Apologetics · History

The Reliability Of The New Testament

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What Is Textual Criticism?

The topic of textual criticism is one of the deepest roots of the Christian faith. In studying it, one can travel to the times of the early church, the rise of the Catholic Church, the fall of the Roman Empire, the scientific discoveries of Galileo, and the very reformation that founded Protestant Christianity. Throughout the entire history of the church textual criticism has been pivotal in how humanity is to understand divinity through the Word of God, and it retains its same importance even now in 2020 as people attack the Christian faith, wrestle with doubts, and lead others astray with false information. So tackling this issue is not just for the elite academics of the world, but for all brothers and sisters of the Christian faith to know, so that they can be grounded in the truth and security of God’s Word.

Now, what exactly is textual criticism? The goal of textual criticism is to find out what the original source said. Generally, this involves the examination of manuscript copies of writings to determine the authenticity of said manuscript copies and the application of the evidence found from the other manuscript copies compared with others of similar nature to determine variants in an effort to see what is similar and different to determine original words and authenticity of the texts. And this involves looking at the streams of tradition as well, the two most popular streams of tradition come from the school of Alexandrian thought and the school of Byzantine thought; and while there are other streams of tradition like Coptic, Syriac, Armenian… etc.

It is common belief in Evangelical Christian tradition to believe that within all of these streams of tradition and lines of manuscript texts that the original God-breathed words are still present, I would have to say that I agree with this statement because it would make sense that as the pool of manuscripts grows, that the original isn’t simply washed out, rather it is set more secure in the pool of manuscripts. And since we do have many viable streams of tradition to follow, it would also make sense to listen to what the Early Church Fathers (Pre and Post-Nicene) have written and examine what texts they followed as well. So, as we find ourselves in an age of skepticism, Christians are in need of a proper defense when it comes to the reliability of Scripture, particularly in the area of New Testament reliability. This is due to the fact that nominal and lay Christians often do not know why we translate the biblical texts the way that we do and why we trust that these translations are truly representative of the originals. This kind of ignorance can cause a de-conversion experience when challenged by knowledgeable skeptics of the Christian faith. Laypersons of the church need to be properly equipped so that they can stand fast on the firm foundation of the faith.

New Testament Antiquity Compared To Classics

One of the most popular arguments against the reliability of the New Testament is, since the New Testament is old and has been passed through many hands, it must, therefore, be corrupted in some form, whether the original words have been lost or been purposefully manipulated. To this challenge, I would like to first state the age of the subject matter is a fallacious argument. While the books of the New Testament are roughly two thousand years in age, we can clearly see that the secular world has no issue with the age of other works of antiquity. We also have reason to believe that the manuscripts we have are accurate to the original sources due to the fact that the Early Church Fathers loved to quote scripture in their writings. These two pieces of evidence alone give strong support to the accuracy of the New Testament in modern English bibles.

Modern secular scholarship renders itself inconsistent in regards to believing in the accuracy of classic writings over the accuracy of the New Testament. When taking into account the spans of time between the original autographs and the earliest manuscripts, as well as the number of manuscript copies we know about, it attests to the accuracy of our copies in relation to the original manuscripts. Examining classical works of antiquity in comparison to the New Testament is useful for properly understanding just how reliable the New Testament is. When comparing classic works to the New Testament, F.F. Bruce puts it this way, “For Caesar’s Gallic War (composed between 58 and 50 B.C.) there are several extant manuscripts, but, only nine or ten are good, and the oldest is some 900 years later than Caesar’s day…But how different is the situation of the New Testament! In addition to the two excellent manuscripts of the fourth century, which are the earliest of some thousands known to us, considerable fragments remain of papyrus years earlier still.”. This is the case with several classic works (Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, Plato’s writings, Herodotus’ historical accounts, and even Livy’s history of Rome), and yet people would not dare question the accuracy of them to their original sources.

Another viable argument in support of the New Testament’s reliability is found in the writings of the Early Church Fathers. The Early Church Fathers can be defined as Christian theologians and writers that had influenced the early church from around 50 A.D to 450 A.D., they have been a prime witness of how quickly the writings of the New Testament had spread once written and what the early church believed about said writings. Personally, I find it more beneficial to look at the earliest of the Patristic sources (Apostolic Fathers and Ante-Nicene Fathers) whose writings ranged from the end of the first century to the end of the third century. It is in the early church that we find leaders who were directly taught and discipled by the Apostles themselves, which weighs over the assurance of the accuracy of the New Testament and how the New Testament should be understood. When addressing the citations of the Early Church Fathers, Geisler and Nix state, “By the end of the first century some fourteen books of the New Testament were cited. By 110 CE there were nineteen books recognized by citation. And within another forty years (150 CE) some twenty-four New Testament books were acknowledged. Before the century ended, twenty-six books had been cited.”. 3 John was also confirmed as the twenty-seventh book soon after the Old Latin Version of the Bible had been finished.

