"A faith that can not survive collision with the truth is not worth many regrets" - Arthur C. Clarke

"Every word of God proves true" - Proverbs 30:5

The Reliability of the New Testament Text
...Is It Corrupt?
- R. Totten (C) '99

When statements from the Bible are quoted in discussions, sometimes the reliability, accuracy and possible corruption of the Bible's text is brought up --and the questioning goes basically as follows: "It doesn't seem that the Bible can be accurate, because first of all, the actual history must have changed as the accounts were passed down orally for many generations; --and secondly, after the Bible was originally written down, mustn't the text have been corrupted in the process of being re-copied for many centuries?"

--This is a very good question, because, if the scenario as described above is what happened to the Bible's text, then the original history and text would probably be changed and corrupted, and the actual events would be unknowable ...however, what does historical evidence indicate really happened?

Time Factor

To begin with, it is generally agreed that the crucifixion of Jesus Christ took place in about 32 AD. We know this because Luke 3:1 says that the ministry of John the Baptist (who was the "fore-runner" at the start of Jesus' ministry) took place in the 15th year of Tiberias Caesar. Since Tiberias became emperor in 14 AD, we calculate that the ministry of Christ started in about 29 AD. The gospels mention three annual passovers during the ministry of Christ, therefore, he was crucified in about 32 AD. In addition, other historical records outside the New Testament confirm that at this same time, Pontius Pilate was the governor of Judea, and Ciaphas was the high priest of Judaism, and Herod (Antipas) was also the tetrarch of Galilee, ...and all of these historic figures lived at the time of Christ's ministry.

Next, it should be recognized that the first New Testament (NT) books were composed in about 49 AD (eg, 1+2 Thessalonians and Galatians), and most of the NT writings had been written by 60 AD, and the remainder of the NT was completed by about 95 AD. -----Dr. F.F. Bruce (Ryland's professor of biblical criticism, at Univ. of Manchester) asserts that the time of the writing of the gospel of Mark was about 60 AD, and Luke about 65 AD, and Matthew about 72 AD, and John about 90 AD (ref. "The New Testament Documents...," F.F. Bruce, InterVarsity, '74, p.12). --Since the writing of the NT obviously did involve some oral relaying of the events (of Christ's ministry, for example), then it would have only entailed 18 to 30 years of oral transmission until the original NT manuscripts were written. There was probably a fair amount of written information transmitted as well (see Luke 1:1-4).

Of course, the most credible telling of events would have been given by actual eye-witnesses, and these accounts would be subject to the scrutiny of other eye-witnesses, as (for example) the apostle Paul (died in 67 AD) tells us in 1st Corinthians (written in 55 AD) that most of the 500+ eye-witnesses of the resurrected Jesus Christ were still alive at the time Paul wrote his material (see 1Cor.15:1-8) --and this is very reasonable, since 1st Corinthians was written about 23 years after Christ. Further, the apostle John (who knew Jesus personally) lived until about 98 AD, and he ended up being banished to the island of Patmos by the emperor Domitian (who ruled from 81-96 AD). Therefore, since eye-witnesses wrote some of the New Testament (eg, Matthew, Peter, James & John), and because there were so many direct eye-witnesses around to confirm (or dis-confirm) accounts written during these people's lives, oral transmission of the story down through "many" generations is not a very believable notion.

And why didn't they write things much sooner? --Because they thought Jesus was coming back fairly soon (see John 14:3), and a written record would be totally unnecessary. - However, as Christ's return did not occur after two decades, they then decided to record an accurate history of the events (Luke 1:1-4).

Early Church Confirmation

A first-century date for the writing of basically all of the NT cannot be reasonably denied, because the writings of early church "Apostolic Fathers" quote virtually the entire NT at very early dates, and they therefore corroborate the existence of the NT writings before the year 100 AD.

For example, when we read the letter by Clement (bishop of Rome) sent to Corinthian Christians in 96 AD, along with the "Epistle of Barnabas," as well as the "Didache" (also called "Teaching of the Twelve Apostles") written in about 100 AD, --in those three writings, we see accurately quoted portions of Matthew, Mark, Luke, Acts, Romans, 1Corinthians, Ephesians, Titus, Hebrews, 1Peter, and several other NT books. Even by the early date of 100 AD these NT books were considered to be scripture from God, and they commanded a place of honor and supreme authority.

This demonstrates the existence of all of these NT books prior to 100 AD. --In fact, we know that the writings of Paul were already considered to be holy "Scripture" before he died in 67 AD (as stated in 2Peter 3:15,16).

