A Brief Clarification
In my last post, I stated unequivocably that we Christians can rest easy that the words of the Bible we possess today are the same words that the authors wrote. But I never really explained how that would be the case. I aim to correct that today.
So, how much witness do we have for the Bible and how old is it? Well, we have almost 6,000 manuscripts (MSS) that are copies of the originals. It is true that no two are the same, but the variations that we see are corrected by looking at the corpus of MSS as a whole and then it becomes clear where the mistakes were. With almost 6,000 MSS to choose from, what are the odds that two different copyists would make the same mistake in the same place?
By looking at all of these direct witnesses, it is possible to divide them into familes of texts based on the textual variants. In so doing, patterns emerge. The main pattern is that the newer the MS, the “fuller” it is. In other words, those pesky “missing verses” that the NIV is accused of redacting don’t appear in the earlier witnesses. They were added by later copyists. The leanest and oldest are the Alexandrian MSS. The more robust and newest are the Byzantine MSS. There are other categories, but those are the most famous.
Our modern vesions are essentailly constructed out of the Alexandrian family of MSS. The older versions, such as the venerable King James (still the most beautiful translation in English), are essentailly Byzantine. This makes sense, since the Byzantine family didn’t emerge until after Christianity became legal in the Roman Empire under Constantine. This means that we have many more Byzantine MSS than we do the earlier (and ostensibly more reliable) Alexandrian MSS. The Alexandrian MSS were more likely to be destroyed because they were holy texts of a religion that was illegal and had been persecuted since the time of Nero.
The surviving copies that we do have are excellent witness to the fact that the text we have in our modern Bibles is the text that the earliest Christians read and memorized and read aloud during services. As I stated before, we have nearly 6,000 surviving copies of NT MSS, some of which are dated to 50 to 100 years after the originals. How does that compare to other ancient works?
The best attested work of antiquity, aside from the NT, is the Illiad by Homer. This document was composed around 800 b.c. The earliest fragments date from 400 b.c.–400 years after the date of composition. There are only 643 MSS in existence. Compare that to the NT, with almost 6,000 MSS, with the earliest fragments dating from 50 to 100 years after the originals were written. There is no comparison.
It would be a historian’s wildest dream to encounter an MS as well-attested as the NT, but for some reason the reliability of it is called into question, even by Christians. My prayer is that by explaining some of these finer points I have shown why we can trust our copies of the NT. There is no reason to question that the NT of today is the NT of the earliest Christians, since we have mountains of evidence attesting to that fact.
This means that when I quote a text from the NT, I’m quoting directly what the apostle Paul wrote in his letter to the Colossians: “For in him the fullness of deity dwells bodily” (2:9). The implications are simple. No matter what you hear from skeptics and atheists, the earliest Christians worshipped Jesus Christ as God. Even in the earliest fragments of MSS we can find dozens of references like Collosians 2:9. That means that it was not a decision of the Council of Nicea to start worshipping Jesus as God; that had always been present in the Christian tradition.