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.
Nice job on tackling this subject so concisely. Of course, I was one of those believers that had a hard time squaring any differences. I come from the Southeastern US, and most people here are fundamentalist, conservative Protestants, who believe the Bible is the inerrant word of God. I still feel that there are some good reasons for thinking a revelation from God would be completely inerrant, but I know a lot of people disagree.
What I find interesting are the Christians who do believe the Bible is completely inerrant, yet also know about these additions to the text. I just can’t wrap my head around that one.
I think that’s why those often think a specific fixed version is inerrant? For English-speaking Protestants that would be the KJVO movement or some minnow groups.
With “minnow groups”, I was thinking of outfits like the Jehovah’s [sic] Witnesses and maybe some post-Millerite sects, not the large KJVO movement.
“What I find interesting are the Christians who do believe the Bible is completely inerrant, yet also know about these additions to the text.”
I think most inerrantists think it only applies to the originals, so the variations in copying aren’t critical for their view. I once wrote to the famous Francis Shaeffer asking, if the Bible we read isn’t inerrant, what does it matter if the original was or not, and he replied it makes all the difference in the world, but I still don’t see it.
This is another area in which we totally agree. If God had wanted his word to be completely inerrant, then why wouldn’t he want to make sure it stayed that way for everyone who came later?
To me, it’s obvious that the Bible is not inerrant. So I think the only rational positions are to believe that God never wanted it to be that way in the first place, or that it’s just not inspired at all.
To tell you the truth, I have never understood this as an apologetic argument, either from the point of view of the skeptics or the believers. Even if I had absolute certainty that our modern Scriptures were the original, pristine words of the inspired authors and scribes, and these were copied with absolute accuracy and uncertainty, that does not solve the problem of belief. My problem with belief is with the Bible, not with the transmission. Knowing that it was accurately transmitted does not make it any more believable.
“If God had wanted his word to be completely inerrant, then why wouldn’t he want to make sure it stayed that way for everyone who came later?”
I have thought about this a bit, and the conclusion I have come to is that God maintains a delicate balance of being involved in his world without being too overwhelming, and so allowing the world and people to develop freely. Evolution is a way of allowing that, so is human freedom to choose the good or the bad. And so is inspiring the Bible to be written but allowing the authors freedom.
It’s just an idea, but it seems to work out.
“My problem with belief is with the Bible, not with the transmission.”
It seems like there is a fair bit of agreement among several of us here. I agree with this too. The real question (for me) is can I, should I, do I, believe Jesus told the truth and his followers told the truth (as much as humans can do, and in accordance with the writing conventions at the time). When it comes down to it, I do.
Sometimes I think belief and unbelief comes down to gut feeling as much as evidence. I am reminded of CS Lewis The Last Battle (in the Narnia series). The world is ending, and all the animal and people come running towards a big door where Aslan (the Jesus figure in the stories) is standing. Some look on his face with love (even some who were thought to be enemies) and they go through the door, others look at him with fear or hatred or something, and they swerve away from the door and go off to one side.
That’s not to say evidence isn’t important, just to say that there must be more involved, or surely we’d all be closer to making the same choice.
“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 think that tends to be the kind of person B.E. is directing himself towards, since that is is own background. The more flexible you are with the Bible interpretation, the less his points seem to matter.
Hi, yes I agree. I think Ehrman overstates his case sometimes, but even if he just stuck to the facts he would be difficult for more conservative people to deal with.