September 13, 2011

Can we trust the New Testament?

by Matt Waymeyer

Several years ago I was walking in a park and met a man who identified himself as a pantheist. As I shared the Gospel with him, he raised a series of objections, the first of which concerned the reliability of Scripture. “The Bible was going along fine,” he explained, “until King James came along and changed it all. Now we have no idea what the original Bible actually said.”


The man’s objection was obviously more than a bit misinformed, but it does raise a significant question: If we do not possess the original manuscripts of the Bible, if the existing manuscripts do not completely agree with each other, and if there is no absolutely sure method of determining the original reading where these differences exist, then how can we have confidence in the Bible we possess today?

The points of difference between existing manuscripts are known as textual variants, and the process of determining the original wording where variants exist is known as textual criticism. Because this process is at least partly subjective in nature, it is not infallible and therefore we cannot know with absolute certainty what the original manuscripts said in a given place. For this reason, the question is indeed a significant one: Can we really trust the Bible as it has been handed down to us?

This question is especially important for pastors. Not only do we have the responsibility to shepherd those who are struggling with this issue, but we also come to difficult textual variants in the course of our biblical exposition. A few years ago I was preaching through the Gospel of John on Sunday morning and I came to the account of the woman caught in adultery in John 7:53-8:11. After studying the manuscript evidence, I became convinced that it was not part of the original autographs, so I titled my sermon “Why You Can Trust Your Bible (Even Though This Passage Shouldn’t Be In It).” Not exactly the Sunday you’re hoping for a lot of visitors, but it was a very instructive and helpful time for the congregation.

In that sermon, I took the opportunity to explain not only why I believe John 7:53-8:11 was added later, but also three reasons why the differences between New Testament manuscripts should not shake our confidence in the reliability of the biblical text. Those three reasons were (1) the abundance of existing manuscripts, (2) the insignificance of most variants, and (3) the preservation of primary doctrines.

The Abundance of Existing Manuscripts

First, the New Testament is by far the most remarkably preserved text of the ancient world, both in terms of the number of existing manuscripts as well as the temporal proximity between the earliest manuscripts and the original they represent. In fact, as of 1994, there were 5,656 existing manuscripts containing all or part of the Greek New Testament, as well as more than 10,000 manuscripts in Latin and more than 1,000 in other languages, all abundant numbers in comparison with other books of the ancient world. Furthermore, the earliest manuscript of the New Testament is only one generation after the originals were written, and many are within four centuries of the originals.

By way of comparison, only ten manuscripts of Caesar’s Gallic Wars exist, the earliest dating 900 years after Caesar; only eight manuscripts of Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War exist, the earliest dating 1,300 years after Thucydides; only eight manuscripts of Herodotus’ History exist, the earliest dating 1,300 years after Herodotus; and only two manuscripts of Tacitus’ Histories and Annals exist, the earlier one dating 700 years after Tacitus. As W. Edward Glenny notes, “the number and early date of the NT manuscripts give us great confidence that God’s Word has been preserved in these documents.”

The Insignificance of Most Variants

Second, a high percentage of variant readings in the existing manuscripts are relatively insignificant. In fact, of the 40,000 variants that exist, it is estimated that only 1-2% substantially affect the meaning of the text because the other 98% consist of “insignificant matters like spelling, word order, differences in style, or confusion concerning synonyms” (Glenny). Furthermore, as Daniel Wallace notes:

In that two percent, support always exists for what the original said—never is one left with mere conjecture. In other words it is not that 90 percent of the original text exists in the extant Greek manuscripts—rather, 110 percent exists. Textual criticism is not involved in reinventing the original; it is involved in discarding the spurious, in burning the dross to get to the gold.

Therefore, the vast majority of the New Testament is textually certain, and in the vast majority of the cases where variants exist, there is little doubt as to what the original words were.

The Preservation of Primary Doctrines

Third, no major doctrine of the Christian faith is affected in any significant way by a viable textual variant. For this reason, even though one cannot have absolute certainty regarding some of the textual variants, he can have confidence in the overall reliability of the New Testament. However, for those who are still unsettled by the remaining margin of error, D.A. Carson draws a helpful analogy:

In my judgment the degree of uncertainty raised by textual questions is a great deal less than the degree of uncertainty raised by hermeneutical questions. In other words, even when the text is certain there is often an honest difference of opinion among interpreters as to the precise meaning of the passage. Few evangelicals, I would like to think, will claim infallibility for their interpretations of the Scriptures; they are prepared to live with the (relatively) small degree of uncertainty raised by such limitations. The doubt raised by textual uncertainties, I submit, is far, far smaller.

In the end, we simply need to fall back on faith, resting in the confidence that our sovereign God not only inspired the text of Scripture but also providentially oversaw its preservation in such a way that the Bible we possess today is indeed reliable. This may not alleviate the need to do the hard work of textual criticism, but it should alleviate the concern that we cannot trust the New Testament. It is nothing less than the infallible, inerrant Word of God Himself.

Matt Waymeyer

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Matt teaches hermeneutics and Greek at The Master's Seminary.