The Bible: Is It The Same Today As When It Was First Written? (Part 3)
Two previous articles have dealt with this question. The first article looked at this question from the standpoint of God’s providence. It was shown that God has both the ability and the desire to preserve His word, so it is indeed a serious matter to charge Him with failing to do so. The second article focused on the reliability of the Old Testament in particular. In this article, we will shift our attention to the New Testament. Can we be sure that what we have today is what God intended us to have?
Before we look at some “external” evidences, we need to keep in mind that the New Testament itself offers the most convincing proof. This writer firmly believes that if you give the mighty power of God’s word (Hebrews 4:12-13) a fair hearing, faith in God and in His word will be the result (Romans 10:17).
There are so many manuscripts, versions and quotations of the New Testament available that F.F. Bruce said, “There is no body of ancient literature in the world which enjoys such a wealth of good textual attestation as the New Testament” (ETDAV, p. 50). In other words, there is more evidence to support the accuracy of the New Testament than any other ancient document. But what about the variations in the manuscripts? There are some, but according to Westcott and Hort, two 19th century textual critics, substantial variations could “hardly form more than a thousandth part of the entire text” (NTIG, p. 2). These variations are usually noted in the margins of our Bibles. But let’s look more closely at what is available to us today.
· There are about 5000 different Greek manuscripts available. The earliest substantially complete ones date from the 4th century. But there are many fragments or portions from earlier times. For example, one fragment of John has been dated about A.D. 130.
· Additionally, textual critics have available to them translations made from Greek into Latin, Syriac and other languages. Some of these translations were made in the 2nd century and manuscripts from the 4th and 5th centuries have been found.
· Quotations of N.T. writings can also be found in the early “church fathers” (called “patristics”). These men lived as early as the end of the 1st century and in their writings have preserved for comparison very large portions of the N.T.
· Lectionaries (works used for daily readings and public worship also contain quotations from the N.T. Most of these date from the 6th century on.
Some are troubled by the time gap between the writing of the New Testament and these manuscripts we have. There are a few things we need to keep in mind about the dates for manuscripts, writings, etc. A 4th century copy proves the existence of an earlier manuscript, doesn’t it? Why aren’t there more early manuscripts? Once new copies were made, there was no need to keep the old, worn copy. How many 200 year-old Bibles have you seen? But you don’t doubt that the King James Version of 1796 was the same as the King James Version of 1996, do you?
Really, when you compare the New Testament to other ancient documents, you will see that the time gap is quite short. For Homer’s Odyssey, the gap between composition and the oldest complete copy is about 2200 years. And then consider two other ancient works composed near the time of the New Testament. The oldest complete copy of Caesar’s Gallic Wars is dated about 1000 years after its composition (written between 58 and 50 B.C.). The Roman historian Tacitus wrote Histories around A.D. 100. The earliest copy we have of this book is about 800 years after its composition.
All of this is to say that the New Testament has been preserved better than any other ancient historical document. How do we account for this if it is just another book?