By Jon Anderson
It is a well-worn fallacy around the church that our Bibles come to us through a process not unlike the game of “Telephone,” each new version just copying off of an older version dating back to the King James and beyond. That is very far from the reality and thankfully I think that kind of talk is becoming less and less common. However, I do think the issue of the preservation of God’s Word remains a mystery to many. It is a topic I am often asked about and I suspect a topic that many have never even thought about. Any true translation of the Bible (ESV, NASB, NIV, NKJV, etc) is meticulously translated from Greek and Hebrew manuscripts by a group of careful scholars. The question we face, however, is how do we know that those manuscripts are trustworthy and accurate? I would like to address this question with an excerpt from a paper I wrote a few years ago. I know this might be a little more technical in nature than most blog posts, but I hope and pray that it will prove helpful to many.
The Preservation of the Word of God
The Issue at Hand
In our Sunday school years we confidently sang “The B.I.B.L.E. Yes, that’s the book for me.” Into our teen years we were introduced to the authority and trustworthiness of the Scriptures. Finally, if we progressed beyond that we looked at the doctrines of the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture. And yet many seem to be unaware of a seemingly gaping hole that exists. It is a hole that many careful theologians have passed over in their writings, but one that is being questioned more and more in our postmodern, scientific, and skeptical age. Christians generally affirm that the Scripture is “without any mixture of error” and “totally true and trustworthy” based on Scripture’s own witness to itself as a book brought about through the inspiration of God Himself. But when pressed on the issue it must be admitted that the doctrine of inerrancy and as a result the doctrine of inspiration only properly applies to the original manuscripts as they were written. The gaping hole then is that which exists between the documents penned by the original Scripture writers and the copied and translated text that we hold in our hands today. It is a gap that includes thousands of interdependent copied manuscripts, scribal errors, and even some deliberate changes. As Harold Brown comments, “Critics of inerrancy and infallibility sometimes argue that since the doctrine applies only to the autographs, it is essentially irrelevant today.” The basic question is “Did God preserve His Word for us today, or has it been lost through two millennia of transmission and translation?” There are a number of deficient defenses of this doctrine and more than a few who have walked away from their faith over this issue. But Christians can confidently assert the inerrancy of Scripture as it stands today because of the careful work that the church has done in preserving the Scriptures through the years, the ability that modern scholars have through textual criticism to reconstruct the original texts with accuracy, and by trusting in God’s faithfulness to preserve His Word as He intends it to be.
Though textual criticism may sound like a negative thing, it is not at all. Textual criticism refers to the careful study of the many ancient texts of Scripture. The work of textual criticism has done much to show that the words which were written in the original autographs are indeed represented in the Bible as we have it today. In the words of scholars David Black and David Dockery, “the textual critic seeks to understand the transmission process and the causes and effects of corruption that produced imperfect copies from the originals, in order to reverse the process and thus work back from these surviving imperfect copies to reconstruct the lost originals.” The particular strengths of this process are discussed below. And, with the New Testament being the immediate foundation of Christian doctrine and the focus of most of the preservation debate, we will focus our attention there.
Manuscript Quantity: An Embarrassment of Riches
The first reason to see textual criticism as a viable endeavor and a trusted tool for showing the trustworthiness of our Bible is that the pool of manuscripts from which these scholars draw is simply massive. New Testament Scholar A.T. Robertson refers to this “many stranded cord” as “our biggest safeguard.” Scholars today work with over 5,000 New Testament manuscripts. For the sake of perspective, The Iliad of Homer has only 643 manuscripts, there are only 8 existing copies of the Peloponnesian War of Thucydides, and Tacitus’ Wars stands on only 2 manuscripts. Though it must be noted that many of the biblical manuscripts are incomplete or just fragments, as a whole their witness is impressive. Fifty-nine documents contain the entire New Testament, another 149 lack only Revelation, 2,328 contain the Gospels in their entirety, 779 have all of the Pauline Epistles, and 655 have all of the General Epistles. The breadth of these historic resources is superior to every other ancient document by a vast margin. Furthermore, the New Testament began being translated into Latin, Syriac, and Coptic by as early as 180 A.D. and the early church fathers quoted from the New Testament to the extent that almost the entire Greek New Testament could be reconstructed working only from their quotes. Though it is true that the original autographs are likely lost from existence, the manuscript witness to those documents is overwhelmingly strong.
