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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?

Slide2 400pxThe 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.

Slide11 400pxThis 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.

Dead sea scroll 1 400pxDiscovered 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.

Slide22 400pxLet’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.

Slide34 400pxBeyond 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.

Conclusion

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!

Acknowledgement

This blogpost was sourced from a presentation by Dr Tom Murphy (a chemist) titled, “Do we have the right Bible?”.

References

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


Mind the gap

gap-4-cropped-400px“Mind the gap” is a warning phrase to take caution while crossing the spacial gap between a train doorway and the station platform. It’s used by many train and rapid transport systems. This gap is wider at stations with curved platforms, which increases the likelihood of passengers or luggage falling into the gap between the train and the platform.

In this blogpost we look at the temporal gaps between the events described in the New Testament and their communication to us today. We will see that as the memory gap (from an event to the original written account) is less than one generation and the copy gap (from the original written account to the oldest manuscript available today) is significantly less than for other ancient documents, we can trust the historical accuracy of the New Testament.

According to scholars, the New Testament was written between AD 50 and AD 95. And most of the events described in the New Testament occurred between 5 BC and AD 65. But why was the New Testament written so long after the events it describes (up to about 65 years)?

Oral communication

The major way in which events and ideas were communicated in the ancient world was through the spoken word. It was an oral society. Many people were illiterate and writing materials were scarce. There were few books (scrolls) and they were very expensive to produce. So information was passed on by word of mouth and oral accounts were valued above written accounts.

In oral communication, the accuracy of a message received by a listener depends on the reliability of the speaker (sender) and the reliability of the information that the speaker wants to communicate. A reliable speaker tells the truth (instead of lying) and the information they communicate is more reliable if the speaker has access to the original source of the information, such as eyewitnesses.

A message can become unreliable if it passes through many intermediate speakers between the original speaker and the final listener. This is demonstrated in the telephone (Chinese whispers) game in which one person whispers a message to the ear of the next person through a line of people until the last player announces the message to the entire group. What usually happens is that the statement announced by the last player differs significantly from that of the first player. Obviously, if a message (or story) has been retold by many people, some of it can change if people forget parts of what they are told.

But the telephone (Chinese whispers) game doesn’t apply to the New Testament, because the time period when it was communicated orally was less than 65 years, which is one lifetime, and not many lifetimes. I call the gap to the first written account of the New Testament “the memory gap”, because in this case the accuracy of the message is dependent on the accuracy of the messenger’s memory.

The memory gap

The New Testament was written by the apostles and their associates who were eyewitnesses to the events they described.  An apostle had accompanied Jesus Christ during His 3-year ministry (from His baptism to His ascension) and had been with the other apostles when Christ was resurrected (Acts 1:21-22). So they knew Jesus very well. This means they had accurate source of the information.

The memory gap for the gospels is 30-55 years. Mark, Matthew and Luke were probably written in the AD 60s, and John about AD 85. Some skeptics claim that, even with eyewitnesses, memory isn’t trustworthy over that period of time and that all kinds of things can contaminate the message. But the accuracy of the New testament message is enhanced by the fact that:
– there were multiple witnesses. According to the Old Testament, there must be at least two witnesses to establish the truth in a court case (Dt. 17:6; 19:15). For example, the accounts of four separate witnesses are given in the gospels (Matthew, Mark. Luke and John).
– there were 12 apostles who could oversee (control) the accuracy of the message. In this was there was corporate control of the message.
– When it’s all you’ve got, memory works well. For example, children have good memories for stories and the words and tunes of songs.
– Memory works well if you have a stake in what took place. The apostles had a stake in the gospel message because they had given up everything else to follow Jesus and most of them were martyred for their Christian faith.
– Corporate repetition is important for retaining stories and memories. The Christian message was repeated at weekly church gatherings.

It seems as though the message in the gospels was put in writing when the eyewitnesses were near the end of their lives. This enabled an accurate record to be passed on to subsequent generations. In a eulogy children recollect events that occurred in their family up to 50 years earlier. When they do this, the gist of their accounts will be the same, although they will recollect different details. Likewise, the gospels have the same core message, but each writer records different details. Most alleged contradictions in the gospels are just minor variations in the account. One eyewitness will include a piece of information, while another one will leave it out. If the accounts were identical, then there could have been collusion or plagiarism.

