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[NOTE: Throughout the text, you will see bracketed purple text insertions that begin with “Discussion”. These are suggested discussion questions for small group leaders, who would like to review these topics in an interactive group setting.]
The sceptics’ views on the Bible vary massively. Some take the Bible as a flat-out fairytale book. Others believe the original Bible may have had some truth to it, but throughout history its text was modified by leaders to suite their own purposes with some books even being deliberately left out.
The latter view has had somewhat of a resurgence since Dan’s Brown’s book, The Davinci Code, became a best seller. It became increasingly popular to attack the credibility and trustworthiness of the Bible to varying degrees.
[Discussion: Can you think of some objections to the trustworthiness of the Bible?]
The most common objections usually fall into four categories:
In Matthew 24:35, Jesus makes a very bold claim: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.” This is a bold assertion in the face of criticism, which suggests the text we have in the Bible today is not the original text and we can’t know what the original Bible said.
The branch of scholarship that deals with the authenticity of texts is called textual criticism. When studying classical and biblical texts focuses on the identification of textual variants in manuscripts.
I will summarize what this means.
The word manuscript is from Latin and means handwritten, manu = hand, script = written.
During Bible times, the printing press didn’t exist and books were copied by hand. This was done by professionals called scribes. However, how do we know the scribes didn’t make mistakes or even deliberate corruptions?
Textual criticism scholars seek to reconstruct the original text as closely as possible by comparing different manuscript copies, ideally from different geographical locations, times, and languages. The more copies exist—and the older they are—the easier it is to validate the original text.
Imagine you have two manuscripts of the Gospel of John, both written approximately in the year 800. In chapter 21 of copy A, you have 26 verses, but in copy B, you have 25 verses. How could you find out if the extra verse in copy A was supposed to be in the Bible?
[Discussion: How could you find out if verse 26 should be Bible?]
You could find other manuscripts of the Gospel of John, ideally written way earlier and see if they have verse 26. If you find one older manuscript, it’s possible this older manuscript was corrupted as well. However, let’s say you find 20 manuscripts—some written in Egypt, others in Rome, some written in the year 200, others written in the year 500—and all are missing verse 26. Then, likely verse 26 shouldn’t be in the Bible.
[Discussion: What is an important resource in textual criticism?]
It’s important to have as many manuscripts as possible, dated as close to the original, as possible. The closer they’re written to the original, the less time for errors to appear. The more manuscripts available for comparison, the easier to ascertain the correct rendering of a text.
The key question then is, how many manuscripts are there of the Bible? To get some context, let’s first look at the manuscript evidence of other ancient writings—which are generally considered authentic—from around the same time as the New Testament. Specifically, let’s examine how many ancient copies of these writings remain and how many years passed from the original writing to the earliest manuscripts:
[Discussion: Guess how many manuscripts we have of the new Testament and how many years have elapsed from the original writing to the earliest manuscripts?]
Turns out that the Bible being the best selling book is nothing new since The New Testament has nearly 25,000 ancient manuscripts discovered, of which at least 5,600 are copies in the original Greek. The time between the original writings and the earliest manuscripts is also remarkably short, between 40 to 60 years.
Furthermore, some of the best preserved ones, such as one that’s in the British Library, Codex Sinaiticus, have been scanned and made available online.
Using this online tool, anyone can compare the Bible we have today, to a Bible certified at least 1,600 years old.
By comparing our Bible of today to manuscripts that span over thousands of years in distinct geographical locations you can conclude that not only hasn’t the Bible been corrupted throughout the millennia but also it is easily the best attested ancient writing. Any criteria used to claim corruption of the Bible would also invalidate every ancient writing ten times more. As Jesus said about 2,000 years ago, “My words will never pass away.”
Stay tuned for part 4.
14 McDowell, Evidence that Demands a Verdict, vol. 1, p. 42, as seen on: https://www.allaboutthejourney.org/bible-manuscripts.htm
16 In general, there are much fewer manuscripts available of the Old Testament than the New Testament. This is due to multiple reasons, such as:
A. Frequent wars where places of worship were raided and burned, compared to the relative peace that existed for centuries in the Roman Empire;
B. If a manuscript was found to have one error, the whole manuscript was burned to prevent God’s Word from being corrupted;
C. Much of the Old Testament
was originally written on highly perishable papyrus and animal skins, over 400 years before the oldest book in the New Testament;
D. The Jewish scribes treated their copies of the scriptures with an almost superstitious respect. This led them to ceremonially bury any worn copy to prevent the improper use of text in which the name of God had been inscribed. Worn out animal skins and papyrus in general could end up as scrap paper or even used as a “toilet paper of sorts”. This was obviously would not have been a proper use of Scripture;
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