The Logic of Christ and the Bible (Part 1) – The Bible as a Reliable Historical Document and Trustworthy Word of God.
The Bible as a Reliable Historical Document
Critics of Christianity often assert that we cannot trust present copies of the Bible as they do not accurately reflect the original text (autograph). This criticism is echoed by Dan Brown in his popular fiction, The Da Vinci Code:
The Bible did not arrive by fax from heaven…The Bible is the product of man, my dear. Not of God. The Bible did not fall magically from the clouds. Man created it as a historical record of tumultuous times, and it has evolved through countless translations, additions, and revisions. History has never had a definitive version of the book. [Dan Brown, The Da Vinci Code (New York: Doubleday 2003), 231].
Dan Brown’s criticism is a deliberate distortion of history. In truth, there is an abundance of early Bible manuscripts. For the purpose of this post, I shall focus on the New Testament of which there are 5700 early Greek manuscripts (with a note of scholarly caveat that in textual criticism, manuscripts are not just counted but weighed). Furthermore, the New Testament was early translated into a variety of languages – Latin, Coptic, Syriac, Armenian etc. All in all, we count up to 20,000 handwritten manuscripts of the New Testament in various early languages.
Our confidence in the reliability of the New Testament is further strengthened as we can refer to more than a million quotations by the early church fathers. Even as a severe critic like Bart Ehrman concedes, “If all other sources for our knowledge of the text of the New Testament were destroyed, [the patristic quotations] would be sufficient alone for the reconstruction of practically the entire New Testament.” [Bruce Metzger & Bart Ehrman, The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption and Restoration, 4ed. (OUP 2005), p. 126].
F.F. Bruce concludes that, “There is no body of ancient literature in the world which enjoys such a wealth of good textual attestation as the New Testament.” Professor Bruce further comments, “The evidence for our New Testament writings is ever so much greater than the [best] evidence for many writings of classical writers, the authenticity of which no one dreams of questioning. And if the New Testament were a collection of secular writings, their authenticity would generally be regarded as beyond all doubt.” In this regard, no ancient manuscript comes any way near close to matching the Bible in terms of possessing such an abundance manuscript support.
Some of the earliest Greek manuscripts are:
The Chester Beatty papyri.
The major papyri in this collection are p45, p46, p47.
• p45: 150-250 AD; contains parts of the Gospels and Acts.
• p46: 90-175 AD; contains Pauline Epistles and Hebrews.
• p47: third century AD, contains parts of Revelation.
The Bodmer papyri.
The major papyri in this collection are p66, p72, p75.
• p66: 150-200 AD, contains almost all of the Gospel of John.
• p72: 200’s AD, containing all of I & II Peter, Jude.
• p75: 175-200 AD, contains major portions of Luke and John.
World-class textual critic Daniel Wallace reports that we have a dozen manuscripts from the second century, sixty four from the third, and forty-eight from the fourth. That’s is a total of 124 manuscripts within 300 years of the composition of the New Testament. [See Daniel Wallace’s presentation in his debate with Bart Ehrman in Robert Stewart ed., The Reliability of the New Testament (Fortress 2011), pp. 34]. Admittedly, many of the earliest papyri are not complete. In practice, the most authoritative critical Greek editions like the NA28 and the UBS 4ed rely on about 200 of the best manuscripts. Pride of place is given to the almost complete 4th Century manuscripts like Codex Sinaiticus and the Codex Vaticanus. These manuscripts alone refute the claims by critics that the New Testament is unreliable since the reconstructed text relies on ‘tiny fragments’.
British Library Add. MS 43725, ff.244v-245
Still, critics may retort that the problem of textual inaccuracy remains. The number of variants, with the latest estimate reaching 300,000, is just too great to be ignore. However, this cited number of variants can be misleading. To be sure, the quantity of variants arises in proportion to the abundance of ancient manuscripts; but this is in point of fact not an embarrassment of confusion as it is an embarrassment of richness. A more accurate perspective is given by Neil Lightfoot,
From one point of view it may be said that there are 200,000 scribal errors in the manuscripts, but it is wholly misleading and untrue to say that there are 200,000 errors in the text of the New Testament. This large number is gained by counting all the variations in all of the manuscripts (about 4,500). This means that if, for example, one word is misspelled in 4,000 different manuscripts, it amounts to 4,000 “errors.” Actually, in a case of this kind only one slight error has been made and it has been copied 4,000 times. But this is the procedure which is followed in arriving at the large number of 200,000 “errors.” [How We God the Bible (Baker 1963), pp. 53-54].