As Paul was in Jerusalem at the time of the crucifixion, he knew what had happened. So when he was writing letters between 50 and 66 AD (20 to 26 years later), he knew what he was writing about. Paul was probably converted a few years after the resurrection. He summarized the gospel as “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” (1 Cor. 15:3-4NIV). He received this message orally from other apostles (Gal. 1:18-19) and passed it on to others. That’s an example of oral communication.

Oral transmission was done very carefully in ancient times. For example, Paul commended the Corinthians “for following the teachings I passed on to you” (1 Cor. 11:2NLT). These teachings were prescribed standards for Christian living.

The copy gap

The Bible is like a library (or anthology) – it’s a collection of books written by different authors. The text of each book was originally written on a manuscript (written be hand) called an “autograph”, which in the case of the Bible would have been a scroll. The memory gap is the period of time between the writing of the autograph and the events described in the autograph.

We don’t have the autograph (original manuscript) of most ancient documents. Instead we have copies that were made at a later time. Textural critics use the available copies to reconstruct the original autograph. I will refer to the time gap between a copy and the autograph, as the “copy gap”. Obviously, other things being equal, a longer copy gap provides more opportunity for copy errors to accumulate in the manuscript.

Ancient texts were written on papyrus scrolls which may have had a useful life of about 100 years (and up to 500 years in dry climates). However, some papyrus codices (books) from the third century AD survive today (such as the Chester Beatty Papyri written about AD 200). Between the late 3rd century and the 5th century AD, papyrus scrolls and codices were replaced by parchment pages in a codex (book). Parchment (or vellum; made from animal skins) was more durable and could have a lifetime of about 1,000 years. For example, marginal notes in the Codex Sinaiticus indicate that it was still being used by scholars about 300 years after it was written.

codex-vaticanus-2-400pxAccording to classical scholars, the oldest surviving complete copies of single New Testament books were written around AD 200, and the oldest surviving (nearly) complete copy of the New Testament, was written about AD 350 (see below). And the oldest surviving fragments of manuscripts of the New Testament were written in the second century AD (such as the John Rylands Papyrus written about AD 125). The fragments and books could be 1st and 2nd generation copies of the autograph, while the whole New Testament (copied in the mid 4th century AD) could be a 2nd or 3rd generation copy of the autographs. It should be understood that “complete manuscript” when used by a textual critic does not necessarily mean 100% of it has survived. “Complete” is a technical term meaning that the manuscript has the beginning and end of the book in question. For example, a “complete copy of John” would be required to have John 1:1 and John 21:25 and substantial portions of those verses between.

It’s instructive to look at the “copy gap” (between the original autograph and the oldest complete manuscript) for other historical documents. The copy gap is about:
– 1,400 years for the Histories of Herodotus (written in the 5th century BC),
– 800 years for the works of Josephus in their original language of Greek (written about AD 90),
– 1,000 years for the Annals of Tacitus (written about AD 115),
– 750 years for the letters of Pliny the Younger (written AD 112),
– 700 years for the “The Twelve Caesars” by Suetonius (written AD 120).
It has been stated that the copy gap (for the oldest complete manuscript) for most non-biblical classical sources is about 700-1400 years.

On the other hand, for the New Testament, the copy gap is about 300 years – Codex Vaticanus was written in about 325-350 AD and Codex Sinaiticus in about 330-360 AD. So the gap is significantly shorter for the New Testament. A longer gap means more copies of copies, which means more potential for copy errors to appear in the text. So the version of the New Testament we have today should be a more accurate copy of the original than is the case for most other ancient historical documents.

The scholar Sir Frederic Kenyon concluded, “The interval then between the data of original composition and the earliest extant (complete) evidence becomes so small to be in fact negligible, and the last foundation for any doubt that the Scripture 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.”

Conclusion

An investigation of the gaps between the events described in the New Testament and their communication to us today shows that as the memory gap (from an event to the original written account) is less than one generation and the copy gap (from the original written account to the oldest complete manuscript available today) is significantly less than for other ancient documents, we can trust the historical accuracy of the New Testament.

Appendix: Dating the New Testament

We can infer that most of the NT was written before AD 70, because there is no mention of the invasion of Jerusalem by the Romans and the destruction of the Jewish temple. This event was prophesied in Matthew, Mark and Luke. So these gospels were written before AD 70.

