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How Did We Get Our Bible?
by Lita Cosner, Gary Bates

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How Did We Get Our Bible?
by Lita Cosner, Gary Bates

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How Did We Get Our Bible?
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Has the New Testament been corrupted?

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Published: 27 October 2015 (GMT+10)
wikipedia.org papyrus-75
Papyrus 75, one of the most ancient fragments of Scripture preserved.

When you ask Christians if they "believe the Bible", you will likely receive a universal and enthusiastic affirmative response. However, if you were to ask those same believers why they believe the Bible, you are more likely to get a puzzled look and a less-than-enthusiastic mumbled response.

Christians believe that the Bible is the Word of God, and it should be our authority in all areas of life. We believe that we can trust what we read in our Bibles today is the same message that God inspired. But most Christians could not explain how the original documents that God inspired came to be transmitted and translated into the bound leatherback volumes Christians carry today.

Many are intimidated when it comes to the manuscript evidence for the Bible, but an average Christian can understand the basic arguments without special training. Just like a scientist looks at evidence to determine the most likely cause and effect scenario, so we must examine the evidence and facts of manuscript evidence to determine the most logical historical process.

The originals were inspired

First, God inspired the original documents of Scripture. The idea of inspiration covers anything from outright dictation, as in parts of Revelation where John is told, “Write this” (Revelation 1:11, 19; 2:8, 12, 18; 3:7, 14; 14:13; 21:5), to the Gospels where Luke tells Theophilus that he did research (Luke 1:1–4), to the epistles, letters where Paul, Peter, John, and Jude are writing apparently from their own minds, but in all cases, the Holy Spirit is superintending the process so that the result is exactly what He wanted (2 Peter 1:21).

The originals were copied

The copying process started almost immediately. If a Christian businessman from Thyatira visited the church in Rome, and saw a letter from the Apostle Paul that his church didn’t have, he’d make a copy to take home with him. That process would be repeated over and over again, almost without any restrictions.

Of course this meant that there were the sorts of errors that professional scribes wouldn’t have made, but they believed they were copying the Word of God, so they were as careful as they could be. Most of the copying mistakes were simple spelling errors, changes in word order, and so on. There are only a few places where these changes affected a whole sentence or more, and there were never any changes that affected doctrine as a result of the copying process.

But this process also had good effects. First, the rampant copying of Scripture meant that the New Testament copies were spread far and wide very, very quickly. This means that by the time a centralized power might have been interested in making a wholesale revision of the text, it was impossible to destroy the massive quantity of existing copies of Scripture.

This sort of revision event actually happened in the history of Islam; it’s called the Uthmanic Revision, when Muhammad’s son-in-law, Uthman, gathered the various Qur’anic manuscripts and destroyed all but the ones he considered accurate. But once something like that happens, you have to trust that the person in charge of the revision gets it right! With the Christian manuscripts, we can see the variants that survived, and we know that one of those is always the original. And in the majority of cases, it is obvious which variant is original.

The second positive aspect is the sheer number of copies, demonstrating that the entire New Testament was preserved very early. We can compare, for instance, the Dead Sea Scrolls manuscripts, which are fragmentary. The translation often includes ellipses to indicate a place where the scroll is crumbled and we’ve lost the text. The earliest New Testament papyri are fragmentary, too, but we have so many copies that we have the entire text preserved.

The copies were copied

As the New Testament was copied, the scribal errors in copies continued to be copied. This allows us to group manuscripts into ‘families’, just like the genetic information passed from parents to children allows us to establish paternity. There were three major families.

The Alexandrian manuscripts, named for Alexandria, Egypt, have had a major influence on modern Bible translations. In 1521 Erasmus, who compiled the Textus Receptus, wrote to a man named Bombasius in Italy asking him to consult the Vatican manuscript to see if it included the Johannine comma (contained in 1 John 5:7-8, which Erasmus believed was a later addition). Today, we’re nearly certain that he was actually referring to what we call Codex Vaticanus, one of the best examples of the Alexandrian text. There are fewer manuscripts of the Alexandrian tradition (because Islam stopped the copying of Christian manuscripts in Egypt in the seventh century), but they are some of the earliest manuscripts.

The Byzantine family of manuscripts is by far the largest, because Greek continued to be the liturgical language in the Eastern church. For that reason, there were more manuscripts copied over a longer period of time. The preserved manuscripts from that family are younger than the Alexandrian manuscripts, but still have value when it comes to text criticism.