Amount of New Testament Manuscripts

There are a considerable amount of manuscript copies that have been discovered throughout the centuries, in fact over 5,800 Koine Greek manuscripts have been found ranging from the first to the sixteenth centuries. And that is not even including the 10,000 Latin manuscripts, and 9,300 in various other languages, such as, Syriac, Gothic, Coptic, Slavic, Ethiopic, and Armenian. With this extant amount of data being cataloged and more being discovered, there is a volume of data that textual critics can examine and work from in order to confirm what the original reading of the New Testament would have been. As mentioned previously, this is not even comparable to the amount of manuscripts the world has discovered to be able to support and confirm the readings of literary works such as, the Iliad, Odyssey, Gallic War, Asop’s Fables, and so on. Leading New Testament Scholar, Dr. Daniel Wallace states, “In comparison with the average ancient Greek author, the New Testament copies are well over a thousand times more plentiful.”. But what is the significance to having this massive amount of manuscripts and does it really make the case for the reliability of the New Testament?

Well, the significance of having such a massive volume of manuscripts dating through the centuries and in various languages is that textual critics can then compare the manuscripts to one another to understand the transmission that occurred over the centuries, how the manuscript traditions relate to one another, and more recently there has been a large amount of work being done in Coherence-Based Genealogical Method (CBGM) to be able to compare specific textual readings within the manuscripts to one another.

Having this amount of manuscripts helps to attest to the reliability of the New Testament, due to the fact that the New Testament was an uncontrolled document, meaning that one singular authoritative body did not have the ability to control the production of the manuscripts by restriction or limitation. This means that while there was an explosion of manuscripts being produced by many kinds of people throughout history, there would be differences in certain spellings, word order, marginal notes, and both misguided and well informed corrections by copyists. But even with all of these kinds of variants in the New Testament manuscripts, modern scholars are able to compare and contrast to understand the lineage and transmission of the texts by the scribes so as to both confirm what readings are authentic and what may be errors. Since the manuscripts were allowed to vary from one another in these simple ways, it allows textual critics to be confident that the original readings found in the New Testament autographs are in fact present within the extent of manuscript tradition. If the copying of the manuscripts was controlled on the other hand, then all of Christendom would have to rely on blind faith upon whatever authority sought to restrict the flow of the copying of the New Testament texts.

Types Of Scribal Errors

There are multiple types of scribal errors found within the manuscript copies of the New Testament, the reasons for this comes down simply to the fact that the earliest Christian believers were imperfect human beings. Many propose that because there are so many scribal errors which are often called textual variants when the manuscripts differ from one another, that there is no reason to trust that the New Testament in the hands of Christians today should be trusted to reflect the original autographs in any meaningful fashion. One of the most popular proponents who claims that the New Testament in the modern Bible translations is unreliable is Bart Ehrman, he states, “What good is it to say that the [original writings of the New Testament] were inspired? We don’t have the originals! We only have error ridden copies and the vast majority of these are centuries removed from the originals and different from them, evidently, in thousands of ways.”. Due to the numerous claims like this, it is important to understand the types of errors that are present within the New Testament manuscript tradition. They do exist, but the question is whether or not they meaningfully detract from the original readings in the autographs, or if they still accurately represent the original writings.

The kinds of scribal changes in the New Testament manuscripts can be categorized into two groupings, unintentional and intentional. Unintentional changes are caused typically due to the imperfections of human beings expressed through a lack of concentration, slip of a pen, eyes jumping over a line by a copyist, or mishearing the words of someone reading a text orally. Intentional changes may sound awful on the surface, but the majority of intentional changes can actually have a good and honest reason behind them. And very rarely, if at all, an intentional change would be made in the manuscripts in order to change a theological truth found within the New Testament scriptures. In this next section intentional and unintentional changes will be examined more closely.

The most common examples of unintentional changes fall into these categories, faulty sight, faulty hearing, faulty memory, and faulty judgment.

Variants that occur in the manuscript tradition due to an error of sight are the most numerous examples, that is what will be discussed first. It is well known that the earliest manuscripts of the New Testament did not divide each word with a space between them, rather all the letters of words would be joined together with no distinctive separation (they would also have been written solely in capital lettering). According to Norman Geisler and Nix, “Since early manuscripts did not separate words by spaces, such divisions would have a bearing on the resultant reading of the text, To usd an English example, HEISNOWHERE could mean either HE IS NOW HERE or HE IS NOWHERE.”. This kind of error would have been mainly an issue of reading the manuscripts rather than transcription it would seem, until lower case lettering and spaces between words became a regular scribal practice. Scribes would often omit letters, words, or entire lines of texts due to the fault of an astigmatic eye jumping from one group of text to another similar group, this is called homeoteleuton. The opposite error would be one of repetition, where a scribe makes a mistake by writing the same group of text multiple times, this is called dittography. Variants can also be caused by the reversing of words with one another, an example can be found in saying “Jesus Christ” or “Christ Jesus”.

