Can we Trust the New Testament Text?

pastarchives A friend of mine was challenged on a university campus with the following four questions:

Do you have the original copies of the Bible? My friend answered, No. Do the manuscripts all agree 100%? My friend answered, No. Do you have a system to trace the ancestry of the manuscripts? My friend answered, No. Do you have a mechanism to destroy false copies? My friend answered, No. "There”, said the fellow, “You believe that your Bible is from God, but you have a corrupted Bible. God would not have allowed this to happen if Christianity was the true religion”.

However, as my friend explained, strangely enough, the fact that we have to answer No to each of these questions (with one more question of our own thrown in) actually ends up strengthening our confidence in the NT.

Question One: Do we have the Originals?

Many Christians would probably feel more comfortable if they were able to answer Yes to this question. But imagine for a moment that we had the original copy of the Gospel of John – written by his own hand. What would we really have? All we would have is a claim that we had the original copy of the Gospel of John. It would be very little different to Catholics who claim that they have the burial shroud of Christ – the Shroud of Turin – or one of the finger-bones of John the Baptist that pointed at the Lamb of God, or some of the straw from Christ’s manger. How would we really know that we had the original?

Or, again, if we did have the original of John’s Gospel, how would we know that nobody had ever tampered with its text? If it was the original, it is possible that somebody could have tampered with its text. Would we be satisfied if told that ten guardians had been constantly watching it since the beginning? Who guards the guards, (Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? the Roman poet Juvenal famously asked, Satire VI, lines 347–8 - Roman Emperors were liable to killed by their own guards). How would we know that the guardians had not tampered with the text?

Or, if one church had possession of the original copy, might they not be tempted to say that they were the only true church? Would it be likely that they would have started worshipping the original copy, like the bronze serpent in Israel? The way some textual critics treat the readings of our early papyrus witnesses to the NT text almost amounts to papyriolatry, much less if we had some manuscript claimed to be the original. Might not a church possessing such a manuscript be tempted to restrict access to their treasure (even as some early manuscripts of the NT are now largely inaccessible on account of their antiquity)?

Again, even if we did have the original copy of John’s Gospel, what would have happened to any copy of John’s Gospel down through the ensuing twenty centuries that read differently? It would probably have been destroyed, thus preventing us checking the claimed original against the other copies. This is, in fact, exactlywhat happend with the Koran. After the standardisation of its text by Caliph Uthman ibn Affan 20 years after the death of Mohammed, all other versions of the Koran were burnt, with the result that we have no way of knowing how close the standardised Koran is to the original version. 

Thus the claim that someone possessed the original copy of John’s Gospel would not really remove any problems. We would still be unsure as to whether we really had the original copy. We would have no way of knowing if the claimed original had the same text as the real original.

In fact, as we shall see, we are actually in a far better situation with our hundreds of manuscripts copies, rather than claiming we have the original.

Question Two: Do we have 100% agreement?

Again, most Christians would probably answer that it would be better if all of our manuscripts had 100% agreement.

However, consider a similar situation. In Saddam Hussain’s Iraq, when elections were held, the votes were counted, and the results were announced: 100% of the people had voted for Saddam Hussein! Such announcements were presented on Iraq’s State-run television as being greeted with rapturous celebrations among crowds of ordinary people in Iraq, but much of the rest of the world was less certain of the electoral mandate that Saddam claimed. Most people from real democracies, if questioned, would probably assume that the vote had been rigged, that people had been forced to vote at gunpoint or that fraud had been committed. Iraq was not a nice place if someone was not on Saddam’s side: even Cabinet ministers were personally executed by Saddam himself if they disagreed with him.

Similarly, taking a literary example from a nearby neighbourhood, the 100% uniformity of the Koran might comfort certain people, but it should really raise all sorts of questions about its authenticity. Was the text of the Koran manipulated by the Caliphs who destroyed all the divergent forms of the text? Even if the text was not manipulated to suit the Caliphs, how do we know if it is an accurate representation of the original version of the Koran? The fact that the Koran has 100% uniformity suggests something other than authenticity.

We would, in fact, have far more confidence that the Koran we possess today is substantially the same as the original version if we had access to the divergent copies of the Koran that were destroyed by the Caliphs. If the divergent copies were very similar to the present-day Koran (as is the case with the Dead Sea scrolls which confirmed the authenticity of the Old Testament text and the integrity of its transmission down to the present day), we could say that while we (Christians) do not agree with the teachings of the Koran, the Muslims have got an accurate modern copy of the original. Or even if the divergent copies (now recovered) were full of things that the Muslims consider to be heretical (presumably having been introduced into the Koran by its enemies), then we could again confidently say that the Muslims have the original Koran (as the divergent copies were clearly not consistent with Islam). There is a third option, too, of course: that the early copies of the Koran had become so divergent from each other that the Koran had become plagued with total textual confusion, so that the Caliph’s had no choice but to do a Saddam Hussain, pick a new standard text out of the competing alternatives and wipe out all evidence of any competition. The problem the Koran faces nowadays is that we have no way of being sure which one of these options really happened, and the fact that the Caliphs destroyed all divergent copies only inclines us to suspect that it was really option number three that prompted such action.

