2013-11-18

Textual Evidence for Scriptural Reliability

Click to see a chart comparing the NT to other ancient texts.
These are my lecture notes on the question of how reliable the New Testament texts are, and a layman's introduction to textual criticism of the Bible.

It is often popular to claim that the NT text was corrupted by centuries of hand copying, and to point out the thousands of small differences between ancient copies as evidence of this. This is the claim often made by Mythicists (who claim that Jesus was wholly invented by early Christians) as well as more revisionist scholars (such as Bart Ehrman or "The Jesus Seminar"). But is this the case? It turns out, upon deeper inspection, that the Bible, especially the NT, is the most reliably copied book before the Printing Press (and the most printed after). Jewish and Christian Scriptoriums had meticulous standards to ensure copyist accuracy, and produced far more copies than any ancient book.


Not only are copies of the Biblical text both more NUMEROUS and CLOSER in time to their original writings compared to other ancient texts. They also agree with each other more than any ancient book. Because ancient books before the printing press were copied by hand, there were often "variant readings". The NT has far less variants, by percentage, than other ancient texts. NT copies agree with each other about 92% of the time, and where they do not agree, it is usually a matter of misspellings, forgotten or duplicate words, or changes in word order (which do not affect meaning in inflected languages, such as Greek).

Causes of variation in New Testament Texts
What exactly makes up that 8% of the NT text that differs? Is it filled with outright contradictions and mysteries? No, not really. The vast majority are the types of mistakes you would logically predict from re-copying texts, and nearly all of them show clear evidence of what the original text probably said underlying the error. Here is a list of the types of Copyist Errors and Insertions commonly found in the ancient copies we have of the Bible:

1. Misspellings and Words out of order: In some copies the copyists misspelled certain words and got confused in copying the order of the words. In English this can be a big deal, because word order determines meaning. However, in Greek word order doesn’t mean much. For instance, if someone changes “Dog bites Man” to “Man bites Dog” it radically changes the meaning. However, in Greek there are tags on words which tell what it means in the sentence. It would be similar to saying: “Man-subject bites-verb Dog-Object”. In the Greek language, we can put the words in any order, because no matter how you arrange them, the tags on the words tell what they mean in relation to each other.

2. Retraction or Omission: In some copies the copyists accidentally skipped over certain words or small phrases and left them out. This often happens when the copyist's eye skips from one line to the next unintentionally.

3. Abbreviation: Most ancient copies of the Bible have key words abbreviated to make the book shorter. In fact, the words for God, Jesus Christ, Lord, Spirit, and Father are almost always abbreviated by 2 or 3 letters.

4. Insertion of explanatory material: Throughout the centuries of copying certain copyists inserted notes on the edge of some Bibles to better explain what the passage was talking about. Over time, some of these notes got copied as part of the text itself and were reproduced until it was forgotten that the notes were not part of the text.

5. Paraphrase: Neither Greek nor Hebrew had quotation marks like we do today. As a result, a Bible “quote” is not as precise as we see a quote today. Often, a Bible “quote” is not exact, but rather a paraphrase of the Speaker or Author’s main ideas. This is why certain quotes from Jesus are slightly different from Matthew to Mark to Luke to John. It is because the authors were concerned to capture Jesus’ exact thought, not His exact words. This is also the reason why many of the OT quotations and allusions in the NT are paraphrases and adaptations.

6. Damaged Copy: Unfortunately, many copies have been damaged so that parts of words, sentences, and even pages are gone. Yet we can still reconstruct what the damaged copies said by counting spaces and holes and comparing it to copies that were not damaged.

A Very Brief Overview of the History of Textual Criticism
Many of these errors occur because the oldest Greek MSS were written in Unical script, which was all capital letters, with no spaces between words or punctuation. This made it extremely easy for the copyist to change word order, skip words, and even entire lines of text (which happens in many ancient MSS). Perhaps the most amazing thing about the New Testament texts is how few errors there are compared to other ancient texts. Here is an example of Unical of John 1.1:

Greek Unical [ALL CAPS, NOSPACES]
ENARXHHNOΛOΓOΣKAIOΛOΓOΣHN
ΠPOΣTONΘEONKAIΘEOΣHNOΛOΓOΣ

English Unical [ALL CAPS, NOSPACES]
ATSTARTWASTHEWORDANDTHEWORDWAS
WITHTHEGODANDGODWASTHEWORD

For ease and accuracy of copying, at the beginning of the European middle ages, the Minuscule script was introduced, which included spaces between words, punctuation, and diacritical marks. This increased the copying accuracy of the Greek MSS of the middle ages, and led to the creation of "text families" which have more or less standardized texts. These text families are commonly given the names Alexandrian, Western, Caesarean, and Byzantine, based on what part of the ancient world they were found in. Here is an example of Miniscule:

Greek Minuscule [Mixed Caps with spaces]
Εν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος, καὶ ὁ λόγος ἦν
πρὸς τὸν θεόν, καὶ θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος

English Minuscule [Mixed Caps with spaces]
At start was the Word, and the Word was
with the God, and God was the Word.

