Has the Text of the Bible Been
Accurately Preserved?
 

by CHARLIE H. CAMPBELL
Director of The Always Be Ready Apologetics Ministry
© Copyright 2014


Author of Scrolls and Stones: Compelling Evidence
the Bible Can Be Trusted

 

Critics of the Bible commonly say its words have been translated and copied so many times down through the centuries we can’t trust what it says today—even if the Bible was once trustworthy. Well, as popular as this belief may be, it’s a mistaken one. Allow me to show you why scholars know that to be the case. I’ll start with a simple illustration.

Let’s say for Christmas I send you a Christmas card and inside I include for you a hand written 3” by 5” card with my favorite chocolate chip cookie recipe. We’ll call it “Charlie’s Chocolate Chip Cookie Concoction.” Now, you have the original penned by the author, right? Right.

A short time later, you make the cookies for family and friends gathered at your home for a Christmas party and they love them. So, you copy the recipe by hand on to 3” by 5” cards for all twenty of your guests. They love the cookies so much, soon after they do the same thing. They hand write a bunch of copies of the recipe and send them to all their friends. This repeats itself over and over for decades.

Five hundred years from now “Charlie’s Chocolate Chip Cookie Concoction” has spread to countries all over the world. The year is 2514 when someone discovers the recipe for the first time. He’s flabbergasted with how good the cookies taste but begins to wonder if his copy of the recipe is an accurate reflection of what the original said hundreds of years before. So, what does he do? He grabs his Indiana Jones hat (yes, the movie is still loved) and begins searching the world high and low for other copies of the recipe. He goes to libraries, museums, and restaurants gathering up old copies of the recipe. He spends hundreds of hours looking through Internet databases. In the end, he’s discovered and acquired hundreds of handwritten copies of the recipe in different languages from all over the world.

With expensive dating equipment he finds out that many of the copies are hundreds of years old, some much newer. A few are slightly different than others. Most say “stir.” A few say “mix.” Most say, “Use one teaspoon of vanilla.” A couple say, “Use one tablespoon of vanilla.” Some reverse the order of a word or two. Many have a word or two misspelled. Most say bake at 300 degrees, but a few say 30 degrees. Some are torn. Some of the oldest copies are pretty beat up, but a lot of them are in very good condition.

Now that the collector’s search has ended, he’s determined to know if his first copy of the recipe accurately reflects what the original said. He’s got hundreds of copies laid out on tables before him. Question for you: What do you think the chances are he could do that? Pretty good, right?

What if he was to have the help of hundreds of experts (chefs, historians, language specialists, etc.)? Well, of course the chances the wording of the original could be known would increase even more. It would be easy for these experts to spot obvious slips of the pen that exist in some of the copies. The experts have hundreds of copies to compare and cross-check with one another. And of course, who bakes cookies at 30 degrees? This would easily be recognized as an unintentional copyist error.

Now, why the story about a cookie recipe? Well, it helps illustrate what scholars called textual critics have been able to do with the Bible. Textual critics are people who seek to reconstruct the reading of ancient documents that no longer exist using existing manuscript copies.

Over the centuries, textual critics and Bible scholars have gathered together surviving manuscript copies of the Bible and spent years examining them, comparing them with one another, seeking to increase our certainty of what the original documents said. And these scholars don’t just have a few hundred manuscripts at their disposal, they have thousands and thousands!

Today there survives more than 25,000 partial and complete handwritten manuscript copies of the New Testament, many dating back to within the first century or two following Jesus’s life. [1] We also possess thousands of manuscript copies of Old Testament books—many of them predating the time of Christ. Did you know that? There are handwritten copies of the Old Testament, copied by scribes prior to Jesus’s birth, that still survive to this day!

THE DEAD SEA SCROLLS

In 1947 a shepherd boy tending his father’s flock in Qumran, north and to the west of the Dead Sea in Israel, made an amazing discovery while looking for a lost goat. There in Qumran, in a hillside cave that had laid untouched for nearly two thousand years, this twelve-year-old Muslim boy discovered a collection of large clay jars containing carefully wrapped leather manuscripts. What this boy stumbled upon was an ancient collection of handwritten copies of the Old Testament that dated as far back as the third century before Christ. [2] This was an incredible discovery!

Archaeologists spent years searching the surrounding caves. By the time they were done, copies of every book of the Old Testament had been discovered (with the exception of the Book of Esther). In some cases there were multiple copies of the same book. For example, there were nineteen copies of the Book of Isaiah, twenty-five copies of Deuteronomy and thirty copies of the Psalms. [3]

SKEPTIC: “Hold on Charlie. How do they know the Dead Sea Scrolls were really that old?”

