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October 4, 2016

Can We Trust the Bible?

Part 1

This past Sunday we started a new class on campus called Can We Trust the Bible? The goal in this class is to examine the evidence supporting the truthfulness of the Bible, while at the same time interacting with claims of skeptics. The goal of this post (and others that will follow) is to give you a big-picture look at the evidence that exists, in favor of the New Testament in particular. In this specific entry we’ll look at the following question:

How do we know the Bible has been faithfully transmitted throughout history?

To answer this question, we have to look at the manuscript evidence we have for the New Testament. The first thing that needs to be said is that we do not have any of the original writings of the New Testament or the Old Testament. Rather, what we have are copies—called manuscripts—of those original writings. The question is, how do we know these manuscripts accurately reflect the original writings?

Dan Wallace is a New Testament scholar who leads the Center for New Testament Manuscripts. Wallace says we have more than 5,600 Greek New Testament manuscripts, about 10,000 Latin manuscripts, and somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000 manuscripts in other languages. That means we have anywhere between 20,000 and 25,000 manuscripts to support the New Testament.

…we have anywhere between 20,000 and 25,000 manuscripts to support the New Testament.

When you compare the manuscript support for the New Testament with other ancient writings, the New Testament stands way—way—out in terms of its manuscript support. The differences are quite striking. Look at the remaining manuscript copy numbers for some of the most touted ancient works:[1]

  • Plato (ancient Greek philosopher, fourth century BC): 219 manuscripts
  • Tacitus (first century Roman historian): 31 manuscripts
  • Suetonius (first century Roman historian) 300 manuscripts
  • Homer’s Iliad (ancient Greek drama—c.a. 800 BC): 2,300 manuscripts

Homer’s Iliad is the closest runner up to the New Testament documents. Dan Wallace really drives home the point when he says:

In comparison with the average Greek author, the New Testament copies are well over a thousand times more plentiful. If the average-sized manuscript were two and one-half inches thick, all the copies of the works of an average Greek author would stack up four feet high, while the copies of the New Testament would stack up to over a mile high! This is indeed an embarrassment of riches.[2]

Not only do the New Testament documents have more manuscripts in their favor, they also have earlier manuscripts than every other ancient document or collection of writings.

But that isn’t all. Not only do the New Testament documents have more manuscripts in their favor, they also have earlier manuscripts than every other ancient document or collection of writings. For example, the earliest copy of Plato’s writings comes to us from about 1,300 years after they were first written.[3] The dating for Homer’s Iliad is much better, but the earliest manuscripts we have for it are still 400 years after it was originally written.[4] With the New Testament, however, the entire collection of documents is preserved (multiple times over) within 300 years after the original writings, with the earliest manuscripts coming to us around the mid-second century[5].

When Bible translators look at this evidence, the overwhelming consensus is that the manuscript evidence we have enables us to clearly identify the original writings of the New Testament authors with about 98% certainty. [6] The remaining two percent of uncertainty primarily deals with passages like Mark 9:29 where Jesus speaks of a demon that “cannot be driven out by anything but prayer.” If you look up that verse in your Bible, you’ll see a footnote that leads you to the bottom of the page where the translators have indicated, “some manuscripts add and fasting.” In other words, even a majority of the two percent of discrepancies deal with matters that don’t really matter in terms of the major teachings of Jesus.

The technical word for these uncertainties is variants, which just means there is a variant reading between some of the manuscripts. But these variants in no way jeopardize any significant doctrine, command, or teaching of the Bible—as Mark 9:29 illustrates above. New Testament scholar D.A. Carson makes the point clearly when he says, “The purity of text is of such a substantial nature that nothing we believe to be true, and nothing we are commanded to do, is in any way jeopardized by the variants.”[7]

In the end, the evidence strongly shows that what we hold in our hands today is what was written back then.

In the next post we’ll take a look at some of the historical objections raised against the Bible. It’s one thing to know we have an accurate copy, but what if we have an accurate copy of a bunch of mistakes?! Check out next week’s post!


[1] This chart is adapted from Jonathan Morrow, Questioning the Bible: 11 Major Challenges to the Bible’s Authority (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2014), 96
[2] J. Ed Komoszewski, M. James Sawyer, and Daniel B. Wallace, Reinventing Jesus: How Contemporary Skeptics Miss the Real Jesus and Mislead Popular Culture (Grand Rapids: Kregal, 2006), 82.
[3] Murrow, Questioning the Bible, 97
[4] Murrow, Questioning the Bible, 97
[5] Wallace, “Has the New Testament Text Been Hopelessly Corrupted?” in Steven B. Cowan and Terry L. Wilder ed., In Defense of the Bible: A Comprehensive Apologetic for the Authority of Scripture (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2013), 147–149
[6] Murrow, Questioning the Bible, 93-105
[7] D.A. Carson, The King James Version Debate (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1979), 56.

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