One of the most popular sentiments of the day is that the Bible cannot be trusted. How can we trust the Bible if it’s said that there are errors and inconsistencies in it? The biblical text was copied over and over and pieces were added onto it, and other portions removed to suit the theological inclinations of the specific generation or individual scribes. Right? Well, not so fast. But the Bible, especially the New Testament, was written so much later after the events that it purports to have occurred. Right? Well, not so much. But we can’t really can’t trust the Bible because the writers were utilizing their memory to tell us what happened generations ago. Right? Has the text of the Bible been dramatically changed? Was the Bible written generations after the events it is depicting?
Let’s look into this. We need to look at the transmission of the text, and the manner and shape in which the text gets to us. We look at the time gap between the events and the writings. We try to determine if there was anything special about the way the writings were preserved, and how reliable the written copies are.
It’s important to note that the New Testament writings that we have today are all copies. As with all papyri writings of antiquity, the original writings have withered away. Thus, copies had to have been made of those originals. Scribes meticulously copied the original writings in order that they may be preserved. This was the practice for other ancient historical works as well. However, the differences between the preservation of the New Testament writings and other historical works of antiquity are absolutely astonishing.
First, we have far more manuscripts (full and fragments) of the New Testament than we do any other ancient written work. Also, the New Testament manuscripts trump all of classical history with relation to the earliest copies compared to their originals. The first copies of all of the NT writings appear within a single generation of the original documents. In contrast, copies of most other historical writings appear at least two generations after the original works. In fact, most major works have a time gap of at least 400 years between the original date of writing and the dating of the first extant manuscript.
Obviously, the sooner you make copies after the original is written, there is a greater chance for accuracy with respect to the transmission of the text. The longer the time between the originals and the first known copies, the greater the probability that these copies will contain inconsistencies and outright errors. Papyri decay over time, so documents begin to lose their integrity and start becoming illegible. When we compare the earliest known extant manuscripts of the New Testament with those of other ancient writings, we see a dramatic difference. Sophocles wrote between 496-406 BC, and the first copy we have is known to have been written in AD 1000. This gives us a span of around 1,400 years from the original writing to the first known copies. Herodotus wrote in 480-425 BC, but the first known copies appear at around AD 900, resulting in a time gap of roughly 1,300 years. Let’s get a true sense of the enormous difference between the New Testament writings and some other ancient documents.
|Author (Writing)||Date of Writing||Earliest Copies||Time Gap||Copies|
|Homer (Iliad)||800 B.C.||c. 400 B.C.||c. 400 years||643|
|Herodotus (History)||480-425 B.C.||c. A.D. 900||c. 1,350 years||8|
|Thucydides (History)||460-400 B.C.||c. A.D. 900||c. 1,300 years||8|
|Plato||400 B.C.||c. A.D. 900||c. 1,300 years||7|
|Demosthenes||300 B.C.||c. A.D. 1100||c. 1,400 years||200|
|Caesar (Gallic Wars)||100-44 B.C.||c. A.D. 900||c. 1,000 years||10|
|Livy (History of Rome)||59 B.C. – A.D. 17||c. A.D. 400||c. 400 years||20|
|Tacitus (Annals)||A.D. 100||c. A.D. 1100||c. 1000 years||20|
|Pliny Secundus (Natural History)||A.D. 61-113||c. A.D. 850||c. 750 years||7|
|New Testament (in Greek alone)||A.D. 50-100||c. 114 (fragments)
c. 200 (books)
c. 250 (most N.T.)
c. 325 (all N.T.)
|c. 50-64 years
c. 100 years
c. 150 years
c. 225 years
But still, how can we trust the Bible? So how sure are we that we can identify what the originals said? How certain can we be of their consistency? Some have made a cottage industry out of embellishing some of these inconsistencies by claiming that there are upwards of about 300,000 individual variations of the text of the NT. However, most of the differences, such as spelling errors, grammatical mistakes, and inverted phrases, are inconsequential. A full comparison shows 98% agreement, and of the remaining differences, virtually all yield to vigorous textual criticism. This means that the NT of today is 99.5% textually pure. In the entire text of roughly 30,000 verses, only 50 are in doubt and none affect any significant doctrine.
An often-cited apparent inconsistency is that there are copies that have errors and deviations from other copies, which make it difficult to trust the text altogether. However, when we take a deeper look at the deviations, we can see that these differences between the copies are expected and do not reduce the trustworthiness of the texts. To expect writings of its length to be copied without any errors is unrealistic. In fact, the text would be more subject to scrutiny if the copies matched too perfectly, as we could charge it with collusion. We need to always account for human error, no matter the topic. Spelling and grammatical errors should be expected. We also see differences in sentence structure, in order to more correctly relay the message. But the substance doesn’t change. What is also significant about the number of copies is that it bodes very well for the determining the exact content matter of the original writings. Ultimately, whatever errors and inconsistencies exist across copies do not matter that much, because we can clearly understand what was contained in the original writings.
Now, as with any document that is copied by hand, ancient or not, mistakes are inevitable. If you have multiple copies of the same writings, by comparing the copies with one another, one can get a clear picture of what would have been in the actual original set of writings. By superimposing the substance of the copies on top of each other we can easily know what the original writings looked like. This is the process by which we compare the copies with one another and look at the errors or inconsistencies between them. The copiers would make mistakes, but they wouldn’t all make the same exact mistakes. As would be expected, the inconsistencies occur in different places within the different copies. This is significant since an error in any one copy is easily corrected by thousands of consistencies of that specific area of the text in hundreds or thousands of other copies. The copies complement one another and give us a great deal of confidence in what the originals would have contained. In fact, there is so much attestation of the New Testament writings outside of themselves that even if we did not have any New Testament manuscript, we could put together almost the entirety of the New Testament by using nothing but the quotations made by the early church leaders. One such index of citations in the late Dean Burgeon’s unpublished volumes contains 86,489 quotations referencing the New Testament writings.
It is even more telling that content matter of the various portions of the New Testament gives us adequate reason to hold that many, if not most, of the text, was written very shortly after Jesus’ death. For example, even skeptical scholars agree that the earliest and most reliable sources referring to Jesus and his divinity occur (1 Cor 15:3-8) only within 1-3 years after the death of Jesus. Additionally, we have other supporting passages that help reveal to us that the earliest of writings virtually go back to Jesus’ death. Another important point that often gets lost in the shuffle is that these earliest writings have a fully evolved theology, meaning that there is no slow transition of theological understanding of the events that took place. A fully mature theology is clearly spelled out in the earliest of writings, namely by the combination of 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, 1 Corinthians 1:21-25, Deuteronomy 6:4-9 (OT reference alluded to by Paul in 1 Corinthians 8:4-6), Philippians 2:5-11, Mark 12:1-9, etc.
It is one thing to debate the actual claims of the New Testament (these will be dealt with in other articles), but regardless of its claims, if we dismiss the reliability of the New Testament, we must also be ready to dismiss the reliability of the writings of Plato, Aristotle, Caesar, Homer and all the other writings of antiquity. Simply put, if we rejected the authenticity of the New Testament on textual grounds we’d have to reject every ancient work of antiquity and declare null and void every piece of ancient historical work.
You may also read about the reliability of the Old Testament.
Arthur is an author, a former agnostic, and current ambassador of Jesus of Nazareth who loves to share the best of reasons for God's ultimate reality. His love and passion are helping skeptics and Christians grow in their faith and knowledge of God through accessible materials.