As a further example, if we look at letters written by Ignatius of Antioch, who was martyred in 115 AD, he quotes from Matthew, John, Romans, 1 & 2Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, 1 & 2Timothy, Titus and probably Mark, Luke, Acts, Colossians, 2Thessalonians, Philemon, Hebrews, and 1Peter --also demonstrating the earlier existence of those books.

We could go on listing how the early church fathers quoted from the NT works, but for the sake of brevity, consider the question asked of Sir David Dalrymple, which was: "Suppose that every copy of the New Testament had been lost or destroyed by the end of the third century. --Could the New Testament be collected together again from the writings of the Fathers of the second and third centuries?" --After a thorough investigation, here's what Dalrymple concluded: "That question roused my curiosity, and as I possessed all the existing works of the Fathers of the second and third centuries, I commenced to search, and up to this time I have found the entire New Testament, except eleven verses" (ref. "Our Bible: How We Got It, Charles Leach, Chicago:Moody, '98, p.35-36).

In view of evidence like that above, it should be obvious that any lengthy amount of "oral tradition" (orally passing down the events and words of Christ for generations) was not possible, nor could it have been a significant factor in the origin of the NT ...because most of the NT books were written by 60 AD, and the rest of the NT was completed before 100 AD ----by which time the NT was already well accepted as authoritative and widely quoted by writers outside the NT.

Dr. F.F. Bruce quotes a scholar with outstanding qualifications to make judgments on ancient manuscripts ---the late Sir Frederic G. Kenyon--- who said : "The interval then between the dates of original composition and the earliest extant evidence becomes so small as to be in fact negligible, and the last foundation for any doubt that the Scriptures have come down to us substantially as they were written has now been removed. Both the authenticity and the general integrity of the books of the New Testament may be regarded as finally established" (ref. The Bible and Archaeology, F.G. Kenyon, N.Y.:Harper, 1940, p.288f).

Textual Transmission

Now, the other main part of the original question, concerns changes (ie, varianst or errors introduced) in the text while being copied for centuries. --This issue too, turns out to be a non-problem.

Remember, first of all, that the original manuscripts of the NT (written by Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, & Paul, etc.) were in new condition in 60 to 96 AD. Since these documents were immediately highly prized and venerated pieces of writing, and commanded great authority, these documents would have been handled very carefully for centuries to come. It would not be surprising if they became 200 to 300 years old before they fell apart (200 year-old books are fairly common), and thus, it is likely that the original "autographs" (apostle's manuscripts) were around (and available to be copied) until about 350 AD. This is quite reasonable, since there is in existence even today (in the year 1999) in the John Rylands Library in Manchester, England, a piece of papyrus from the year 130 AD, which has John 18:31-33 and verses 37-38, written on it. (Note: Since that piece of papyrus originated from Egypt, the gospel of John was already in wider circulation by 130 AD). The are also other papyrus pieces which papyrological experts have dated at not later than 150 AD (ref. Fragments of an Unknown Gospel and other Early Christian Papyri H.I. Bell & T.C. Skeat, 1935).

In view of the fact that the original NT manuscripts were probably still around (and being copied) until almost 300 AD, consider the following:

Considering the overall picture, then, there are about 5,300 Greek copies of various portions of the New Testament -----a considerable number of them dating from around 150 AD. In addition, there are 10,000 Latin Vulgate (from around 400 AD) and at least 9,300 other early versions. Adding them all together, and we have more than 24,000 copies of various portions of the New Tesatment (that we know of) today ----and many copies were made (some fairly complete) at a time when the original NT manuscripts were most probably still in existence.

Therefore, the original NT manuscripts may well have been the direct source of a few of the Greek copies which we have today!

For some of our copies, there is probably no time-gap at all!

NOTE : This present article deals primarily with the New Testament, however, it would be foundational in going back to the reliability of the Old Testament, because Jesus himself endorsed the Old Testament --the "Law and Prophets"-- as being absolutely true and accurate, when he said "the Scripture cannot be broken (John 10:35). He referred to OT accounts as being totally factual and accurate, like the creation account in Genesis 1 thru 3 (Mat. 19:4), the flood of Noah (Mat. 24:37-39), the judgment and destruction of Sodom (Luke 17:26-32), and the miracles of Elijah (Luke 4:25-27). He referred to the prophecies of Daniel as being absolutely true (Mat. 24:15). Jesus endorsed the authorship of the first 5 books of the Bible as being by Moses (John 5:46, 47, Luke 20:37-38) and that Isaiah wrote all of Isaiah (Mat. 4:14-16; 12:17). -- Jesus accepted no notion of any "corruption" of the Old Testament. -- If the resurrected Lord accepted the Old Testament without reservation, who else has any authority to contradict him? -- Nobody.

