Is the Bible Reliable?
When I was in high school, we didn’t talk about the Bible much. I mean, I went to church and to youth group, attended Bible studies, and listened to my pastor preach, but it was all couched in this assumption that everything the Bible said was true. And I believed it because, well, no one ever challenged it.
But then the world changed. Or at least my world changed. And I was suddenly surrounded by people who rejected the notion that the Bible was a real authority on reality. They said that the Bible was full of errors. It was unreliable. They said it was myth and legend, and that the things it said are no more than stories to scare kids into being productive and compliant members of society.
It wasn’t until I was in my twenties that someone finally took the time to work through some of the issues, the real issues, which I as a Christian need to wrestle with. And I needed to wrestle with them because as a Christian, I needed to know that the thing, this book, that I was basing my whole understanding of reality in; I needed to know that it was true and trustworthy. Or else everything I knew about sin, death, people, Jesus, the cross, salvation, redemption, all of it was up in the air.
Is the Bible reliable?
So here’s the core of the issue that most people have with the Bible. Are you ready? Here it is:
We don’t have the original copies of what was written. They were copied thousands of times. So how do we know that what we have in our hands is really what the apostles and the prophets wrote thousands of years ago?
This is a legitimate question, and again, one worth asking. Guys like Bart Ehrman, who wrote Misquoting Jesus, or the panel that made up the Jesus Seminar would have you believe that there’s no way to know if your Bible is really what was written. Since you have no confidence in the Bible’s reliability, there’s no way any reasonable person would trust what it says.
And the reality is, when guys like Ehrman tell you that there are more errors (roughly 400,000) than words (roughly 138,000) in your New Testament, they’re actually telling you the truth.
There are more errors in the Greek New Testament than there are words.
But before you slip into despair and scrap your faith (like Ehrman did), let me tell you the rest of the story.
Let’s talk about the Quantity of those errors first. Then the Quality.
First the quantity of errors.
While it may seem like an impossible thing to trust an ancient book that has so many variants in its transmission, understand this fact: the reason there are so many variants of the Bible, is because we have so many manuscripts.
If you only had one copy, you’d have no variants. You’d have nothing to compare it to. But if you introduce a second copy, then you could start comparing where little things like grammar and spelling were different. So if you have say, a hundred copies, each of those copies differing with one another ten times, then you have a thousand variants. And that’s how you can get to a number like 400,000 so quickly.
But the funny thing is, the more copies you have, the more you can start sifting through which of those variants you can throw out. It’s like a puzzle, working backwards to understand what the original said. The more pieces you have, the more confidence you can have in knowing, yes, that’s what the original document said.
The hard thing about ancient manuscripts is that they were never meant to last. Anyone who’s left a newspaper in the car for a few weeks knows that inks fade and paper deteriorates. Back in the ancient near east, most of the letters we know as the New Testament writings were written on paper called Papyri. It had roughly the consistency of a grocery bag, and wasn’t very durable.
So these letters, written on papyri, were copied over and over to preserve what was written on them. Therefore, even if you don’t have the original, the more copies you have, the better your odds of knowing what the original said. It’s like evidence at a crime scene. The more evidence you have, the more confident you know what really happened.
So how does your Bible stack up?
Our understanding of what ancient Rome was like is based off of the writings of Roman historians like Livy (of which we have 27 copies) and Tacitus (of which we have 3 copies). The earliest of these copies we have are dated nearly 800 years after these guys actually lived. And yet if you were to ask any ancient Roman historian if they trusted the manuscripts they had of Livy and Tacitus, they’d likely throw you out for asking a silly question.
So twenty-seven copies, the earliest being 800 years after the original is the best we have of Roman history.
Of the New Testament? We have over 5,800 copies, with the earliest dated to within 20-30 years of the original writing.
That’s almost 200 times more manuscript evidence, 40 times closer to the original date, than anything we have on Roman history! And that’s just the Greek copies. If you include all the early manuscripts written in Latin, Syriac, Arabic, Coptic, etc. we’re talking tens of thousands of manuscripts. If you include quotations of the Bible from early church fathers, we’re into the millions of copies.
We have so much evidence for the accuracy of your Bible, it’s almost unreal.
As Professor Dan Wallace of Dallas Theological Seminary likes to put it, we have an embarrassment of riches
So the reason we have so many variants is because we have so, so many copies to compare and work through. But what about the quality of those variants? Do any of them actually hide the fact that our faith is based on a lie? Does a copy out there say that Jesus wasn’t crucified or raised from the dead?
