Has the Bible Been Corrupted?

What Would You Say?

You’re in a conversation and someone says, “The Bible we have now is not the same as what was originally written. It's been corrupted over time." What would you say? We don’t have the original copies of the Bible, so how can we be sure that the Bible we have now is what the original authors wrote? The Bible was written long before the printing press, so it had to be copied by hand. And even if they’re well-intentioned, people make mistakes, and it kind of sounds like these people might have been playing an ancient version of the Telephone Game. Do you remember the Telephone Game? To play the game, a message is whispered from person to person down a long line, and usually by the end of it, the final message bears little resemblance to the original. Is that how the Bible was passed down? Has it evolved over time? No. The next time someone says, “the Bible we have now is not the same as the original,” here are 3 things to remember: Number 1: We have an overwhelming quantity of ancient manuscripts of the Bible, which allows experts to confidently reconstruct the original. None of the original manuscripts of the Bible exist today, and none of our ancient copies of the Bible are completely identical. Textual critics have the task of examining copies of ancient manuscripts in order to determine the exact words of the original. These experts have reported that just between all of our New Testament manuscripts, there are about 400,000 variants. A variant is a difference, no matter how little, between texts. 400,000 feels like a big number. But the reason we have so many textual variants is because we have so many manuscripts. If we only had one manuscript, then there would be no variants. If we acquired a second, they wouldn’t be identical because ancient manuscripts were copied by hand, and the scribes often made spelling mistakes or other little errors. So, in a document as long as the New Testament for example, you’re likely to find around 2,000 little differences. But the more manuscripts you have, the more variants you’ll have. So, the number of variants isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, textual critics say it’s a good thing, because the more manuscripts we have, the better we’re able to trace the descent of where those errors occurred. We have so many manuscripts that we can track our way back to locate the origins of the variants, and have even greater certainty of the original wording. So, how many manuscripts do we have? Scholars estimate that we have over 5,100 fragments of the New Testament alone, and dozens of them are complete copies. And that’s just manuscripts in the original Greek. It’s not counting the thousands and thousands of other copies we have in other ancient languages. Our oldest fragment of the New Testament dates somewhere between 125-175 AD, only about a hundred years after the originals were composed. Evidence suggests that over 17,000 Old Testament manuscripts that date before the 18th century exist today. The oldest copies of the Old Testament, found among the famous Dead Sea Scrolls, date to the third century BC, approximately 300 years after the last book of the Old Testament was written. In comparison, the Leuven Database of Ancient Books currently lists less than 2500 copies of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey combined. For all of Plato’s works the database lists less than 200 copies. With such a large and ancient collection of Bible manuscripts, scholars have more than sufficient data to reconstruct the originals with confidence. We’re not getting further away from what the authors originally wrote; we actually have an even greater degree of certainty that what we have now is what they wrote back then. Number 2: The quality of the textual variants does not prevent us from knowing what the original said. Before the invention of the printing press, it was impossible to make perfect copies of any document. Copyists sometimes misspelled words, dropped or added an extra letter, or even accidentally skipped a line. They had to copy long texts by hand, often in less-than-ideal conditions. But textual critics meticulously evaluate the variants in our manuscripts, and here is what they’ve found, for example, in our New Testament texts: over 99% of the variants are not meaningful or viable differences. Here’s what that means: Variants are categorized by whether or not they are meaningful, and whether or not they are viable. Variants are meaningful when they would change the meaning of the text. Variants are viable when it’s possible that they were part of the original wording. The overwhelming majority of variants in our New Testament manuscripts are neither meaningful nor viable. In fact, 70% of all the variants are just simple spelling mistakes that are easy for Greek scholars to detect. Other variants are viable but not meaningful. The name John, for example, can be spelled in the Greek with one “n” or two. We may not know for certain which spelling was used by the Apostle John, for example, but this makes no difference in the meaning of any passage. Variants that are meaningful but not viable might be something like an additional word that exists in only one copy written at a later date. It may change the meaning, but there’s no chance it was in the original. The last category are variants that are both meaningful and viable. They affect the meaning, and there’s a chance they were in the original text. Only this last category is worth any concern, and of the thousands of variants in the New Testament manuscripts, less than 1% fall into this category. Given the circumstances, that is an astounding achievement. Which leads to our third point. Number 3: The small number of textual issues shows that the Bible was passed down with great care. As we mentioned, 99% of the textual variants in the New Testament documents don’t matter. Only 1% matter. And of those, not one is found in the passages that concern orthodox Christian beliefs. The passages that deal with the deity of Christ, the virgin birth, the Resurrection, and everything about the person of Jesus have no meaningful and viable variants, despite the fact that we have thousands of manuscripts. When the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered, they included copies of the Old Testament dating a thousand years earlier than the ones we previously had. And the number and quality of variants found in our Old Testament manuscripts is similar to state of our New Testament manuscripts. Within that 1000-year gap, nothing of theological significance was changed. The evidence suggests that great care was taken to ensure that copies of the Bible were accurate representations of the originals and passed down responsibly. Does that sound like an ancient version of the Telephone Game? Not at all. It sounds like a God who had a message and used diligent and dedicated people to preserve that message for you. So, the next time someone says that the Bible we have now is not the same as the original, remember these 3 things: Number 1: We have an overwhelming quantity of ancient copies of the Bible, which allows experts to confidently reconstruct the original. Number 2: The quality of the textual variants does not prevent us from knowing what the original said. Number 3: The small number of textual issues shows that the Bible was passed down with great care. For What Would You Say, I’m Steven Sanchez.

“In Defense of the Bible: A Comprehensive Apologetic for the Authority of Scripture” edited by Steven B. Cowan and Terry L. Wilder

“Journey from Texts to Translations: The Origin and Development of the Bible” by Paul D. Wegner

“Myths and Mistakes in New Testament Textual Criticism” edited by Peter J. Gurry and Elijah Hixson

“Can We Trust the Gospels?” by Peter J. Williams