Reproducing the Original Text

Although there is such an abundance of copies, we do not possess the orginal "autographs" of the NT manuscripts (though it is likely that we do have a couple of little pieces). --So, how do we accurately come up with the text? We do it by employing "Textual Criticism" : a branch of document study, which considers all the manuscripts available and works toward reproducing the words of the original documents as exactly as possible. When textual critics work toward reproducing the original text, the general criteria are : the older copies, which were more likely to be more directly from the originals, take priority and are preferred over more recent documents; copies (and sections of copies) which exhibit no deviation (or the lowest deviation) from the majority of the better texts, take priority over those which exhibit more deviation.

The "Codex Vaticanus" is considered to be the oldest and best Greek manuscript now in existence, which apparently comes from the year 325 AD. "Codex Sinaiticus" comes from about 350 AD, but it contains all of the New Testament. (These two manuscripts come from the "Alexandrian" text-type, which is the oldest and most consistent.) When these two old manuscripts agree word-for-word (especially when they're also verified by several other of the oldest and best papyrus copies), there is virtually no doubt that the correct wording of the original text has been reached.

This process of deducing the wording of the original text would be analogous to the following situation : ----- If the US Bureau of Standards had one (and only one) "yard-stick," made out of metal, which was the national standard of exactly one yard in length, but it was lost -----could we look at the lengths of yard-sticks across the country (copies of the standard) to reproduce another national-standard yard-stick which would be 99.9% accurate in length? Yes, we could, with a high degree of assurance, because we would consider wooden copies from paint-stores to be least reliable, moving right on up to metal copies in machine-shops as being probably be the most reliable and free from error. The better copies that all agree with one another would take priority over those with a slight degree of deviation in them. Copies with a higher amount of deviation from the vast majority, would be disregarded. ----In this way, we would assuredly be able to come up with a reproduction of the original standard that would be 99.99% accurate.

Textual Criticism of ancient copies is employed fairly much the same way, with the result that the Greek text of the NT which we have today is most assuredly almost an exact copy of the original NT manuscripts. Norman Geisler and William Nix remark that "Only 40 lines (or 400 words) of the New Testament are in doubt." ( General Introduction to the Bible, Geisler & Nix, Chicago: Moody, 1968, p.367).

(Therefore, NOTE: Of those "40 lines" which are even a little bit in question, 75% of those questionable lines come to about 300 words found in the last 12 verses of the Gospel of Mark 16. --So, if we leave Mark 16:9-20 out of our Bible-reading, very little is left in question at all. The remainder is about 99.8% accurate... and we know exactly which 100 words are in any question.

Dr. F.F. Bruce comments about those few remaining words: "The variant readings about which any doubt remains among textual critics of the New Testament affect no material question of historic fact or of Christian faith and practice."

--That is to say: There is no historical fact or essential doctrine of the Christian faith which is based upon any disputed reading in the NT.

In conclusion, if we disregard the few New Testament words about which there is any substantial question (and they are clearly noted in the NT footnotes, such as Mark 16:9-20), it can be very safely and confidently said that the New Testament text is essentially 100% reliable and accurate as being the exact words originally written down by the authors! --No doubt about it. And there can be no question as to the exact and unquestionable truths conveyed in the New Testament.

--In the end, when people stand before the judgment throne of Christ-- they will not be able to honestly say that they rejected the Bible's teaching because they "could not know" God's teaching and truth, because the New Testament was "too corrupted." --Their condemnation will be fair and just.

And the believer has excellent reason to fully trust the Bible. --To quote Sir Fredrick G. Kenyon again: "It is reassuring at the end to find that the general result of all these discoveries of the authenticity of the Scriptures, [is] our conviction that we have in our hands, in substantial integrity, the veritable Word of God" (The Story of the Bible, F.G. Kenyon, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1961, p.113).

--When you start out with such excellent accuracy of the New Testament, and then read that Jesus and Paul (and others) endorsed the integrity and authority of the Old Testament too, then you can be very assured that when you're reading the Bible, you are reading God's Holy Word as it was originally given.

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