People who argue that Scripture must have been changed over time to fit a political agenda often describe it in a straw man like this: "Have you ever played a game of telephone. When you said one thing into the ear of a person next to you. But by the time you get to the end of the circle, the original message has completely changed?" If you have heard something like this, then you've heard someone arguing against something known as the doctrine of preservation.
In other words, does the Bible we have in our hands today and on our shelves say the same thing as the first editions written in the first century AD?
Enter books, and literally millennia, have been dedicated to this subject. So I cannot cover near the amount of breadth we would need to for this article. But we can touch on some of the basics and why we need to learn about the doctrine of preservation as Christians.
What Is the Doctrine of Preservation?
As stated above, the doctrine of preservation simply means that the copy process of Scripture held true to the originals. That scribes didn't add any bits they liked or any political agendas. Many people argue that Scripture got tampered with over time and that Christians introduced new elements to the Bible to make their case. So we need to exercise extreme caution when it comes to this concept.
Are the words in Scripture we have the same that we can find in the originals?
Now before we dive into this, we do need to address why skeptics like to attack the Bible's doctrine of preservation and why so many people claim that there are too many manuscript variations between copies we have of the Bible (and what those variations actually are). Let's dive in.
Why Do so Many People Attack This Doctrine?
Christianity's foundation rests upon the Resurrection (2 Timothy 2:8). Without it, we believe in vain. Thankfully, no one has disproven the resurrection. In fact, we see the opposite case. This doesn't sit well with people. Because if the resurrection is true, that means they need to experience the life-changing salvation that comes through Jesus in order to experience eternal joy with God. People don't like getting told what to do.
So if they can't disprove the resurrection, they go to their next line of defense: disproving the Bible as a faithful and historical document.
In other words, they want to prove that the Scripture by which we abide today is not true to the originals, and therefore, we cannot trust it. And if we cannot trust it, then how can we know if what it says it's true. How can we know Jesus existed (although we can point to plenty of extra-biblical sources that prove that)? And so on, and so on.
So let's address some of the most common defenses skeptics will put up about the doctrine of salvation, and how what they claim often proves the opposite of what they attempt to disprove.
The Many Copies and So-Called "Variations"
True, we don't have the original documents of the New Testament that were written in the first century AD. But we have some that are very close. In fact, we have some from the second century AD, insanely close to the close of the New Testament canon that happened somewhere between 70-95 AD. Now, wait a minute, Hope. You may say. That manuscript could be anywhere from five to 130 years away from the original. Isn't that a great length of time? Couldn't things have gotten changed by then?
Let's do a little comparison with other historical documents and the number of years in between the originals and the copies we have.
Herodotus: Time between originals and earliest copies we have - 1350 years
Thucydides: Time between originals and earliest copies we have - 1300 years
Caesar's Gallic Wars: Time between originals and earliest copies we have - 1000 years
We could keep going, but having New Testament copies within a century of the original writings is unheard of throughout history.
Not to mention we have more than 5600 copies of these manuscripts with 99.5 percent accuracy when comparing them with each other.
Hold up, Hope. What about that other 0.5 percent? Most of the variations come down to spelling and punctuation. As styles changed over time in writing. Our modern Bibles also note when certain verses have been omitted or added in later copies, so we can know what got added over time. Also, none of the core doctrines or messages got tampered with.
The Scribe Copying Process
Although we've lightly touched on this above, the scribes were meticulous. We see this with the Old Testament when they copied down the text (as seen in the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Septuagint). And we also witness the same thing happening with the New Testament.
For a great look at the copy process, check out this Christianity Today article.
Is There a Best Translation?
We have literally hundreds of translations of the English Bible alone. So how do we pick?
It totally depends if you want a word-for-word, meaning-for-meaning, or paraphrased translation. With the latter, we don't recommend making that the only translation you use, as paraphrased versions are not nearly as accurate as other versions.
Some people are very adamant about reading only certain translations such as the KJV or ESV. This article is not to recommend one over the others, as people can find merit in many different translations.
This Crosswalk article has some great translations you can read and why. I personally recommend reading and comparing multiple translations. As translating from an Ancient Greek language to a modern English language, Christians have hemmed and hawed over word choices such as bondservant. We can rejoice and find comfort that the meaning of the passages has not changed, and neither have the core doctrines. And the sheer amount of manuscripts attests to the church placing importance on preserving the word for future generations.
Why Is the Doctrine of Preservation so Important to Us?
Matthew 5:18: "For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished."
Jesus believed in the doctrine of preservation, and we have to know that Holy Spirit played a big role in making sure the copies we have in our hands today convey the same meaning as the ones that we see in the first century. After all, the Holy Spirit was involved in the writing process, whyever wouldn't he take part in the copying and distributing processes as well?
Considering people like to attack the Bible itself, we need to be prepared for skeptics to point at variations of text and to say, "Look, the copies are different. How can you trust it?" We can counteract this by showing the differences are mostly in the grammar and that the sheer amount of copies and the dates of the earliest copies points to the historical reliability of the Bible.
For a great analysis of this, I highly suggest checking out Lee Strobel's The Case for Christ. As an investigative journalist, he investigated the Gospels and found them to be convincing in their historical reliability. This ultimately led him to his conversion to Christianity.
Photo Credit: ©Unsplash/benwhite
Hope Bolinger is an editor at Salem, a multi-published novelist, and a graduate of Taylor University's professional writing program. More than 1,100 of her works have been featured in various publications ranging from Writer's Digest to Keys for Kids. She has worked for various publishing companies, magazines, newspapers, and literary agencies and has edited the work of authors such as Jerry B. Jenkins and Michelle Medlock Adams. Her modern-day Daniel trilogy released its first two installments with IlluminateYA, and the final one, Vision, releases in August of 2021. She is also the co-author of the Dear Hero duology, which was published by INtense Publications. And her inspirational adult romance Picture Imperfect releases in November of 2021. Find out more about her at her website.