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Apologetics – Lesson 6: Do We Have the Scriptures Today?

March 3, 2012

We have established a number of things about the Bible. It is God-breathed (2 Timothy 3:16), it is inerrant, and the people of God over the course of history have recognized the canon of the OT and NT. Now we come to a crucial issue that has received more challenges over the last few decades than ever before. Is the Bible we have today what was originally written? Is what we have now what they wrote then? This is the issue that critics have used the most over the last few years to attack and discredit the Christian faith. The question we are faced with is simple. Are the critics right?

The Facts:

The original documents written by the Biblical authors are known as Autographs. We no longer posses any of these documents; they have all been lost to history. The Bible we have today (in the original languages) is based on copies of copies of copies.  In the process of copying the scribes made mistakes and then copied the mistakes and so on. It can be rightly said that we have more mistakes (called variants) in the New Testament than there are words in the NT. So, if all we have are copies of copies how can we have any confidence that the Bible we have today has any resemblance to what was originally written? How can we say God inspired the Bible if it has not been preserved?

What we will see is that the picture just painted, however accurate, is not a clear description of the situation we face when we look at this. Just be cause we do not have the Autographs does not mean that we do not have the Word of God. Let’s take the example of Jesus. The Scriptures used and quoted by Jesus were not the original manuscripts (MSS), but the end result of a careful copying process. Yet, Jesus tells us that these copies of the originals were indeed “the Word of God” (Scripture). For example, in Matthew 21:42, Jesus asked the religious leaders, “Have you never read in the Scriptures” and went on to quote Psalm 118:22. Moses wrote this Psalm nearly 1,500 years before. Yet Jesus knew that even after 1,000 years of copying and recopying, the Old Testament available in Jesus’ day was indeed the Word of God, preserved. Also, in Matthew 19:4, Jesus quotes from Genesis 2:24 and once again attributes what was written by Moses and preserved by a copying process, as being the very words of God. If the Scriptures had been corrupted or lost, Jesus had a golden opportunity to correct the people in His day but He did not do so.  Instead, He exhibited great confidence in the Scriptures.

Why don’t we have the Autographs? We don’t know for sure since He does not reveal that to us but we can rightly say that this is because of the providential choice of God. He could have preserved the original MSS if He had chosen to do so, but God chose to preserve His Word through a copying process. While we do not know for sure why God chose to preserve His Word through a copying process, it is almost certain that if the autographs were around people would be tempted to worship them just as some cling to other religious relics.

The Process:

In order to understand the situation it is best to review the copying process. In the ancient world there was no printing press and no photocopier or fax machine. All writing was done by hand on a variety of materials from stone to wood to leather and papyrus. Papyrus was the main material for the writing of the NT and represented the best material available in their day. It was made from strips of reeds that were woven together, pressed, and then dried. It was a great material for writing but not a good material for lasting a long time being very sensitive to humidity. Papyri would not do well in Indiana where I live with all the rainfall and the humid summers but it tends to last longer in more arid climates. This is one of the reasons that most of the papyri MSS we have today were found in the deserts of North Africa.

Regardless of the material used the Bible was copied completely by hand until the invention of the printing press in 1456. (Fun fact: The Latin Bible was the first book ever printed on Guttenburg’s press.) The process of copying the Bible differed greatly between the OT and the NT and we will review this a little later in this lesson.

Textual Criticism:

Our issue begins with the copying process itself.  When you copy a text by hand there is one thing that you can know for certain; you will make mistakes. If you don’t believe me try copying the Gospel of Matthew by hand and in ink and count the number of times you misspell a word or skip a line. It happens to us today and it happened to the scribes in the ancient world. The scribe in the ancient world had a very difficult job. They had to copy someone else’s handwriting using an inkwell and quill without our modern conveniences like heating and air conditioning. Sometimes they would not be copying by hand but copying in what was called a scriptorium where the text would be read aloud and there were several people copying. Other times in church history they would have been under sever persecution and possessing a Biblical text was enough to have you executed much less copying it. If we can make mistakes with hand copying in our modern world with our modern conveniences then it should not be hard to imagine that the scribe in the ancient world would make mistakes.

