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Study Resources :: Text Commentaries :: Don Stewart :: The Case for Christianity

Don Stewart :: The Reliability of the New Testament Text

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Chapter 4 – The Reliability of the New Testament Text

It Has Not Been Changed Throughout Time

In this chapter, we begin our case for Christianity. Before we can examine anything that the New Testament claims about Jesus, we must first establish what the writers actually said about Him. This chapter looks at the various sources used to reconstruct the text of the New Testament.

We begin our study by looking at the necessity of recovering the original text. We then consider the three sources available to us; Greek manuscripts, versions or translations, and the writings of the early Christians, or the Church Fathers.

After listing the evidence from these sources, we compare the New Testament to other ancient works as well as the writings of William Shakespeare. We will discover that the New Testament is in a class by itself.

We then move on to the subject of variations in the text, or variant readings. Our look at the evidence shows that the variations in the manuscripts have not changed or altered the message of Jesus. The conclusion we will make, from examining the evidence, is that the New Testament text is indeed trustworthy. Thus, we can read our English translations with confidence seeing that they are translating from the words which were originally written by the authors.

Part 1 – Establishing the Text of the New Testament: How We Know the Text Is Accurate

Our first order of business concerns the text of the New Testament. Is there evidence that what we read today in our modern translations is an accurate representation of what was originally written, or has the text been changed so often that we cannot trust it at all? Can we be assured that we are reading the actual words that these writers first penned, or have their writings been altered—either accidentally or on purpose? This issue is primary.

Unless we can be satisfied that the text has come down to us in an accurate manner, no reasonable case for Christianity can be established. We will discover that there is every reason to trust that the New Testament has been accurately transmitted to us.

The Study of Textual Criticism

In the first century, Greek was the international language. The books of the New Testament were originally written in the common Greek of the day called koine. Today, we do not possess the autographs (originals) of the various New Testament books but are dependent upon handwritten copies, and copies of copies to reconstruct the text. The practice of reconstructing the text of a document is known as “textual criticism.”

We must note that textual criticism is not limited to the New Testament. No originals exist of any of the Greek and Latin classics, any of the writings of the early Christians, or even the works of William Shakespeare.

The Necessity of New Testament Textual Criticism

Textual criticism of the New Testament is necessary for three basic reasons. They are as follows.

  1. We do not possess any of the original writings of the New Testament. We are dependent upon copies to reconstruct the text.
  2. Movable type was not invented until the fifteenth century. Gutenberg’s Latin Bible was printed somewhere between the years 1452 and 1456. Thus, until about five hundred years ago, all documents were copied by hand. The handwritten copies of the Greek New Testament are called manuscripts. The copies of the New Testament manuscripts we now possess differ in some respects from each other because of scribal mistakes that have crept into the text.
  3. In the case of the New Testament there is an abundance of material to evaluate.

Therefore, the lack of the originals for any of the New Testament books, the fact that the existing manuscripts differ, and the abundance of evidence that exists, makes textual criticism, with respect to the New Testament, absolutely necessary.

Furthermore, before any type of biblical interpretation can begin, we must first determine what the text originally said. We cannot determine what the text means until we first determine what it says. This is another reason for the necessity of New Testament textual criticism.

The Practice of Textual Criticism

The goal of textual criticism is to establish the original reading of the text. To accomplish this goal the textual critic sifts through the manuscripts and carefully compares them with one another. This is to ascertain, as much as it is possible, how the variations occurred. The goal of New Testament textual criticism is to recover the original text.

There Is an Abundance of Evidence to Consider

The problem with almost all ancient writings is the lack of existing manuscripts to reconstruct the text. Most ancient writings have the slimmest manuscript evidence by which scholars attempt to establish the original. In the case of the New Testament, however, there is no such problem. We are not lacking manuscripts to reconstruct the text. On the contrary, we have such an abundance of manuscripts that it makes the establishment of the text virtually certain. We can make the following observations.

There Are Three Lines of Evidence for the New Testament Text

In the case of the New Testament there are three lines of evidence available to reconstruct the original. They include:

  1. The Greek Manuscripts
  2. The Versions (Translations)
  3. The Writings Of The Church Fathers

We will consider the evidence from each of these witnesses.

The Evidence from the Greek Manuscripts

The oldest and most important evidence to reconstruct the New Testament text are the Greek manuscripts. Since the New Testament was originally written in Greek, these Greek manuscripts which have survived are the most important evidence which we have to reconstruct the true text.

We find that these manuscripts are categorized according to writing material (papyri), the style of the letters (uncial and minuscule manuscripts) and the format of the document (lectionaries).

Papyrus Manuscripts (The Papyri)

The first group of manuscripts, the papyri, is named after the type of material they were written upon; papyrus. Papyrus was cheap writing material. The English word translated “paper” is derived from the word papyrus.

