Has The Bible Been Corrupted?

March 18, 2013 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Greek Bible 2This past weekend in worship and ABC, we discussed some of the biggest objections and obstacles that people present to trusting in Jesus.  One of the objections and obstacles I covered in ABC had to do with the reliability of Scripture.  Bart Ehrman, a skeptical scholar at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, explains why so many people call into question the Bible’s reliability:

Not only do we not have the originals [of the biblical manuscripts], we don’t have the first copies of the originals.  We don’t even have the copies of the copies of the originals, or the copies of the copies of the copies of the originals.  What we have are copies made later – much later.  In most instances, they are copies made centuries later.  And these copies all differ from one another, in many thousands of places…These copies differ from one another in so many places that we don’t even know how many differences there are.  Possibly it is easiest to put it in comparative terms:  there are more differences in our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament.[1]

Many people wonder if that which is recorded in the Bible is historically accurate.  Recently, popular news commentator Bill O’ Reilly called into question the historicity of the biblical stories of Adam and Eve and of Jonah, saying, “I was taught, in my Catholic school, that a lot of the stories in the Bible are allegorical.”[2]  Bart Ehrman takes it a step farther.  He not only questions if what is recorded in the Bible is historically accurate, he questions if what is recorded in the Bible was even supposed to be there at all!  He notes the many ancient copies we have of the Bible differ from each other, thereby undermining their veracity, at least in Ehrman’s eyes.  After all, if no two ancient manuscripts completely agree with each other, how can we know which manuscripts record what was actually written by Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, Peter, et al?

In their book Reinventing Jesus,[3] three biblical scholars make some helpful distinctions concerning the types of variants, or differences, that we find in ancient biblical manuscripts.  In order to understand what is truly going on with the differences we have between ancient copies of the Bible, it is worth it to review their categories.

Spelling Differences

The majority of the variants we have in the New Testament are either alternate spellings or misspellings of a given word.  For instance, the name John is in some manuscripts spelled Ioannes, while in other manuscripts, it is spelled Iaones.  One “n” or two?  It doesn’t really matter.  Regardless of how this name is spelled, we know to whom the manuscript is referring.

Differences That Do Not Affect Translation

There are some differences between ancient copies of the Bible that have no affect on how we read something in English.  For example, Greek allows for definite articles before proper names, but does not demand them.  Thus, instead of referring to “Mary,” a biblical Greek text may refer to “the Mary.”  Or, instead of referring to Jesus, a Greek text may read “the Jesus.”  Because Greek allows for but does not demand these definite articles, some ancient Greek texts contain the definite articles in front of names while others do not.  This, however, does not affect the translation or meaning of a given biblical text.  Rather, the decision to retain or forgo a definite article is merely a matter of style.

Meaningful Variants That Are Not Viable

There are some differences between ancient biblical copies that do indeed affect the meaning of a text, but one of the variant readings is simply not viable.  For instance, ancient versions of 1 Thessalonians 2:9 refer to “the gospel of God” while a late medieval manuscript of this same verse refers to “the gospel of Christ.”  Though the gospel is indeed Christ’s gospel, because only one late medieval manuscript has this reading while almost all other ancient manuscripts refer to “the gospel of God,” the reading that refers to the gospel of Christ simply isn’t viable.  Too many other texts militate against this reading.

Meaningful and Viable Variants

Finally, there are some variants between ancient biblical copies that both affect the meaning of a text and are viable.  Romans 5:1 has variants that read, “We have peace” as well as “Let us have peace.”  Scholars are split on which one is original.  But even if scholars are split on which one is original, both statements are theologically correct.  After all, we are both promised peace through Christ and commanded to be people of peace by Christ.

It is important to note that the variants which are both meaningful and viable make up only about one percent of all textual variants.  Moreover, even with the many, but small, differences in our many ancient biblical manuscripts, not one of these differences – even the meaningful and viable ones – compromises a biblical doctrine.  Throughout all of these manuscripts, doctrines like the Trinity, the divinity of Christ, and salvation by grace through faith are taught.  Indeed, Ehrman is finally forced to admit that the vast majority of variants in ancient biblical manuscripts are insignificant when he writes,  “Most of these differences are completely immaterial and insignificant.”[4]

So what does all this mean?  It means the text of the Bible we have is the text of the Bible as it has always been.  Thanks to the faithful and diligent efforts of many scribes and scholars over many centuries, the words of the apostles and prophets have been faithfully handed down from one generation to the next.  What we read now in the Bible is what the Christian Church has always believed, taught, and confessed.  Christ has preserved His Word from corruption by His grace.  Thanks be to God!

[1] Bart Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus (New York:  Harper Collins, 2005), 10.

[2] Melissa Barnhart, “Robert Jeffress Argues With Bill O’Reilly Over If Jonah, Adam and Eve Stories Are Real,” Christian Post (3.8.13).

[3] J. Ed Komoskewski, M. James Sawyer & Daniel B. Wallace, Reinventing Jesus:  How Contemporary Skeptics Miss the Really Jesus and Mislead Popular Culture (Grand Rapids:  Kregel Publications, 2006), 53-63.

[4] Bart Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus, 10.

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