Questions About The Bible: 300,000 Errors?

It seems like there is no scarcity of questions regarding the receiving and transmission of the books contained in the Bible. Questions like: How can we know that the Bible is the Word of God? How did we get the Bible as we know it today? Why is the Bible so important anyways? These are important questions that deserve answers. Much of Christian practice and beliefs is rooted and founded upon the Bible. Therefore, the answers to these questions shape how a Christian will approach the Bible and then apply the truths they see contained therein to everyday life—both for the individual and the church. This will be the first post of many, which are going to be devoted entirely to answering those questions. And the first question is...

How can we know that the Bible is the Word of God?
The answer is simply M-A-P-S. This is the acronym that I like to use in order to give people a way to remember the information. One reason I particularly like giving this acronym is because nearly every Bible in print today contains a section of maps in the back.

Manuscript Evidence
Archeological Evidence
Statistical Probability

Manuscript Evidence
When one looks at the manuscript evidence regarding the Scriptures, it is abundant and convincing. For comparison, take Plato’s Tetralogies. There are only 7 copies in existence and those copies are 1,200 years removed from the time Plato penned the work. Pliny the Younger, who was a historian in the first century AD, penned his historical writings of which we only have 7 copies that are 750 years removed from the time he composed his work. Furthermore, Homer’s Iliad, which has arguably the best manuscript evidence of all the writings of the ancient world, has only 600 copies in existence that are 1,000 years removed from the original date of composition. When textual critics look at these documents they do not question the reliability of them but regard them as historically accurate.

How does the Bible stack up in comparison? The Old Testament has a great abundance of manuscript evidence—over 11,000 copies. These copies include the Septuagint (LXX), which was a Greek translation of the Hebrew texts. It also includes the Qumran texts more popularly known as the Dead Sea Scrolls, which are some of the earliest copies we have today. There are a lot of other copies that give a wealth of information regarding the Old Testament texts. This towers over the evidence of all other ancient documents, like Homer’s Iliad, Plato, Pliny the Younger, etc. But does the New Testament also have the same abundance of information?

The New Testament also has a lot of copies available, some 5,366. The New Testament has received a lot more attention than the Old Testament. Authors such as Bart Ehrman appear to constantly be attacking the New Testament. What is interesting about these attacks is not that he argues the textual support is lacking in the way of sheer volume of copies, but that the copies have been corrupted. So you hear Ehrman and others throwing out statements similar to the following: “The New Testament contains over 300,000 errors.” That sounds like a whole lot of errors and would be reason enough to question the reliability of the New Testament. However, a quick introduction to textual criticism will help clear up this statement that seems to deal such a fatal blow to the reliability of the Bible.

Textual criticism is the study of manuscripts by comparing copies to one another in order to determine the original reading of the source document. Comparing these documents side-by-side yields a pretty good picture of what errors were introduced into the text; the more copies available and the closer those copies are to the original, the better textual critics can determine what errors were introduced. Now, how do we get a number like 300,000 when there aren’t even that many words in the New Testament (there are only 181,253 words)? It is because of the way errors are counted. Spelling errors are counted in that number. Also, if a spelling error is copied 100 times, that is 101 errors. When a word is copied twice, that is an error. How did this happen? Sometimes those copying the texts would take a break to eat, sleep, or something else and would come back and they would copy the same same word two times, consecutively. Every time this error was copied, it counts as another error. Words copied out of order are also counted as errors. Now, this might sound like a big deal at first, but English and Greek are very different in regard to grammar. Word order is not as important in Greek as English. In other words, there is not subject verb agreement necessary in the Greek; word order was used mainly for emphasis. Once again, every time this was copied, it is counted as another error. Once you understand this, it becomes easy to see how one can get to a number like 300,000 errors.

In reality, there are only three places in the New Testament that have any question about authenticity. The first of these three places is found at the end of the gospel of Mark. Many newer translations make note of this fact. The New International Version (NIV) puts a line through the middle of the page after verse 8 and before verse 9 with the statement: The earliest manuscripts and some other ancient witnesses do not have Mark 16:9-20. Other translations such as the New American Standard Bible (NASB), the English Standard Version (ESV), and the Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB) don’t make note of it in the same dramatic manner as the NIV, but they all make note with brackets or parenthesis and a note to the same effect as the NIV. The scholars have discovered that many of the earliest copies did not have these verses, but the vast majority of the later copies did contain these verses. The NIV translators felt there was enough evidence to question the authenticity of these verses, but rather than risk removing something that could possibly have been original in the text they came to the resolution to make a note that these verses were questionable. However, even if these verses were left out of the gospel of Mark, they change nothing concerning salvation; the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ; or that Jesus was God in the flesh.

The second place that is questioned is located in the gospel of John. The passage in question is the story of the woman caught in adultery and brought to Jesus by the Pharisees. Once again the NIV separates out this section with a line across the page and the statement: The earliest manuscripts and many other ancient witnesses do not have John 7:53-8:11. Just like the passage in the gospel of Mark, this passage changes no doctrine of the church whatsoever. The last place in question is found in 1 John. Here, the passage is almost certainly an addition to the text. Following is 1 John 5:7-8 quoted first as it reads in the NIV and then the KJV (emphasis mine):

For there are three that testify: the Spirit, the water and the blood; and the three are in agreement.

For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one. And there are three that bear witness in earth, the Spirit, and the water, and the blood: and these three agree in one.

The NIV has removed the section in question and placed it in the footnotes, just as the NASB and the HCSB has done. The ESV has just removed the questionable section altogether, even without a footnote. Some might argue that this removes a critical doctrine from the Bible, that this is a Trinitarian passage. However, the doctrine of the Trinity is contained in many other passages of the Scriptures. So just as with the other two passages, this passage does not change any doctrine of the church.

