Can I Trust the Bible?

by Ethan Longhenry
via de Verbo vitae

By far, the most popular book in our culture is still the Bible, and for the Christian, the New Testament in particular. It is a text that is about 1,900 years old, and for some reason we see many misconceptions about its textual validity. Common misconceptions, which I hope will be answered thoroughly by this page, are:

  1. The Catholics corrupted it.
  2. The New Testament was decided upon by a bunch of Catholics at the Council of Nicaea.
  3. The Catholics took out some of the books of the Bible.
  4. The scribes made too many errors.
  5. It has been mistranslated and/or translated too often.

These misconceptions and half (if that) truths seem to cast doubt upon the validity of the New Testament text, and have even led some churches to declare that the Bible can only be trusted as far as it has been translated correctly. Let us examine the evidence that we have and root ourselves in facts, not misconceptions.

I. The Development of the Canon

Part A: General History of the Canon's Development

The New Testament begins its life between 50-100 CE. During this time period, Apostles of the Lord Jesus Christ and their converts wrote accounts of Jesus, the Acts of His Apostles, letters to churches and individuals, and one final revelation.

After the time of the Apostles, their writings were often circulated amongst Christians for exhortation and encouragement. When authors of the time desired to affirm the faith that was delivered to us through Christ, especially against the errors of paganism and Gnosticism, they would either directly quote or indirectly allude to the words of the Gospels, Acts, Letters, and Revelation that would comprise the New Testament. The writings of the Christians living in the first century after the death of the Apostles are full of Scriptural quotations and allusions.

During this time, we find a curious document now called the Muratorian Canon. It lists what an individual considered to be the books of the New Testament. In this list we find the four Gospels, all of the Pauline epistles, 1/2 John, Jude, and the Wisdom of Solomon.

Even before the end of the second century, the need to affirm definitively what comprised the Christian corpus of writings had been made manifest. In Rome, a man named Marcion had determined that the Old Testament was irrelevant, Luke was the only necessary Gospel, and Paul's letters were sufficient. The Christians of the time could not really counter his arguments well because they themselves had not yet developed such a canon. This, along with the existence of Gnostic scriptures that were in direct contradiction with the traditional Gospels and the emergence of Montanism, which believed in speaking in tongues and prophesy and used them to determine the end of the world, led the "orthodox believers" of the time to see the need to compile the written records from the hands of the Apostles and their witnesses for a canon. The four Gospels,most of Paul's letters, 1 Peter, and 1 John were accepted by all; Hebrews, 2 Peter, 2/3 John, Jude, and the Revelation were questioned by many.

The years between 300-400 saw the confirmation of the canon. 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, and Jude slowly gained acceptance, while Hebrews was rejected by the West due to its lack of clear authorship, and Revelation was rejected by the East due to how it was being abused by the fringe heresies in Christianity.

In 325, the Roman Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity, and the church establishment no longer needed to fear persecution. He convened the Council of Nicaea, which determined that Arianism was heretical and that the Trinity was the official explanation for the mystery of the Godhead. This has no relevance to the development of the Canon; I bring this up, however, to set the story straight about the Council of Nicaea and what actually happened there.

The definitive closure of the canon comes in 367 CE when Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, writes in his Festal Letter the list of the books in the New Testament, which remains the same today. This list was ratified in 397 CE at the Third Council of Carthage, and so ends the story of the development of the Canon.

Part B: Omitted Books

Today we see many individuals and even churches asking questions about books omitted from the Canon. The basic criteria were that the books be written by an Apostle or a witness to them (and that the authorship was confirmed), and was fruitful for study and encouragement. Some noted omissions, and reasons:

