The Reliability of the Gospels – Part Two

If you have not already, make sure to read part one of this guest post by Wesley Huff.

An Embarrassment of Riches… The Number of New Testament Manuscripts

Reliability of the GospelsIn 1631, a printing of the King James Bible suffered from a bit of serious typist error. At Exodus 20:14, the word “not” in the sentence “Thou shalt not commit adultery” was omitted. The result was the commandment “Thou shalt commit adultery.” This resulted in a printing now known was “the Wicked Bible.” Upon realization of the error, the majority of these Bibles were immediately burned. However, a number still exist today, and can be found in the collections of the New York Public Library, the Dunham Bible Museum, and Cambridge University. All of which are considered highly valuable by collectors.

But what if the “Wicked Bible” was our only copy of the Bible that contained the Ten Commandments? Or what if it was one of two, one that said, “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” and the other saying “Thou shalt commit adultery?” The fewer the manuscripts, the harder it would be to know what the original text actually said. The fact remains that the more copies that exist, the easier it is to reconstruct the text. If not for any other reason than we can compare them all with each other. So the natural question is, how many surviving New Testament manuscripts do we know of, and how do they stack up against each other?

The number is constantly changing (due to organizations like the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts – CSNTM), however, currently it sits just around 6000 Greek manuscripts. Add to that all of the Latin, Coptic, and Early Church Slavonic, as well as quotations made by early Christians, and we have over twenty-five thousand sources that testify to the New Testament text. In fact, if all Greek copies were permanently destroyed over night, nearly the entire New Testament could be reconstructed from the quotations of the Early Church Fathers alone. Once again, if we compare the New Testament with other ancient documents we’re reminded of the place the Bible holds in the world of ancient literature. We have 49 copies of Aristotle’s writings (the earliest coming 1400 years after the original was written), and only 7 ancient copies of Plato (the earliest of which comes 1200 years after the original was penned). We have so many manuscripts of the New Testament that scholars like Daniel Wallace have declared it an “embarrassment of riches,” allowing such a range of comparison that the unanimous consensus is that the texts can be traced back to the original text to 99% accuracy. Likewise, the vast number of manuscripts spread over a large area of the ancient world rules out any one individual or group controlling the wording of the text.  It was copied and circulated far too many times, if it did happen it’s easy to spot. In fact, to picture this in another way is to see the New Testament as a 1000 piece puzzle. Not only do we have all 1000 pieces, but we have a 100 extra, leaving us with 1100 pieces. The extra pieces being easy to spot once the picture of the puzzle comes into view.

Nature over Number… The Variants in the New Testament

Remember that footnote from the Gospel of John that I mentioned earlier? Well, years later I learned that this type of discrepancy between the readings is called a “variant.” Variants occur when one manuscript disagrees with another (the study of field that specializes in these variances is called textual criticism). In fact, just as there are a lot of manuscripts, there are likewise a lot of variants. A fact that many sceptics have made much noise about.  This fact has led secular scholar, Bart Ehrman, to declare, in both publication and presentation that, “There are more variants in the New Testament than there are words!”
While sceptics like Ehrman are not wrong, these types of one-liners are entirely misleading. The reason for so many variants has to do with the vast number of copies, not with a vast number of errors in the text.

To put it into perspective, this blog-post includes over 1,000 words. If you were to copy it by hand and make only one mistake, that copy would be 99.9% accurate. However, if 2,000 more people read, and then copied this post, with each of them making one mistake it would generate twice as many variants as words. Nonetheless, each copy would remain 99.9% accurate. Revealing that the real issue is not on the number of variants, but rather the nature of the variants.

While there are certainly many, many textual differences (hundreds of thousands, in fact), the key point is that the vast majority of these scribal changes are minor and insignificant, nearly all having no impact on the meaning of the text. In fact, 98.5% consist of spelling mistakes, use of synonyms, and word-order changes. In the end, these do not substantively change the meaning of the text.

Of course, there are more substantive textual changes (much fewer in number) that do affect the meaning of the text. But these changes would only be a problem if we could not identify them as changes. To put it differently, these kinds of variants would only be a problem if we could assume that every one of them was as equally viable as every other. Thankfully, textual scholars can determine, with a relative degree of certainty, which of these readings were original and which were not. There are still some gray areas, some instances where a choice between variants is unclear, all of which you can find in the footnotes at the bottom of the page in your Bible translations. Nonetheless, in the vast majority we can have a great degree of confidence that the words we read are the words of the original authors. 

God chose to preserve His word in a very unique way, one which meant that it was copied, translated, and circulated hundreds of thousands of times. The early Christians were not choosy as to whom they allowed to make a copy, or where it went. And due to this, God’s Word spread and spread fast.  This is a fact that leaves us today with not only the most numerous manuscript traditions of all ancient documents, but with the most widely attested and tenacious. This process left the modern scholar with an easy way to spot the mistakes, the insertions, and the disagreements amongst the text. And by doing so, God preserved His Word by making sure that everyone had access to it.

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