Scholars are fairly certain that papyrus is the surface upon which the originals (the autographs) of the books of the New Testament were composed. Indeed, papyrus is actually mentioned in the New Testament. John wrote,

Though I have much to write to you, I would rather not use paper and ink. Instead I hope to come to you and talk face to face, so that our joy may be complete. (2 John 12 ESV)

The word translated “paper,” in this verse, is referring to papyrus. In this verse, the Greek word chartes is used. It referred to a sheet or role of papyrus. From this Greek term, comes the Latin word charta and the English words “chart,” “charter”, and “card.”

Papyrus is extremely perishable, surviving only in warm, dry climates. Thus, we are fortunate that any papyrus fragments have survived to this day. The papyrus fragments that have survived contain some of the earliest witnesses to the New Testament text. In fact, the forty-five earliest New Testament fragments we possess were written on papyri (all dating before A.D. 300). The content in these forty-five manuscripts make up about two thirds of the New Testament text.

At the turn of the twentieth century, there were only nine known papyrus fragments that contained parts of the New Testament. There are now some one hundred and fifteen and counting. These papyrus manuscripts are designated by the letter “p” followed by a superscript Arabic number (e.g. p75).

Uncials (Majuscules)

The second line of evidence to reconstruct the text of the New Testament is the uncial or inch high manuscripts. They are also called majuscules. The name uncial is derived from the inch high size of the letters. There are approximately three hundred uncial manuscripts of the New Testament which have still survived. All of them were written upon parchment (animal skins). Many of them are ornately illustrated.

We must note that all of the papyrus manuscripts which still exist are also written in uncial script. The papyrus manuscripts are catalogued separately from the uncial manuscripts because of the two different surfaces which the text was written upon; papyrus and animal skins.

Uncial writing consists of upper-case, or capital-like, letters that are deliberately and carefully written. There was no punctuation in the sentences and no space between the words. Though there is no space between the words, it is still possible to read and understand the sentence with ease.

The uncial manuscripts were basically written between the fourth and tenth centuries—there are five fragmentary uncials that date from the third century.

As a note of interest, it has been estimated that it would have taken the hides of about three hundred and sixty sheep and goats to produce Codex Sinaiaticus (a fourth century uncial manuscript that contained the entire Greek Old Testament and New Testament).

The Minuscules (Cursives)

In the ninth century A.D., uncial writing began to be replaced by a faster method known as minuscule writing. Minuscule writing was a script of smaller letters or lower case letters not as carefully executed as uncials. By using minuscule writing, books could be turned out much faster.

Minuscule writing was in use from the ninth to the sixteenth century. There are approximately two thousand eight hundred minuscule or cursive manuscripts which are known to exist.

Lectionaries

The fourth witness, to the New Testament text, are Scripture portions known as lectionaries. The church followed the custom of the synagogue which had a fixed portion of the Law and the Prophets read each Sabbath. In the same manner, Christians developed a practice where they would read a fixed portion of the gospels and the New Testament letters every Sunday as well as upon Holy Days. These fixed portions are the lectionaries. Fragments of lectionaries come from as early as the sixth century A.D., while complete manuscripts are found as early as the eighth century. About three hundred of the lectionary manuscripts were written with the upper case uncial script but the great majority of them were composed in the lower case minuscule script. There are about twenty-three hundred lectionary manuscripts which still exist.

Interestingly, the copies of the lectionaries which still exist reveal greater care in their copying than other biblical manuscripts. Because these sections of Scripture were to be read publicly, great care was taken to make certain they were copied correctly.

Cataloging the Greek Manuscripts

Therefore, we can catalogue the manuscripts into these four groupings; papyri, uncials, minuscules, and lectionaries. The surviving Greek manuscripts can then be catalogued as follows: Uncial (about 300) Minuscule (2,813), Lectionaries 2,281, Papyri (120). That would make the total about 5,500.

It is also possible to place the Greek manuscripts into two groupings; those which have the uncial writing and those which employ minuscule writing. As we have seen, the papyri, uncial manuscripts, and about three hundred lectionary manuscripts use this more formal hand-writing style while the great majority of existing manuscripts are written in the minuscule or cursive style.

One last thing should be noted about the total number of surviving manuscripts. This is not an exact number because some of the manuscripts that are counted individually actually belong to other existing manuscripts. Because of the fragmentary nature of some of the existing manuscripts, it is not certain as to whether it is a separate manuscript or whether it is part of another manuscript which has already been catalogued.

They Are Not Necessarily Complete Manuscripts

This brings us to an important point. When we speak of manuscripts, we are not necessarily speaking of complete manuscripts. For example, of 5,500 Greek manuscripts that have been catalogued, most are fragmentary. Only three of the uncials are complete. There are fifty-six minuscule manuscripts that contain the entire New Testament. Two other uncial manuscripts, and another one hundred forty-seven minuscules, contain the entire New Testament except for the Book of Revelation.

