When Muslims or atheists argue that the Bible has been corrupted and is full of errors, it might seem troubling, initially, for some Christians that we don’t have any of the original manuscripts or writings of the Old Testament and New Testament books. How do we know that the Bibles we have are accurate and reliable? The answer to this question takes us into the realm of text criticism. Textual criticism is the discipline that attempts to determine the original wording of any documents whose original no longer exists. ”Before the printing press, you made hand-copies of letters. We don’t have any of the original works of any Greco-Roman, Babylonian, Persian, or Ancient Near Eastern literature, but we do have copies of Plato’s writings, Aristotle’s teachings, among many, many other ancient writers. As we examine this topic, this point is important—you don’t have to have a physical copy of the original manuscript to have the original text. For example., when you pick up a recent New York Times’ Bestseller off your bookshelf to read, you’re not reading the original manuscript of that book, you’re reading a copy. The original manuscript for that book is likely with the author. But you don’t doubt that you have the original text even though you can’t access the author’s computer hard drive.
Like other ancient works, we don’t have the originals of each of the 66 books of the Bible. We have copies of copies of copies, and they come from Israel and Palestine, Egypt and North Africa, and various parts of Europe and Asia, and they all come to us from a variety of time periods: 2nd century BC, 2nd century AD, 4th century AD, 10th century AD. What text critical scholars do is take all these ancient manuscripts and compare them with one another to see where there may be differences in the text. At that point, they can determine with confidence the original text. The less manuscript copies you have, the less certainty you have that you have a faithful copy of the original text. For example, if you only had 2 ancient copies of the gospel of Luke from roughly the same time period. Both copies had significant differences between the two—which one is right? But in that same scenario, if you had 50 copies of Luke’s gospel, and 49 were the same, the evidence would strongly support that those 49 copies were faithful copies of the original letter.
There are 10 copies of Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars (written in the 1stcent BC). There are only 10 copies in existence and the earliest copy we have is from nearly a thousand years after Caesar wrote the original.The Greek poet, Homer, wrote The Iliad and The Odysseynearly 3,000 years ago and we have less than 2,400 manuscripts copies. The oldest copy comes at least 1000 years after Homer wrote them. No one doubts the reliability of those works. What about the Bible? We have over 5,800 Greek copies of the New Testament. We have over 25,000 New Testament manuscripts total. The oldest manuscript copies we have of the New Testament come only decades after the originals were written by the apostles. We have over 10x as many New Testament manuscripts as we do of Homer’s works. And the differences between these copies are nearly all spelling mistakes, word order, replacing words with a synonym, or are meaningless differences. The 1940s discovery of the Dead Seas Scrolls has shown us the extreme reliability of our Hebrew Old Testament, giving us copies of Old Testament books that are 1000 years closer to the originals than our previous copies. The Septuagint—the earliest translation of the Hebrew text into Greek—dates to the 3rd century BC and is quoted frequently by Jesus and the apostles in the New Testament. Not only do we have thousands of manuscripts, but the early church fathers quoted Scripture in their own letters over a million times. The Jewish community and the church have preserved the Scriptures amazingly well so that Christians today can know with great confidence that their Bibles are identical to the Word first written by the prophets and the apostles. Ultimately, our trust in the reliability of the Scriptures is that our sovereign God has preserved His Word for His people so that we might know Christ and His gospel.