How do we know the Bible has not been changed?
During an investigation there is a danger that valid evidence can get mixed up with things which do not point the investigator in the right direction. J. Warner Wallace in his book Cold-Case Christianity tells of a cigarette butt collected as evidence for a murder case which was used by the defence to cast doubt upon the guilt of the defendant. His DNA was not found on the cigarette. However, that cigarette was collected as evidence simply by being within the area marked out by the police. Had the police marked out the crime scene a few feet shorter on one side, it would not have been considered at all. It was irrelevant to the case. Such things are known by investigators as “artifacts”, which can also include things like materials left by paramedics or footprints of the first people on the scene.
When it comes to the Bible, how do we know that the evidence has not been contaminated with “artifacts”? Before the invention of the printing press in the 1400’s the books of the Bible were copied by hand, again and again and again. How do we know that they were copied accurately? How do we know that the wording has not been changed as copies are made from copies of copies of copies . . .?
We have good news in that we can answer that question with great certainty; Yes, we do know that changes have occurred. Not what you expected from a Bible believing Baptist pastor I’m sure, but it is true. Look to the bottom of most modern English translations and you will see footnotes that say things like “other ancient authorities read. . .” Yes, there are “artifacts” which have found their way into the genuine evidence.
While knowing that artifacts have mixed into the evidence may not sound like good news to you, we do have some better news to share; we have so much material to work with, we are able to determine how the texts have been changed. We have the tools and the materials to help us separate the artifacts out from the evidence. Rather than asking if the texts have been changed, we can ask when and why in an effort to reconstruct the originals. This is a process called textual criticism. To do this scholars consider the external evidence, for example, comparing the age of manuscripts. They also examine the internal evidence, that is, the choice of words within the manuscripts. To give an example, let us consider a verse from two different translations:
And when he had given thanks, he brake it, and said, Take, eat: this is my body, which is broken for you: this do in remembrance of me. 1 Corinthians 11:24 (KJV emphasis mine)
. . . and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” 1 Corinthians 11:24 (NIV)
The words “Take, eat” are not in most modern translations because scholars have determined that they are, to use Wallace’s language, “artifacts” that don’t belong. The manuscripts lacking those two words are older and considered to be more reliable. That is the external evidence. Also, those two words are found in Matthew’s account (Matt 26:26) of the Lord’s Supper. It is not hard to imagine a scribe at some point adding those two words as a result of being familiar with Matthew’s Gospel. That is the internal evidence. Copies made from that copy, and all the copies to follow would also contain that “artifact”. Copies made before that change, and copies within a different “family” of copies would not.
When it comes to the New Testament Greek texts, we have thousands of manuscripts to compare, not to mention translations into other languages, quotations in the writings of Christians over the first few centuries, and early lectionaries. This process of determining the most original wording is something that is done with all ancient texts. however, when it comes to the New Testament, there is a far, far greater amount of manuscripts to work with. Also, the gap time-wise between the originals and the copies we have is so much smaller. The process called textual criticism gives us great confidence in the reliability of the Bible. To quote Wallace:
The same process that revealed to me (as skeptic) the passages that couldn’t be trusted also revealed to me (as a believer) the passages that can be trusted. Textual criticism allows us to determine the nature of the original texts as we eliminate the textual artifacts. This should give us more confidence in what we have, not less. (J. Warner Wallace “Cold-Case Christianity“
We have more good news. Even if we left all the artifacts in place, we would still come to the same conclusions and the same convictions. In investigating Jesus, you could go with the “artifact” every time and you would still have the same Saviour saying and doing the same things, including dying and rising from the dead. The variants are all minor things, mainly spelling and the like. Theology is never affected. I first learned of this fact, not at seminary, but from the head of the classics department at a liberal arts university where I did my undergraduate studies and began my journey of learning to read the New Testament in Greek.
How do we know that the New Testament is reliable given how often the writings had been copied over the years? Textual criticism points to the reliability of the scriptures. Theology also points to the reliability of the Bible. On this Sunday of Pentecost we celebrate the giving of the Holy Spirit. In reading through the book of Acts we see God being very involved in even the very details of how the Good News of Jesus was being shared. If God is so involved in such details for His Kingdom purposes, He is not going to allow His Word to be lost or corrupted!
All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, 17 so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. 2 Timothy 3:16-17 (NIV)
If all scripture is God breathed, we can depend on it being God protected also. When we study the Biblical texts using textual criticism in the same way we study other ancient works, we discover that the texts are reliable. We are not surprised, for so is God.
Today we have continued in our series “Investigating Jesus” to follow the lead of cold-case detective J. Warner Wallace in looking at the evidence for Jesus. As per usual, we have only scratched the surface here and I encourage you to read chapter 6 of “Cold-Case Christianity” called “Separating Artifacts from Evidence”.