Material from the gospels is found in 2,328 manuscripts, Acts and the universal letters in another 655 manuscripts, Paul’s writings in 779 manuscripts, and the Book of Revelation in 287. No other ancient book has anywhere near the amount of manuscript testimony as the New Testament.

As far as the dates of these manuscripts are concerned, 125 of them are from the first five centuries (two and one half per cent of the total) while 65% of the manuscripts are from the 11th through 14th centuries. These manuscripts exist today in libraries, museums, and private collections all over the world.

The Evidence from the Versions (Translations)

Though the total number of surviving Greek manuscripts is larger than all other ancient works, they are not the only means available for reconstructing the original text. A second line of evidence by which the New Testament text can be established comes from the versions. Versions are translations of the different New Testament books into languages other than Greek. Ancient literature was rarely translated into another language; with the New Testament being an important exception.

From the very beginning, Christian missionaries, in an attempt to spread their faith, translated the New Testament into the various languages of the people they encountered. These translations, some made as early as the middle of the second century, give us an important witness to the text of that time.

We should also note that scholars usually reserve the term “manuscript” for Greek manuscripts of the New Testament, while the different copies of the versions are usually referred to as versional evidence or copies of versions. Thus, the word manuscript becomes something of a special term referring to the handwritten copies found only in Greek. When the copies of the versions are catalogued, again we are faced with an overwhelming number (somewhere in the neighborhood of 30,000).

Because the versions are translations from the original Greek, they are not as valuable as the Greek manuscripts in reconstructing the text. However, they are an important witness to the text’s reliability.

Comparisons of the New Testament to Other Ancient Works

When the total manuscript evidence for the New Testament text (Greek manuscripts and early translations) is compared to other ancient writings the difference is striking. Consider the following evidence.

There Are Two Questions to Consider When Reconstructing a Text

When reconstructing the text of an ancient work, two key questions need to be considered – the time span and the number of copies.

How Much Time Has Passed between Copies?

The first question deals with the time span between the date the work was completed and the earliest existing copy available to reconstruct the text. Usually, the shorter the time span the more dependable is the copy. The longer the time between the original and the copy, the more errors are apt to creep in as the text is copied and recopied.

As the above chart reveals, the time span between the composition of the New Testament and the earliest existing copy is much shorter than for these other ancient works. Using this standard of comparison, the New Testament is far superior in this regard.

How Many Copies Still Exist?

The second question that needs to be addressed concerns the number of copies, “How many copies are available to reconstruct the text?” The more copies available, the better off we are—since there is more evidence to help one decide what the original text said.

For example, if an ancient work were to come down to us in only one copy, there would be nothing with which to compare that copy. There is no way of knowing if the scribe was incompetent since it could not be checked against another copy.

As we have seen, the New Testament dwarfs all other ancient works with respect to the total number of manuscripts that still exist. With such a wealth of manuscript evidence, we have every right to assume that nothing has been lost from the original New Testament text. Yet, the Greek manuscripts and the various versions do not exhaust the lines of evidence for reconstructing how the text read.

The Evidence from the Church Fathers

A third line of evidence, used in establishing the New Testament text, are the quotations from the writings of the early Christians known as the “church fathers.” In their writings, they often quoted from the New Testament text. Every time we find a biblical quotation we have a further witness to the text.

There Is Much Early Testimony to the New Testament

For example, seven letters have survived which were written by a man named Ignatius (A.D. 70-110). In those letters he quoted from eighteen different books of the New Testament. Every time he cites Scripture, we can observe the Greek text he was using.

Consequently, the early church fathers provide us with an excellent early witness to the text. We must be careful, however, in relying too heavily on the fathers because sometimes their quotations were paraphrases (not word for word citations) of the biblical text. In addition, the manuscripts of their writings have gone through a period of copying, during which time mistakes have slipped into the text. Nevertheless, their writings remain an important witness to the New Testament.

There Is Overwhelming Testimony to the Text

The number of quotations of the church fathers is so overwhelming that, if every other source for the New Testament (Greek manuscripts, versions) were destroyed, the text could be reconstructed merely on the writings of the church fathers alone! In his book, Our Bible – How We Got It, Charles Leach relates the story of Sir David Dalrymple:

Sir David Dalrymple was wondering about the preponderance of Scripture in early writings when someone asked him. ‘Suppose that the New Testament had been destroyed, and every copy of it lost by the end of the third century, could it have been collected again from the writings of the Fathers of the second and third centuries?’ After a great deal of investigation Dalrymple concluded... ‘You remember the question about the New Testament and the Fathers? That question roused my curiosity and as I possessed all the existing works of the Fathers of the second and third centuries, I commenced to search and up to this time I have found the entire New Testament, except eleven verses.’ (Charles Leach, Our Bible – How We Got It, Chicago: Moody Press, 1898, pp. 35, 36)