Good question. The great archaeologist Dr. William F. Albright and other scholars determined the age of the scrolls by carefully examining the weave and pattern of the manuscript cloths, the form of the Hebrew characters, the spelling of the words, and the pottery that housed the manuscripts. The clay jars were Late Hellenistic (c. 150–63 BC) and Early Roman (c. 63 BC to AD 100). They also examined the coins found alongside the manuscripts. The inscriptions on the coins showed that they were minted between 135 BC and AD 68. [4] And, more recently, accelerator mass spectrometry testing was done on the scrolls at the University of Arizona, again confirming their antiquity. [5]

The Dead Sea Scrolls and hundreds of other manuscripts dating back to the time of the early church, have allowed Biblical scholars, translators, and textual critics to recover with a very high degree of certainty the text of the Bible that Jesus quoted and the early Christians used 2000 years ago.

If you’d like to, you can see these manuscripts with your own eyes at the British Museum, Cambridge University Library, Oxford University, the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, and even online at the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts website. [6] And if you know a little Greek or Hebrew, you can look at these manuscripts and see what they said all the way back in the first, second, and third centuries and compare them with what the Bible says today. And you’ll discover the Bible says the same thing today it did long ago. Are there some tiny spelling variations, slips of the pen, and grammatical mistakes in some of the manuscripts? Yes. Are there accidental omissions and additions in some of them? Yes. Are there different arrangements of the words in some? Yes. But none of these variants have kept scholars from being able to reconstruct what the original documents said. [7]

Remember, even when a manuscript copy has errors in it, there are thousands of other manuscripts to cross-check it with. And none of these spelling errors, word additions, or omissions ever affect “an article of faith or a precept of duty which is not abundantly sustained by other and undoubted passages, or by the whole tenor of Scripture teaching." [8]  Even the vocal critic of the Bible, Bart Ehrman, author of the New York Times bestseller Misquoting Jesus, acknowledges this. Tucked away in the back of the paperback edition of his book (when and where few readers would notice!), Ehrman acknowledges, “Essential Christian beliefs are not affected by textual variants in the manuscript tradition of the New Testament." [9] See that? Not affected he says. Had he stated that up front in the introduction of his book when it was first released, the book would have never made the best-seller list. We probably wouldn’t even know who Ehrman was. But alas, it appears the temptation to be sensational was too much.

Bible Evidence apologetics

QUOTATIONS BY THE CHURCH FATHERS

Now, it’s also important to point out that even if we did not have any surviving manuscript copies of the Bible, there is another way of verifying we have accurate copies of the Bible, and that is by examining the writings of the early church fathers. I’m referring to the leaders in the church of the first three centuries following the original disciples. Men like Ignatius, Papias, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Polycarp, and others preserved the Bible for us in their writings, commentaries, and sermons. How? By including numerous quotations of the Bible in what they wrote. In fact, they quoted the New Testament alone more than 86,000 times. [10] If you count the quotations of the church fathers up through the thirteenth century, there are more than a million quotations. [11] And here’s something a lot of people don’t realize. Many of the church fathers’ writings survive to this day! You can go to Amazon.com and buy an encyclopedic size set of the writings of the church fathers (38 volumes) and see with your own eyes their numerous quotations of both the Old and New Testaments.

In fact, there are enough quotations from the early church fathers that even if we did not have a single surviving manuscript copy of the Bible, we could still reconstruct the New Testament today just from their writings. Dr. Norman Geisler, author of 80 plus books on the Bible and related topics, says, “It is an amazing fact that the New Testament could be reconstructed simply from quotations made within two hundred years of its composition." [12]

The internationally renowned textual critic and Bible scholar at Princeton, Dr. Bruce Metzger agreed, “Indeed, so extensive are these citations that if all other sources for our knowledge of the text of the New Testament were destroyed, they would be sufficient alone for the reconstruction of practically the entire New Testament." [13]

Dr. Daniel Wallace, Executive Director of the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts, adds: “The whole New Testament is duplicated more than once in these [pre-thirteenth century] church fathers’ writings." [14]

Scrolls Apologetics

So, the church fathers’ quotations serve as an additional verification that we have accurate copies of the Bible in our possession today.

Friend, the fact that the Scriptures are still intact after more than two thousand years of transmission should not come as a surprise. Isaiah 40:8 says, “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God stands forever.” Jesus declared in Matthew 24:35, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will not pass away.” Heaven and Earth will pass away before such a thing would happen to God’s Word.

