In last week’s post on the doctrine of Inspiration, we focused on the biblical claim that the Scriptures have been inspired by God. In this week’s post, we will go a little deeper into this important topic by highlighting the quality of the manuscripts that we have for the biblical texts.
I’m confident that the Bible we have (66 books with about 40 authors over 1500 years of writing) is God’s inspired Word. But just because I’m confident doesn’t mean everyone else is confident. Textual criticism is that discipline that investigates the content and reliability of ancient texts. It is a discipline used for other manuscripts, but primarily associated with the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. If it is right to hold a high view of the inspiration of Scripture (that God is the author), then it should follow that the manuscripts we have for comparison purposes would not disagree with one another and create uncertainty in the meaning of the text. Can we have confidence in the manuscripts of the Old and New Testaments?
Here are some basic facts about the manuscripts we do have. You can find out more on this subject from Jonathan Morrow’s book, Questioning the Bible: 11 Major Challenges to the Bible’s Authority.
- There are 5,756 New Testament manuscripts that can be compared and contrasted for quality and consistency purposes. Other ancient writings for a comparable time and place are as follows: Greek historian Herodotus, 109 manuscripts; Greek historian Thucydides, 95 manuscripts; Greek philosopher Plato, 219 manuscripts; Roman historian Livy, 150 manuscripts; Roman historian Tacitus, 31 manuscripts; Roman historian Seutonius, 300 manuscripts; Greek classic Homer’s Iliad, 2300 manuscripts. The sheer number of New Testament manuscripts affords confidence that the documents we are reading today are consistent with the original manuscripts.
- The NT manuscripts are significantly earlier than other ancient literature, within 35 years in at least one case and all of the NT within 200 years of the events.
- While there are variations between the manuscripts, they do not distort the consistency or meaning of the New Testament. Bart Ehrman, professor and author of Misquoting Jesus, claims 400,000 variants within the New Testament manuscripts. Ehrman uses this number to undercut the confidence in the New Testament documents. Essentially, he reasons if there are so many variants, how can we be confident in the accuracy of the text? However, Ehrman fails to look into the types of variations carefully. According to Jonathan Morrow, “A variant is any place among the existing NT manuscripts where there is not uniformity of wording” (p. 98). A variant then could be a misspelled word in 1 manuscript different from 2,000 manuscripts. This would count as 2,000 variants. Morrow notes, “the reason we have so many variants is because we have so many manuscripts to work with” (p. 98).
- Note the types of variation within the New Testament manuscripts:
1) Spelling=70-80% of all the variants.
2) Minor differences such as word order or the use of the definite article with a proper name.
3) Meaningful, but not viable differences such as, “gospel of God” vs. “gospel of Christ.”
4) Meaningful and viable differences such as “let us have peace with God” vs. “we have peace with God” (less than 1% are meaningful and viable).
- The Old Testament manuscripts and the and the Dead Sea Scrolls affirm that the copyists of the OT were careful, and that the OT that we do have is consistent with the earliest manuscripts. According to Douglas Stuart, it is a safe estimate that 99% of original words in NT and 95% of original words in OT are recoverable (quoted by Jonathan Morrow in Questioning the Bible). In essence, we can be confident that we have the Word of God.
- These basic facts can be found in Questioning the Bible, by Jonathan Morrow pages 96-105.
The Old and New Testaments have been questioned and critiqued for millennia. Particularly, the New Testament has faced textual and source criticism aimed at discounting its claims of the supernatural and the deity of Jesus. This critique should not surprise us. We live in a post-enlightenment age where we question and doubt anything that cannot be tested scientifically.
These facts about the New Testament manuscripts do not force one to believe the stories they relate. But here is what they do. The sheer number of manuscripts dating back so nearly to the occasions of writing provide confidence that the New Testament we are reading today was the same New Testament originally written.
If we can have confidence in the consistency and accuracy of the Old and New Testaments, then we cannot claim that over time the authors changed stories to build their case for the deity of Jesus or other theological concepts. What they wrote is what we have. You may or may not believe what they wrote. After all, that underscores the importance of faith that permeates Christianity.
But if we are honest with the data we have, we must accept that the biblical documents relate to us an accurate account of the original manuscripts. This becomes foundational to the doctrine of revelation regarding the inerrancy, sufficiency, and authority of Scripture.