There have been many challenges brought by critics who doubt the reliability and trustworthiness of the accounts of Jesus’ life in the Bible. Some have said that the Scriptures we have today are not the same as what was written by the apostles in the first century. As we will see, however, these challenges do not stand up to scrutiny.
New Testament Textual Variants
The Gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—were probably written during the second half of the first century. Unfortunately, we do not actually have any of the original documents (called autographs) in our possession today. Instead, what we have are copies, often hand-written by scribes to preserve and circulate the words of the apostles so they could be passed around and used in worship services. The fact that the original manuscripts were copied shows how important these writings were to local church congregations. However, in the process of copying the manuscripts, the scribes often made small changes, some of them unintentional and others intentional.
For example, early copies of the Greek New Testament were written in an ancient style in which words were written in all capital letters with no spaces, punctuation, or paragraph divisions. A classic illustration of this style is the phrase “GODISNOWHERE.” A copyist would have to decide whether the phrase meant “God is now here” or “God is nowhere.” Context would have to determine the meaning of the phrase, so it is not unsurprising that a scribe could occasionally get things wrong. Furthermore, scribes sometimes wrote the same word twice when it should have been written once (or once when it should have been written twice), skipped over sections of text because the same words occurred later down the page, or misspelled words. These are all examples of unintentional changes.
Other times, however, the scribes changed the texts they were copying on purpose, for a variety of reasons. They might make grammatical improvements or liturgical changes (such as adding a doxology), or they might eliminate apparent discrepancies, harmonize passages, or even make doctrinal changes. However, even Bart Ehrman, a New Testament scholar who argues that the Bible is not reliable, recognizes that “most of the changes found in our early Christian manuscripts have nothing to do with theology or ideology. Far and away the most changes are the result of mistakes, pure and simple—slips of the pen, accidental omissions, inadvertent additions, misspelled words, blunders of one sort or another.”
Because there are a large number of variations in the New Testament manuscripts, some argue that the words of the New Testament are unreliable. But the vast number of New Testament manuscripts actually enables us to figure out what the originals said with a great deal of certainty. As Mark Roberts puts it, “having many manuscripts actually increases the likelihood of our getting back to the original text.” Scholars are able to compare the various manuscripts containing the same passages of Scripture and determine, on the basis of internal and external evidence, which of the manuscripts most likely gets the original wording right.
Antiquity and Multiplicity of New Testament Manuscripts
The earliest manuscripts of the works of first-century historians such as Josephus, Tacitus, and Suetonius are dated from the 9th–11th centuries, which is over 800 years after the originals were written. In terms of the number of manuscripts that have survived, there are 200 manuscripts of Suetonius, 133 of Josephus, and 75 of Herodotus.
By comparison, when we compare these ancient works to the New Testament, the difference is astonishing. For instance, the earliest New Testament manuscript is from around 125 A.D., while significant portions of the Gospels are represented in manuscripts from the late second- and early third centuries. So, whereas the best ancient historical works have a period of 500–800 years between the actual date the work was written and the date of the earliest surviving manuscript, there is less than a 100-year gap between the writing of the Gospels and the manuscripts we possess.
In addition, the number of manuscripts of the Gospels is staggering in comparison to other ancient works. As Roberts notes, “The number of Gospel manuscripts in existence is about 20 times larger than the average number of extant manuscripts of comparable writings.” This figure does not even represent the hundreds of thousands of quotes from the Gospels in the writings of the early church fathers. We have nearly 2,000 manuscripts of the Gospels alone. This meant that to doubt the reliability of the Gospels is to doubt the reliability of nearly every ancient text that we have.
Trustworthy and Reliable
Because of who God is, and because of what God has done to preserve his word, we can have confidence that the events described in Scripture are accurate and historical. This is important because Christianity, unique among world religions, is not primarily founded on principles but on the historical events of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. As John Gresham Machen writes, “Christianity is based upon an account of something that happened, and the Christian worker is primarily a witness.” Scripture reveals the central climax of history: God’s gracious act of bringing salvation through Jesus Christ.
Justin Holcomb is an Episcopal priest and teaches theology at Reformed Theological Seminary and Knox Theological Seminary. Justin wrote On the Grace of God and co-authored with his wife Lindsey Rid of My Disgrace and Save Me from Violence. He is also the editor of Christian Theologies of Scripture. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and at JustinHolcomb.com.