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Do our Bible copies reliably match originals?

  • Clarifying the Question

    Isn't our Bible just a copy of a copy of prior copies? Is it reliable? How can anyone trust that the Biblical text that we have in our hands resembles the Biblical texts that were originally written. In more academic terms, how “textually pure” are the Biblical texts?

  • Scholars say the Old Testament is well preserved

    F.F. Bruce: “the consonantal text of the Hebrew Bible which the Masoretes edited had been handed down to their time with conspicuous fidelity over a period of nearly a thousand years.” [Second Thoughts on the Dead Sea Scrolls ( ,), 64.]

  • Scholars say the New Testament is well-preserved

    • Bruce Metzger & Bart Ehrman (in The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration, 4th Edition): “Besides textual evidence derived from New Testament Greek manuscripts and from early versions, the textual critic compares numerous scriptural quotations used in commentaries, sermons, and other treatises written by early church fathers. Indeed, so extensive are these citations that if all other sources for our knowledge of the text of the New Testament were destroyed, they would be sufficient alone for the reconstruction of practically the entire New Testament.” [The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration, 4th Edition (Oxford University Press, 2005), 126.]
    • D.A. Carson (Christian specialist): “What is at stake is a purity of text of such a substantial nature that nothing we believe to be doctrinally true, and nothing we are commanded to do, is in any way jeopardized by the variants.”
  • NT Preservation: Comparing other ancient texts

    Texts tend not to change much. Time:1

    Eldon Epp: “As is well known, the interval between the author and the earliest extant manuscripts for most classical writings is commonly hundreds-sometimes many hundreds-of years, and a thousand-year interval is not uncommon.” [“Textual Criticism,” in The New Testament and Its Modern Interpreters, eds. Epp & MacRae (Scholars Press, 1989), 31.] [By contrast, for the New Testament], “We have, therefore, a genuine embarrassment of riches in the quantity of manuscripts we possess. … The writings of no Greek classical author are preserved on this scale.” [“Decision Points in Past, Present, and Future New Testament Textual Criticism” in Studies in the Theory and Method of New Testament Textual Criticism, eds. Epp & Fee (Eerdmans, 1993), 31.]

    1. Kostenberger: “small gaps of time are the exception and not the rule. Of the manuscripts of Tacitus, the earliest is ninth century nearly eight hundred years after it was originally written. 18 For Josephus's Jewish War, virtually all of its manuscripts are from the Middle Ages, and the earliest of these is from the tenth century, nearly nine hundred years after the original time of publication. The only manuscript earlier than this is a very fragmentary papyrus from the third century that is virtually illegible. The single extant manuscript of the History of Rome by Velleius Paterculus is dated to the eighth or ninth century-approximately eight hundred years after its initial publication-but was subsequently lost and now survives only in a sixteenth century copy. The primary manuscript for Gaius's Institutes fares a bit better and is dated to the fifth century, about three hundred years after the original. Such gaps of time are not unusual in the manuscript traditions of many of our classical works." … "By contrast, “the writings of Tacitus from the first century widely recognized as one of the greatest Roman historians, survive in only three manuscripts, and not all are complete? Consider also the writings of Gaius from the second century, a Roman jurist who is well known for his essential accounts of Roman law under emperors like Marcus Aurelius. Most of his writings are lost and his key work, The Institutes, is preserved in just three manuscripts-but the text “rests almost exclusively” on just one of them.8 The sizable History of Rome by the first-century historian Velleius Paterculus, which covers large portions of Roman history, including the life of Julius Caesar, comes down to us in a single, mutilated manuscript.9 The work Jewish War by Josephus, a trusted Jewish historian from the rst century AD, is better attested with over fty extant manuscripts, but the text is mainly dependent on about ten of them. 10” "

“Yes, after all…
  • OT: Jews were masters at preserving their texts

    Jews for the past few thousand years were demonstrable masters at preserving the Old Testament texts.1 This is relevant because it was Jews who also preserved these texts for the remaining years that we don't have manuscript confirmation of. We can rationally expect the trend to hold.

    1. There are two reasons to think Jews are masters at preserving their texts:
      • First, checking on their skill at preservation, scholars want to compare three kinds of Old Testament sources: the Masoretic Text (AD 1010), the Dead Sea Scrolls (150-100 BC), and the Septuagint (250-150 BC). The Dead Sea Scrolls in particular are a new discovery (found in 1946), and in them we have portions of every Old Testament text except Esther. For Isaiah, we have a nearly complete scroll (1QIsaa). This allowed for an unprecedented opportunity to get a feel for the trend in the text’s preservation.

