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
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
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!
Check out these other posts on the following myths: no historical proof of Jesus' life, that it's possible to follow Jesus and check out of the Church, that Jesus taught the same thing other world religious leaders have, that Jesus is soft, easy, and accepting, that there are natural explanations for the supernatural miracle of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the idea that Jesus wants his followers to be rich, the denial of the divinity of Jesus, the myth that the Bible teaches theological truths about Jesus, but not historically reliable ones, as well as the myth that Jesus was an only child.
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.