Also, the martyrdoms of James in 62 AD, Paul in 64 AD, and Peter in 65 AD, which would have had a significant impact on the Christian community aren’t mentioned in the New Testament. So Acts was written before 64 AD, and Luke was written before Acts (Acts 1:1-2). This is consistent with Paul quoting from Luke in 1 Timothy (Lk. 10:7; 1 Tim. 5:18).

Most scholars agree that John was written after Matthew, Mark and Luke because it seems to build on and supplement these. The fact that the destruction of Jerusalem is not mentioned in John may be because the book was written 15-20 years later, when the shock had worn off. Also, church fathers thought that John wrote Revelation in about AD 95 (during Domitian’s reign over the Roman Empire).

Written, January 2017

Also see: Is the New Testament reliable?
Can we trust our Bibles? How the Bible came to us.
Do we have the right Bible?


Can we trust our Bibles?

How the Bible came to us

I recently read about five alleged myths and shortcomings of the Bible: the creation story, the morality of the Jews destroying the Canaanites, Noah’s flood, the virgin birth and inconsistencies between different parts of the Bible. So can we trust our Bibles or are they the unreliable product of a more primitive era? To answer this question we will look at how the Bible came to us.

The word Bible comes from biblion, the Greek word for book and the word Scripture comes from scriptura, the Latin word for something written. The Bible is a collection of 66 books from more than 40 authors. It has two main parts, the Old Testament (OT), written before Christ and the New Testament (NT), written after Christ. They were both written in the everyday language of their time. The OT was written in Hebrew, except for portions in Aramaic after the Jewish exile in Babylon, while the New Testament was written in Greek.

Original text

Paul said that the OT was “the very words of God” (Rom. 3:2). This also applies to the NT as Peter equates Paul’s letters with Scripture (2 Pet. 3:16). So how did the words of God get to be written on earth? Well, the apostle John reported, “On the Lord’s Day I was in the Spirit, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet, which said: ‘Write on a scroll what you see and send it to the seven churches: …’” (Rev. 1:10-11NIV). In this case John was given a vision and he was to write down what he saw. In Jeremiah’s case, he dictated God-given words to his secretary Baruch (Jer. 36:1-4).

In Hebrews we learn, “In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days He has spoken to us by His Son” (Heb. 1:1-2). This means that in the OT God communicated to people via the prophets and in the NT He communicated via Jesus and the apostles, who recorded the life of Jesus and the early church.

Paul wrote, “All Scripture is God-breathed” (2 Tim. 3:16). Peter wrote, “We also have the prophetic message as something completely reliable … Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation of things (own mind). For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pet. 1:19-21). Clearly the Bible message came from God via the prophets and apostles. The Holy Spirit influenced them like a wind moves a sailing boat: see Acts 27:15 where the same word is used. So the Holy Spirit helped the authors write the words. But it wasn’t just dictated mechanically, because each author used their own style.

So God created the books of the Bible via human authors. It’s God’s words (in the original text). That’s why it is also referred to as God’s Word. Each word of the entire Bible was “God-breathed” as originally written. This means it was recorded accurately without error. So it’s trustworthy and reliable in all the matters it addresses.

Paul communicated “things God has revealed to us by His Spirit” (1 Cor. 2:10), “not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit” (1 Cor. 2:13). So the words used by the apostles were especially chosen by the Holy Spirit. Paul and the other writers “had the mind of Christ” (1 Cor. 2:16). This passage is about new truths revealed in the NT, not about heaven.

What about the Apocrypha which is comprised of 13 Jewish writings from the period between the OT and the NT (430 BC to 50 AD) that are included in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Bibles? The word Apocrypha comes from a Greek word meaning hidden. However:

  • They were never accepted by the Jews as part of their God-given Scriptures
  • None are quoted or referred to in the NT or accepted by Jesus and the apostles as God-given Scripture
  • None were written by the OT prophets
  • They were only recognised by Roman Catholics as part of their Scriptures in the 1540s (1,500 years after they were written)

So the Apocrypha are Jewish religious books written between the times of the OT and the NT, but they are not God-breathed Scripture.

By 400 BC the OT was complete and written on scrolls and by 100 AD the NT was complete and written on scrolls. However, because scrolls don’t last for thousands of years, we don’t have any of the original Biblical texts today. Does this mean our Bibles are unreliable? No! Many copies have been made and early manuscripts have been preserved.

