Is the Christian Bible a reliable text?

old books

A common question regarding Christianity has to do with the reliability of its 'holy book', the Bible. How can we have confidence that what we read today is anywhere close to what the original authors actually wrote?

One analogy that is sometimes drawn is the childhood game where a phrase is whispered into the first child's ear who then whispers it to the next, and so on, until the last child stands up and announces what he heard. Typically the last child in the circle ends up with something completely different than what was originally said. What I hope to show is that this is an invalid comparison, a more valid analogy would be if the first child was told out-loud the phrase and each child in turn repeated the word out-loud and could be corrected by those around him if error was introduced. The result, aside from a very boring game :), would be the last child repeating the same phrase that the game was started with.

Translation of a translation?

... we can say that we have a remarkably accurate compilation of the original documents.

First, a common misconception must be dealt with. There are many who believe our current English Bibles are translations of a translation of a translation, etc. The conclusion then is that by switching from language to language the original meaning has become highly obscured. And this would be true if that is how we arrived at our modern translations. However, the English translations we use today, even the venerable King James Authorized Version, are translated directly into English from un-translated original language sources (mostly Greek for the New Testament and Hebrew for the Old).

Accuracy of Transmission?

This brings us to the text we have in the original languages. We are dealing with very old writings, the books of the New Testament - which we will focus on for the remainder of this article - range in date of writing from about about 50 to 100 AD (within 20-70 years or so of Jesus' death and resurrection).

So, do we have the original documents themselves? And if not, how can we be sure that our copies are correct?

In answer to this first question, no we do not have the original documents themselves. The answer to our second question is a bit more complex, but we essentially use the same type of bibliographic evidence used to determine the accuracy of any work of antiquity.

First however, it is helpful to provide some context - the following table1 contains a list of some works of antiquity that are well accepted as historical documents, showing the amount and quality of the manuscript evidence:

Author Book Date Written Earliest Copies Time Gap # of Copies
Herodotus History 480-425 BC c AD 900 c 1,350 yrs 8
Thucydides History 46-400 BC c AD 900 c 1,300 yrs 8
Tacticus Annals AD 100 c AD 1100 c 1000 yrs 20
Pliny Secundus Natural History AD 61-113 c AD 850 c 750 yrs 7

This shows not only the numbers of manuscripts available for these works, but also the number of years between the date of writing and the earliest existing copy of the work. Now, compare the above statistics with the following information about the New Testament:

Date Written Earliest Copies Time Gap # of Copies
New Testament AD 50-100 c AD 114 (fragment)
c AD 200 (books)
c AD 250 (most of NT)
c AD 325 (complete NT)
+50 yrs
100 yrs
150 yrs
225 yrs

As this simple comparison shows, the New Testament documents are superior both in respect to the quantity of existing manuscripts as well as the duration between the time of writing and our earliest existing copies.

Also to note, the 5000+ figure refers to extant Greek manuscripts exclusively. There are also some 10000+ copies of Jerome's Latin Vulgate (originally translated 382-405) and numerous other language translations also dating to early periods (Ethiopic, Slavic, Armenian, etc). In addition, virtually the entire New Testament can be reconstructed from the writings of the early church fathers - around 3200 citations are available in their writings prior to the Council of Nicea in AD 3252.

As to the accuracy of these extant copies, the following quote sums it up well:

Statistically, the New Testament is 99.5% textually pure. That means that there is only 1/2 of 1% of all the copies that do not agree with each other perfectly. But, if you take that 1/2 of 1% and examine it, you find that the majority of the "problems" are nothing more than spelling errors and very minor word alterations. For example, instead of saying Jesus, a variation might be "Jesus Christ." So the actual amount of textual variation of any concern is extremely low. Therefore, we can say that we have a remarkably accurate compilation of the original documents.3

Given the volume of direct and indirect manuscript evidence and the very small statistical variance of existing copies, we can reasonably assert that the New Testament we have today is effectively the same as the original documents that were written 1900+ years ago.

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References and notes

1. McDowell, Josh, "The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict" (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1999), p.38
2. Moreland, J.P., "Scaling the Secular City: A Defense of Christianity" online exerpt
3. Slick, Matthew, "Hasn't the Bible been rewritten so many times that we can't trust it anymore?" online article