Let’s talk about the quality of those errors:
Every time any manuscript disagrees with another in any way, you count it as a variant. For example the word for “John” in Greek can be spelled with a single “n” or two “n”. A lot like the word color can be spelled “color” or “colour”.Â It doesn’t change the meaning or the reading of the text at all, but it still counts. So how many of our variants are spelling differences?
The second group of variation are variants that are stylistic and can’t be translated into English. In a Greek sentence, word-order doesn’t dictate what part of speech a word’s meaning. The subject, the verb, the object, are all identified by the ending you stick at the end of each word. What this means is that a sentence like:
Jesus loves Peter
Can be written:
Jesus(s) loves(v) Peter(o)
Jesus(s) Peter(o) loves(v)
Peter(o) Jesus(s) loves(v)
Peter(o) loves(v) Jesus(s)
Loves(v) Peter(o) Jesus(s)
Loves(v) Jesus(s) Peter(o)
And they all mean the exact same thing!
To top that, the Greek language makes the definite article (or the word “the”) optional for nouns. So you can write the original sentence like this:
The Jesus loves Peter
The Jesus loves the Peter
The Jesus the Peter loves
The Peter Jesus loves
Loves the Peter Jesus
Loves the Jesus the Peter
And on and on and on.
Every one of those is considered a variant, but has absolutely no affect on the meaning or translation of that sentence. In fact, one of the most common variant in your Bible is the difference between Jesus Christ and Christ Jesus.
If you can do that sort of word-switching without changing the meaning of any part of the New Testament, that number (400,000) all of a sudden looks like a super not big deal.
The third group of variants are variants that are translatable, but aren’t viable. For example, 1 Thess. 2:17 says, “Instead, we were like children among you.” The vast majority of our manuscript evidence agrees with that. But there is one manuscript written in the 14th century that reads, â€œInstead, we were like horses among you (the word for horses is very similar to the word for children in Greek). Now that might be a translatable variant, but it’s not a viable one. It doesn’t make sense. So we can throw it out without a second thought.
Finally, the last group of variants in your New Testament are the ones that are both translatable and viable. For example, Revelation 13:18, the famous number of the beast passage typically reads, and the number of the beast shall be 666. There is one manuscript, written in the second century, that reads, and the number of the beast shall be 616
Now that’s real, and that’s viable. Which is it? 666 or 616? As interesting as that debate may be, the truth is, it makes pretty much no difference to you as a Christian which one it is. No church’s doctrinal statement is based on whether the number of the beast is 666 or 616. Your faith is NOT based on whether the number of the beast is 666 or 616.
But that’s just an example. How many variants affect the core of our beliefs? Are there any variants that have to do with the birth, death, resurrection and deity of Jesus Christ? Is any of that stuff in question?
Of the 400,000 variants we have in the Greek New Testament, nearly 99% make absolutely no difference in the meaning of what the text says (spelling or untranslatable grammar), and 100% have nothing to do with any of the core beliefs of Christianity.
Over the course of nearly 2,000 years of copying and translating, the book you have in your hands is sitting at 99% accurate to what the original copies said. The other 1%? You can check out Dan Wallace’s book Reinventing Jesus, where he discusses each one with confident conclusions.
Alright, so what’s the bottom line?
The bottom line is this:
What you have in your hands is a book that has been miraculously preserved over centuries, like no other piece of literature.
Its accuracy is unparalleled, to the point where we can say with confidence that yes, this book is true and it is reliable. It’s almost as if God was preserving a message over these hundreds of years for you to hear, that you were condemned in your sin, but in his love, he sent his son Jesus to come and die on the cross in your place, and he, on the third day rising, is offering us eternal life with him.
God demonstrated his own love for us in this, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:8)
Boomsies.Nearly all of this information was taken from Dr. Dan Wallace’s book Reinventing Jesus, which was written largely as a response to Dr. Bart Ehrman’s work attempting to discredit the Bible’s reliability. You can also find Dr. Wallace at the Dallas Theological website: dts.edu. Special thanks to Dr. Will Johnson of DTS Houston who spent a semester teaching me this Text Criticism in the fall of 2010. Many of the examples used were from Chris Plekenpol’s talk from 10.13.2013 entitled Is the Bible Reliable, and from the Breakaway talk by Ben Stuart from 3.20.2010 entitled Has the Bible Been Corrupted. Check out both talks to hear more detail (and not read so much) on the reliability of our Bible.