Bart Ehrman gives the impression that these variants decisively undermine any confidence in the reliability of the present restored New Testament text. But when the push comes to a shove, Ehrman would acknowledge that modern textual scholars can confidently recover almost all the original text of the Bible through careful and systematic use of principles of textual criticism. As he writes, “In spite of all these remarkable [textual] differences, scholars are convinced that we can reconstruct the original words of the New Testament with reasonable (although probably not 100 percent) accuracy. [Bart Ehrman, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, 3ed (OUP 2003)].
The minimal significance of these manuscripts variants was already noted by the two great scholars B.F. Westcott and F.J.A. Hort who laid the foundation for the modern framework for textual criticism of the New Testament.
The whole area of variation between readings that have ever been admitted, or are likely to be ever admitted, into any printed texts is comparatively small; and a large part of it is due mainly to difference between the early uncritical editions and the texts formed within the last half-century with the help of the priceless documentary evidence brought to light in recent times. ‘If comparative trivialities, such as changes in order, the insertion or omission of the article with proper names, and the like, are set aside, the words in our opinion still subject to doubt can hardly amount to more than a thousandth part of the whole New Testament. [The New Testament in Original Greek (Cambridge UP 1885), pp. 565-566].
In concrete terms, the frequency of problematic words would be one word per three pages in the Westcott & Hort edition of the Greek Testament. The UBS 1966 edition lists a set of 5100 variants of which 1440 may be significant for translators. Many of these variants are quite trivial, such as spelling of a name, the interchange of ‘our’ and ‘your’ (as they are pronounced almost identically in Greek).
More recently, John Wenham concludes,
Amazing though it sounds, the Herculean labours of the textual critics are virtually concerned with discovering the true reading of about a hundred points where there are variants of some significance to the ordinary reader. About sixty of these are in the Synoptic gospels and about forty in the rest of the NT. Of these one hundred readings the balance of evidence in most cases already weighted more or less hearty in favour of the variant that has been chosen for the text, rather than the one that has been relegated to the margin. In most cases the variants are not contradictory, and could well both be true to fact. [John Wenham, Christ and the Bible (Tyndale Press 1972), p. 181].
To illustrate further – of the 138,020 words in the New Testament, only 1400 words are in some degree of doubt – that’s about 1 word in 1,000 words. In such cases, textual critics continue to work hard to ascertain the original. Put another way, of 20,000 lines of the New Testament, only 40 are in doubt.
These textual variants do not significantly cast doubts in interpretation of crucial doctrinal passages of the New Testament; much less do they require a change in the core beliefs of Christianity. This assurance is confirmed by D.A. Carson:
In my judgment the degree of uncertainty raised by textual questions is a great deal less than the degree of uncertainty raised by hermeneutical questions. In other words, even when the text is certain there is often an honest difference of opinion among interpreters as to the precise meaning of the passage. Few evangelicals, I would like to think, will claim infallibility for their interpretations of the Scriptures; they are prepared to live with the (relatively) small degree of uncertainty raised by such limitations. The doubt raised by textual uncertainties, I submit, is far, far smaller. [D.A. Carson, The King James Version Debate: A Plea for Realism (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1979), 73].
In short, there is wide consensus among textual critics today to accept the textual reliability of the New Testament. For all practical purposes, any inquirer may confidently read the present restored Greek New Testament as an accurate reflection of the original text (autograph).
Muslim critics like Adnan Rashid from Islamic Education and Research Academy and M.S.M. Saifullah from Islamic Awareness keep debating the significance of the number or percentage of variants in their determined effort to undermine any confidence in present editions of the New Testament. In this regard, what is sauce for the goose is also sauce for the gander. The fact is, all ancient manuscripts prior to the invention of the printing press inescapably suffer from copyist errors (this includes both Biblical and Quranic manuscripts). For example, Ahmad von Denffer notes there are 101 variants in Sura (2) al-baqara between the Uthmanic text and the Mushaf of Ibn Mas ‘ud and 93 variants between the Uthmanic text and the Mushaf of Ubay bin Ka ‘b [Ahmad von Denffer, Ulum Al-Quran (Islamic Foundation 1983), p. 47 & 49).
More importantly, these Muslim critics may appeal to Western rationalist critics only if they are willing to subject the Quran to the same canons of criticism that have been brought to bear on the Biblical text. The challenge for these Muslim critics would be: 1) willing and able to offer sufficient copies of ancient Quranic manuscripts for public scrutiny, and 2) offer a critical edition of the Quran text which is academically as rigorous as the critical texts of the Bible like the BHS (for the Old Testament), and the NA28 and UBS 4ed (for the New Testament).
