Is the New Testament Reliable?

In this post I would like to discuss the reliability of the New Testament (NT). Many modern radical skeptics will often challenge believers, saying we cannot trust the Bible because we do not have the original texts, but only copies of copies. Once more, they will further say the texts we have today have been “changed” over time so they cannot be trusted.  As a person of faith I of course believe all the scriptures (The Bible) are the inspired word of God, but believing in their inspiration or claims is a matter of personnel faith. So the focus for this post will be to demonstrate the reliability of the NT texts using the same criteria for all historical documents, whether religious or secular. Note, by “reliability of the NT texts” I mean that the NT texts we have today accurately reflects what the original authors wrote.

First, it is true we no longer have the original manuscripts, but instead copies of copies. The reasons for this, like with all ancient documents from antiquity, is that when a new copy was made the older one would often then be discarded. However, the test for the reliability of ancient documents is NOT based on possessing an original manuscript, but rather on the number of manuscripts available and their closeness in date to the original.

So how many ancient copies of the NT do we have today? There are over 30,000: almost 6,000 copies in Greek, 10,000 plus in Latin and another 15,000 in various other languages (i.e. Coptic & Syriac). By comparison, Homer’s Classic “The Iliad” is the only ancient document that comes close with 643 manuscripts — 1,757 if we count papyri fragments.  Now what is the closeness to the originals? See the overview below of various works from antiquity for some perspective and context:

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As anyone can see there is just no comparison, there is no body of texts or literature in the entire ancient world that is more attested to than the New Testament. The average author from antiquity has fewer than twenty copies of their works that are still in existence, and those copies typically come some five to ten centuries later after they were written. Meanwhile the NT enjoys a wealth of manuscripts unseen and the shortest gap back to the originals of any ancient texts. In fact, even if all the NT manuscripts had been destroyed and we did not have one single copy we could still reconstruct almost the entire NT texts. How? The ancient Church Fathers, e.g. Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Origen & Tertullian (just to name a few), quoted so often from the NT that it is possible for scholars trained in textual criticism to reconstruct it from their quotes alone. The late Bruce Metzger, a well renown scholar and mentor to many modern day scholars attests to this fact:

Besides textual evidence derived from New Testament Greek manuscripts and from early versions, the textual critic has available the numerous scriptural quotations … written by early Church Fathes. Indeed, so extensive are these citations that if all other sources for our knowledge of the text of the New Testament were destroyed, they would be sufficient alone for the reconstruction of practically the entire New Testament” (Metzger, TNT, 86).

So the NT more than passes the first test for reliability. Nothing else even comes close. The next challenge to its reliability is the claim that the texts we have today have been changed. However in truth this is a gross mischaracterization of the facts. What they are really referring to are the “differences” between the ancient manuscripts, the correct term in scholarly textual criticism is variants.  This is in fact nothing new and any variants of note are all documented in the text we have today. Nevertheless, modern skeptics fed by popular books from the more radical elements of the New School (see my earlier post: Why Do Scholars Disagree About Jesus?) have latched onto this and call these variants “changes” in order to question the reliability and trustworthiness of the NT.

So what are variants? If you have any manuscript that has a difference of one word, that counts as a textual variant. So how many variants are there in the NT? Well the exact number is not known, but all scholars agree there are somewhere between 200,000 and 400,000 textual variants. This number may alarm many people, but it really should not. Keep in mind as discussed earlier; the number of copies for the NT in the original Greek currently includes almost 6,000 ancient manuscripts. In short, the more copies you have the more variants you are going to have. In fact, taking the high end of variants (400,000) and the total number of Greek manuscripts alone (5800) this would average out to about 68 unique variants per copy. Now this does not mean, nor I am saying, that this is 68 variants copied 5800 times for our 400,000 variants. The reality is one manuscript could have 1,000 variants and a second manuscript another 1,000; but if 500 variants from #2 are the same as #1, then it is 1,500 variants total, but each still had 1,000. Then you precede to manuscript #3, 4, 5 and so on — then you will get to our 200,000 to 400,000 unique variants after going through all the Greek manuscripts.

So what do these NT variants look like? Well between 70 to 80 percent are nothing more than spelling errors. So if a manuscript from the 9th century has one misspelled word, then that counts as one variant. Do some quick mental math and that means 280,000 to 320,000 of these variants are inconsequential. So what about the rest? Well anytime one copyist accidently repeated a line or skipped a line – that is a variant. In many passages the variants are nothing more than synonyms e.g. one may write the “Lord knew” and another writes “Jesus knew” – no meaning change, yet that still counts as a variant. John could be spelled correctly with one “n” or two – any time one copyist uses the other spelling – that is a variant. There are in fact many variants that cannot even be translated into the English language. For instance, there are over a dozen different ways in the Greek language to say “Jesus loves X”, and they would all translate into English the same way, but for each different Greek rendition used – that counts as a variant. A number of the variants also involve the ancient practice of using definitive articles e.g. “the Mary says” or “the Joseph says,” and once the practice went out of style and copyist dropped the “the” in favor of “Mary says” or “Joseph says” in their manuscripts, each time would still be counted as a separate textual variant. These examples are among the most common variants, representing roughly 99% of all variants, and as one can see, they are totally inconsequential and do not affect the content or meaning of the text at all.

