How can we be sure we have the Word of God?

How accurate are our copies of the Bible?

by ,

Originally published in a CMI newsletter, July 2017

Skeptics love to challenge Christians with comments like, “The Bible is just a book written by men”. They also assert that today we only have copies of copies of copies of the original text, so we have no idea what the original might have said. While it is true that we do not have the autographs (original copies) anymore, their comments reveal ignorance about the discipline of textual criticism. Textual criticism is really like a science where different ancient manuscripts of a particular work are compared to arrive at a most-probable original text.

Today we have more information to support the text of the Bible than at any time in modern history, and it is increasing because new manuscripts of the New Testament are being discovered all the time. These manuscripts confirm that the text of Scripture has been transmitted reliably. For example, NT text critic Daniel Wallace’s team1 travels far and wide to make digital recordings of known manuscripts to preserve them for future generations. Some are in remotely located monasteries, and to their surprise, when they visit these locations they often find even more that they did not know about.

We have ‘an embarrassment of riches’

There are nearly 6,000 handwritten manuscripts of the Greek NT—of course there were no photocopiers back then. Copyists called scribes took great care when reproducing texts because they believed they were handling God’s Word. These copies range from very early papyrus fragments to medieval manuscripts. It is conservatively believed that they will yet find another 1,000 in countries that are currently difficult to reach due to geopolitical reasons.1There are 5–10,000 manuscripts in other ancient languages.1 Also, various lectionaries exist (documents which contain calendrical readings of Scripture), and over one million citations from Scripture by Church Fathers (enough to produce “virtually the entire New Testament many times over”1). When you put these together, we have a body of evidence that is vastly earlier and greater, than for any other work of ancient literature.

For comparison, consider the best-attested nonbiblical ancient work of literature—Homer’s Iliad. There are about 1750 copies of Homer’s Iliad,2 the earliest of which are from the third century bc, about 500 years after it is thought it was first composed!3

The New Testament was copied reliably

There are about 140,000 words in the NT and about 400,000 variants (variations in wording or spelling between manuscripts). That leads some skeptics to claim there are more variants in the NT than words. However:

  1. There are so many variants because there are so many copies of the NT. The more copies, the more variants you’ll have.
  2. The most important thing to note is that 99% of the variants do not change the meaning of the text— they are misspellings or differences in word order.

A large number of variants are not viable. That is, no one thinks they are original (for instance, spelling errors, or where a very late manuscript has an entirely unique reading that none of the other 6,000 manuscripts record).1

Just like plotting when a mutation first appeared in a genome, text critics can trace variants back to their earliest occurrence in the extant record. So, when we weed out the many, many variants we can be confident that our Bible conveys what God inspired. Additionally, no essential Christian belief rests on one verse, so no essential Christian belief is challenged by any of these variants.

You can be confident that God has preserved His Word!

This is an exciting time to be a Bible-believer. We have more scientific and archaeological evidence to support the accuracy of Scripture than at any time in the church’s history. And we now have more manuscript support than ever before. Some hearing this type of evidence for the first time might have misunderstood and may even be uncomfortable with the evidence of how God chose to preserve His Word. But in the face of increasing skeptical attacks, it is more important than ever to understand the basis for our confidence in God’s Word than ever before.

Published: 30 January 2018

References and notes

  1. See Wallace, D., Did the early scribes corrupt the New Testament? 2012; youtube.com/watch?v=wiWKifMu6f8. Return to text.
  2. Clay, J., The bibliographical test updated, equip.org, 1 October 2013. Return to text.
  3. Homer in print: the transmission and reception of Homer’s works; The University of Chicago Library, lib.uchicago.edu. Return to text.

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