Is the Bible Reliable?
How do we know that the Bible we possess today is reliable and accurate?
When Greg preached from John 8, he drew our attention to the bracketed heading between John 7:52 and John 7:53, which reads, “The Earliest Manuscripts Do Not Include 7:53–8:11.”
What does that mean? Is it proof—as the skeptics would say—that the Bible is unreliable or that later scribes made changes that compromise the integrity of Scripture?
Manuscripts & Textual Criticism
We don’t have access to any autographs (or originals) for any ancient literature—not for Mark’s Gospel, Homer’s Illiad, Plato’s Republic, or Julius Caesar’s The Gallic Wars. But we do have handwritten copies called manuscripts (from manu, ‘by hand’ and scriptus, ‘written’). This is how all literature was preserved and transmitted until the invention of the printing press around AD 1439.
When you think of copies of copies of copies, you probably imagine an unreliable process like the game of telephone, where people whisper a phrase around the room. As more people handle the message, the original gets distorted into something hilarious or nonsensical.
Is that how the New Testament comes down to us? And if we don’t have the originals, how can we tell how accurate and reliable the copies are?
Textual criticism is the discipline that studies existing manuscripts to determine the best and most reliable wording from the autograph. Textual criticism exists because the autographs don’t and because there are variations between the manuscripts we do possess. Here are three basic questions that scholars use to evaluate the reliability of the manuscripts available today.
The more copies the better. More manuscripts means more content to evaluate and compare.
Most ancient texts—think Plato, Homer, Aristotle, Virgil, etc.—survive in the form of 20 copies or less. Plato’s Tetralogies is preserved in seven remaining manuscripts, and Julius Caesar’s The Gallic War Commentaries comes to us in ten copies. By far, the outlier among ancient literature is Homer’s Illiad, with 643 surviving manuscripts.
So how does the New Testament compare? There are nearly 6,000 Greek manuscripts of the New Testament available today, with another 10,000 in Latin. When we count manuscripts in Armenian, Coptic, Syriac, and other languages, the number approaches 25,000.
That is ridiculous! There are almost 39 times more manuscripts of the New Testament than of the Illiad. No other ancient work comes close to this volume.
But it gets better. If all of those manuscripts were lost or destroyed, we would still have access to ancient sources containing nearly the entire New Testament. That’s because the early church fathers quoted the New Testament so extensively that their writings and sermons preserve almost the entire text. Scholars who enjoy this kind of thing have counted over one million direct quotes from the New Testament in patristic literature.
Another important factor in determining reliability and accuracy of ancient texts is the time between a manuscript and the autograph. The earlier the better. If a copy was made a long time after the original was written, there is a greater chance that it contains errors or late changes. But if it was written close to the time of the original, it is likely more accurate.
Caesar’s Gallic Wars was originally written around 50 BC, but the earliest available manuscript was written over 900 years later. The earliest copy of Aristotle’s Poetics was made more than 1,400 years after Aristotle lived. Gaps of 400-800 years are common for the works of historians like Tacitus, Thucydides, and Herodotus. The smallest gap between authorship and manuscript is 300 years, which belongs to Virgil’s Aeneid.
What about the New Testament? The John Rylands Papyrus (known as P52) is a fragment containing parts of John 18 that has been dated as early as AD 125. Depending on when John was written, P52 was copied down a mere 35-55 years after the original. One scholar argues that P46, a copy containing much of Paul’s writings, was actually made during the first century, possibly within 20 years of Paul’s death. Even if the more widely accepted date of AD 175-225 is assumed for P46, this is still much closer to the original than any manuscript of any ancient secular work.
Scholars today have access to as many as 10 to 15 manuscripts that date from the first 100 years after the New Testament was written. Around 50 manuscripts survive from the first 200 years of the church, and 99 exist from the first 400 years. That is remarkable!
With so many manuscripts available, textual criticism can compare the variations between existing copies of the same text to measure the distortion rate and determine the most likely original wording.
Skeptics like to point out that there are lots of variants, and they’re right. In fact, there may be as many as 400,000 variants between New Testament manuscripts. While that number sounds overwhelming, most of these variants have no impact on the meaning of the text. For example, the most common kind of variation is spelling differences. This would be like one scribe writing “John” and another writing “Johnn.” Sometimes scribes used synonyms or a different word order. The way the Greek language works, however, means that these variations do not have a major effect on translation.
What about variations that might render different readings? Dr. Bruce Metzger analyzed the distortion rate of the New Testament compared to the Illiad and the Mahabharata (a Hindu religious text). He found a distortion rate of 5% for the Illiad and over 10% for the Mahabharata. Despite having many more manuscripts and thus more chance for variations, Dr. Metzger found a distortion rate of 0.2% between New Testament manuscripts.
If you’re wondering where those variations are, you can check your own Bible. They’re not covered up and concealed; they’re clearly marked so that everyday people can find them and consider them. The translation of the Bible you own gives variant readings through footnotes that begin with a phrase like, “Some manuscripts…” and followed by the alternate reading.
The most important thing about these variations is that none of them threatens or undermines any major doctrine of the Christian faith. All of the truths of the gospel can be established through passages with overwhelming manuscript evidence. This means that even though we no longer have the originals, you can be confident that the Bible you hold in your hands is a reliable record of the original.
Dr. Don Bierle, Surprised by Faith (Chaska, MN: FaithSearch International, 2003), 28-37.
Daniel B. Wallace, “The Reliability of the New Testament Manuscripts” in The ESV Study Bible (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2008), 2587-2589.