In Part 1 of this series, we discussed that the Bible is a dependable source of truth because Jesus’ words, events of His life, etc., were reliably passed down through oral tradition before they were written down. That leads to another question though: what happened once things were written down and copied throughout the years? Atheist New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman claims in his New York Times bestselling book titled Misquoting Jesus that there are 400,000 textual variants in the New Testament manuscripts. That is more changes than there are words in the New Testament! Are the words in the Bible you hold in your hands the same words that were written down almost 2000 years ago?
When Bart Ehrman says there are 400,000 textual variants in the New Testament manuscripts, he is referring to the old, Greek, handwritten copies of the Bible that are still in existence today. A variant is when you’re looking at one manuscript of Luke, for example, and comparing it with another manuscript of Luke and notice that there’s a change, whether that be a change in one word, a couple of sentences, or even a whole paragraph that’s different. Let me clarify: the textual variant objection is not about differences between different books, such as differences between Matthew and Mark. It’s also not about differences between translations, such as NIV versus KJV. Instead, the textual variant objection comes from looking at older and newer Greek copies of the same written book and finding differences in the Greek copies of that book. For example, a textual variant is when you look at one handwritten, Greek copy of Matthew 1:10 and it says “Amos,” but another handwritten, Greek copy of Matthew 1:10 spells it as “Amon” instead.
Since there are so many textual variants, do we have any idea if the New Testament has been reliably copied throughout the years to get us to our modern copy? Since there’s more variants than words in the New Testament, doesn’t that mean we could have an utterly different New Testament now than the eyewitnesses and authors originally wrote down? Well, no. Out of the variants, most are merely spelling errors—like typos—or come from using synonyms. Or sometimes it’s a difference of word order since Greek can change the order of words and still mean the same thing. As even Dr. Ehrman himself admits, less than 1% of the variants are actually significant because they would change the meaning of a passage. Fortunately, most variations are no longer than two verses— there’s only two variants that are more than two verses long. Let’s cut the ancients some slack—after all, they didn’t have spell-checker! But they did make sure to preserve the essential teachings of Christianity.
Even still, isn’t 400,000 variants still concerning, even if the differences are small? Keep in mind, as one of the world’s leading textual critics, Daniel Wallace, points out, there are so many textual variants because there are so many manuscripts. Again, even Dr. Ehrman explains there are far more manuscripts of the New Testament than any other ancient text. Other ancient texts may have fewer variants, but that’s because they have fewer manuscripts! For example, according to Dr. Clay Jones and Dr. Josh McDowell, as of 2014, Homer’s Illiad is in the lead when it comes to ancient Greek and Roman texts —there are about 2000 manuscripts. Demosthenes’ speeches runner up with about 340 manuscripts, and Caesar’s report of the Gallic Warstakes third place with about 250 manuscripts.
Now, let’s compare that with New Testament manuscripts. Dr. Wallace shows that the New Testament has over 5800 manuscripts in Greek, and when adding in other translations such as Arabic, Latin, etc., there are over 20,000 New Testament manuscripts. Although a lot of the manuscripts might be small fragments with just a few verses instead of the entire New Testament, the average size of the manuscripts is about 450 pages long. It makes sense that a massive number of manuscripts like that will produce a massive number of textual variants!
Even though there’s a lot of variants among the 20,000 manuscripts, it doesn’t mean we’re clueless as to what the originals said. We also have a million quotations of the New Testament from the early writings of the Church Fathers. So, that means we’re able to do a 3-fold comparison: we can compare the 5,800 Greek manuscripts, the thousands of manuscripts in other languages, and the one million quotations. We can test them against each other to determine what has varied, so it’s extremely likely that when we piece it all together, we have something very close to the originals. Dr. Wallace says it well: “…the New Testament is far and away the best-attested work of the ancient world. And precisely because we have hundreds of thousands of variants and hundreds of early manuscripts, we’re in an excellent position for recovering the wording of the original.”
And there’s another reason we’re in a great position to recover the wording of the originals. There is not a large gap of time between when the originals were written and when the copies we have in our possession today were written. There’s a fragment of John that is dated around 100 years after the original was written. And we have over 100 manuscripts that were written within 300 years of the originals. Now, you may be thinking, “We don’t have a single copy until around 100 years after the original, and we only have 100 copies within 300 years? C’mon. That’s not remarkable at all…what’s the big deal?” It’s remarkable once you compare it with other ancient manuscripts. On average, we have nothing, nada, zilch for the first 500 years after ancient Greek and Roman manuscripts were written. Historically speaking then, see how only 100 years is pretty impressive?
But, some object that a 100-year gap is still too much time. It still means we have no manuscripts in our hands from the first century, so there could have been drastic changes by the time we get to the copies we have from the second and third centuries. However, research by New Testament scholar Craig Keener shows manuscripts could still be in use, being read and studied, even 100 years after they were written. That means it’s probable that the originals and first copies of the New Testament would have still been circulating around in the second and third centuries, meaning that some copies we have today could have been direct copies of the originals! So, with people still being able to look at the originals when writing their copies, “there really is no justification for supposing that the text of the [New Testament] writings underwent major changes in the first and second centuries,” as Dr. Keener states.
That means the texts of the New Testament have remained relatively stable throughout the centuries. We can have a strong degree of confidence that the same New Testament texts written in the first century are essentially the same texts we have in our hands today.
However, the texts we have now at times seem to have contradictions between books. For instance, Matthew and Mark can both write about the same event, yet seem to contradict each other about what happened. Let’s dive into that objection in Part 3.