Does Today’s New Testament Present the Word of God Accurately?

The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become bread.” But he answered, “It is written, ‘Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ (Matthew 4:3-4)

The Holy Bible was written by men who were divinely inspired. It’s God’s revelation of Himself to the people of this world and the perfect treasure of divine instruction. But after almost two centuries, about five thousand complete and partial copies of the Greek New Testament (the translation with the most supporting material), and thousands more of other complete or partial versions, how do we know that the New Testament of the 21st century faithfully reflects the original content?

Comparing the New Testament to other historical writings in time and copies. Click to enlarge.

In the absence of original documents, textural critics have reconstructed original texts by taking advantage of the many copies available. This is done by recognizing changes in writing style, sources of copies, and writing material used, in addition to readability. Although it seems counterintuitive, this work is easier because so many copies were created over time. If the numbers are few and the time gap is wide, the original is harder to reconstruct with confidence. However, if there are many copies and the oldest existing copies are reasonably close in time to the original, textual critics can be more confident in pinpointing the exact wording of the original.

DA Carson and Douglas Moo in their book, “A Quick Introduction to the New Testament” tell us that the letters and gospels were originally hand-written on separate scrolls using all capital letters, without spaces and very little punctuation. There were two options for making copies. Professional copiers in a scriptorium worked as a team that included a reader, several scribes, and a copy editor who checked each copy against the original, often using ink of a different color to make the corrections — not that much different from today. More commonly, copies were made by laypeople eager to obtain another letter by Paul or a written account of the life of Jesus. The former method was more professional. The latter was cheaper but less accurate.

Codex Sinaiticus: The Christian Bible in Greek written over 1600 years ago

Over time, scrolls gave way to the codex (handwritten manuscripts in book form), which enabled readers to look up passages quickly. The exclusive use of capital letters (uncials) gave way to cursive (conjoined) script with lower case letters (miniscules). The writing material changed from papyrus to parchment and vellum, and these characteristics were combined with patterns of readings thought to reflect a particular locale. Each helps date the manuscript.

The development of the printing press made it easier to compare translations and make revisions. When Johann Albrecht Bengel, a Lutheran pastor, published his print edition of the Greek New Testament in 1734 he developed rules (a “critical apparatus”) to distinguish between unintentional errors and intentional changes in source material. Based on five criteria that have stood the test of time, Pastor Bengel found that, in general, the more difficult reading was likely to be closer to the original.

The point is that Christians have always been are profoundly textual people. Our access to a unique history and unique Person by whom we are saved was above all based on the written word. Thanks to the diligent work of scholars and transcribers, Christians today are equipped with astonishingly accurate and detailed information. Our New Testament is 99.5% textually pure. In the entire text of 20,000 lines, only 40 lines are in doubt (about 400 words), and none affects any significant doctrine.

“Perhaps too,” conclude Drs. Moo and Carson, “it is worth speculating that we may be better off without the originals, for we would almost certainly have treated them with idolatrous reverence focused more on the mere artifact than on what the manuscript.”

Much of this post was excerpted From: D. A. Carson and Douglas J. Moo. “A Quick Introduction to the New Testament.” iBooks.