SKEPTIC: “This is all food for thought, but if God exists and is so eager for us to know the Bible, why didn’t He just miraculously preserve the original documents the authors penned? Then we could know for certain that the Biblical text came down to us in a trustworthy manner!”

That’s a fair question. The original documents (known as autographs) were written on leather scrolls, papyrus, and other materials that wouldn’t last indefinitely. And so, yes, to our knowledge, none of the originals actually survive. They likely wore out through much use and turned to dust before the end of the third century. [15] But why didn’t God miraculously preserve the originals?

Well, I don’t know why God does or doesn’t do certain things. He certainly could have preserved the originals. But I think God may have allowed the originals to disappear so that we could actually be more certain we have trustworthy copies of the Bible.

Let’s imagine Paul’s original letter to the Romans was allowed to survive and was in someone’s possession today. Because of its importance and value, it has been locked up in a climate-controlled underground vault at some European seminary where’s it gone unseen by the public since the time of the Council of Nicea (AD 325).

The person or persons who had oversight of an original like this could prevent others from seeing it, hinder people from copying it, and even change it or manipulate what it says. And who would know of the changes? Perhaps no one except those doing the changing. And then the people who had the original could one day unlock the vault, call in the Discovery Channel—they’re always game for a story that might overturn Christianity—then spring the “original” upon the world and reveal that Paul advocated something completely contrary to what the original actually said. That wouldn’t be good.

But, if Paul’s original letter to the Romans is quickly copied numerous times all the way back in the first century and these copies are then spread all over the ancient world, and then Paul’s original writing crumbles into dust, there’s no way a person could alter Paul’s original intent. Someone might try to sneak a bit of heresy into a manuscript copy, but the hundreds of other copies in circulation would quickly allow the churches to cross-check and compare the questionable copy with other more reliable copies. And the variants (whether they were just small slips of the pen, grammatical errors, or something more serious like word additions or omissions) would be exposed for what they were—not part of the original.

There’s another reason God may have allowed the autographs to wear out and disappear. Dr. Michael Kruger, author of the book Gospel Fragments, summarized the problem when he wrote, “One can imagine how easily (and quickly) such documents would become objects of veneration, if not worship. They might have become the equivalent of Gideon’s ephod (Judges 8:27)—a good gift the people begin to treat as an idol." [16]

Whatever reasons God has for allowing the autographs to disappear, the bottom line is this—we can be confident we have accurate copies of the Bible without them.

SKEPTIC: “Well, if we have accurate copies of the Bible today, they would only be accurate copies of the one the Roman Emperor Constantine (c. 275–337) tampered with! When he ascended to power, he had the content of the Bible changed to make sure it supported his political agenda.”

Unfortunately, many people were led to think this after reading the hugely popular but error-riddled novel The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown. [17] But friend, this idea that Constantine altered the text of the Bible is completely false. There’s not a particle of tangible data to support it. Ed Strauss, author of Why Should I Believe the Bible? points out:

There’s absolutely no evidence that the Roman Empire changed the Scriptures. In fact, when they [critics of the Bible who raise this objection] are asked which parts of the text the Romans changed, most critics are at a loss for words. A logical assumption is that the Romans would have added passages like Romans 13:1–7, which commands Christians to be subject to the government, to not resist those in authority, to pay taxes, and to consider the authorities “God’s ministers.” Presumably, they would also have added 1 Peter 2:13–17 (or beefed it up if it existed), which admonishes Christians to submit to every law of man, and to “honor the king [Caesar].” The problem with this theory, however, is that the Bible as we have it today can be checked against earlier copies of the scriptures. Constantine became a Christian in AD 312 and in AD 331 ordered Eusebius to provide fifty Bibles for churches. However, copies of the scriptures exist from before these dates. The Beatty Papyrus P46 contains Romans 13, which is identical to the text we have today. Scholars date it to AD 175–225—at least eighty years before Constantine became a Christian. As for Peter’s commands, the Bodmer Papyrus P72 contains the entire book of 1 Peter—including the passage 2:13–17. This document dates to AD 200, some 112 years before Constantine’s conversion. The full collections of the Beatty and the Bodmer papyri contain the majority of the New Testament, and no changes that can be construed as “Roman” are evident between these and post-Constantine copies. The conclusion: The Romans didn’t entertain such motives and didn’t take such actions. [18]

It’s also worth noting if Constantine or the Roman government had ever tampered with the Bible, the church fathers alive at the time and in the decades to follow would certainly have mentioned it in their writings. And they don’t. Not a word. Because it never happened!

SKEPTIC: “Maybe Constantine didn’t tamper with the text of the Bible directly, but he’s the one who determined what books belonged in the Bible. And he purposely left out books that contradicted his view of what Christianity should look like.”