The Gnostic Scriptures Gnostics wrote a lot of alternative Scriptures affirming their heretical beliefs about Jesus Christ, that He did not die on the Cross, even sometimes denying His humanity. We have found the actual texts of these Gnostics at Nag Hammadi in Egypt in the middle of the twentieth century, such as the Gospel of Thomas, Apocalypse of Peter, Acts of Peter, Acts of Paul, and others, and we can see clearly why they were never considered for canonization: they simply do not represent the same Jesus that the texts of the New Testament do, and therefore are clearly not written by those who knew Him.
1 Clement Written by Clement of Rome around 95 CE, it of all the omitted texts has the best case for inclusion: Clement knew Peter, it seems, and so his letter could fit the criteria. The letter, however, did not carry a message that needed to be heard in the assembly, and the letter was relegated to "profitable for home study."
2 Clement This letter is nothing like 1 Clement and thus its authorship is questionable; hence, it was not added.
Letters of Ignatius Ignatius, who lived in the beginning of the second century, wrote many letters to individual churches. These letters, however, lacked the power and the authority of Paul's, and so they were not included.
Letters of Polycarp Polycarp was the bishop of Smyrna, and he wrote to Christians about the martyrdom of Ignatius. The message was not needed for the Canon, and so it was not added.
The Shepherd of Hermas This text was received well by those who lived in the middle of the second century, when it was written, and continued to be popular. Since its author was not of the time of the Apostles, it too was relegated to "profitable for
home study."
The Letter to the Laodiceans In his letter to the Colossians, Paul urges the Colossian brethren to read the letter he sent to the church at Laodicea, and that the Laodiceans should read the letter he sent to the Colossians (Col. 4:16). Christians have wondered what happened to this letter, and in the second century we see a letter to the Laodiceans pop up. It enjoys popularity even into the sixteenth century, but it is clearly a fraud. It looks nothing like any of the letters of Paul, and on top of all of that, it is extremely short. It was not added to the Canon because it was clear even then that it was not from Paul.
The Epistle of Barnabas While attributed to the friend of the Apostle Paul and well-received in its time, its authorship is unclear since it clearly came after the fall of Jerusalem.

These considerations should show that the decision to omit books from the Canon was not done for political reasons or for anything other than textual integrity. Furthermore, scholars show that the books which are omitted are of greatly inferior quality than those which are in the Canon. Hence, between the Revelation of John and 1 Clement, the quality of books diminished greatly. For all intents and purposes, the Canon is complete.

Part C: Witnesses of the Books of the New Testament

As shown above, we see many Christians writing letters and arguments from the time of the Apostles and throughout the time of the development of the Canon.  We see in their writings quotations of, and if nothing else, familarity with, different books which would eventually be the New Testament. Here is a list, organized by New Testament book, of which authors referred to which book:

