Tom Gilson

New Testament Reliability

Can we trust the New Testament? Christians say yes, of course; but how and why? The answer to that depends on exactly which question you’re asking. Did the events in it really happen? Was Jesus really crucified and resurrected? Did he appear to Paul on the road to Damascus? Are the New Testament’s ethical teachings really from God? Does it accurately explain the way to eternal life?

There is one bedrock question that all of these depend upon: does our current New Testament (NT) really contain documents written by first-century followers of Jesus Christ, and do we still have it in the form they wrote it? More specifically, do we have any reason to believe the documents have been reliably transmitted to us down the centuries?

“Reliable” in this sense does not mean, “do these documents tell the truth?” That’s a great question, but a different one; so this post will not address it or the other questions raised in the first paragraph; only the matter of whether the documents we have can be trusted as saying the same thing they originally said.

This is a familiar discussion in Christian apologetics, and I do not wish to re-write what others have covered adequately elsewhere. Jimmy Williams describes three tests for reliability of ancient documents, and CARM presents a table showing that NT documents massively outweigh others for bibliographical evidence. There’s more again at Christiananswers.net., and an entire e-book at Why Faith? My guess is that most readers here have seen this kind of information before; if not, I suggest you take a look at the first two of those links, at least. It won’t take but a couple of minutes, and it will get you mostly up to speed on this topic.

I didn’t want to replay all that these websites had to say about the matter, so I spent a half-hour or so searching through Google and the “Secular Web” (starting at infidels.org) for rebuttals. I may need some help from readers, because all I found that directly addressed this question was a page by Steven Carr, on “the U.K.’s leading atheist wpageebsite,” with a number of arguments that hardly need addressing. For example:

Nickey Gumbel, a well-known British evangelical writes in his book, “Questions of Life”, (100,000 + sold) that there there are over 5,000 Greek manuscripts. As there are 20 times as many copies of his book, does that make his book 20 times as good?

That’s so far off the real question it’s not even funny. The point of 5,000 Greek manuscripts is (1) that ancient (pre-Gutenberg) documents were necessarily copied by hand; (2) hand-copying can introduce errors into texts; (2) multiple manuscripts can provide us information on whether copies errors have in fact been introduced. What we know from 5,000-plus copies, n short, is that we have solid textual evidence indicating that our New Testament we have is faithful to the original writings (the autographs, the documents as written by their actual authors), to the extent that no passage of any importance is in doubt or dispute. The exceptions to this are in John 8 and Mark 16, passages which every Bible for decades has quite transparently footnoted as being doubtful. Neither contains critical material, such that our understanding of Jesus Christ or the Christian life depends on them.

If there are other Internet rebuttals of the reliability of the NT documents’ transmission, I have not found them. I’m sure someone reading here will have better luck than I did. Bart Ehrman’s book Misquoting Jesus represents one other attempt to undermine NT reliability. As I have noted previously, there isn’t much there, either.

All of this leaves me in a minor (and fairly tolerable) dilemma. I’m trying to write an interesting blog page on the reliability of NT textual transmission, and all the good stuff on the subject has already been taken. Even the rebuttals (as far as I’ve been able to find) are too few or too weak to do much with. Well, it’s Saturday, and my to-do list around the house will keep me going; and with any luck someone will leave a comment that will get things rolling. I do ask that you bear in mind the focus of the issue I’ve brought up here. There are other great questions to be asked about the credibility or truth of the NT, but they will have their chance another day.

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19 thoughts on “New Testament Reliability

  1. I’ve been covering this same topic, and here’s an objection that came up that was new to me:

    The earliest copies of a reasonable amount of the Gospels are 100 years after the autographs. How do we know they bear any resemblance to the originals?

  2. Wow, brilliant arguments.
    I wonder why you even posted this. I guess it is meant for people who already agree with you. There are huge numbers of biblical scholars, not just Ehrman, who call into question the reliability of the books your faith has canonized.
    And by reliability, we mean that they are reliable as literal information.
    Disappointing post — but I am sure you inspired your believer readers.

