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Is the Bible we have today, the Bible that was written back then?

How do we know the Bible is God’s Word? Confronting Disconfirmations, Part 1

Key to defending the inductive argument for the inspiration of the Scriptures is showing that we have no good reason to distrust those areas of the Bible that cannot be confirmed. Here I address one of the main challenges that seeks to disconfirm the reliability of the Bible, namely, is what we have today, the compendium of books we call the Bible, what was written back then, in the era we consider it to have been written.

This challenge can be broken down into a few different steps, addressing common misconceptions and false theories of the sceptical community and cultic groups who focus their criticisms at the gospels. First the selection of what made it into the New Testament, and then the challenge posed by textual variants.

Gospel Selection

The Bible says now what the church wanted it to say by carefully selecting the books that were included in the canon, omitting others, or just re-writing it. This view was used by Dan Brown in his best selling novel The Da Vinci Code.

“Constantine commissioned and financed a new Bible, which omitted those gospels that spoke of Christ’s human traits and embellished those gospels that made him godlike. The earlier gospels were outlawed, gathered up, and burned … Fortunately for historians … some of the gospels that Constantine attempted to eradicate managed to survive.”

The Da Vinci Code, 234

The books of the Bible however were not selected as the officially inspired books of the church, but merely recognised as the books the church already viewed as inspired from the earliest times. The criteria each book had to fulfil were three.

  1. Apostolic authority The council asks if the book was written by an apostle or at least by someone of recognised authority, “under the apostolic umbrella” as it were. If it was then it was a candidate.
  2. Orthodox teaching The council asked if the book agreed with the orthodox or right teaching fo the church. If it did then it would not remain a candidate. If it did not contradict known Scripture it would no longer be a candidate.
  3. Universal acceptance The council asked if the universal church accepted it. For example, did Christians from Spain to Persia view it as scripture? If the candidate book fulfilled this final criterion the book was accepted.

Below is a chart showing the acceptance of the Gospels and Acts compared to other potential candidates of books that ended up not being included in the Bible. It shows that from the earliest times the Gospels and Acts were recognised as genuine, and these others were not.

Early Use of the Gospels and Acts

Textual Variants

It is suggested that textual variants render the text we have today unreliable. This is a challenge popularised by Bart Erhman.

“Not only do we not have the originals, we don’t have the first copies of the originals. We don’t have the copies of the copies of the originals, or copies of the copies of the copies of the originals.”

Bart Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus

Textual variants have been known about for centuries and have posed no problems for students and scholars in all that time. This is because the more textual variants there are, the more well established the text becomes.

“If there had been but one manuscript of the Greek Testament at the restorations of learning about two centuries ago, then we [would have] had no various readings at all. … And would the text be in a better condition then, than now [that] we have 30,000 [variant readings]?
It is good, therefore . . . to have more anchors than one; and another MS [manuscript] to join the first would give more authority, as well as security.”

Richard Bentley, Remarks Upon a Discourse of Free Thinking, 1731

This quote shows the problem has been known about for a long time. So imagine you have only manuscript. How would you know that this was what the original autograph actually said? You wouldn’t. But then imagine you find another manuscript. It looks fairly identical, but on closer inspection you notice a couple of variations. You would now be more certain of the original text, but only 50% certain on the variants. Now imagine another manuscript comes to light, again with a few variants, one of which was again a particular word that was rendered 50% certain, but the same as the first document. We can now create what is called a majority text, which is a reconstruction of the author’s original text. We can now be three times as certain we have the text that was on the original autograph as when we began, the few variants are 50% certain, and one variant has two readings with is now 66% certain. A good majority text will have as many footnotes as there are variants.

Add another manuscript and the reconstruction can only become more certain, even if there are variations in the text. So imagine the 66% variant was the word “flog,” and the minority reading was “frog.” Imagine further that another manuscript is discovered. If the manuscript agrees with the first “flog”, then the percentage rises to 75% (only 1/4 disagree). If it agrees with the second “frog” we now have uncertainty of 50% (four manuscripts with two variant readings). If it says “flock” instead, we have three readings and the majority reading will read “flog” at 50% certainty.

At the time of Bentley writing the above in the 18th century, there were 30,000 known variant readings. Today there has been a considerable expansion of known manuscripts, so the variants are estimated to range anywhere from 200,000 – 500,000. They are a little difficult to keep track of.

The quality of the textual variants also matter. In the New Testament 99% of the textual variants are to do with word order and spelling. The 1% remainder are meaningful (changes the meaning) and viable (good chance of being authentic). Some people with different views on what meaningful means say less than a quarter of that 1% are meaningful. No variant reading has an effect on any key doctrine of the church.

So textual variants in the manuscript tradition should not make us uncertain about was whether what was written down in the early church is what we have in the Bible we read today. Ironically, they do the opposite.


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