A second factor validating textual criticism in its endeavor to produce a trustworthy text is the quality of the manuscripts available. The New Testament stands head and shoulders above any other historical document not only in the quantity of manuscripts but also in the quality of those manuscripts. The biggest factor in the quality of a manuscript is its age; specifically, how far the copy is removed from the original. Though it must be admitted that a full sixty-five percent of the manuscript evidence we have comes from the eleventh to fourteenth centuries, it is no less than astounding that 125 manuscripts are from the first five centuries. One of the earliest manuscripts, designated P52, is a few verses of John 18 dated between 94 and 127 A.D. With the Gospel of John being first published in the late 80s to mid 90s, P52 is very likely a first generation copy conceivably made within five years of the original. P46 is another manuscript which many scholars date as early as the mid second century. It contains all of the Pauline Epistles except the Pastorals. In addition to this, there are two complete manuscripts which hail from early in the fourth century (B and Aleph). For the sake of comparison, the two manuscripts from Tacitus are eight and ten centuries after the original and Thucydides’ earliest manuscripts are some thirteen hundred years removed from the autographs. Nevertheless, the historicity of neither of these documents is seriously questioned. The historical quality of the New Testament manuscripts is nothing less than astounding.
The Process of Textual Criticism
A third reason to trust textual criticism is that over the years a careful and trustworthy process has developed by which these manuscripts and the variations between them are evaluated. The manuscripts are categorized into three basic “text-types,” comparable to branches on a family tree. Each text-type is identified by a high degree of agreement between manuscripts as well as distinctive readings. Having each manuscript identified in its own text-type allows scholars to weigh variations with added insight. Then they undergo a method of criticism known as ‘reasoned eclecticism.’ In the words of Dockery and Black this approach “applies a combination of internal and external considerations, evaluating the character of the variants in light of the manuscript evidence and vice versa in order to obtain a balanced view of the matter and as a check upon purely subjective tendencies.” The process is complex, but the end goal is to find which variant best accounts for the origin of the others. The result is a coherent collation of the myriads of manuscripts into a single unified text with a degree of accuracy which, according to Geisler and Nix, exceeds 99 percent in reproducing the exact words of the autographs. The few remaining questions are footnoted in the English translation.
Though textual criticism can bring us to 99 percent certainty, as certain as any historical method could ever produce, we have to still admit that this is yet short of 100 percent. So how can we account for this final margin for error? And here our confidence in the preservation of Scripture, just as in the inerrancy of scripture, must come to rest in believing that “God in His providence not only inspired the authors of Scripture to write those things He wanted to communicate to His people, but also superintended their collection and preservation.” Geisler and Nix write, “The providence of God, a characteristic which is consonant with a self-revealing God, is the force that welds together the entire chain of communication.” God wants to communicate and God is able to do it reliably. Jesus lends confidence to this assertion in John 10 saying that “Scripture cannot be broken” as well as in Matthew 5, promising that “not one iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.” It would be absurd to suggest that God inspired His Holy Word, only to then carelessly allow it to be corrupted or lost. At the same time, however, we must heed the warnings that this faith in God’s providence cannot be used to short-circuit the scholarly work of textual criticism. “Piety and devotion can never take the place of knowledge and scholarly judgment.” In the same way that faith in God’s sovereignty in salvation does not nullify our evangelistic efforts so His providence does not let us of the hook for the hard work of textual criticism. On the contrary it is precisely God’s sovereignty and providence that make these two disciplines worthwhile and eminently hopeful endeavors. But, in the end, our faith does not rest in scholars and manuscripts but in the God who speaks. Our hearts should resound with the words of A.T. Robertson who said “the scholarship does not give me faith, but it increases by confidence that my faith is not misplaced.” It is only by embracing both God’s faithful providence and the careful scholarly work that we can find full assurance that the book we hold before us is in fact the very Word of God as He intended it for us.