Author Leo Vaganay remarked on the thorough research of the nineteenth century scholar John Burgon. He said,

Of the considerable volumes of unpublished material that Dean Burgon left when he died, of special note is his index of New Testament citations by the church Fathers of antiquity. It contains sixteen thick volumes to be found in the British Museum, and contains 86,489 quotations. (Leo Vaganay, An Introduction to the Textual Criticism of the New Testament, trans. by B.V. Miller, London: Sands and Co., 1937, p. 48)

Today, it has been estimated that we have over one million quotations of Scripture which have survived in the writings from the early Christians.

Confidently, we can say that when the evidence from the Greek manuscripts, the versions (translations), and the church fathers is considered, any impartial person cannot help but be impressed with their abundant testimony.

The Comparison of the New Testament Text to the Works of Shakespeare

We can go a step further and compare the New Testament to the works of William Shakespeare. He wrote thirty-seven plays in the seventeenth century—all after the invention of printing. The originals of Shakespeare’s plays have not survived. Therefore we are dependent upon copies to reconstruct the text. In every one of his plays there are gaps in the printed text where we do not know what was originally written. Textual scholars attempt to fill in the gaps in the printed copies by making an educated guess as to what it originally said. The New Testament, written some sixteen centuries earlier than Shakespeare, with three quarters of its history copied by hand, is in much better textual shape, needing no educated guesses to fill in the blanks.

There Is No Guesswork Needed to Establish the New Testament Text

Since we do possess so many manuscripts, we can be assured the original text has been preserved. Consequently, we never have to revert to guessing to determine what the text originally said. The great scholar of the nineteenth century, Samuel Tregelles, wrote,

We possess so many mss, [manuscripts] and we are aided by so many versions, that we are never left to the need to conjecture as the means of removing errata [mistakes]. (Samuel Tregelles, Greek New Testament, Prolegomena)

Modern day textual scholar Michael Holmes concurs. He put it this way:

The sheer volume of the information available to the New Testament textual critic makes it practically certain that the original text has been preserved somewhere among the surviving witnesses. (Michael Holmes, New Testament Criticism and Interpretation, Editors David Alan Black and David S. Dockery, Zondervan, 1991, p. 106)

The well-known textual authority, Sir Frederic Kenyon, wrote the following testimony:

The number of manuscripts of the New Testament, of early translations from it, and of quotations from it in the oldest writers of the Church, is so large that it is practically certain that the true reading of every doubtful passage is preserved in some one or other of these ancient authorities. This can be said of no other book in the world. (Sir Frederic Kenyon, Our Bible and Ancient Manuscripts, New York: Harper and Brothers, 1941, p. 55)

Clearly, the text has come down to us in an accurate manner with nothing lost in its transmission.

The Transmission of the New Testament Was Watched by Different Groups

Another important point to remember is that there were different groups interested in the proper copying of the text. From the time the New Testament text was first written there were a number of different groups in the church who had differences of belief. However, to substantiate their belief, all of these different groups appealed to the same Scriptures. Consequently they would have been vigilant in making certain that the text was not altered in any way. They would have been constantly keeping an eye on one another. This is another reason why we can be confident that nothing was added or deleted to the New Testament text.

The Variant Readings in the Text: Why Do the Manuscripts Read Differently?

Next, we deal with the often-asked question about variant readings. When two manuscripts differ on a particular word or phrase in the text, the result is known as a variant reading. The difference may be of spelling, word order, or different words used. Because of the innumerable times the New Testament has been copied in the last two thousand years, scribal errors have crept into the text. However, textual critics do not use the word “error” to describe these variations because the word error gives the wrong idea. This is why the term “variant reading” is used.

Most of the Variations Are Unintentional

The scribes who did copy the text introduced changes. These scribal changes can be broken down into two basic types: unintentional and intentional. The greatest number of the variant readings which are found in the New Testament manuscripts are unintentional variants. They could creep into the text through faulty sight, hearing, writing, memory or judgment on the part of the scribe.

There Were Some Intentional Variations

Some of the variations came about intentionally as New Testament Greek scholar J. Harold Greenlee notes,

These comprise a significant, although a much less numerous, group of errors than the unintentional changes. They derive for the most part from attempts by scribes to improve the text in various ways. Few indeed are the evidences that heretical or destructive variants have been deliberately introduced into the mss [manuscripts]. (J. Harold Greenlee, Introduction To New Testament Textual Criticism, Eerdmans, 1964, p. 66)

Thus, the intentional variations, for the most, part, were the work of scribes attempting to make the text more readable; not change the meaning.