Faulty hearing would show variants in the text when the scribe would copy down what was being said by another reader. An example of this according to Geisler and Nix is, “some manuscripts (after the fifth century CE) read kamelos (rope) instead of kamaelos (a camel) in Matthew 19:24,”.

Faulty memory issues are not nearly as common when it comes to variants in the manuscripts. They are noticed by textual critics when the variants show evidence that the scribe pulled the wording from a similar narrative or thematic lessons (such as the synoptic gospels, or certain Pauline letters). The scribe in good conscience remembers what he thinks to be the exact wording or rendering and finishes his text without checking the manuscript he is copying from. The last kind of unintentional errors that caused variant readings are due to faulty judgment. These kinds of variants are often the result of a scribe copying a text in poor lighting, making the text more difficult to read. And another example is a scribe mistaking a marginal note for the text of scripture he is copying. These are the most difficult kinds of variants to deal with, because the primary reason for the variation from the text is more often unclear than not.

Now we will examine intentional changes that scribes made to the text. Although there are numerous examples of intentional changes to the textual readings in the manuscripts, these more often than not resulted from unintentional errors. Unintentional errors, while straying from the focused manuscript can be attributed to the good conscience of a scribe believing something to be an error and mistakenly correcting it. These mistaken errors were often believed to be the fault of a previous scribe who wrote the manuscript the current scribe is copying. Sometimes these kinds of changes would be moving a narrative around (such as the popular story of the woman caught in adultery), or correcting the linguistic or grammatical style of a text (although it is worth noting that grammar changes over time).

It is common knowledge that spelling of words was not systematized for most of recorded history, because of this there is a large number of textual variants due to spelling the same word in different ways. Another kind of grammatical variant is due to the word order and sentence structure of a text, these again were not systematized and therefore resulted in many of the variants critics study today. These kinds of variants are called orthographic.

Another reason that scribes would intentionally deviate from the focused manuscript would be to harmonize and conflate certain readings of the intended text. An example of this can primarily be seen in the synoptic gospels, as scribes often would mistakenly include parallel readings from other gospel narratives into the intended reading. While this is also an intentional mistake of good conscience, it can be clearly seen and studied as textual critics scrupulously study the New Testament manuscripts.

Conclusion

In conclusion, it is obvious to see why the majority of respected scholarship believes the modern text of the New Testament to be a reliable representation of the original autographs. This is due to the fact that the manuscript tradition is far more voluminous than any other book of antiquity, the clear quotations of the New Testament records by prominent leaders of the early Christian Church, and the honest examination of the manuscript tradition of the New Testament. There will always be the few scholars who continue to doubt and reprimand those who would “foolishly” trust such an ancient document… but their contention is a self defeating denial of their ability to be able to accurately know the original meaning and intent of anything. Who claiming that the most attested to work of antiquity is untrustworthy would then dare to claim that they can be sure of anything historical figure definitively existed, said, and did what historical records claim. This is not the work of true thoughtful scholarship, but rather the self delusion ignorance of ignorant fools claiming to be brilliant. And while these challenges need to be answered, Christians should be the ones who can defend their beliefs with integrity, honesty, wisdom, grace, and kindness as we study these topics with God’s given capacity of humans to learn and understand the reality he has created.

Bibliography

Bruce, F. F. The New Testament Documents. La Vergne: IVP, 2019.

Comfort, Phillip. The Manuscripts. Nashville, TN: Broadman And Holman Publishers, 2005.

Darrell L. Bock, Darrell L., and Rosario, Mikel. “The Table Briefing: Engaging Challenges to the Reliability of the New Testament Text,” Bibliotheca Sacra 175, no. 697, Bibliotheca Sacra (2018): 96.

Ehrman, Bart D. Misquoting Jesus. New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2014.

Geisler, Norman L. Baker Encyclopedia Of Christian Apologetics. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 2002.

Geisler, Norman L, and William E Nix. From God To Us. Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2012.

Gurry, Peter, and Tommy Wasserman. A New Approach To Textual Criticism. Atlanta: SBL Press, 2017.

Komoszewski, J. Ed, M. James Sawyer, and Daniel B Wallace. Reinventing Jesus, 2006.

McDowell, Josh. “The Historical Reliability Of The New Testament,” Bible and Spade Volume 27 27, no. 2 (2014): 45.

Wallace, Daniel. “Daniel B. Wallace On The New Testament Documents”. Apologetics315, Last modified 2012. https://apologetics315.com/2012/07/daniel-b-wallace-on-the-new-testament-documents/.

White, James. Scripture Alone. Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House Publishers, 2004

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