The New Testament continues to prove that it is reliable. That the alleged hundreds of thousands of errors that changed the original reading did not actually change the New Testament so as to make it unreliable. Both the Old and New Testaments are extremely reliable. One cannot simply write-off the Bible on textual critical grounds. Stand to Reason also has an excellent article on this point. In my next post we will look at the archeological evidence regarding the Bible. Has archeology proven the Bible false?
What'd you think? 

6 Response to "Questions About The Bible: 300,000 Errors?"

  • Vinny Says:

    On what basis do you claim that scholars don’t question the textual reliability of Homer, Plato, and Pliny? I would think that any classicist would readily acknowledge the possibility that the surviving manuscripts vary considerably from the originals.

    In fact, I think that any classicist would admit that we cannot eliminate the possibility that writings that we attribute to Plato might actually have been written by someone else such as one of his students or some anonymous philosopher living a century later who used Plato’s name in order to get his works read.

  • Mr. Hyde Says:

    Vinny, perhaps I was unclear. Of course the possibility that the surviving manuscripts vary considerable from the originals, but given the evidence that is not likely. For the most part, copyists were concerned about accuracy. So to simply assert that copies would vary considerably is unfounded. Would they vary? Of course, but those variations can be determined when comparing the copies.

    My basis for the claim concerning the reliability of Homer, Plato, and Pliny is just that--their reliability as to the original document is not seriously questioned by scholars. Your other point is a different animal all together. Could they have been authored pseudonymously (under Plato’s name by someone else)? Yes. Is that probable? There is no evidence to indicate that to be the case. So once again, that is simply an unfounded claim.

    Simply because the possibility exists that the copies could vary considerably from the originals or that the texts were authored pseudonymously, is not good enough reason to believe either one of those to be the case. In other words, without evidence those claims are simply unfounded and as it is, there is no evidence to believe either of those propositions.

  • Vinny Says:

    In a recent debate with Bart Ehrman, James White tried to make a similar point when he asked Ehrman why he didn’t write a book called “Misquoting Plato”? Ehrman said that the reason he didn’t is that it was not his field of study, but that classicists did in fact write books about the textual variations in the literature of ancient Greece and Rome. White had no response to this. According to Ehrman, when scholars talk about the “writings of Plato,” they recognize that they are talking about the body of work that has come down to us rather than the original manuscripts since there is no way to know what happened during the transmission of the texts from the time Plato wrote to the date of the earliest extant manuscripts.

    I have often heard Christian apologists make these claims about the reliability of other ancient writings, but I don’t find them credible. I have only dabbled in ancient history myself, but I find that scholars are very careful to acknowledge the gaps in their knowledge.

  • Mr. Hyde Says:

    The fact that textual variations exist is not a problem for me, anymore than the fact that textual variations exist in the copies of the Scriptures. The significance of those variations is what truly matters. For example, I expect there to be spelling errors, incorrect word order, words copied twice, the occasional word that was dropped, etc. These are errors one expects to find in a document that was copied by hand. However, if it becomes clear when comparing the copies that the variations are on the level of purposeful editing, then there is reason to begin looking at and questioning the reliability of those documents. That is where scholars like Ehrman fail. He has not shown that there is clear-cut evidence of purposeful editing to the point that the documents are completely untrustworthy. As I pointed out in the post, there are only three places in the Bible where this is even a concern. That is far from making them unreliable and untrustworthy.

    As far as Plato is concerned, I will have to admit with Ehrman that I have not studied those variations in depth like I have with the Scriptures. However, as far as I know there are no serious variations in those texts so as to cause scholars to question their reliability. This is the point I was trying to make in the post for comparison—that scholars deem writings to be reliable with far less manuscript evidence than the manuscript evidence in support of the Bible.

    You do make an excellent point that I could have addressed more clearly in my post concerning the fact that the originals are no longer in existence. So, yes, when we say “the writings of Plato,” it is referring to the collected copies and not the original documents. So if one is looking for certainty in the manner of knowing without a doubt that what we have today is exactly the same as what Plato originally wrote, then we will never have that certainty. That level of certainty could only come by comparing the copies with the originals. The practice of textual criticism, however, can bring one to a high degree of certainty that what we have is the same as what Plato originally wrote.

  • Vinny Says:

    I agree that the significance of the variations is what matters and I think that is the reason why you haven't heard much about the variations in other ancient works. If we were not sure whether a particular passage of Aristotle was actually written by him or was an deliberate alteration by someone later, what difference would it make? It would not change the influence that those writings have had on thinkers through the ages.

    Think for example about the works of William Shakespeare. Scholars of English literature may debate whether he actually wrote all the plays that are written by him, but for the overwhelming majority of people, the question is trivial. Romeo's soliloquy would no less romantic and Henry's speech to his army before Agincourt would be no less inspiring for having been written by Francis Bacon rather the Bard of Avon.

    With the New Testament however, such questions become important because Christians claim that the words carry a special authority because they were written by specific men who were uniquely attuned to divine influence. It is vitally important that the words are the exact words of the men who had the capacity to receive divine inspiration.

    I am actually quite willing to admit that the words of the New Testament are every bit as reliable as the words of Homer. However, I would never rely on Homer for anything more than some insight into an ancient culture with limited relevance to today's world and I would not rely on the New Testament for much more than that.

  • Mr. Hyde Says:

    Thank you for your willingness to honestly look at the evidence, even though we may differ on our conclusions.

    I think your questions and comments have added a lot to this post.