Bruce Metzger, the great authority on New Testament textual criticism, expands upon the intentional variations. He wrote,

Other divergence’s in wording arose from deliberate attempts to smooth out grammatical or stylistic harshness, or to eliminate real or imagined obscurities of meaning in the text. Sometimes a copyist would add what seemed to him to be a more appropriate word or form, perhaps derived from a parallel passage. (Bruce Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, German Bible Society, Second Edition, 1994, p. 3, 4)

The charge is often made that copyists radically changed the text. Again, the facts speak otherwise as Michael Holmes explains the evidence:

Occasionally the text was altered for doctrinal reasons. Orthodox and heretics alike leveled this charge against their opponents, though the surviving evidence suggests the charge was more frequent than the reality. (Michael Holmes, New Testament Criticism and Interpretation, Editors David Alan Black and David S. Dockery, Zondervan, p. 103)

Therefore, the amount of intentional variation to the text was minimal. The text was carefully copied, and the Christians, who were spread out throughout the entire Roman Empire, would have made certain that changes would not be introduced.

Summary to the Variant Readings Found in the Text

With respect to the variations found in the New Testament manuscripts, most were unintentional. The few that were intentional consisted mostly of grammatical improvements. There is no evidence of any widespread altering of the text for doctrinal reasons.
There Is a Small Percentage of Variation in the Text

Furthermore, the variant readings, whether intentional or unintentional, exist only in a very limited portion of the New Testament. The practice of textual criticism, therefore, deals with this small percentage of the biblical text. Two of the greatest textual scholars who ever lived, Brooke Foss Westcott and Fenton John Anthony Hort, had this to say concerning the amount of variation in the New Testament manuscripts:

If comparative trivialities, such as changes of order, the insertion or omission of an article with proper names, and the like, are set aside, the words in our opinion still subject to doubt can hardly amount to more than a thousandth part of the whole New Testament. (B.F. Westcott and F.J.A. Hort, The New Testament in Greek, New York: MacMillan, 1957, p. 565)

Scholar B.B. Warfield made a similar claim. He wrote,

[The New Testament] has been transmitted to us with no, or next to no, variation; and even in the most corrupt form in which it has ever appeared, to use the oft-quoted words of Richard Bentley, ‘The real text of the sacred writers is competently exact.’ (Benjamin B. Warfield, Introduction to the Textual Criticism of the New Testament, seventh edition. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1907, p. 14)

Textual criticism experts, Maurice A. Robinson and William Pierpoint, note the following situation in which we find the text of the New Testament:

For over four-fifths of the New Testament, the Greek text is considered 100% certain, regardless of which textype might be favored by any critic. This undisputed bulk of the text reflects a common pre-existing archetype (the autograph), which has universal critical acceptance.
Note...that most of the variant readings found in manuscripts of other textypes are trivial or untranslatable. Only about 400-600 variant readings seriously affect the translational sense of any passage in the entire New Testament. (Maurice A. Robinson, William Pierpoint, The New Testament In The Original Greek According To The Byzantine/Majority Text Form, Atlanta, The Original Word Publishers, 1991, p. xvi. and xvii)

Therefore, when all the variants of the New Testament are considered we are only dealing with four hundred to six hundred places that have any affect on the translation of the text.

Only Fifty Variants Are Important

Church historian Phillip Schaff estimated that of the four hundred variants that have affected the sense of the passages in the New Testament, only fifty of these were actually important (Phillip Schaff, Companion to the Greek New Testament and the English Version, 1877, p. 177).

Facts like this led textual scholars Kurt and Barbara Aland to make the following observations concerning the text of the New Testament:

On the whole it must be admitted that statements about the text of the New Testament whether by amateurs or by specialists, have far too rarely reflected an overall perspective. All too frequently the focus has been on variants found in particular manuscripts or editions. This is true for even the most fundamental aspects of textual criticism; when identifying the text type of a manuscript it is all too easy to overlook the fact that the Byzantine Imperial text and the Alexandrian Egyptian text, to take two examples that in theory are diametrically opposed to each other, actually exhibit a remarkable degree of agreement, perhaps as much as 80 percent! Textual critics themselves, and New Testament specialists even more so, not to mention laypersons, tend to be fascinated by differences and to forget how many of them are due to chance or normal scribal tendencies, and how rarely significant variants occur—yielding to the common danger of failing to see the forest for the trees. (Kurt Aland and Barbara Aland, The Text of the New Testament, 1987, p. 28)

This is so important to understand. Whatever manuscript tradition we use as the basis for our translation, the outcome will be basically the same because the text is basically the same. Whether one prefers to use the Byzantine text type, which is found in the greatest number of manuscripts, or the Alexandrian text type, which has fewer but older manuscripts, the final result will be more or less the same. They all tell the same story!