The Western family are European manuscripts—they are also a minority because Latin quickly became the liturgical language in Europe. They are widely considered to be a more divergent and less reliable source than the other two families, so if they differ from the other two families of manuscripts, they are very rarely considered to reflect the original text.

However, just as various people groups’ genes have far more in common with each other than not, even the most divergent manuscripts are mostly similar. There are no theological differences, and no doctrine is affected by the differences in manuscript copies. The goal of copying was to preserve the text, not to change it, and that is reflected in all the manuscript families.

The copies were quoted and translated

Other great sources for the New Testament text come from quotes in the writings from the Church Fathers and the earliest translations of Scripture. The Church Fathers quoted most of the New Testament, so that even if we had no manuscripts, we would be able to reconstruct most of the Bible. This is useful, because if we have to choose between Variant A and Variant B of a certain text, but Irenaeus quotes Variant B, we know that Variant B was circulating at Irenaeus’s time. That helps us understand what the text looked like that he was reading. Of course, he also might have been paraphrasing Scripture as we often do today, so this method has to be used critically.

Another source that helps confirm the biblical text is ancient lectionaries, collections of Scripture readings to be read on specific days during worship. The earliest lectionaries we have are from the 6th century.

Also, because Christianity was evangelistic, Scripture was translated into other languages, like Latin, Syriac, and many other languages. These translations can be useful, but only to a point, because if they differ from the Greek text we don’t know if that’s because their Greek text was different, or whether they just weren’t translating that particular passage as well as they could.

All of this together, however, means that we have far more manuscripts, and far more evidence for what the NT originals look like, than for any other work of ancient literature. And we are even finding new manuscripts today.

Exciting manuscript research

Dr Dan Wallace is an evangelical New Testament scholar who has been taking teams around the world to digitize New Testament manuscripts. This is important, because high-quality scans of manuscripts allow scholars wider access to study these manuscripts. It also preserves them in case the physical copies are destroyed by the elements, or in religious persecution (a very real possibility in some of the places the manuscripts are found).

In the process of studying these manuscripts, new manuscripts are being discovered. This is a good thing, because more evidence means that we can get even closer to the originals.

We can have confidence in the biblical text!

God chose to preserve the New Testament text, not by miraculously preserving the originals or by keeping any scribe from ever making an error, but by preserving so many copies of Scripture that we have confidence that our New Testament today is the same as the original.

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Readers’ comments
Richard G., United Kingdom, 9 November 2015

Thanks Lita.

What you have presented shows that there is sufficient documentary evidence and Scholarly integrity to verify that we have a consistent message, despite minor variations. We serve a Risen Saviour and a Sovereign and Almighty God who is well able to protect and preserve The Words of The Testimony of His Apostles (i.e. The New Testament) , just as well as He preserved the Writing of His Prophets (The Scriptures) - (Ps 12: 6-7, Isaiah 44: 26, John 10:35)

The consistency of the Message and Doctrine of The Apostles in regard to the Life, Doctrine, Death and Resurrection of Jesus also provides us with assurances about the authenticity and integrity of the New Testament writings. For they provides us with a commentary not only about Jesus, but also about the fulfilment of the rest of the prophecies of Scripture.

Isaiah 8:20 states “….To the Law and the Testimony, if they do not speak according to this word there is no light in them…”

John 16: 7-15 And to make sure we understand which are His True Words, Jesus has given us The Holy Spirit to be our Guide into all Truth. Since it was by the same Spirit, The Scriptures were brought into existence. (2 Pet 1: 19-21)

Mark H., Spain, 7 November 2015

In the book The Text of the Earliest NT Greek Manuscripts, edited by Comfort and Barrett in 2001, they include at least 14 papyri written before or around the year AD 200. Based on comparison with Qumran texts, Carsten Thiede dates papyrus 64 to possibly as early as AD 66. Both papyrus 52 and papyrus 104 date to around AD 100.

Francois J M., South Africa, 30 October 2015

LisA Cosner,

Herewith. From his profile, not mine.

Richard Carrier is a world-renowned author and speaker. As a professional historian, published philosopher, and prominent defender of the American free thought movement, Dr. Carrier has appeared across the U.S., Canada and the U.K., and on American television and London radio, defending sound historical methods and the ethical worldview of secular naturalism. His books and articles have received international attention. With a Ph.D. from Columbia University in ancient history, he specializes in the intellectual history of Greece and Rome, particularly ancient philosophy, religion, and science, with emphasis on the origins of Christianity and the use and progress of science under the Roman empire.

