Do we have the right Bible?
The Bible is loaded with contradictions and translation errors. It wasn’t written by witnesses and includes words added by unknown scribes to inject Church orthodoxy (Eichenwald, 2014). That’s the opinion of Newsweek.
And Humanists reject the claim that the Bible is the word of God (Sommer, 1997). They are convinced the book was written solely by humans in an ignorant, superstitious, and cruel age. They believe that because the writers of the Bible lived in an unenlightened era, the book contains many errors and harmful teachings.
How reliable is the Bible? Is it trustworthy? Can it withstand objective scrutiny? This blogpost is based on a presentation by Tom Murphy titled, “Do we have the right Bible?”.
Has translating the Bible over and over for almost 3,000 years ruined its reliability? Don’t errors accumulate like messages get changed when they are passed along a line of people in the Telephone game (or Chinese whispers)?
Don’t the many translations of the Bible ruin its reliability?
The Telephone game is a very false comparison. The English translations we have are not the product of a long line of translations. Our current English translations are translated directly from the original languages.
If that’s so, then why are there so many different translations then? Surely if translations are made directly from the originals then we would have only one version.
There are three main reasons we have so many different English translations of the Bible. First, translation research advances with time. Ongoing research helps us to more accurately understand and translate the original languages. Second, changes in modern English. The English language changes with time. New translations are made using modern English, so people can easily understand the Bible. Third, there are different approaches to translating. Some translators use one-word for one-word as much as possible, while others try to translate thought-for-thought.
We have so many versions, not because some shady telephone game has corrupted the text but because we are getting better at translating the Bible and we want translations in contemporary English everyone understands.
But weren’t the books of the bible written hundreds of years after the events they describe? Given that time gap, their messages could all be legends!
Could it all be legends?
Showing the biblical books are not legends begins with showing when they were written. They were not written hundreds of years later. The biblical manuscripts contain four kinds of evidence that indicates when they were written.
Independently verifiable historical statements.
Only a writer living at the time could have known these facts, which we can verify using archaeology or extra-biblical documents. For example, statements like names of places, people, geography, and significant events. Historical accounts that are written long after the events they describe don’t include such comments. Verifiable statements like these strongly affirm the early writing of the biblical books. Famous archaeological examples include evidence for the Assyrian King, Sargon II mentioned in Isaiah 20:1 and the Pool of Bethesda mentioned in John 5:2-9. Prior to the archaeological discoveries that confirmed the historical accuracy of Isaiah’s reference to Sargon II (1843) and John’s description of the pool of Bethesda (1964), both biblical passages were considered to be blatant historical errors on the part of the biblical authors.
Historical events that are not mentioned.
Some historical events are not mentioned that definitely would have been mentioned had they already occurred. This evidence gives time frames for the writing of biblical books. For example, Acts 18:2 mentions the expulsion of the Jews from Rome (AD 41-54) but does not mention the destruction of the Temple (AD 70), therefore Acts dates between AD 41 and AD 70.
Direct manuscript evidence.
Having just a tiny surviving fragment of a book that we can date puts a limit on the latest date it could have been written. For example, as Papyrus fragment P52 from the book of John dates to about 120 AD, John must have been written before then.
Who the writer was and when they died.
Knowing the writer and when they died helps date a book. For example, multiple extra-biblical sources tell us Paul died shortly before AD 68, so all of Paul’s letters were written before AD 68.
This evidence tells us the books of the bible were written very early. Look at the dating of the Gospels to see just how small a gap we are talking about. They were all written within decades of the crucifixion. The liberal dating is invariably later than the conservative dating for two main reasons. First, some biblical books make predictive statements (see Appendix A), like the destruction of the Temple in Mathew 24. Liberal scholars assume that such successful predictions are not possible and assume the book must have been written after the event. Second, some books (like John) show a very high view of Jesus’ divinity. Liberal scholars assume this to be a slow evolutionary development and therefore date the book later.
But these reasons rest on assumptions that presuppose Christianity cannot be true; they reject the idea that God exists and/or that He influenced the authors to make successful future predictions. They also reject that Jesus claimed to be God and that His disciples believed Him.
The Jesus legend hypothesis fails because there was simply not enough time between the historical Jesus and the written records for legends to have corrupted the narrative. Secular historian Professor A. N. Sherwin-White points out that at least two full generations are needed for legendary developments to obscure the core details in a historical narrative. For example, the two earliest biographies of Alexander the Great were written more than 400 years after his death, yet classical historians still consider them to be trustworthy. The fabulous legends about Alexander did not develop until the centuries after these two biographies. After 400 years, Alexander’s history is less corrupted than the Gospel accounts are alleged to be, though the largest gap between the Gospel accounts and the actual events is only about 70 years, even using the most sceptical dates.
