Often when conversing with atheists, and occasionally even some within Christian circles, when I make reference to a passage of Scripture they will counter saying, “The Bible has been copied over and over and translated so many times during the last 2,000 years that there is absolutely no way of knowing what the original text actually said.” This claim is repeated so frequently – often by prominent intellectuals, that many assume that it is true.
However, this is an uninformed response which actually demonstrates one’s ignorance – either willful or otherwise, of the abundance of textual evidence to the contrary.
The New Testament text is by far the most highly attested document of all ancient literature. There are over 5,800 extant Greek manuscripts of the New Testament and that number continues to grow as archaeologists discover more of them. The oldest discovered so far is a papyrus fragment containing a portion of John 18: 31-33 on one side and 18:37-38 on the other. It was discovered in far away Egypt and is dated between 117 and 138 A.D., only a few years after John wrote the original. The oldest entire copy of the Greek New Testament is the Codex Sinaiticus, dated 340 A.D. In addition to these there are over 10,000 Latin manuscripts dating as far back as 350 A.D., as well as 9,300 manuscripts in several ancient languages such as Syriac, Slavic, Gothic, Ethiopic, Coptic and Armenian.
Additionally, even if we didn’t have a single copy of the New Testament, the Ante-Nicene Fathers (Church Fathers who wrote prior to the Nicene Creed in 325 A.D.) include in their writings over one million quotes from the New Testament, citing the entirety of the New Testament with the exception of eleven verses. These writings of the Fathers themselves have provided us with an abundance of very early copies of the New Testament.
In marked contrast, most ancient non-biblical literature have very few extant copies available for critical comparison. And the few that do exist are anywhere from 800 to 2,000 years removed from the time they were originally written. If you stack up the manuscript pages of the average classical Greek literature, it reaches a height of about four feet. In contrast, if one were to stack up all the pages of the New Testament manuscripts it would be over a mile high! Yet, strangely, no one questions the accuracy of other literature as they do the New Testament.
Josephus wrote The Antiquities of the Jews in 75 A.D., around the same time the New Testament was written. In spite of the fact that there are only 20 manuscript copies of it in existence, with the earliest dating seven centuries after the original, the authenticity of the Scriptural account is often judged by Josephus rather than the other way around.
Some critics rightly point out that there are more variants in the manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament (estimates vary between 300,000 and 400,000). However, there are more than 2.5 million pages of text contained in the extant Greek manuscripts. If we take the median number of 350,000 variants, that only amounts to one error for every 7 pages.
Additionally, 99% of these variants are of no consequence whatsoever, since they only have to do either with misspelled words, the change of word order without changing the actual meaning, or the presence or absence of an article. All of these are easily recognized and corrected – especially considering the vast number of copies available for comparison.
The other 1% involves interpolations – usually of only one word or a line the scribe accidentally skipped over. The longest, most notable interpolations are John 7:53-8:11 and 1John 5:7 but they are easily identified as additions by a comparison of the multiple texts we now have. The longest reading that isn’t found in some of the earliest manuscripts is Mark 16:9-20. However, all things considered, many have concluded that the exclusion of verses 9 thru 20 was due to an unintentional early omission by a scribe, rather than it being an interpolation. None of these variants affect any major Christian doctrine, and most can be corrected beyond reasonable doubt by a careful comparison of the thousands of texts at our disposition.
While it is true that we do not have the original copies available to us but rather copies of copies, a careful and critical comparison of all the surviving manuscripts has led many prominent textual critics to the informed conclusion that the Greek Texts we use today are well over 99% true to the original.
While one cannot be overly dogmatic since we don’t actually have the original in our possession, the preponderance of evidence is so overwhelming that only those such as Bart Ehrman who come to the text with a predisposition to disbelieve the Scriptures testimony concerning itself could possibly come away still questing its reliability.
I studied textual criticism in my final year of theological studies in 1982 and came away with great satisfaction that the Greek Text I was working with was a truly reliable representation of the original. I came to know Christ through the message of the Scriptures and I admittedly wanted to believe that the testimony which Jesus Himself gave concerning the Scriptures was true. However, it is evident that not everyone shares the same love of the truth and desire to know and do the will of God as revealed in the Scriptures.
In this age the just live by faith and without faith it is impossible to please God (Rom 1:17-18; Heb 10:38-39; 11:6). The faith which we are called unto is a trust in God as He has revealed Himself in His Word. True faith is a gift of God which is imparted to those who come to an end of themselves and call upon the name of the Lord for salvation (Jer 33:3; Jn 10:25-27; Acts 13:48;16:14).
I believe that God often does not offer in-your-face undeniable evidence of the veracity of His Word in order to provide a way out for those who, in their false sense of self-sufficiency, are yet unwilling to submit to His Word. Paul even says that God sends strong delusion to those who do not receive the love of the truth but take pleasure in unrighteousness (2Thess 2:10-12). Paul said that in the latter days men will no longer be willing to receive the written Word of God, but according to their own lusts they will gather around themselves many teachers who will tell them what they want to hear (2Tim 4:2-4).
Paul also said that in the latter days many will depart from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits and doctrines of demons (1Tim 4:1,2). In this context “the faith” is that teaching or body of doctrine which was given to us through the Apostles of our Lord (Acts 2:42; 1Tim 4:16; Titus 1:9). Jude, the half-brother of Jesus said that we are to contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3).
Many today who depreciate the written Word of God given to us once and for all in favor of a more mystical approach are actually unwittingly giving themselves over to seducing spirits and doctrines of demons, just as Paul warned. Jesus likewise warned of this, saying that false teachers and false prophets in the last days would even lead the elect astray if it were possible (Matt 24:11-12,24). Jesus even posed the question: “when the Son of Man comes, will He really find (the) faith on the earth?” (Luke 18:8)
Bart Ehrman began in the faith and studied under Bruce Metzger of Princeton who was one of the best textual scholars of the 20th century. However, while the study of the history and transmission of the text has served to affirm the faith of many, including myself, he chose the path of doubt and unbelief, eventually becoming an agnostic and a key player in the New Atheist Movement. As an indication of our times, six of his books have been on the New York Bestseller list.
In contrast, Dan Wallace who studied under the same scholars as Ehrman and is in my mind the greatest textual scholar of our time, was predisposed to believe rather than disbelieve, and he very aptly demonstrates beyond reasonable doubt that the Greek Text we have today is indeed a trustworthy representation of the original. He has also written several books. However, just as Jesus said it would be in the last days, very few are willing to receive Wallace’s testimony concerning the veracity of God’s Word.
Recently, Bart Ehrman and Dan Wallace had an open debate which I highly recommend taking the time to carefully listen to. To me, rather than it being a matter of whether or not it is believable that we have an accurate representation of the original text, it all really boils down to the issue of whether or not one is willing to believe (Jn 5:38-40,46-47). Ultimately, we must all choose whether to follow the path of faith and trust or the path of doubt and unbelief.
The link to the debate is:
Ehrman vs Wallace - Can We Trust the Text of the NT?