The Gospel of Matthew Clement of Rome (95), Justin Martyr (100), Ignatius (110), Polycarp (110), the Didache (125), Papias (130), Barnabas (140), Hermas (150), 2 Clement (170), Aristides (175), the Martyrdom of Polycarp (175),
the Muratorian Canon (175), Athenagoras (177), Clement of Alexandria (180), Hippolytus (200), Irenaeus (200), Tatian (200), Theophilus (200), Origen (230), Tertullian (240), and Cyprian (250).
The Gospel of Mark Clement of Rome, Justin Martyr, Papias, Barnabas, the Muratorian Canon, Athenagoras, Clement of Alexandria, Hippolytus, Irenaeus, Tatian, Theophilus, Origen, Tertullian, and Cyprian.
The Gospel of Luke Clement of Rome, Justin Martyr, Ignatius, Polycarp, 2 Clement, the Muratorian Canon, Athenagoras, Clement of Alexandria, Hippolytus, Irenaeus, Tatian, Theophilus, Origen, Tertullian, and Cyprian.
The Gospel of John Justin Martyr, Ignatius, Didache, Papias, Barnabas, Hermas, 2 Clement, the Muratorian Canon, Athenagoras,Epistle of the Churches at Lyons and Vienne (177), Clement of Alexandria, Hippolytus, Irenaeus, Tatian, Theophilus, Origen, Tertullian, and Cyprian.
The Acts of the Apostles Clement of Rome, Aristides, the Muratorian Canon, Epistle of the Churches at Lyons and Vienne, Clement of Alexandria, Hippolytus, Irenaeus, Theophilus, Origen, Tertullian, and Cyprian.
Paul's Letter to the Romans Clement of Rome, Ignatius, Aristides, the Martyrdom of Polycarp, the Muratorian Canon, Epistle of the Churches at Lyons and Vienne, Athenagoras, Clement of Alexandria, Hippolytus, Irenaeus, Tatian, Theophilus, Origen, Tertullian, and Cyprian.
Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians Clement of Rome, Ignatius, Polycarp, the Didache, the Martyrdom of Polycarp, 2 Clement, the Muratorian Canon, Clement of Alexandria, Hippolytus, Irenaeus, Tatian, Theophilus, Origen, Tertullian, and Cyprian.
Paul's Second Letter to the Corinthians The Muratorian Canon, Clement of Alexandria, Hippolytus, Irenaeus, Tatian, Theophilus, Origen, Tertullian, and Cyprian.
Paul's Letter to the Galatians Clement of Rome, Ignatius, Polycarp, the Muratorian Canon, Athenagoras, Clement of Alexandria, Hippolytus, Irenaeus, Tatian, Origen, Tertullian, and Cyprian.
Paul's Letter to the Ephesians Clement of Rome, Ignatius, Polycarp, Hermas, 2 Clement, the Muratorian Canon, Clement of Alexandria, Hippolytus, Irenaeus, Tatian, Theophilus, Origen, Tertullian, and Cyprian.
Paul's Letter to the Philippians Clement of Rome, Ignatius, Polycarp, the Martyrdom of Polycarp, the Muratorian Canon, Epistle of the Churches at Lyons and Vienne, Clement of Alexandria, Hippolytus, Irenaeus, Tatian, Theophilus, Origen, Tertullian, and Cyprian.
Paul's Letter to the Colossians Ignatius, Aristides, the Muratorian Canon, Hippolytus, Irenaeus, Tatian, Theophilus, Origen, Tertullian, and Cyprian.
Paul's First Letter to the Thessalonians Ignatius, the Muratorian Canon, Clement of Alexandria, Hippolytus, Irenaeus, Tatian, Origen, Tertullian, and Cyprian.
Paul's Second Letter to the Thessalonians Polycarp, the Muratorian Canon, Clement of Alexandria, Hippolytus, Irenaeus, Tatian, Origen, Tertullian, and Cyprian.
Paul's First Letter to Timothy Polycarp, Barnabas, Aristides, the Muratorian Canon, Athenagoras, Epistle of the Churches at Lyons and Vienne, Clement of Alexandria, Hippolytus, Irenaeus, Tatian, Theophilus, Origen, Tertullian, and Cyprian.
Paul's Second Letter to Timothy Polycarp, Barnabas, the Muratorian Canon, Epistle of the Churches at Lyons and Vienne, Clement of Alexandria, Hippolytus, Irenaeus, Tatian, Theophilus, Origen, Tertullian, and Cyprian.
Paul's Letter to Titus The Martyrdom of Polycarp, the Muratorian Canon, Clement of Alexandria, Hippolytus, Irenaeus, Tatian, Theophilus, Origen, Tertullian, and Cyprian.
Paul's Letter to Philemon The Muratorian Canon, Hippolytus, Tatian, Origen, and Tertullian.
The Letter to the Hebrews Clement of Rome, Ignatius, Polycarp, 2 Clement, Epistle of the Churches at Lyons and Vienne, Clement of Alexandria, Irenaeus, Tatian, Origen, Tertullian, and Cyprian.
The Letter of James Clement of Rome, Hermas, Irenaeus, and Origen.
The First Letter of Peter Clement of Rome, Ignatius, Polycarp, Papias, 2 Clement, the Martyrdom of Polycarp, Clement of Alexandria, Hippolytus, Irenaeus, Origen, Tertullian, and Cyprian.
The Second Letter of Peter Origen.
The First Letter of John Polycarp, Papias, the Muratorian Canon, Clement of Alexandria, Hippolytus, Irenaeus, Origen, Tertullian, and Cyprian.
The Second Letter of John The Muratorian Canon, Hippolytus, Irenaeus, and Origen.
The Third Letter of John The Muratorian Canon and Origen.
The Letter of Jude The Martyrdom of Polycarp, the Muratorian Canon, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and Tertullian.
The Revelation (or Apocalypse) of John Justin Martyr, Papias, Barnabas, the Muratorian Canon, Epistle of the Churches at Lyons and Vienne, Clement of Alexandria, Hippolytus, Irenaeus, Theophilus, Origen, Tertullian, and Cyprian.

I hope this list shows that most of the Canon of the New Testament had been used since the beginning of Christianity, and that the texts were always considered to hold weight. The early history of the Bible should show that the text has the potential for being very valid.