In total less than 1% of variants affect the meaning of the texts in some way, and about largely insignificant issues. For example, in Mark 9:29 Jesus says you cannot cast out certain types of demons except “through prayer” and other manuscripts say “through prayer and fasting.” The meaning matters if you are going to cast out demons, but otherwise it is an insignificant variant. Also included in this 1% category are possible interpolations (additions) to the texts. But these are very rare, and virtually all insignificant, amounting to nothing more than a few words or a verse or two in length – with two exceptions. To that end, there are only two major variants in the entire NT texts beyond the usual spelling, phrasing or word choice – and that are also of any significant length. The first is located at the end of Mark; where Jesus proclaims to the disciples that they can now speak in tongues, handle snakes and cast out demons in his name. This is not in the earliest manuscripts of Mark. However, unless you are from a snake handling Church from somewhere in the Appellations, then this is really of no significance. Although I suppose they can still fall back on Acts. The other is the woman caught in adultery from John. Although for reasons too complicated to go into here, many scholars (some from both schools) have reasons to argue in favor of the historicity of the event recorded in this passage. It just was not likely originally part of John’s Gospel; maybe I’ll post on that sometime. Nevertheless, if anyone looks at the footnotes of their Bible they will see any variants of note are indeed recorded. This is nothing new — and the characterization of these variants by modern skeptics as “changes” to our modern texts thereby rendering the NT “untrustworthy” and “corrupted” is a gross misrepresentation of the facts. The integrity of the NT texts is well established, and our modern texts have these variant readings of note anyhow.

In fact when you consider the total number of copies of NT manuscripts, the potential number of variants should be in the tens of millions. It is in fact shocking even too many scholars that we have so few. Scholar Daniel B. Wallace, a Professor of NT Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary and Executive Director for The Center for the Study of NT Manuscripts is considered one of the world’s foremost authorities on textual criticism and is widely published in the scholarly world. He has said the following in interviews by Lee Strobel and is quoted in The Case for the Real Jesus:

“No cardinal doctrines are affected by any viable variants.” “The fact is that scholars across the theological spectrum say that in all the essentials — our New Testament manuscripts go back to the originals.” (And scholars that say otherwise are) “part of a very small minority of textual critics,”

“The quantity and quality of the New Testament manuscripts are unequalled in the ancient Greco-Roman world. – There’s just no comparison to others,”

“The most remarkable thing to me is the tedium of looking at manuscript after manuscript after manuscript that just don’t change. Yes, there are differences, but they are so minor. When I teach textual criticism every year, my students spend about a third of their workload transcribing manuscripts – and invariably they marvel at how little the manuscripts deviate.”

Another biblical scholar and expert Norman Geisler is quoted as saying,

“When a comparison of the variant readings of the New Testament is made with those of other books which have survived from antiquity the results are little short of astounding, — The evidence for the integrity of the New Testament is beyond question.”

One final observation, many modern skeptics appear to be under the false assumption that the NT manuscripts follow a single linear line of transmission, i.e. one person passing on a message to a second who gives it to a third, and so on. However, this assumes an oral transmission analogy, whereby it would indeed be challenging to reconstruct an original message from only a single line of transmission that is many generations removed from the original. But the reality is that neither assumption applies to the NT. Why? Because it is immortalized in writing, and written manuscripts can obviously be verified in ways oral communications cannot. Once more, the NT manuscripts do NOT represent a single linear line of transmission that is generations removed from the originals; but instead reflect multiple lines of transmission — with the shortest gap back to the originals of any ancient work. What does it mean to have multiple lines of transmission? For instance, one author may distribute ten copies of their work, and each of those are copied fifty times and each of those fifty more by later copyist, and so on. In other words, you have multiple lines of transmission all testifying to the same text. Therefore, given that there are thousands of manuscripts for the NT, which represent multiple lines of transmission, with the vast majority of textual variants between them completely immaterial, plus numerous ancient witnesses (i.e. Church Fathers) to the transmission of the text, and the end result is a NT text with impeccable integrity. In fact, most textual critics say that the NT text is 98-99% pure. That means the integrity of the NT text is so well established it is beyond question, and only the most radical of skeptics would argue otherwise.

In conclusion, the NT has unprecedented support for its textual accuracy. Therefore it more than passes the second test from skeptics who challenge its reliability. In other words, the New Testament you read today is a trustworthy rendition of the original writings. In short, the NT is reliable. The Old Testament also has similar support, so the same can be said for the reliability of the entire Bible too. But I have bloviated on this topic long enough; I will close with a quote from Jesus in the Gospel of Mark:

“Heaven and earth will pass away, but my word will never pass away.” (Mark 13:31)

Thank you for reading. I hope some may have found this insightful.

God Bless!

JDN

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