Another phrase I hear uttered often by people in casual conversation is “The Bible is unreliable, really. I mean, who knows how many times it has been changed and altered?”
The issue is, of course, much more complicated than this simplified statement. Scholars vary widely on their views in this matter. What irks me about the above statement is that it is usually made by someone who has never researched the Bible or its history.
The following is meant as a quick, very simple review to help people educate themselves and understand better the issues around the reliability of the text of the New Testament. My hope is that it helps the reader get pertinent information quickly and easily and gives you a thirst to study more, if you so desire.
Let’s start with a definition of “reliable.” As with most ancient documents, we do not have the original manuscript of any of the books of the New Testament. But we have copies. “Reliability” is the word used to describe, as far as we can tell, how accurate the copies that we have are to the original which no longer exists. Do the copies differ from the original? If so, can we tell how much they are altered and in which places they are altered?
To get an idea of how this plays out, lets look at what we have in way of New Testament copies.
1) Firstly, the extant copies we have are a) old, b) myriad and c) from various countries.
a) One indication of the reliability of the copy of a document is how close in time it was written down compared to when the original was penned. We have extant copies of the New Testament written within 25-75 years of when the original was to believed to have been written down. By historians standards this is an amazingly small gap for an ancient document. The ancient document that comes closest to the New Testament in this category is Homer’s The Iliad: the earliest copy we have was written 500 years after the original was penned.
b) We have myriad copies. The New Testament was written in Greek. We have more than 5,300 extant ancient copies in Greek– if you add Latin Vulgate copies and other early versions we have more than 24,000 extant manuscript copies of parts of the New Testament. Again, Homer’s The Iliad is closest in this category–number of copies: 643.
The obvious advantage to this is that we can compare them. And guess what– they differ slightly in certain places. In other words, we know the parts of the text of the New Testament that are in question, that vary in the texts. We know what parts are not as reliable as others. No one claims that the Bible does not have alterations– the truth is, however, we know with good accuracy what those alterations are/were.
The parts that vary are small in number. In other words, all the copies are almost exactly the same. Of the 20,000 lines in the New Testament, about 40 lines (400 words) are in question. And most all the questions are minor variations (spelling mistakes, word order mistakes). It is estimated that about 1/1000 of the New Testament has substantial textual variation. And those variations do not challenge any major Christian doctrine.
Moreover, most Bibles do not hide the differences — in fact, they highlight them. Footnotes will indicate where the different manuscripts varied and what the variations are.
c) The numerous copies come from different regions. This verifies that over distances manuscripts were not changed much. Many regions had little contact with other regions so their copies would have been their own for quite some time. If one region had a copy of The Gospel of Luke, for example, and other region far away from the first region also had a copy of Luke, comparing them will give you a good idea of the common Luke document from which the regional copies were made. And as mentioned above, the numerous copies from numerous regions vary from each other very little.
2) Secondly, we have gads of non-biblical writings, written at the same time or very soon after the New Testament was written, that quote the New Testament– and quote it a lot! So many, in fact, that if we didn’t have ancient copies of the New Testament, we could reconstruct almost the entire New Testament just from ancient quotes from other writers.
So, there is a very simplified review of some of the basic issues around “reliability” specifically of the New Testament. Note: This in no way proves or disproves the New Testament as “historically accurate.” That is a different matter. All we’re talking about here is knowing about the text and it’s consistencies and inconsistencies.
For those readers who are critical thinkers, you’ve probably already thought, “Yeah, but this information doesn’t take into account that before the originals were even written down these stories were probably orally transmitted. So the real corruption of the story occurred in the oral telling!” Good thinking! But again, it is a little more complex than that and I’ll tackle that in the next post– Modern Religious Questions, Part II: Oral Transmission.
Evidence that Demands a Verdict, Volume I by Josh McDowell
The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions, by N.T. Wright & Marcus Borg. Not specifically about the reliability of the New Testament but a great presentation by two world-renowned New Testament scholars who differ in their interpretation of Jesus.