21 Myths: Jesus' Story Has Been Changed Over Time

Myth: The biblical story of Jesus can’t be trusted because it’s been changed significantly over the last 2,000 years.

It’s a common question: how can anyone be sure that the Bible contains the same words that were written thousands of years ago?

This question concerns a discipline called ‘textual criticism’. Its goal is to evaluate all the available copied manuscripts of an ancient piece of literature to determine the original wording of the ‘autograph’ – the document when it was first composed. But, why is that even necessary? Can’t we just look at the original, instead of examining all the copies?

Not really. As is the case with nearly all ancient pieces of literature, they have survived because they were copied multiple times by scribes over the centuries. In a world without copy machines or scanners, this meant that hand-written copies were the only way to transmit books. As you might imagine, when something as long as a gospel is copied by hand, there are bound to be imperfections in the copies, especially when hundreds or thousands of them are made. But this does not mean that the original wording of such books is inaccessible – quite the opposite! Scholars work with careful controls to clarify the nature of the differences in manuscripts, and provide reasonable explanations for them.

In fact, the New Testament is easily the best-attested collection of ancient manuscripts that exists on the planet. There are nearly 6,000 copies or parts of copies of the Greek New Testament that are currently available, which date as early as AD 100-125 – probably within 30-50 years of the composition of the final NT books. But, that’s a long time between the original manuscripts and the copies, isn’t it? It might seem that way today. But, reality in the ancient world was quite different.

To put this in perspective, the closest competitor to the NT in terms of time between the original and its first surviving copy is Homer’s Iliad. Composed around 800 BC, the earliest copy we have dates to 400 BC – a span of 400 years! It is striking to consider some other manuscripts and the distance between their composition and our earliest extant copies: Plato’s Republic was written around 400 BC, but our earliest copy dates to AD 900 (1,300 years!); and, Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars was written somewhere near 50 BC, but our earliest copy dates to AD 900 (950 years!).

Now it is true that there are ‘variant readings’ in the copied manuscripts of the NT (differences in wording among copies of the same books). But, these variants do not all occur in the same place, and most of them have very obvious and clear explanations (misspelling, skipping a word, mixed up word order, etc.). And, while it is true that some variants are clearly ‘theologically motivated,’ it is also true that these are quite easily discernible to experts in the field, and provide no real challenge to the textual integrity of the NT.

Since we know of nearly 6,000 copies of NT manuscripts, there is a wealth of information available to distinguish between the variants in order to determine the original wording of the texts. Scholars estimate that between 90-95% of the wording of the Greek NT is established beyond serious doubt. There is no other ancient manuscript (religious or not) that compares to this.

There are indeed passages about which some doubt remains. But, as nearly all textual scholars realize, none of these passages provide any serious challenge to core Gospel claims in their own right. In this way, the Bible as a physical object parallels the Gospel itself – it is both supported by some kinds of evidence and it requires a level of trust in God’s providence and power in order to accept its testimony.

For those interested in learning more about textual criticism, I suggest that you look at this excellent website, dedicated to researching and explaining the textual tradition of the New Testament: www.csntm.org.

Share this post today to help people in your life who are resisting Jesus by repeating this old myth about him. You can learn more about the 21 Myths in 21 Days blog series by clicking here!

This guest post is written by Dr. Jeff Hubing, a pastor, scholar, author, and teacher.  Jeff holds a master's degree from Wheaton College Graduate School and a PhD. in New Testament from Loyola University in Chicago.  He is the founder and director of F.I.R.E., a school for training ministers and missionaries in Chicago, Illinois.  His latest book, Crucifixion and New Creation: The Strategic Purpose of Galatians 6:11-17, can be found on Amazon by clicking here.

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