The Textual Reliability of the Bible

imageCan we really have confidence that the Bible preserves what the biblical authors originally wrote?

I was recently asked this question by a friend who had been misinformed, being mislead to believe that what the authors originally wrote has since been somehow lost in transmission over the centuries. I reassured him that this was not the case as I explained to him the reality of the situation and pointed him to resources he might find particularly helpful as he explores this issue more on his own. We truly can have confidence that the Bible faithfully preserves what the biblical authors originally wrote. In what follows, I hope to remain accessible as I seek to demonstrate the reliability of the Bible as supported by manuscript evidence.

By adding together the papyri, majuscules, minuscules, and lectionaries a growing number of more than 5,800 Greek New Testament manuscripts have been catalogued. While it’s true that many of these are fragments, it’s also true that the average Greek New Testament manuscript is more than 450 pages long. This leaves us with more than 2.6 million pages of text for the Greek New Testament.

It’s true that many of these are later manuscripts, however the more reliable manuscripts are older. Prior to a recent discovery, for example, the oldest New Testament manuscript, P52, was a fragment from John’s Gospel discovered in 1934 which dates back to the first half of the second century, somewhere around 125 BC. The oldest manuscript witness for Mark was P45, which dates to the early third century, around AD 200-250. But with this recent discovery, we may possibly have a first century manuscript for Mark. If it is, in fact, a first century manuscript for Mark, it would only add to the already unprecedented textual attestation in support of the Bible. Interestingly, apart from the Bible, Homer’s Iliad is the most well attested body of work in the ancient world–and it only has around 2,000 manuscripts.

And that’s just the Greek witnesses for the New Testament. Beginning with the early second century AD, these Greek New Testament translations began to be translated into Latin. Later translations would follow in Coptic, Ethiopic, Syriac, and more. With around 10,000 Latin manuscripts, and more than 9,300 manuscripts from Coptic, Ethiopic, Syriac, and other languages, in addition to more than 5,800 Greek manuscripts, there are more than 25,000 manuscripts that attest to the reliability of the New Testament alone. And, if we lost all of these, we still have over 36,000 Patristic quotations of the New Testament from early Church Fathers and could reproduce nearly the entire New Testament from these later quotations alone.

But we should also note that it is not merely the number of manuscripts which attest to the reliability of the Bible. The number of years that had passed from the time the events took place to the time they were recorded is particularly relevant. Consider how the earliest of around 2,000 manuscript copies of Homer’s Iliad date back to around the second century BC, about 400 years after Homer is even believed to have lived. And these are only fragments. The oldest extant manuscript copy of the Iliad is referred to Venetus A, which was written around the tenth century AD and wasn’t discovered until 1788. This means that the earliest sources for the most well attested body of ancient literature outside the Bible, Homer’s Iliad, dates back to around 400 years after Homer is even believed to have lived. And similar things can be said for among the most major figure in the ancient world, Alexander the Great. There are 5 main sources for Alexander the Great. While he reigned from around 336-323 BC, the earliest of these sources weren’t written until the second century by Arrian and Plutarch– also, approximately 400 years after the events recorded in those texts.

So, then, the earliest sources we have for the events recorded about Alexander the Great’s life, and for the most well attested body of ancient literature apart from the Bible dates to 400 years after the events they record. imageMeanwhile, P52–which is presently recognized as the earliest manuscript Greek witness for the New Testament–dates back to c. AD 125, just decades after the original document (autograph) for the Gospel according to John is generally believed to have been written which itself is believed to have been written within only decades of the events it records. According to a recent article by Michael Krueger, a biblical scholar specializing in the canon of the New Testament, we have no reason to suspect a great degree of unbridled textual changes taking place in this earliest period.

In this article Krueger quotes New Testament scholar, Craig Evans as stating that, “Autographs and first copies may well have remained in circulation until the end of the second century, even the beginning of the third century…The longevity of these manuscripts in effect forms a bridge linking the first-century autographs and first copies to the great codices, via the early papyrus copies we possess.” At this, Krueger responds by affirming Evans’ research which lends to the possibility that the manuscripts we have today were transmitted with a high degree of accuracy and fidelity and were likely copied directly from the original documents or from manuscripts which were copied from autographs making the gap between autographs and early copies negligible whereby, “The early date of our copies, combined with the likely longevity of the autographs, can give us a high degree of confidence that [we] have access to the New Testament text at the earliest possible stage.”

Speaking of the staggering wealth of material available for determining the wording of the original New Testament, Dan Wallace, who is perhaps the world’s most prominent New Testament scholar specializing in Textual Criticism, wrote, “In comparison with the average ancient Greek author, the New Testament copies are well over a thousand times more plentiful. If the average-sized manuscript were two and one-half inches thick, all the copies of the works of an average ancient would stack up four feet high, while the copies of the New Testament would stack up to over a mile high! This is indeed an embarrassment of riches.”

