In my studies of various religious beliefs over the past few years I have discovered that many of them have similar ideas when it comes to critiquing or criticizing the basic tenets of Christianity. One such commonly held belief is that the Bible of Christianity has been corrupted over time and thus is no longer reliable as the Word of God.
For example, the eighth Article of Faith for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) states: “We believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly…” This belief regarding the Bible is supported in LDS scripture, found in 1 Nephi 13:26 which, in speaking of a great and abominable church, i.e. modern day Christianity, accuses this church of having “taken away from the gospel of the Lamb many parts which are plain and most precious…” Mormons thus contend that the Bible we have today is incomplete or otherwise corrupt. Likewise, Islam teaches that the Bible is not trustworthy. The commonly held view among Muslims is echoed by one Islamic scholar who comments; “Long before the revelation of the Qur’an to Muhammad, some of those books and revelations had been lost or corrupted, others forgotten, neglected or concealed (1).” In spite of the claims of Islam, Mormonism, and other religions that similarly attempt to discredit the trustworthiness of the Bible, ample evidence exists to prove their claims as groundless and without merit.
In this short article I will provide a brief look at some of the evidence scholars have uncovered to support the notion that the Bible of today is an accurate representation of the original documents as they were penned by their authors. I will show that the idea of a Bible that has changed over time is untenable in light of the available historical, archeological, and textual evidence.
What Is Inerrancy?
At issue is the Christian doctrine of biblical inerrancy. The bible claims that God has the power to ensure His word would remain uncorrupted and that in doing so it would accomplish all that he desires of it (Isaiah 40:8, Isaiah 55:11, Matt. 5:18). But to say that the Bible is uncorrupted simply because it claims to be so is circular logic. The test of truth comes by examining the historical evidence for this claim.
In order to understand what I mean when I state that the Bible is uncorrupted, I need to define exactly what does and does not constitute corruption of scripture. Critics will point to many variant readings of ancient manuscripts and make the case that due to these many differences, the reliability of today’s Bible is in serious question. However, a great majority of these variants are comprised of simple differences in spelling or grammar, and do not take away from the meaning of the text. These simple spelling or grammar errors do not constitute an errant or corrupted scripture.
The Christian doctrine of biblical inerrancy holds that the scriptures are inerrant in their original autographs, as they were penned by the original authors. It does not mean that the manuscript copies we have to day are without error. However, the errors we do find do not present a problem. Moreover, with the abundant amount of manuscript copies available, it is a simple matter to reconstruct with a high degree of accuracy what the original autographs stated. As Craig Blomberg notes, “97-99% of the NT [New Testament] can be constructed beyond any reasonable doubt, and no Christian doctrine is founded solely or even primarily on textually disputed passages (2).” Blomberg’s assertion is founded on two factors: the role of a scribe in the ancient Middle East and the number of manuscript fragments to compare one scribe against another.
What Sort of Errors are in the Bible?
A scribe was a professional occupation in antiquity. A scribe was someone hired to produce a copy of a written work, in our case the documents which later composed the Bible. Since their occupation was dependent on producing an exact copy of the original document, scribes took extraordinary steps to ensure as close as was reasonably possible of the precision of the copy. This is not to say that errors did not somehow end up in the copies. However, these minor errors were of the type described previously: simple one-character spelling errors or an occasional omission of a word.
Consider the following sentences:
George Bush was a Prosident of the United States.
George Busl was a President of the United States.
George Bush was a President of the Onited States.
George Bush was a President of the United Stetes.
Geroge Bush was a President of the United States.
George Bush was a President of the United.
In comparing the six examples above, it is quite easy to recognize that the original sentence read; “George Bush was a President of the United States.” Although each of the six example sentences has a minor error, the original sentence can be reconstructed with a very high degree of certainty.
New Testament Manuscript Evidence
Of course, the example above assumes that an adequate number of copies exists of any text such that a similar comparison can be made. Fortunately, the number of manuscript copies of the New Testament is overwhelming and provides a rich base from which comparisons can be made and the original reconstructed. Josh McDowell points out the magnitude of textual support for the New Testament document based on the sheer number of documents alone. For example, McDowell notes the following significant manuscripts (3):
- Codex Vaticanus (A.D. 325-350), located in the Vatican Library and contains nearly all of the bible. It is considered to be one of the most trustworthy manuscripts of the New Testament text.
- Codex Sinaiticus (A.D. 350), located in the British Museum, contains almost the entire New Testament and over half the Old Testament.
- Codex Alexandrinus (A.D. 400), also located in the British Museum and contains almost the entire Bible.
- Codex Bezae (A.D. 450), located in the Cambridge Library. It contains the Gospels plus the book of Acts, and is written in both Greek and Latin.
- Codex Washingtonensis (A.D. 450), located in the Smithsonian Institution and contains the four Gospels.