The existence of many variants in the Biblical manuscripts points to a textual transmission that is free from manipulation by dominant groups in early Christianity. In contrast, the fewer variants of the Quranic manuscripts point to an imperially and ideologically controlled transmission of Quranic texts after the Uthmanic recension of the Quran. Still, the disputed variants could not be totally erased and are the subject of current Western modern textual critics. The results of this careful and rigorous scholarship invites an honest engagement by Muslim scholars. [See the doctoral dissertation by Keith Small, Textual Criticism and Quran Manuscripts (Lexington 2011). Also, Francois Deroche’s article “Manuscripts of the Quran” in Encyclopedia of the Quran vol 3 (E.J. Brill 2003), pp. 254-275, and book Qurans of the Ummayads (E.J. Brill 2014)].
Finally, any comparison of textual history between the Bible and the Quran should be keep in view that the Bible is a text from ancient antiquity while the Quran is a medieval text.
A Simple Exercise in Textual Criticism
Perhaps a simple exercise in textual criticism would assure us why variant readings need not undermine our ability to recover the original text from ancient Biblical manuscripts.
Suppose the teacher of a class reads the newspapers headline and asked his pupils to record it in their exercise books. The students’ exercise books give the following sentences.
1) Sixty tall boys felt ill after eating bad fish on Tuesday.
2) Six small boys fell ill after tasting bad fish on Tuesday.
3) Sixty boys fell ill after eating bad fish on Tuesday.
4) Sixty small boys fell ill on Tuesday after eating bad fish.
5) Sixty small boys fell ill after eating baked fish on Tuesday.
6) Sixty small boys fell ill after eating bad fish on Thursday.
7) Sixty small boys fell ill after eating bad fish on Tuesday.
8) Sixty small boys fell ill after eating crayfish on Tuesday.
9) Sixteen small boys fell ill after eating bad fish on Tuesday.
10) Sixty bad boys fell ill after eating bad fish on Tuesday.
11) Sixty small boys fell ill after eating small fish on Tuesday.
It appears that each of the pupils recorded the headline differently (what a terrible state of education this must be!). I invite the reader to examine the list and determine which one is the correct sentence (the original headline). Only simple common sense is required. Check your conclusion with the sentence at the end of part 1 of this article.*
We may draw some lessons from this simple exercise. Analogically, each of the sentences would represent an independent manuscript tradition. Suppose, for the sake of discussion, we found after examining all the 5700 Greek manuscripts that every paragraph in the manuscripts contains variants. Still, we are confident that textual criticism which involves sophisticated processes of careful textual comparison that takes into account not only the date of the manuscripts, but includes judgment based on their material quality, geographical distribution, relationship between various texts classified within different families of texts or textual traditions, and citations from other early Christian writings, should enable the textual critic to arrive at the most likely original words.
It is now understandable why Christians do not feel threatened or tempted to destroy ancient manuscripts with all their warts, variants and all. While it is natural for the number of variants to increase with discovery of new ancient manuscripts, by the same token, the new manuscripts also provide more opportunities for textual comparison to help restore the original texts (or autograph) of the Bible. Now you may rest confident in the reliability of the restored text of the Bible.
Useful books for Part 1:
Three simple introductions to textual criticism:
David Alan Black. New Testament Textual Criticism. A Concise Guide. Baker 1994.
J. Harold Greenlee, Introduction to New Testament Textual Criticism. Hendrickson 1995.
J. Harold Greenlee. The Text of the New Testament: From Manuscript to Modern Edition. Hendrickson 2008.
Stanley Porter, How We Got the New Testament: Text, Transmission, Translation (Baker 2013).
Robert Stewart ed. The Reliability of the New Testament. Fortress 2011.
Paul Wegner. A Student’s Guide to Textual Criticism of the Bible. IVP 2006.
The two major texts on New Testament Textual Criticism are:
Bruce Metzger. The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption and Restoration 3ed. Oxford UP 1992. This edition is preferred over the fourth edition (OUP 2005), an update by Bart Ehrman which has met considerable criticisms from the scholarly guild.
Kurd Aland, The Text of the New Testament: An Introduction to Critical Editions and to the Theory and Practice of Modern Textual Criticism. 2nd. ed (Eerdmans 1995).
*Result for A simple exercise in textual criticism: Congratulations, if you concluded that sentence (7) is the correct sentence/original text – Sixty small boys fell ill after eating bad fish on Tuesday.