I slumped in an unpadded pew, half-listening to the morning Bible study. I wasn’t particularly interested in what the Bible teacher in this tiny Christian high school had to say. But, when the teacher commented that the New Testament Gospels always reported word-for-word what Jesus said, I perked up and lifted my hand. This statement brought up a question that had perplexed me for a few weeks.
“But, sometimes,” I mused, “the words of Jesus in one Gospel don’t match the words of the same story in the other Gospels — not exactly, anyway. So, how can you say that the Gospel-writers always wrote what Jesus said word-for-word?”
The teacher stared at me for a moment, stone-silent.
I thought maybe he hadn’t understood my question; so, I pointed out an example that I’d noticed — the healing of a “man sick of the palsy” in Simon Peter’s house, if I recall correctly (Matt 9:4-6; Mark 2:8-11; Luke 5:22-24, KJV).
Finally, the flustered teacher reprimanded me for thinking too much about the Bible. In retrospect, this statement was more than a little ironic: A Bible teacher in a Bible class at a Bible Baptist school accused me of thinking too much about the Bible! What I was doing, he claimed, was similar to what happened in the Garden of Eden, when the serpent asked Eve if God had actually commanded them not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge.
I didn’t quite catch the connection between my question and the Tree of Knowledge, but I never listened to what that teacher said about the Bible again. I knew that something was wrong with what he was telling me. Still, it took me several years to figure out the truth about this dilemma — a truth which, just as I suspected, had everything to do with the teacher’s faulty assumptions about the Bible and nothing to do with Eve or the serpent. What I learned later was that the idea of word-for-word citations and quotations is a modern notion that would have been foreign to the authors of Scripture.
Here’s what my Bible teacher assumed: If the Bible is divinely inspired, the Bible must always state what was said word-for-word, with no variations. To question this understanding of the Bible was, from this teacher’s perspective, to doubt the divine inspiration of Scripture.
Oddly enough, when it comes to differences between biblical manuscripts, some skeptics seem to pursue a similar line of reasoning to the one my teacher followed when I asked the differences between the Gospels. “How does it help us to say that the Bible is the inerrant word of God if in fact we don’t have the words that God inerrantly inspired,” one such skeptic claims, “but only the words copied by the scribes — sometimes correctly but sometimes (many times) incorrectly?” In other words, if there are variations among the many thousands of copies of Scripture, how can anyone reasonably claim that the Scriptures are inerrant?
So how can Christians respond to such suppositions? Let’s look together at three crucial facts that can equip you to counter these skeptical claims.
‘Inerrant’ describes the original manuscripts, not the copies
First off, inerrancy has never meant that every copy of Scripture throughout history has been identical. The word “inerrancy” refers to the original autographs of Scripture, not to every manuscript and printed copy made afterward. Inerrancy does not mean that every copied manuscript is free of errors — only the original texts. That’s what we affirm in the Chicago Statement on biblical inerrancy:
“Inspiration, strictly speaking, applies only to the autographic text of Scripture, which in the providence of God can be ascertained from available manuscripts with great accuracy. … Copies and translations of Scripture are the Word of God to the extent that they faithfully represent the original.”
This means the original manuscripts of the Bible were fully God-breathed and therefore without errors. God inspired the authors of Scripture and safeguarded their words from any mistakes. God did not, however, prevent the thousands of copyists across the ages from making mistakes as they copied the manuscripts. As a result, the surviving copies of Scripture are sufficiently accurate for us to recover the inerrant truth that God intended and inspired, but they have not always been copied with perfect accuracy.
The differences between the manuscripts are real
Is it true, then, that the biblical manuscripts differ from one another? Of course they do! The copyists were human beings, and being human means making mistakes. God did not choose to override the copyists’ humanity as they copied the New Testament; as a result, these human beings were every bit as prone to short attention spans, poor eyesight, and fatigue as you or I.
What’s more, they had no eyeglasses or contact lenses to sharpen their vision, and they relied on the flickering light of lamps to see. Since God did not “re-inspire” the text each time it was reproduced, the copyists occasionally miscopied their sources. Once in a while, copyists even tried to fix things that weren’t broken by changing words that they thought might be misconstrued. The result is hundreds of thousands of copying variants scattered among the New Testament manuscripts — but these variations in the manuscripts are only one part of the story.
The New Testament text is highly reliable, and none of the variants affects any essential truth Christians believe
One popular skeptic’s much-repeated soundbite is that “there are more variations among our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament.” This statement is technically true but, unless his listeners are aware of the vast number and the overwhelming stability of New Testament manuscripts that survive today, it’s also a bit misleading. There are around 138,000 words in the Greek New Testament, and more than a half-million variants can be found scattered among the Greek manuscripts — but that number of variants comes from estimating every difference, not including spelling variations, in every surviving manuscript from the Greek New Testament. Well over 5,000 Greek New Testament manuscripts have been preserved as a whole or in part — more than any other text from the ancient world. With millions of words in these fragments and manuscripts, it doesn’t take long for the number of variants to exceed the number of words in the Greek New Testament.
If only one manuscript of the New Testament had survived, there would have been zero variants (and this single manuscript would probably have become some sort of idol!). But early Christians believed that all of God’s Word should be accessible to as many of God’s people as possible. That’s why more than 5,000 whole or partial manuscripts survive today. Of course, scholars seeking to reconstruct the earliest form of the New Testament text don’t utilize all of these fragments and manuscripts. In almost every instance, the text can be reliably reconstructed using a handful of the earliest manuscripts. That’s because, despite the variants that do exist, the surviving texts of the New Testament are incredibly stable. Spread across millions of words in more than 5,000 manuscripts, the variations represent a minute percentage of the total text. According to scholars’ best estimates and analyses, the New Testament text is more than 92 percent stable. In other words, all the variants affect less than 8 percent of the New Testament text.
But there’s another fact that’s even more significant than the number of manuscripts or the overall stability of the text: No variant in these many manuscripts changes any essential belief that Christians hold about God or about his work in the world. The overwhelming majority of the differences have to do with words that have been rearranged or spelled in alternative ways — differences that have no impact on the translation or meaning of the text. The remainder of the differences may be noticeable at times in translations, but they do not alter any tenet of the Christian faith. What this means practically is that the text of the New Testament has been sufficiently preserved for us to be confident that we can recover the meaning that God intended and inspired in the original text.
Timothy Paul Jones is the C. Edwin Gheens Professor of Christian Family Ministry at Southern Seminary.