Early manuscripts

Photocopiers have been used since 1959 and the printing press since the 1450s. Gutenberg printed the first Bible in 1456. Copies of the books of the Bible were handwritten before the printing press. A handwritten copy is called a manuscript, which comes from the Latin words manu (hand) and scriptum (written). An amazing number of Bible manuscripts have been preserved for us to examine today. These comprise ancient fragments, scrolls and books.

The characteristics of these documents changed over the centuries between when they were first composed and the advent of the printing press. The media they were written on changed from stones (like the Ten Commandments), to clay tablets (Moses), to papyrus (paper made from a reed plant that grew along the Nile River – that’s where our word paper comes from), to parchment (also called vellum; made from animal skins), and to paper. Paper as we know it was invented in China, but wasn’t used in Europe until the 1200s. Books replaced scrolls in about the second century AD. In about the eleventh century AD, the Greek text changed from modified capitals to lower case. In about the fifth century AD, the quill replaced the reed as the “pen” used by copyists. Scholars examine these characteristics when dating manuscripts.

Old Testament manuscripts

The OT was written between 1500 BC and 400 BC. The Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS) were the most important archaeological discovery in the last century. They were found in clay jays in caves near the north-western shore of the Dead Sea. Scholars believe that the DSS were hidden about 70 AD when Roman legions invaded Israel.

Before this time, the oldest Hebrew manuscript of the whole OT was Codex Leningradensis (1008 AD). Codex means book. In the DSS there was a copy of Isaiah dated 150 BC, which was about 550 years after the original text was written. The Hebrew text of this copy was virtually the same as the copy made over 1,000 years later. So the Jewish scribes did a good job! They were diligent and developed many practices to protect copies of their scriptures from error. For example, the Masoretes numbered the letters, words, and paragraphs of each book and the middle paragraph, middle word and middle letter had to correspond to those of the original document. Earlier Jewish scribes were just as meticulous in their transcription. After all, they were instructed not to add to or take away from the word of God (Dt. 4:2; Prov. 30:6).

Most of the DSS predate the time of Christ (they were written 150 BC to 70 AD). Parts of all the books of the Old Testament were found except Esther. They closely follow the Masoretic Text, the Hebrew text of the Jewish Bible (the tanakh), copied by a group of Jews about the 10th century AD, but there are a few exceptions. For example, Psalm 145 is an alphabetical psalm. Each verse begins with the next letter in the alphabet, but “N” verse is missing in the Masoretic Text and King James Bible.

Between the third century BC and 130 BC, the OT was translated into Greek and this version of the OT is known as the Septuagint. Fragments of Septuagint manuscripts date from the first and second centuries BC. Relatively complete manuscripts of the Septuagint include the Codex Vaticanus from the 4th century AD and the Codex Alexandrinus of the 5th century. These are the oldest surviving nearly complete manuscripts of the Old Testament in any language; the oldest existing complete Hebrew texts date some 600 years later, from the 10th century.

New Testament manuscripts

The NT was written between 50 AD and 100 AD. The oldest NT manuscript is a papyrus fragment of the Gospel of John, which is dated about 125 AD about 30 years after the book was first written! The earliest manuscripts of each book in the NT are usually papyrus fragments which are dated from 125 AD (for John) to 350 AD for 1&2 Timothy and 3 John, with a median date of 200 AD.

Codex Sinaiticus, a manuscript of the Bible written about 350 AD, contains the earliest complete copy of the New Testament. It was discovered at a monastery on Mount Sinai in the 1850s. The hand-written text is in Greek. On the other hand, the earliest manuscripts of the works of the Jewish historian Josephus in their original language are dated 900-1000 AD, at least 800 years after they were written.

As there are earlier, better and more manuscripts of Scripture, the manuscript evidence of the Bible is superior to that for any other ancient book. However, none of these Biblical manuscripts is perfectly accurate, they all contain copy errors. Does this mean our Bibles are unreliable? No! Scholars have reconstructed the original text.

Reconstructed text

The study of biblical manuscripts is important because handwritten copies of books usually contain errors. Textural scholars reconstruct the original text from the manuscripts available. Generally earlier versions are closer to the original as they have fewer copy errors.

