The fact that we do not have the original autographs of the New Testament manuscripts has led many to deny that the New Testament that we have is reliable. The phrase, “The Bible’s been translated and recopied so many times…” has been one of the more frequent objections that are given to accepting the Bible. Many religious groups today also make the claim that the Bible has been corrupted over time, which has led to “new revelations,” such as ones received by Muhammad and Joseph Smith.
If the Bible has been corrupted, then all of these people and religious groups make a great point. We would not know what is and is not reliable. But when these people make this point, they are rewriting history and neglecting all of the evidence that the area of textual criticism gives us.
1. Do we possess copies that are reasonably close to the originals?
Without question, the Bible fares better in this area than most ancient documents. We have copies that are much closer to the originals than any other ancient work by comparison! There is a fragment of the gospel of John that dates to within 50 years of when the gospel was originally written. We have thousands of fragments or full manuscripts that date from 50-1500 years from when the originals were written. Full manuscripts 300 years away from originals. (not a long time to experts)
If these were not “religious” documents, this would lead the document to be credible! No one would reasonably doubt its credibility if it were another historical document. Critics cannot refute this! The Bible is the best attested ancient work ever. Period.
-Livy’s history of Rome – number of manuscripts available – 20
- Oldest copy made 500 years later
-Julius Caesars Gallic Wars – number of manuscripts available -10
- Oldest copy made 900 years later
-Annals of Tacitus – number of manuscripts available -2
- Oldest copy made 800 years after original
-The New Testament – number of manuscripts available -5600
- full manuscript of 300 yrs. within originals, fragments within 50 yrs.(these numbers only include Greek manuscripts and fragments!)
No one doubts the first 3 as being reliable! The closest work of antiquity to matching the New Testament is Homer’s Iliad. There are about 2500 manuscripts or fragments, and the earliest dating is about 500 years after the original.
2. Did the authors intend to convey reliable history to the readers?
Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile an account of the things accomplished among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, it seemed fitting for me as well, having investigated everything carefully from the beginning, to write it out for you in consecutive order, most excellent Theophilus; so that you may know the exact truth about the things you have been taught.
Luke leaves no doubt that he desired to leave a precise, detailed account of the gospel (and Acts). The truth is that if the gospels did not contain miracles, no one would doubt whether they were credible or not.
3. Were the authors in a position to know what they were talking about?
The best situation is that the author is either an eyewitness or very close to an eyewitness. The closer to the situation spoken about, the more reliable it will be. Luke had direct contact with eyewitnesses and thoroughly investigated everything. Matthew and John were eyewitnesses. Mark is believed to receive his information from Peter, an eyewitness.
Paul wrote 25-30 years after Jesus’ resurrection 1 Corinthians 15, which mentions Jesus’ resurrection. Paul was in a position to know what he was talking about. He was an eyewitness of the resurrected Christ!
Once again, if these were not religious, their credibility would not be doubted.
4. Did the authors’ bias distort their historical reporting?
It is true that these men were followers of Jesus that wanted to convert people to Christianity. But does this mean that they fabricated stories such as the miracles to try to convert people? Did they lie? What would be their motivation for doing this?
Asking this same question about other historical documents would render all of history as unreliable because most people wrote history of something they were personally invested in. There is no such thing as a totally unbiased position. So based on this argument, all history is false!
Also, why would the writers fabricate such lies, and then be willing to get into trouble, suffer, or even die for what they know is a lie?
5. Is there “self-damaging” material in the documents?
There is a lot of self-damaging material in the bible, where the authors did not hide facts that made themselves or other followers of God look bad. This shows that the authors’ purpose was not to “sugar-coat” everything and to gloss over problems.
A Few Examples:
- Jesus’ own family did not believe in Him (Mark 3:21, John 7:5)
- People in Jesus’ hometown rejected Him (Mark 6:2-5)
- His disciples were unable at a point to exorcise demons (Mark 9:18)
- The disciples many times argued amongst each other and did not believe (Mark 9:34)
- Jesus was betrayed by a close disciple and denied by another (Mark 14)
- Women were the first witnesses to testify about seeing Jesus alive.