Textual scholar Michael Holmes concurs in this assessment. He writes,

Indeed, in view of the attention that is rightly focused on the places where the evidence differs, it is worth noting just how much of the New Testament is well established. A survey by the Alands reveals that out of the 7,947 verses in the Greek New Testament, seven major editions are in complete agreement regarding 4,999, or 62.9% (Aland, text, p. 28-29). If one were to leave aside certain idiosyncrasies and minor differences between these editions, it may be estimated where there is substantial agreement approaches 90% of the total. To be sure, the remaining differences can be substantial and important, and fully merit the attention given to them over the centuries by the textual critics. One should not neglect, however, to keep them in perspective, especially as people unacquainted with textual matters are sometimes shocked to encounter statements to the effect that “there are over 30,000 errors in the New Testament.” The statements are uninformed and inaccurate. If one defines “error” broadly enough, to include, e.g., spelling mistakes or differences, then it is true that there are tens of thousands of “errors” among the 5000 + manuscripts of the New Testament. But this hardly affects the reliability of the New Testament itself, since wherever some MSS are in error, other have accurately preserved the original text. (Michael Holmes, New Testament Criticism and Interpretation, Editors David Alan Black and David S. Dockery, Zondervan, 1991, pp. 127, 128, note 21)

This is another crucial point to understand. The thousands upon thousands of variants in the New Testament manuscripts are in direct proportion to the number of manuscripts which exist. Thus, the only reason that there are so many variants is because of the enormous number of manuscripts which we have to investigate. Furthermore, though the variants do exist, there also exists a way to correct the copying mistakes through comparing the manuscripts with each other.

Therefore, we must keep the issue of the variants in the text in proper perspective. If one reads the various printed editions of the Greek New Testament, whether it be the text behind the King James Version of 1611, the so-called Textus Receptus or the latest printed text of the New Testament from the United Bible Society, the differences are miniscule compared to the places where they agree. We go into great detail on these and other related issues in our book, “The Words Of The Bible: How We Know They Were Accurately Transmitted.”

None of the Variants Affect Christian Doctrine

Since the variants do not materially affect the meaning of the text, Christian doctrine is not affected by textual variations. The introduction to the Revised Standard Version of the Bible declares the following about the text.
It will be obvious to the careful reader that still in 1946 as in 1881 and 1901, no doctrine of the Christian faith has been affected by the revision, for the simple reason that, out of the thousands of variant readings in the manuscripts, none has turned up thus far that requires a revision of Christian doctrine. (F.C. Grant, “An Introduction to the Revised Standard Version of the New Testament,” The New Testament: Revised Standard Version, Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1946, p. 42)

New Testament scholar F.F. Bruce concurs with this finding. He wrote,

The variant readings about which any doubt remains...affect no material question of historic fact or of Christian faith and practice. (F.F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable?, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1954, p. 178)

We can rightly conclude that the variations in the different manuscripts have no affect whatsoever on the reliability of the text or upon Christian theology.

Some of the Disputed Passages in the New Testament

We mentioned there were only about fifty passages where variants really affect the meaning. We will now consider a few of these disputed passages to get an idea of the issues.

The passages where the readings are disputed can be broken down into two different categories. First, there are passages that are questionable as to whether they belong in the New Testament. Second, there are verses that everyone agrees belong, but there is a question as to exactly how the verse should be worded.

Are These Passages Omitted or Added?

First, there are passages that are questionable as to whether they belong in Scripture; it is not certain whether they were original with the New Testament authors or that they were added later either intentionally or unintentionally. They include the following.

Matthew 6:13

There is the famous doxology at the end of the Lord’s Prayer. It reads,

“For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.” (Matthew 6:13b NKJV)

Most scholars believe this was not an original part of the Lord Prayer but rather was added later by scribes. However, there are some who do believe that these are the words of Jesus and are not a later addition to the text.

Mark 16:9-20

The last twelve verses of Mark contain an account of the appearances of Jesus after His death. Is this passage original with Mark, or was it added later? While most scholars believe that these verses are not original with Mark there are some who still argue for the authenticity of this passage. Indeed, a recent study contends that these verses are the only part of Mark that was actually composed by Mark himself. The ancient evidence consistently says that Mark wrote down Peter’s account of the life and ministry of Jesus. It is possible that what we have in Mark’s gospel is the transcribing of actual speeches given by Peter in which he explained the life and ministry of Jesus. Peter’s oral account ended at verse eight. The last twelve verses of Mark were actually written by Mark himself to complete the story.