      Gleason Archer: “[even though it is] a thousand years earlier than the oldest dated manuscript previously known (A.D. 980), [the Isaiah copies] proved to be word for word identical with our standard Hebrew Bible in more than 95 percent of the text. The 5 percent of variation consisted chiefly of obvious slips of the pen and variations in spelling.”
      Norman Geisler and William Nix: “Of the 166 words in Isaiah 53, there are only 17 letters in question. Ten of these letters are simply a matter of spelling, which does not affect the sense. Four more letters are minor stylistic changes, such as conjunctions. The remaining three letters comprise the word 'light' which is added in verse 11, and does not affect the meaning greatly. Furthermore, this word is supported by LXX and IQ Is. Thus, in one chapter of 166 words, there is only one word (3 letters) in question after a thousand years of transmission--and this word does not significantly change the meaning of the passage”[General Introduction to the Bible (Moody Publishers, 1986), 263.]

      • Second, various accuracies of the Old Testament are best explained as being remnants of carefully preserved historical accounts. For example, scribes for thousands of years accurately perserved and transliterated 184 verified names of kings etc.
      Robert D. Wilson: “In 144 cases of transliteration from Egyptian, Assyrian, Babylonian and Moabite into Hebrew and 40 cases of the opposite, or 184 in all, the evidence shows that for 2300 to 3900 years the text of the proper names in the Hebrew bible has been transmitted with the most minute accuracy. That the original scribes should have written them with such close conformity to correct philological principles is a wonderful proof of their thorough care and scholarship; further, that the Hebrew text should have been transmitted by copyists through so many centuries is a phenomenon unequaled in the history of literature” … “Thus analogical evidence as well as the evidence of the documents forces us to the conclusion that the spelling of the proper names of the kings must go back to original sources; and if the original sources were in the hands of the composers of the documents, the probability is that since the composers are correct also in the sayings and deeds which they record concerning these kings.” [A Scientific Investigation of the Old Testament, 1959.]
      In saying Jews were masters at preserving their holy texts, we are not saying they are perfect (even for Isaiah, we only see a 95% correspondance). However, there is more than enough to justify belief in any given doctrine, and if need be we can do textual criticism on any particular text to see how well substantiated it is in particular.

“No, after all…
  • Against the NT: We have no early manuscripts

    We have no manuscripts dating to a time close enough for us to trust.

    In response, however, we have several early manuscripts. The New Testament was written approximately AD 50-90, and yet we have:
    P52 - AD 125 (or AD 100)
    P90 - Second century (John)
    P66 - Second century (John)
    P98 - Second century (Revelation)
    P46 - c. AD 200-225 Pauline epistles
    P4, P64, P67 - Second century (Luke & Matthew)
    Sinaiticus (א)
    Vaticanus (B),

    And so what if we didn't? We have enough early church citations to reconstruct the whole New Testament.1

    1. We have a wealth of early church citations of the New Testament.

      Bruce Metzger: “So extensive are these citations that if all other sources for our knowledge of the text of the New Testament were destroyed, they would be sufficient alone for the reconstruction of practically the entire New Testament.” [Text of the New Testament (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1968), 86.]
      Eldon Epp: “We have, therefore, a genuine embarrassment of riches in the quantity of manuscripts we possess. … The writings of no Greek classical author are preserved on this scale.” [“Textual Criticism,” in The New Testament and Its Modern Interpreters, ed. Eldon Jay Epp and George W. MacRae (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1989), 91.]

  • Against the NT: manuscripts disagree around 300,000 times

    NT manuscripts disagree around 300,000 times1

    But so what?
    Wallace (summing up the differences):

    1. Spelling differences or nonsense readings (e.g., a skipped line)
    2. Inconsequential word order (“Christ Jesus” vs. “Jesus Christ”) and synonyms
    3. Meaningful, though non-viable variants (e.g., the Comma Johanneum)
    4. Variants that are both meaningful and viable
    5. Spelling (orthographical) differences
    6. Nonsense readings
    7. Singular readings
    8. Meaningless word order changes
    9. Definite articles on proper nouns
    10. More (“scribes placing personal pronouns with their antecedents).
    1. Bart Ehrman: “With this abundance of evidence, what can we say about the total number of variants known today? Scholars differ significantly in their estimates—some say there are 200,000 variants known, some say 300,000, some say 400,000 or more! We do not know for sure because, despite impressive developments in computer technology, no one has yet been able to count them all.” [Misquoting Jesus (HarperOne, 2007), 89.]

    2. Textual Criticism allows us to discern the original text. On Methodological principles, see:
      Metzger and Ehrman, Text of the New Testament, 300-343
      Aland and Aland, Text of the New Testament, 0-316
      Eldon Jay Epp and Gordon D. Fee, Studies in the Theory and Method of New Testament Textual Criticism
      Ehrman and Holmes, The Text of the New Testament in Contemporary Research, 7-379. David Alan Black, ed., Rethinking New Testament Textual Criticism (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2002)