Can We Trust the Bible?

One of the most common skeptical positions in regard to the Bible is that we can’t trust it because it has changed over time. We don’t even have the original text anymore. We don’t have any of the manuscripts, and most of the manuscripts we do have are copies of copies that were produced centuries, sometimes many centuries, later.

The “telephone game” that children play has been used as an illustration of how easily things that are communicated get twisted and changed so that we can’t even tell what the original meaning was by the time the communication comes back to us after being repeated over and over from one person to the next. This illustration is applied to the Bible as proof that it can’t be trusted because it has been translated and copied over and over and over again. How do we even know what the original text said?!

These are serious contentions. An honest person cannot just brush these contentions aside, but it isn’t the end of the story.

Yes, faith is a foundation of Christian belief, but Christian faith is not a blind faith as some suppose. Christian faith means putting our trust in God, and not in ourselves, but Christian faith also does not insist or even ask us to throw out our minds in the process.

In fact, we are specifically instructed to love God not only with our hearts and strength, but with our minds!

As I have stated previously, doubt and skepticism are not sin according to the Bible. Thomas doubted, and he became known for his skepticism but he was a follower of Jesus. He was an original follower of Jesus, and he traveled with Jesus from the beginning of his public life to his death. He wasn’t just known for his doubt, however; he was also known for his faith!

Paul urged the Thessalonians to “test everything”, and hold on to what is good. The Bible urges us to have “honest skepticism”, which should not be confused with skepticism for the sake of skepticism. A person who is skeptical of everything, even the certainty of truth, should not even bother looking into anything because the exercise is pointless.

The quest for truth is pointless for the pure skeptic who is unwilling to commit to any truths. He already knows where he will end up! The contention that there is no objective truth is a self-defeating statement. The statement, itself, is offered as an objective truth, therefore it isn’t even true of itself!

But we digress. Whether the Bible can be trusted is the question? So, let’s dive in.

First of all, Jewish scribes were trained their whole lives. They were trained for accuracy. Their livelihood depended on it. They believed they were translating the very word of God, and everything we know about them indicates that they approached the task of translating scripture as a sacred exercise of the highest importance.

Scribes always used the oldest manuscript available to copy. The scribes in the 2nd Century would have used manuscripts from the 1st Century, and scribes from the 3rd century would use manuscripts from the 2nd and 1st century, and so on.

For these and many other reasons, the childhood “telephone game” is not a good illustration of the reliability (or lack thereof) of Bible translations. The point and fun of the game is to see how twisted the original message gets. No care is used in the translation, or even expected: the point of the game is to have fun with the mixed messages.

The telephone game could not be further from the care, training, and vigilance used in copying biblical manuscripts by scribes who were trained and devoted their lives to the work.

Still, people are people, and people make mistakes. We can be sure of that. We might not be able to have much confidence in the current translations of the Bible, but for the abundance of texts that exist.

Of the New Testament, almost 6000 texts are currently known to exist. Daniel Wallace, who is a New Testament scholar who has committed his life to digitizing all of the existent Greek New Testament manuscripts, is known for his lectures on the abundant wealth of New Testament manuscripts that dwarf the volume of existing texts for any other ancient writing[1].

The Greek manuscripts are not even all there are. The Latin manuscripts, alone, total about 10,000. And that doesn’t include all the manuscripts in Syriac, Slavic, Gothic, Ethiopic, Coptic and Armenian – of which there are about 9300.[2]

Because so many manuscripts exist (about 25,000 in all), we find variations when we compare the texts. Thus, there is some truth to the point of the telephone game, but it isn’t that we can’t know what the original meaning was. The wealth of manuscripts allows us to compare and and determine what the original text was to a high degree of certainty.

Daniel Wallace has analyzed the variations as part of his career body of work. He estimates that volume of the NT text of which we are legitimately uncertainty of what the original actually said amounts to less than one percent (1%) of the entire NT text![3]

The meaning of over ninety nine percent (99%) of the text is certain.

Most the variations we find do not affect the meaning or pose any issues for understanding. Those variations are comprised of spelling differences, nonsensical statements, word order, synonyms, changes that can’t be translated, missing phrases, use and nonuse of articles, etc.