New Testament scholar, Craig Blomberg has said of this “embarrassment of riches” that, “If we cannot say with confidence that we have the ability to reconstruct a biblical text that is overwhelmingly likely to be very, very close to the original texts of the books of Scripture, then to be consistent we should discard all ancient writings on any topic as being far more suspect – and plead total agnosticism concerning the original contents of any documents produced before the breakthrough of Gutenberg’s printing press in about 1440.” Similarly, Wallace has commented that, “If we have doubts about what the autographic NT said, those doubts would have to be multiplied a hundredfold for the average classical author.” “Technically,” says Wallace “our doubts should be a thousandfold if there are 20,000 NT MSS (in Greek and ancient versions) and less than 20 MSS of an average classical author.”

An embarrassment of riches, indeed. And that’s just the New Testament!

But as noted in, “Facts on the Bible”: “A detailed comparison of the Qumran Old Testament Manuscripts (dating back to the 200s BC) and the Masoretic Old Testament texts (from the AD 900s) reveals, in the words of Dr. Ron Rhodes, that “they are essentially the same, with very few changes,” despite more than 1,000 years of copying. The fact that manuscripts separated by a thousand years are essentially the same indicates the incredible accuracy of the Old Testament’s manuscript transmission.”

imageBased on the manuscript evidence alone, then, if we can’t have confidence in the reliability of the Bible, we can’t have confidence in any ancient text. The Bible is the most well attested body of work in all of ancient literature. We have reason to have great confidence in the reliability of Scripture, and should remain assured that the Bible faithfully preserves what the biblical authors originally wrote.

 

Resources:

Stephen B. Cowan, Terry Wilder, “In Defense of the Bible: A Comprehesive Apologetic for the Authority of Scripture”

http://michaeljkruger.com/is-the-original-text-of-the-new-testament-lost-rethinking-our-access-to-the-autographs/

Dan Wallace, “Reinventing Jesus: How Contemporary Skeptics Miss the Real Jesus and Mislead Popular Culture”

Craig Blomberg., “Can We Still Believe the Bible? An Evangelical Engagement with Contemporary Questions”

Dan Wallace, “Revisiting the Corruption of the New Testament: Manuscript, Patristic, and Apocryphal Evidence (Text and Canon of the New Testament)”

John Ankerberg, et al., “The Facts on the Bible”

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14 thoughts on “The Textual Reliability of the Bible

  1. When you break down the manuscripts, there are far more newer ones and far fewer older ones. When you compare the older and newer ones, you find that the Gospel of Mark has two endings, the story of the woman caught in adultery is in the newer manuscripts but not the oldest, and there are numerous smaller differences – so much so that no two manuscripts are identical. So the number of manuscripts isn’t proof-positive that all of them are consistent. Even then, there’s the language barrier. English translations fail to capture the sense of words like ‘makarios’ which means to be content and in a happy place – our Bibles translate that word into blessed and we see it in: “blessed are the peacemakers”. There’s another word – when used of men in means to settle down, when used of women it means to be silent; and another, it means deacon when used of men and servant when used of women. A mistranslation from the Latin into the English resulted in the rise of a whole theology – doing pennance as opposed to simply repenting. Somehow the teaching of Purgatory and indulgences arrived on the scene, as well. And I wouldn’t trust the church fathers, they were known for being men of their times who often had little or no respect for women. Junia is counted as being among the apostles, but because she’s obviously a woman, some men had a problem with that and tried to say that she was a he and his name was really Junias. When this error was pointed out, the Bible was changed to say that Junia was well-known to the apostles but that she wasn’t one of them. For some odd reason, the most mistranslated sections of the Bible are the ones that govern the relationships between men and women and are the ones used today to prevent women from being teachers, to require women to wear certain clothing, to keep them silent, and to prevent them from reading the Bible aloud at church services depending on how the church interprets these mistranslated sections. Your friend isn’t the only one who is misinformed; all of us are.

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    1. Thanks for stopping by and for contributing to the discussion, Jamie!

      Indeed, there are more newer manuscripts than older ones, and when compared against each other there are textual differences. And you’re right, the more reliable manuscripts do not include the Pericope Adulterae (John 7:53-8:11), the longer ending of Mark (Mark 16:9-20), and more. Yes, no two manuscripts are alike. And without expounding (this article is not about the variations themselves, but about the textual reliability of the Bible), I acknowledge as much and refer to some manuscripts as more reliable than others. The smaller differences (the most common textual variant is a movable nu) often do not amount to much more than what might be considered differences in spelling.

      Nevertheless, they do not change the overall meaning of the texts or render them somehow unreliable. And, to be fair, these textual issues are not unique to the biblical manuscripts in the ancient world. In fact, the issues are much greater in other bodies of ancient literature. If it were the case that these textual issues rendered the biblical manuscripts behind our translations of the Bible somehow unreliable, the problem would only be magnified for other ancient documents. The problem would be so great, other ancient documents would be rendered so unreliable, that we could only claim to know virtually nothing of the events, people, and places of the ancient world and any discussion of them would be utterly pointless. The text critical issues do not present the problem you seem to suggest.