Scholars have grouped the NT manuscripts into families: Alexandrian (200s-400s AD), Caesarean (200s AD onwards), Western (300s-500s AD) and Byzantine (500s onwards). There have been three major attempts to reconstruct the original New Testament text from ancient Greek manuscripts:

The Received Text (“Textus Receptus” in Latin) was based on some Byzantine (eastern portion of the Roman Empire) manuscripts (dated from 1000 AD). It was first published in 1516. This text lacks the input of many early Biblical manuscripts which have been discovered since this time.

The Eclectic Text (selected from the best of a variety of sources) was based on an analysis of all the manuscripts, with a preference for the earliest ones (mainly Alexandrian, Caesarean and Western manuscripts). It was first published in the 1880s. This text tends to be shorter than the others.

The Majority Text was based on the majority of existing Greek manuscripts and first published in the 1982. As fewer ancient texts have survived and the Byzantine church was quite wealthy and produced many manuscripts, the Majority Text is largely based on the Byzantine family of manuscripts (dated the 9th to the 13th centuries AD) and has some similarities to the Received Text. However, no major Bible translations are based on the Majority Text.

The differences between the reconstructed New Testament texts mentioned above are mainly technical and not doctrinal. They don’t affect any Christian doctrine because the Bible is a robust document. It has a great deal of redundancy and repetition with multiple accounts of important events. For example, there two accounts of Israel’s history (Samuel & Kings; Chronicles), three genealogies from Adam to Abraham (Genesis 5&11; 1 Chronicles; Luke 3) and four accounts of the life of Jesus (the gospels). All major doctrines are taught in several places in the Bible. They don’t rely on a single verse.

So scholars have reconstructed the original Biblical texts. However, as these reconstructed original texts are in Hebrew and Greek, which most of us can’t read, does that mean that our Bibles, which are not in Hebrew and Greek are unreliable? No! These languages have been translated accurately.

Accurate translation

Translators transfer the message from a source language to a receptor language. These Biblical texts have been translated into most of the languages in the world. In fact, the Bible has been translated and retranslated more than any other book in history. New translations are needed from time to time because all languages are constantly changing.

Some ancient translations are:

•   The Septuagint – a Greek translation of the OT dated about 200 BC, which was quoted by Christ and the apostles. This shows that God approves of translations. Jesus viewed this translation of the Old Testament as reliable and trustworthy (Mt. 5:17-18; Jn. 10:35).

•   The Vulgate – a Latin translation of the Bible dated about 400 AD, which was used for over 1,000 years including the Middle Ages.

If you look at an Interlinear Bible you will realise that a word-for-word translation is impossible. This is because each language has a different vocabulary (we may need more than one word to describe a word in another language or vice-versa) and a different grammar (or sentence structure). Also, languages are flexible and there is often more than one way to correctly translate a text. The same information can be communicated in different ways.

What’s the difference between different translations of the Bible?

Source text

Two types of reconstructed source have mainly been used:

  • Received Text – This was used by the 1611 KJV and has been maintained by subsequent editions of the KJV and for the NKJV.
  • Eclectic Text – This is used by most other translations of the Bible where some verses are omitted because it is believed that they were added by copyists.

Readability

Some translations try to follow the pattern of the source language (but are not as readable), others follow the pattern of the receptor language (but are not as close literally). For example:

  • Most literal includes: NASB (11), KJV (12), NKJV (9) and ESV (9)
  • Most readable includes: CEV (4), NLT (6)
  • Intermediate: NIV (8), HCSB (8)

The number is the grade level required to read the text. Note: interlinear Bibles are most literal, but they are not readable at all, and The Message is a paraphrase not a translation. Different translations have different purposes, which are indicated in the front of the Bible. They usually have a particular readership in mind. Most of the translations are trustworthy. Rarely does a doctrinal matter hinge on the translation of the text.

Lessons for us

We can be thankful for the Bible’s preservation over thousands of years.

Our Bibles are very close to the original because early manuscripts have been preserved, scholars have reconstructed the original text and languages have been translated accurately. So we can trust our Bibles.

Paul told Timothy, “from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:15-17). Each of our Bibles contains all we need to know about salvation, spiritual growth and Christian living, by making us “wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” and thoroughly equipping us for every good work.

Which is the best Bible? The one you read! Read it regularly and memorise key verses.

Written, March 2012

Also see: Is the New Testament reliable?
Mind the gap
Do we have the right Bible?