  3. I discuss the textual reliability of the Gospels at http://www.bowness.demon.co.uk/reli2.htm

    These 5000+ Greek manuscripts show that Christians would change details of the Gospels to make them more doctrinally pure.

    Incidentally, there is not one Greek manuscript before 800 AD which contains 27 and only books in its New Testament.

    As for their reliability, produce one shred of evidence that there was a custom of releasing a prisoner at Passover.

    The anonymous Gospel of Mark has a convicted criminal , called Son-of-The-Father being released, while the real Son of the Father is about to be killed, although innocent.

    This is just myth.

    In Luke’s Gospel, Lazarus is a character in a parable the point of which is that people will not believe even if somebody returns from the dead.

    In John’s Gospel, Lazarus turns into a real person who does return from the dead, and people still do not believe.

    It is not a case of wake up and smell the coffee. More that a branch of Starbuck’s has opened up in the pages of the New Testament.

    To say nothing of stories of the risen Jesus ascending into the sky , and then disappearing into a cloud on his way to Heaven – something that not even NT Wright can sell to himself as having happened in the way that the New Testament describes it.

  4. @Sabio:

    I posted this blog entry actually because a few weeks ago I made a commitment to cover this information. Maybe I should have pointed that out in the post, and readers would not have had to wonder about it.

    When I sat down to write this post, I discovered I didn’t have much better to offer than to refer readers elsewhere for the main arguments in favor of reliable transmission of the texts. Then I spent a half-hour searching the web, as noted in this post, looking for counter-arguments to deal with. If had you read the last few lines of this post, you would have noted that I was disappointed myself, for not having found any such counter-arguments worth spending time on. I invited readers to help find them for me so we could have a good discussion.

    You say that by reliability you mean that they are reliable as literal information. Fine, I don’t disagree with that. I said I was going to cover this one topic at a time, and that I would be coming back to cover other relevant issues. The topic of this post was the reliability of their transmission from the originals.

    Your sarcasm plays on what you see as my being ignorant of the things you complain about, but it’s completely misdirected here. I pointed it all out myself in the blog post! Still, I’m sure you inspired your unbelieving readers with your wow! brilliant arguments.

    Steven, I’ll come back in more detail to your comments later today, it’s time for breakfast now and then church. I’ll point out just quickly that most of what you said here has to with topics other than reliability of transmission. Even the fact that the 27-book package did not appear until late has no impact on whether the individual documents were transmitted faithfully. Your comment about 5,000+ documents showing believers would change the documents is quite backwards, actually; the large number of documents shows how little they were changed, and also gives us the information we need to be confident enough as to what the originals said.

  5. Personally, I’m less interested in whether they have changed significantly from the originals than in what grounds there are to think the originals true. The same, of course, goes for the scriptures of any religion—be it the Quran, the Book of Mormon, the Bhagavad Gita or any of the rest.

  6. Well then if this issue is settled we’ll move on to another one in the near future. So far no substantive disagreement has been brought forward, including Steven Carr’s other page mentioned here. That doesn’t mean it won’t be, so I’m by no means closing the door on it, and I guess after lunch or sometime this evening I ought to respond to Carr’s page. It hadn’t ought to take very long.

  7. I’ve just read through the page Steven Carr referred us to in his comment. It starts with the question, “Why are there footnotes in my Bible?” The answer is quite clear, and not at all unsettling to me or other believers: because there are some portions of the NT where textual variants make it unclear what the original said, and because Bible publishers want to be completely transparent about these things.

    Reading through the rest of the page, I find that Carr notes several instances of this sort: “No less a manuscript than Codex Bezae was altered to add…” But if we know that an alteration has taken place, then we have a demonstration of my point, which is that the large number of MSS allows us great confidence as to what was said in the original.

    None of the variants Carr uses as illustrations on this page are essential, in this sense: that if every disputed passage he mentions were tossed out, still no important doctrine of Christianity is lost or even materially affected.

    He wrote,

    To say that no variant affects Christian doctrine is rather like the prosecution in a court case saying that evidence should be accepted, even if it has been tampered with, provided it has only been tampered with by prosecution witnesses.

