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.