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

How accurate are our copies of the Bible?

by ,

Published: 30 January 2018 (GMT+10)
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.

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.

Helpful Resources

From Creation to Salvation
by Lita Cosner
US $14.00
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How Did We Get Our Bible?
by Lita Cosner, Gary Bates
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Readers’ comments

Tracy M.
Some things that have always been over looked or assumed in textual criticism are that it has always been assumed that the original manuscripts have no spelling errors for that time, no literary nuances, and were literary masterpieces. Then came the copies that introduced the spelling mistakes, grammatical errors, and readings that were based on personal theological bias. No one knows for sure if there were minor literary problems despite the original manuscripts being God's infallible word. The original writer would have conveyed the concepts and narrative correctly enough that it could be considered God's word. If you look at how accurately the N.T. writers quoted the OT, it is obvious they were not quoting a transcript but only conveying the idea of the Old Testament passage. There may have been some of that mindset when copying NT manuscripts unlike the accuracy we use today. You would also have a hard time finding a collection of secular unbelieving scholars who would say the bible has been changed so much that the original stories have changed to the extent they are unrecognizable from the original. Their position of unbelief and corruption of the text would be unsustainable. The Roman emperor Constantine very likely helped standardize the widely copied Greek text we know as the Textus Receptus when he called the Council of Nicea to get the Christian Pastors together to hammer out what they believed due to the constant bickering that made its way back to his office which then led to councils further decades later who likely agreed to a standardized Greek text. A book called Church History In Plain Language by Bruce Shelly implies that. It is an argument from silence about the Shelly book.
Lita Cosner
Interesting thoughts, Tracy, but very speculative. Constantine would not have had a lot of power at Nicaea, which remember would have had people there missing limbs because they refused to compromise on God's word only decades before. They're not suddenly going to be happy for a secular leader to interfere with the Bible they willingly gave life and limb up for less than a generation ago.
Roger P.
Until recently the Rylands Fragments, fragments of John's Gospel were thought to be the earliest manuscript evidence. People whop rubbish the Old Testment and the Genesis account of Creation tend also to try to discredit the new Testament. For the Old we have the Masoretic text which is the same text, without vowel points obviously discovered at Qumran and dating from c200B.C.
For the New Apart from the Rylands fragments there are now small fragments which have been proved to be from Mark, Romans, 1Timothy, James and 2Peter. These are all form cave seven at Qumran which was broken into by soldiers from the tenth legion searching for Jewish fugitives. They ransacked the cave and broke the storage jars there which were found to be holding scrolls. These were torn to pieces and scattered by the soldiers.
Only later were these fragments found to be of the New testament books mentioned above. A Jesuit Papyrus scholar investigated them and found that they were indeed from the Apostolic period since it was A.D. 68 when the tenth legion was operating in the area. This proves, since they fit the textus receptus which it has been claimed not to be apostolic, that the textus receptus is indeed apostolic. Modern translations since Wescott and Horte have varied a great deal and take the vellum manuscripts for the most reliable.
See Bill Cooper New testament Fragments amongst the dead sea Scrolls. Dr. Cooper publishes with CSM, of which he is a trustee.
Lita Cosner
The identification of the fragments as NT documents has been nearly universally rejected. It is fairly common for people to think that any earlier manuscript is good news, but we should be careful about using suspect evidence. There are good reasons to be cautious about extraordinary claims like this.
David B.
Not all bibles are saying the same things. This is verily true as you compare and contrast them. Which on is right? And why?
Lita Cosner
David, I'm not going to get into a discussion on such a vague point. Give me two Bibles that say diametrically different things, and I'll answer. My prediction, however, is that you'll be able to come up with only tiny matters of translation or textual criticism that do not affect even tertiary doctrines, let alone the Gospel itself.
Michael V.
Have you read "The forging of Codex Siniaticus" by Bill Cooper? He says now that the fax of the Codex has been published there is undenyable evidence that it is a forgery. Discounting that manuscript would rule out nearly all significant manuscript variants. How wonderfully God has preserved His Word.
Lita Cosner
Whatever one thinks about the quality of Sinaiticus, the idea that it is a forgery is one of the more foolish conspiracy theories.
joe S.
The recent modern versions have been corrupted in my opinion. Galatians 5:12 is proof. The king James says "cut off" as in kicked out. However, all the modern versions say emasculated or castrated. Paul would never wish torture on anyone. Also, look at Genesis 3 as well. The king james says satan tempted Eve that she will be "as gods". (lower case g). However, the modern versions say "you will be like God". We should want to be like God, right? In my 5 years studying the topic, the king james version wins every debate. We shouldn't have to have many books to read the bible. God certainly can "preserve His word" as Psalm 12:6 KJV says. The modern versions changed that verse too! The modern versions come from Wescott and Hort's Greek text, which is questionable. The king James comes from the Textus Receptus, meaning received text. What the public had. Thanks for all your amazing work at CMI.
Lita Cosner
Joe, Galatians 5:12 is an issue of translation, not text criticism. And the original Greek most definitely has castration in mind; the modern versions simply make Paul's meaning a little clearer. And of course we should want to be godly, but that is of course not what Satan was saying in the Garden; he was offering a chance to usurp God's position.

