Have we lost the original text of the Bible?
In this episode, Brother Jonathan answers this very common question.
Have we lost the original text of the Bible?
Remnant Bible Fellowship
- One of the most common questions or arguments that is brought up by people wanting to invalidate the Bible is the idea that the original text of the Bible has been lost either by transmission or translation. A lot of people repeat this idea without doing any actual research. People blindly believe this idea, because no one who actually does an investigation into the data believes it.
- For example, one of the leading textual critics, atheist/agnostic Bart Ehrman, who authored the book “Misquoting Jesus”, which has turned more people against the Bible than most books, had this to say in the appendix:
- “Essential Christian beliefs are not affected by textual variants in the manuscript tradition of the New Testament.”
- So, from one of the leading critics of the Bible you have heard up front that there is not a single cardinal doctrine of Christianity that is affected by the differences, or variants, of the manuscripts underlying the Bible. What is a ‘variant’? Let me tell you.
- A variant happens when someone who is copying a manuscript (a handwritten copy of the New Testament whether partial or whole) makes an error in copying or a correction. Then, what results is that you now have two manuscripts that differ. Later, someone copies that same manuscript and another person copies the other. Now you have four manuscripts that read differently, because most likely when they copied again there was a new variant added also. This happens many times over.
- So, what do you think? Do all those variants add up to a completely different text, thus forever hiding what the original New Testament said? Not at all. For one thing, this view assumes that there is no one who is double-checking these things. We know for a fact that this is not true. The early Christians wrote about how they noticed some of these copying errors and talked about it. Another thing is that they still had the one they copied originally. Yes, the originals wore out after time because of the incessant copying and circulating of them, but that doesn’t mean that the text was lost.
- Here’s an example for you. A professor of a college class with one-hundred students gives a copy of the Gettysburg Address to everyone. Their assignment is to hand copy it word-perfect. They all come back and turn their copy in. The teacher collates them all and checks them. Errors were made. In fact, everyone made at least one error. What does this mean?
- Well, for one thing, do you think that every single student made the same exact error in the same exact places? No. Each student would make individual errors. This also would prove that no one cheated. There was not one person who just superseded everything and erased everyone else’s copies and substituted his own. It is the fact that each student’s work had its own variants that proves that there was no mass control or revision done.
- You could easily gather all the papers, note the differences, and where they all agreed you would know was right. And where there were oddball variants that didn’t match any of the others you would know that that student just goofed there.
- This is what the situation of the New Testament is like. We have all these copies with variants, but they agree the overwhelming majority of the time.
- But, let’s consider what type of variants there are.
- Types of variants
- There are roughly 300 to 400,000 variants in the New Testament manuscripts. That sounds like a depressingly large number. That’s more than there are words in the New Testament. But guess what? 99.75% of those variants don’t affect the translation at all. Less than one-half of one percent of these affect how the text is translated at all. It’s usually things like a name of a person or place is spelled differently. A large number of variants is because there was no standard understanding of how to spell John’s name. So the smallest number of variants are the ones that are both meaningful (that is, they affect meaning in some way) and viable (that is, actually possible).
- But what constitutes ‘meaningful’? Well, when I say meaningful what I mean is that it affects that translation in some way. But when you start looking through these you see that most are trivial or insignificant. Like how do you spell Bethesda? Or, in Mark 9:29, does Jesus mention just praying does he add fasting? People like Bart Ehrman will often use examples like the pericope of the woman caught in adultery in John 8 or the last twelve verses of Mark as examples of textual issues. They imply that these are normal. That’s completely false. Most textual variants are spelling issues, then you have word order issues (which rarely affects translation in Greek), and you also have a choice of this word or that word. For example, sometimes the manuscript said “Jesus did this or that” and another says “the Lord did this or that”. Either way you know who its referring to. Does it affect meaning? Yes. Does it affect doctrine. Not at all.
- Doctrines such as the deity of Christ and whether or not the early Christians believed that Jesus was the Son of God are not affected at all by these variants. What the Bible says about salvation is not affected. Whether or not Jesus is going to return and how is not affected. Christianity is not affected at all by anything in the manuscript tradition. Those who say that it is are speaking from ignorance or just simply lying to you.
- What about translation?
- It’s more common to hear that the text has been lost by the constant translating. Those who say this actually don’t know what translating is. You take the meaning from these words over here and bring their meaning over into another language. Languages have rules you know. We have bilingual or trilingual people that we meet in everyday life. Ask them if meaning is lost. Yes, sometimes nuances particular to a language is hard to convey, but its not lost. Especially since we have the text as it was written. Not a single doctrine is affected.
- Let me put it this way. No, we don’t have the actual physical original copies of the New Testament text. But we have about 6,000 copies of it in the exact same language. If you expand that to include other languages then you get up to around 25-26,000 copies. That is miraculous by secular historical standards. The differences between these copies, as we already talked about, are minor and insignificant. Some important texts passages that explicitly state the deity of Christ, for example, are exactly the same in every single manuscript. We have manuscripts that are within decades of when the New Testament was completed. Over 100 in the second century alone. We have a fragment of the gospel of John that is from the first century. That gospel was written in the 90s AD. That’s single digit year difference.
- But, setting all that aside we have the writings of the early Christians, sermons, homilies, lectionaries, etc. They did not have the gift of brevity. Sometimes they quote almost whole chapters. With these quotations alone we can reconstruct the New Testament in its entirety. They also verify that the Christians back then believed the exact same gospel message that is preached today. They believed in the deity of Christ. They believed in saved by grace through faith. Some of these were written by the disciples of the apostles themselves.
- In short, we know what the original text said and we know what the original Christians believed.
- Now, does that validate that church on your corner? No. Just because we have the text of the Bible doesn’t mean that people follow it or obey it. But I’ll tell you one thing, when I started reading the Bible I saw that my home church and many around me were not getting what they believed from the Bible. They were just propagating what others told them. If you want to know what God said, just go get a Bible and start reading. Start in Matthew.
- Jesus said that we must repent of our sins (that is acknowledge them and turn from them) and follow Him because we believe that He died for our sins according to the scriptures. In closing, I will read the passage from scripture that was written by the Apostle Paul in 55 ad. Scholars acknowledge that this passage is based on an early Christian confession from the time immediately following the resurrection of Jesus—about 33-4 ad.
- “Now I make known to you, brethren, the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received, in which also you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast the word which I preached to you, unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep; then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles; and last of all, as to one untimely born, He appeared to me also.” (1Co 15:1-8)
- You have no excuse for not believing that the text of the Bible is original.