Have you ever thought about how you got your Bible? Have you ever considered its origin, its history, or pondered its reliability? These type questions are ones that the secular world explores at great length, and not always fairly I might add. Due to the constant wave of criticisms against the Bible, and specifically the New Testament, there exists a great need for Christians as a whole to be more equipped in this area. Postmodern society tries to use the same tactics that the serpent used to deceive Eve in the Garden when he asked, “Did God really say…?” The objective of this subliminal type questioning is to challenge God’s trustworthiness. Just like the serpent in the Garden, skeptics and critics first challenge God’s word, and ask the question, “Has God really spoken, and can we trust his revelation?” To be an effective defender of the veracity of scripture, and to answer this question in the affirmative, it is important to have a foundation of knowledge of the history and transmission of the Bible in order to be prepared to defend its authority and accuracy against attacks.
Why can we trust God’s word?
Many of the attacks I have heard concerning the New Testament come from the idea that it has been tampered with. The primary accusation is that some person(s) in power, (I have heard King James, the Pope, Bible translators, among others) have maliciously altered the text of the Bible. That is to say, that they have “edited” the Bible, so as to change its overall meaning to fit their agenda. While there have been many corrupt people in authority throughout history, this conspiracy doesn’t carry weight for several reasons. To make this kind of accusation shows a blatant disregard for factual history, and one making this argument can rarely give any evidence to substantiate their claims. People who make these type claims fail to understand how the Bible has been transmitted to us today. To illustrate the process of how scripture was transmitted, let’s walk through a chronological order of events as to how it would have been received by the early church. For illustration purposes, let’s take the book of 1st Corinthians for example.
There is no doubt historically that the Apostle Paul penned the 1st letter to the Church at Corinth. Paul tells us in the letter that he himself wrote the letter with his own hand. The original copy of this letter to the Corinthians would have been written in Greek and would be properly called an autograph. From Paul’s pen the autograph would have traveled to the church at Corinth where it would have been read by the congregants there. As an apostle of Jesus Christ, Paul’s writings had apostolic value. In other words it’s not your average letter. Paul’s writings were seen as inspired since he received direct revelation from Christ (Gal. 1:12). Having the writing directly from Paul (as well as the other apostles), was more special than having writings from your average laymen at the church because contained in those writings were the direct revelations of Christ himself. (New Testament authors expressed these same views, see 2 Peter 3:15-16 and 1 Timothy 5:18.)
With that being said, upon receiving the inspired letters of Paul, the church at Corinth would have certainly shared their letter with other churches in surrounding areas. The letter would have been hand copied by believers who wished to possess it for personal use. (Yes, I did say hand copied. It would be another 1400 years before Gutenberg invented the printing press, so these early manuscripts were all copied by hand.) So if Joe from the Roman church wanted a copy of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians he would need to sit down and rewrite his own copy, or pay someone to copy it for him.
Circulation of Scripture
Admittedly, we no longer have the original autograph (the actual letter written by Paul) of the 1st letter to the Corinthians or any of the other canonical books for that matter. What we do have are many many copies or manuscripts. Manuscripts, just to catch up on terminology, are the handwritten copies of the original autograph. These manuscripts were foundational to the early church. These copies of scripture would have been shared from believer to believer at a rapid pace so that the church would be not only unified in their belief, but also structured.
So the timeline looks like this; original autographs were written by the Biblical authors, sent to the churches or individuals to whom they were written, and then copied and circulated to others who could be edified by them. This process of copying creates what scholars refer to today as the manuscript tradition.
The Case against the Conspiracy Theories
The nature of how these copies were handed down to us seriously damages the claim that some one person could have tampered with the scriptures. Due to the rapid spreading of these letters, and the high regard with which the church held the writings of the apostles, it’s not logical to claim that one person would have, or even could have altered the text to fulfill some personal agenda. As to the claim that King James “Edited” the Bible, this is absolutely ludicrous. First of all, it must be said that King James did not translate one word of the Bible himself. There is no indication that King James even read the Greek language. What he did was order a team of fifty highly trained scholars to translate the Greek manuscripts into English as accurately as possible. Granted the translators of the King James Bible did not have access as many manuscripts as we do today, (they had roughly twelve manuscripts) they were successful in producing a translation that was very faithful to the manuscripts.