With the arrival of the printing press in the late 1400's, these text families were collected, sorted, and compared to create edited texts that seem to be the most probable representation of the original texts that these copies are based on. The science of "textual criticism" developed greatly over the 18th-20th centuries to give us reliable standards to judge which are the most "authentic" texts.

Based on textual criticism, if one is comparing two or more Greek Manuscripts with slightly variant texts, here are five generally accepted rules for determining authenticity:

  • Older readings, manuscripts, or groups are to be preferred. They have a shorter interval between originals and copies. The age of the manuscript is more important than the number of later copies that agree.
  • Shorter readings tend to be preferred to longer readings (because longer readings often appear to add later explanation to the text).
  • The reading is less probable if it seems to smooth away difficulties (another way of stating that the harder reading is preferable).
  • A reading is more probable if it conforms with the grammar, vocabulary, and writing style of the rest of the text. Readings that do not do this are more likely additions by another author.
  • If a reading can be seen as the source or reasonable explanation for how other variant readings came into being, it is probably the oldest reading. 
  • To elaborate on this summary of the rules of textual criticism, please consult: Any modern text-critical copy of the original language Scriptures, such as the NA28 Greek text, the UBS Greek text, or the BHS Hebrew text. Also see: Kurt Aland and Barbara Aland, The Text of the New Testament, pp. 275-276; Bruce Metzger, The Text of the New Testament, pp. 209-210.

As a result of three centuries of textual criticism, we have found only about a half dozen large sections of text disagree in different copies (cf. John 8; Mark 16), and even these do not affect the overall message. As Bruce Metzger (a major Mainline Protestant textual scholar) taught: "We know what about 92% of the NT said in its original manuscripts with a rather high degree of certainty. As for the other 8%, very little of theological or ethical consequence is at stake."

Selected Variants in the Greek Text
Since most of the variants in ancient Greek manuscripts come in the form of changes in spelling or word order, they do not change the meaning of the verses at all, and thus do not reflect in English translations. The following list contains all the manuscript variants that actually change the English translation in a noticeable way. If you looks them up in your Bible, you will notice that most of these have a negligible effect on the meaning of the text. In addition, if you look at a critical edition of the Greek text, it is fairly obvious which reading is the most ancient and authentic. These 117 verses comprise less than 1.5% of the 7956 total verses in the Greek text of the New Testament.

Matthew 5:44; 6:13; 17:21; 18:11; 20:16; 20:22-23; 23:14; 24:36; 27:35; Mark 6:11; 7:8; 7:16; 9:43-46; 9:49; 10:24; 11:26; 14:19; 15:28; 16:9-20; Luke 1:28; 9:55-56; 11:2-4; 11:11; 17:36; 22:43-44; 23:17; 23:34; John 1:18; 5:3-4; 6:69; 7:53-8:11; 8:59; Acts 2:30; 8:37; 9:5-6; 10:6; 10:21; 13:42; 15:24; 15:34; 18:21; 23:9; 24:6-8; 28:29; Romans 8:1; 10:15; 11:6; 14:6; 14.23; 16:24-27; 1Corinthians 6:20; 9:20; 14:38; Galatians 3:1; Ephesians 5:30; Philippians 3:16; 1Timothy 6:5; Hebrews 2:7; 10:34; 12:20; 1Peter 2:2; 4:14; 2Peter 1:21; 1John 3:1; 4:3; 5:7-8; 5:13; Jude 1.22-23; 1.25; Revelation 1:8; 1:11; 2:20; 4:2-3; 5:14; 8:7; 11:17; 14:5; 16:5; 21:24; 22:14; 22:19

Of these 117 translatable variants, here are three of the largest sections of text affected, along with some other notable variants with commentary:

Mark 16:9-20

  • Some texts from the 3-5th century add verse 9: "They reported briefly to those around Peter all that they had been commanded. After these things Jesus himself sent out through them, from the east to the west, the holy and imperishable preaching of eternal salvation. Amen."
  • Some texts from 3-6th century add the extended ending of verses 9-20, which includes resurrection appearances of Jesus, Jesus commissioning the disciples, and Jesus promising that they would do signs and wonders, such as "cast out demons... speak in new tongues... pick up snakes in their hands, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover".
  • The most reliable texts say: Omitted by all the earliest manuscripts.

