Is the Text of the New Testament Reliable?

Is the Text of the New Testament Reliable?

The average person in the pew probably does not spend much time thinking about the texts underlying the Bible in his hands. He may have no idea what historical events led to the publication of his translation. He only knows that his Bible is reliable and authoritative, and for most people, that is enough. Critics of the Bible claim that the Bible is defective and unreliable. They may charge that untrained, careless scribes inserted or deleted certain sections of the text to the extent that we no longer can be certain of what the original writings said. If that were true, it certainly would be a significant challenge to the Christian faith. However, careful examination of the facts will reveal that the text of the New Testament (NT) is reliable.

  1. Historical facts regarding the text of the NT

    1. Most people recognize that the Bible they use did not drop straight out of heaven in the same form that we have it today. A historical process is responsible for giving us the Bible in its current format. The Bible was not originally written in modern languages like English, German or Spanish. Bibles in such languages are translations from the original languages. Our modern Bibles are the result of a long tradition of preservation and propagation.

    2. The NT was originally penned in the Greek language.1 Alexander the Great and his heirs successfully Hellenized the holy lands so that by the time the NT was written, Greek was commonly spoken in that region. Biblical scholars used to think that the Greek dialect of the NT was some sort of special, “heavenly” language, but archaeological findings have proven that the Greek of the NT is common, marketplace language. Virtually any educated person living in the Roman Empire at that time could speak or at least understand both Greek and Latin, and likely other languages as well.

    3. Once the NT authors wrote their works, copies of these books slowly began filtering throughout the Roman Empire and eventually found their way around the world. How did that happen? Remember that the printing press was not invented until the 1400s, so all copying done before that was done by hand. A hand-written copy of the NT is called a “manuscript” (MS).

    4. As you might imagine, as churches began to proliferate, they all wanted copies of the NT for themselves. Eventually all the authorized NT books were assembled into one work. The process of canonization is responsible for giving us the Bible in the form we have it today. The word “canon” means an authorized list, and the process whereby the various books were added to the canon is called “canonization.” It took some time for the early church to recognize and affirm all the books of the NT.

    5. The four Gospels, the Acts, thirteen Epistles of Paul, the first Epistle of John, and the first Epistle of Peter, were universally recognized as canonical by 175 AD, while the Epistle to the Hebrews, the second and third Epistles of John, the second Epistle of Peter, the Epistle of James, and the Epistle of Jude were by many disputed as to their apostolic origin, and the book of Revelation was doubted by reason of its contents. But in 367 AD Athanasius wrote a widely circulated letter containing the exact list of twenty-seven NT books we have today. The churches in the eastern part of the Mediterranean world accepted this list of books by that time. Thirty years later, the Third Council of Carthage (397 AD), which represented the western part of the Mediterranean world, recognized the same list of books as inspired and authoritative.2

    6. Because all copying done before the invention of the printing press was done by hand, differences (or variants) came into the MSS quite early on. The only MSS free from errors were the originals, the “autographs.” Once the process of hand copying began, slight errors were introduced into the text. In fact, there are no two copies that are exactly the same in every detail. As you might imagine, it would be virtually impossible to hand-copy a book of the Bible, let alone the whole NT, without making a few errors. Most such errors were small and of little consequence. Examples of typical variations that scribal errors introduced into the text:

      1. Spelling and word order

      2. Substituting synonymous words

      3. Dropping out words

      4. Adding words

      5. Transposing or repeating words

    7. How would one go about correcting such errors? The easiest way is to compare several copies. The reading that is reflected in the majority of MSS, or the one that comes from the highest quality copy, is probably the right one. It’s unlikely that different scribes in different places and at different times would make the same error in the same place. So by comparing readings, we can usually find which one was original, or at least rule out those that are probably erroneous. The process of sorting through the various readings and selecting the one that is most likely original is called textual criticism.

    8. Today over 5,600 Greek MSS exist. Most of these are fragments of the NT, some no larger than a credit card. Other MSS include the entire NT. The oldest MSS are written on papyrus and vellum (animal skins). Papyrus is a rather fragile material, and few MSS written on it have survived until now. Vellum, on the other hand, is a relatively sturdy material, and most MSS available today were written on it.

    9. The oldest known Greek manuscript, a small portion of the Gospel of John, is dated to about AD 125, only a few decades after the original was written.3 In 1994 a scholar found a papyrus fragment of Matthew that may be dated as early as AD 70. Most MSS of the Bible date from the third century on.

