Objections to the Bible: Copy of a copy

by Kyle
published August 22, 2015


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I remember playing Telephone as a child. We’d sit in a circle and one person would whisper a message in the ear of the child next to him. He would, in turn, whisper what he heard into the ear of the person on his other side. The “message” would travel around the circle to the last person, who would then repeat what he heard out loud for the whole group to hear. Most of the time, it was completely wrong.

Many people who refuse to accept the Bible as authoritative usually claim this child’s game as an example for why the Bible is not trustworthy. They cite the fact that we have no original manuscripts and the fact that the copies we have were copied by hand from other copies of the original as evidence for the claim that the Bible has been corrupted and is unreliable. Furthermore, some do not trust the Bible because they wrongly believe it was translated from other translations instead of from the original source language. Still others claim that any translation is a corruption.

When I got my own youth group, I decided to do an experiment. I told the youth to play Telephone, but this time each person should say what they heard out loud and check with the original messenger to make sure it was right before telling the next person out loud instead of in a whisper. That way, if there were 10 people in the group, the final recipient will have heard the original message many times. Predictably, the last person got the message right every time.

This version of the game better explains the process by which the Bible was proliferated. It was done publicly, having been checked by others with the original message. There are several facts that mitigate this objection. For the sake of brevity, I’ll focus here only on the New Testament. However, it is important to note that the New Testament categorically affirms the authority of the Old Testament, quoting or alluding to all but eight of the 39 books of the Old Testament.

Xerox machines, computers and even printing presses did not exist in the first century. Instead, like so many tasks the modern world has automated, the reproduction of written documents belonged in the domain of a lost profession which accomplished the task by hand. Copying a document by hand was literally the only available method for copying a document, and it was done reliably with skill as the effort of a team. We really do not have a modern-day equivalent, so it is understandable for both modern students and critics of scripture to conceive of such an endeavor. While there were small errors, neither scholars nor critics of scripture have ever found a theologically significant variation between the available manuscripts.

There is another profession that you might not be familiar with, though it is a thoroughly modern profession which operates at the highest levels of current scholarship and uses state-of-the-art technology. Textual criticism strives to determine the original wording of a document for which the original manuscript does not exist. Critics examine factors such as the age of the manuscript in relation to the original and the number of places where it disagrees with other known manuscripts to determine the quality of a copy and how accurate a representation of the original manuscript it might be. The more manuscripts there are, the easier the work of the textual critic is.

For instance, there are about at best fewer than 50 copies of most ancient documents upon which we base most of our understanding of ancient western history (history writers for textbooks for all levels of education regard their information as reliable and teach it as fact). There are less than a dozen copies of some of the most influential documents. Tacitus’ Annals of Imperial Rome, from which we glean most of our history of ancient Rome, only has a single copy. Though, to his credit, Tacitus also confirms the basic details of Christ’s death and resurrection. The earliest copy we have of each of these universally accepted ancient documents were copied between 500 and 1,000 years after the original was written.

By contrast, there are over 5,800 manuscripts and fragments of the New Testament. Our earliest copies were created within 50 years of the originals. Dr. Dan Wallace — a textual critic and New Testament studies professor at Dallas Theological Seminary — describes the modern capacity to reliably reconstruct the original New Testament as “an embarrassment of riches.”

Moreover, the differences between manuscripts are negligible. Critics will claim there are thousands of variations between manuscripts, and they are right. But what kind of variations? Ninety-nine percent of the textual variations between manuscripts of the New Testament are errors which do not affect the meaning of the text. For instance, a scribe might occasionally transcribe letters, like writing “teh” instead of “the.” A scribe might spell a name a little differently, like writing “Jon” instead of “John.” At the end of the day, these “errors” do not affect the meaning of the text at all and are easy to spot and correct. There are large variations like the end of the Gospel of Mark and the story in John 8 about the woman caught in adultery, but the truths they communicate are confirmed elsewhere in Scripture. No single doctrine of the Christian faith (salvation by faith alone, the crucifixion, the virgin birth, etc.) depends on a textually suspect passage.

Another criticism of the Bible has been that it has been retranslated so many times that our modern English translations — supposedly translations of translations — are unreliable. However, we have just seen how the original New Testament has been reliably reconstructed. Not only do we have translations from the original Greek and Hebrew, but I even have a printed Greek New Testament on my desk at the church and the training necessary to check the translation I’m reading. Your pastor likely does as well. It’s a common element of pastoral training. You can even receive the training you need to check translations against the original cheaply online if you were so inclined. I recommend Teknia.com to people who want to learn Greek. As time goes on, our ability to prove the reliability of the words in our modern Bible improves.

However, it seems our inclination to trust the reliability of the Bible falls as the evidence for the Bible’s reliability rises. As intellectual reasons to distrust scripture are exhausted, our difficulty trusting the Bible is revealed to be a spiritual problem than it is an intellectual one.

What do you think?

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