Has The Bible Been Corrupted Over Time?

It is written:

Psalm 12:6-7-The words of the LORD are pure words, Like silver tried in a furnace of earth, Purified seven times. 7  You shall keep them, O LORD, You shall preserve them from this generation forever.

One of the common arguments against the Bible is that it has been corrupted through the centuries. Indeed, this is a modern claim of atheists, agnostics, pagans, Muslims, and (sadly) many Christians.

What are the facts?

Is there any reason to believe that the Bible that we have today is the same as it was originally given??

The answer is a resounding “yes.”

Let’s start by looking at some of the evidence for the Old Testament, and then some evidence for the New Testament.

Manuscript Evidence For The Old Testament Scriptures

The 39 Books of the Old Testament (Genesis-Malachi) span a period of about 1500 years. Is there any textual evidence for the reliability of these Scriptures? Josh McDowell provides a great deal of evidence for the manuscript proof of the Old Testament:

“In the spring of 1947, a young Bedouin shepherd made the greatest manuscript discovery of all time. As author Ralph Earle summarizes the story in his book How We Got Our Bible, the shepherd boy “tossed a stone into a hole in a cliff on the west side of the Dead Sea, about eight miles south of Jericho near an ancient site called Qumran. To his surprise, he heard the sound of shattering pottery. Investigating, he discovered an amazing sight. On the floor of the cave were several large jars containing leather scrolls, wrapped in linen cloth.” 6 Once archaeologists completed their search of the Qumran caves—eleven caves in all—almost 1,050 scrolls had been found in about 25,000 to 50,000 pieces (a number that varies depending on how the fragments are counted). 7 Of these manuscripts, about three hundred were texts from the Bible, and many of the rest had “direct relevance to early Judaism and emerging Christianity.” 8 Every book of the Old Testament was represented, except for the book of Esther, and the earliest copies dated from about 250 BC. With the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, as the Qumran manuscripts are commonly known, we now have Old Testament texts 1,175 years older than the very reliable Aleppo Codex. We can also compare the Leningrad Codex to the Dead Sea Scrolls, which are 1,258 years older. Now here’s the exciting part: Once the Dead Sea Scrolls were translated and compared with modern versions of the Hebrew Bible, the text proved to be identical, word for word, in more than 95 percent of the cases. (The 5 percent deviation consists mainly of spelling variations. For example, of the 166 words in Isaiah 53, only seventeen letters are in question. Of those, ten are a matter of spelling, and four are stylistic differences; the remaining three letters comprise the word light, which was added to Isaiah 53: 11.) 9 In other words, the greatest manuscript discovery of all time revealed that more than one thousand years of copying the Old Testament had produced only very minor variations, none of which altered the clear meaning of the text or brought the manuscript’s fundamental integrity into question. Dr. Peter Flint spoke at the Discover the Evidence event where we uncovered the biblical manuscript fragments I had acquired. He is the director of the Dead Sea Scrolls Institute at Trinity Western University in British Columbia and author of a book titled The Dead Sea Scrolls, which I have used as a source. Dr. Flint has firsthand knowledge of the Dead Sea Scrolls because he edited or coedited almost thirty of the scrolls for publication. Here is what he said, in part, at the event about how the scrolls confirm the later Hebrew text: The