Those with even a remote interest in the truth of Christianity have likely encountered the claim from skeptics that we should not trust the Bible. We don’t have the original autographs, we don’t have the original words penned by the original authors. These criticisms attempt to undermine the historical reliability of the Bible. They question whether we can get back to the original text. So, is the Bible a reliable historical document?
In his book Misquoting Jesus, agnostic New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman writes, “not only do we not have the [original text of the Gospels], 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.” According to Ehrman, differences that pop up in the copying process significantly undermine the fidelity of the text. He goes on to point out, “there are more differences among our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament.”
Is all this true? Actually, yes. And that’s okay!
Leading New Testament scholars – from secular and evangelical camps, both liberal and conservative – will generally agree that there are some 200-400 thousand textual variants (maybe more) in all the extant New Testament manuscripts. Pretty damaging, right? Don’t get too excited. That figure needs to be put into perspective.
First, a great deal of variants are expected simply because there are so many manuscripts. More than 25,000 New Testament manuscripts predate the printing press. Twenty-five thousand! Given the sheer number of extant manuscripts, a multitude of copying errors are expected. What would be more surprising is if over the course of Christian history there were only a small number of variants.
Second, the vast majority of variants are utterly inconsequential. The majority are simple spelling or syntactical errors. For instance, one scribe might pen ‘Jesus Christ’ and another ‘Christ Jesus.’ The second largest group of variants are instances where words simply can’t be translated from one language to another. Both of these groups, which make up the overwhelming majority of textual variants, have no bearing on the meaning of any of the passages in which they are found.
Meaningful variants, changes that affect the meaning of a passage, comprise the smallest group. This group can be further divided, however, into viable and non-viable categories. A variant is viable if it can make a good case for being the original reading. Many of these variants show up in one or two manuscripts much later on than the original. They therefore have a slim chance of being the original reading.
Now, there are some textual variants that can be considered both viable and meaningful. However, this is by far the smallest category. It’s comprised of less than 1% of all textual variants. Talk about perspective!
What should committed Christians make of the less than 1% of variants that are both meaningful and viable? Do they call into question core Christian doctrines? The current stance of leading experts in both secular and evangelical camps is no. Ehrman has publicly stated on multiple occasions that essential Christian doctrines aren’t affected by textual variants (see here and here). In Misquoting Jesus, he includes an appendix that reads: “… essential Christian beliefs are not affected by textual variants in the manuscript tradition of the New Testament.”
The point isn’t that textual variants don’t matter. Nor is it that scholars ought to discontinue the painstaking process of textual criticism. The point is that a little perspective can help dispel the worry that textual variants pose a serious challenge to essential Christian doctrines. If anything, the available manuscript evidence strongly suggests Christian scribes copied New Testament texts with a care and fidelity that inspire confidence in the historical reliability of the Bible.