6. Are the documents consistent with other documents that talk about the same events?
Each gospel on its own merits is consistent internally.Each one gives us a separate account of the ministry of Jesus.
The question arises in how the Gospels relate to each other. There are similarities and differences between them. Some have gone as far as stating that any difference between the gospels means there is a contradiction.
For example, one gospel says there were two men/or angels at the tomb after Jesus’ resurrection and another gospel says there was only one. Is this a contradiction? No, it is not. This would be equivalent of someone witnessing a major 10 vehicle accident on the interstate. If that person comes home and tells his wife about two vehicles that got into an accident, and how these vehicles did not even look like cars any longer, did he lie to his wife about what he was an eyewitness of? No. If his wife saw the incident reported on the news along with video footage of the whole accident where she sees there were 10 vehicles involved, will she accuse her husband of lying to her by not mentioning all 10 vehicles? of course not. The man’s eyewitness report and the video footage were not contradictory because there were differences. The same is the case with the eyewitness accounts of Jesus’ life. There are differences, and the reason is the same as the above illustration. They recorded the events from a different point of view and wanted to stress different facts about the events. Just because there are differences, does not mean that the witnesses contradict each other.
Also, It is important to notice the difference between a difficulty and a true contradiction. A contradiction means that there are mutually exclusive statements that cannot be reconciled because there are no plausible explanations. Such charges against the Bible have not been sustained. All supposed contradictions are dismissed upon looking at the scriptures within context, understanding the culture of the time period, and understanding the genre of the writing.
7. Are the recorded events “believable?”
For this question, presuppositions come into play. If someone has a certain worldview that will not consider the possibility of miracles being able to happen (for example, naturalism or materialism), they view the New Testament as “unbelievable.” The fact that there is credible eyewitness testimony gives us something that is believable.
These questions help to show that the Bible is believable:
- If there is a God, would he want to communicate with His creation?
- If there is a God, would He want to be involved?
- If there is a God, miracles are possible, and believable!
8. Does archaeology support the Bible?
Nelson Glueck, a respected Jewish archaeologist claims: “It may be stated categorically that no archaeological discovery has ever contradicted a biblical reference.” This is not true of other religions. The Mormon claim for inspiration of the Book of Mormon has been categorically condemned by the Smithsonian Institute because of the fallacies shown by archaeology; this is not so with the Bible. A.N. Sherwin-White, a respected classical historian at Oxford says, “For Acts the confirmation of historicity is overwhelming…”
Hundreds of statements in the Bible, which in times past have been held untrue by enemies of the Bible, have recently been proven true by archaeologists. Here are 3 examples:
- The Hittites were once thought to be a Biblical legend, until their capital and records were discovered
- It was once claimed there was no Assyrian king named Sargon as recorded in Isaiah 20:1, because this name was not known in any other record. Then, Sargon’s palace was discovered in Iraq. The very event mentioned in Isaiah 20, his capture of Ashdod, was recorded on the palace walls.
- Another king who was in doubt was Belshazzar, king of Babylon, named in Daniel 5. The last king of Babylon was Nabonidus according to recorded history. Tablets were found showing that Belshazzar was Nabonidus’ son who served as coregent in Babylon. Thus, Belshazzar could offer to make Daniel “third highest ruler in the kingdom” (Dan. 5:16)
9. What about the variances and errors in copying?
There are thousands of variants between manuscripts that we have! But is this a big problem? Not really when you consider what is counted as a variant:
- spelling differences- word missing a letter or has an extra letter
- nonsense – the scribe made a mistake that is easily seen – “put in a wrong word”
- words changed with synonyms
- articles that are or are not missing (the, an, a)
- word order changed (King Herod vs. Herod the King)
A couple of the biggest questions are regarding Mark 16:9-10, John 7:53-8:11, Acts 8:37, 1 John 5:6-8. The question is if these texts belong. But the issue doesn’t matter. There is not anything that these texts teach that is not taught elsewhere in the bible.
Only about 1% of variants in any way change the meaning of the text, and not one of them affects a common doctrine or belief of Christians!