Copies of Copies of Copies of Copies|
Biblical Accuracy in Question?
Q. Bart Ehrman says we don't have the original texts of the New Testament and that we only have copies of copies of copies of copies that were made hundreds and hundreds of years after Jesus died. Even worse, he said that these copies of copies of copies are all different from each other. There are at least 400,000 variants. So what's left? How do we know any of the New Testament is accurate?
Great questions…and important ones, too!
Pseudo, Relative History?
It's especially relevant today because we have people producing pseudo historical things like the Da Vinci Code. We have a few historians writing books about the Egyptian Gnostic texts as if they were equal to the New Testament documents. There are authors who make the claim that Constantine rewrote Christian history and theology. There are authors like Ehrman who rehash skeptical arguments from the Enlightenment period. There are new books about James's Ossuary or the Bone Box of Jesus, burial places of Jesus' supposed family, weird information about the bible codes, and so forth.
So how do we decide what is real - let alone which ancient writings about the life of Jesus are accurate? In a time when people are rewriting current history and making all truth relative, what is historical truth anyway?
Let's rephrase your question and simply ask how we know the New Testament consists of accurate texts? Why did a collection of letters, hymns, and other writings become a part of the New Testament anyway? How do we know they are historically accurate?
Most of us are pretty confidant that the Old Testament was preserved through reliable transmission. Especially after finding the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947 we know that the A.D. 1000 copy is virtually unchanged from the 200 B.C. text of the Old Testament found among the Dead Sea Scrolls. In fact, the only book that wasn't included among the Dead Sea Scrolls is the book of Esther. Other than that the Old Testament was preserved unchanged - just a few minor variations in spelling.
Jesus Authenticates N.T. Writings
OK…But, what about the New Testament?
Well, we know that Jesus Himself authenticates the writing of the New Testament in several places although this is not a comprehensive list.
We read in John 14:26, "But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you" (ESV).
John 16:13: "When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.
Matthew 24:14: "And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come."
Luke tells us in the opening to his message that many had already written about Jesus before he even wrote his gospel narrative. He is investigating facts and presenting what he believes is an "orderly" account. Scholars believe he may have used portions of Mark and a source called "Q" used by others before him. This is because there are 606 common verses from Mark used in Matthew and 350 verses in Luke. Because of the similarities, Matthew, Mark and Luke are called the "synoptic gospels" (Muncaster 2000, 14).
For Different Audiences
Comparing the wording between the "Synoptic" gospels may not always be an accurate way to look at these, however. Missler presents evidence that the end-times discourses in Matthew and Luke are written to different groups of people. Therefore, we shouldn't even try to harmonize the end-times narratives, anyway.
One end-times account is a survival guide for first-century Jews and the other is a message to Christians alive at the beginning of the tribulation period. One tells Christians to "get out of Dodge" when the Roman armies surround Jerusalem - which happened in A.D. 70. The other tells Christians to flee Jerusalem when the antichrist sets himself up as God in a newly rebuilt Jewish temple, yet future (Missler 2005).
I mention this only to caution students against assuming that the gospel accounts are "rehashes" of the same material. They are not necessarily! We need to be careful when we study or try to harmonize them.
Paul's letters were circulated among believers early on and were frequently addressed to specific churches. In several places Paul claimed to be speaking with the Lord's authority.
In First Thessalonians 2:13 Paul says, "And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God"… (ESV).
In verse 5:27 Paul notes, "I put you under oath before the Lord to have this letter read to all the brothers."
First Thessalonians was probably Paul's first letter. So early in his ministry he declared his letters to be "scripture."
In First Corinthians 14:37 Paul claims, "If anyone thinks that he is a prophet, or spiritual, he should acknowledge that the things I am writing to you are a command of the Lord."
Clement of Rome
One of the earliest Church Fathers, Clement of Rome (about A.D. 95) already refers to several New Testament books as "Scripture." He already includes Matthew and Luke, Hebrews, Romans, Corinthians, 1 Timothy, Titus, 1 Peter and Ephesians in his own letter to Corinth.
Contemporary of John of Patmos
This is incredible because Clement of Rome is a contemporary of John who wrote the book of Revelation in A.D. 95-96 on the Island of Patmos! This may be why Clement does not include Revelation in his list of Scriptures. He has already identified major portions of the New Testament as Scriptures. But, the apostle John was likely writing Revelation while Clement went about his daily business.
