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Posted: 07/20/06

Has the Bible Been Changed?

By Gregory Koukl


            "The Bible has been changed and translated so many times over the last 2000 years, it's impossible to have any confidence in its accuracy.  Everyone knows that."

          This challenge has stopped countless Christians in their tracks. But it's remarkably easy to answer if you know a few simple details.

          The complaint is understandable. Whisper a message from person to person, then compare the message's final form with the original.  The radical transformation in so short a period of time is enough to convince the casual skeptic that the New Testament documents are equally unreliable. 

          How can we know the documents we have in our possession correctly reflect originals destroyed two millennia ago?  Communication is never perfect.  People make mistakes.  Errors are compounded with each generation.  After 2000 years, it's anyone's guess what the original said.

          In cases like this, though, an appeal to common knowledge is usually an appeal to common ignorance; the people don't have reliable information.  To prove this, always ask, "Have you studied how the ancient documents were handed down?"  Be prepared for a blank stare.  They haven't.

          The question of authenticity can be answered by a simple appeal to facts.


Just the Facts, Ma'am

          It's hard to imagine how one can reconstruct an original after 2000 years of copying, recopying, and translating. The skepticism, though, is based on two misconceptions about the textual history of ancient documents like the New Testament. 

          The first assumption is that the transmission is more or less linear-one person telling a second who talks with a third, etc., leaving a single message many generations removed from the original.  Second, the objection assumes oral transmission which is more easily distorted and misconstrued than something written. 

          Neither assumption applies to the text of the New Testament.  First, the transmission was not linear, but geometric-e.g., one letter birthed 50 copies which generated 500 and so on.  Secondly, the transmission was done in writing, and written manuscripts can be tested in a way oral communications cannot.


Reconstructing Aunt Sally's Letter

          Let me illustrate how such a test can be made.  It will help you to see how scholars confidently reconstruct an original from existing manuscript copies even though the copies have differences and are much younger than the autograph.

          Pretend your Aunt Sally learns in a dream the recipe for an elixir that preserves her youth.  When she wakes up, she scribbles the directions on a scrap of paper, then runs to the kitchen to make up her first glass.  In a few days Aunt Sally is transformed into a picture of radiant youth because of her daily dose of "Sally's Secret Sauce."

          Aunt Sally is so excited she sends detailed, hand-written instructions on how to make the sauce to her three bridge partners (Aunt Sally is still in the technological dark ages-no photocopier or email).  They, in turn, make copies for ten of their own friends. 

          All goes well until one day Aunt Sally's pet schnauzer eats the original copy of the recipe. In a panic she contacts her three friends who have mysteriously suffered similar mishaps, so the alarm goes out to the others in attempt to recover the original wording.

          Sally rounds up all the surviving hand-written copies, twenty-six in all.  When she spreads them out on the kitchen table, she immediately notices some differences. Twenty-three of the copies are exactly the same.  Of the remaining three, however, one has misspelled words, another has two phrases inverted ("mix then chop" instead of "chop then mix") and one includes an ingredient none of the others has on its list.

          Do you think Aunt Sally can accurately reconstruct her original recipe from this evidence?  Of course she can.  The misspellings are obvious errors.  The single inverted phrase stands out and can easily be repaired.  Sally would then strike the extra ingredient reasoning it's more plausible one person would add an item in error than 25 people would accidentally omit it. 

          Even if the variations were more numerous or more diverse, the original could still be reconstructed with a high level of confidence if Sally had enough copies. 

          This, in simplified form, is how scholars do "textual criticism," an academic method used to test all documents of antiquity, not just religious texts.  It's not a haphazard effort based on hopes and guesses; it's a careful linguistic process allowing an alert critic to determine the extent of possible corruption of any work.


How Many and How Old?

          Success depends on two factors.  First, how many copies exist? Second, how old are the manuscripts? 

          If the numbers are few and the time gap wide between the original and the oldest copy, the autograph is harder to reconstruct.  However, if there are many copies and the oldest are reasonably close in time to the original, the scholar can be more confident she's pinpointed the exact wording of the initial manuscript. 

          To get an idea of the significance of the New Testament manuscript evidence, note for a moment the record for non-biblical texts.  These are secular texts from antiquity that have been reconstructed with a high degree of certainty based on available textual evidence.