    No, Steven, I’m sorry but that’s just completely unaware of the fact of the matter. It’s saying this: the variants, even if thrown out, leave no Christian doctrine materially affected. To borrow from your analogy, it’s considerably more like the prosecution in a court case saying, “Judge, we don’t mind if you agree with the defense in disallowing all of this evidence. We have plenty more to offer, and we can make our case with the remainder.”

    I don’t think there’s much doubt that we can reconstruct the autographs of the NT documents in all essential points, to an extent not quite reaching 100% complete accuracy but very near to it.

  8. ChrisB,

    The plethora of MS evidence is the source of our confidence for those first 100 years. If there were substantive variants introduced that early, they would have shown up in the documentary evidence.

  9. I don’t know Tom. The books we have may be substantially like the original texts—or substantial changes might simply have been made pretty early. Since the oldest manuscripts we have are from a couple of centuries after Jesus is claimed to have resurrected it seems pretty much impossible to know one way or the other.

    And of course there are other issues as well. Like whether the texts that became taken as scripture are simply the ones that represent the form of christianity that won out among early competing versions of the religion and not the one which most accurately reflects real events (I doubt any of them do that, but that’s another issue). Paul himself warns of others teaching different versions of the gospel and, naturally, claims those other versions are false gospels, but I don’t see how we would know.

    With as little information as we have from Christianity’s first couple of centuries all anyone can really do is guess. The range of plausible possibilities is enormous.

  10. With as little information as we have from Christianity’s first couple of centuries all anyone can really do is guess.

    David, that’s an historically uninformed opinion. Stay tuned.

  11. I have to agree with David here. A quick glance through the back of my Nestle-Aland Novum Testamentum Graece reveals that vast majority of the papyrus documents come from the 3rd century on. I only see P52, P98 (questionable), and P104 as being 2nd century. Maybe I’m misunderstanding something, but I don’t think given what we have, it is possible to know the extent of the original text.
    That said, I personally don’t think variant texts makes the NT any less reliable.

  12. First, generally speaking Tom is quite correct in pointing out the backward interpretations of the “loyal opposition”: the very issues they try to criticize actually work against them.

    Second, there’s a species of historicism at play on the part of the “loyal opposition,” as well as ignorance of how the Church clarifies truths–including the development (over 4 centuries) of the NT Canon.

    The historicism is blatantly obvious: on what basis does one suppose people 2000 or so years removed from the time just after the death of Christ have better access to writings available at that time? Many documents have been lost over the past two thousand years, and indeed we may not have access to them now. But does the same apply to believers in the, say, 300s-400s? It would be silly to think so. Likely they had far greater access to letters, epistles, books, etc., etc., than we do… which makes their judgment and verification more valid. So, if all we have today (I’m speaking broadly) is the decision of a council, then wasn’t that council better placed than we to check, verify, scrutinize, what writing were available then? Moreover, weren’t they “closer” to the “sense of the times” (the cultural and historical nuances)? Of course they were. I’ll go with their conclusions before I go with someone working out of an assertion of ignorance “we no longer have the original texts.” Yes, we may not… but they very, very likely did.

    With respect to how the Church clarifies issues: it is indeed true a plethora of various types of texts were floating around during the time of the early Church. But that is why the Church had to protect the “deposit of faith” by eliminating texts inconsistent with other texts, texts containing outright errors, texts that were written third or fourth or fifth person removed, etc., etc. The early Church was in a much better position to do so (given what was explained in the previous point) than those who today speculate simply for the sake of speculation. The idea of a complete and clear-cut canon of the New Testament existing from the beginning (i.e., from Apostolic times) has no basis in history. The Canon of the New Testament, like that of the Old, is the result of a development–a process stimulated by disputes with doubters, both within and without the Church, and retarded by certain speculators, and self-interested parties. The situation over time came to a head, and so there were several Church councils between 390-415 A.D. that were “forced” to establish the canon to clarify and protect the deposit of faith… Not to do so would expose the average believer to confusion from the plethora of wildly diverging texts.