biblical Dead Sea Scrolls are up to 1,250 years older than the traditional Hebrew Bible, the Masoretic text. We had been using a one-thousand-year-old manuscript to make our Bibles. We’ve now got scrolls going back to 250 BC. So now here is the million-dollar question. When we take the biblical scrolls and we compare them with our Hebrew Bible, what do we get? Maybe you’ve had this experience. Someone has visited you at your doorstep and said to you, “Your Bible is full of errors. The church has messed with it and your Bible’s been changed.” Now we can take our current Bible and compare it with the Dead Sea Scrolls to see if it has changed. When our Bible is compared with the biblical scrolls, what is our conclusion? Our conclusion is simply this—the scrolls confirm the accuracy of the biblical text by 99 percent. Let’s give an example of a very famous passage from Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” This is the psalm that Jesus cried on the cross. In the Gospels, the writer relates this passage to the crucifixion. In the King James, it renders Psalm 22: 16 like this: “Dogs have surrounded me, a pack of evil ones close in on me; they have pierced my hands and my feet.” Now, you know this verse and you would say, “This is the prophecy of Christ’s crucifixion.” Did you know that, in fact, if you took this verse and spoke to a rabbi or even a Bible scholar, they would say, “Not so fast.” Because if you turn to the Hebrew Bible that was translated from the Leningrad Codex, you would be quite shocked to discover it doesn’t say that. The Leningrad Codex says, “Dogs surround me, a pack of evil ones close in on me like a lion on my hands and feet.” Now some would say, “You see, the church has messed with the text. They wanted to put Jesus in their text, so they ignored the Hebrew wording and put in ‘they’ve pierced my hands and feet.’” That is a great challenge, but, my friends, I’ve got good news for you. This passage is preserved in one of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and I know what I’m talking about because I am the editor of that scroll. It contains this passage. It is in the oldest copy of Psalm 22 in the world and it says: “Dogs have surrounded me, a band of evil ones have encircled me; they have pierced my hands and my feet.” Isn’t that amazing? It is amazing. And because the earliest manuscript is given the greater authority, the rendering used by the King James translators ends up being the correct one. It also makes sense that, if the original autographs are God-breathed words, then God would miraculously superintend the Scripture so it is passed down accurately to us. When all the manuscripts of the Old Testament are tallied, how many are in existence today? The traditional listings of Old Testament manuscripts normally leave out the abundant scroll evidence. New finds are happening constantly, so it is not easy to determine an exact number of hand-copied Old Testament manuscripts. After conferring with experts such as Dr. Scott Carroll, Dr. Peter Flint, Father Columba Stewart, executive director of the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library at Saint John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota, and others, I’ve estimated that at least seventeen thousand Hebrew scrolls and codices, dated earlier than the eighteenth century, exist today. 10 The manuscript authority of Homer’s Iliad, with more than eighteen hundred manuscripts in existence, is truly impressive. By comparison, the Old Testament manuscript authority of some seventeen thousand manuscripts is beyond impressive.” (Josh McDowell, God-Breathed: The Undeniable Power and Reliability of Scripture, 154-157 (Kindle Edition); Uhrichsville, OH; Shiloh Run Press)