In spite of the convincing evidence given above for the trustworthiness of the modern Bible, scholars like Bart Ehrman and others raise objections that need to be answered. Let us briefly consider two of them. The first objection often raised is this: “Because early Christian texts were not being copied by professional scribes…we can expect that in the earliest copies, especially, mistakes were commonly made in the transcription.” The second and more common objection was noted above and has to do with the vast numbers of variants in the existing manuscripts. Ehrman suggests that there are 400,000 variants, more variants than there are words in the New Testament. Conservative scholars, armed with the actual historical data, are able to answer these objections with confidence.
The accusation against the earliest copyists seems at best to be built on misinformation and, at worst, to be intentionally misleading. The fact of the matter is that many of the original manuscripts were not just written but actually published. Irenaeus tells us specifically that at least Mark, Luke and John made a distribution of multiple copies of their works. This would certainly have been done by a professional amanuensis such as Paul and Peter often used. Furthermore, these many original copies were treated with great respect. The copiers would have recognized they were copying a sacred text written by an apostle. “As such, certain scribes copied them with reverential fidelity.” Finally, the professional scribes left clear evidence behind. Speaking of seven early papyrus manuscripts, scholar Philip Comfort notes that “these were written with uniform lettering throughout, in what paleographers call ‘Biblical Uncial’ or ‘Biblical Majuscule.’” These, at least, were not the work of untrained and careless amateurs, but trained scribes working carefully in their field of expertise.
The second accusation is that the vast number of variants leaves us without hope of finding the original. First and foremost the actual number of variants must be considered. Ehrman suggests there could be as many as 400,000, whereas Geisler and Nix suggest that there are only as many as 200,000. Even this number, however, is misleadingly high. By those 200,000 variants only 10,000 places in the New Testament are actually affected. “If one single word is misspelled in 3,000 different manuscripts, this is counted as 3,000 variants or readings. Once this counting procedure is understood, and the mechanical variants have been eliminated, the remaining, significant variants are surprisingly few in number.” Looking at seven major manuscripts Black and Dockery suggest that “if one were to leave aside certain idiosyncrasies and minor differences between these editions, it may be estimated that the number of verses about which there is substantial agreement approaches 90 percent of the total.” This is far from what is implied with Ehrman’s statement that the variants outnumber the words of the New Testament.
Once the number of variants is brought into clearer view the next question concerns the significance of those variants and what exactly is at stake. Here even Ehrman must admit that “in fact, most of the changes found in early Christian manuscripts have nothing to do with theology or ideology. Far and away the most changes are the result of mistakes, pure and simple—slips of the pen, accidental omissions, inadvertent additions, misspelled words, blunders of one sort or another.” Beyond simple spelling mistakes and slips of the pen, many of the variants are not contradictory at all but complimentary, and many make little or no difference what so ever. Textual critic Ezra Abbot found that “about 19/20 (95 percent) of the readings are ‘various’ rather than ‘rival’ readings, and 19/20 (95 percent) of the remainder are of so little importance that their adoption or rejection makes no appreciable difference in the sense of the passage” In the end the readings which are significant to the meaning of the text amount to less than one half of one percent and none of these put any basic Christian doctrine into question. The problem of the variants is not nearly what some scholars would like the public to believe. The vast majority of the text is without question and what issues do remain are well within the reach of textual criticism to resolve.
