I must confess I have mixed feelings when I hear a Christian say, “I just believe the Bible is God’s true Word by faith.” I also struggle when I see a sign or bumper sticker with, “God said it, I believe it.” While I am always encouraged to hear people confess a child-like faith, I am concerned with a little more information they will eventually see their Christian faith as childish.
There have been too many stories from those who began to have questions about the reliability of the Bible and struggled to find answers. Many felt hostility or shame when they dared to verbalize (out loud) their questions about the authenticity or reliability of the Bible.
Of all the questions one may raise about the Bible, there is one that seems the most shocking. How can we know what the 27 books of the New Testament originally said if the original writings no longer exist?
Christians do not claim there is a secret vault in a sacred cathedral, where only a few are allowed access to the original writings. There is no attempt to deny or hide the absence of what scholars sometimes refer to as the “autographs.” They are nowhere to be found and it may seem odd more Christians are not concerned.
Bart Ehrman describes his journey learning Greek at Wheaton College. He had a deep desire to understand the meaning of the New Testament writings in the original Greek. Then he realized there were questions regarding what the original manuscripts may have contained. “How does it help us to say that the Bible is the inerrant Word of God if in fact, we do not have the words that God inerrantly inspired, but only the words copied by scribes—sometimes correctly but sometimes (many times!) incorrectly?”1
So, is it possible to establish what the original autograph writings of the New Testament said? The answer to this question is complicated but not impossible. First, we must gain some understanding of the nature of ancient writings and literature.
During the first century, the primary material used for writing in the Middle East would have been papyrus, from which we get our term “paper.” Papyrus was made from the papyrus plant that grew in the delta of the Nile River. Scholars are almost certain that the original autographed New Testament books were written on papyrus. Unfortunately, papyrus is not a reliable material for the long-term preservation of writing and there are few surviving copies. However, there have been several ancient biblical papyruses discovered in the dry sands of Egypt.2
Vellum and Parchment made from animal skins were also used for writing. The skins would be scraped, dried, and stretched to provide the maximum amount of durable surface for writing. By the third and fourth centuries parchment was the most common source for writing, with multiple sheets being bound together to form a “codex,” the ancient precursor to the modern book.
Until the invention of the printing press, the only way to make multiple copies of a letter or book was by hand. The transmission of information, “even by word of mouth, was a more exact and controlled process than it is for us.”3 The scribes were professionals, capable of amazing accuracy, though not without occasional errors.
The errors can be categorized as either unintentional or intentional. Unintentional errors could be caused by several factors, usually audible or visual. Often, one scribe would read a text aloud as multiple scribes copied. The copyist might reword the phrase to a preferred reading or mishear the reading incorrectly copying. Visual errors would occur when copying directly from one document to another. The errors would be caused by writing the same line or word twice, misspelling words, leaving out words, or as simple as changing a word from singular to plural (“man” to “men”).
Intentional errors occurred when scribes sought to clarify or correct a misspelling or grammar of a text being copied. The intent may have been to change a word, sentence, or even paragraph of a manuscript in favor of a clearer wording. Sometimes, the changes made by scribes were for doctrinal or theological reasons.
To understand and recreate the original content of the autographs of New Testament manuscripts, the study of Textual Criticism has emerged. “The goal of textual criticism is to search with great care and diligence for that reading which is closest to the autographs.”4
Textual critics can compare the many copies of individual manuscripts from multiple regions and compare them to identify any variant readings and distinguish what the original text would have said. “We are not, then, left wondering whether such corruptions have happened everywhere; we can pinpoint where they did and why they arose. We are not left with a hopelessly corrupt text but a textual tradition that, while including corruptions, includes the genuine text.”5
Textual criticism provides a methodology to distinguish between any corrupt or genuine text. A careful evaluation of church history through the first few centuries to our present time reveals a textual tradition that continues to build an ever-increasing body of MSS evidence to further validate a genuine text.
So how many manuscripts of the New Testament exist today? Every year new manuscripts are discovered yet with minimal impact, other than adding to an already well-established body of New Testament texts. “Most manuscripts of the New Testament are only manuscripts of part of the New Testament, and providing an exact count of them is a fool’s errand. It is best to say that there are about fifty-three hundred Greek New Testament manuscripts in existence, although fifty-one hundred might be the safer estimate.”6
While it may seem disconcerting to discover the absence of the New Testament autographs, the 5100 plus manuscripts of the New Testament, the stability of the text, and often the relatively small amount of time between the original writing and earliest copies, should altogether build confidence in the authenticity of the Bible today.
“I never did find that one fabled manuscript that preserved every syllable of Scripture without a single variant. What I found instead were thousands of manuscripts that, taken together, have preserved the Word of God sufficiently for us to trust and to follow Jesus Christ.”7 The text of the Greek New Testament available today—the result of centuries of diligent work on the part of textual scholars—should be a source of confidence, not a concern.
Maybe it is time for a new bumper sticker that says, “God said it, it’s recorded in over 5,000 copies, that can be accurately analyzed, understood, and translated so I can believe it.” We may need wider bumpers.
1 Bart D. Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why, (New York: Harper Collins, 2005) 7.
2 David Alan Black, New Testament Textual Criticism: A Concise Guide. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books,1994) 15.
3 John A.T. Robinson, Can We Trust the New Testament?, (Grand Rapids, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1977) 33.
4 David Alan Black, New Testament Textual Criticism: A Concise Guide. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books,1994) 25.
5 Elijah Hixson and Peter Gurry, Myths and Mistakes in New Testament Textual Criticism. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2019) 226.
6 Elijah Hixson and Peter Gurry, 69.
7 Timothy Paul Jones. How We Got the Bible, (Torrance: Rose, 2015) 161.