Can We Trust the Text of the Bible?

Text: II Peter 1:12-21


I.         I was discussing with a gentleman about the location of a particular city mentioned in the Bible.

            A.        He had found an old map that placed Baal Zephon on the Mediterranean Sea instead of on the edge of the Red Sea. Doesn’t this prove, he asked, that the crossing of the Red Sea is allegorical and not a historical event?

            B.        I pointed out that even though his map might be old, it still was produced thousands of years after the crossing of the Red Sea. Archeologists have not located Baal Zephon. Thus the uninspired map makers guessed as to where the city might be located.

            C.        The problem is that they ignored what God said about the matter.

                        1.         God lead Israel by the way of the Red Sea - Exodus 13:18

                        2.         Baal Zephon was on the opposite shore from where the Israelites camped on the shore of the Red Sea - Exodus 14:2

                        3.         In case there is any confusion about which sea is under consideration, Pharaoh’s army drowned in the Red Sea - Exodus 15:4

            D.        His response surprised me. In part, he wanted to know what I meant by uninspired map makers.

                        1.         In his view, something penned in the 1800's is just as authoritative as the Bible.

                        2.         He acknowledged there was a lack of archeological evidence, but in his mind that meant the Bible was just as suspect as his map.

            E.        Thus unless man proves it, it can be altered at anyone’s whim

                        1.         The man went on to make a series of outrageous claims where he not only relegated events in the Bible to mere myths, but he also claimed people didn’t know how to read Hebrew and rewrote words in the Old Testament by changing the vowels.

                        2.         But then, he had no respect for the text because he saw it as a work of man and not God.

II.        All Scripture is inspired

            A.        Comes from the breath of God - II Timothy 3:16-17

            B.        Written, not in man’s words, but God’s words - II Peter 1:20-21

III.       But how reliable is our text?

            A.        How do we know that what we have today is what was originally penned?

                        1.         How do we know that there aren’t significant errors in our text?

                        2.         How do we know that there hasn’t been some secret collusion to modify our text?

            B.        After all this is what Muslims and Mormons claim about the Bible

                        1.         They well know that Bible contradicts their holy books, but they also claim to be a follow-on religion to what is found in the Bible

                        2.         How do you handle that the earlier book shows the later books to be wrong?

                        3.         Why, announce that there is complete agreement between your religion and the original text of the Bible, but then claim that the text we have today has been altered from the original.

            C.        The Bible isn’t the only ancient text in the world

                        1.         The question of accuracy of the copies comes up in all ancient texts

                        2.         But we can apply tests to the documents we have to see whether the claim of accuracy stands or not

            D.        How many copies exist?

                        1.         The more copies, the more comparisons we can make to find slips of the pen by those making the copies. Thus, the more the better.

                        2.         Other ancient documents

                                    a.         The Annals of Tacitus, a Roman historian - 2

                                    b.         The writings of Plato - 7

                                    c.         The writings of Herodotus - 8

                                    d.         Thucydides, considered to be a very accurate historian, 8 copies plus a few fragments

                                    e.         Caesar’s Gallic Wars - 10

                                    f.         The Roman historian Livy wrote 142 books of which only 35 survived and we have 20 copies.

                                    g.         Popular classical authors are better represented. We have hundreds of copies of Euripides, Cicero, Ovid, and Virgil

                                    h.         The best representative is Homer’s Illiad, which we have 1758 copies.

                        3.         And the New Testament?

                                    a.         We 5,800 complete or mostly complete manuscripts

                                    b.         We have 13,000 fragments

                                    c.         There are 10,000 Latin translations of the Greek text

                                    d.         There are another 8,000 manuscripts in Syriac, Armenian, Ethiopic, Coptic, Gothic, Slavic, Sahidic, and Georgian

                                    e.         Not enough?

                                                (1)       A study done at the British Museum documented 89,000 quotes or allusions to the New Testament in the writings of early Christian writers.

                                                (2)       Daniel Wallace in Reinventing Jesus, 2006, estimates that there are now about 1 million citations

                                    f.         Oh, and we have 1,800 lectionaries, which are reading lessons from early church services dating from the sixth century.

            E.        Where were these copies found?

                        1.         If the source of the copies all came from one place, then it would be possible for someone to modify the text.

                        2.         Multiple regions and from multiple time frames make a concerted effort to modify the text nearly impossible.

                        3.         The New Testament texts were found in Egypt, Ethiopia, Palestine, Syria, Turkey, Greece, and Italy

                        4.         Also because we have numerous old translations, alterations in one language could be detected by comparing it to the other translations.

            F.        How much time passed between the original writings and the surviving copies?

                        1.         If there is a large gap, then it is possible for a change to be introduced early on and we would be unable to detect it.

                        2.         Other ancient documents

                                    a.         Histories of Herodotus - earliest copy was made 1,350 years after the original!

                                    b.         Histories of Thucydides - earliest copy was made 1,300 years after the original

                                    c.         Caesar’s Gallic Wars - 950 years after the original

                                    d.         Annals of Tacitus - 950 years after the original

                                    e.         Histories of Tacitus - 750 years after the original

                                    f.         The Illiad - 350 to 400 years after the original

                                    g.         The Roman History of Livy - 350 years after the original and the copy is only a fragment

                        3.         The New Testament

                                    a.         We have several fragments dated to 40 to 100 years after the original writings

                                                (1)       John Ryland Fragment contains five verses from John 18 dates to 100-150 AD (a gap of about 50 years)

                                    b.         The Boder Papyri is dated about 200 AD and contains most of the Gospel of John, I Peter, II Peter, and Jude (a gap of about 100-140 years)

                                    c.         The Chester Beatty Papyri is dated about 250 AD and contains most of the New Testament (a 150-200 year gap)

                                    d.         We have several Greek manuscripts which date to 300 to 400 years after the original

                                    e.         Some of the translations are older. Most, though, are from the 300's and later.

