My mom always told me to read the Bible. It had great stuff in it she promised…wars, sex, murder, giants, miracles, angels, and demons.
But is it reliable as God’s Word to speak to us today?
Let’s look at just the New Testament, and the two primary questions that guide linguistic scholar’s textual criticisms:
- How many copies are there to examine and compare?
- How close in time are the oldest copies to the originals?
The more copies that exist, and the closer in time the copies are to the original, the more accurate the results. Ancient works like Josephus or Thucydides are rarely questioned as being authentic in authorship or content, but Josephus has only nine copies and Thucydides has just eight copies.
All the other major works of note from ancient history such as Plato (7), Caesar (10), Pliny (7), Euripides (9), Tacitus (20), and Herodotus (8) are 20 copies or less, and usually much less! Only Sophocles (193) and Aristotle (49) have more than 20.
The New Testament has almost 25,000 copies!
The next closest document would be Homer’s Iliad with 643 copies with a 500-year gap. Ironically, none of these other manuscripts are contested, despite an 800-2,000 year gap from originals to copies.
Qumran, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered 70 years ago.
Conversely, one piece of John’s gospel is dated to within 25 years after the original was written!
Sir Frederic Kenyon, former director of the British Museum, said, “In no other case is the interval of time between the composition of the book and the date of the earliest manuscripts so short as in that of the New Testament. The last foundation for any doubt that the Scriptures have come down to us substantially as they were written has now been removed.”
More importantly, these New Testament copies have a 99.5% accuracy rate!
New Testament specialist Daniel Wallace says there are about 300,000 individual variations of the text of the New Testament, but that this number is very misleading. Most of the differences are inconsequential–spelling errors, inverted phrases and the like. A side-by-side comparison between the two main text families (the Majority Text and the Modern Critical Text) shows agreement a full 98% of the time.
Of the remaining differences, virtually all yield to vigorous textual criticism. This means that our New Testament is 99.5% textually pure. In the entire text of 20,000 lines, only 40 lines are in doubt (about 400 words), and none affects any significant doctrine!
Essenes excavations at Qumran with the caves in the background.
Greek scholar D.A. Carson sums it up this way: “The purity of text is of such a substantial nature that nothing we believe to be true, and nothing we are commanded to do, is in any way jeopardized by the variants.”
So if God authored the Bible, and He meant it to be His primary communication device to us, do you think He would, as the all-powerful Creator of life, supernaturally protect its contents…to communicate a message with you?