One afternoon several years ago, I met a man in a city park who identified himself as a pantheist. As I shared the Gospel with him, he began to raise a series of objections, the first of which dealt with the reliability of the Scriptures. “The Bible was going along fine,” he explained, “until King James came along and changed it all. Now we have no idea what the original Bible actually said.”
This man’s objection was obviously overly simplistic and historically naïve, and yet it does raise an important question. If we do not possess the original manuscripts of the Bible, if the existing manuscripts do not completely agree with each other, and if there is no sure method of determining the original reading where differences exist, then how can we know with certainty what the Bible truly said? Put another way, how can we know that the Bible is trustworthy?
The points of difference between existing manuscripts of the Bible are known as textual variants, and the process of determining the original wording where these variants exist is known as textual criticism. Because this process is at least partly subjective in nature, it is not infallible and therefore we cannot always know with certainty what the original manuscripts said in a given place. For this reason, the question is indeed a significant one: Can we really trust the Bible as it has been handed down to us?
In response, I would like to set aside the Old Testament for the moment and focus instead on the New Testament. More specifically, I would like to suggest three reasons why the differences between the existing manuscripts of the New Testament should not shake our confidence in the reliability of the biblical text. In doing so, I offer these reasons not to convince the unbeliever that Scripture is indeed the Word of God, but rather to bring a measure of comfort to the believer who may be troubled by the fact that we do not possess the original manuscripts of the New Testament.
The Abundance of Existing Manuscripts
First, the New Testament is by far the most remarkably preserved text of the ancient world, both in terms of the number of existing manuscripts and the temporal proximity between the earliest manuscripts and the original they represent. In fact, as of 1994, there were 5,656 existing manuscripts containing all or part of the Greek New Testament, as well as more than 10,000 manuscripts in Latin and more than 1,000 in other languages, all abundant numbers in comparison with other books of the ancient world. Furthermore, the earliest manuscript of the New Testament is only one generation after the originals were written, and many are within four centuries of the originals.
By way of comparison, only ten manuscripts of Caesar’s Gallic Wars exist, the earliest dating 900 years after Caesar; only eight manuscripts of Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War exist, the earliest dating 1,300 years after Thucydides; only eight manuscripts of Herodotus’ History exist, the earliest dating 1,300 years after Herodotus; and only two manuscripts of Tacitus’ Histories and Annals exist, the earlier one dating 700 years after Tacitus. As W. Edward Glenny notes, “the number and early date of the NT manuscripts give us great confidence that God’s Word has been preserved in these documents.”
The Insignificance of Most Variants
Second, a high percentage of variant readings in the existing manuscripts are relatively insignificant. In fact, of the 40,000 variants that exist, it is estimated that only 1-2% substantially affect the meaning of the text, because the other 98% consist of “insignificant matters like spelling, word order, differences in style, or confusion concerning synonyms” (Glenny). Furthermore, as Daniel Wallace notes:
In that two percent, support always exists for what the original said—never is one left with mere conjecture. In other words it is not that 90 percent of the original text exists in the extant Greek manuscripts—rather, 110 percent exists. Textual criticism is not involved in reinventing the original; it is involved in discarding the spurious, in burning the dross to get to the gold.
Therefore, the vast majority of the New Testament is textually certain, and in the greatest majority of the cases where variants exist, there is little doubt as to what the original words were.
The Preservation of Primary Doctrines
Third, no major doctrine of the Christian faith is affected in any significant way by any viable textual variant. Therefore, although one cannot have absolute certainty regarding some of the textual variants, he can have confidence in the overall reliability of the New Testament. However, for those who may be yet a little uncomfortable with the remaining margin of error, D.A. Carson draws a helpful analogy:
In my judgment the degree of uncertainty raised by textual questions is a great deal less than the degree of uncertainty raised by hermeneutical questions. In other words, even when the text is certain there is often an honest difference of opinion among interpreters as to the precise meaning of the passage. Few evangelicals, I would like to think, will claim infallibility for their interpretations of the Scriptures; they are prepared to live with the (relatively) small degree of uncertainty raised by such limitations. The doubt raised by textual uncertainties, I submit, is far, far smaller.
In the end, I believe we simply need to fall back on faith and trust. In other words, we need rest in the confidence that our sovereign God not only inspired the text but also providentially oversaw the preservation of Scripture in such a way that the Bible we possess today is indeed reliable. This may not alleviate the need to do the hard work of textual criticism, but it should alleviate the concern that we cannot trust the New Testament, or that it is anything less than the infallible, inerrant Word of God Himself.