And if you think the name Textus Receptus conveys any meaning of holiness or even being the accepted standard in the church, you've essentially fallen for a 500-year-old advertising scheme. It originated in the preface by the publishers, and had only their authority behind it.
Robert W.
Believers know what is the word of God, as they 'know His voice' and can distinguish it from that of strangers (John 10:4,5).

The Apostles did not approve the Septuagint. They quoted from it, as they were writing in Greek and drawing Greek readers' attentions to this readily available Greek translation of the Old Testament.

I'm aware of no attempts to change the Hebrew text, but as Whitcomb and Morris point out, there were attempts by the writers' of the Septuagint to make textual emendations to the Hebrew Text. A good example is the enforced symmetry in numbers and years in the Septuagint versions of the Genesis 5 and 11 chronologies (The Genesis Flood, footnote on page 476), on which William Henry Green commented, 'A simple glance at these numbers is sufficient to show that the Hebrew is the original'.

As regards the Masoretes, they held the original text to be so sacred that they would not alter any of its figures, choosing instead to place vowel characters around them as an aid to readers who were less familiar with ancient Hebrew.

Our understanding of God's word has also been preserved, because the languages in which it is written are still living languages, unlike Latin. As Jesus said, Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away’ (Matthew 24:35).
Matthew D.
Textural criticism is not limited to tracing copying errors. Thus the four 'canonical' gospels, although presented first in the NT, were probably formed last after being transmitted as oral history for years before the names of Matthew, etc. were attached. Thus we get contradictory event details (birth, death, teachings), history, social structure, redaction and failed prophecy. Many so-called heretical (Gnostic) gospels were rejected at various church councils for more secular reasons (the Protestant NT is not the only version). An OT parallel would be the first 5 books, which were formed after the Babylonian captivity and do not represent an eye-witness account of a historical or geological arc. Understand the word of God requires more than banal literalism.
Lita Cosner
Respectfully, Matt, you are wrong in nearly every detail you cited. I would encourage you to do research from reliable evangelical sources like Dan Wallace and D.A. Carson.
Russ M.
I am always sceptical when the words 'textual criticism' is used. For over 500 years scripture went Un challanged, now anything appears to be OK. Have modern scolours permission of the Holy Spirit to alter and delete passages? I think not.
Lita Cosner
Russ, this simply misunderstands what textual criticism is and seeks to do. Until the advent of the printing press, all copies of Scripture were produced by individual hand writing. Every copy had errors produced by the process--humans, no matter how careful, made mistakes as they copied the text. There are no two manuscripts of Scripture that are exactly identical.

Christians have always noticed this, and have always made efforts to distinguish between the original reading that God inspired, and those that arose through human error. Any time this happens, we are engaged in a form of text criticism. Erasmus used multiple manuscripts when he published the Textus Receptus. He only had a few, and they were relatively late compared to what we have today, but what we do today is different in degree, not kind, from what he did.

Interestingly, evangelicals have a unique concern in uncovering the original text, because we are the only ones who think the original text matters as far as issues of inerrancy and authority are concerned.

In short, text critics do not 'alter' or 'delete' anything. Rather, they use the available manuscript evidence to attempt to restore the text to its original form.
A. Y.
Dear CMI, I agree that the NT is reliable. However like the alien issue there is another form of deception going on in regards to the OT or the Torah that was given to European gentile scholars. That is the Masoretic Text. This video helps explain the issue - [link deleted per feedback rules]

The author was able to postulate that there was a motive present but left it open. I emailed the author - yes there was and still is a historical motive present for the alterations as made to the original Hebrew Torah and these stem from the early C2nd AD. Hard to prove in a short email but the answer is in comparing the Masoretic with LXX A with the NT. After performing such a comparision of nearly every verse in the NT to its OT equivalent to both the MT and the LXX a surprising pattern emerges. The LXX was the OT used by NT authors and the MT has many alterations to remove or denigrate the OT to NT links of Jesus Christ as the real Messiah. This comes as no surprise because initially before Aquila, Akiba, and Simon bar Kochba in about 130 AD worked together to convince the Jews of their day that Jesus was not the real Messiah that until that time Jewish converts to Christianity had OT texts including the LXX which showed greater correlation between the OT and the Gospel and letters that Jesus was the Messiah. Something had to be done by the rabbis to quell this. I can send my comparion study if you wish. Also check out the 430/400 years video also mentioned in that video. What becomes apparant is that there were basically two modes of transmission of the OT - one preserved in the pre Christ Septuagint/LXX otherwise known as the "Translation of the 70" to which before Christ the Jews had approved but then after Christ the rabbis then forbade the Jews to read the LXX.
Lita Cosner
Alex, the video assumes Manetho's chronology is accurate, but even secular Egyptologists say that it is inflated. See Egyptian chronology and the Bible. We need to use the Bible to interpret secular chronological sources, and not the other way around.

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