The problems for the legend hypothesis get even worse when two other facts are considered.
The Gospels use older source material.
For example, the Passion Story included in the gospel of Mark was probably not originally written by Mark. Rudolf Pesch, a German expert on Mark, says the Passion source must go back to at least AD 37, just seven years after Jesus’s death.
The Gospels are not the oldest texts in New Testament.
Older New Testament texts affirm the supposedly legendary resurrection of Jesus. In 1 Corinthians (written about AD 55) Paul cites what is apparently an old Christian creed: “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that He was buried, that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas (Peter), and then to the Twelve” (1 Cor. 15:3-5NIV). All grammatical and textual evidence tells us that the creed Paul gives came from Peter and James when Paul visited Jerusalem, reaching back to within the first five years after Jesus’ crucifixion in the very city where the crucifixion occurred.
To conclude, both Christian and non-Christian scholars are at a near-consensus that the entire New Testament was written within the first century AD, within decades of Jesus’ death. The texts are so close to the life of Jesus that legendary evolution simply cannot account for the narratives they contain.
But we don’t have the original manuscripts! How do we know that we have what Moses, David, and the Old Testament prophets really said or wrote?
Can we know what the original Old Testament texts said?
With no photocopiers, the original texts were copied by hand as they wore out or more copies were needed. The Jewish people had scribes who oversaw this. They were such meticulous perfectionists that they would count all paragraphs, words and even letters to check they copied correctly. They even knew the middle letter of every book and would count backwards to check for mistakes.
The Masoretic text is used as the source text for translating the Old Testament because we accept the Old Testament that was accepted by the 1st century Jewish community – Jesus’ community. The Masoretic text is a Hebraic and Aramaic text that circulated amongst Jewish communities between the 7th and 10th centuries AD, the oldest copy we have is from the 9th century AD.
For a long time, critics pointed out that this text is very far removed from the original manuscripts, which were penned between the 15th and 5th centuries BC. They questioned if, after so many centuries of copying, we could really have the original words. That’s where the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls was helpful.
Discovered in the Qumran caves in 1947, these well-preserved texts date back to between 200 BC and 100 BC. For example, the Great Isaiah Scroll is a copy of the book of Isaiah. Of approximately 1,000 scrolls found, 225 are Old Testament Books and include every book except Esther. Amazingly, there is a virtual agreement between the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Masoretic text from 1,100 years later! The meticulous scribal process preserved the textual integrity for over 1,100 years! This means that we can confidently trust the Old Testament we have today. There is no evidence of grand changes through a great historical game of telephone (or Chinese whispers).
But we can go further. We currently we have four major groups of Old Testament manuscripts in three different languages, transmitted independently of each other over a span of over 1,000 years, yet they all show a high degree of agreement. In addition to the Masoretic text and Dead Sea Scrolls we also have:
The Septuagint, a Greek translation that originated between the 3rd century BC and 2nd Century AD.
The Vulgate, a Latin translation produced by the Christian priest Jerome in the 4th century AD, and
The Peshitta, a Syriac (Aramaic) translation produced in the second century AD.
By comparing all the texts available, we can reliably discern the content of the Old Testament. Of all the apparent variants in the surviving Old Testament manuscripts, none introduce wildly divergent readings from the Masoretic text that can’t be readily explained by a copyist error (such as spelling/grammar mistakes) or an easily identifiable change intentionally inserted by the scribe responsible for producing the manuscript. And the footnotes of any good study bible will point out these variants (there’s about 45 of them; of these only in 9 do translators resort to using the Dead Sea Scrolls over the Masoretic and of the 45 only one influences more than one sentence – it’s a paragraph found between 1 Samuel 10 and 11).
Also, critics assume well-used papyri disintegrate within 10 years at best, meaning many hundreds of copies of copies must separate the original text from the oldest surviving manuscripts. However, studies by historian George Houston demonstrate that ancient manuscripts were actively used anywhere from 150 to 500 years, and each copy would have been used to make hundreds more. For example, The Codex Vaticanus was reinked in the 10th century after 600 years of use. So the oldest surviving Old Testament manuscripts we have may only be a few generations of copies from the originals. For the New Testament, we could theoretically have direct copies of the original texts, or at least copies of the very first copies.
All this means that the conditions were very favorable for preserving the contents of the biblical texts. The close agreement observed across the 1,100-year gap between the Dead Sea and Masoretic manuscripts is evidence of this.
Well that covers the Old Testament. But what about the New Testament? How can we be sure we know what Jesus said, or that we know what Paul and the other New Testament authors wrote?
