Is the Bible we have today trustworthy?
How do we know that the Bible we have today is even close to the original? Haven’t copiers down through the centuries inserted and deleted and embellished the documents so that the original message of the Bible has been obscured?
These questions are frequently asked to discredit the sources of information from which the Christian faith has developed.
Let us begin by saying that Christianity is rooted in history. Jesus was a man of history. He was counted in the Roman census, and His death was no doubt recorded in the Roman archives. What do we know about Him? We are solely dependent upon the accuracy and the validity of the sources handed down to us. But what do we know about Julius Caesar? Charlemagne? George Washington? Or any other man in history? We are dependent upon the accuracy and the validity of the sources passed to us which give information concerning their lives. Because of the magnitude of the claims of Christ, it is extremely important to establish the historical validity of the documents which relate to His life and ministry. This task of determining the original text of a document is called “textual criticism.”
II. Three errors to avoid.
A. Do not assume inspiration or infallibility of the documents, with the intent of attempting to prove the inspiration or infallibility of the documents. Do not say the Bible is inspired or infallible simply because it claims to be. This is called circular thinking.
B. When thinking of the original document, forget about the present form of your Bible, and regard the Bible as a collection of ancient source documents. They should be treated just like the documents of any other ancient historical documents or literature.
C. Do not start with modern “authorities” and then move to the documents to see if the authorities were right. Begin with the documents themselves. Conclusions must be drawn from the investigation of these.
III. Procedure for Testing a Document’s Validity.
In his book, Introduction to Research in English Literary History, C. Sanders sets forth three tests of reliability employed in general historiography and literary criticism. These tests are (1) bibliographical (i.e., the textual tradition – from original document to the copies and manuscripts of that document we possess today), (2) internal evidence, and (3) external evidence. It might be noteworthy to mention that C. Sanders is a professor of military history, not a theologian. He uses these three tests of reliability in his field of study in military history.
The Textual Tradition: (The Bibliographical test)
In the case of the New Testament documents, the first question is: “Not having the original copies of the Bible, can we reconstruct them well enough and accurately enough so that they give us a true, undistorted view of actual people, places, and events?”
IV. The Old Testament.
A. The Scribe.
The scribe was considered a professional person in antiquity. No printing presses existed, so people were trained to copy documents. The task was usually undertaken by a devout Jew. The scribes believed they were dealing with the Word of God and were therefore extremely careful in copying. They did not just hastily write things down. The earliest complete copy of the Hebrew Old Testament dates from 900 A.D.
B. The Masoretic Text.
During the early part of the 10th century (916 A.D.), there was a group of Jews called the Masoretes. These Jewish scribes were meticulous in their copying. The texts they had were all in capital letters, and there was neither punctuation nor paragraphs. The Masoretes would copy Isaiah, for example, and when they were through, they would total up the number of letters. Then they would find the middle letter of the book. If it was not the same, they made a new copy. All of the present copies of the Hebrew text which come from this period are in remarkable agreement. Comparisons of the Masoretic text with earlier Latin and Greek versions have also revealed careful copying and little deviation during the thousand years from 100 B.C. to 900 A.D.
C. The Dead Sea Scrolls.
In 1947, a Bedouin goat herdsman found some strange jars in a cave near the valley of the Dead Sea. Inside the jars were some leather scrolls. The discovery of these “Dead Sea Scrolls” at Qumran has been hailed as the outstanding archeological discovery of the 20th century. The scrolls have revealed that a commune of monastic farmers flourished in the valley from 150 B.C. to 70 A.D. When they saw the Romans invade the land, they put their leather scrolls in the jars and hid them in the caves on the cliffs west of the Dead Sea.
The Dead Sea Scrolls include a complete copy of the Book of Isaiah, a fragment copy of Isaiah, containing much of Isaiah 38-66, and fragments of almost every book in the Old Testament. The majority of the fragments are from Isaiah and the Pentateuch (Genesis – Deuteronomy). The books of Samuel, in a tattered copy, were also found, and also two complete chapters of the book of Habakkuk. There were a number of non-biblical items also discovered. They are dated around 100 B.C. The significance of the find, and particularly the copy of Isaiah, was recognized by Merril F. Unger when he said, “This complete document of Isaiah quite understandably created a sensation since it was the first major Biblical manuscript of great antiquity ever to be recovered. Interest in it was especially keen since it antedates by more than a 1,000 years the oldest Hebrew texts preserved in the Masoretic tradition.” Famous Archeological Discoveries, p. 72.
What was learned? In comparing the Qumran manuscript of Isaiah 38-66 with what we had, scholars found that “the text is extremely close to our Masoretic text. A comparison of Isaiah 53 shows that only 17 letters differ from the Masoretic text. Ten of these are mere differences in spelling, like our ‘honor’ and ‘honour’ and produce no change in the meaning at all. Four more are very minor differences, such as the presence of the conjunction, which is often a matter of style. The other 3 letters are the Hebrew word for ‘light’. This word was added to the text by someone after ‘they shall see’ in verse 11. Out of 166 words in this chapter, only this one word is really in question, and it does not at all change the sense of the passage. This is typical of the whole manuscript.” R. L. Harris, “How Reliable is the Old Testament Text?” Can I Trust My Bible? Chicago: Moody Press, 1963, p. 124.
D. The Septuagint.
The Greek translation of the Old Testament, called the Septuagint, also confirms the accuracy of the copyists who ultimately gave us the Masoretic text. It is often referred to as the LXX because it was reputedly done by 70 Jewish scholars in Alexandria around 200 B.C. The LXX appears to be a rather literal translation from the Hebrew, and the manuscripts we have are pretty good copies of the original translation.
