Among the objections out there against the Bible, one of the most common is that we cannot know, at this point, what was originally written in the Bible. Have you ever heard or read objections like these:
- “The Bible’s been changed so many times through the years that we don’t really know what it originally said.”
- “The Bible was written by men and men make mistakes. It’s just so full of errors at this point.”
My challenge in answering these objections is that the answer can get pretty into the weeds, particularly for a blog. But the good news is there is an answer to this objection and it doesn’t have to involve the phrases, “I just know,” or “You just have to have faith.”
Let me try to present a concise version of the evidence, so as not to bore you, the reader.
When you encounter an objection like the ones above, it might even be accompanied by this fact:
It has been shown that even though the New Testament contains about 130,000 total words, there are 400,000 variants in the text between the copies we have.
So, how do we determine what was originally written down? Can we even determine that?
There are scholars whose profession is the study of ancient documents uncovered in archeological finds in order to reconstruct the original. This is known as textual criticism.
The basic question textual critics ask is can we reconstruct the original with confidence regardless of the number of variations in the text of the copies?
They look at three questions when determining this:
- How many copies are there?
- How old are the copies?
- What is the nature of the variants in the text?
Basically, the more copies we have and the closer they are to the original, the more confidence a textual scholar has in accurately reconstructing the original text.
Here’s a brief summary of most of the secular documents we have that form our knowledge of the ancient world:
- They survive in a handful of copies (anywhere from 2-10)
- They are dated between 800-1,500 years after the original
- The most impressive manuscript evidence for a secular document is Homer’s Iliad, of which we have 647 copies.
By comparison, the New Testament sets the standard for manuscript evidence:
- Recent counts put the number of New Testament copies discovered between 5,500 – 5,800. This includes partial and complete New Testaments.
- Most of the copies, which are partial, can be dated to the third and fourth centuries – about 200-300 years after the original.
So, to sum up at this point, we have a high number of New Testament copies dated only a couple to few hundred years after the originals.
But what about those pesky variants? With the variants numbering in the hundreds of thousands, can we know what was originally written down?
The short answer is yes. To get to that answer, we have to ask another very important question: What is the nature of the variants?
According to manuscript expert Daniel Wallace, “A textual variant is simply any difference from a standard text (e.g., a printed text, a particular manuscript, etc.) that involves spelling, word order, omission, addition, substitution, or a total rewrite of the text.” Note that any difference, no matter how slight, is added to the total count.
Wallace has determined that more than half of the variants in the New Testament copies are spelling errors, abbreviations and style. Another almost half are inconsequential word order and synonyms (Christ Jesus vs. Jesus Christ or Lord instead of Jesus).
That leaves less than 1% of the variants to have any impact on the meaning of the text. Out of the 400,000 variants, more than 396,000 of them have no bearing on textual scholars’ ability to reconstruct the original New Testament.
And Wallace determined that the remaining variants that impact the possible meaning of certain passages are theologically insignificant. In other words, if we eliminated those impacted verses, the central doctrinal beliefs expressed in the New Testament remain unaffected.
This means scholars have determined that what is written in the New Testament today is more than 99% accurate to what was originally written down.
Since this was discovered, many textual criticism scholars that don’t believe in the Bible no longer argue that we can’t know what was originally written in the New Testament.
They realize that to throw the New Testament out on textual inaccuracy grounds means throwing out every other ancient document we have.
In a nutshell, this is the evidence for textual accuracy of the Bible, particularly the New Testament.
If you’re interested in reading more in-depth about this, check out the book Is the Bible True…Really? by Josh McDowell.