Can we know what the original New Testament texts said?
The New Testament text is even more certain than the Old Testament. Some surviving fragments date back to 120 AD. That’s only 35-100 years after the originals! Another big help is that there are nearly 6,000 partial or complete New Testament manuscripts in the original Greek. Add to this approximately 10,000 manuscripts of Latin translations and another 9,300 manuscripts in some 13 additional languages. All together we have about 25,000 copies of the New Testament. And these numbers are counted from databases that notoriously lag-behind current developments and do not record manuscripts contained in private collections or in the form of scrolls – it is quite likely that we have well above 25,000 copies of the New Testament to work with.
Let’s compare the date of the oldest manuscripts and number of existing manuscripts with a few other pieces of literature that historians consider accurate. For the New Testament, the time gap is hundreds of years smaller and the number of manuscripts higher by thousands compared to other works from antiquity. This shows that the New Testament is the most trustworthy document from antiquity. By comparing all the manuscripts we possess, scholars easily identify copying mistakes. This process is called textual criticism. Through this process, we can ascertain the wording of the New Testament with about 99.9% accuracy. See Appendix B for more information on copying mistakes.
Well, all this only proves that we know what these books originally said. But, how do we know the right books are in the Bible? It was just people who decided wasn’t it?
Do we have the right books?
Usually when critics argue that people decided what books should be in the bible (which is called the canon), they are using a different definition of canon than Christians do. The critic thinks the church decided to declare some books authoritative and not others – that the canon didn’t exist until church leaders conferred authority on a few books when they wrote canonical lists. But the Christian understanding is different. If God exists and He inspired human writers, then the canon began to exist the moment the author put pen to paper and the canon grew as each God-inspired book was written.
The Old Testament Canon has never been in doubt. It is the exact list of books that the Jewish community has used for thousands of years. It is the exact Old Testament that Jesus declared to be inspired and authoritative (Mt. 5:17). The only differences are in the order and grouping of the books. The oldest references we have to the Old Testament canon comes from the Jewish historian Josephus, who wrote during AD 95 in his work Against Apion that the Jews recognize 22 books as authoritative; this list of 22 books covers all the Old Testament recognized by Protestants, with the exception of Ezra, Nehemiah and Esther. However, Josephus commends these books in his AD 93/94 work Antiquity of the Jews (which also mentions Jesus).
Regarding the Old Testament Apocryphal books. The Jewish community rejected all Apocryphal books as authoritative. Early Jews may have privately read the apocryphal books for insightful historical and/or theological observations – Josephus and prominent 1st-century Midrashic rabbis did this – but they opposed any consideration of these books as Scripture.
What about the New Testament? Did Emperor Constantine decide what counted as Scripture at Nicaea in AD 325. Are the books in the Bible just the politically motivated selections of a Roman Emperor 300 years after the fact?
Was the New Testament decided at Nicaea?
As for the New Testament, the books we have in our Bible imposed themselves on the early church; they were recognized as inspired from the beginning. It’s a common myth that the biblical books the church uses were imposed on Christianity by the Roman Emperor Constantine at the council of Nicaea in AD 325 for political reasons. This is not true. We have ample evidence to show that the New Testament books we use were considered authoritative from their very beginning.
The New Testament writers recognized each other’s words as scripture. Peter wrote, “His (Paul’s) letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction” (2 Pt. 3:16).
We also have very early lists of canonical books produced well before Nicaea that give a nearly identical list of books to our current New Testament today.
- Around AD 180 we have records of the church father Irenaeus listing every book in the NT as cannon, except Philemon and 3 John.
- The Muratorian fragment from AD 180, affirms 22 of the 27 books of the New Testament, in a list remarkably close to Irenaeus’.
- Then in AD 198 Clement of Alexandria had a remarkably similar position, He affirmed the four gospels, 13 epistles of Paul, Hebrews, Acts, 1 Peter, 1&2 John, Jude, and Revelation.
Beyond these lists, we have numerous quotations from early church fathers which quote the books of the New Testament as authoritative scripture. These Church fathers frequently begin their quotation with “It is written”, the same language used before citations of Old Testament scripture. All of this predates the Council of Nicaea by 100-150 years. Therefore, the canon was not “foisted” on the church then. Nicaea could have only ratified the near 200-year consensus the church already held. It is interesting to note that a number of the later church fathers (after AD 150) condemn as heretical some of the Apocryphal texts by name (most notably Acts of Paul and The Gospel of Thomas).
