How Can I Know That The Bible Is True? – Part 2 – The Manuscript Evidence

Today in our discussion on how we can know that the Bible is true, we will look at the manuscript evidence supporting the Bible, specifically the New Testament.

When I am talking about biblical manuscripts (sometimes referred to as MSS), I am talking about the original copies of parts of the Bible that we have today, such as texts written on pieces of papyrus and parchment.

Today we have over five thousand (5,000) partial and complete copies of the New Testament, some of which date back to within approximately 100 years of their writing. Others are copies taken from the originals and passed on through the ages. These manuscripts are 99% identical to each other.

What this means is that we have copies of the New Testament that date back to the very earliest days of the Christian church. For the fragments that are more recent, they are almost identical to the oldest ones. This tells us that they were copied with tremendous accuracy, and have been preserved as they were originally written.

For a moment, let’s compare this to another great work of antiquity, Homer’s Illiad. Second to the New Testament, this work has the next largest amount of manuscripts available today. There are 643 complete copies and fragments of Homer’s Illiad. The earliest copy dates to 500 years after it was originally written. The manuscripts are 95% identical.

No one questions that Homer wrote the Illiad, and that it had been preserved so that when we read it we are reading what Homer actually wrote. This is despite the fact that the earliest copy we have is from so long after it was originally written. In comparison, the Bible has considerably more available manuscripts, and these manuscripts date back much sooner to the actual events.

All of this manuscript evidence for the New Testament tells us that what we have in our Bibles today is actually what was written 2,000 years ago. This proves the integrity of the text we call the New Testament. With this in mind, we can look at the claims of the writing itself.

Part 1 – Introduction
Part 3 – The Archaeological and Historical Evidence
Part 4 – The Alleged Contradictions
Part 5 – Authoritative Conclusion

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2 Responses to How Can I Know That The Bible Is True? – Part 2 – The Manuscript Evidence

  1. Nick70 says:

    Krista,

    Let me first state that I admire what you are trying to do in strengthening peoples’ faith in the integrity and accuracy of the Bible, but I am afraid that not all of your information is accurate. It is true that we have over 5000 manuscripts (MSS) of the Greek New Testament (GNT) and there are some that do in fact date to within a century of their composition (e.g. P52), but this is certainly a very small minority.

    What I take issue with is the claim that the MSS are 99% identical to one another. The main problems with such a claim is that the vast majority of MSS are fragmentary so that would make it impossible for them to agree perfectly with one another. I’ll give a quick example just from the papyri. P1 (P.Oxy. 2) contains a fragment of Matthew 1 and dates to some time in the 3rd century, while P2 contains a fragment of John’s Gospel and dates to the 6th century. For this reason alone they cannot be even remotely identical let alone 99% identical to each other.

    For another example we can look to two codices. Codex Bezae (D05) contains only the Gospels and Acts while Codex Vaticanus (B03) contains the Gospels, Acts, the Catholic Epistles, and the Pauline Epistles. Again, they cannot be identical when one contains more books than the other, but let’s be a bit more specific and focus on the book of Acts alone. Codex Bezae has over 800 more words in the book of Acts than Codex Vaticanus does making it 8.5% longer.

    The truth is that there are no two identical manuscripts of the GNT and there are actually more textual variants than can be counted and documented but a good round-about number is around 400,000. Now the vast majority of these variant readings cannot even be translated and they certainly don’t affect any point of Christian doctrine so there’s no need to be alarmed — but I’m of the opinion that we need to arm ourselves with the facts.

    Bart Ehrman wrote a book last year (Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why) that took many Christians by storm and sadly shattered the faith of some. The reason being that they were under the impression that the MSS of the GNT were nearly identical and to find out that they weren’t turned their world upside down. I believe that as defenders of the faith we need to be ready to wrestle with these issues and deal with them honestly and fairly and I also feel that this is an area where many apologists have dropped the ball (e.g. Josh McDowell or Matt Slick from CARM).

    Having said all this I would say that the more accurate statistic would be that of all the 400,000+ textual variants in the over 5000 MSS of the GNT, over 98% of them are insignificant and don’t affect any essential truth of the Christian faith.

    I pray this finds you well,

    Nick

  2. Thank you for clarifying a few points. I know exactly what you’re saying, and should have been a bit more clear in my brief synposis.

    So to clarify – when I am referring to identical manuscripts and fragments, what I am talking about is the similarity/identicalness of those passages that are the same passage (i.e. several copies from different time periods of John 1). I am aware that in ever manuscript we don’t have all of it, and sometimes in small fragments. What I am saying is that those fragments of the same passages agree with each other to the accuracy of 99%.

    It is also true that when it comes to those varients, they are 98% insignificant (misspelled word, omittion of a definite article, etc).

    Thank you for your technical insight, and encouragement.

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