Skeptics like to claim that the Bible has been changed so much that we can’t possibly know what was originally in it. This statement has undermined some people’s faith in the Bible as the Word of God. Thus, many may not bother to read it since it’s assumed to be full of errors.
According to a recent survey conducted by Lifeway, lots of Americans own a Bible but don’t read it. Could it be that people are influenced by the assumption made by these critics? Is this assumption true?
In a special, one-night only showing April 24, 2018, my husband and I watched the documentary, Fragments of Truth, which set out to answer the critics’ claims of corrupt transmission of the Biblical manuscripts. This film agreed with what I recently taught in a presentation regarding the reliability of Scripture.
One thing that I teach is that as Christians, we can no longer afford the trite saying, “…because the Bible tells me so!” Many simply don’t believe that anymore. The Bible is not viewed as a source of truth in a culture that has been secularized. We must “rethink” how we present the truth of the Bible to an ever-growing skeptical society. We must focus on its reliability as a historical document first.
The Reliability of Scripture
First off, the New Testament has more manuscript evidence than any other ancient text. Why is this important? It’s important because it allows textual critics to analyze all the manuscripts against each other to verify the accuracy of transmission with the oldest manuscripts available. Since there are many thousands of New Testament manuscripts, over 5,800 at recent count, scholars who know these ancient languages can reconstruct the wording to the original autographs. Yes, there are no original autographs of Scripture remaining, as to current discoveries. Although many of the originals survived much longer than our modern paperback books, ancient documents were not archival. Scribes had to copy the originals to preserve the texts. It is important to note that this is common for ALL ancient historical books. Everything we know of ancient Greek history, for example, comes from copied texts of originals.
Accuracy of Transmission
How do we know if Scribes got it right? With more copies available of an ancient text, the transmission is more reliable. Yes, scribes made spelling errors and flipped numbers occasionally, but those errors are easily corrected when comparing them to the numerous manuscript copies available. So, if John was spelled “Joan” in one manuscript, but spelled in four other documents correctly as “John,” which spelling do you think the textual critics go with? Of course! ‘John’ is the obvious correct spelling.
These are called Textual Variants, and variants are anywhere that one manuscript disagrees with another. These variants are mostly spelling errors (70%), flipped numbers or the words “Amen” inserted in some documents and left out of others. 99% of these variants do not affect doctrinal issues, according to expert in the field, Dr. Dan Wallace.
It’s important to note what these experts, like Wallace, do in this field of study. It is a complicated and detailed process. Transmission of ancient texts is not akin to the game of Telephone Tag, where one person whispers something in one person’s ear and then it goes around the circle to come out with a completely different meaning. Textual criticism is when scholars go back to the oldest manuscripts available to ensure that today’s copy of the Bible matches up to those.
When compared to other ancient documents, Homer’s Iliad has the second most amount of ancient manuscripts, with a bit over 650 known copies. (Notice that no one argues over whether the Trojan Horse story is accurately transmitted.) When compared to the Greek New Testament gospels, there are more than three-times the amount of manuscripts than the Iliad. Credible scholars agree that the New Testament is the most attested ancient document in history.
The closer the time-gap between when an original was written and the first copy made also validates the accuracy of transmission. Some skeptics claim that the copies of the New Testament were dated as late as two or three hundred years after the events of Christ’s life. This is not true! The John Rylands Library owns a fragment of John dated at about 125 AD. This fragment only dates from about 25 or 30 years after the Gospel of John. This is very early indeed. There is also talk of a recent find suggesting there is a fragment of Mark’s Gospel dated as early as 80 to 100 AD, but that is not been verified as of today.
According to Dr. Craig Evans in The Fragments of Truth movie, the original autographs may have lasted over 100 years. This means that they were still in circulation during the time that other eye-witnesses were alive to corroborate the stories, and also for others to compare the Gospel copies to the originals for accuracy. So, does all of this mean we can rest assured that we have what the original authors wrote? Yes it does!The evidence shows that the accusation that the Bible has been radically changed over the centuries is false. Click To Tweet
The Old Testament
The 1947 discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls verifies that 97-99% of the Old Testament has not been changed – it is the same as the copies we have today. In this collection of Biblical manuscripts, the Book of Isaiah, for example, is Carbon 14 dated to approximately 150 BC. (Remember, Isaiah contains prophecies of the Messiah that were fulfilled in the life of Jesus Christ. This also suggests the inspiration of Biblical texts.)
Keep posted for the 2nd half of this blog post, where I discuss the uniqueness of the Bible, the Canonization process, and why the Bible is relevant today.