Textual Criticism and the Bible
In our scientific and educated age we question many of the non-scientific beliefs that earlier generations had. This skepticism is especially true of the Bible. Many of us question the reliability of the Bible from what we know about it. After all, the Bible was written more than two thousand years ago. But for most of these millennia there has been no printing press, photocopy machines or publishing companies. So the original manuscripts were copied by hand, generation after generation, as languages died out and new ones arose, as empires changed and new powers ascended.
Since the original manuscripts have long been lost, how do we know that what we read today in the Bible is what the original authors actually wrote? Perhaps the Bible has been changed or corrupted, maybe by leaders in the church, or priests and monks who wished to change its message to suit their purposes.
Principles of Textual Criticism
Naturally, this question is true of any ancient writing. The timeline below illustrates the process by which any ancient writing has been preserved over time. It shows an example ancient document written 500 BC (this date picked randomly). This original however does not last indefinitely, so before it decays, is lost, or destroyed, a manuscript copy of it is made (1st copy). A professional class of people called scribes did the copying work. As the years advance, copies are made of the copy (2nd copy & 3rd copy). At some point a copy is preserved so that it is in existence today (3rd copy). In our example this existing copy was written 500 AD.
Manuscript Time Intervals
Therefore, this means that the earliest that we can know of the state of the document is only from 500 CE onwards. Consequently the period from 500 BC to 500 CE (labeled x in the diagram) is the period where we cannot make any copy verifications since all manuscripts from this period have disappeared. For example, if copying errors (intentional or otherwise) were made when the 2nd copy was made from the 1st copy, we would not be able to detect them as neither of these documents are available to compare against each other. This time period predating the currently existing copies (the period x) is thus the interval of textual uncertainty.
Therefore, a principle used to address questions about textual reliability is to look at the length of this time span. The shorter this interval (‘x’ in the diagram) the more confidence we place in the accurate preservation of the document to our modern day, since the period of uncertainty is reduced.
The number of existing manuscripts
Of course, usually more than one manuscript copy of a document is in existence today. Suppose we have two such manuscript copies and in the same section of each of them we find the following phrase:
The original author had either been writing about Joan OR about John, and the other of these manuscripts contains a copy error. But which one has the error? From the available manuscripts it is very difficult to determine.
But suppose we found two more manuscript copies of the same work, as shown below:
Now it is easier to deduce which manuscript has the error. It is more likely that the error is made once, rather than the same error repeated three times, so it is likely that manuscript #2 has the copy error, and the author was writing about Joan, not John.
This simple example illustrates a second principle used to verify manuscript integrity. The more existing manuscripts available, the easier it is to detect and correct errors as well as to assess the content of the original.
With this we have two evidence-based indicators used to determine the textual reliability of ancient documents:
- measuring the time between original composition and earliest existing manuscript copies, and
- counting the number of existing manuscript copies.
Textual Criticism of Classical Greco-Roman writings compared to New Testament
Since this indicators apply to any ancient writings let us now compare the manuscripts of the Bible with other ancient manuscripts that scholars accept as reliable. This Table lists some well-known ones (1)..
|Author||When Written||Earliest Copy||Time Span||#|
|Caesar||50 BC||900 AD||950||10|
|Plato||350 BC||900 AD||1250||7|
|Aristotle*||300 BC||1100 AD||1400||5|
|Thucydides||400 BC||900 AD||1300||8|
|Herodotus||400 BC||900 AD||1300||8|
|Sophocles||400 BC||1000 AD||1400||100|
|Tacitus||100 AD||1100 AD||1000||20|
|Pliny||100 AD||850 AD||750||7|
* from any one work
These writers represent the major classical writers of antiquity. Their writings shaped the development of Western civilization. On average, they have been passed down to us only by 10-100 manuscripts that are preserved starting about 1000 years after the original was written. From a scientific point-of-view this data can be considered our control experiment since it comprises data (classical history and philosophy) that are accepted and used by academics and universities world-wide.
New Testament Manuscripts
The following table compares the New Testament writings along these same criteria (2). This can be considered our experimental data which will be compared to our control data, just like in any scientific investigation.
|MSS||When Written||Date of MSS||Time Span|
|John Rylan||90 AD||130 AD||40 yrs|
|Bodmer Papyrus||90 AD||150-200 AD||110 yrs|
|Chester Beatty||60 AD||200 AD||20 yrs|
|Codex Vaticanus||60-90 AD||325 AD||265 yrs|
|Codex Sinaiticus||60-90 AD||350 AD||290 yrs|
This table gives just a brief highlight of some of the existing New Testament manuscripts. The number of New Testament manuscripts is so vast that it would be impossible to list them all in a table.