    10. Scholars have examined most of the available MSS and have divided them up into various “families” or types of texts.4

      1. The traditional text, also known as the Majority or Byzantine text—a family of texts that was used commonly until the late 1800s. The majority of existing MSS, around 90%, fit into this family, but little evidence of this text type exists before the fourth century AD. The so-called “Textus Receptus” (TR) fits into this category. Most English versions of the Bible, including the King James Version, were based on this family of texts until the late 1800s. Many Bible students still argue that this family of texts most closely reflects the original readings of the Greek NT.

      2. The critical text, also known as the Alexandrian text—the oldest representations of the Greek NT (most papyrus evidence) come from this family. Readings from this family tend to be shorter and rougher, which suggests that it did not go through a process of smoothing and editing by scribes. Most Bible scholars believe that this family of texts retains the readings closest to the originals.

      3. The Western text—this family of texts contains slightly different readings than found in the other two types. Western readings tend to be longer and somewhat unusual when compared to the other families. There are no English translations that follow the Western tradition.

Note: The fact that a certain MSS is categorized within a certain family of texts does not imply that all the MSS of that family agree uniformly. Variants do exist within the texts of the same family, but the MSS within a family agree to a large degree. The differences within families are far less than those between the families. Remember that no two MSS agree in every detail.


Another Note: Biblical scholars continue to debate which family of Greek MSS is most authoritative, reliable, and closest to the originals. Some hold that older texts must be closer to the originals, while others argue that the majority of MSS probably reflect the original readings the best. As you might guess, this is a very technical and detailed field of inquiry. Those untrained in biblical languages and in the history of the texts and textual criticism would be wise to hold their opinions tentatively.

A Third Note: How did the above families develop? As Christianity expanded and developed, copies of the NT were carried throughout the Roman Empire. In places where the church was strong and well-organized, one particular type of text prevailed and became standardized. For example, in Egypt the Alexandrian family of texts dominated, and around Constantinople (modern Istanbul, Turkey) the Byzantine family became the “received” text. Both of these cities contained scriptoria wherein the NT was copied and disseminated, so the “official” readings were most widely published. Eventually the Latin language replaced Greek in the western part of the Empire, while Greek remained the common language in the east. Western scribes began copying the Bible mostly into Latin (by about AD 250), while eastern scribes continued making copies in Greek, which explains why this type of text is now the “Majority” of Greek texts. Most scholars believe that editors and scribes “polished” or smoothed out the readings of the Byzantine text type over the centuries. This process did not occur in the west because they stopped using Greek there.

    1. Given all the above facts, some might question how reliable the text of the NT is. After all, we admit that hand copying inserted many variants into the text, and we admit that at least three families of text exist, and each of these families support different readings. This might suggest to some people that we are not sure what the NT really says. So is the NT reliable?

This is not a question of which English translation is most reliable, but of whether the original documents of the NT, written in Greek, were transmitted to us in an essentially reliable, uncorrupted form. That is, can we recover the original readings from the available MSS? While skeptics, critics and liberals no doubt would deny it, most conservative scholars believe that we can distill the original readings from the available MSS in an essentially uncorrupted form.

  1. Facts supporting the reliability of the NT

    1. Inspiration and preservation guarantee that the original contents of the NT is available within the manuscript evidence.

      1. Variants in the text do not preclude inspiration or preservation. Remember that inspiration applies only to the original process in which God “breathed out” His word. Inspiration occurred as the author’s pen hit the paper. If we had access to the originals, we would find them to be error free (inerrant). Unfortunately, the originals almost certainly no longer exist. All we have are copies, but within these copies the wording of the originals still exists.

      2. Inspiration does not technically apply to subsequent copying or translating of the Bible. God has promised to preserve His word (Psalm 119:152, 160; Isaiah 40:8; Matthew 5:18, 24:35; John 10:35), but this preservation has been carried out providentially, not miraculously. Normal human means of copying has preserved the documents as we have them today. God no doubt could have miraculously preserved his word in some particular location in an error-free condition, but He chose not to. Based on God’s promise to preserve His word, we have confidence that it has not been essentially lost or corrupted.5

      3. We do not believe that any one particular text or even family of texts perfectly preserves the original readings of the NT. In fact, the Bible says nothing about the means of its own preservation or the location of its preservation. There is no biblical evidence that the Bible must be preserved without error in one particular MS or family of MSS. Those who believe such things have no biblical basis for such an opinion.

