Critics who doubt the reliability and trustworthiness of the biblical accounts of Jesus' life have issued a make-or-break challenge to the church. They ask us: "How can we be sure the Bible can be trusted as accurate?"
It's common to see the argument that the Scriptures we have today aren't the same as what was written by the apostles in the first century. Such arguments attempt to portray the Bible as unreliable and therefore irrelevant. As we will see, however, these challenges do not stand up to scrutiny.
What About Textual Variants?
The Gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—were probably written during the second half of the first century. We don't actually have any of the original documents (called autographs) in our possession today. Instead, we have copies, often handwritten by scribes to preserve and circulate the words of the apostles so they could be passed around and used in worship services. The fact the original manuscripts were copied shows how important these writings were to local congregations. However, in the process of copying the manuscripts, scribes often made small changes, some of them unintentional and others intentional.
For example, early copies of the Greek New Testament were composed in an ancient style in which words were written in all capital letters with no spaces, punctuation, or paragraph divisions. A classic illustration of this style is the phrase "GODISNOWHERE." A copyist would have to decide whether the phrase meant "God is now here" or "God is nowhere." Context would determine the meaning of the phrase, so it's not surprising a scribe could occasionally get things wrong. Furthermore, scribes sometimes misspelled words, wrote the same word twice when it should have been written once, or skipped over sections of text because the same words occurred later down the page. These are all examples of unintentional changes.
Other times, however, scribes changed the texts they were copying on purpose. This happened for a variety of reasons. They might make grammatical improvements or liturgical changes (such as adding a doxology), or they might eliminate apparent discrepancies, harmonize passages, or make doctrinal changes. However, even Bart Ehrman, a New Testament scholar who argues against the reliability of the Bible, recognizes, "Most of the changes found in our early Christian manuscripts have nothing to do with theology or ideology. Far and away the most changes are the result of mistakes, pure and simple—slips of the pen, accidental omissions, inadvertent additions, misspelled words, blunders of one sort or another."
Because of the large number of variations in New Testament manuscripts, some argue the words of the New Testament are unreliable. But in fact, the vast number of New Testament manuscripts actually enables us to figure out what the originals said with a great deal of certainty. As Mark Roberts puts it, "Having many manuscripts actually increases the likelihood of our getting back to the original text." Scholars can compare the various manuscripts containing the same passages of Scripture and determine, on the basis of internal and external evidence, which of the manuscripts most likely get the original wording right.
How Does the New Testament Compare to Other Ancient Documents?
The earliest manuscripts of the works of first-century historians such as Josephus, Tacitus, and Suetonius are dated from the 9th to 11th centuries—more than 800 years after the originals were written. In terms of the number of surviving manuscripts, there are 200 for Suetonius, 133 for Josephus, and 75 for Herodotus.
When we compare these ancient texts to the New Testament, the difference astonishes. For instance, the earliest New Testament manuscript is from around AD 125, while significant portions of the Gospels are represented in manuscripts from the late 2nd to early 3rd century. Whereas the best ancient historical works have 500 to 800 years between the actual date the work was written and the date of the earliest surviving manuscript, there is less than a 100-year gap between the writing of the Gospels and the manuscripts we possess. This difference cannot be overstated.
In addition, the sheer number of Gospel manuscripts we've found is staggering in comparison to other ancient works. As Mark Roberts notes, "The number of Gospel manuscripts in existence is about 20 times larger than the average number of extant manuscripts of comparable writings." This figure doesn't even represent the hundreds of thousands of quotes from the Gospels in the writings of the early church fathers. With nearly 2,000 manuscripts of the Gospels in hand, it becomes clear that to doubt the reliability of the Gospels is to doubt the reliability of nearly every ancient text ever found.
Scripture Is Trustworthy and Reliable
Because of who God is, and because of what God has done to preserve his Word, we have confidence the events described in Scripture are accurate and historical. This is important because Christianity, unique among world religions, depends on historical events: particularly Jesus' life, death, and resurrection. As J. Gresham Machen writes, "Christianity is based upon an account of something that happened, and the Christian worker is primarily a witness." Scripture tell us this account, revealing Christianity's climax—its central, historical, and verifiable event: God's gracious act of bringing salvation through the cross of Jesus Christ.
Justin Holcomb is an Episcopal priest and a theology professor at Reformed Theological Seminary and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He wrote Know the Creeds and Councils, Know the Heretics, and On the Grace of God. Justin also co-authored with his wife, Lindsey, Is It My Fault? and Rid of My Disgrace: Hope and Healing for Victims of Sexual Assault. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and at JustinHolcomb.com.