- Codex Claromontanus (A.D. 500+) contains the Pauline Epistles.
In addition to the above codices, McDowell notes that over 5,600 full or partial copies of the New Testament books exist as uncials, minuscules, lectionaries, and papyri. On top of these, copies of the New Testament documents totaling over 19,000 exist in of the same time period, such as Latin, Ethiopic, Slavic, Armenian, and so forth (4). In all, nearly 25,000 copies of the New Testament documents are in existence today, more than enough to accurately reproduce the originals.
The number of New Testament manuscripts should be enough to satisfy any critic of the text. But if the critic should ask for more, McDowell notes that the early church leaders such as Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and Tertullian quote from the New Testament more than 36,000 times (5). The breadth of these quotations is such that, as Metzger notes, even if all of the extant manuscript copies were destroyed today, it would be possible to recreate almost the entire New Testament from these quotes of the early leaders (6).
Old Testament Manuscript Evidence
Much more can be said about the documentary evidence for the New Testament, but space here does not permit it. However, even if a critic would agree that the New Testament evidence is very compelling, that still leaves the Old Testament to deal with. And although the documentary evidence for the Old Testament does not compare to the number of documents we have for the New Testament, there still is reason to believe that the Old Testament documents are reliable.
As mentioned earlier, both the Codex Vaticanus and the Codex Alexandrinus contain nearly the entire Bible, both Old and New Testaments. In addition, with the exception of the Dead Sea scrolls, the British Museum catalog lists 161 Old Testament manuscripts and Oxford University lists 146. But it is the 232+ manuscript copies found in the Qumran caves which solidify the reliability of the Old Testament documents.
Dead Sea Scrolls
Discovered in 1947 by a Bedouin goat herdsman, the Dead Sea scrolls represent one of the most significant finds in Biblical archeology of recent times. In a nutshell, these scrolls, written around 100 B.C. confirmed the accuracy of the Massoretic texts, dated from about 900 A.D. Until the discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls, the Massoretic texts represented the earliest and best Hebrew manuscripts. The preservation of the text over the 1,000 years separating the Qumran texts and the Massoretic texts can be seen by comparing, for example, a chapter from the book of Isaiah. The Dead Sea scrolls contained the entire book of Isaiah, as well as significant portions from every other book of the Old Testament except Esther.
Jimmy Williams (7) summarizes a comparison of Isaiah 53 between the two texts. Out of the 166 words in chapter 53, only 17 letters differ between the two texts. Ten of these are simple differences in spelling (like “honor” and “honour”) and produce no change in the meaning of the text. Four others represent the presence of a conjunction, such as “and” and thus are merely stylistic changes, again not affecting the meaning. The last three letters are for the Hebrew word “light” which was added by someone after the phrase “they shall see” in verse 11. In the entire chapter, this one word is the only questionable difference, and again, it does not affect the meaning one bit. Scholars state that this comparison is representative of the entire book of Isaiah. If the Old Testament documents were preserved with such accuracy over a 1,000 year period, it is reasonable to assume they were also similarly preserved over the previous 1,500 year period during the writing and transmission of the original documents. In summarizing the preservation of scripture as demonstrated by the Dead Sea Scrolls, Randall Price observes, “we can say—and say with greater confidence than ever based on the witness of the scrolls—that our present text is accurate, reliable, and that nothing affecting the doctrine of the original has been compromised or changed in any way in the manuscript copies. The scrolls have affirmed that the Masoretic Text behind our English translations was carefully preserved.”
So What Does the Evidence Demonstrate?
In conclusion then, the textual and archeological evidence for the accuracy of the Bible is convincing beyond any reasonable doubt. The Bible we have today is very certainly an accurate representation of that which the original authors penned as they were inspired by God. Any person or religious system, be it Mormonism or Islam, that would assert otherwise simply has no evidence to back up its claim of tampering or corruption. Since they are the ones making such a claim, the burden of proof would fall on them to provide evidence to back up their assertion. Unfortunately for them, the evidence attests to just the opposite—that the Bible has not been tampered with.
(1) Hammadah Abdalati, Islam in Focus (Indianapolis: American Trust Publications: 1975, p. 12), quoted in Abdul Saleeb, “Islam,” To Every Man an Answer, ed. Francis Beckwith, William Lane Craig, and J. P. Moreland (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2004), 352.
(2) Craig Blomberg, “The Historical Reliability of the New Testament,” in William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics, revised ed. (Wheaton: Crossway, 1994), 194.
(3) Josh McDowell, The New Evidence That Demands a Verdict (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1999), 39-41.
(4) McDowell, 34.
(5) McDowell., 43.
(6) Bruce Metzger, quoted in McDowell.
(7) Jimmy Williams, “Are the Biblical Documents Reliable?” [on-line document] available at http://www.leaderu.com/orgs/probe/docs/bib-docu.html