      4. The presence of variants and imperfections does not imply that a text is unreliable or less than Scripture. As the King James Version translators clearly stated in the preface of their work, a translation may rightly be called the Word of God even though it may contain some “imperfections and blemishes.” Just as the King’s speech which he utters in Parliament is still the King’s speech, though it may be imperfectly translated into French, Dutch, Italian, and Latin; so also in the case of the translation of the Word of God. Translations will never be infallible since they are not like the original manuscripts, which were produced by the apostles and their associates under the influence of inspiration. However, even an imperfect translation like the Septuagint can surely be called the Word of God since it was approved and used by the apostles themselves. “We affirm and avow that the very meanest [i.e., lowest quality] translation of the Bible in English set forth by men of our profession . . . containeth the word of God, nay, is the word of God.”6

“The Old Testament in Hebrew, . . . and the New Testament in Greek . . . being immediately inspired by God, and by his singular care and Providence kept pure in all Ages, are therefore authentical; so as in all controversies of Religion the Church is finally to appeal unto them.” – London Baptist Confession (1677)

    1. Many manuscripts lend support for the text.

      1. As mentioned above, over 5,600 separate MSS exist supporting the NT text. And some of these MSS were copied only a few decades after the originals were written. This situation is unique to the NT; no other ancient document can claim the same level of support. Most existing works from that period in history have only a handful of documents supporting them, and many of these are no older than the middle ages. The NT has no lack of textual support.

      2. Where can we find the original, perfect wording of the NT? We can only affirm that it exists within the available MSS. Choosing the most probable reading is the domain of textual (or “lower”) criticism. Biblical scholars examine and evaluate the available readings and choose the one they think is most likely to be original. If they are not sure, they will often insert a marginal note suggesting that a variant reading might be right. The original King James Bible had hundreds of marginal notes and many optional readings. Because significant variants affect such a small percentage of the text, we can have great confidence that the readings in our versions accurately convey the original words. Where the reading is doubtful, a marginal note may retain the original.

    2. Most of the variant readings are minor and affect meaning only slightly or not at all.7

      1. As noted above, most of the differences among Greek texts are minor matters of spelling, word order, word choice, and small additions or deletions. Most of them do not alter the meaning of the passage whatsoever. If we look at the whole of the NT, the significant variations affect only about 2% of the text. The small NT book of Jude contains about 450 words. About 6% of the words in Jude are affected by variants, and most of these are minor. A couple of minor variants:

        1. In verse 3, one text reads “the common salvation” while another has “our common salvation.”

        2. In verse 12, one family of texts have “carried about” while a different text has “carried along.”

        3. In verse 23, one text moves “with fear” to the end of the verse.

        4. In verse 25, one text reads “glory and majesty” while another reads “glory, majesty.”

None of these variants change the meaning of the text in any significant way. Like most variants, they are very minor.

      1. Some of the variants are more substantial and could change the meaning of a passage somewhat. More examples from Jude:

        1. In verse 1, one reading has “sanctified” while another text has “beloved.”

        2. In verse 22, one reading is “making a difference” while another is “who are doubting.”

        3. In verse 23, one reading has “on some have mercy” while another does not contain those words at all.

        4. In verse 25, one reading has “the only wise God” while another has “the only God.”

You can see in cases like these there is a difference in meaning depending on what reading is chosen. But again, such variants do not make a substantial difference in understanding the passage, nor do they affect the general teaching of the Bible.

    1. In a few instances, variant readings make a significant difference in the meaning of a text.

      1. Examples of significant variants: In John 1:18, some texts have “only begotten son” while others have “only begotten God.” In Matthew 6:13, the entire phrase “For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen” is not found in some MSS. In 1 John 5:13, the repeated phrase “and that ye may believe on the name of the Son of God” is not found in some MSS. Acts 8:37 reads, “And Philip said, If thou believest with all thine heart, thou mayest. And he answered and said, I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.” These words are not found at all in some Greek MSS.

      2. Examples of the most significant variants: The most consequential variants in the NT are found in John 7:53-8:11, Mark 16:9-20, and 1 John 5:7-8. Each of these texts is disputed because they are found in some MSS and not in others. Various arguments can be made either supporting or denying their inclusion in the canon. Whether we retain them in the text or remove them from the text, it does not radically alter the message of the NT. Of themselves they do not affect our faith and practice in the least.

