I have been highly motivated to carefully think through this question. In recent discussions, I have heard various people make statements like:
The New Testament text can not be trusted as it has been heavily manipulated down through time.
On the surface, this seems highly possible. However, with a little research, we find solid evidence to the contrary (both external evidence, and internal evidence).
The manuscripts of the New Testament are some of the most copied manuscripts ever. According to Wikipedia, there are over 5,600 Greek manuscripts containing all or part of the New Testament, as well as over 10,000 Latin manuscripts, and perhaps 9300 other manuscripts in various languages. These manuscripts were copied so often, that we are able to identify several geographical family lines of these copies. Additionally, we note that these family lines span an enormous range of time – dozens of centuries. Thanks to the copious number of copies, it’s an easy academic exercise to compare the earlier copies with later ones. Not only that, we may also compare copies of one geographic location with later copies of another region of the world. Wouldn’t these comparisons establish a conclusive answer to the question of whether the New Testament today is faithful to the original text? Absolutely!
If these manuscripts were manipulated, we should observe instances where later copies contain a more exaggerated embellishment, right? But that’s not what we find! Instead, we see very consistent content. Mathematically, the texts agree by 99.5%. The 0.5% differences we do see are due to simple human-fatigue copying errors. These errors include misspelled words, word omissions, word duplications, missing a letter, repeating a verse, omitting a verse, etc. Distinguished New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman, (who started off as a conservative Christian and later became agnostic – which makes him not only a qualified expert, but a non-biased, and possibly hostile witness), states:
Most changes are careless errors that are easily recognized and corrected. Christian scribes often made mistakes simply because they were tired or inattentive or, sometimes, inept. Indeed, the single most common mistake in our manuscripts involves “orthography”, significant for little more than showing that scribes in antiquity could spell no better than most of us can today. In addition, we have numerous manuscripts in which scribes have left out entire words, verses, or even pages of a book, presumably by accident. Sometimes scribes rearranged the words on the page, for example, by leaving out a word and then reinserting it later in the sentence.
[See Ehrman, Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew, p. 220]
My point is this: By comparing all the variations across time and geographic locations, it’s easy to determine the content of the original text. Am I saying you should believe the Bible based on this consistency? Not really, that’s not the point of this article. I’m just saying that we should not buy into the seemingly popular (and uneducated) idea that the Bible was heavily manipulated – when it’s obvious that it was not.
As strong as the external evidence is, we also have good internal evidence as well. Early Christians had a strong desire to preserve the original teachings of Christ (this only makes sense). We can see various cases of this in the writings itself. I include some for the reader’s consideration below.
Consider 1 Cor 7:10-12. We’ll look at this section, discuss some background details, and make a few points related to our topic at hand. First, the text:
10 To the married I give this command — not I but the Lord — that the wife should not separate from her husband 11(but if she does separate, let her remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and that the husband should not divorce his wife.12 To the rest I say — I and not the Lord — that if any believer has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her …
Some background: The church at the city of Corinth had some pressing marriage issues that were popping up. Particularly, what to do if a person becomes a Christian, and their spouse did not. After all, Christians were not supposed to be married to non-Christians. Another scenario, could you re-marry if your spouse left you because you became a Christian? Or, was that forbidden; i.e were you still considered married in God’s eyes if your spouse deserted you because you became a Christian? Jesus answered some of these questions during His ministry; but some of these questions were left unanswered. Paul is addressing these questions in the text above. Now that we know the background. Lets make some observations that have to do with our discussion here.
Note the wording in verse 12 where Paul writes: “I and not the Lord” – meaning that this advice is coming from his personal recommendations, not from the authoratative teachings of Christ. But in verse 10, he uses this phrase: “not I but the Lord” – meaning, this is not merely his personal instructions, but instructions from Christ directly (cited from Matthew 5:32).
The main point is not the particular instructions about marriage and divorce – but how these issues were carefully handled. Think about this: Paul traveled all over the Mediterranean Sea on three different missionary journeys. He started many churches in various cities. He wrote most of the letters and epistles in the New Testament. If Paul wanted to say that Christ endorsed this view, or that opinion, about a particular subject – no one would have questioned it! But we find that he has a very guarded attitude to protect accuracy, to stay faithful to accurate teachings of Christ, his Lord. He did this even to the point of not giving anything beyond a personal recommendation, as a man, to this question. Did you catch that? This is a strong indicator for how well we may trust Paul’s writings to accurately portray the teaching of Christ Jesus. It’s both astounding and refreshing this small detail of honesty from the scriptures; overall it’s a positive that adds to our confidence the things that are certifiable. What a take-away from this passage!
And, may I just interject something that’s not exactly related here? These are ancient documents – and it really is a pure joy to peek back in time by reading them – especially when you can feel their accuracy.
Besides Paul, who wrote most of the New Testament, we have Luke – who wrote the majority of the remainder of the New Testament. We note that he also wanted to carefully preserve an accurate and formal history of the works and teachings of Christ. Consider the first sentence of his account of the life of Christ, Luke 1:1-4:
Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.
Greek scholars can verify that the word order of the sentence above (in the original Greek language) is not typical. It’s ordered in such a way as to add emphasis to one word; the word certainty. That doesn’t exactly come across in the English translation. In other words, Luke is starting out by stating his goal of the entire writing – that you can know these things to be true for certain. Of all the accounts that are out there, these are verified as certain! Any questionable account would have been excluded. Every single story Luke records was able to be seen my multiple eyewitnesses. For example, the story of the shephards seeing the heavenly host of angles, the story of Elizabeth’s old-age pregnancy of John the Baptizer, etc etc. Now, these groups of eyewitnesses may have all conspired together to make up stories, but, the point is – all of them together would have had to make the same exact stories. Recall also that Luke states that he followed these things closely for some time now.
Is it plausible for us to think that he went around and added just anything-and-everything that someone was willing to say about Jesus into his work? If so, that’s probably not going to be a very credible or valuable work, is it? Once one single item is determined to be false, (that he certified to be true) – well that ruins the whole account and every story in it (whether it was true or not) – not to mention ruining his reputation! Also, doing that disagrees with his opening sentence. Well, was his reputation ruined? Why not? (Was it because everything he wrote was true and could not have been disproven?)
Think of this as well … isn’t it a very natural desire for a historian to want be accurate, and selective about what gets included as facts? As a historian, like a news paper reporter, you would want to write a piece that’s accurate and organized – perhaps even placing selected accounts in chronological order. Certainly we accept that Josephus, a historian, did this – why should Luke have been any different?
Recap: Whether the text of the New Testament is true, inspired or not – is not the point of this article. The only point I wish to make is simply this: we should have great confidence that the text we have before us is the content of the original text. There are no added embellishments, enhancements or other changes that would have been made down through time as they were copied and passed along from generation to generation. The reader is able to make his/her mind up about whether they are inspired, true, or otherwise. However any manipulation theories may be easily and quickly dispelled after a little study based on both internal and external evidence.