I do believe that a Ph.D in ancient history tops the comment of a 'hack" and does give him, and me the authority to question the accepted doctrine.

Lita Cosner responds

Really? You're going to use Carrier's own info as to whether he is a reliable source for the historical Jesus? Look, even relatively informed skeptics are embarrassed by the Jesus myth people, so take it up with them. Bart Ehrman (hardly a conservative evangelical) wrote a whole book against the Jesus myth idea, for instance.

Francois J M., South Africa, 30 October 2015

This article does not address the core: a) There is evidence that the Gospels were written by persons unknown. b) The evidence also points to the fact that the gospels were copied from another.

Richard Carrier's research shows there is little evidence for the historical figure called Jesus.

As well as the historical data at the time of Jesus's supposed birth date is incorrect, who was the Roman governer etc.

As well as no evident of the supposed infantizide that was commited by Herodus as well as the national sensus, the reason Joseph and Mary went to Bethlehem.

So what did they copy? That is the question.

And in 2015 years God has never commented on these discrepancies to correct it. Not that we know of.

Lita Cosner responds

Richard Carrier is an atheist hack who is an embarrassment to even most atheists. The historical evidence for the existence of Jesus is so well-established that the 'Jesus myth' argument has all but died. See http://creation.com/dawkins-ironic-hypocrisy.

Sue C. C., New Zealand, 30 October 2015

Thank you CMI for giving us this information on where the New Testament of the Bible came from, and how accurate it is. Let young people and new believers be warned that there is an increasing 'looseness' in some of the paraphrases around today. This actually amounts to doctrinal error in some cases. Instead of a single word being given, there is often some phrase which obfuscates the truth of the matter. (No example allowed.) It is good to have an old fashioned Bible at hand so that one may check out questionable translations with a Bible dictionary or concordance to make sure one is believing the truth from the Lord.

The godly mathematician, Ivan Panin, gave his last forty years to verifying the exact Greek of the NT. His work was derived from various manuscripts that were known about 1880. He found out that the New Testament, as God Himself inspired it (in Greek), was absolutely trustworthy and inerrant.

Ming Wai T., Hong Kong, 30 October 2015

Who is Dan Wallace? Is Dan Wallace Daniel Wallace? Where is the site by Dan Wallace. if there is one?

Lita Cosner responds

Dan Wallace is a professor of New Testament at Dallas Theological Seminary, and a leading text critic. His web site is danielbwallace.com.

jan J., Canada, 28 October 2015

Which one is the oldest manuscript or a fragment of one of the NT? And the same goes for the Old Testament.

Is there anything in existence before the Dead Sea Scrolls?

Lita Cosner responds

The oldest fragment of the New Testament is a fragment of John dated to the early second century. There has been talk of a first-century Mark fragment taken from an Egyptian funerary mask, but it hasn't been published so can't be used as evidence yet.

The Dead Sea Scrolls would have our earliest OT manuscripts.

Jim M., Japan, 28 October 2015

Great article. I learned some new things. Thanks for standing on the truth and for making it available to all!

Judie S., Australia, 28 October 2015

I'm reading "The Case for the Real Jesus" (Lee Strobel, Zondervan 2007) and am halfway through the chapter where Strobel interviewed Dan Wallace. That chapter says almost the same things as your article does, so I was excited to see Wallace's name.

He owns a reproduction of the Codex Vaticanus, and it's so great to see he's still copying old manuscripts.

Thanks for the article.

Caleb L., United States, 28 October 2015

Thanks so much for writing on this issue! I find this to be such an important issue to address in the Church, so we don't end up with more Bart Ehrmans. James White from Alpha Omega Ministries has done some great research, lectures, and debtates on this issue and is a great resource.

Mark G., Canada, 27 October 2015

Excellent, Lita, as always. We have good reason to believe all the Word of God, Old and New!

Ivor O., Canada, 27 October 2015

Thank you for that excellent article and for all your valuable information via the internet, television, publications and especially through Creation magazine which I find a blessing and an excellent resource to pass on to unbelievers in and doubters of creation as revealed to us in Genesis

Gordon S., United Kingdom, 27 October 2015

A helpful article. I personally find it useful to see that not only what the writers wrote is all true (which what we find in a book on mathematics might well be) but it is marked by a spirtitual atmosphere that is not found in secular books. Man's mind could not have conceived what we find in John 17 or the Epistle to the Ephesians for examples. Writings such as novels do not originate the sort of expressions that we find in a passage such as 1 Peter 1:22 (AV) "Love one another with a pure heart fervently".

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