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Can We Trust the New Testament Text?

By Matt Waymeyer | 05.04.16 | The Expositors Blog

    Several years ago I was walking in a park and met a man who identified himself as a pantheist. As I shared the Gospel with him, he raised a series of objections to the Christian faith, the first of which concerned the reliability of Scripture. “The Bible was going along fine,” he explained, “until King James came along and changed it all, and now we have no idea what the original actually said!”

    The man’s objection was obviously more than a little misinformed, but it does raise a legitimate question: If the original manuscripts of the Bible no longer exist—and if the existing manuscripts do not completely agree with one another—how can we have confidence in the Scriptures we possess today? Can we really trust the Bible as it has been handed down to us? Can we really insist that it is nothing less than the inerrant Word of God?

    In response to this question, I would like to focus specifically on the New Testament and suggest three reasons why the differences between the manuscripts should not shake our confidence in the reliability of the biblical text. Those three reasons are the abundance of existing manuscripts, the insignificance of most textual variants, and the preservation of primary biblical doctrines.

    The Abundance of Existing Manuscripts

    The New Testament is by far the most remarkably preserved text of the ancient world, both in terms of the number of existing manuscripts as well as the temporal proximity between the earliest manuscripts and the original they represent. We currently possess more than 5,500 Greek manuscripts containing part or all of the New Testament, as well as more than 20,000 ancient translations of the New Testament into other languages, all abundant numbers in comparison with other literature of the ancient world. In addition, we possess more than one million quotations of the New Testament in the writings of the early church fathers, covering almost the entirety of the New Testament. This unprecedented number of manuscripts, translations, and patristic citations greatly enhances our ability to identify the original reading where differences exist. 

    Furthermore, the earliest New Testament manuscript is only one generation after the original was written, and many are within four centuries. We currently possess as many as a dozen manuscripts from the second century, 64 from the third century, and 48 from the fourth century, for a total of 124 manuscripts within 300 years of the composition of the New Testament (Wallace, “The Textual Reliability of the New Testament,” 34). The earliest New Testament fragment is separated from the original by only 50 years; the earliest books are separated by only 100 years; and the earliest complete New Testament is separated by only 225 years.

    By way of comparison, only ten manuscripts of Caesar’s Gallic Wars exist (the earliest dating 1,000 years after Caesar); only eight manuscripts of Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War exist (the earliest dating 1,300 years after Thucydides); only eight manuscripts of Herodotus’ History exist (the earliest dating 1,300 years after Herodotus); and only two manuscripts of Tacitus’ Histories and Annals exist (the earlier dating 700 years after Tacitus). The unparalleled number and early date of the biblical manuscripts makes it clear that the New Testament is easily the most remarkably preserved book of the ancient world.

    The Insignificance of Most Textual Variants

    The differences between manuscripts—known as textual variants—consist of discrepancies involving a letter, a word, a phrase, or, in very rare instances, an entire sentence or paragraph. Most scholars estimate the number of New Testament textual variants somewhere between 300,000 and 400,000. This sounds like a lot, but the reason we have so many variants is because we have so many surviving manuscripts, which is invaluable in the process of identifying the original text. In contrast, an ancient document with only a few existing manuscripts would have far less variants than the New Testament, but the process of identifying the original would be far more difficult, especially if the earliest manuscript came more than a thousand years after the autograph. So the large number of textual variants not only testifies to the preservation of so many New Testament manuscripts but it also makes the process of textual criticism that much easier.

    More to the point, however, a vast majority of these textual variants is utterly insignificant. It is estimated that more than 98 percent of the variants do not affect the meaning of the text whatsoever because they consist of matters such as the transposition of two letters or words, different ways to spell the same word, the use of synonyms, the use or absence of the definite article with a proper name, or a scribal error resulting in utter nonsense (such as the medieval scribe who accidentally changed 1 Thess 2:7 to “we were horses among you”) (Wallace, “How Badly Did the Scribes Corrupt the New Testament Text?,” 41). In fact, the largest group of this 98 percent consists of differences in spelling—for example, the name “John” can be spelled either Ioannes or Ioanesmost of which cannot even be reflected in an English translation.   

    In addition, of the 2 percent of textual variants that actually affect the meaning of the biblical text, oftentimes one of the alternate readings has no plausible claim on authenticity because it is found either in a single manuscript or in a group of less reliable manuscripts. This leaves less than 1 percent of the textual variants in the New Testament which both affect the meaning of the biblical text and have a reasonable claim to be authentic (Wallace, “The Textual Reliability of the New Testament,” 38–41). Therefore, the vast majority of the New Testament is textually certain, and in most cases where legitimate variants do exist, there is little doubt as to the identity of the original text. Those critics of Scripture who present the New Testament manuscript tradition as hopelessly chaotic grossly misrepresent the true state of affairs.

    The Preservation of Primary Biblical Doctrines

    Finally, it is often helpful for believers to remember that no fundamental doctrine or core belief of the Christian faith is affected in any significant way by a viable textual variant. As James White states, “The simple fact of the matter is that no textual variants in either the Old or New Testament in any way, shape, or form materially disrupt or destroy any essential doctrine of the Christian faith” (White, The King James Only Controversy, 67). For those who are still unsettled by the remaining margin of error, D.A. Carson draws a helpful analogy:

    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 (Carson, The King James Version Debate, 73).

    In the end, we simply need to fall back on faith, resting in the confidence that our sovereign God not only inspired the text of Scripture but also providentially preserved it in such a way that the Bible we possess today is indeed reliable. This may not alleviate the need to engage in textual criticism at times, but it should alleviate the concern that we cannot trust the New Testament. It is nothing less than the infallible, inerrant Word of God Himself.

    Matt Waymeyer serves on the pastoral staff at Grace Immanuel Bible Church in Jupiter, FL and teaches Greek and theology at The Expositors Seminary.

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