Is the Bible we have in our hands historically reliable?
Frequently the accusation is made that we cannot trust the Bible today because it was written 2000 years ago. People argue that over the last 2000 years, thousands of errors and discrepancies have found their way into the Bible, therefore, we cannot know if what we are reading are the actual words of the apostles from the first century.
Every historical document is put through a series of tests to determine whether or not a document is reliable. We will apply these same tests to the Bible to see if they can be found worthy of our trust.
RELIABILITY OF THE COPIES
It is important to examine the textual transmission by which documents reach us. What this means is since we do not have the original documents, we must determine how reliable our copies are based upon the number of copies we have and the time interval between the original writing and the existing copies.
- For example, Plato's work, Tetralogies, was written between 427-347 B.C. The earliest copy we have of this work is dated 900 A.D., meaning a time span of 1200 years between the original writing and a copy in existence. We have only seven copies of this work. Similarly, Tacitus was a Roman historian who wrote about 100 A.D. The earliest copy we have of his work is dated 1100 A.D., which leaves a time span of 1000 years. We have less than 20 copies of his work.
- William Shakespeare wrote his plays in the 17th century. Yet in every one of his plays we have gaps in the printed text, where we have no idea what originally was said. Textual scholars must make emendations (a good guess) to fill in the blanks.
- What would you suppose is the number of New Testament copies we have in existence today? Would you suppose we only have a handful, like the works of Tacitus? Would you suppose that we only have a few like the works of Plato and Pliny? We have over 24,000 ancient manuscript copies of the New Testament! This is an astounding number. In fact, the next greatest amount of manuscript copies we have of any other historical work is Homer's Iliad which has only 643 copies. We have nearly 40 times as many ancient copies of the New Testament than we have for Homer's Iliad. We have over 5600 Greek manuscript copies of the New Testament alone!
- Further, the earliest copy we have of Homer's Iliad was written about 500 years after the original was penned. Hundreds of years passed allowing time for changes from the original writing. The earliest copy we have of the New Testament is 25 years after the original writings. We have copies dating to 125 A.D., 25-50 years on from when the originals were penned. These early copies show us that we have the original writings in our copies.
- Realise that when you only have seven copies of an ancient manuscript, if a couple have a discrepancy, it is hard to know what the original said. Four manuscripts read one way and three manuscripts read another way. How can you know which is the original reading? However, when you have over 24,000 ancient manuscripts, if a handful of manuscripts have a discrepancy, it is easy to know what the original was because of the majority reading of the other manuscripts.
VARIANTS AND DISCREPANCIES?
- So are there any variants or discrepancies between the manuscript copies? Homer's Iliad has 764 lines in doubt. 764 lines where there are variations and thus there is argument over the reading. Does anyone today read Homer's Iliad and say that they cannot trust the reading because of these variations? Not at all. Never will an English professor declare Homer's Iliad as untrustworthy because of these variations. How many variations are there in the New Testament? There are 40 lines (400 words) that are in doubt, which amounts one-half of one percent of the document.
- Now let us put this into proper perspective. You may read the claims that there are 150,000 variants in the New Testament. This means if the same word is misspelt in 3000 manuscripts then there are 3000 variants. Of the 150,000 variant readings, they occur in only 10,000 places. Of these 10,000 places, all but 400 are questions of spelling in according with accepted usage, grammatical construction, or order of words. This is what we said above that there are 40 lines (400 words) in doubt. Of the 400 words, only 50 are of great significance. In some places the copies have "Lord Jesus" while others have "Lord Jesus Christ." This is not significant because the meaning is clearly obvious. Of the 50 of great significance, not one of these changes one article of faith that cannot be abundantly sustained by other undoubted passages.
- Let us look at one of the places where there is a significant variant. In Acts 8:37 most of the manuscript copies contain the confession of the Ethiopian eunuch. Some of the manuscript copies do not contain this confession, and many of your Bibles make a marking designating this variation. Does the loss of the eunuch's confession change an article of faith? No article of faith is lost because the scriptures abundantly teach the need for confession. Romans 10:9-10 says: "If you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes to righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made to salvation." Confession is taught in the scriptures as necessary for salvation. We do not need the eunuch's confession in Acts 8 to know a confession is necessary by all who desire to be disciples of Christ. Acts 8:37 is a significant variant, perhaps one of the largest variants, yet it does not change any teaching in the Bible.
- No one questions the historical books of antiquity simply because we do not possess the original documents. Based upon only a handful of copies dates many hundreds of years later from the originals, we still have confidence in the works of Plato, Tacitus, Homer, and many others. The New Testament has thousands of copies, some of which are dated within 25-50 years of the originals. No one has a claim that the New Testament is untrustworthy based upon textual transmission.
- The Dead Sea Scrolls were a historic find bringing the gap of time between the Old Testament original and the copies to only a couple hundred years. Up until the finding of the Dead Sea Scrolls, our earliest copies were 1300 years from the originals, which was no better than some other ancient literature. The Dead Sea Scrolls also proved the accuracy of the later copies because there were no significant changes between the manuscripts. The scribes of the Old Testament were very meticulous about copying word for word such that they felt they could destroy the original because the copy was completely accurate to the original.
No one should ever claim the Bible to be untrustworthy because of the length of time we are from the first century. We have greater manuscript witnesses for the New Testament than we do any other historical document. We have greater testimony for the New Testament than we do for Shakespeare's plays which were only written three centuries ago. The Bible stands the test and we can trust that what we read today is what the apostles penned nearly 2000 years ago.