There was never any concern that the cannon the church accepted was wrong. The bigger concern in the early church was that some Christians would be misled into believing that the counterfeit apocryphal books should be regarded as scripture when they really shouldn’t. This was the real reason official lists of canonical books were authorised at various church councils – to combat heretical teachers and apocryphal books masquerading as scripture.
In AD 367 Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, listed all the books that are in the New Testament canon. He also spoke up against books to be rejected because they were “an invention of heretics”. He called these “apocrypha”.
So we have the right Bible because its ancient words have been preserved since it was written.
How does knowing all this help us today?
It’s important to know that we have the right Bible because our entire faith and hope of salvation depend on the historical fact of Christ’s resurrection as documented in the Bible. Paul corrected those who said there is no resurrection of the dead by saying, “If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that He raised Christ from the dead. But He did not raise Him if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep (died) in Christ are lost (forever). If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead” (1 Cor. 15:13-20). If the apostles were “false witnesses”, their message in the Bible would be unreliable. But knowing that the Bible is reliable gives us confidence and assurance in our Christian faith. The New Testament confirms many times that “Christ indeed has been raised from the dead”. It’s fact, not fiction.
Peter said that what the Apostles wrote was based on eyewitness accounts and not on fabricated stories (2 Pt. 2:3). “For we did not follow cleverly devised stories when we told you about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in power, but we were eyewitnesses of His majesty” (2 Pt. 1:16). Knowing that we have an accurate copy of what they wrote means that we have access to eyewitness accounts. This means that the Christian faith is based on real objective historical events and not on subjective human ideas or religious concepts.
And Christians are to defend their faith. In the context of criticism, opposition and persecution, Peter said, “But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect” (1 Pt. 3:15). We need to know why we believe what we believe. Our “hope” is our confidence about God and eternity. We can have confidence that we will have eternal life if we believe that Jesus died for our sin. And all this is based on the trustworthiness of the Bible.
Sometimes critics just want to undermine our faith or the faith of our fellow believers. We defend our faith as an act of reverence to Jesus and as a support and comfort to our fellow believers who may be struggling with doubt. And sometimes the critical questions come from a seeking heart and by answering them we might be helping clear away the obstacles that may be keeping someone from coming to faith in Jesus.
The Bible is the most reliable document we have from antiquity. It’s good to know that we have the right Bible. It’s an accurate copy of the message that God gave in ancient times.
Appendix A: Predictive statements in Daniel
Daniel is an example of a book of the Bible that makes predictive statements. Even giving the book of Daniel the absolute latest possible dates critics can give (ca 200 BC based on the Dead Sea manuscript found at Qumran), the predictive statements found in the later chapters of this book still precede the actual events described. Prior to the Dead Sea Scroll findings, critics did indeed try to claim that all of Daniel’s predictive statements came after the fact. The Dead Sea discovery proved that some of the book’s predictions definitely precede the events, even if we were to say that the copies found in Qumran are the earliest manuscripts containing them.
Appendix B: How are variants counted?
Some critics, like Bart Ehrman, say that the New Testament contains over 400,000 variants from the standard text, which is more than the total number of words in the New Testament (about 138,000)! So how is this number calculated? Please note that a “variant” is not an error. It’s where texts are not perfectly matched. Most of these variations are insignificant.
These variants were counted by the number of manuscripts they are found in. For example, if a spelling mistake occurs in just one verse and this mistake is found in 2,000 of the 25,000 manuscripts we have, that one spelling mistake was counted as 2,000 variants, even though it’s just one word in just one verse. So saying there are more than 400,000 variants is a misleading statement. Furthermore, 70% of all variants are one particular scribal error called the moveable-nu; it is the Koine Greek equivalent of accidentally using “a” instead of “an” in English. Of all variants, less than 0.1% are worth even mentioning in the footnotes found in good study bibles. Only two variants affect more than two verses, the end of Mark (Mk. 16:9-20) and the story about the woman caught in adultery (Jn. 7:53-8:11). And no variants at all influence any Christian doctrine or practices. This is largely because the doctrine and practices are taught in many passages of the Bible. They don’t rely on a single passage.
It’s interesting to note that the large number of variants is mainly due to the large number of ancient manuscripts. These increase the accuracy in determining the text of the original manuscript. So, it’s actually a strength and not a weakness!
This blogpost was sourced from a presentation by Dr Tom Murphy (a chemist) titled, “Do we have the right Bible?”.
Eichenwald K (2014) “The Bible: So misunderstood it’s a sin”, Newsweek 23 December 2014.
Sommer J C (1997), “Some reasons why Humanists reject the Bible”, American Humanist Association.
Written, May 2018
Also see: Can we trust our Bibles? How the Bible came to us.
Is the New Testament reliable?
Mind the gap