Perhaps you’ve ran into skeptics of the Bible who insist that it’s chock full of errors and contradictions. Maybe you have a friend at work who refuses to listen to you as you attempt to share the gospel because he claims the Bible is a book written by men containing tons of mistakes and errors.
There is no person more committed to that type of language than the New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman. He studied under Bruce Metzger and has denounced his faith in Christ on the basis of his lack of confidence in the authority and reliability of the Bible. In his book, Misquoting Jesus, Ehrman writes the following:
It is one thing to say that the originals were inspired, but the reality is that we don’t have the originals—so saying they were inspired doesn’t help me much, unless I can reconstruct the originals. Moreover, the vast majority of Christians for the entire history of the church have not had access to the originals, making their inspiration something of a moot point. Not only do we not have the originals, we don’t have the first copies of the originals. We don’t even have copies of the copies of the originals, or copies of the copies of the copies of the originals. What we have are copies made later—much later. In most instances, they are copies made many centuries later. And these copies all differ from one another, in many thousands of places. As we will see later in this book, these copies differ from one another in so many places that we don’t even know how many differences there are. Possibly it is easiest to put it in comparative terms: there are more differences among our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament.1Bart Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus, 10.
According to Ehrman, since we don’t possess a single autograph (original) of any book of the Bible, we cannot be certain that we have the Bible at all. He goes on and furthers his argument by pointing to the many variants (differences) in manuscripts. So, do we have confidence that we have the Bible? Can the Bible be trusted at all?
The Uniqueness of the Bible
The Bible is not one book. In fact, it’s a collection of many different books that are compiled into what we call the canon of Scripture. The totality of the Bible consists of sixty-six unique books that were written over a span of 1,500 years by forty different human authors. These books were written on three different continents, in three different languages, and consist of a variety of different literary forms and genres.
Perhaps the single most unique trait of the Bible is that it’s ultimate sources is found in God himself. Paul writes the following words to Timothy:
All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.22 Timothy 3:16
The unique compound Greek term employed by Paul in this verse is θεόπνευστος which means, “God-breathed.” In other words, the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are not merely the work of inspired authors, but rather the revelation of what originated with God as he caused each human author to write according to God’s will. The result was God’s Word. God literally breathed out the Scriptures.
Throughout the years, the Bible has had a tremendous impact upon the world. There has never been a more powerful book in the history of humanity. It has been world-shaping like no other book. The results are astounding. B.B. Warfield observes the following about the influence of the Bible upon the world:
Go where you will, if you find life, you will find also the Bible; and you will find it in the very midst of that organism. You will find it in the hall of legislation, and in the laws that are there framed; in the courts of justice, and in the justice that is there administered; in the colleges of learning, and in the learning that is there imparted; at the home-firesides, and in the moral training and homely virtues which are there inculcated. In a word, it is as no other book has ever been to a single nation, bound up with all civilization and progress and culture.3B.B. Warfield, The Works of Benjamin B Warfield, Vol. I, 431.
The Trustworthiness of the Bible
While the Bible has left an indelible mark upon the world, can it really be trusted? Does the Bible contain errors? The fact of the matter is, Bart Ehrman is correct to suggest that we do not have an original autograph of any biblical text. He is also correct in his calculations of the variants of the manuscripts. But, does that mean that we cannot trust the Bible?
The Process of Preservation
Prior to the modern advancements of the printing press (1436), the photocopier machine (1947), and the cloud (2006)—the best means of preserving a document involved the process of copying a text from one scroll to another. The Church did not have Dropbox, but they did have scribes who took their job seriously. We have more than 5,000 manuscripts of our Bible on record which is far more than any other single book of antiquity.
From the very beginning, God’s Word was textual. While the people of God were in many ways illiterate and would engage in oral transmission of God’s Word—the use of written texts came early and it was quite sophisticated. God wrote the law in stone and delivered it to his people through Moses. The prophets delivered the message of God orally through proclamation, but they also engaged in the writing of God’s Word for preservation. We can see this as Jesus entered the synagogue in Nazareth and was given a scroll from the Prophet Isaiah where he took his text for his sermon (Luke 4:17-21).
A study of the early Church reveals that while they engaged in oral transmission of God’s Word, they were very much committed to the written texts of Scripture. Michael Kruger, in his book The Question of the Canon observes that “early Christianity was quite a ‘bookish’ religion from the very start. Christians found their identity in books (the Old Testament), they quickly produced their own books, they preached and taught from these books, and were keen to copy and reproduce these books for generations to come.”4Michael Kruger, The Question of the Canon, 118.
The Evidence of Authenticity
Bart Ehrman in Misquoting Jesus observes that there are many differences between the manuscripts that we do have. He writes, “some say there are 200,000 variants known, some say 300,000, some say 400,000 or more!”5Misquoting Jesus, 89. However, does that reality mean that we should reject the Bible and allow the skeptics to deconstruct our faith? Absolutely not. Ehrman is quite misleading in the use of his numbers. These differences from manuscript to manuscript should produce the opposite effect. Rather than causing people to doubt the authenticity and reliability of the Bible, manuscript variants should cause people to trust that what we possess in our hands in book form or in our phones in electronic format is indeed the very Word of God.
The variations between various manuscripts are for the most part simple scribal notes, added words, or minor differences that do not change a single essential doctrine of the faith. In some cases, scribes thought a better word could be used in a specific place for emphasis or altered a text where he felt a previous scribe made a mistake when copying. For the most part, the variants of the manuscripts are minor and to be expected in a primitive time period that relied upon hand written copies of manuscripts. Even in these manuscript differences, we see the work of precision and preservation.
A skeptic may point to the longer ending of Mark or Jesus and the woman taken in adultery (the Pericope Adulterae) in John 8 as examples of errors in the Bible. These are the longest variants in all of Scripture. While we must be honest to point out that the best manuscripts (the oldest) do not contain those sections, when they are removed not one essential doctrine of the faith is altered. The fact remains, in all of the manuscripts (more than 5,000) we have more than the original autographs, not less.
Take for instance the discoveries of manuscripts. In 1947, a little shepherd boy was throwing stones into a cave when he discovered what has become known as the Dead Sea Scrolls. The scrolls are dated from 250 to 150 BC. The reason that this discovery was so important is based on the fact that the scrolls are 1,000 years older than the oldest manuscripts that we had on record.
If the manuscripts are filled with errors and incapable of remaining consistent from copy to copy through the years, you would expect to see a vast difference between what was discovered on the Dead Sea Scrolls and the manuscripts we had on record from ten centuries later. However, that was simply not the case. The scrolls that we had on record from some 1,000 years later were the results of copies of copies hundreds and thousands of times over for preservation purposes, and yet they are basically mirrored versions of the scrolls found in the caves in 1947.
What does this prove? It proves that the scribes who were copying the biblical manuscripts were focused on details and committed to the preservation of God’s Word. In Deuteronomy 29:29, we find these words: “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.”
God has engaged in many mysterious acts and knows far more about the universe than we will ever know this side of eternity, but he has likewise unveiled some precious truths for us in the pages of Scripture. The Bible is the unveiling of God to mankind. It’s the special revelation of God to humanity. Not only can we trust the Bible, we are called to obey what God communicates to us in the pages of Scripture. The Bible does not merely contain the word of God, the Bible is the word of God.
While skeptics like Bart Ehrman come and go with their attacks upon God’s Word as the days of history continue to pass—God’s Word will not pass away. As more manuscripts are discovered and unearthed from the soil and caves of this world, the more evidence we have that God’s Word is accurate, trustworthy, and reliable.
Isaiah 40:8 – The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.