Why I Trust the Bible (Part 3)

This is part 3 of a series I began several weeks ago. I am on my fifth reason for why I trust the Bible. I am indebted to James White’s excellent book, The King James Only Controversy: Can You Trust Modern Translations?, for some of the content of this post.

5. I trust the Bible because of its textual reliability. From the outset, I acknowledge that we do not have the original hand-written manuscripts (autographs) of the prophets and apostles. All we have are copies of copies of copies of copies; you get the point. In fact, we have thousands of these copies of biblical manuscripts. But if we do not have the original hand-written manuscripts of the prophets and apostles, then how do we know that our modern English Bibles accurately reflect the original documents?

Some would argue that we simply cannot know. Others would argue that our modern-day Bible does not accurately reflect the originals because the manuscripts have been corrupted over the years. I live in a state where it is popular to say that “the Bible is true insofar as it is translated correctly.” This statement is a favorite among Mormons. Who is right? Can we be confident in our modern English Bibles? My answer is yes.

We can easily dismiss the statement about the Bible being true only insofar as it is translated correctly. People who make such a claim probably do not understand the difference between translation and transmission. Translation involves the process of reproducing the content and meaning of a text from one language to another language. In biblical studies, this involves taking the Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic portions of the Bible and reproducing them in English (or some other language). It does not make sense to try to undermine the Bible’s credibility with an argument built on translation technique. We have the Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic texts, which means that even if we have a bad translation, we can simply go to the original language to produce a better translation.

I think what people really mean by “the Bible is true only insofar as it is translated correctly” is this: The Bible is true only insofar as it is transmitted correctly. Transmission is a whole different ball game. Transmission involves the process of reproducing a text letter-for-letter and word-for-word. In other words, transmission is about making copies. Without the luxury of a copy machine in the ancient world, scribes had to make copies by hand. This was an incredibly exciting process! Not really. Don’t kids have to copy statements on a chalkboard as a form of punishment in school?

Anyway, back to the matter at hand. Most of the arguments attacking the reliability of the Bible focus on issues of transmission. Perhaps the best argument against the reliability of the New Testament is the one popularized by Bart Ehrman. It goes like this: the New Testament manuscripts contain approximately 400,000 textual variants. There are only about 140,000 words in the entire New Testament. This means that there are about 3 variants for every word in the New Testament. With such a large amount of discrepancy, we simply cannot know what the original New Testament manuscripts said.

That sounds like a compelling argument! But it’s not. Before answering this argument, I need define the word “variant.” A textual variant is a place in the manuscript tradition of a given text where the manuscripts differ from one another. For example suppose you had five manuscripts of part of Philippians 2:11. Here is what each one says,

#1 Jesus Christ is Lord
#2 Jesus Christ is Lord
#3 Jesus Christ is Lord
#4 Jesus Christ is King
#5 Jesus Christ is Lord

Manuscript #4 contains a textual variant. It contains the word “king” instead of “Lord.”So skeptics of the Bible point out that there are roughly 400,000 variants in the New Testament manuscripts. If this is correct, then we certainly cannot be confident in the reliability of the New Testament text we have today, right? Wrong. Here is the simple truth: Of the 400,000 variants, 99% of them have nothing to do with a proper understanding or translation of the Greek text. In other words, 99% of the variants are irrelevant and easily dismissable. They consist of things like misspelled words or variations of the word order in sentence construction. Just to make the point, consider the following illustration. Let’s say that I wrote down the following sentence on a piece of paper:

The restaurant is good.

Next, I asked 10 people to copy down my sentence on a piece of their own paper. They then went and found 10 people to copy their sentence. Then I somehow gathered up all 100 copies and gave them to you without giving you my original hand-written copy. Then, I asked you to discern what the original sentence said. As you begin to read each copy, you notice that forty of them have variants. What are the variants? Forty of the copies spelled “restaurant” like this: r-e-s-t-a-r-a-u-n-t. They spelled restaurant wrongly. Not surprised? Me either, I do this all the time (and Microsoft Word fixes it every time). Does this mean you could never determine what the original sentence said? Of course not! The variant is meaningless and the content of the original text is easily discerned.

But what about the other 1% of variants in the New Testament manuscripts? After all, 1% is about 4,000 variants? What do we do with these? Just because a variant is meaningful, does not mean it is viable. A meaningful variant is one that significantly affects the meaning of a given text. But just because a variant is meaningful, does not mean it is viable. For example, the 1631 edition of the King James Version of the Bible left out the word “not” in Exodus 20:14. Thus, the verse read, “You shall commit adultery.” That is a meaningful variant! It changes the whole meaning of the verse. But is it viable? Of course not. In the Greek manuscripts, roughly half of the 4,000 variants are not viable even though they are meaningful. This means that anywhere from 1,500–2,000 variants in the New Testament manuscripts are meaningful and viable. But even among these variants, none of them affect any point of Christian doctrine. None of them alter the message of Christianity, or change the doctrines of the Bible, or undermine the teaching of the Bible as a whole. And through the science of textual criticism, scholars are able to evaluate these meaningful and viable variants on the basis of internal and external evidence to demonstrate what the original reading would have been. As scholar James White has written, “The simple fact of the matter is that no textual variants in either the Old or New Testament in any way, shape, or form materially disrupt or destroy any essential doctrine of the Christian faith. Any semi-impartial review will substantiate this.” (The King James Only Controversy, p. 67).

I could give similar evidence for the reliability of the Old Testament, but the point is that even the most skeptical scholars must admit that the Bible is the most well-preserved and reliable book from antiquity. No other work from the ancient world has been preserved like the Bible. Nobody seems to doubt the reliability of the works of Plato even though we only have 7 copies of his work. Nobody seems to doubt the reliability of Pliny or Herodotus even though we only have 7 and 8 copies respectively of their works. Yet with respect to the New Testament, we have almost 5,800 Greek manuscripts.

I trust the Bible because of its textual reliability. Still more to come.

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