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Has the New Testament been corrupted?

January 18, 2013

Scott Whynot

The transmission of the New Testament is, unfortunately, not a topic that most professing Christians know much about.  This makes it all the easier for a skeptic to win an argument against those who are unprepared.  God’s Word in the Bible is an essential foundation for the Christian faith and 1 Peter 3:15 tells us to be prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for our hope.  Especially with the many incredible resources through the Internet, ‘aint nobody got time for that’ simply is not a valid excuse for being ignorant of these important topics.

Let’s begin with the New Testament that we read today.  If you look at a good English version like NASB or ESV, you’ll see the odd reference that says “some early MSS say _________” or “some early MSS don’t contain ________” or other similar comments (MSS stands for ‘manuscripts’).  These notes reflect the best available textual-critical data of the day.

You see, even though English is clearly the superior language (excepting Elvish), the New Testament was originally written in Koine Greek – the language of the common people in that time.

The Christian confession is that the original New Testament was inspired by God.  Remember, this does not mean that translations (including English translations) are inspired.  Every translation will fall short at some points.

From the original books of the New Testament, many copies of each one were made and were passed along throughout the Roman Empire.  These copies were then copied, then those copies were copied………. and so on.  Again remember – the copyists of the books were not inspired.  They made mistakes!  I’m sure being under the constant threat of Roman persecution didn’t help their focus.

Here’s the deal: we don’t have the original manuscripts today.  Maybe one day they’ll show up somewhere, but for now we’ll have to make due.  Thankfully, hard working archeologists have unearthed many ancient sections of various books in the New Testament (a recent find may even be from the first century).

Therefore, what we currently have is copies from those originals.  However, sometimes these copies differ from one another.

This poses an obvious problem for the Christian.  If we don’t have the originals and the copies that we do have show some differences, how can we trust what we read in our English Bibles?

First off, it is important to recognize that the vast majority of copy errors are spelling mistakes or other minor problems that can easily be understood.  James White’s book ‘The King James Only Controversy’ is an excellent resource on this topic.

Secondly, our confidence in the transmission of the text is confirmed when we consider the concept of ‘multiplicity’.  The early church rapidly copied and distributed the New Testament books over a large geographical area, which in turn continued to copy and distribute the books.  It is highly unlikely that the exact same copy error would be made by many different people from a variety of locations.  Furthermore, if one speculates that copyists from one area deliberately changed the text to suit their theological opinion, the attestation from the many other areas will help us to clearly pinpoint these incorrect discrepancies.

Instead of having only one line of copying transmission, multiple lines extending to diverse regions exist.  When these various lines of manuscript transmission agree with one another we can be very confident that they represent what the original actually looked like.

When manuscripts from diverse times and areas are brought together for comparison, many mistakes become obvious.  To make a simplistic (but common) example, if manuscripts are brought together and the earliest ones say ‘Jesus’ in one section and the older ones say ‘Jesus Christ’, it is not too difficult to guess that later copyists added in the word ‘Christ’ accidently because they were so accustomed to seeing the two words together in so many other places.

A textual critic has the job to use all the manuscript evidence to figure out what the original New Testament books looked like.  Thanks to 1) the large number of manuscripts, 2) the very old manuscripts that have been found (and are continuing to be found), and 3) the idea of ‘multiplicity’, a Christian can have great confidence that the New Testament we use today accurately represents the original New Testament.  While there are still some questionable textual variants, they do not impact orthodox Christian teaching and will hopefully be confirmed as more archeological discoveries are made.

Of course, these evidences are a great support for our faith but do not represent our true foundation for trusting in the Bible.  As Christians, we trust that the New Testament has been preserved because we know that God is both able and willing to preserve His Words in such a way that we may know it to be His Word.  If this seems like a circular argument, that’s because it is (all ultimate authority arguments are necessarily so), but don’t confuse this ‘virtuous’ circularity with a ‘vicious’ circle.  This way of thinking/apologetic is known as the presuppositional approach and Paul has already written a post about it.  It’s an important topic so I’m sure more posts about it will be on the way!

  1. I agree with your final thoughts on the validity of the latest ESV TRANSLATION. It is reassuring that most of the latest documents ( over 5500 )is a huge number and in most cases they affirm the best and are integrated into the ESV.
    The worst news is that the new 2011/2012 NIV is an agenda driven update siding with the gender neutral drivers, and people are not aware of this subversive behavior. The 1978 edition is much better than the later 2011 edition but it is no longer available on the market after present stocks are sold! That said,The public are just not being told the BIG difference between the 2 editions of the NIV, and everyone should be by-passing it and purchasing the more accurate and best translation available, and that would be the ESV. The KJV, NKJV, NASB, and the NIV 1978 are all decent translations and quite accurate and the Good News of the Gospel is well Presented! But again, as we have much more evidence of what was really done many years ago it can be very well and more accurately presently now in the NEW ENGLISH STANDARD VERSION.
    This is my opinion on what I believe to be the best for me. W. Corner

    • Thanks for the comment Bill, every translation has its own strengths and weaknesses, but some weaknesses are definitely greater than others. You also have to consider literal vs. dynamic translations and recognize the strengths and limitations that each provide when engaged in a Bible study. I personally prefer the ESV or NASB (both more literal translations).

  2. I prefer the Scriptures in their original Klingon. :-D

    A nice post. It’s very clear from the multiplicity of manuscripts, and from the fact that even where there are variations, there are (for the most part) only very minor, accidental variations that even the earliest scribes and copyists held the New Testament texts to be just as scriptural and sacred as the Jewish scribes held the Old Testament to be, altering nary a jot nor tittle.

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