Testimony of the Scholarship
As one scholar who spent years studying this issue states:
“We have more than 24000 MSS copies of portions of the New Testament in existence today… No other document of antiquity even begins to approach such numbers and attestation. In comparison, the ILIAD by Homer is second with 643 MSS that still survive”McDowell, J. Evidence That Demands a Verdict. 1979. p. 40
A leading scholar at the British Museum corroborates this:
“Scholars are satisfied that they possess substantially the true text of the principal Greek and Roman writers … yet our knowledge of their writings depends on a mere handful of MSS whereas the MSS of the N.T. are counted by … thousands”Kenyon, F.G. (former director of British Museum) Our Bible and the Ancient Manuscripts. 1941 p.23
New Testament Textual Criticism and Constantine
Significantly, a large number of these manuscripts are extremely ancient. Consider the introduction of the book transcribing the earliest Greek New Testament documents.
“This book provides transcriptions of 69 of the earliest New Testament manuscripts…dated from early 2nd century to beginning of the 4th (100-300AD) … containing about 2/3 of the new Testament text”Comfort, P.W. “The Text of the Earliest New Testament Greek Manuscripts”. p. 17. 2001
This is significant because these manuscripts come before Roman Emperor Constantine (ca 325 CE) and the rise to power of the Catholic Church. Sometimes critics accuse either Constantine or the church of altering the biblical text. We can actually test this claim by comparing the texts from before Constantine (since we have them) with those coming later. When we do we find that they have not changed because the texts from 200 CE are the same as those that come later. Thus, neither the Catholic Church, nor Constantine changed the Bible. That is not a religious statement, it is one based solely on scientific data. The figure below illustrates the timeline of manuscripts from which today’s New Testament comes from.
Implications of Bible Textual Criticism
So what can we conclude from this? Certainly at least in what we can objectively measure the New Testament is verified to a much higher degree than any other classical work. The verdict to which the evidence pushes us is best summed up by the following:
“To be skeptical of the resultant text of the New Testament is to allow all of classical antiquity to slip into obscurity, for no other documents of the ancient period are as well attested bibliographically as the New Testament”Montgomery, History and Christianity. 1971. p.29
What this academic is saying is that to be consistent, if we decide to doubt the reliability of the preservation of the Bible we should discard all that we know about classical history in general – and this no informed historian has ever done. We know that the Biblical texts have not been altered as eras, languages and empires have come and gone because the earliest existing MSSs pre-date these events. For example, we know that no overly zealous medieval monk added in the miracles of Jesus to the Biblical account, since we have manuscripts that pre-date the medieval monks and all these pre-dated manuscripts also contain the miraculous accounts of Jesus.
What about translation of the Bible?
But what about the errors involved in translation, and the fact that there are so many different versions of the Bible today? Don’t many version show that it is impossible to accurately determine what the original authors actually wrote?
First, let us clear up a common misconception. Many think that the Bible today has gone through a long series of translation steps, with each new language being translated from the previous one. So they imagine a series something like this: Greek -> Latin -> Medieval English -> Shakespeare English -> modern English -> other modern languages.
In fact, linguists translate the Bible into the diverse languages today directly from its original language. So for the New Testament the translation proceeds Greek -> modern language, and for the Old Testament the translation proceeds Hebrew -> modern language (further details here). But the base Greek and Hebrew text is standard. So the differences in Bible versions comes from how linguists choose to translate phrases into the receiver language.
Due to the vast classical literature that was written in Greek (original language of the New Testament), it has become possible to precisely translate the original thoughts and words of the original authors. In fact the different modern versions attest to this. For example, read this well-known verse in the most common versions, and note the slight variance in wording, but consistency in idea and meaning:
For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.Romans 6:23 (New International Version)
For the wages of sin is death, but the gracious gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.Romans 6:23 (New American Standard Version)
For the wages of sin is death, but the gracious gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.Romans 6:23 (New Living Translation)
You can see that there is no disagreement between the translations because they say exactly the same thing with only slightly different word usage.
To summarize, neither time nor translation has corrupted the ideas and thoughts expressed in the original Biblical manuscripts to hide it from us today. We can know that the Bible today accurately reads what the authors actually wrote back then and it remains textually reliable.
But it is important to realize what this study does and does not show. This does not prove that the Bible is necessarily the Word of God. It can be argued that though the original ideas of the Biblical authors have been accurately conveyed to us today that does not prove or indicate that these original ideas ever were correct to begin with (or even that they are from God).
But understanding the textual reliability of the Bible provides a start-point from which one can start seriously investigating the Bible to see if some of these other questions can also be answered, and to become informed as to what its message is. Since the Bible claims that its message is a blessing from God what if there is a chance this is true? Perhaps it is worth taking the time to learn some of the important events of the Bible. Why not start in the beginning?
1. McDowell, J. Evidence That Demands a Verdict. 1979. p. 42-48
2. Comfort, P.W. The Origin of the Bible, 1992. p. 193