R. L. Harris concluded, “We can now be sure that copyists worked with great care and accuracy on the Old Testament, even back to 225 B.C. …indeed, it would be rash skepticism that would now deny that we have our Old Testament in a form very close to that used by Ezra when he taught the word of the Lord to those who had returned from the Babylonian captivity” (Harris, pp. 129, 130.).
V. The New Testament.
A. The Manuscript Evidence.
1. There are more than 4,000 ancient Greek manuscripts containing all or portions of the New Testament that have survived to our time. These are written on different materials. During the early Christian era, the writing material most commonly used was papyrus. This highly durable reed was glued together much like plywood and then allowed to dry in the sun. In the last fifty years many remains of documents (both Biblical and non-Biblical) on papyrus have been discovered, especially in the dry, arid lands of North Africa and the Middle East. Another material used was parchment. This was made from the skin of sheep or goats, and was in wide use until the Middle Ages when paper began to replace it. It was scarce and more expensive; hence, it was used for important documents. There are two excellent parchment copies of the entire New Testament which date from the 4th century (325 – 450). They are the codex Vaticanus and codex Siniaticus. Earlier still, fragments and papyrus copies of portions of the New Testament date from 100 to 200 years before Vaticanus and Siniaticus. The outstanding ones are the Chester Beatty Papyrus and the Bodmer Papyrus II, XIV, XV. From these five manuscripts alone, we can construct all of Luke, John, Romans, 1st and 2nd Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1st and 2nd Thessalonians, Hebrews, and portions of Matthew, Mark, Acts, and Revelation. Only the Pastoral Epistles (Titus, 1st and 2nd Timothy) and the General Epistles (James, 1st and 2nd Peter, and 1st, 2nd, and 3rd John) and Philemon were excluded. Perhaps the earliest piece of Scripture we have is a fragment of a papyrus codex containing John 18:31-33, 37. It is called the Rylands Papyrus, which dates from 130 A.D., and was found in Egypt. The Rylands Papyrus has forced the critics to place the forth gospel back into the 1st century, and to abandon their earlier assertion that the 4th gospel was not written in the 1st century by the Apostle John. Tradition says that John wrote this gospel in Ephesus. This gospel had already found its way from Ephesus to Egypt by 120 – 130 A.D. From these facts there seems to be a bridge of papyri scraps which link the oldest copies of the entire New Testament (codexes Vaticanus and Siniaticus) back to the end of the 1st century.
In addition to the actual Greek manuscripts, there are more than 1,000 copies and fragments of the New Testament in Syriac, Coptic, Armenian, Gothic, Ethiopic, to say nothing of 8,000 copies of the Latin Vulgate, some of which date back almost to Jerome’s original translation in 384 – 400.
3. Church Fathers.
A further witness to the text is found in the thousands of quotations of the church fathers (the early Christian writers). If all of the New Testament manuscripts were to disappear overnight, we could reproduce the entire New Testament with the quotes of the church fathers, with the exception of 15 to 20 verses.
B. A Comparison.
The evidence for the early existence of the New Testament writings is clear. The wealth of materials for the New Testament becomes more evident when we compare it with other ancient documents which have been accepted without question. Consider the following chart:
NUMBER OF COPIES
58 – 50 B.C.
9 – 10
|900 A.D., 1,000 A.D.||
|900 A.D., 1,000 A.D.||
480 – 425 B.C.
50 – 90 A.D.
|Fragment, 100 – 125 A.D.Papyrii, 200 A.D.Many copies before 500 A.D.||
The same could be said of Aeschylus, Aristophanes, Sophocles, Euripedes, Plato, and Demosthenes. The time between their writing and the earliest manuscript we have of their writings ranges between 1,200 – 1,600 years. But no classical scholar would ever listen to an argument that the authenticity of Herodotus or Thucydides is in doubt because the earliest manuscripts of their works which are of any use to us are more than 1,300 years later than the originals. Compare that with the New Testament writings.
In his book, The Bible and Archaeology, Sir Frederic G. Kenyon, former director and principal librarian of the British Museum, stated, “The interval, then, between the dates of the original composition and the earliest extant evidence becomes so small as to be in fact, negligible, and the last foundation for any doubt that the Scriptures have come down to us substantially as they were written has now been removed. Both the authenticity and the general integrity of the books of the New Testament may be regarded as finally established.” Also, to be skeptical of the 27 documents in the New Testament, and to say they are unreliable is to “allow all of classical antiquity to slip into obscurity, for no document of the ancient period are as well attested bibliographically as these in the New Testament” (J. W. Montgomery, History and Christianity, p. 29).
Basically, we have the Bible which was penned by these holy men of old. B. F. Westcott and F. J. Hort, in their book, The New Testament in the Original Greek, stated, “If comparative trivialities such as changes of order, the insertion or omission of the article with proper names, and the like are set aside, the works in our opinion still subject to doubt can hardly mount to more than a thousandth part of the whole New Testament.” We have the Word of God. The small changes and variations in manuscripts change no major doctrine; they do not affect Christianity in the least. The message is the same with or without the variations.
God’s wisdom: We do not have one scrap of the original autograph. We do not have one piece of vellum or papyrus! I believe God arranged this. Because of our bent toward idolatry, we would probably worship the original documents of the Bible if it were in existence… We would make a pilgrimage to it and bow down before it.
Nor does He want us to prove its authority to non-Christians. He wants us to practice Hebrews 11:6, “ And without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him.”
The Bible was not written to satisfy our idle curiosity, but to transform our lives. Don’t argue with people about the Bible, nor try to prove its authority. Christ said, “You shall be My witnesses,” not “my scholarly apologeticists!”
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