Do We Have The Original Words of the New Testament?

Earlier this year, Newsweek ran a cover story on the Bible entitled “The Bible: So Misunderstood it’s a Sin.” The author of the story, Kurt Eichenwald, made various claims regarding the Bible’s accuracy, transmission, and reliability. While there are numerous problems with the author’s information, one (really, several) of the charges made is one we’ve heard before.

Namely, we cannot know what the Bible really says, because the Bible has been corrupted throughout the centuries. It’s full of errors and mistakes. Maybe you’ve heard it said simply, “The Bible’s been translated so many times, there’s no way we can really know what the original authors wrote.” But is this true?

According to the Newsweek article, “In the past 100 years or so, tens of thousands of manuscripts of the New Testament have been discovered, dating back centuries. And what biblical scholars now know is that later versions of the books differ significantly from earlier ones—in fact, even copies from the same time periods differ from each other.”[1]

The author is right to say we have discovered tens of thousands of manuscripts of the New Testament. Ironically, this is one of the reasons

why many scholars are confident in what the original authors wrote. The New Testament boasts almost 6,000 manuscripts in Greek, 10,000 in Latin, and 10,000 in other languages. This is more than any other ancient document of antiquity, rivaled most closely by Homer’s Iliad at around 1,900 manuscripts.

But how does this tell us what the original authors wrote? Imagine you are sent a text message that has been auto corrected and reads, “Meet me for coffee at Star bakes.” This message contains an error, but let’s be honest, are you pretty sure “Star bakes” was meant to say “Starbucks”? For the sake of argument, lets just say you’re not and you’re friend sends you another message, but this time his big thumbs got in the way and it reads, “Meet me for coffin at Starbucks.”

Now, at this point you have two messages with errors in them, but the originally intended message from your friend is clear: “Meet me for coffee at Starbucks.” And this from only two messages. You don’t need a third message, because even though the previous two contained an error, you can still discern the original message. This is basically how the discipline of textual criticism works.

Scholars examine the manuscripts we have for the New Testament and compare them to get back to the original. When a new translation is done, they consult the manuscripts themselves and previously translated versions to discern the best way to convey the original meaning in modern day language.

Newsweek’s claim that many of these manuscripts differ “significantly from earlier ones” is mostly false, intended to invoke fear, rather than understanding. While there are copyist errors throughout the abundance of manuscripts, these copyist errors are by and large less significant than the ones in our text message exchange about Starbucks.

D.A. Carson, an immanent New Testament scholar says clearly, “The purity of text is of such a substantial nature that nothing we believe to be true, and nothing we are commanded to do, is in any way jeopardized by the variants.”[2]

In other words, no essential doctrine of the faith like the deity of Christ, His Resurrection, Salvation by Grace through Faith, or any other core belief is threatened by these variants. In addition, as Carson points out, how we are to live in light of the gospel is clear. There is simply no reason, in light of the evidence, to believe our present version of the Scriptures differs from what the biblical authors originally wrote.

So, why did Newsweek run the story in light of this information, which is available to the average person? Well, the Bible tells us plainly that the truth about God is available for people to know, but in our fallen nature we suppress this truth and seek to establish our own rules to live by (Rom. 1:18–20). That’s why any healthy apologetic of the faith must be gospel-centered; keeping in mind the person’s need to be awakened by the Spirit to the better life lived under submission to Jesus.

In the end, the world doesn’t just need the evidence for faith; they need to see Christians living it out in a way that models our King, “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). Whether its arguing for the Bible’s reliability or dialoguing with a person on same-sex marriage, our mission does not change.

And this mission is not reserved for a few people on Sunday who get up and teach, but for the whole body of Jesus who have been commissioned to fill the world with his presence (Eph. 1:21–22) by the power of His Spirit. If we are truly concerned with Christianity in the 21st century, then a thoughtful, gospel-centered witness for Christ must come to the forefront of our every day lives.

[1] Kurt Eichenwald, “The Bible: So Misunderstood it’s a Sin,” December 23, 2014, Newsweek, Accessed July 3, 2015

[2] D.A. Carson, The King James Version Debate (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1979), 56.


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