When we turn to the New Testament, we see further incredible evidences of the reliability of the Scripture.

The Manuscript Copies: Dating , Quantity, And Distribution

The original copies of the New Testament are known as the authographs. These are no longer in existence. However, what we do have are copies of those manuscripts which provide great evidence for us that the New Testament has been preserved.

The original New Testament was written in koine Greek. We have a great deal of evidence which shows that vast portions of the New Testament began to be written within a few years of Jesus’ death by His Apostles and their companions. More and more scholars from our own time are recognizing this.

For example:

“Some readers of this book may remember the excitement in 1976 when John A.T. Robinson published his mould-breaking Redating the New Testament. Here was an arch-liberal theologian, labelled by some as the heretic Bishop of Woolwich, allegedly a proponent of the fashionable ‘God is dead’ tendency, who was suddenly stating, in a well-documented monograph, that every single New Testament text was written before the destruction of the Temple in AD 70. Overnight, he became a traitor to the ‘liberal’ cause and the new hero of the ‘conservatives’. And yet he was and remained the same John A.T. Robinson. He had merely discovered that sober textual scholarship must not be hidden under the bushel of ideological preconception. Take also the prototype of German liberal theology at the turn of the twentieth century, Adolf von Harnack. As a textual historian, he remained a classical scholar to the bone. When he realized that he and his colleagues had placed the Acts of the Apostles much too late in the first century, he corrected his error publicly and stated, in a carefully argued study, that Acts was obviously written before the deaths of James, Peter and Paul–in other words, before AD 62/ 64. This meant that Luke’s Gospel was written earlier still, perhaps as early as the late fifties, and that for those who propose the chronological sequence Mark-Matthew-Luke-Acts, Matthew’s and Mark’s Gospels must have been written in the fifties of the first century, if not earlier. This was (and is) sensational or provocative only to those who refused to envisage an early Christian community that did the obvious thing and wrote about Jesus, spreading the written message as well as preaching it by word of mouth. In fact, many professional historians have now begun to turn the tables. For many of them, dating the Gospels in the fifties or sixties of the first century is not early at all but still too late. One would have to explain why it took the first Christians twenty, thirty or even up to forty years to produce the earliest written record about Jesus. In other words, dates around the fifties of the first century are the latest conceivable ‘middle ground’. John’s Gospel, often presented as the odd one out and at best seen as a latecomer, has also been rescued from the dumping ground of second and third-generation datings. Again, it was John A.T. Robinson who set the tone when he advocated a publication date in the late sixties and argued his case persuasively in The Priority of John in 1986. Continental scholars like Klaus Berger of Heidelberg University have taken up his baton…Paul’s letters in particular are meant to correct errors and to put local communities back on the right track. In one of his letters, Paul explicitly asks for his teaching to be passed on to others and to make sure that they read what he had written elsewhere (Colossians 4: 15–16). Written records were needed, and there are scholars today who are convinced that at least one Gospel, Mark’s, existed when Paul wrote his letters, and that another one, Luke’s, may have been known to him in his later years. Indeed, it looks as though Paul assumes his readers knew the Gospel accounts, so that he did not have to refer to the life, public sermons and miracles of Jesus to any great extent. In one instance, it looks as though his preaching was even checked against written records. In Berea, the Jewish community listened to him and ‘examined the scriptures every day to see if these things were so’ (Acts 17: 11)….And if we abandon the implausibly late dates commonly suggested for the publication of the Gospels and accept the date of AD 40 suggested for Mark’s Gospel by the Jewish classical philologist Guenther Zuntz, or the mid to late forties preferred by other philologists and historians, we can see how soon this Jewish messianic document could have reached synagogal libraries throughout the Roman empire. It looks as though it even reached the library of the orthodox messianic movement of the Essenes at Qumran, where, according to a group of Jewish and non-Jewish scholars, a fragment of Mark’s Gospel was found in Cave Seven. The people who collected these writings did it for a purpose. They wanted to read, study, compare and make up their own minds about the ways of God and his Messiah with his people.” (Carsten Peter Thiede, Jesus? Man Or Myth? 85-105, 378-408 (Kindle Edition); Oxford, England; Lion Books)

The sheer number of these manuscripts is also another astonishing factor to consider in this regard.

The Greek New Testament manuscripts number over five thousand! What’s more, these manuscripts began to be translated into different languages by the end of the first century. These are called the “versions.”

“Because textual criticism relies entirely on extant manuscripts, the more manuscripts we have the more accurately the original text can be recovered. In the case of the New Testament, if we limit ourselves to only the original language manuscripts, we have over 5,300 copies, including fragments….In addition to original language manuscripts of the New Testament, we have about 8,000 Latin Vulgates (a common Latin version translated by Jerome in the fourth century) and 9,300 other early versions. These other early versions are translations into languages such as Coptic, Syriac, Armenian, and Nubian.” (Doug Powell, Holman QuickSource Guide to Christian Apologetics (Holman Quicksource Guides), 155-157 (Kindle Edition); Nashville, TN: Holman Reference)

Finally, we have the quotations of the “church fathers” (the Christians who lived immediately after the Apostolic Age and some of whom were personal friends with the Apostles of Jesus). It is estimated that if we had no Greek manuscripts or early versions, we could still reproduce the entire New Testament minus eleven verses from the church father quotations!