Apostolic Church Fathers
This is exciting because it helps to confirm the idea of "Apostolic Succession" or an unbroken line of authority from the apostles through the early Church Fathers. Protestants should be encouraged that just such a timeline of authoritative authors and writings exist from Jesus through His disciples through the apostles and through the early Church Fathers.
In fact, the lives of the early Church Fathers overlap one another starting around 50 A.D. onward. There are no "gaps" in time when they could have departed from the teachings of their predecessors without oversight or criticism from their peers.
Instead, Church Fathers form an unbroken, overlapping group of teachers and students. The dates of their lives and writings show unbroken unity as they quote one another and the New Testament writings. In fact, all but ten verses of the New Testament are included in their writings. These provide scholars with valuable information about the early New Testament documents. Let's look at the overlapping dates of their lives or writings:
We have John writing Revelation in about A.D. 95.
The Didache, a manual of first-century church practices
Clement of Rome, 30-100
Justin Martyr, 100-165
Clement of Alexandria, 150-315
Eusebius, church historian (time of Constantine) 263-339
(Muncaster 2005, 89; Bercot 1998, xvii; The Didache, 2002)
By focusing on "Sola Scriptura" (Scripture Alone) the Protestant church may have lost this sense of unity and continuity through the writings and beliefs of informed Christians throughout the earliest centuries. For example, consider the following approximate dates:
- The Apostles lived and wrote from about A.D. 33 to A.D. 100.
- The Apostolic Fathers lived and wrote from around A.D. 100-150.
- The Apologists and Polemicists defend their biblical teachings and beliefs from about A.D. 150-325.
(House 1992, 43)
During the early second century (A.D. 100s), Polycarp of Smyrna said there are three sources of authority for Christians. He writes, "So, then let us serve him with fear and all reverence, just as he himself (Jesus) has commanded, as did the apostles, who preached the gospel to us, and the prophets, who announced in advance the coming of our Lord" (Pol. Phil. 6:3).
The three authoritative sources are:
- The teachings of Jesus passed on orally by the apostles.
- The instructions of the apostles (cf. Acts 2:42).
- The words of the prophets (or the Old Testament Scriptures).
This is important because New Testament quotes from the Apostles, Church Fathers and major apologists give Bart Ehrman some of those supposed 200,000 to 400,000 "variants" about which he rants and raves.
For instance, whenever a Church Father quotes the New Testament with an introduction such as, "Paul says …'Conduct yourselves wisely toward outsiders'" (Col. 4:5), Professor Ehrman and other textual critics declare that a "variant" is noted. This is because the introduction, "Paul says," is not a part of the original text. Most recognize that these variants make little difference to our beliefs or orthodoxy. Many are no more than editorial comments such as the preceding example. But, a few like Ehrman sensationalize and exaggerate such things implying that variants cloud the accuracy of the entire New Testament.
Consider that we have at least 5,900 copies of the Greek New Testament and about 25,000 copies in other early languages such as Latin or Syriac. Many of our copies of the New Testament are found in church lectionaries similar to modern One-Year Bibles that add proper names or pronouns to each day's reading such as: "Paul says, 'Conduct yourselves wisely toward outsiders, making the best use of the time.'" (How else would we know who is speaking to whom each day we read from Scripture in a church lectionary or One-Year bible)?
Adding An "E" Disrupts God's Word?
Since Bart Ehrman and others also include slight variations in spelling (like adding an "e" to a word) or slightly different wordings as "variants," then perhaps he might attempt to become a little more intellectually honest or responsible when presenting his findings to the public. None of his variants significantly impact the essential doctrines of our faith. None!
3 Major Passages in Dispute
In fact, Ehrman's foremost "scholarly debate" really concerns just three primary passages within the New Testament. Yet, they hardly affect any of our major beliefs.
The sections in dispute are Mark 16:9-20 which include the passages about handling snakes. The second is John 7:53-8:11, the story of Jesus forgiving the adulteress.
Finally, the Trinitarian formula of 1 John 5:7-8: "For there are three that bear witness in heaven: the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit - and these three are one" (NKJV).
The subject of the Trinity has been established and affirmed by the Church for centuries. The Trinitarian formula is found in many parts of the Bible and is not limited to this passage. So it doesn't affect our belief.
