When my faith was challenged a few years ago, I was stunned to hear the claim that we do not have any original New Testament documents, and the handwritten copies (manuscripts) we do have, are riddled with over 400,000 mistakes. Considering that I had lived my whole life believing the Bible is the Word of God, I found this rather unsettling.
Agnostic New Testament scholar and former Christian Bart Ehrman sums this argument up in his New York Times bestselling book, Misquoting Jesus: "There are more differences among our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament."
Before you tear up your Bible and use it as kindling for a bonfire, let’s clear up some misconceptions.
While it’s true that we don't have any original New Testament documents, we also don’t have the originals of Plato, Aristotle, Homer, Tacitus, Sophocles and other ancient writers. Scholars use a science called textual criticism to reconstruct the original wording of an ancient text, and when they have a lot of manuscripts, as well as early manuscripts, they can do this with a great degree of accuracy. The New Testament has more manuscripts and earlier manuscripts to support its accuracy than any other piece of classical literature.
So, what about these 400,000 "mistakes?" Put simply, it's sensationalistic and misleading to call them mistakes. Scholars call them variants. We have close to 6,000 Greek New Testament manuscripts and around 20,000 in other languages. Among these manuscripts, there are certain places where the reading of the text varies from one manuscript to another.
The most common variant we find is a Greek grammar device called a “movable nu.” It’s an “n” at the end of a word that is followed by a word that begins with a vowel. It’s a lot like when we use “an” instead of “a” before a word that begins with a vowel in English. Along with the movable nu, spelling differences, and changes in word order make up the bulk of the 400,000 or so variants, none of which affect the meaning of the text.
Some variants affect the meaning but aren't viable, in that they likely don't represent the wording of the originals. The important point is that less than 1% of all viable variants actually affect the meaning, and none of these impact any core Christian doctrine.
Why are there more differences among the manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament?
The question itself displays some intellectual sleight of hand, but it is easily answered: Because we have so many manuscripts! The average manuscript we have is 450 pages, and in total, we have over 2.6 million pages of the New Testament in Greek. That's not even counting manuscripts in other languages. What’s really amazing is not how different the manuscripts are, but how alike they are. In fact, the New Testament has been reconstructed with 99.5% accuracy.
So, you can dust off those Bibles and postpone the bonfire. We can say with confidence that the New Testament is reliable, and we have good reason to trust it!
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