Because of the wealth of manuscripts, we can identify when a variation occurs. For instance, missing phrase or word, a nonsensical phrase, or a spelling change in one manuscript that does not appears in all or most of the others can be written off as an error. In fact, we can be more certain of the original text because of all the variations.

Wallace says that only a handful of passages exist for which we have any reasonable doubt about the original meaning, but none of those passages change or impact a single Christian belief. Even the famous skeptic and atheist, Bart Ehrman, who is a well-respected New Testament scholar, acknowledges that fact in the appendix to his popular book, Misquoting Jesus.[4]

So far, I have addressed only the New Testament. Until the 20th Century, we had little historical proof that the Old Testament had been accurately preserved for many centuries. The oldest Hebrew manuscript dated to the 10th century AD until the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in the 20th Century.

The Dead Sea Scrolls contained most of the writings we now call the Old Testament (except Esther), including the famous Isaiah Scroll. The Dead Sea Scrolls have vindicated centuries, over a millennia, of translation by Jewish scribes, showing very little deviation going back to the 2nd and 3rd Century BC.[5]

Our study and analysis of the wealth of biblical manuscripts gives us very good assurance that the text we have today is virtually the same text that was written in the original manuscripts to a very high degree of certainty. The variations that appear do reflect that fact that people made errors, even when trying very hard not to, but the deviations we find have not changed any of the meaning, and we can identity most of the errors because we have so many manuscripts from which to compare.

The most important takeaway from all this is that the message has been preserved. Even skeptical scholars of the New Testament agree on that.

But there are other reasons we can have confidence in the biblical narrative. For instance, the biblical story is not the kind of story we would expect someone to make up if someone wanted to invent a religion. Throughout the Old Testament and continued on through the New Testament, the people whose stories are captured in the text are described in mundane, dull, unflattering and very candid terms. Their weaknesses and failures are often highlighted without any apparent attempt to gloss over them or explain them away.

Parts of the story seem to be contradictory with other parts, especially on face value. Little attempt seems to have been made to patch over these apparent inconsistencies. Far from being inimical to the reliability of the text, the candid nature of it is evidence of authenticity.

The writings are not tied up in a neat bow. If the Bible were just a product of the imagination of people, these things would be smoothed out. The main characters would look more like the heroes of other stories of myth and legend. The Bible stands in contrast.

If you spend any time reading fables or the scriptures of other religions, you will see what I mean. The Bible does not read like Greek tragedies, the stories of the Roman gods, the Baghivad-Gita or religious and mythical other accounts.

These things don’t prove that the Christian Bible is the Word of God, of course, but they give us confidence that the text has been preserved accurately from the beginning. And even if we may not have 100% certainty in every word, we have something like 99% certainty that the words we have now were the words as they were originally penned.

Most importantly, though we have 100% confidence that the message has been accurately preserved. We can trust that the Bible we have now is an accurate, reliable reproduction of the message that was conveyed by the original authors.


[1] See, for instance, Did Copyists Copy the New Testament Correctly? – Daniel Wallace, PhD; Dr. Daniel Wallace – How badly did the scribes corrupt the New Testament text?; and Dan Wallace – Recent Discoveries of NT Manuscripts.

[2] See Biblical Manuscript in Wikipedia

[3] See for instance An Interview with Daniel B. Wallace on the New Testament Manuscripts, published by the Gospel Coalition March 21, 2012.

[4] “Essential Christian beliefs are not affected by textual variants in the manuscript tradition of the New Testament” as quoted by Daniel Wallace in his blog article, Predictable Christmas fare: Newsweek’s Tirade against the Bible, dated December 28, 2014.

[5] See The Dead Sea Scrolls Shed Light on the Accuracy of our Bible, by Dr. Patrick Zukeran, April 17, 2006 (“A significant comparison study was conducted with the Isaiah Scroll written around 100 B.C. that was found among the Dead Sea documents and the book of Isaiah found in the Masoretic text. After much research, scholars found that the two texts were practically identical. Most variants were minor spelling differences, and none affected the meaning of the text.”)

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