The Difficult Reality
I would be naïve if I wrote this article without including some of the difficulties that we have with the Bible. If we want critics to be fair in their assessment of scripture, then it’s important for us to be realistic as well. I have already acknowledged that we no longer have the original autographs; those are long gone. There are a few other difficulties that textual scholars have to address as well. Textual variants for instance do occur in all NT manuscripts. A variant is any difference between two manuscripts. To be honest there are no two manuscripts that are 100% identical. Now that sounds a lot worse than it really is. The fact that there are differences in manuscript reminds us that people do make mistakes when copying a letter; it happens. In a time before the copy machine, before electricity, before erasers even, it’s quite understandable that copying errors might occur. One person perhaps misspells a word, another person forgets punctuation, so on and so forth. The reality however is, that the text of the NT has not changed based on these variants. Often times we can look at what is called a majority reading, meaning the most popular reading of a particular verse. In some cases 99% of manuscript will be in agreement. In such case it would be quite easy to spot the mistake. The fact is that this happens with all writing from antiquity. Copyist errors are simply a product of the nature of the writings that were comprised at this point in history. That doesn’t mean that there is a conspiracy.
Embarrassment of Riches
Another reason why the variants are not such a huge issue is because of the volume of manuscripts that Christians have access to. Today over 5800 manuscripts have been uncovered that were written in the original Greek language. In addition, there are more than 10,000 Latin manuscripts that have been found. There are also at least 5000 manuscripts in other various languages that were circulated. This gives us an overwhelming amount of data to draw from when it comes to collating the New Testament and trying to figure out what the original wording of the text was. Scholar and New Testament expert Dan Wallace calls this data an embarrassment of riches as compared to manuscript evidence of other religious faiths and writings of antiquity. As a matter of fact, the New Testament is the most attested document from history, and it’s not even close! The closest rival to the NT would be Homer’s Iliad. While we can account for more than 15,000 New Testament manuscripts in Greek and Latin alone, even an extremely generous estimate of Homer’s work would total less than 1500 total manuscripts. That means we have well over 10 times more evidence for the New Testament than we do for even the closest other work from antiquity!
A is for Accuracy
The proof however isn’t just in numbers. Despite being copied by amateurs who were likely not the most learned, the NT manuscript tradition has proven to be astonishingly accurate. While critics like Bart Ehrman are quick to point out the over 300,000 textual variants, or differences between manuscripts, they refuse to tell you that the vast majority of these copying errors are either simple spelling or grammar mistakes. In his book Misquoting Jesus, Ehrman even admits that none of these copyist errors affect a single Christian doctrine. To put the accuracy into perspective, scholars such as Bruce Metzger and Dan Wallace note that less than 1% of variants change the meaning of the text whatsoever. Meaning that the manuscript tradition is over 99% pure in its transmission. Though critics of the NT such as Ehrman have tried quite tirelessly to discredit its content they have not sufficiently answered the burden of proof that comes with their claims. The sheer evidence shows that the NT is in fact trustworthy.
The New Testament is the foundation on which we as Christians base our faith. Its accuracy and authority have been challenged for hundreds of years. As Christians, we are certainly called to have faith. However, our faith is not a blind faith. God has blessed us with substantial evidence to show that the NT is a credible document. While only the Holy Spirit can efficaciously persuade a man to come to faith, God has given us the tools to show that his word can be trusted. May we never take this blessing for granted. Let us not sit idly as the world attacks God’s word. God has blessed the transmission of his word for a purpose. I pray that His purpose is for the rich evidence to be a means of grace for the Holy Spirit to open eyes and change hearts.