      And these issues, which are not unique to the Bible, are also not completely unknown. Much of this information is presented in the footnotes and other sections of study Bibles. Also, several books have been published which deal directly with these issues and are made available to the public. For example, I first learned of the Comma Johanneum (1 John 5:7-8), and several other text critical issues, in junior high school from one of my pastors. Certainly, not all of us are misinformed–I’ve already quoted from several such well informed and well reputed scholars. Again, and with a high degree of certainty, we can have confidence in the textual reliability of the Bible.

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  2. Awesome reading!!!
    In John 21:25, Apostle John says that the world would not have enough room for the books that would be written of the life Jesus and the messages he gave us. There are so many witnesses who have written of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus. And be assured, many more first hand witnesses also, who have not written.

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  3. Very interesting information! I did not realize there were so many manuscripts in comparison to other historical events that have been documented. I especially liked your quote from Dan Wallace “In comparison with the average ancient Greek author, the New Testament copies are well over a thousand times more plentiful. If the average-sized manuscript were two and one-half inches thick, all the copies of the works of an average ancient would stack up four feet high, while the copies of the New Testament would stack up to over a mile high!” You would think that a book which has so many available manuscripts would be more accepted from non-believers as a credible historical book rather than just a book of fables.

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  4. I wonder why the reliability of the Bible is questioned so often when it appears to have a significant amount of historical documents to back it up? We learn about historical figures in school that have far less resources to study from and don’t raise an eyebrow to the facts that are presented to us, so why do we question the Bible? I liked your quote from Dan Wallace that “If we have doubts about what the autographic NT said, those doubts would have to be multiplied a hundredfold for the average classical author.” “Technically,” says Wallace “our doubts should be a thousandfold if there are 20,000 NT MSS (in Greek and ancient versions) and less than 20 MSS of an average classical author.” Can’t ignore the odds there!

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  5. So is the King James Version a literal translation .. I was told such in a bible book store? What is a good translation for everyday reading? What is your favored version ?

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    1. Thanks, Lilbitathiest!
      In a conversation somebody recently made the same statement to me. I’ve discovered that, often, when people claim the KJV is a “literal” translation what they usually mean is that it is a “word-for-word” translation. This, however, is not correct. In fact, the English translation of the New Testament in the King James (140,834 words) is 39,731 words longer than the Greek text (Textus Receptus; 180,565 words) from which it is translated. And, rather than tying themselves to “an uniformitie of phrasing, or to an identitie of words,” the translator’s preface to the KJV, instead, claims to seek to “not varie from the sense of that which we had translated before”, that they “should expresse the same notion in the same particular word,” in the process of translation. So, the English translation of the KJV, in its attempt to capture the sense of the original, is 39,731 words longer than the Greek text from which it is translated. Whether or not the KJV is “literal,” it certainly isn’t a “word-for-word” translation. And neither is any other translation of the Bible. That is simply not the way translation works. Not all translations are equal, or trustworthy; nevertheless, there are several good and trustworthy translations of the Bible. I would recommend a variety of trustworthy translations. And the translators to the KJV agree: “Therfore as S. Augustine saith, that varietie of Translations is profitable for the finding out of the sense of the Scriptures: so diversitie of signification and sense in the margine, where the text is not so cleare, must needes doe good, yea is necessary, as we are perswaded.” I am certainly blessed as I prayerfully read from a variety of translations.

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  6. Great stuff from ChristCurved right here! Don’t forget to add a tag or category for “apologetics” please. I can read this stuff all day and you write it so well. You did a good job at staying accessible and informative. Please right more of this kind of stuff in the future. Awesome!

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    1. Thanks, Collin! I appreciate the encouragement. I’ll add the “apologetics” tag and/ or category. And I look forward to writing more of this kind of stuff, and other stuff, in the future. Thanks again!

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  7. I am so thankful for the preponderance of copies of portions of the Bible, in my study, in my attempts to gain greater understanding or to write the Word on my heart and mind, I have made use of copying it into notebooks, and more than any other text I feel the import of writing it down faithfully. In my imagination, I see the scribes of the past, confided with the responsibility to copy and pass on the law and the prophets and later the Gospels and I can’t but feel that they were aware of the same weight of responsibility to be faithful. I have always been aware of a God who desires to be Known, to make Himself discoverable, and as someone who continues to discover Him, I believe that those in centuries past who have shared that desire to seek and know Him cared to be as accurate as possible in their transcription. Thank you for sharing so much.

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  8. I just wanted to say thanks, ChristCurved. This post was a very helpful blessing for me today at a moment when I really needed it! I hope you continue to write more.

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