“What is more, if we compile the 36,289 quotations by the early church Fathers of the second to fourth centuries we can reconstruct the entire New Testament minus 11 verses.”. (Norman Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia Of Christian Apologetics, 532 (Kindle Edition); Grand Rapids, Michigan; Baker Books)

Notice how often the early Christians quoted from the New Testament:

Justin Martyr

Gospels: 268

Acts: 10

Pauline Epistles: 43

General Epistles 6 (and 266 allusions);

Revelation: 3

Total: 330

Irenaeus

Gospels: 1, 038

Acts: 194

Pauline Epistles: 499

General Epistles: 23

Revelation: 65

Total: 1, 819

Clement Of Alexandria

Gospels 1, 017

Acts: 44

Pauline Epistles: 1, 127

General Epistles: 207

Revelation: 11

Total: 2, 406

Origen

Gospels: 9, 231

Acts: 349

Pauline Epistles: 7, 778

General Epistles: 399

Revelation: 165

Total: 17, 922

Tertullian:

Gospels: 3, 822

Acts: 502

Pauline Epistles: 2, 609

General Epistles: 120

Revelation: 205

Total: 7, 258

Hippolytus

Gospels: 734

Acts: 42

Pauline Epistles: 387

General Epistles: 27

Revelation: 188

Total: 1, 378

Eusebius

Gospels: 3, 258

Acts: 211

Pauline Epistles: 1, 592

General Epistles: 88

Revelation: 27

Total: 5, 176

Grand Totals:

Gospels: 19, 368

Acts: 1, 352

Pauline Epistles: 14, 035

General Epistles: 870

Revelation: 870

Total: 36, 286

We should also consider the widespread distribution of these New Testament manuscripts in the early world.

Bill Cooper, while discussing the amazing find of New Testament manuscripts Books (Mark, 1 Timothy, James, Acts, Romans, and 2 Peter), reminds us of the evidence that these Books had been circulated throughout the Roman Empire before the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D.

“The discoveries in Cave 7 at Qumran–and the commendable diligence of O’Callaghan who identified them–proves that what the critics have been teaching all these years is wrong, misinformed and mistaken on all levels. Archaeology has never spoken plainer than it speaks right now. Copies of the New Testament books of Mark, 1 Timothy, James, Acts, Romans and 2 Peter (at least) were all in circulation by AD 68 at the very latest, and clearly years before. But what is more, they were in circulation internationally and not just locally amongst Christian groups or churches. How do we know this? Here’s how. We saw in Chapter One how there is excellent evidence for the circulation of the Gospel (perhaps Matthew’s) in Britain of all places as early as the closing years of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, who died in AD 37. This places the Gospel of Matthew within only three or four years of the Resurrection. It had reached Britain probably from, but certainly through, Rome, whose international postal service was better than even our own. 11 Further to this, however, is the evidence from Cave 7 itself of the broken pieces of the jar in which the Gospel fragments had been stored. On the shoulder of that jar–written twice on opposing sides–were the Hebrew letters Rwm (vocalised as Roma). 12 As Thiede points out, the most plausible explanation here is that the centre of copying and distributing the New Testament Scriptures was the church at Rome, which was in a far better position financially and logistically to carry out such a task than the impoverished Judaean church, and that the provenance of these copies was thus clearly marked on their container. 13 Who knows? It may even have been recognised by its recipients as a ‘kite mark’ guarantee of the quality and reliability of the documents within. But it does mean that these copies were made perhaps several years before AD 68. Evidence for this is seen very plainly indeed in the next Gospel fragment that comes now to our notice, namely Papyrus Magdalen Gr. 17.” (Bill Cooper, The Authenticity of the New Testament Part 1: The Gospels, 365-381 (Kindle Edition))

The dating, quantity, and distribution of the New Testament provides powerful evidence that the Word of God has been preserved.

Quite often, it is claimed that there are hundreds of thousands of “errors” in the Bible manuscripts, and this is true enough. Indeed, there are literally hundreds of thousands of these errors!

Does this imply that the manuscripts have been corrupted in some way?

Not at all.

First, the vast majority of these “textual errors” are nothing more than spelling errors.

