In the spring of 1989 syndicated talk show host Larry King interviewed Shirley MacLaine on the New Age. When a Christian caller contested her view with an appeal to the New Testament, MacLaine brushed him off with the objection that the Bible has been changed and translated so many times over the last 2000 years that it’s impossible to have any confidence in its accuracy. King was quick to endorse her “facts.” “Everyone knows that,” he grunted.
Fortunately, this false assumption is groundless.
In a simplified form, this is how the science of textual criticism works. Textual critics are academics who reconstruct a missing original from existing manuscripts that are generations removed from the autograph. According to New Testament scholar F.F. Bruce, “Its object [is] to determine as exactly as possible from the available evidence the original words of the documents in question.”
The science of textual criticism is used to test all documents of antiquity–not just religious texts–including historical and literary writings. It’s not a theological enterprise based on haphazard hopes and guesses; it’s a linguistic exercise that follows a set of established rules. Textual criticism allows an alert critic to determine the extent of possible corruption of any work.
New Testament specialist Daniel Wallace notes that although there are about 300,000 individual variations of the text of the New Testament, this number is very misleading. Most of the differences are completely inconsequential–spelling errors, inverted phrases and the like. A side by side comparison between the two main text families (the Majority Text and the modern critical text) shows agreement a full 98% of the time.
Of the remaining differences, virtually all yield to vigorous textual criticism. This means that our New Testament is 99.5% textually pure. In the entire text of 20,000 lines, only 40 lines are in doubt (about 400 words), and none affects any significant doctrine.
Greek scholar D.A. Carson sums up this way: “The purity of text is of such a substantial nature that nothing we believe to be true, and nothing we are commanded to do, is in any way jeopardized by the variants.”
This issue is no longer contested by non-Christian scholars, and for good reason. Simply put, if we reject the authenticity of the New Testament on textual grounds we’d have to reject every ancient work of antiquity and declare null and void every piece of historical information from written sources prior to the beginning of the second millennium A.D.
To quote Sir Frederick Kenyon, from The Bible and Theology:
The interval between the dates of the original composition and the earliest extant evidence becomes so small as to be in fact negligible, and the last foundation for any doubt that the Scriptures have come down to us substantially as they were written has now been removed. Both the authenticity and the general integrity of the books of the New Testament may be regarded as finally established.
Has the New Testament been altered? Critical, academic analysis says it has not.
Eye witness accounts, lets take a look at the evidence:
Peter, John, and Matthew were in the original apostolic company; they were with Jesus during his ministry for three and one-half years. They were by his side virtually day by day, hence they wrote as eyewitnesses of the things they saw and heard.
James (not the brother of John; cf. Acts 12:2) was a leader in the Jerusalem church (Acts 15:13; cf. Galatians 2:9), and a half-brother of Jesus (Galatians 1:19; cf. Acts 1:14). At first he and his brothers did not believe on Christ (John 7:5; cf. Matthew 13:57), but later he happily acknowledged himself as “a servant of God and the Lord Jesus Christ” (James 1:1). James’ credibility is extremely high, because something overcame his natural reticence to endorse his brother’s claims. Only the Savior’s resurrection explains that turnaround. Too, since Jude was a brother of James, and thus also a half-brother of Jesus, he too overcame an initial disbelief and acknowledged Christ as Lord (Jude 1).
Mark was the son of Mary of Jerusalem, and the cousin of Barnabas (Colossians 4:10). She must have had a close relationship with the apostles, because Peter went immediately to her house when he was released from prison (Acts 12:12ff).
The familiarity of this family with the apostles is confirmed by Peter’s reference to Mark as his “son” (1 Peter 5:13), suggesting a spiritual relationship (cf. 1 Timothy 1:2). Thus, Mark himself would have been a witness of many of Jesus’ deeds. Several ancient writers (e.g., Papias, Irenaeus, and Tertullian) testify that Mark’s Gospel reflects Peter’s influence.
Luke was a Greek whose Gospel narrative was grounded in the eyewitness testimony of those familiar with Christ “from the beginning” (Luke 1:1-4). After studying Luke’s writings carefully, Sir William Ramsay—once a skeptic himself—declared that “Luke’s history is unsurpassed in respect of its trustworthiness” (1979, 81).
Saul of Tarsus (Paul), of course, was a scholar of no meager ability. He was contemporary with Christ and became acquainted with at least some of the apostles (cf. Galatians 1:18). His defenses of Christianity are classic (see Acts 22; 26). Though there is no evidence that Paul saw Christ face-to-face before that encounter on the Jerusalem-to-Damascus road, he had ample opportunity to know the facts regarding Jesus’ miracles, teachings, and influence.
Council of Nicaea
The year 325 is accepted without hesitation as that of the First Council of Nicaea.
The adhesion was general and enthusiastic. All the bishops save five declared themselves ready to subscribe to this formula, convinced that it contained the ancient faith of the Apostolic Church. The opponents were soon reduced to two, Theonas of Marmarica and Secundus of Ptolemais, who were exiled and anathematized. St. Athanasius, a member of the council speaks of 300, and in his letter “Ad Afros” he says explicitly 318. This figure is almost universally adopted, and there seems to be no good reason for rejecting it.
“We believe in one God the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible; and in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten of the Father, that is, of the substance [ek tes ousias] of the Father, God of God, light of light, true God of true God, begotten not made, of the same substance with the Father [homoousion to patri], through whom all things were made both in heaven and on earth; who for us men and our salvation descended, was incarnate, and was made man, suffered and rose again the third day, ascended into heaven and cometh to judge the living and the dead. And in the Holy Ghost. Those who say: There was a time when He was not, and He was not before He was begotten; and that He was made our of nothing (ex ouk onton); or who maintain that He is of another hypostasis or another substance [than the Father], or that the Son of God is created, or mutable, or subject to change, [them] the Catholic Church anathematizes.”