Defending the Textual Reliability of the New Testament: Pt. 1

Are critics correct when they claim that the Bible was re-written and tampered with over the course of hundreds of years? How reliably has the New Testament been transmitted over time? In this article, we’ll look at some introductory facts that lay the basis for our defense.

Many ill-informed critics of Christianity claim that the Bible was transmitted poorly over time, resulting in serious changes and omissions that would make any believer tremble. This is hardly a stretch of the truth as many believers have left the faith due to the overwhelming fear that their Bibles could be wrong. If the Bible is errant in one area, what’s to say it isn’t in others? How can we trust it? These are questions I asked myself when I first came across this find.

Why am I still a Christian if the Bible has been shown to include error? The question shouldn’t be one of deciding whether or not the Bible contained error, but if those errors made any significant impact on the message of the Bible. Biblical inerrancy associated with the written canon is an entirely modern construct (considering the ancient world relied heavily on oral tradition rather than written word). Inerrancy should ask whether the transcendent ideas of Jesus are free of error. It should not be caught up in word usage, phrasing, or spelling. We’ll look at a few examples of these later on, but for now, we’ll take a look at the main thrust of the skeptical objection.

Videos such as this one from the online news publication Business Insider, argue that the Bible has been significantly changed over time and that we do not possess the original manuscripts, we just have copies of copies. Not only that but since the New Testament was written hundreds of years after the events, that it was reliably transmitted would be a laughable idea. This may seem troubling on the surface until we look at other works of antiquity. The truth is, we don’t have the original manuscripts of any ancient work, let alone the NT. All we have are copies. This isn’t a problem. In fact, in regards to the New Testament, we have what many apologists call “An Embarrassment of Riches.”

We can compare the New Testament to other ancient works by a number of criteria, the most important being

  1. How soon is the earliest copy to the date of the original writing?
  2. How many copies do we have?
  3. Can we check these copies back and forth?

The science of using these tools is known as Textual Criticism. Using these criteria a historian can pinpoint with nearly 100% accuracy what the original manuscript said. The earlier the date of our first copy the better, the more copies we possess the higher the chance of concluding with accuracy what the original said. The chart below draws a comparison between the New Testament and other ancient works considered reliable by scholars and historians.


As we can see, there isn’t a problem with the “late” date of our earliest manuscript of the New Testament. Why not claim Tacitus’s Annals unreliable because our earliest manuscript dates over 900 years after its written date? Shouldn’t we be extremely skeptical regarding these other works? That’s not to say time isn’t an important factor to consider because it follows that the more time has passed the more chance of degradation and mistakes to make their way into the text. But how much time needs to pass before a copy can be considered completely unreliable? The earliest manuscript of the NT we possess is less than 150 years after the date of the original. We also have over 5000 copies written considerably close to the originals, far more than any other ancient work considered textually reliable. In addition, these copies agree with each other to almost 100% accuracy.

Agnostic scholar Bart Ehrman says this on the subject of textual criticism,

 “If the primary purpose of this discipline is to get back to the original text, we may as well admit either defeat or victory, depending on how one chooses to look at it, because we’re not going to get much closer to the original text than we already are.… At this stage, our work on the original amounts to little more than tinkering.” Novum Testamentum Graecum Editio Critica Maior: An Evaluation:

Videos such as the one by Business Insider make a big deal out of possessing only written copies, thereby implying that we cannot know with 100% accuracy what the originals said, but this is simply ignorance at its finest. Historians accept far less for other ancient manuscripts before accepting their reliability. Although it’s true that we cannot conclude with 100% accuracy what the originals said, textual critics have gotten as close to 99% regarding the New Testament.

In the next article, we’ll take a closer look at the variations themselves.

Additional information on ancient oral transmission can be found here.