Has the New Testament been corrupted?
When you ask Christians if they "believe the Bible", you will likely receive a universal and enthusiastic affirmative response. However, if you were to ask those same believers why they believe the Bible, you are more likely to get a puzzled look and a less-than-enthusiastic mumbled response.
Christians believe that the Bible is the Word of God, and it should be our authority in all areas of life. We believe that we can trust what we read in our Bibles today is the same message that God inspired. But most Christians could not explain how the original documents that God inspired came to be transmitted and translated into the bound leatherback volumes Christians carry today.
Many are intimidated when it comes to the manuscript evidence for the Bible, but an average Christian can understand the basic arguments without special training. Just like a scientist looks at evidence to determine the most likely cause and effect scenario, so we must examine the evidence and facts of manuscript evidence to determine the most logical historical process.
The originals were inspired
First, God inspired the original documents of Scripture. The idea of inspiration covers anything from outright dictation, as in parts of Revelation where John is told, “Write this” (Revelation 1:11, 19; 2:8, 12, 18; 3:7, 14; 14:13; 21:5), to the Gospels where Luke tells Theophilus that he did research (Luke 1:1–4), to the epistles, letters where Paul, Peter, John, and Jude are writing apparently from their own minds, but in all cases, the Holy Spirit is superintending the process so that the result is exactly what He wanted (2 Peter 1:21).
The originals were copied
The copying process started almost immediately. If a Christian businessman from Thyatira visited the church in Rome, and saw a letter from the Apostle Paul that his church didn’t have, he’d make a copy to take home with him. That process would be repeated over and over again, almost without any restrictions.
Of course this meant that there were the sorts of errors that professional scribes wouldn’t have made, but they believed they were copying the Word of God, so they were as careful as they could be. Most of the copying mistakes were simple spelling errors, changes in word order, and so on. There are only a few places where these changes affected a whole sentence or more, and there were never any changes that affected doctrine as a result of the copying process.
But this process also had good effects. First, the rampant copying of Scripture meant that the New Testament copies were spread far and wide very, very quickly. This means that by the time a centralized power might have been interested in making a wholesale revision of the text, it was impossible to destroy the massive quantity of existing copies of Scripture.
This sort of revision event actually happened in the history of Islam; it’s called the Uthmanic Revision, when Muhammad’s son-in-law, Uthman, gathered the various Qur’anic manuscripts and destroyed all but the ones he considered accurate. But once something like that happens, you have to trust that the person in charge of the revision gets it right! With the Christian manuscripts, we can see the variants that survived, and we know that one of those is always the original. And in the majority of cases, it is obvious which variant is original.
The second positive aspect is the sheer number of copies, demonstrating that the entire New Testament was preserved very early. We can compare, for instance, the Dead Sea Scrolls manuscripts, which are fragmentary. The translation often includes ellipses to indicate a place where the scroll is crumbled and we’ve lost the text. The earliest New Testament papyri are fragmentary, too, but we have so many copies that we have the entire text preserved.
The copies were copied
As the New Testament was copied, the scribal errors in copies continued to be copied. This allows us to group manuscripts into ‘families’, just like the genetic information passed from parents to children allows us to establish paternity. There were three major families.
The Alexandrian manuscripts, named for Alexandria, Egypt, have had a major influence on modern Bible translations. In 1521 Erasmus, who compiled the Textus Receptus, wrote to a man named Bombasius in Italy asking him to consult the Vatican manuscript to see if it included the Johannine comma (contained in 1 John 5:7-8, which Erasmus believed was a later addition). Today, we’re nearly certain that he was actually referring to what we call Codex Vaticanus, one of the best examples of the Alexandrian text. There are fewer manuscripts of the Alexandrian tradition (because Islam stopped the copying of Christian manuscripts in Egypt in the seventh century), but they are some of the earliest manuscripts.
The Byzantine family of manuscripts is by far the largest, because Greek continued to be the liturgical language in the Eastern church. For that reason, there were more manuscripts copied over a longer period of time. The preserved manuscripts from that family are younger than the Alexandrian manuscripts, but still have value when it comes to text criticism.
The Western family are European manuscripts—they are also a minority because Latin quickly became the liturgical language in Europe. They are widely considered to be a more divergent and less reliable source than the other two families, so if they differ from the other two families of manuscripts, they are very rarely considered to reflect the original text.
However, just as various people groups’ genes have far more in common with each other than not, even the most divergent manuscripts are mostly similar. There are no theological differences, and no doctrine is affected by the differences in manuscript copies. The goal of copying was to preserve the text, not to change it, and that is reflected in all the manuscript families.
The copies were quoted and translated
Other great sources for the New Testament text come from quotes in the writings from the Church Fathers and the earliest translations of Scripture. The Church Fathers quoted most of the New Testament, so that even if we had no manuscripts, we would be able to reconstruct most of the Bible. This is useful, because if we have to choose between Variant A and Variant B of a certain text, but Irenaeus quotes Variant B, we know that Variant B was circulating at Irenaeus’s time. That helps us understand what the text looked like that he was reading. Of course, he also might have been paraphrasing Scripture as we often do today, so this method has to be used critically.
Another source that helps confirm the biblical text is ancient lectionaries, collections of Scripture readings to be read on specific days during worship. The earliest lectionaries we have are from the 6th century.
Also, because Christianity was evangelistic, Scripture was translated into other languages, like Latin, Syriac, and many other languages. These translations can be useful, but only to a point, because if they differ from the Greek text we don’t know if that’s because their Greek text was different, or whether they just weren’t translating that particular passage as well as they could.
All of this together, however, means that we have far more manuscripts, and far more evidence for what the NT originals look like, than for any other work of ancient literature. And we are even finding new manuscripts today.
Exciting manuscript research
Dr Dan Wallace is an evangelical New Testament scholar who has been taking teams around the world to digitize New Testament manuscripts. This is important, because high-quality scans of manuscripts allow scholars wider access to study these manuscripts. It also preserves them in case the physical copies are destroyed by the elements, or in religious persecution (a very real possibility in some of the places the manuscripts are found).
In the process of studying these manuscripts, new manuscripts are being discovered. This is a good thing, because more evidence means that we can get even closer to the originals.
We can have confidence in the biblical text!
God chose to preserve the New Testament text, not by miraculously preserving the originals or by keeping any scribe from ever making an error, but by preserving so many copies of Scripture that we have confidence that our New Testament today is the same as the original.