A Case for the Bible: Part 5, Manuscript evidence; are there errors?
(This blog is part of a series. You can start the series by going back to the September 1, 2014 Introduction called A Case for Christianity: Why do we need one?)
“We can have a high degree of confidence that we can reconstruct the original text of the New Testament, the text that is in the Bibles we use, because of the abundance of textual evidence we have to compare. The variations are largely minor and don’t obscure our ability to construct an accurate text.”
-Bruce Metzger and Bart Ehrman
Bart Ehrman concluded this along with Bruce Metzger, his then mentor, as he helped to revise “The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration (4th Edition)” and then apparently did an about face and wrote a book claiming that there are so many errors from the manuscripts being copied over the centuries that we cannot believe it to be reliable. Because of Ehrman’s prestigious position he has influenced many to blindly take this view. But is it true? When I began my journey in the investigation of the truth of the Christian faith one of my biggest questions was in this area. I thought, as I had heard many other people flippantly say, ‘the Bible had been copied over and over so many times that there must be too many errors to know what the original actually said.’ So this became one of my biggest quests when I began my studies at Biola University’s Apologetics Program. What I found was quite the opposite. As I began to read, listen and investigate I found that the majority of Biblical Scholars, especially the experts in textual criticism, were all in the ballpark of the following:
- All of the known Old Testament manuscripts can be factored to about a 98% consistency in agreement especially since the Archeological find in 1947 of the Dead Sea Scrolls, circa 200 B.C. to 100 A.D., that nailed the consistency and reliability of the Old Testament between these Scrolls and the Masoretic text in 895 A.D. (almost 1000 years apart with minimal error). The Masoretic text is one that we have used to get our Old Testament for the Christian Bible today.
- All New Testament manuscripts are also 98% in agreement and when literary scholars looked at these so-called errors (2%) they found only the following:
- Variations in the texts stem from differences in spelling, word order or the relationship between noun and definite articles—slight variants that are easily recognizable.
- After factoring out minor spelling errors and light variations in word order, there is more than a 99.5% agreement between all of the known manuscripts of the New Testament.
- Of the remaining variants (0.5%) none affects any crucial element or teaching of the Christian faith.
What happens is that higher textual critics, like Bart Ehrman, will write books and claim that there are so many errors in the manuscripts using the variations as errors to inflate the idea of mistakes when in reality these variations are easily accounted for. Then they multiply what they count as ‘errors’ by the number of manuscripts available and come up with an astronomical number of ‘mistakes.’ The few places where either a section has been added in or left out fall into that 0.5% variant. In reality none of these errors or mistakes affect any major doctrine of Christianity. Even more important is that most of the errors that we have in the texts are easily deciphered when you match them against the multitude of available manuscripts, specifically the over 5700 Greek manuscripts that we have available for comparison in the original language. What I also think is really great about the Christian Bible is that Bible editors inform you where the additions or deletions are in the text. For example the long ending of Mark is explained in most translations and versions as ‘not found in earlier manuscripts.’ It seems to me that it would be better to have more information than less when studying, so I appreciate the honesty from the editors.
Let’s look at a more modern example of the types of mistakes Ehrman and others call errors…
What if you received a text message from your Mom that said:
Pleas c#n you pick up, mlik on th way ho4m?
Would you ignore it because you couldn’t understand it?
Maybe you would text her back for clarification and she responded:
Kan you pk up mk, from the sotre on your way nome, PLEASE?
Now you can compare the two messages and maybe take a good guess at understanding, or you might need her to clarify one more time and she responds:
Can you pik u milk frm the stooor on your wy hme?
How about one more time, she is probably now agitated that you can’t figure it out and she texts:
PICK UP MILK!
Now you have even more texts to compare, but what if she did this 25 times, do you think you could compare all of the texts and come up with the original text and meaning? Of course, but remember we have somewhere around 25,000 early New Testament manuscripts to compare against each other so even with errors and factoring out minor mistakes you can get to a 99.5% certainty of the meaning.
- Even with minor mistakes, 100% of the message comes through.
- The more errors to compare in a multitude of manuscripts, the more sure you are of the message.
The Testimony of the Scrolls
Noted Manuscripts Expert: Sir. Frederick Kenyon:
“The interval between the dates of original composition and the earliest extant evidence becomes so small as to be in fact negligible, and the last foundation for any doubt that the Scriptures have come down substantially as they were written has now been removed. Both the authenticity and the general integrity of the books of the New Testament may be regarded as finally established” (Kenyon, Bible and Archaeology, 288)
And the words of the Lord are flawless, like silver purified in a crucible, like gold refined seven times. –Psalm 12:6
Let me know what you think: Do you think that errors in the manuscripts can affect the original meaning of the text? If the Bible is really God’s Word do you think He would ensure that it reached us today?
Join us next week as we continue our Case for the Bible, examining external physical evidence for the reliability of the Bible.
Over the next several blogs I am going to continue to present logical reasoning and sound scientific evidence not found in the public school textbooks.
Always be ready to give an answer for the hope that you have in Christ Jesus as Lord.
1 Peter 3:15