There are several types of scribal errors that we see in the Biblical texts. This would apply to any text as well. First there are unintentional changes:

  • Spelling errors and confusing one letter with another.
  • Skipping a line or phrase, jumping to the next line or word that ended with the same letters as where the copyist left off.
  • Repeating a word.
  • Reversing word order.

Anyone who has copied any document can identify with these mistakes (even using a computer.) This is where we see the vast majority of errors in the Biblical texts. Fortunately the majority of these make no impact whatsoever in the meaning of the text (more on that later.)

Next there are intentional changes. A copyist might change the spelling of a word to conform to what he was familiar with. He might try to eliminate apparent discrepancies in the text or harmonize the gospel accounts. (Col. 1:14 & Eph. 1:7; Col. 1:2 & Eph. 1:2) A copyist may have added extra information into the text, such as the supposed name of the rich man in Luke 16:19. A copyist might add titles to show reverence and proper respect to Jesus. This is referred to as an expansion of piety. (The copyist would write “Lord Jesus Christ” instead of just “Jesus” out of reverence for God). Future scribes would copy these assuming they were corrections to the text. These are just some examples but the main point is it happened and we should not assume ill intent on the part of the scribe.

This brings us to the science of textual criticism. The goal of textual criticism is not to criticize or to find fault, but to investigate. It is the science, which seeks to discover the original text by comparing the various manuscripts available. We will discuss more about this process in upcoming lessons.

OT Manuscript Evidence:

As we have said, the process of copying the MSS was extremely different between the OT and NT. For the OT, the reliability of the MSS tradition rests on the control of the text and the extreme care taken by the scribes throughout the process. The OT text was under the exclusive stewardship of the nation of Israel. They did not evangelize like the NT church and thus their texts did not see wide distribution outside the nation. They adhered to very strict rules when making the copies. One example we have of this is the rules given to the Masoretes. This was a group of Jews who existed around the 6th – 10th century and loved the OT. They followed the following rules when copying a Biblical MSS:

  • Counting the number of times each letter of the alphabet occurred in each book.
  • Finding the middle letter of each page.
  • Counting the number of letters and words in each column.
  • Finding the middle letter of the entire Old Testament.
  • Wiping the pen after writing the word for God.
  • Washing the entire body before writing the personal name of God, YHWH.

It is very hard to make mistakes when you adhere to rules like that. Imagine being a scribe and getting halfway through the book of Isaiah and finding that the middle letter did not conform to where you were supposed to be. You would then have to destroy everything you had accomplished thus far; a very frustrating situation to be sure.

Up until the 20th century the earliest manuscripts we had of the OT were from about the 10th century, or around 1000 years after Christ and over 2000 years after the earliest OT writings. Given this expanse of time and despite the extreme care in the copying you can understand how some people would doubt that the OT had been accurately preserved. This all changed in the 1940’s with the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. These were discovered in caves in the Dead Sea region and date from about 200 to 100 BC and contain significant portions of all OT books with the exception of Esther. Thus they represent a 1000-year jump back in time from the earliest manuscripts we had at the time. If the text had been subjected to significant change over time we would expect some changes to the text yet the text remains over 95% pure with only very minor variations which do not affect the meaning of the text. The bottom line with the OT is that the controls did the job of preserving the text and making sure that later generations had the Word of God.

NT Manuscript Evidence:

The story with the transmission of the NT is very different form that of the OT and far more interesting (at least I think so.) Let me begin by pointing out that there are far more MSS available to authenticate the message of the New Testament compared with any other ancient writing. This is because the process of transmitting the NT was one of rapid expansion and proliferation of copies rather than the controlled process of the OT. The goal of NT scribes was to communicate the Gospel; thus the rapid expansion and proliferation. The reliability of the NT rests on the vast number of manuscripts and the rapid expansion of the Christianity. Not only is there significant MSS evidence, there are multiple lines of transmission. At no time in the history of the early church did there exist a central body capable of controlling the text and making sweeping changes as the critics often charge. The early church was under periods of severe persecution until the early 4th century thus there was no centralized body as would come into existence in the medieval times.