This is absolutely not true. Constantine had nothing to do with which books were included in the Bible. The Old Testament was done, compiled, and in wide circulation amongst the Jews long before Jesus was even born, and certainly long before the time of Constantine (c. 275–337). As for the New Testament, its formation began by the end of the first century. By the end of the second century, the complete canon of Scripture exactly as we have it today was popularly recognized and already being quoted by the church fathers nearly a hundred years before Constantine was even born.

For more on the manuscript evidence and how believers recognized which books God determined should be included in the Bible, I recommend the following books:

•  From God to Us: How We Got the Bible (2012 ed.) by Norman Geisler and William Nix
•  Who Chose the Gospels? by C. E. Hill
•  The Canon of Scripture by F. F. Bruce
•  The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? by F. F. Bruce
•  The Old Testament Documents: Are They Reliable and Relevant? by Walter C. Kaiser
•  Revisiting the Corruption of the New Testament by Daniel Wallace (editor)

•  Misquoting Truth: A Guide to the Fallacies of Bart Ehrman’s
Misquoting Jesus by Timothy Paul Jones

 Charlie-Campbell

CHARLIE H. CAMPBELL (Twitter: @charlieabready)

Charlie Campbell is the Director of the Always Be Ready Apologetics Ministry and a popular guest speaker at churches and conferences. He is the author of numerous articles, books, and DVDs, including:

•  Scrolls & Stones: Compelling Evidence the Bible Can Be Trusted
•  Evidence for the Existence of God
•  One Minute Answers to Skeptics
•  Archaeological Evidence for the Bible
•  The End Times: Ten Upcoming Events in Bible Prophecy
•  The Case for the Resurrection

•  Teaching and Preaching God's Word

His DVDs and books have been endorsed by Norman Geisler, Charles Colson, Chuck Smith, Ed Hindson, Nancy Leigh DeMoss, Jeremy Camp, and many others.


NOTES:

1. Daniel Wallace notes that altogether, there are currently more than 2.6 million pages of New Testament manuscripts. The average Greek NT manuscript is more than 450 pages long! Wallace, Revisiting the Corruption of the New Testament, 28.

2. Walter Kaiser, The Old Testament Documents (2001), 41.

3. Mark Water, Encyclopedia of Bible Facts (2004), 138.

4. Edwin Yamauchi, The Stones and the Scriptures: An Introduction to Biblical Archaeology (1981), 129.

5. See the article “Radiocarbon Dating of Fourteen Dead Sea Scrolls” online here: https://journals.uair.arizona.edu/index.php/radiocarbon/article/viewFile/1537/1541. For more on the dating of the Dead Sea Scrolls, see Norman Geisler and William Nix, From God to Us: How We Got Our Bible (2012), 201–202.

6. csntm.org

7. And remember, these variants do nothing to harm the doctrine of inerrancy, for as Norman Geisler writes, inerrancy “does not mean that every copy and translation of the Bible is perfect. God breathed out the originals, not the copies, so inerrancy applies to the original text, not to every copy.” Baker Encyclopedia of Apologetics (1999), 93.

8. Lewis Sperry Chafer, Systematic Theology, Vol. 1 (1976), 88.

9. Bart Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus (Paperback edition, appendix), 252. Italics added.

10. This number was calculated by Oxford professor John William Burgon. See Josh McDowell, “Hasn’t the New Testament Changed?”http://www.josh.org/resources/study-research/answers-to-skeptics-questions/hasnt-the-new-testament-changed. For more on Burgon, see: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/burgon.

11. Daniel Wallace, Revisiting the Corruption of the New Testament (2011), 28.

12. Norman Geisler and William Nix, From God to Us: How We Got Our Bible (2012), 218.

13. Bruce Metzger and Bart Ehrman, The Text of the New Testament (2005), 126.

14. Daniel Wallace, “The Value and Problems of Church Fathers,” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3OZKCHVi79A. Statement is made at 1:09.

15. Daniel Wallace has an excellent article on how long the autographs likely survived and the early church fathers’ references to them. See “Did the Original New Testament Manuscripts Still Exist in the Second Century?” https://bible.org/article/did-original-new-testament-manuscripts-still-exist-second-century.

16. Michael Kruger, “The Difference Between Original Autographs and Original Texts,” http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/tgc/2013/05/15/the-difference-between-original-autographs-and-original-texts.

17. I address many of the outrageous, unfounded, provably false claims in the book here: Da Vinci Code Examined.18. Ed Strauss, Why Should I Believe the Bible? (2013), 162–163.

 

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