Some Christians, following a similar train of thought to that which possessed the Caliphs, suggest that perhaps the NT could have been copied perfectly by God’s over-ruling supervision, so that all the copies were exactly the same. However, we do not need close acquaintance with the habits of ancient scribes to know that mistakes are a natural (and unavoidable) part of the copying process and there is no way to prevent them. Common sense must rule out the idea of perfect copies. Even leaving aside accidental mistakes, for example, if we had a perfect copy of the NT in our hands today, the present writer (or someone even more sinister) could deliberately make a copy incorporating mistakes to prove this idea wrong. The reality is that Scripture only claims that God inspired the original writings of the prophets and apostles – He did not inspire copyists of those documents, nor did He inspire translators of the Bible (into 1611 English, or into remote tribal languages today), any more than he is inspiring the authors of devotional books, or preachers in church.

Thus, the differences between our manuscripts bear the fingerprint of authenticity.

Question Three: Can we Trace the History of Manuscripts?

Do we have some sort of registry that has kept track of which manuscripts were copied from other manuscripts, tracing the ancestral history of each manuscript, and showing the authentic lines of descent from the original? Again, the answer is no. Again, some Christians might feel more comfortable if we had some sort of registry of manuscript ancestry. However, the dangers are obvious, as a moment’s reflection will show.

If you go into some village churches in England, you will find a list of the ministers serving this church all the way back through the centuries. It is little like the Roman Catholic doctrine of apostolic succession, their claim to have an unbroken line of bishops who transferred their authority all the way back to the first pope, Peter. The problems with this Roman Catholic claim are many, of course: Peter was never the Bishop of Rome (monarchical bishops only appeared in the second century, churches in NT times were ruled by a plurality of elders), Leo in the 5th Century was the first bishop of Rome to title himself Pope (in disobedience to Christ’s own words in Matthew 23:9), the fact that at certain points in history there were two (and even three) Popes all ruling at the same time, and the fact that the immoral lives of some of the Popes prove that they were not even Christians, members of Christ’s church, let alone shepherds of it.

Nevertheless, the idea of a registry of NT manuscripts would operate a little bit like a genealogical tree, showing the lines of descent of all the different manuscripts. Such a registry would have required some sort of centralised control of the manuscript copying process.

But imagine if someone in the year 500 A.D. tried to introduce some error into (or take out something they didn’t like from) the manuscripts of the NT. What they would need to do would have been to find all the copies of the NT, change them, and then spread the new version. The big problem with this idea is that there were too many copies, and they were spread all over the known world. This person would almost need a list (a grand register) to track down and change all the manuscripts.

It would therefore be a distinct advantage, if we wanted to prevent someone from tampering with the text of the NT, to have no grand registry office, to have no centralised control over the manuscript copying process. This (up until recently!) has happily been the case. The lack of centralised control over the NT text and its copying and propagation during the history of the hand-written transmission process, means that the text was virtually impossible to manipulate in anything beyond a local situation.

We should again be thankful that there was no grand registry office overseeing the transmission process for the NT text, for it gives us confidence that the NT text was not manipulated or tampered with on the sort of grand scale that would cause us to doubt that we have the original text of the NT.

Question Four: Do we have a System to Weed out errant copies?

In the year 2000 US presidential election, George W. Bush and Al Gore sent their lawyers down to Florida to contest the results of that state’s count. The lawyers famously examined ‘hanging chads’ and other invalid votes. Now imagine if, when the lawyers arrived, they were pointed in the direction of garbage bins full of ashes, and were told by Florida officials that they had just finished burning the twenty thousand invalid votes that they had collected. It is highly unlikely that the voting public would have had any confidence in the outcome of the election – many people had no confidence in the outcome even with all the evidence being available!

In real life, one imagines, the first thing the lawyers would have said when they arrived in Florida would have been something along the lines of, “Leave all the evidence alone!”

Similarly, with the NT, what would be the outcome of some system for weeding out and destroying errant copies of the NT text? The result would have been to undermine confidence in the reliability of the text of the NT.

If NT textual critics (still today) find some manuscript with an error (or even heretical doctrine), they do not try to quickly or quietly destroy it. Instead, they publish it and allow any interested parties the opportunity to make their own minds up about it.

Question Five: Was the Bible originally copied by hand?

Many Christians would probably feel more comfortable with the NT if it had been printed on the modern printing press right from the start, instead of being copied by hand for the first 1500 years of its life. The reality is that copying by hand inevitably introduces errors into a document.

But, on another way of looking at the question, if (say) John’s Gospel were copied on the printing press, any mistakes in the printing would be reproduced in all other Bibles. Mistakes do occur in the printing process – just look at some of the strange mistakes made in early printed English Bibles. For example, one Bible (called the Wicked Bible) left the word ‘not’ out of Exodus 20:14, and instead printed, ‘Thou shalt commit adultery’. Similarly, mistakes made in some electronic copies of modern Bibles (or Greek New Testaments) are propagated to all computers using these Bibles and it is much harder to correct these mistakes, for there are few people interested in coding a Bible into the computer a second time. By contrast, a mistake made in a handwritten copy of the Bible is more easily correctable, and is only found in a limited number of copies. Thus there is wisdom in allowing the NT to be propagated by hand for so long.

Conclusion

Thus, it is true that the NT was propagated by hand for so long, with no central place where the originals were housed, with copies that were not 100% identical, with no central registry tracing their ancestry, and with no attempt to destroy copies that contained mistakes or divergences from some standard text. These facts, far from diminishing our trust in the NT, instead strengthen our confidence that the text found in the manuscripts of our NT has not been manipulated.

There was, instead, a certain upside-down logic in allowing the NT text to be copied by hand, in an ad hoc fashion, without any centralised body overseeing or regulating the process, and with the originals no longer available. Christians can be thankful that God, in His immense wisdom, has ensured that our NT has thus been preserved in such a fashion and protected from the charges of tampering.

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