John 5:3-4

In John 5:3-4 there is a parenthetical explanation of why people were waiting at the pool of Bethesda to be healed. It reads as follows:

...waiting for the moving of the water. For an angel went down at a certain time into the pool and stirred up the water; then whoever stepped in first, after the stirring of the water, was made well of whatever disease he had. (John 5:3b-4 NKJV)

As is true with the other passages, there are scholars who accept this reading as an original part of John’s gospel while others believe it was a later addition to explain why the people were waiting at the pool to be healed.

John 7:53-8:11

John 7:53-8:11 is the famous story of Jesus forgiving the woman who was caught in the act of adultery and then brought before Jesus. The Bible says,

And everyone went to his own house. But Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. Now early in the morning He came again into the temple, and all the people came to Him; and He sat down and taught them. Then the scribes and Pharisees brought to Him a woman caught in adultery. And when they had set her in the midst, they said to Him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in adultery, in the very act. Now Moses, in the law, commanded us that such should be stoned. But what do You say?” This they said, testing Him, that they might have something of which to accuse Him. But Jesus stooped down and wrote on the ground with His finger, as though He did not hear. So when they continued asking Him, He raised Himself up and said to them, “He who is without sin among you, let him throw a stone at her first.” And again He stooped down and wrote on the ground. Then those who heard it, being convicted by their conscience, went out one by one, beginning with the oldest even to the last. And Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst. When Jesus had raised Himself up and saw no one but the woman, He said to her, “Woman, where are those accusers of yours? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said to her, “Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.” (John 7:53-8:11 NKJV)

This particular passage shows up in several different places in the existing manuscripts of the New Testament. Whether or not it is original with John, almost all scholars agree that this is an actual story of a confrontation between Jesus and the religious leaders.

Acts 8:37

There is a verse in the Book of Acts which contains the answer of Philip to the Ethiopian Eunuch after the Eunuch asked if he could be baptized:

Then Philip said, “If you believe with all your heart, you may.” And he answered and said, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.” (Acts 8:37 NKJV)

This verse may have been added later to the text in Acts to conform to the way the early church practiced water baptism. The person administering baptism would ask for a confession of faith in Jesus and the one being baptized would testify to his or her faith in Christ.

1 John 5:7

There is also the famous Trinitarian statement of 1 John 5:7. It reads as follows:

For there are three that bear witness in heaven: the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit; and these three are one. (1 John 5:7 NKJV)

This passage is a clear statement of the Trinity. However the doctrine of the Trinity—there is one God who is manifest in three distinct Persons—is not based upon this verse alone. The doctrine of the Trinity is taught throughout the entire New Testament. Of these questionable passages we have considered, this particular passage has the weakest claim to be authentic. Very few scholars would argue for its authenticity.

To sum up, these passages are not found in some important manuscripts of the New Testament. Whether or not they belong in the New Testament does not affect Christian belief. There is no Christian doctrine which stands or falls on any of these passages.

Some Disputed New Testament Readings

There is a second group of passages where it is certain that the verse belongs; yet the particular reading of that verse is in doubt. The following are examples of this type of variant.

John 1:18

The question here is, “Does the Greek text read Son or God?” We’ll look at three different ways this verse is translated. They are as follows.

The King James Version says,

No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him. (John 1:18 KJV)

The New International Version puts it this way:

No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known. (John 1:18 NIV)

The New American Standard Bible says,

No man has seen God at any time; the only begotten God, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him. (John 1:18 NASB)

This is a notoriously difficult passage. Not only is there a question as to whether Jesus is called the “Son” or whether He is called “God” there is also the issue as how to understand the word translated “begotten” or “one and only.” The New English Translation understands the word to be a third description of Jesus. They translate the verse as follows:

No one has ever seen God. The only one, himself God, who is in closest fellowship with the Father, has made God known. (John 1:18 NET)

Therefore, according to the New English Translation, Jesus is the “only one,” “himself God,” and “is in closest fellowship with the Father;” three different descriptions.

We go into this issue into further detail in our section on the “Deity of Christ.” In addition, we delve into this issue in extensive detail in our book, “The Words Of The Bible: How We Know They Were Accurately Transmitted.”

John 7:8

Did Jesus say, “I am not going up” or “I am not yet going up.” Again, we will look at the way various versions translate this verse.

The New American Standard Bible says,

“Go up to the feast yourselves; I do not go up to this feast because My time has not yet fully come.” (John 7:8 NASB)

The New International Version reads,

“You go to the Feast. I am not yet going up to this Feast, because for me the right time has not yet come.” (John 7:8 NIV)

The New King James Version says,

“You go up to this feast. I am not yet going up to this feast, for My time has not yet fully come.” (John 7:8 NKJV)

The question is whether Jesus said He would not go up at all to Jerusalem for the feast or that He would not go up at that time with his brothers. The existing manuscripts differ as to what He said.

1 Timothy 3:16

The question in this passage concerns the reading of one word. Is it God or He?