    So, if someone uses the fact that we don’t have access to the original writings (which is true) to then illicitly conclude that other writings of the time were just as valid or that Christian beliefs need to be revised (usually, this is because they want revision to uphold their own ideological commitments) is blowing illogical smoke–quite arrogantly, in fact, because they put themselves above those people who had much more direct access to old texts that may not even exist today. And, let’s drop the strongly implied (and simply assumed but never demonstrated) undertow of post-modernist stupidity: if the early Church operated, as is claimed, simply through power to overcome other “voices,” then by all means put the verifiable evidence on the table for all to see. It there is none, then it is better to keep one’s baseless speculations behind one’s e-teeth… and commit oneself to real intellectual integrity.

  13. Craig,
    Much more than dating goes into the analysis of textual authenticity/transmission/reliability.

    For instance, most of the New Testament can be verified by earlier external sources. The biblical quotes from the pre-Nicea (325 C.E.) church fathers can reconstruct most of the text rather accurately.

    The location of our earliest manuscripts is important as well. Take p52, which the overwhelming majority of scholars date to 125 C.E (a few go earlier, a few go later). It’s Egyptian in origin, and thus considerably far away from Ephesus in terms of literary transmission. If p66, p45 and p75, which are all pre-300 C.E. manuscripts from John come from different locations and scribal traditions then measuring their accuracy against each other becomes very important for determining reliability.

    The type of manuscript is very important. Was this from a scroll or a codex? The earliest Christians preferred codices despite the popularity of the scroll. It allowed for easier transportation of multiple books, as well as various other benefits. Which books found are bound into codices and which aren’t? Is there a reason for the exclusion/inclusion of certain books from codices?

    Do these texts show any abnormal features from common texts of the day? Early biblical manuscripts usually contain “nomina sacra” where divine names are shortened and underscored (or set apart in another way). What does this tell us about early Christianity? There are plenty of other abnormal features that are worth studying.

    I’d highly suggest historian Larry Hurtado’s excellent book “The Earliest Christian Artifacts.” It’s highly technical, but worth trudging through. He teaches at Edinburgh and is a specialist on “nomina sacra,” textual criticism and the earliest Christian history.

    As a side note, he is a Christian and holds the texts to be reliable, as do the majority of New Testament scholars. Even Bart Ehrman believes they are basically reliable to their first century originals, but that we will never know for sure what the originals said. He believes there are changes, yet nothing significant enough to challenge the heart of the Christian message.

    A great resource is his debate with Dan Wallace at New Orleans Baptist Seminary a few years back. All of the audio from the conference was great. It included Michael Holmes, Dale Martin and others as well as the two main speakers. They argued over plenty of topics, but were in agreement that the basic doctrines of Christianity are not affected by even the most well attested variants.

    But…as David notes above, there is a difference between reliability and the truth of their message. I find them to be true, but that’s a matter of revelation and faith.


  14. I find them to be true, but that’s a matter of revelation and faith.

    That seems to me the most sensible approach for a religious believer to take. Back in the days when I believed in christianity I had no pretension that I had strong historical evidence such that the resurrection of Jesus must be regarded as, most likely, historical fact on purely mundane grounds.

    It seems to me that most apologetic arguments do more harm than good. Even as a believer in christianity it was pretty obvious to me that the arguments were bad ones. I held my beliefs as matters of, I believed at the time, direct revelation to the human heart. And if one believes in such a thing it should be sufficient—it certainly isn’t bolstered by bad apologetic arguments. Quite the contrary.

  15. Thanks Ranger. This is the kind of stuff they don’t teach at seminary. I’ll see if I can get a copy of that book.

  16. Craig, as I see you are a seminarian, I will add to Ranger’s recommendation another worthy book by Larry Hurtado: Lord Jesus Christ. I am a layman and it has taken me a year to read the first half of the book, because I read the footnotes and go Googling for the stuff I don’t recognize. There is some powerful stuff there to bolster your apologetics.

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