The Reliability of the New Testament

Today, any group of Christians gathered together can all read exactly the same words in their Bibles. That luxury is made possible by the invention of the movable-type printing press over five centuries ago. However,  the original autographs of the NT disappeared long ago, probably within decades of their composition. Therefore, handwritten copies, or manuscripts, must be relied on to determine the wording of the original text.

Some find it problematic that there are discrepancies between many of the copies. Yet, in comparison with the remaining manuscripts of any other ancient Greek or Latin literature, the NT has no peer. More than 5,700 Greek NT manuscripts are still in existence, ranging in date from the early second century to the sixteenth century. Furthermore, the NT was translated early on into a variety of languages, including Latin, Coptic, Syriac, Armenian, Georgian, Gothic, and Arabic. All told, there are between 20,000 and 25,000 handwritten copies of the NT in various languages. Yet, even if all of these were destroyed, the NT text could be reproduced almost in its entirety by quotations of it in sermons and commentaries written by ancient teachers of the church (known as church fathers or Patristic writers). To date, over a million quotations from the NT by the church fathers have been cataloged!

How does this compare with the average classical author? The copies of the average ancient Greek or Latin author’s writings number fewer than 20 manuscripts! Thus, the NT has well over 1,000 times as many manuscripts as the works of the average classical author.  When it comes to the temporal distance of the earliest copies of the NT from the original, NT textual critics again enjoy an abundance of materials. From 10 to 15 NT manuscripts were written within the first 100 years of the completion of the NT. To be sure, they are all fragmentary, but some of them are fairly sizable fragments, covering large portions of the Gospels or Paul’s letters, for example. Within two centuries, the numbers increase to at least four dozen manuscripts. Of manuscripts produced before a.d. 400, an astounding 99 still exist—including the oldest complete NT, Codex Sinaiticus.

Concerning textual differences between the copies, these can be broken down into four categories.

1) The largest group involves spelling and nonsense errors. The single most common textual variant involves what is known as a movable “nu.” This is an “n” that is placed at the end of certain words when the next word begins with a vowel. The same principle is seen in English: a book,an apple. Nonsense errors occur when a scribe wrote a word that makes no sense in its context, usually because of fatigue, inattentiveness, or misunderstanding of the text in front of him. Some of these errors are quite comical, such as “we were horses among you” (Gk. hippoi, “horses,” instead of ēpioi, “gentle,” or nēpioi, “little children”) in 1 Thessalonians 2:7 in one late manuscript.

2) The second-largest group of variant readings consists of minor changes, including synonyms and alterations, that do not affect translation. A common variation is the use of the definite article with proper names. Greek can say, “the Barnabas,” while English translations will drop the article. The manuscripts vary in having the article or not. Word-order differences account for many of the variants. But since Greek is a highly inflected language, word order does not affect meaning nearly as much as it does in English. These two phenomena can be illustrated in a sentence such as “Jesus loves John.” In Greek, that sentence can be expressed in at least 16 different ways without affecting the basic sense. Factoring in spelling variations and other nontranslatable differences, “Jesus loves John” could, in fact, be a translation of hundreds of different Greek constructions. In this light, the fact that there are only three variants for every word in the NT, when the potential is seemingly infinitely greater, seems almost trivial.

3) The third-largest category of textual variants involves meaningful changes that are not “viable.” “Viable” means that a variant has some plausibility of reflecting the wording of the original text. For example, in 1 Thessalonians 2:9, instead of “the gospel of God” (the reading of almost all the manuscripts), a late medieval copy has “the gospel of Christ.” This is meaningful but not viable. There is little chance that one late manuscript could contain the original wording when the textual tradition is uniformly on the side of another reading.

4) The smallest category of textual changes involves those that are both meaningful and viable. These comprise less than one percent of all textual variants. “Meaningful” means that the variant changes the meaning of the text to some degree. It may not be terribly significant, but if the variant affects one’s understanding of the passage, then it is meaningful. Most of these meaningful and viable differences involve just a word or a phrase. For example, in Romans 5:1, some manuscripts read “we have (Gk. echomen) peace,” while others have “let us have (Gk. echōmen) peace.” The difference in Greek is but a single letter, but the meaning is changed. If “we have peace” is authentic, Paul is speaking about believers’ status with God; if “let us have peace” is authentic, the apostle is urging Christians to enjoy the experience of this harmony with God in their lives. As important as this textual problem is, neither variant contradicts any of the teachings of Scripture elsewhere, and both readings state something that is theologically sound.

There are two large textual variants in the entire NT, each involving 12 verses: Mark 16:9–20 and John 7:53–8:11 (for a note on why this may very well be authentic, see my post on the authenticity of John 7:53-8:11). The earliest and best manuscripts lack these verses. In addition, these passages do not fit well with the authors’ style. Although much emotional baggage is attached to these two texts for many Christians, no essential truths are lost if these verses are not authentic.

Should the presence of textual variants, then, undermine the confidence of ordinary laypersons as they read the Bible in their own language? No—actually, the opposite is the case. The abundance of variants is the result of the very large number of remaining NT manuscripts, which itself gives a stronger, not weaker, foundation for knowing what the original manuscripts said.

In addition, modern Bible translation teams have not kept the location of major variants a secret but have indicated the ones they think to be most important in the footnotes of all “essentially literal” modern English translations, so that laypersons who read these footnotes can see where these variants are and what they say. (Textual variants are noted in the esv with a footnote that begins, “Some manuscripts …”) The absence of any such footnote (which is the case with far more than 99 percent of the words in the English NT) indicates that these translation teams have a high degree of confidence that the words in their English translation accurately represent the words of the NT as they were originally written.

The most significant textual variants certainly alter the meaning of various verses. And where the meaning of verses is changed, paragraphs and even larger units of thought are also affected to some degree. At times, a particular doctrine may not, after all, be affirmed in a given passage, depending on the textual variant. But this is not the same thing as saying that such a doctrine is denied. Just because a particular verse may not affirm a cherished doctrine does not mean that that doctrine cannot be found in the NT. In the final analysis, no cardinal doctrine, no essential truth, is affected by any viable variant in the surviving NT manuscripts. For example, the deity of Christ, his resurrection, his virginal conception, justification by faith, and the Trinity are not put in jeopardy because of any textual variation. Confidence can therefore be placed in the providence of God in preserving the Scriptures.

In sum, although scholars may not be certain of the NT wording in a number of verses, for the vast majority of the words in the NT the modern English translations accurately represent what the original authors wrote, and therefore these translations can be trusted as reproducing the very words of God.

Source: Adapted and reproduced from the ESV Study Bible

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