II. The Transmission/Corruption/Restoration of the Text

We have now seen that the Canon of the New Testament developed over a period of time, and had been firmly established by 390 CE. We currently live in 2010 CE, a full 1,620 years after the final establishment of the canon, and 1,060 of those years were without the printing press. Can the Bible be trusted with all of that potential for error?

Yes, the text can be trusted, and for multiple reasons:

  1. We currently have over 4,500 texts of the New Testament, dating from as early as 146 and goes up to the time of the printing press, 1450. Most are not extant; however, a good many are. The New Testament has far more witnesses for it than any other ancient text: the nearest is Homer's Iliad, of which we have 330 copies. With such a great number of texts from all over the European, Mediterranean, and Asian worlds, and with (comparatively) so little variance, it is easy for scholars to find and remove errors from the text.
  2. With the inconsistencies that do exist in those 4,500 texts, we are able to weed out many of the errors due to the "families" of texts. Let's say that scribe X in Egypt was copying copy Z of the Gospel of Mark in 300 CE. He copies the wrong word down in the fifth chapter. Later on, other scribes copy Z and also copy the error in the fifth chapter. This is the easiest way to determine
    a "family:" consistent errors. We can determine that Z and its family has an error in it by examining other texts from other localities, Jerusalem perhaps, or Alexandria, or Constantinople, who would not have made the same error.
  3. Thanks to modern investigation and scholarship, we have two complete Bibles from around 350 CE: Codices Sinaiticus and Vaticanus (known as aleph and B, respectively). These, along with many other earlier witnesses, comprise of the general family of the Alexandrian text type. This text type serves, more often than not, as a corrective for later texts. Sometimes we may see some versions say "good and pure" somewhere, for instance. We also have some versions that say "good," and others "pure." If the Alexandrian type texts were to agree on the version "good," then that is what the Bible probably said. We can determine this thanks to some mental work: maybe some scribes erred and thought the word for "good" was the word for "pure." Later on, a scribe may have been copying from two or more texts and ran in to the inconsistency. He would not know which to choose, so he would just put both of them. With this and many other examples, we see that the older texts tend to show where errors have crept into the text.

So how much error really is there? Not much at all. Using the 4,500 texts, variants are isolated. Using the methods above, along with contextual and other considerations, modern scholars determine which variant is the word used by the authors of the New Testament. This process has solved all inconsistencies save three in the whole New Testament. Those three are sets two Greek words which are extremely similar in spelling, with both found in a wide range of texts and both could work contextually. Three errors out of thousands of words is beyond excellent for a 1,900 year old text!

III. Mistranslations and Oft-Translated?

The questions surrounding mistranslations and how often the Bible has been translated are based upon misconceptions about the Bible's history. People assume that our modern text came from Greek through Latin into English; however, we have the New Testament in its original Greek, and thus can be translated directly from Greek to English- no middle language involved.

Of course, the Bible must be translated, and it is true that no language completely or easily translates into another. Each language has its own peculiar idioms and phrases that other languages just do not recognize. Try to translate "what's up?" or "that's cool" into French. Sure, you can make a literal translation, but it will not make any sense since the idioms do not carry over. So can the translation of the Bible be trusted? Absolutely. While idioms and whatnot do exist in the Greek, we have scholars who study the idioms of the time and help translators convey the message appropriately. Often the literal rendering of the verse will not be helpful; when this occurs, the literal translation will appear in the note on the side. The NASB does a good job of being as literal as possible; the NIV tries, but its dynamic style of translation (meaning that often the reading is not literal, but interpretive) can sometimes get in the way.  Furthermore, sometimes a word in Greek might easily mean a few synonymous words in English, and various translations will pick up the different terms. If you question what a verse means, read it in many different translations: KJV, NKJV, ASV, NASB, NIV, and/or RSV. With the variances in those translations, you should be able to have a good feel for the intent of the Greek terminology.

For More Information

If you want more information about the text of the Bible, I recommend these books, which were used to develop this page:

  • Kurt and Barbara Aland, The Text of the New Testament.
  • John Barton, Holy Writings, Sacred Text: The Canon in Early Christianity.
  • Bruce Metzger, The Canon of the New Testament: Its Origin, Development, and Significance.
  • Bruce Metzger, The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration.