Can we trust the Bible, Part 1
“There are more variations among our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament,”1
– Bart Ehrman
There are roughly 140 000 words in the New Testament and about 400 000 variants or differences between different manuscripts of the Bible2. Approximately two billion people across the world today call themselves Christians, and base their beliefs about God and the world around them by what’s written in the Bible (to a greater or lesser degree). But what if the Bible we have now is not what was written back then? What if the Bible has been changed over time? Most of us have probably played Chinese whispers at some point, where a message is distorted as it travels around a circle. How much more might the effects of Chinese whispers be across 1600 years? The original writings aren’t available, only copies of copies – would we even be able to know if the Bible had been changed?
These are all important questions to ask. If Christians are going to believe and trust in the Bible, then we need to have good answers to these questions.
So do we?
Are there any good reasons to trust the Bible, or is it just something Christians must take on some kind of blind faith?
We’re not sure if the last 12 verses of Mark are meant to be there, and the story of the woman caught in adultery in John 11 also seems to be suspect.3 So can we trust it? Are Christians delusional for believing in the Bible?
This is a short article. Many have written far more and in more detail than I will here but I still hope to achieve two goals here: that if you don’t think the Bible is trustworthy, you walk away from this with a desire to take the Bible more seriously, on its own terms. And for people that do believe the Bible that we have better reasons for our trust in God and the Bible and we are better able to explain our faith to those who ask. Maybe my goals are too ambitious, feel free to continue the conversation in the comments.
You may be reading this, and already have the idea that the Bible is irrelevant, outdated, been corrupted over time, and was invented by man to suppress the people. I’m not going to attempt to answer all of those claims here. These are significant topics and I don’t want to bite off more than I can chew. And for today, I’m just focussing on the New Testament. The question I want to explore today is this:
Is the Bible we have now what was written back then?
What I said before was correct. The Bible probably does have close to 400 000 variants, but that’s primarily because there is an incredible amount of source documents compared to other ancient historical documents. Just looking at the New Testament, we have a total of more than 25 000 copies, and the gap between when it was first written and the first piece of manuscript that we have is only about 40 years4. To compare: Homer has a gap of about 500 years, and the total number of manuscripts is around 1700. And the gap is even further for other writings around that time period – the gap between Plato and Homer’s writings to their first obtained copies is about 1300 years5.
What is a variant?
A textual variant is just any difference from a standard text – which includes any change in spelling, word order, omission, addition, substitution, or a total rewrite of the text6. If there was only one copy of the New Testament, there would be no variants. However, it’s important to remember here that you can say Jesus loves Paul about 16 different ways in Greek. It’s incredibly easy for minor changes to take place that don’t actually affect the meaning of the Bible, but add to the variant count. In fact, less than 1% of those 400 000 variants are both meaningful and viable – that is, the variant in some way changes the meaning of the text, and there’s some probability it’s an actual change from the original manuscripts7. Whilst some of these variants may change a Christian’s theology slightly, none of these variants affect any central doctrine of Christianity8. Significantly, sceptical scholars like Bart Ehrman9 have even admitted this. The only disputed passages that are longer than two verses in length are Mark 16:9-20 and John 7:53-8:11.10 That is, the last 12 verses of Mark and the story of the woman caught in adultery. Now, the Christian might pause here, and rightly so. They may ask why these stories are in their Bible in the first place if the historical evidence says these verses shouldn’t be there. Great question, and I’ll be exploring that in a future post.
However, the larger point here is this. The differences between manuscripts are for the most part arbitrary and don’t affect the meaning of what’s been written. And secondly, that even where there are a couple of textually suspect passages, we have enough evidence to KNOW that they are textually suspect.
Ironically, the very point that Ehrman makes about the number of variants actually gives us good reasons to trust that the Bible hasn’t changed over time. The sheer number of manuscripts means we can compare accurately and find out what’s original and what’s not. Given the evidence I think we can be extremely confident that the New Testament we have now is almost exactly the same as what was written back then.
Many of you may still have a lot of questions or criticisms about the Bible. Great. Keep asking those questions. However, I don’t think the idea that the Bible has been corrupted and changed over time has any substantial evidence in favour of it. If you disagree, please feel free to continue the conversation in the comments and let me know why as we seek the truth together.
Recommended resources for further study:
Can we still believe the Bible? – Craig Blomberg
Reinventing Jesus – Dan Wallace
Understanding Scripture: An Overview of the Bible’s Origin, Reliability, and Meaning – Grudem, Collins and Schreiner
1 – Bart Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus: the Story behind Who Changed the Bible and Why, page 90.
3 – Dan Wallace, https://bible.org/article/gospel-according-bart#_ftn31
5 – Clay Jones, http://www.equip.org/article/the-bibliographical-test-updated/
9 – Dan Wallace, Has the New Testament text been hopelessly corrupted, page 161.
10 – Can we still believe the Bible, Blomberg. Pg 18