The Skeleton in the Closet
Article X of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy states “that inspiration, strictly speaking, applies only to the autographic text of Scripture…” In other words, God only inspired the original documents written by the biblical authors. What’s the problem with that?
None of them exist anymore.
Every book that Paul originally wrote crumbled to dust centuries ago. No person alive on earth has seen the original Gospel of John. Every manuscript of the New Testament that exists today is a copy of a copy.
Many Christians treat this issue like a skeleton in God’s closet, a shameful secret that no one needs to know. Since no originals exist, is the New Testament we have today anywhere close to what the biblical authors wrote centuries ago?
Today, around 5,500 Greek manuscripts of the New Testament are extant today. The number of manuscripts is over 24,000 if you include the Latin Vulgate and other early versions. The New Testament has the most manuscripts of any ancient work. To put this in perspective, Homer’s Iliad probably has the second greatest number of manuscripts with only 643.
New Testament manuscripts date anywhere from the second to the eighteenth century. Probably the earliest manuscript we have of the New Testament is a fragment of the Gospel of John, dated around AD 125. If you date the Gospel of John between AD 80-90, then the time span between the original and this fragment is less than 50 years! Going back to Homer’s Iliad, the earliest copy we have is 400 years after the original composition.
Bringing the Skeleton into the Light
How close can we get to the originals? The absence of the original manuscripts doesn’t mean that we no longer have the original words. We can discover the original text through the process of textual criticism.
Modern scholars estimate that there are around 400,000 textual variants (or differences in wording) in the existing manuscripts of the New Testament. The vast majority of these errors are minor. Types of errors include things like difference in word order, repeated words, and spelling differences. Textual critics compare manuscripts to recover the original wording of the text. When comparing manuscripts, the errors often become clear and so does the original wording. For example, which sentence below probably reflects the original wording?
(1) “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?”
(2) “Why do you see the fruit that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?”
This obvious example is between differing manuscripts that contain Luke 6:41. In Greek, the difference between the two words is one letter: karphos (speck) and karpos (fruit). Clearly, you can tell that (1) is the original wording and (2) is an accidental error.
It would be misleading to say that all of the errors are as self-evident as this example. There are several hundred places where scholars are unsure of the original wording of the New Testament. Many scholars, however, affirm that the New Testament we have today is 97-99% accurate in reflecting the originals writings. In addition, no major Christian doctrine is dependent upon one of these variants. A variant might affect how a specific passage portrays a doctrine, but that doctrine will always be taught in other passages of Scripture. In other words, 100% of the doctrine that God wants us to know is in our modern translations.
Inspiration of Scripture
How does the fact that no originals exist affect our view of the inspiration of Scripture? The second part of Article X of the Chicago Statement of Inerrancy helps answer this question: “…in the providence of God [the original text] can be ascertained from available manuscripts with great accuracy. We further affirm that copies and translations of Scripture are the Word of God to the extent that they faithfully represent the original.”
It is true that God only inspired the original text of the New Testament and not the copies that came after them. Nevertheless, since we can recover the original wording with relative certainty, we can confidently affirm that the New Testament we have today is inspired by God. The inspiration of Scripture also applies to our modern translations as long as they accurately reflect the original text.
Why Did God Do It This Way?
Although we can never be sure why God didn’t give us the original manuscripts, here are three possible reasons:
(1) The originals would likely become religious objects of worship.
When glancing at church history, it doesn’t take long to see that many Christians were fascinated with sacred items. Perhaps Christians would have been tempted to worship these documents or hide them away to keep others from tampering with them.
(2) The early church depended upon the spread of Scripture.
Paul told the Colossians, “When this letter had been read among you, have it also read in the church of the Laodiceans” (Col. 4:16). When a church received a letter from an apostle, members began to make copies of it to send to other churches. If Paul’s letter was never copied, then only one church could have access to it at a time.
(3) The originals would have likely been destroyed because of Christian persecution. Early Christians worshipped in homes and even caves to avoid immense persecution. In 304 AD, a Roman emperor issued an edict that called for all copies of the Bible to be burned. If any or all of the originals were destroyed, their wording would’ve been lost forever.
6 Facts to Keep in Mind
Studying the accuracy of the New Testament manuscripts is a complex task. Here are 6 facts to remember when defending the reliability of the New Testament documents:
- The New Testament is the best attested work in the ancient world with over 24,000 manuscripts, 5,800 of them in Greek.
- Several manuscripts are dated within a few hundred years of the originals, reducing the probability of losing the original words.
- The vast majority of errors in the New Testament manuscripts are minor and none of them jeopardize a major doctrine of Christianity.
- The New Testament text we have today is 97- 99% accurate in reflecting the original text.
- 100% of the doctrine that God wants us to know is in our modern translations.
- Our modern translations are inspired by God to the extent that they accurately reflect the original text.
Black, David Alan. New Testament Textual Criticism: A Concise Guide. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1994. Print.
McDowell, Josh. Evidence for Christianity. Nashville, TN: Nelson Reference & Electronic, 2006. Print.
Powell, Doug. Holman QuickSource Guide to Christian Apologetics. Nashville, TN: Holman Reference, 2006. Print
Schaff, Philip. “History of the Christian Church, Volume II: Ante-Nicene Christianity. A.D. 100-325.” Christian Classics Ethereal Library. N.p., n.d. Web. 08 June 2016.
Taylor, Justin. “An Interview with Daniel B. Wallace on the New Testament Manuscripts.” An Interview with Daniel B Wallace on the New Testament Manuscripts Comments. N.p., 03 Dec. 2012. Web. 08 June 2016.
Wallace, Daniel B. “The Number of Textual Variants: An Evangelical Miscalculation.” Daniel B. Wallace. N.p., 09 Sept. 2013. Web. 08 June 2016.
Wegner, Paul D. A Student’s Guide to Textual Criticism of the Bible: Its History, Methods and Results. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic/InterVarsity, 2006. Print.