          Josephus' First Century document The Jewish War survives in only nine complete manuscripts dating from the 5th Century-four centuries after they were written.[i]  Tacitus' Annals of Imperial Rome is one of the chief historical sources for the Roman world of New Testament times, yet, surprisingly, it survives in partial form in only two manuscripts dating from the Middle Ages.[ii]  Thucydides' History survives in eight copies.  There are 10 copies of Caesar's Gallic Wars, eight copies of Herodotus' History, and seven copies of Plato, all dated over a millennium from the original.  Homer's Iliad has the most impressive manuscript evidence for any secular work with 647 existing copies.[iii]

          Note that for most documents of antiquity only a handful of manuscripts exist, some facing a time gap of 800-2000 years or more.  Yet scholars are confident they have reconstructed the originals with a high degree of accuracy.  In fact, virtually all of our knowledge of ancient history depends on documents like these.


The Biblical Manuscript Evidence

          The manuscript evidence for the New Testament is stunning by comparison.  The most recent count (1980) shows 5,366 separate Greek manuscripts.  These are represented by early fragments, uncial codices (manuscripts in capital Greek letters bound together in book form), and minuscules (small Greek letters in cursive style).[iv]

          Among the nearly 3,000 minuscule fragments are 34 complete New Testaments dating from the 9th to the 15th Centuries.[v] 

          Uncial manuscripts providing virtually complete New Testaments date back to the 4th Century and earlier.  Codex Sinaiticus is dated c. 340.[vi]  The nearly complete Codex Vaticanus is the oldest, dated c. 325-350.[vii]  Codex Alexandrinus contains the whole Old Testament and a nearly complete New Testament and dates from the late 4th Century to the early 5th Century.

          The most fascinating evidence comes from the fragments.  The Chester Beatty Papyri contains most of the New Testament and is dated mid-3rd Century.[viii]  The Bodmer Papyri II collection, whose discovery was announced in 1956, includes the first fourteen chapters of the Gospel of John and much of the last seven chapters.  It dates from A.D. 200 or earlier.[ix] 

          The most amazing find of all, however, is a small portion of John 18:31-33, discovered in Egypt.  Known as the John Rylands Papyri and barely three inches square, it represents the earliest known copy of any part of the New Testament.  The papyri is dated on paleographical grounds at A.D. 117-138 (though it may even be earlier),[x] showing that the Gospel of John was circulated as far away as Egypt within 40 years of its composition. 

          Keep in mind that most papyri are fragmentary.  Only about 50 manuscripts contain the entire New Testament.  Even so, the manuscript textual evidence is exceedingly rich, especially when compared to other works of antiquity.


Ancient Versions and Patristic Quotations

          Two other cross-checks on the accuracy of the manuscripts remain:  ancient versions and citations by early church Fathers known as patristic quotations. 

          Early in the history of the Church, the Scriptures were translated into Latin.  By the 3rd and 4th Centuries the New Testament had been translated into Coptic, Syriac, Armenian, and Georgian, among others.  These texts helped missionaries reach new cultures in their own language as the Gospel spread and the Church grew.[xi]  Translations of the Greek manuscripts (called "versions") help modern-day scholars answer questions about the underlying Greek manuscripts.

          In addition, there are ancient extra-biblical sources-catechisms, lectionaries, and quotes from the church fathers-that cite Scripture at great length. Bruce Metzger notes, amazingly, that "if all other sources for our knowledge of the text of the New Testament were destroyed, [the patristic quotations] would be sufficient alone for the reconstruction of practically the entire New Testament."[xii]


The Verdict

          What can we conclude from this evidence? Professor Daniel Wallace notes that although there are about 300,000 individual variations of the text of the New Testament, this number is very misleading.  Most of the differences are completely inconsequential-spelling errors, inverted phrases and the like.  A side-by-side comparison between the two main text families (the Majority Text and the modern critical text) shows agreement a full 98% of the time.[xiii] 

          Of the remaining differences, virtually all yield to vigorous textual criticism.  This means that our New Testament is 99.5% textually pure.  In the entire text of 20,000 lines, only 40 lines are in doubt (about 400 words), and none affects any significant doctrine.[xiv] 

          Scholar D.A. Carson sums it up this way:  "The purity of text is of such a substantial nature that nothing we believe to be true, and nothing we are commanded to do, is in any way jeopardized by the variants."[xv]

          This issue is no longer contested by non-Christian scholars, and for good reason:  If we reject the authenticity of the New Testament on textual grounds, we'd have to reject every work of antiquity and declare null every piece of historical information from written sources prior to the beginning of the second millennium, A.D.

          Has the New Testament been changed?  Critical, academic analysis says it has not.


[i]Barnett, Paul, Is the New Testament History? (Ann Arbor:  Vine Books, 1986), 45.

