyri and the text of the fourth century manuscripts, but between the early papyri and the text found in manuscripts dating more than 1,000 years later. Indeed, the base form of the autograph text has been substantially preserved, tending to differ only in minor details among the manuscripts. The primary base text otherwise clearly represents that which originally had been given by the sacred writers in the first century.”
We just don’t see the legitimate changes that are alleged to have occurred over the centuries of translation and transmission. No one is denying that there are differences within the thousands of New Testament manuscripts, or that there are zero authentic discussions to be had. But no one should be arguing that the translations we have today have been radically, or even significantly, altered from the texts that were originally written. That is a baseless and disingenuous charge, and it needs to stop.
The fact that most of the differences between manuscripts are petty and singularly insignificant has not even escaped people like Ehrman, who have attempted to at least project something to the contrary. In an interview included in the appendix of Misquoting Jesus, Ehrman makes an astonishing admission when reflecting on the work of the esteemed textual scholar (and his own mentor), Bruce Metzger:
“If he and I were put in a room and asked to hammer out a consensus statement on what we think the original text of the New Testament probably looked like, there would be very few points of disagreement – maybe one or two dozen places out of many thousands. The position I argue for in ‘Misquoting Jesus’ does not actually stand at odds with Prof. Metzger’s position that the essential Christian beliefs are not affected by textual variants in the manuscript tradition of the New Testament.”
In essence, Ehrman admits that the essential teachings within the Bible have not been altered through the transmission of its manuscripts, and that any differences would be both rare and minor. This is exactly what one might expect from someone who also wrote a book about how the Bible cannot provide a good explanation for human suffering, only to adopt a biblical view on the matter himself (see note, “Ehrman”)! Still, this is evidence that the charges of biblical tampering and unreliability have been way overblown, if not outright fabricated.
Just to provide a final piece of evidence as to why the biblical texts should be trusted—in terms of what they were meant to say, if nothing else—consider the book of Isaiah. Until 1947, the only full-length copy (or close) we possessed of this book came from 1008 AD. The change in that year was brought to us through an archaeological goldmine, called the Dead Sea Scrolls. Among the many revolutionary discoveries that came in 1946-1947 was a copy of the book of Isaiah, which was dubbed the “Great Isaiah Scroll.” The Great Isaiah Scroll (or simply, the Isaiah Scroll) is an almost completely intact copy of the book of Isaiah—which is an extremely large text—and it dates to around 125 BC.
As with any ancient text, there were of course minor differences and spelling changes; the two texts were over 1,100 years apart, after all. But no honest scholar would suggest that the two texts differed in any significant way. For all intents and purposes, a sixty-six chapter text (as we have it) had been translated over and over again for more than a millennium, and remained virtually unchanged.
Both of these copies would deliver the same information about God, and His workings in the world. So much for the idea that the copying and translating processes wrecked the Bible.
With all of this being said, there are certainly a significant number of people who continue to treat the Bible like a mistake-laden book, replete with frauds and counterfeit teachings about history. It is an easy (and false) way to dismiss a text that spiritually challenges all of us in tremendous ways. Very well. As Jesus once said, “many are called and few are chosen” (Mt. 22:14). For some people—particularly those who simply do not want to believe that the Bible could be telling the truth—there will never be enough evidence. Ever.
But there is an unmistakable and irrefutable reality that people of this stripe must come to terms with, and Christian apologists have rightly been touting it for decades now: if you dismiss the biblical texts because they are somehow “historically unreliable,” then you must—absolutely and unequivocally must—dismiss every other text from ancient history. There are no two ways about it.
We would have to throw out the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Book of the Dead, the Atra-Hasis, Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, and every single thing ever recorded about an ancient king or his respective kingdom. There was no Alexander the Great, Marcus Aurelius, Emperor Nero, or anyone else. If there was, why would we trust a single thing that was recorded about them? None of these examples have even a fraction of the available writings and historical validation that Jesus, Paul, and most of the other biblical figures have.
I am certainly not advocating this type of distrust in human history, but it is necessary for anyone who dismisses the historicity of the biblical accounts. This is even true for the miraculous occurrences, not just the mundane references to things like ancient locations and the existence of particular individuals. If you can trust the historical statements of the Bible, it seems extremely selective to believe that all the “magical parts”—as skeptics love to call them—are made up.
This is why the Bible is a book like no other. It is the most scrutinized, printed, read, researched, distributed, and influential text in all of world history, and there is no close second. On top of that, it has been verified by all manner of scholars (even skeptics) that no essential changes were made to the biblical manuscripts over the course of more than 2,000 years of transmission. While I certainly advocate that other ancient texts and traditions carry a great deal of value and truth—and that they can often reveal the ways in which God has reached out to the world—it should be obvious that the Bible must be placed on a pedestal of its own.
We can have great confidence that when we read our modern translations, we are reading what the biblical authors intended long ago. Those of faith understand something even more crucial: we are reading what God intended us to read.
This article was adapted from my book, God Made the Aliens. If interested, you can read the rest of the book by ordering it here.
Bocchino, Peter. Geisler, Norman. Unshakeable Foundations. Pg. 256. Bethany House Publishers. Minneapolis, MN. 2001.
Edwards and Janko: The Iliad: A Commentary. Volume V.
Howe, Tom. “A Reponse to Bart D. Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus.” (pp. 17-19) http://www.isca-apologetics.org/papers/isca-2006/response-bart-d-ehrmans-misquoting-jesus
McDowell, Josh. “What are the Dead Sea Scrolls and Why Do They Matter?” Jan. 6, 2016. http://seanmcdowell.org/blog/what-are-the-dead-sea-scrolls-and-why-do-they-matter
Robinson, Maurice A. “The Integrity of the Early New Testament Text: A Collation-Based Comparison Utilizing the Papyri of the Second and Third Centuries” (Valley Forge, Pennsylvania: Evangelical Theological Society: 57th Annual Meeting, 2005), 3-4.
Slick, Matt. “Manuscript evidence for superior New Testament reliability.” CARM.org. Dec. 10, 2008. https://carm.org/manuscript-evidence
Ehrman: This occurred in the book, God’s Problem. The purpose of the book was to show that the Bible does not provide an adequate answer to the issue of human suffering. However, Ehrman ends up agreeing with the way the book of Ecclesiastes handles the issue. As Ehrman said, “I have to admit that at the end of the day, I do have a biblical view of suffering. As it turns out, it is the view put forth in the book of Ecclesiastes.” See pages 276-78.
Ehrman claim: He makes claims like this all throughout his book, Misquoting Jesus.