Another common argument used against christian belief is that the New Testament has been significantly changed since it was first written, so we cannot have any confidence in we are reading. Who knows if it is an accurate reflection of what the original authors wrote?
Eminent scholar Bart Ehrman’s 2005 book Misquoting Jesus outlines his view of “how radically the text has been altered over the years”.
Is the situation really as ‘bad’ as that? What are the facts? I have spent some time checking the matter out.
The ‘bad’ news
The New Testament was written long before the age of printing, so every copy of a document had to be made by hand. And eventually the original and later copies wore out or were lost. As a result, the New Testament we read is reconstructed from more than 5,600 Greek manuscript copies of all or various parts of the New Testament, plus about 20,000 manuscripts in other languages.
When these 25,000 manuscripts are compared, numerous variations are found – perhaps as many as 400,000 – about three variations for every word in the whole New Testament!
So there is a problem. Which of the variations are the original ones?
The good news
It turns out that the situation isn’t as ‘bad’ as it first appears.
- These 400,000 variations are spread over more than a million pages of manuscripts.
- The vast majority of variations are so minor (an obvious mis-spelling or a change in word order) they don’t affect the meaning. Other variations (e.g. omission of whole lines or repetition of words) are so obvious that they can be easily discarded.
- Only a very small percentage of variations make any significant difference. In his book, Ehrman lists about 40, but even most of these make little difference to our understanding.
- The only real significant variations include two major passages and two small passages that were probably not in the original documents, and about 5 changes of a word or two that make minor differences – for example, whether Jesus was angry or moved with compassion when he healed a man, and whether another passage describes Jesus as God or son of God.
- Because there are so many manuscript copies, scholars have plenty of information on which to base a reconstruction where this is necessary.
- Most of these variations have long been recognised and most have been corrected in modern Bibles, but in a few of these 9 variations, the original isn’t clear and most Bibles indicate this by a footnote.
- The result is that just a couple of verses in the Bible you read are possibly unoriginal in any significant way, and no teachings depend on the verses alone.
We can actually be fairly confident we have a text very close to the original. There is far less to worry about than I thought when I began to investigate this matter.
However even this amount of doubt may be a difficulty for someone who believes the Bible must be without any errors so God’s exact words are available to us.
I have summarised my more detailed findings in The reliability of the New Testament text
Read the whole series
This post is part of a series on Training disciples to stand. Check out all the topics here.
Photo: The earliest New Testament manuscript so far discovered, a fragment of John’s gospel dated about 30 years after the original – from Wikipedia.