[ii]Geisler, Norman L., Nix, William E., A General Introduction to the Bible (Chicago:  Moody Press, 1986), 405.

[iii]Metzger, Bruce M., The Text of the New Testament (New York and Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 1968), 34. 

[iv]Geisler and Nix, 402.


[vi]Geisler and Nix, 392.

[vii]Ibid., 391.

[viii]Ibid., 389-390.

[ix]Metzger, 39-40.

[x]Geisler and Nix, 388.

[xi]Barnett, 44.

[xii]Metzger,  86.

[xiii]Wallace, Daniel, "The Majority Text and the Original Text:  Are They Identical?," Bibliotheca Sacra, April-June, 1991, 157-8.

[xiv]Geisler and Nix, 475.

[xv]Carson, D.A., The King James Version Debate (Grand Rapids:  Baker, 1979), 56.

Distributed by

By Gregory Koukl

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Re: Has the Bible Been Changed?
Posted On: 07/31/06 10:20:07 AM Age 43, WI
I always look to Mark 1:15, and have faith that the Holy Spirit oversees faithful work translating the Scriptures. I personally use a King James translation, and believe there must be care in selection so there is no new additions or attempts to make Gods word 'correct' according to worldly thinking. I am thankful for articles and discussions such as the author presents here.

Re: Re: Has the Bible Been Changed?
Posted On: 07/27/06 03:41:02 PM Age 59, KS
The bible often becomes a source of argument and division due to various interpretations of the translated scripture. Protestants learn that Catholics are in error and Catholic's learn that Protestants are in error. This is but one example of many divisions we've created. The only knowledge that will work for the world is Love. God expresses this in the very fact of Jesus' existence. Love God and love your neighbor. It means respect you neighbors views and ideas and quick thinking your particular religious dogma is the only true path. I know for a fact that God continues to speak to us in a louder and louder voice. Get you nose out of the bible and listen. Sit in a nice chuch, either Catholic or Protestant, and listen to what God has to say instead of trying to get Him to buy into your interpretation of His own word. Read His story but listen to His interpretation. Exactly what religion is God?

Re: Has the Bible Been Changed?
Posted On: 07/25/06 05:33:00 AM Age 56, AR
The bible itself hasn't been changed but do to the many translations or interpretations out there, it appears as if God's word is made up by mere men. That's what I have been confronted with many times by others. I am so glad you wrote this information down. I am printing it and will study it. Then I will at least have some knowledge of the process of translation from the original. The interpretations of late are not from God. I have read where certain essential words have been taken out and replaced with their interpretation, or left blank, for convenience of understanding. The natural man cannot understand the things of God, especially his word. If a man who is lost changes God's word, it will have words taken out because he doesn't see the need for them. I pray we will go back to a translation that is close to the original. The Holy Spirit will aid in understanding the word. If we don't have to do a little digging in his word, if it's too easy to understand, it's not worth it to me. I want something that is hard so I have to pray and study and hear God's word preached, and hear from God, and learn.

Re: Has the Bible Been Changed?
Posted On: 07/22/06 01:06:36 AM Age 36, TX
Great piece, Gregory! Loved the Aunt Sally illustration, too -- very practical, very easy to grasp. Manuscript integrity and the understanding of textual criticism is so very important in validating the Bible's divine authenticity, and I think you've done a great job in not only communicating the point, but showing believers how to communicate it. Well done! Respectfully -- Duncan Brannan

Re: Has the Bible Been Changed?
Posted On: 07/21/06 06:50:39 AM Age 57, UK
Thank you Gregory. One point I would like to add and that is to quote you on D A Carson The purity of text is of such a substantial nature that nothing we believe to be true, and nothing we are commanded to do, is in any way jeopardized by the variants. and offer that this applies to the NIV as well, though not paraphrases (The Message etc)so "King James only" people can be assured that what we believe to be true and what is commanded has the same force in both "versions". Jesus said the New Covenant would be written on our hearts and although scripture is essential, it is not words with which we think and act. We will be judged according to our "careless words" (Matt 12.37). If what was written on my heart could be always described in words we would never say "I know what I mean but cannot explain it" or be stuck for a way to expound something - Scripture takes on meaning as it is absorbed through our eyes, intellects and finally results in actions from the heart - but we do not think in words, so scripture alone, without the Holy Spirit to interpret, is of little value in changing lives. I am pleased that someone has clarified the issue not only of scriptural precision and accuracy but that versions are not such a big issue after all. Thank you

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