It is true, we do not have the original, inerrant writings of the apostles. And what manuscript evidence we do have does contain some variants and errors. But a clearheaded and careful look at textual criticism, rooted in faith in a sovereign God who intends to communicate with His people leaves the Christian returning to that confession of our youth “the B.I.B.L.E. Yes, that’s the book for me. I stand alone on the Word of God, the B.I.B.L.E.” The manuscript evidence is impressive in both quantity and quality, the scholars working in the field of textual criticism have developed trustworthy methods, and the God who overseas it all is faithful and true in all He does. To close with the words of A.T. Robertson: “For the Christian walks always in this life by trust, and not by sight. And he is content to close his Te Deum, his most confident affirmation of faith, with the prayer of vulnerability: O Lord, in thee have I trusted: let me never be confounded.”
 Wayne A. Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994), 9.
 Harold O. J. Brown, “The Inerrancy and Infallibility of the Bible,” in The Origin of the Bible, ed. Philip Wesley Comfort (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 2003), 41.
 David Alan Black, and David S. Dockery, New Testament Criticism and Interpretation, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1991), 193.
 A.T. Robertson, Can We Trust the New Testament?( Grand Rapids MI: Eerdmans, 1977), 34.
 Norman L. Geisler and William E. Nix, A General Introduction to the Bible (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1968), 247.
 Black and Dockery, New Testament Criticism, 104-105.
 Ibid., 103.
 Geisler and Nix, General Introduction, 285.
 Black and Dockery, New Testament Criticism, 105.
 Philip Wesley Comfort, The Quest for the Original Text of the New Testament, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1992), 31.
 Philip Wesley Comfort, The Origin of the Bible, (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1992), 186.
 Geisler and Nix, General Introduction, 285.
 Black and Dockery, New Testament Criticism, 106.
 Ibid., 113.
 Ibid., 123.
 Geisler and Nix, General Introduction, 238.
 David S. Dockery, Christian Scripture: An Evangelical Perspective on Inspiration, Authority, and Interpretation, (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 1995), 94.
 Geisler and Nix, General Introduction, 240.
 George Eldon Ladd, The New Testament and Criticism, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1967), 81.
 Robertson, Can We Trust the New Testament? 134.
 Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus, 51.
 Ibid., 89.
 Ibid., 10.
 Comfort, The Quest for the Original Text of the New Testament, 45.
 Comfort, The Origin of the Bible, 191.
 Comfort, The Quest for the Original Text of the New Testament, 51.
 Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus, 51.
 Geisler and Nix, General Introduction, 361.
 Black and Dockery, New Testament Criticism, 127.
 Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus, 10.
 Ibid., 55.
 Geisler and Nix, General Introduction, 365.
 Ibid., 375.
 Robertson, Can we Trust the New Testament? 134.
Black, David Alan, and David S. Dockery. New Testament Criticism and Interpretation. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1991.
Brown, Harold O. J.“The Inerrancy and Infallibility of the Bible.” In The Origin of the Bible, edited by Philip Wesley Comfort, 37-50. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 2003
Comfort, Philip Wesley. The Origin of the Bible. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1992.
__________. The Quest for the Original Text of the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1992.
Dockery, David S.. Christian Scripture: An Evangelical Perspective on Inspiration, Authority, and Interpretation. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 1995.
Ehrman, Bart D. Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why. New York: Harper Collins, 2005.
Fuller, David Otis. Which Bible?. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Grand Rapids International, 1971.
________. True or False?: The Westcott-Hort Textual Theory Examined. Grand Rapids, MI: Grand Rapids International, 1973.
Gaussen, Louis. “The Divine Inspiration of the Holy Scriptures.” In True or False?: The Westcott-Hort Textual Theory Examined, edited by David Otis Fuller, 42-45. Grand Rapids, MI: Grand Rapids International, 1973.
Geisler, Norman L., and William E. Nix. A General Introduction to the Bible. Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1968.
Grudem, Wayne A. Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994.
Ladd, George Eldon. The New Testament and Criticism. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1967.
Mauro, Philip. “Which Version.” In True or False?, edited by David Otis Fuller, 56-122. Grand Rapids, MI: Grand Rapids International, 1973.
Robertson, A.T. Can We Trust the New Testament? Grand Rapids MI: Eerdmans, 1977.