Commentary: Clearly the Gospel stopped at 16.8 in the original text. There could be many reasons for this: Perhaps the author gave it an open ending on purpose. Perhaps the author was arrested in the Neronian persecution, and forced to stop. Perhaps the original ending was lost, with the last page of the codex (book) ripped out. It is clear that anonymous scribes added the endings 2-3 centuries later, drawing on material already found in Acts (such as the great commission, instructions on baptism, and records of the miracles of the early disciples).

John 7:53-8:11

  • This is the story of the woman caught in adultery, in which Jesus tells the crowd gathered to stone her to death "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone", at which point the crowd drops their stones and goes home. Most early Church fathers had knowledge of the story, but not located where it is in the text.
  • The most reliable texts say: Omitted by all the earliest manuscripts, this passage is generally agreed to be a later addition to the Fourth Gospel. Although it may be a true story, as many scholars think, it should not be read as part of the context in John. In addition to being located at John 7:53, other early manuscripts have it placed at: John 7:36; John 21:25; John 8:12, Luke 21:38, and Luke 24:53. 

Commentary: The text seems like an authentic early story associated with the Apostolic writings, but which was not part of a larger book. As a result, early scribes tried to find a book to place it in, rather than publish it separately.

John 5:3-4

  • The most reliable texts say: In these lay a great multitude of sick people, blind, lame, paralyzed.
  • Some later texts say: In these lay a great multitude of sick people, blind, lame, paralyzed, waiting for the moving of the water. For an angel went down at a certain time into the pool and stirred up the water; then whoever stepped in first, after the stirring of the water, was made well of whatever disease he had.

Commentary: This is pretty obviously an explanatory note added in by an early scribe which became incorporated into the text by later scribes.

John 1:18

  • The most reliable texts say: No one has seen God at any time. The only begotten God, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him.
  • Slightly later texts say: No one has seen God at any time. The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him.

Commentary: The words God and Son are confused between these two variants. Both have early manuscripts that contain these readings. And both readings find support in the whole text of John, since John does affirm that Jesus is both God (cf. chapter 1 and 21) and the Son of God (cf. chapter 3). Either reading makes sense in the context.

John 6:69

  • The most reliable texts say: Also we have come to believe and know that You are the Holy One of God.
  • Some later texts say: Also we have come to believe and know that You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.

Commentary: It seems that some scribes changed the later texts to conform to the other Gospel accounts of the disciples confessing that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of God (cf. Matthew 16; Mark 8). But most texts kept the earlier, more reliable reading, and thus it is easy to ascertain the more reliable reading.

Romans 8:1

  • The most reliable texts say: There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus.
  • Some later texts say: There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit.

Commentary: It seems fairly clear that, in the later texts, scribe(s) skipped a few verses and included material about "walking not in the flesh but according to the Spirit" which is contained a few verses later in the text.

Romans 16:24

  • The most reliable texts say: Verse omitted
  • Some later texts say: The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen.

Commentary: It is fairly clear that in later copies, the scribe(s) added a traditional Pauline ending to the book in manuscripts where the original longer ending (16.25-27) had been accidentally deleted. Comparison with earlier texts has solved this dilemma easily.

1 John 5:7-8

  • The most reliable texts say: For there are three that bear witness: the Spirit, the water, and the blood; and these three agree as one.
  • Some later texts say: For there are three that bear witness in heaven: the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit; and these three are one. And there are three that bear witness on earth: the Spirit, the water, and the blood; and these three agree as one.

Commentary: This is one of the most controversial variants in the New Testament, often known as the "Comma Johanneum". Those who advocate for the later reading say that those who want to delete it are under the influence of a conspiracy to delete the idea of the Trinity from the New Testament. However, the full Godhood of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are fully attested in other non-variant readings from the New Testament (cf. John 1; 14; Romans 8; Matthew 28.19-20, etc.). Thus, it is fairly clear that the inclusion of "the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit; and these three are one" was done by a later scribe who was trying to fortify the Trinitarian theology of the book in a more explicit way beyond how it was originally worded.

If we further researches the issue, looking at each of the 117 references above, we will find similar patterns in the makeup of the textual variants. None of the variants seem to affect the basic meaning, historical narrative, or theological outlook of the New Testament.

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This is a bunch of stuff to make us think hard about our incredible love affair with the God of the universe, our astounding infidelities against him, and his incredible grace to heal and restore us through Christ. Everything on this site is copyright © 1996-2015 by Nathan L. Bostian so if you use it, cite me... otherwise you break the 8th commandment, and make God unhappy. You can contact the author by posting a comment.