Have you ever wondered or heard someone asking if the Bible we read today would be the same text as the originals? Have you ever heard someone claiming that a person could have altered the New Testament over the years, so it would be impossible for us to know whether what we read today reflects what was written by the apostles and other authors at their time? These questions are very common and, in fact, we should make them not only about the New Testament, but also about all ancient documents.
When we investigate ancient documents, what we found is amazing. We found that the New Testament should be considered by far the most reliable text ever written by mankind if compared to the most important literary works of Antiquity. I mean, using the scientific criteria developed by History, when we analyze the New Testament, we conclude that it is much more reliable as a true copy of its originals than texts such as Plato’s, Aristotle’s, Sophocles’, among many others.
Are you curious to know why this is so? That’s great, because this will be the topic of our chat today. Let’s go.
I want make it clear right now that we don’t have the originals of any of the works of antiquity. They were destroyed during the years, so that the only remaining manuscripts we have are those made by the scribes, the copyists. Manuscripts, as the name implies, are copies of original texts made by copyists. They used to handwrite them word for word. Please keep in mind that I’m not taking into account here the translations made into other ancient languages, but only the manuscripts in the original language in which the originals were written; in the case of New Testament, it was Greek, as you know.
Now, I must present what the criteria scholars use to assess the reliability of ancient documents are. As soon as we figure them out, we’ll be able to analyze the reliability of the New Testament texts in relation to its original.
The main criteria are:
- Time lapse between the earliest copy of the original and the time the original was written; that is, the time between the date on which the originals were written and the date on which the earliest manuscript we have was written; and
- Number of manuscripts we have.
Do you know why historians and other scholars choose these criteria? The reasons are simple. I’ll explain them.
When we have a manuscript that was written close to the date the originals were written, it’s possible to infer that the probability of it having been altered is not as high as it would be if this time laps were much longer. For example, if an original was written in the 1st century and we have at hand a copy (manuscript) written in the 2nd century, we can say that, in principle, this manuscript is much more reliable if it was, for example, written centuries later. Reason being that within a shorter time lapse, there’s less chance an inattentive or even malicious copyist have made changes in the manuscript. We all know that in a time lapse of 100 years the chances of an eventual change are smaller than is a time lapse of 600 years, isn’t it?
You may be thinking now: and if, even within 100 year lapse time, some copyist changed the manuscript? How do we know this didn’t happen? That’s where the second criterion comes: the number of manuscripts. See that the greater the number of manuscripts we have, the easier it is to identify a possible change that a copyist would eventually have done in one of these. Let me explain.
Let’s assume a hypothetical example in which a scribe has changed a manuscript for purpose. If there were only four more manuscripts of this document, this change would be of 20% of all existing manuscripts (1 in 5 manuscripts), agreed? But in a situation where there were more 99 manuscripts, then the change would represent only 1% of the existing manuscripts (1 in 100 manuscripts). In other words, the more manuscripts we have, the easier it is to identify a copy that has been somehow amended. In other words, the remaining manuscripts would denounce the change. It’s such an interesting method, isn’t it?
Now, I’d like to remind you of the aforementioned criteria. As we saw, there are two criteria to analyze the texts of antiquity:
- Time lapse between the original and oldest manuscript; and
- Number of manuscripts we have.
Let us now see how the texts of antiquity behave when put to these criteria? In order to do so, please see the table below, in which I present the major ancient literary works. They will be presented according to the number of existing manuscripts crescent order.
[table id=2 /]
Have you noticed that the New Testament is a champion in any criteria we take? To say more, even if we summed up all the other manuscripts, the value obtained (932) would represent only 16% of the number of copies of the New Testament. If we considered those works individually, the score they achieve in the reliability race is extremely low. What about works as celebrated as those by Aristotle, which are based on meager 5 copies? Isn’t it strange that no one claims that we may have had some change in the works of Aristotle, with only five manuscripts, the oldest of them being written 14 centuries after the originals, and many attack the New Testament reliability, when as we saw it is the most reliable work of Antiquity?
Again, please keep in mind I’m not even considering the old copies of the New Testament that was translated into other languages, such as Arabic, for example. If we added the New Testament translations into those other ancient languages, we would reach the number of 25,000 manuscripts, approximately. It is an absolutely amazing and unbeatable record. Even the book “Iliad”, a central work for the Ancient Greeks, gets just a quite disgraceful second place in this race.
The record of the number of manuscripts of the New Testament is even more amazing because it is a book that was pursued to be destroyed. The Roman Emperor Diocletian, to cite one example, established around the year 303 AD that all copies should be destroyed.
The most impressive thing I have not even said yet. The greater the number of copies of a document, the higher the chance of disparity between these copies, because we have many opportunities in which this could have occurred. Again, the New Testament is a champion.
If we compare to each other the 5,686 copies of the New Testament, we’ll realize that they are absolutely equal in 99.5% of cases. This is an absolutely overwhelming record, mainly because when we analyze the 0.5% discrepancy, we conclude that 4 of every 5 of these differences arise only from misspelling mistakes. And no discrepancy between the copies relates to a central theme or doctrine of Christianity.
God’s wisdom is amazing and his plans are infallible. Couple years ago, during a lecture I was given in one of Brazil’s largest universities, a young man asked me: why your God, being so almighty, didn’t make the originals to remain until nowadays? Well, the reason is quite simple: keeping the original wouldn’t be the best strategy to maintain the integrity of His Word. Let’s explain.
When there are so many copies around, even if a person or an institution wanted to change one of them for his own purpose, this change wouldn’t prosper. This is so because other manuscripts would easily denounce any change, however small. If the original had been preserved, that person or religious institution that possesses the document could make the change he wanted and people would think it was the Word of God. Thanks to the strategy adopted by God to keep His word, not preserving the originals, but making and impressive number of manuscripts to remain until nowadays, we can be sure that what we read in the New Testament today is exactly what the apostles and other writers wrote in the originals.