Compared to other ancient documents the NT textual evidence stands alone. The next best attested document is the Iliad, which was written around 900 BC with 643 surviving manuscripts the nearest of which being from 500 years after the original writing. The NT by comparison has much more attestation with the earliest fragmentary copies being from within 45 years of the original writing and the closest complete NT being from about 350 years after the original (being conservative on the dates.) We currently have over 5,700 MSS in Greek, 10,000 in Latin, and 9,300 in other ancient languages. Add to that 2,400 Lectionaries and 86,000 NT quotations from the early Church fathers and you have a staggering mountain of manuscript evidence for the NT when compared to any other ancient document. In fact, it is possible to reproduce the entire NT from the quotations with the exception of 11 verses from 2 and 3 John. (Thanks to Josh McDowell for compiling all that information. I still say he has too much time on his hands but we are thankful for it…)

Textual Variations:

On the issue of textual variations we see far more in the NT when compared to the OT. In fact, there is almost no dispute over the OT texts as compared to the NT. When you hear discussions about variations in the Biblical text this will almost always be referring to the NT. The fact of the matter is there are quite a few variations in the NT text. There are approximately 200,000 variants in the manuscripts. It can be rightly said that there are more variants in the NT than there are words in the NT. Often times this information is presented just like this and leaves one thinking that for every word in the NT there are two or three options for that word. However this is simply not the case. A variant occurs when one manuscript copy differs from another copy; thus it is counted again in every manuscript where it appears. So when a single word is misspelled in 3,000 manuscripts, it is counted as 3,000 variants. In reality, there are only 10,000 places where variants occur. The vast majority of these variants involves spelling and word order and do not affect the meaning of the text. In fact many of the variants cannot be translated into English. There are about 40 lines, involving some 400 words where there is uncertainty over which reading is original. This represents just one-half of one percent of the text.

Textual variations can be graded based on viability and meaning Viability refers to the chance that the variant reading is original to the text which is judged based on the MSS evidence and the witness of history. Meaning refers to the impact that the variant has on the meaning of the text. Very few variations hold a high enough degree of both these qualities to justify a change in translation. We will review some of these in the next Lesson.

Remember, the problem is not that we don’t know what the text is, but that we are not certain which text has the right reading. Because scribes were careful to copy even the mistakes in their work the NT text shows incredible tenacity. The variations were copied along with the original. This means that while we have to deal with variations in the text the original words are still there. We have 100% of the New Testament and we are sure about 99.5% of it, in essence we have a 1000 piece puzzle with 1010 pieces. There is no essential point of doctrine that rests upon a disputed reading. If we take the two manuscripts families that differ the most, Byzantine and Alexandrian for example, (more on these in the next lesson) there is still no essential Christian doctrine is disrupted or changed. Both manuscripts would teach the same doctrine and the same gospel.


The bottom line to all this is with the mountain of manuscript evidence the burden of proof is on the skeptic to show that the text has been radically altered and changed throughout history. The plain fact is that with multiple lines of transmission there would be evidence of radical changes if they occurred and there is none. This will still not convince people like Bart Ehrman who demand a photocopier quality on the NT manuscripts to prove that they are accurate. This is a standard that can be met by no document from the ancient world and is thoroughly unreasonable.

I believe that God chose to preserve His word through a copying process to avoid the exact charge that is now being unreasonably levied against the Bible; that people made changes to the Scripture early on and corrupted the Bible. However, there is no evidence to support this claim. What we are left with is an unsubstantiated idea that has been repeated so often that your average person simply assumes it to be true. The duty of the Christian apologist is to challenge this assumption and show that the evidence is on the preservation of God’s Word and not on the opposite.

God bless.

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