                                    f.         The quotes and allusions in the early Christian writers date from 95 AD to the early 400's. Most come from the second and third century.

            G.        Variation

                        1.         How different are the various copies from one another?

                                    a.         Scribes make errors, so we expect some variation.

                                    b.         But the more there are, the less certain we can be about the original

                        2.         Ancient manuscripts

                                    a.         Few copies make variation analysis difficult to do

                                    b.         Homer’s Illiad, which we have 1569 ancient copies show a 5% variation in the text

                        3.         New Testament

                                    a.         Less than ½ percent is in question

                                    b.         Most of these are minor spelling differences or slight variations in phrasing. “In would be a mistake, however, to assume that the only changes being made were by copyists with a personal stake in the wording of the text. In fact, most of the changes found in our early Christian manuscripts have nothing to do with theology or ideology. Far and way the most changes are results of mistakes, pure and simple – slips of the pen, accidental omissions, in advertent additions, misspelled words, blunders of one sort or another” [Bart Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus, p. 55]

                                    c.         Most translations note the disputed variations in their margins.

                                    d.         What about the claim that there are 400,000 variants?

                                                (1)       The number takes the current standard text and counts each manuscript or fragments difference from the standard.

                                                (2)       “Variant reading should not be counted by adding all the various readings in all the manuscripts. For example, a word spelled differently from the standard text in 500 manuscripts is not counted as 500 variants. It is counted as one variant” [Norman Geisler, “Updating the Manuscript Evidence for the New Testament,” 2013]

                                                (3)       In other words, the 400,000 number is inflated and not an accurate reflection of the situation.

                                                (4)       Westcott and Hort estimated that the New Testament is 98.33 percent free of any substantial variation

                                                (5)       Ezra Abbot said that 99.75 percent pure from rival readings that would make a difference in the text

                                                (6)       A.T. Robertson estimates that 99.9% of the New Testament is free from any real concern.

                                    e.         Sir Frederick Kenyon, a noted authority on New Testament Textual criticism, stated “No fundamental doctrine of the Christian faith rests on a disputed reading ... It cannot be too strongly asserted that in substance the text of the Bible is certain: especially is this the case with the New Testament.”

IV.      Collaborating evidence

            A.        If the Bible is an account of events that took place in history, then there will be other references to at least major events or people in the Bible

            B.        Many things are coming to light from archeology, enough that we could spend a long time talking about them.

            C.        But for the moment, let us look at three secular historians who were not motivated to support Christianity to see what they recorded

                        1.         Josephus, a Jewish historian commissioned to write a history of the Jews for Rome

                                    a.         “Now, some of the Jews thought that the destruction of Herod’s army came from God, and that very justly, as a punishment of what he did against John, that was called the Baptist; for Herod slew him, who was a just man and commanded the Jews to exercise virtue, both as to righteousness towards one another, and piety towards God, and so to come to baptism.” [Antiquities, 18:5:2]

                                    b.         “ Now, there was about this time, Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man, for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews, and many of the Gentiles. He was the Christ; and when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principle men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him, for he appeared to them alive again the third day, as the divine prophets had foretold and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him; and the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day. [Antiquities, 18:3:3]

                        2.         Caius Cornelius Tacitus, was a Roman who became consul in 97 A.D. He hated Christians, but he does say

                                    a.         Christ was the founder of a sect of Christians

                                    b.         Christ was put to death as a criminal

                                    c.         He was executed by Pontius Pilate

                                    d.         Tiberius was emperor of Rome

                                    e.         Jesus was born in the reign of Augustus

                                    f.         This “pernicious superstition” was checked for a time by the death of its founder

                                    g.         It broke out again and spread not only over Judea but reached the city of Rome

                                    h.         Christians were persecuted in Rome under Nero

                                    i.         Vast numbers were discovered and condemned being accused of burning the city and because of their “hatred” for mankind.

                                    j.         They were hated as the offscourings of the earth and the filth of all things

                                    k.         They were destroyed to gratify the cruelty of one man

                        3.         Pliny, the Younger, was Proconsul of Bithynia from 106 to 108 AD. He wrote a letter to Trajan, Emperor of Rome for advice in which we learn many things

                                    a.         Many Christians of every age and rank and of both sexes were in Bithynia

                                    b.         Their teaching and influence were such that heathen temples were almost deserted and the sellers of sacrifices could hardly find purchasers

                                    c.         None who were really Christians could, by any means, be compelled to make supplication to the image of Caesar, or the statue of the gods.

                                    d.         After the most searching inquiry, including torture to force confessions, he had found no vice among them

                                    e.         They suffered for the name of being Christians without any charge of crime

                                    f.         They were accustomed, on stated days, to hold two meetings; one, for singing “in concert” hymns to Christ, and for making vows to live righteously; and the other, for eating a “harmless meal.”

                                    g.         Those who were Roman citizens were sent to Rome for trial

V.        Summary

            A.        F. F. Bruce: “The evidence for our New Testament writings is ever so much greater than the evidence for many writings of classical authors, the authenticity of which no one dreams of questioning. And if the New Testament were a collection of secular writings, their authenticity would generally be as beyond all doubt.”

            B.        Josh McDowell: “After trying to shatter the historicity and validity of the Scripture, I came to the conclusion that they are historically trustworthy. If one discards the Bible as being unreliable, then he must discard almost all literature of antiquity. One problem I constantly face is the desire on the part of many to apply one standard or test to secular literature and another to the Bible. One needs to apply the same test, whether the literature under investigation is secular or religious. Having done this, I believe one can hold the Scriptures in his hand and say, ‘The Bible is trustworthy and historically reliable.’”