Has The New Testament Been Reliably Passed Down to Us?



The New Testament is a diverse collection of 27 books, mostly written during the first century A.D. by a range of authors.  Four of these books, called the gospels, relate the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  Another book, Acts of the Apostles, traces the early history of the Christian church as it was formed and began to spread.  Twenty-one books are letters, written by various authors (one of whom was a very important missionary, Paul).  These letters, or epistles, consist of doctrine, counsel, conflict resolution in the early church, and so on.  A final book, Revelation, is a work of apocalyptic prophecy.  Over the early centuries of Christianity, these 27 books became recognized as the church’s official canon.

Given the awesome span of time between their original writing and today, it’s no surprise that we no longer have the original texts.  The books come down to us today thanks to the work of monks and scribes who, over the centuries, copied and recopied the scrolls, attempting to faithfully reproduce the texts and preserve them for future generations.

With all this in mind, can we be sure that the texts we have today have come down to us accurately?  Can we know that the original intent and meaning of the authors has been faithfully transmitted?

Well, the short answer is yes, we can.  Let’s explore why.

“Don’t you know that the New Testament is full of errors?  Over the years, scribes made copy after copy, and introduced so many alterations, errors, and variations that today we can’t even be sure what the original texts said!  In fact, scholars have shown that the surviving manuscripts have around 400,000 variations.  That’s a horrible number, especially considering that the entire New Testament only has about 138,000 words!”

The argument above is made repeatedly by those who want to tear down the New Testament.  Recently, New Testament scholar, Bart Ehrman boosted the argument in his book, Misquoting Jesus:  The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why.  It continues to be repeated, ad infinitum, by anti-Christian bloggers, professors, and others.  So, what’s the truth about it?

To make a long story short, we have about 5,800, written at different times and in different places, which can be used to cross-check one another for accuracy.  That is far more copies than we have for other great works of literature, often by many orders of magnitude.  Having such a wealth of ancient copies available, even if many are fragmentary, provides a wealth of data for scholars to use as they determine the wording of the original texts.

Now, let’s explore this business about 400,000 variations in a document with only 138,000 words.  Remember that a variation is basically defined as a difference from an established standard text, no matter how small or insignificant.  These can be as minor as spelling variations (akin to “flavor” vs. “flavour”) or as major as a total rewrite of a passage.

It is true that about 400,000 textual variations exist, if one counts across all 5,000 ancient texts available to us.  This abundance of ancient texts is a great thing, and it’s that abundance that results in so many variations.  If we only had one or two copies available, then we’d have very few variations.  It’s important to note, however, that these variations do not actually impair our ability to determine what the original text said, or to determine its meaning.

Biblical manuscript expert, Daniel Wallace, has characterized New Testament variations as belonging to one of four groups:

  1. Easily Detectable Spelling Variations and Nonsense Readings: Well over half of all variations (200,000+) belong to this group.  They are easy to spot, and they have no impact on the meaning of the text.  They are basically irrelevant.  Examples could include misspelled words, correct spelling variations, or skipped lines (which are likely the result of a tired scribe working late at night).  Modern Bible translations correct for these.
  2. Minor Word Order Variations or Synonyms: For example, one text may say “Christ Jesus” while another says “Jesus Christ.”  In other cases, synonyms may be used.  According to Wallace, none of these variations are of any consequence, and do not affect meaning.
  3. Meaningful But Non-Viable Variants: These are variations that scholars can determine were not in the original texts because they were found in manuscripts with poor pedigrees and do not conform to those manuscripts possessing sound pedigrees.  These variations are identifiable and are typically deleted from Bible translations available today (or at least footnoted as being suspect).
  4. Meaningful and Viable Variants: Only about 1%, or 4,000 variants are considered meaningful and viable.  On average, that’s less than one variation per manuscript.  According to Wallace, these variations have no real theological impact or relevance.  They may be viable, but they’re not that important.

The fact is, the wealth of texts available to us enables scholars to identify and catalog these variations and, contrary to what Bart Ehrman and others like him say, reconstruct the original text with an extremely high degree of confidence.  When you pick up a copy of the New Testament and read it, you’re reading a faithful translation of exactly what the author wrote.

We have a wealth of copies that have come down from different geographic areas and different time periods that we can compare to one another, looking for consistencies and inconsistencies.  In fact, a fantastic number of copies still survive.  Today, we have about 5,800 New Testament Greek manuscripts with diverse geographic and temporal origins.  There are some inconsistencies, but the vast majority of them are slight differences in spelling and other simple issues as previously noted.  None affect core Christian doctrine or teaching.  In addition, experts in textual criticism have been able to determine, with a high degree of confidence, the wording contained in the originals.

Our earliest manuscripts date to within 50-75 years of the originals!  The oldest one is a fragment of the gospel of John, dated to 117-138 A.D.  Many others date from the second and third centuries.

Compared to other ancient writings, 5,800 manuscripts is a tremendous amount.  Consider these examples:

  • Homer’s Iliad – We have about 1,800 Greek manuscripts, the oldest of which was written about 350-400 years after the original.
  • Josephus’ The Jewish War – Originally written in about 75 A.D., only 9 Greek manuscripts survive, and they were created 900-1,000 years after the originals.  We also have some Latin versions that were written 300 years after the originals.
  • Tacitus’ Annals of Imperial Rome – Originally written in about 116 A.D., only one manuscript survives, and it is a copy from about 850 A.D.

The 5,800 Greek New Testament texts provide a far more robust bridge to the past than the relatively small number of surviving texts from other ancient writers.  Keep in mind, Josephus is a very important source of Jewish history, and Tacitus is a critical source of ancient Roman history.  Historians today rely mightily on their writings, and those writings come down to us through only a very few manuscripts.

So, we can be highly confident that the original New Testament materials have come down to us accurately.  As the late Sir Frederic George Kenyon, expert in ancient manuscripts and former Director of the British Museum, summed up in his book, The Bible & Archaeology:   “The last foundation for any doubt that the Scriptures have come down to us substantially as they were written has now been removed.”

SourceCraig Dunkley @ http://www.logicandlight.org/

Worthy is the Lamb! Blessings!


Disciple of Jesus, married to Peggy, with 5 grown up children, 6 grand children, ex-Canadian military and residing in beautiful Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, Canada. a.k.a. "Papa"

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Posted in Apologetics, Christian, New Testament, Religion

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