Trusting the Text
Why does my reference Bible
have notes at the bottom of
the page that say things like
“Some manuscripts add . . .” or “some
early manuscripts omit . . .”?
This is not a minor issue. Headed
by Bart Ehrman, a growing movement
claims that we cannot be sure what
the original Bible said.
First off, there is no other ancient
literature so well attested by so many
manuscripts (handwritten copies of
the original text) over such a length of
time, as the Christian’s Bible. But since
we don’t have the originals, written
by Isaiah or Paul for example, would
the many copies made over the years
introduce thousands of mistakes, as
Erhman and others believe?
Let’s check it out so you know what
to say next time someone makes this
claim. We’ll start with the Old Testament.
The Text of the Old Testament
The Jewish scribes were full-time
copyists. They considered their Scriptures
to be a most sacred text. Transcribing
them was a hallowed duty
and an awesome responsibility that
they carried out with meticulous care.
They counted every word and letter in
each line. As soon as an accurate copy
had been carefully checked, the older
copy was never used again in case
someone might add their own text to
a damaged area.
Hebrew, the language most of the
Old Testament was written in, originally
had no vowels. Around AD 900,
Jewish scholars added vowels. Their
text, known as the Masoretic Text, is
the one used today for all our translations.
However, the time of
Isaiah (700 BC) to the Masoretic Text
(900 AD) is around 1,600 years. Plenty
of time for errors to creep in?
In 1947 the Dead Sea Scrolls were
discovered, and a complete scroll
of Isaiah was among them dated to
around 150 BC. That reduced the time
between Isaiah and the Masoretes
by half. Apart from spelling, grammar,
and punctuation—which are not
errors—there is overwhelming agreement
between the Isaiah Dead Sea
scroll and the Masoretic Text, 900
years later. The English Standard Version
allows only 9 places where the
translators preferred the Dead Sea
text over the Masoretic Text—that’s
9 small preferences in 1,286 verses of
our English translation of Isaiah. And
not one of these introduces any factual
or doctrinal error.
The outstanding scholar F. F. Bruce
concluded that the evidence from the
Dead Sea Scrolls confirms what we had
already good reason to believe: “The
Jewish scribes of the early Christian
centuries copied and recopied the text
of the Hebrew Bible with the utmost
fidelity” (Second Thoughts on the Dead
Sea Scrolls, 1956, p. 62).
The Greek translation of the Hebrew
Scriptures, completed more than a
century before Christ and known as
the Septuagint, is an additional source
for confirming the Old Testament text.
But it is a translation, not an original.
Again, there are differences, but these
are typically quite easy to resolve.
The Text of the New Testament
The books of the New Testament
were all written before the end of the
first century. That was the conclusion
even of the theologically liberal
scholar John A. T. Robinson in his
standard, Redating the New Testament
(SCM Press, 1976). The young churches
were eager to get copies of the Gospels,
Paul’s letters, and the rest. For
example, Clement of Rome, who was
martyred around AD 95, wrote to the
church at Corinth to commend Paul’s
letter to Rome, which he assumed they
possessed (1 Clement 47).
To date there are over 5,800 Greek
texts of all or part of the New Testament.
The earliest copies of the complete
New Testament go back to the
fourth century AD. However, separate
books and fragments are much earlier
than this. Some date as early as
the first half of the second century. In
addition, the New Testament books
were translated very early into other
languages (known as Versions); and we
can compare our Bible with the extensive
writing of the early Christian
leaders, including some who quoted
frequently from the Epistles and Gospels.
All of this is source material to
confirm the accuracy of our New Testament
Some estimate that altogether we
have around 20,000 of these sources
to check our text against. Daniel Wallace,
director of the Center for the
Study of New Testament Manuscripts,
concludes, “Meaningful and viable
variants . . . comprise less than 1% of
all textual variants. Yet, even here,
no cardinal belief is at stake.”
Finding the Best Text
Where some texts omit or add verses
or words, it is the task of specialists to
suggest which reading is closest to the
original; there are reasonable criteria
for this. Remember, the words that
are in question do not amount to even
a thousandth part of the whole New
Testament. There are three “families”
of Greek texts to consider.
First. More than 80% of Greek texts
available for our New Testament date
from around the ninth century AD.
These are known as the Majority Text.
