Can we just skip over those few bits of the New Testament that seem to have been added to the original manuscripts? What are we supposed to do with them? Do we preach through them on Sundays? And, most significantly, don’t these sections undermine the reliability of our Bibles? Great questions today in the inbox, from an anonymous female listener.
“Pastor John, I’ve recently discovered that many theologians do not believe John 7:53–8:11 should be in the Bible because it was added later and is not found in the oldest Greek manuscripts we have. Even current translations with commentaries will admit the story was not found in the early manuscripts. This has shaken my confidence in the English Bible. Even one of my Muslim friends says this proves the corruption of the Bible. I don’t know how to respond. How does it not undermine our confidence in our English Bibles?”
On March 6, 2011, I preached one of the most unusual messages I’ve ever preached because I preached it on this passage, John 7:53–8:11 — a story that I agree was probably not part of the original Gospel of John. There in that sermon, I dealt with the problems more fully than I can here. So I would encourage folks to go read or listen to that message at desiringGod.org. It’s called “Neither Do I Condemn You.”
But here, in this brief podcast, let me give three reasons, or clusters of reasons maybe, why we can be confident that the text of our New Testament corresponds to what the original authors wrote and has not been distorted in transmission.
1. Answering Islam
Number one, the traditional Muslim claim that the text of the New Testament has been corrupted, and that behind the text of the New Testament there was another text in which Jesus did not die on the cross, there was no atonement through his death — no covering for sins, no sacrifice — and there was no resurrection three days later is a street argument and a university argument.
“The more manuscripts you have, the more ability you have for discerning which readings are the original ones.”
I’ve dealt with it at both levels with people. That claim, that Muslim claim, has zero historical manuscript evidence supporting it. In other words, there are not historical manuscripts of that nature. None. This is simply an Islamic theological claim, not a historical reality. You can simply ask your Muslim friend to point you to any manuscript evidence at all that there was another version of the New Testament that portrayed Jesus differently than we have in the New Testament of our Bibles.
They don’t have it. They won’t be able to point you to it or offer it up. They only have a claim, and it’s amazing how they get away with using this when there is not historical manuscript evidence to make the claim at all.
2. The Original Text
The first printed New Testament appeared in 1516, and therefore, up until that time (for 1,500 years) the New Testament had been handed down by scribes, being copied by hand.
Nevertheless, almost all text-critical scholars — these are the scholars who specialize in doing the analysis of the many texts that we have to see if we can discern the original wording — almost all them, both theological conservatives and liberals, believe we have a reliable text.
I could tell the story about my three years in Germany, where I thought I would have to establish the text of the passage I was working on. They just waved it away and said, “Oh, we’ve got the reliable text. We don’t even worry about that.” All those scholars agree that the enormous abundance of those manuscripts as we compared them make it possible to be sure we have a text that corresponds to what the original authors wrote.
The fact that there are some outliers, like Bart Ehrman, who write books to try to undermine the reliability of the actual text should not be alarming. His writings have not — among mainline scholars, conservative and liberal — found persuasion.
Here’s what’s amazing. The abundance of these manuscripts of the New Testament or parts of the New Testament as compared with the number of manuscripts for other ancient works is staggering.
“That brings the total to 5,801 manuscripts of the New Testament, part or whole.”
We have ten existing manuscripts for Julius Caesar’s Gallic War, composed between 58 and 50 BC. All of the manuscripts we’ve found date from the tenth century or later.
There are twenty manuscripts of Livy’s Roman history, written roughly during the time when Jesus was alive. Only two manuscripts exist for Tacitus’s Annals and Histories, composed about AD 100. One of them is from the ninth century; the other is from later. There are only eight manuscripts of the history of Thucydides — that’s written between 460 and 400 BC. Now, compare those numbers with the manuscripts or partial manuscripts of the New Testament.
These numbers are from the Institute of New Testament Textual Research in Münster, Germany. You can go online and see all these things for yourself. It is the most authoritative collection of such data in the world.
There are 322 majuscule — that is, capital-letter — manuscripts. We have 2,907 minuscule texts — lowercase manuscripts. There are 2,445 lectionary portions and 127 papyri. That brings the total to 5,801 manuscripts of the New Testament, part or whole.
These are all handwritten copies of the New Testament or parts of the New Testament preserved in libraries around the world today. Now they are captured electronically, in digital format, so that you can see them for yourself online. No other ancient book even comes remotely close to this kind of wealth of diverse preservation.
Now, it’s true that the more manuscripts you have, the more variations you find. But on the other hand, and more importantly, the more manuscripts you have, the more control you have for discerning which readings are the original ones.
Here’s the way F.F. Bruce, from a generation ago, said it: “If the great number of manuscripts increases the number of scribal errors, it increases proportionately the means of correcting such error so that the margin of doubt left in the process of recovering the exact original wording is in truth remarkably small.”
3. Firm Doctrine
Here’s my third and final reason for encouragement and confidence. What is most significant for the reliability and authority of the New Testament is that the variations that textual critics are unsure of are not the kind that would change any Christian doctrine. That’s really important.
“No other ancient book even comes remotely close to this kind of wealth of diverse preservation.”
Some of you might say, “Oh, there’s hundreds and hundreds of variations.” That’s true. F.F. Bruce says, “The variant readings about which any doubt remains among textual critics of the New Testament affects no material question of historic fact or of Christian faith and practice.”
Nothing on this score — and I say this because he wrote that book in 1943, and you might say, “Whoa, that’s seventy-plus years ago” — nothing on this score has changed in the last couple of generations since F.F. Bruce. In 2006, Paul Wegner reaffirmed Bruce’s conclusion. This is the book I would send people to if they want to get a book on this: A Student’s Guide to Textual Criticism of the Bible by Paul Wegner.
Here’s what he says: “It is important to keep in perspective the fact that only a very small part of the text is in question, and of these, most variants make little difference to the meaning of any passage.”
Then he closes his book, and I’m going to close this podcast, by quoting Frederic Kenyon from earlier: “It is reassuring at the end to find that the general result of all these discoveries and all this study is to strengthen the proof of the authenticity of the Scriptures and our conviction that we have in our hands in substantial integrity the veritable word of God.”
Now, how does all this scientific work on the text relate to our spiritual assurance that is ready to die for the truth of sentences in the Bible? How this scientific work relates to that spiritual assurance is what I wrote a book about and published last year called A Peculiar Glory. If that’s the level at which people are going to struggle, then I offer them that as my effort to establish my own faith and to help other people. Maybe it would help them too.