Fragments Attest to Accuracy
Yes…it is true we do have copies of copies of copies of copies. (Thank goodness we do - they all attest to our faith). In contrast there are only 10 copies of Julius Caesar's Gallic Wars, 7 copies of Pliny the Younger's Historical Works, and at best 643 copies of Homer's Iliad (Muncaster 2000, 27).
But, we also have valuable early fragments that attest to the accuracy of textual transmission in our earliest 5,000 Greek texts as well. This makes the New Testament the most backed-up and attested of all ancient literature in existence!
For example, the Rylands Papyrus dated about A.D. 115-125 demonstrates John's authorship.
The Bodmer Papyri dated around A.D. 150-200 gives us other portions of Luke and John.
The Chester Beatty Papyri dated between A.D. 100-300 attest to all major parts of the New Testament (Muncaster 2000, 30).
Plus, we have very early writing and copies of portions of the New Testament written by the Fathers and Apologists.
Scripture Validated Early
In fact, it is important to realize that many of the New Testament writings were already considered to be "Scripture" within the lifetimes of the apostles. For example, the apostle Peter writes:
…"in all his (Paul's) letters, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which the untaught and unstable distort, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures"…(2 Peter 3:15-5, NASB).
This is an amazing testament to the validity of the New Testament early on. People were still alive who could have refuted Paul had they wished! Instead, the Christian movement was so strong that emperors and their staff tried to "stamp out" the infuriating Christian "superstitions" (McDowell 1993, 200).
Overstated at Best
Textual critic and Greek scholar Dr. Daniel B. Wallace says …"the idea that the variants in the NT manuscripts alter the theology of the NT is overstated at best. Unfortunately, as careful a scholar as Ehrman is, his treatment of major theological changes in the text of the NT tends to fall under one of two criticisms: Either his textual decisions are wrong, or his interpretation is wrong" …For a book geared toward a lay audience, one would think that he would want to have his discussion nuanced a bit more, especially with all the theological weight that he says is on the line" ("Review of Bart D. Ehrman," 1)
Sadly, skepticism sells. That's why we have some fringe scholars making ridiculous claims about the Gnostic texts or "new" archaeological finds every Christmas and Easter - like clockwork. Just like spoiled children they want all of the attention and money from book sales.
But, Bart Ehrman went one step further. He "sold his soul" by using sensationalism to convince uninformed readers into thinking the New Testament is unsubstantiated and untrue. I shudder to think what he faces at the judgment seat of Christ. Sadly, he doesn't care. But, I'm confidant he will! In "chucking" his own faith it seems clear he decided to take as many down with him as possible. Bad choice with eternal consequences…
Let's face it: some people just think it's sophisticated or "cool" to be a skeptic or an atheist. So let's fight to prevent others from making the same mistake. It is worth fighting for because this is a permanent, deadly error. In fact, Luke tells us Jesus warned it would be better if a millstone were hung around such a deceiver's neck and he were thrown into the sea than that he would "cause one of these little ones to stumble" (Luke 17:2).
Bercot, David W. Editor. 1998. A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson.
Berding, Kenneth. 2008. God's Word or Paul's personal opinion? Biola Magazine. Summer issue.
House, Wayne H. 1992. Charts of Christian theology&doctrine. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
McDowell, Josh. Compiled by Wilson, Bill. 1993. A ready defense. Nashville, TN: Nelson.
Missler, Chuck. 2005. Tape cassettes. This generation Coeur d'Alene, ID: Koinonia House.
Muncaster, Ralph O. 2000. Can you trust the Bible? Eugene, OR: Harvest House.
Muncaster. 2005. One-minute answers: The evidence for Christianity. Eugene, OR: Harvest House.
Perrin, Nicholas. 2007. Lost in transmission? Nashville, TN: Nelson.
van de Sandt, Huub, and Flusser. 2002. The Didache: Its Jewish sources and its place in early Judaism and Christianity. Minneapolis: Fortress Press
Wallace, Daniel B. Review of Bart D. Ehrman. Misquoting Jesus. http://www.bible.org/page.php?page_id=3452.
—- The gospel according to Bart. http://www.bible.org/page.php?page_id=4000.
Authors Valorie Mays Emilio holds an M.A. in History from UCLA having specialized in early church history. Ken received his B.S. from CSULB and completed an M.A. in Biblical Studies from Louisiana Baptist University.
Students: Note that we are using the Harvard Citation Style (similar to Turabian author-date) which is computer-friendly and allows for some variations in format - not in content. Always check with your professors for required format.