      3. It is beyond the scope of this lesson to examine the processes and strategies involved with choosing the most likely reading from among the options reflected in the various MSS. Such tasks should be left to experts in the field, not amateurs. Any concerned Bible student can check the range of readings found within the better English translations. Most of the newer versions will include even those passages that are disputed, often setting them off with some indicator or sign, linked to a marginal note explaining why the reading is debatable. Whether or not the debated reading is original, it is included in the text in some fashion, at least in the case of the most significant variants.

    2. Uncertainty does not equal unreliability.

      1. We must admit that we find different readings among the various MSS of the NT—that is beyond dispute. We must also avoid the error of picking one text and proclaiming that it and only it has miraculously preserved all the original readings in a pristine, error-free state. Such a claim will not withstand historical evaluation. The only way to determine the original readings is to compare and analyze the MS evidence.

      2. The original readings do exist within the MS evidence. As noted above, our uncertainty about the correct reading affects only about 2% of the entire NT, and in those cases we have options that do retain the original reading. We may not be sure which reading is original, but we can be confident that one of them is.

      3. Modern versions are reliable in that they are the result of careful research and analysis of the potential readings. Committees of experts examined the possible readings and selected those that they thought were most likely to be original. Even if they selected the wrong reading in some cases, that does not ruin the overall impression of the work. The truthfulness of the Bible does not rest on translators picking the right word in every case.

      4. Every translation is the result of the translators picking the readings that they thought most accurately reflected the originals. Unless you can read Greek fluently, you must rely on the scholarship and honesty of the people who translated the Bible you read. Unless you are reading a sectarian version (e.g., New Word Translation) or a free paraphrase (e.g., The Message), you have no reason to doubt what your Bible says. And consulting a couple of different versions will usually keep you on the right path.

    3. None of the variants change the overall teaching of the NT. Not a single variant altars what Christians believe and practice. Variants certainly do alter our understanding of individual passages, but not a single variant teaches heresy, and all of them combined do not reduce the NT to an unreliable condition.

Note the Quote: [F]or over 99 percent of the words of the Bible, we know what the original manuscript said. Even for many of the verses where there are textual variants, … the correct decision is often quite clear, and there are really very few places where the textual variant is both difficult to evaluate and significant in determining the meaning. In the small percentage of the cases where there is significant uncertainty about what the original text said, the general sense of the sentence is usually quite clear from the context…. [T]he study of textual variants has not left us in confusion about what the original manuscripts said. It has rather brought us extremely close to the content of those original manuscripts. For most practical purposes, then, the current published scholarly texts of the Hebrew Old Testament and the Greek New Testament are the same as the original manuscripts.8

Conclusion: The reliability of the text of the NT is a significant issue for anyone who claims to believe the Bible. You may find some of the above information surprising and challenging. As much as we might wish we had access to a perfectly preserved edition of the NT, we simply do not. The original contents of the NT are available to us, but it is presently reflected in the totality of the textual record. Finding the best readings and incorporating them into modern translations is the task of textual scholars. It is a difficult task but not an insurmountable one. As the translators of the King James Bible stated, any translation that faithfully reproduces the original language texts may be considered to be the Word of God.

1 Some suggest that the NT may have been originally composed in Aramaic and translated into Greek very early on, but this claim cannot be verified. The oldest manuscripts of the NT are in Greek, and most scholars believe that is the language it was originally written in.

2 Grudem, Systematic Theology, p. 64.

3 p45, as it is called, measures only 2.5” x 3.5” and contains John 18:31-33, 37-38. It resides at the John Rylands Library at Manchester, England. The existence of this fragment proves that the NT was known and used far from its place of composition during the first half of the second century.

4 The text types reflect the region of the people who quote from or use the texts, not where the MSS were found.

5 By “essentially,” I am conceding that in some cases are we not entirely confident about what the original wording was. But even in such cases, we are confident that the original wording must be retained in one of the variant readings. Thus it is important to provide optional readings.

6 William W. Combs, “The Preface To The King James Version And The King James-Only Position,” Detroit Baptist Seminary. (1996; 2003). Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal (Vol. 1, Page 257-258). The Septuagint (LXX) is the Greek translation of the Old Testament. It is a rather free and periphrastic translation.

7 From Mark Minnick, “How Much Do the Differences Make?” in God’s Word in Our Hands (Greenville, SC: Ambassador Emerald, 2003).

8 Grudem, Systematic Theology, p. 96.

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