The King James Version sees this verse as referring to the Deity of Jesus Christ. It says,

...God was manifest in the flesh... (1 Timothy 3:16b KJV)

The New American Standard Bible reads,

...He who was revealed in the flesh... (1 Timothy 3:16b NASB)

The New International Version says,

...He appeared in a body... (1 Timothy 3:16b NIV)

Most scholars today believe that the original reading was not “God” but rather “He.” In other words, it is not a confessional statement that God was manifest in the flesh. Scholars have come to this conclusion, not because they want to deny the Deity of Christ, but rather because they believe the evidence is stronger for the other reading. However, there are some scholars who still argue for “God” as the correct reading in this passage.

Again, we go into this issue in a little more detail in our section on the Deity of Christ and go into this question in extensive detail in our book, “The Words Of The Bible: How We Know They Were Accurately Transmitted.”

Observations and Summary on Variant Readings

Therefore, after examining the evidence, we can summarize the evidence of the variant readings in the following manner: 80-85% of the text reads exactly the same, no matter what manuscript tradition is followed. Of the 15-20% that has any variations, 99% of these are meaningless and do not affect the translation of the text. Thus, there are only about 400-600 places in the entire New Testament where translation is affected by a variant reading. Of these only about fifty have any real importance. Finally, no Christian doctrine is affected, one way or the other, in these fifty variants. Thus the variants have no real affect on the meaning of the text.

Summary and Conclusion to the Reliability of the New Testament Text

After looking at the evidence for the reliability of the New Testament text, we can make the following summary statements:

  1. The time span between the date of the composition of the books of the New Testament and the earliest surviving manuscripts is relatively short. Most other ancient works have a much longer gap between the time when they were written and the earliest available manuscript.
    There is in existence a complete New Testament manuscript (Codex Vaticanus) which was copied within two hundred and fifty years of the time of the writing of the New Testament. In addition, we have over about fifty fragments of the New Testament that go back even earlier. These fragments contain about two thirds of the New Testament next. The classical writings (Plato, Aristotle, etc.) are viewed as having been transmitted in a reliable manner, yet, the time span, between the original and their earliest copy, is over a thousand years. The New Testament documents, if evaluated on the same basis, also must be viewed as trustworthy.
  2. Not only is the interval shorter between the writings of the New Testament and the earliest existing manuscripts, the number of manuscripts (over 5,000 in Greek) is far superior to any other ancient work. Given the axiom, “The more manuscripts, the better chance to reconstruct the original,” we again see that the New Testament is in much better shape than other ancient works.
  3. The Greek New Testament was translated into other languages at an early date. Those versions provide further evidence in establishing the true text. The number of manuscript copies of the different versions is around 20,000 and may be as high as 30,000. Most other ancient writings were never translated into another language.
  4. A further line of evidence is found in the writings of the church fathers, where verses, passages and entire books are cited. If the other sources for the New Testament were non-existent (Greek manuscripts and versions) the text still could be reconstructed through the writings of the church fathers alone. There is nothing like this for any other ancient work. There are over one million citations of the New Testament from the writings of the early Christians.
  5. It should be remembered that there were different groups who carefully watched the transmission of the New Testament text. These groups were opposed to one another in various beliefs and practices. They would certainly be watching each other to make sure the text was not altered in any way.
  6. The variant readings that do exist, do not affect the reliability of the text. The number of places where there are variants is relatively small and they do not affect any Christian doctrine. In fact, there are only about fifty places in the entire New Testament where they are of any consequence whatsoever.
  7. Therefore, three important facts demonstrate the New Testament can be trusted. They are:
    1. The short time span between the originals and the manuscript copies
    2. The great number of manuscripts, and
    3. The lack of any substantial variation between the manuscripts.

Given the above facts, we conclude that the New Testament has been accurately transmitted throughout history. Any contrary conclusion is based either on a willful desire not to accept the evidence as it stands, or ignorance of the facts.

Sir Frederic Kenyon, former keeper of ancient manuscripts and director of the British Museum, was an authority second to none on manuscript evidence. After a lifetime of study of ancient documents he came to the following conclusions:

The interval between the dates of the original composition [of the New Testament] and the earliest extant [existing] 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. (Sir Frederic Kenyon, The Bible and Archaeology, New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1940, p. 288)

The reliable transmission of the New Testament is absolutely necessary for establishing the case for Christianity. However, the fact that the New Testament has been reliably brought down to us does not mean that it is the Word of God; it doesn’t even mean that what it says is true. It is possible for someone to accurately record the ravings of a madman.

However, to be true, and to be the Word of God it must be accurately transmitted for us and we have established that this is the case.

Therefore, since the New Testament has showed itself to be transmitted reliably, we now move to our next issue—the history that it records.

Introducing the Case for Christianity ← Prior Section
The Historical Accuracy of the New Testament Next Section →
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