“The overwhelming majority of these four hundred thousand supposed variations stem from differences in spelling, word order, or the relationships between nouns and definite articles. In other words, a copyist simply switched a couple of letters, misheard a word, or skipped a line of text. Such variants are readily recognizable and, in most cases, utterly unnoticeable in translations!…In the end, more than 99 percent of the four hundred thousand or so differences fall into this category of variants that can’t even be seen in translations!” (Timothy Paul Jones, Conspiracies And The Cross, 1531-1540 (Kindle Edition); Lake Mary, Florida; FrontLine)

Second, the way that these “errors” are counted needs to be considered. Simply stated, if there is a word misspelled in one place and this is copied in two hundred manuscripts, then this counts as “two hundred errors!” Geisler and Nix provide further insight into this:

“Yet there is an ambiguity in saying 200,000 variants exist, since these represent only about 10,000 places in the New Testament. If a single word were misspelled in 3,000 different manuscripts, they are counted as 3,000 variants. Once the counting procedure is understood, and the mechanical (orthographic) variants have been eliminated, the remaining significant variants are surprisingly few in number. In his recent popular book, Misquoting Jesus, agnostic New Testament critic Bart Ehrman contends there are so many “errors” (variants) that we don’t know how many there are, perhaps 4,000. He asserts, “These copies differ from each other in so many places that we don’t even know how many differences there are.”5 Ironically, the way Ehrman counts “errors” (variants), there were 1.6 million errors in the first printing of his book. For there were 16 errors, and the book printed an alleged 100,000 copies.6 Yet Ehrman would be shocked if someone denied the credibility of his book based on this count. Similarly, no one should deny the credibility of the Bible on Ehrman’s count. Ehrman himself admits the biblical variants do not affect the central message of the Bible. He wrote, “In fact, most of the changes found in early Christian manuscripts have nothing to do with theology or ideology. Far and away the most changes are the result of mistakes pure and simple—slips of the pen, accidental omissions, inadvertent additions, misspelled words, blunders of one sort or another.”. (Norman L. Geisler & William Nix, From God To Us: How We Got Our Bible, 243 (Kindle Edition); Chicago; Moody Publishers)

Finally, even when we consider all of these textual errors, we see amazing evidence of the reliability of the Scriptures!

“4. How significant are the variants? It is easy to leave the wrong impression by speaking of 200,000 “errors” that have crept into the text due to scribal mistakes and intended corrections. There are only 10,000 places where these 200,000 variants occur. The next question is, How significant are those 10,000 places? Textual critics have attempted to answer that question by offering percentages and comparisons. a. Scholars Westcott and Hort estimated that only about one-eighth of all the variants had any weight, as most of them merely involve mechanical matters such as spelling or style. Of the whole, then, only about one-sixtieth rise above “trivialities,” or can in any sense be called substantial variations. Mathematically that would compute to a text that is 98.33 percent pure whether the critic adopts the Textus Receptus, Majority Nestle-Aland Text, or some eclectic text of the New Testament. b. Ezra Abbott gave similar figures, saying about 19/20 (95 percent) of the readings are various rather than rival readings, and about 19/20 (95 percent) of the remainder are of so little importance that their addition or rejection makes no appreciable difference in the sense of the passage. Thus the degree of substantial purity would be 99.75 percent. c. Philip Schaff (p. 177) surmised that of the 150,000 variations known in his day, only 400 affected the sense; and of those, only 50 were of real significance; and of this total, not one affected “an article of faith or a precept of duty which is not abundantly sustained by other undoubted passages, or by the whole tenor of Scripture teaching.” d. A.T. Robertson (p. 22) suggested that the real concern of textual criticism is of a “thousandth part of the entire text That would make the reconstructed text of the New Testament 99.9 percent free from real concern for the textual critic.” (Ed Hindson & Ergun Caner (General Editors), The Popular Encyclopedia Of Apologetics: Surveying The Evidence For The Truth Of Christianity, 99-100 (Kindle Edition); Eugene, Oregon; Harvest House Publishers)

While the claim is often repeated that the Bible has been corrupted over time, the facts tell a different story.

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit, be with you all. Amen.

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