In 1516 the Dutch scholar Erasmus
published his edition of the Greek New
Testament, which was significantly
close to the Majority Text. By 1550
Stephanus issued his own Received
Text, which was essentially Erasmus’
Second. In the nineteenth century,
a few more complete texts of
the New Testament were used that
had not been available to Erasmus
or Stephanus: principally codices
(ancient manuscripts in book form
rather than scrolls) Sinaiticus, Alexandrinus,
and Vaticanus. These were
dated to the fourth and fifth centuries
AD. This made them much older than
the Majority Text and were therefore
assumed by some scholars, including
Westcott and Hort, to be more reliable.
This “family” became the basic text
for many English translations. The
Revised Version and Revised Standard
Version are examples of translations
based on this Greek text.
Third. Most evangelical scholars
today follow a middle course and compare
all the available texts to produce
an Eclectic Text. The New International
Version and the English Standard
Version are examples based on
Words You Can Trust
Finding out exactly what text most
accurately represents the original is
known as textual criticism. This is
not a negative phrase; it just means
to evaluate carefully. It is a highly
specialized discipline. It does not
affect our belief that the Word of God
is without error, because inerrancy
refers to the original text written by
Moses, Isaiah, or Paul, for example.
The differences between any of the
copies is a tiny fraction of the whole.
Check out those footnotes in any Gospel,
and you will see how few and
minor they are. On only rare occasions
are they significant. No Christian doctrine
depends upon a disputed verse,
as even Ehrman acknowledged when
he stated that “essential Christian
beliefs are not affected by textual variants
in the manuscript tradition of the
New Testament” (Misquoting Jesus,
2005, p. 252).
In all the available New Testament
manuscripts, we have exactly what
God revealed to the first century writers.
Apart from John 7:53–8:11 and
Mark 16:9–20, the only differences are
relatively minor variations in words or
verses. We can therefore confidently
claim that the Bible is the inerrant
Word of God that has been incredibly
well preserved through the centuries.
We have many excellent and reliable
It is helpful to remember that the
great majority of differences between
our various English translations are
simply the translators’ preferences
in the choice of the English words to
render the same Greek or Hebrew
word or phrase.
Note: For an accessible but more detailed
discussion of this complex subject, see the
author’s series of six books titled All You Need
to Know About the Bible, particularly book 4,
chapter 4 (DayOne Publications).
For anyone to claim that all we have
in our Bible is a “close approximation”
of the original text is wildly inaccurate.
Sir Frederic Kenyon, director
of the British Museum for 21 years,
expressed confidence in the Bible text:
“The Christian can take the whole
Bible in his hand and say without fear
or hesitation that he holds in it the
true word of God, handed down without
essential loss from generation to
generation throughout the centuries”
(Our Bible and the Ancient Manuscripts,
1895, p. 55).
All the evidence that has been gathered
since Sir Frederic Kenyon wrote
those words has reinforced his claim.
God’s Promise to Preserve His Word
The only place we can learn about eternal life is God’s Word, so the
Lord has promised to preserve it to all generations.
The psalmist proclaimed, “
Forever, O Lord, your word is firmly fixed in” (Psalm 119:89). But God’s Word also continues on the earth,
as the prophet Isaiah assured us, “
The grass withers, the flower fades, but” (40:8).
the word of our God will stand forever
Jesus Christ himself spoke of the preservation of his words: “
Heaven” (Mark 13:31).
and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away
The frequent use of the Old Testament by Jesus and the apostles
reveals their confidence that it had been preserved to their day.
To emphasize the permanence of his words, God warns anyone who
tries to change them. You can find these warnings at the beginning,
middle, and end of his revelation:
- “Everything that I command you, you shall be careful to do. You
shall not add to it or take from it” (Deuteronomy 12:32).
- “Do not add to his words, lest he rebuke you and you be found a
liar” (Proverbs 30:6).
- “If anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described
in this book, and if anyone takes away from the words of the book
of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and
in the holy city” (Revelation 22:18–19).
God wants us to be confident, though all things are changing around us,
that his unchanging Word is in our hands. “
The word of the Lord remains” (1 Peter 1:25).
University of London and is the author of over 20 books on
historical biography, Christian theology, and apologetics.
He coauthored Evidence for the Bible, which is sold in the
https://answersingenesis.org/the-word-of-god/trusting-text/ This article originally appeared on answersingenesis.org