We Don’t Have the Original New Testament Documents. Is This a Problem?
We don’t have the original New Testament documents. Is this a problem? In my early years of investigating the trustworthiness of the Bible I discovered that even though a lot of people at the popular level thought this was a problem, the scholars who worked in this field (called textual criticism) did not think it was a concern.
I discovered that the scholars recognized that even though we don’t have the original of any of the 27 individual letters or ancient historical biographies that make up the New Testament, that there were two factors that gave them confidence that the text we do have is substantially true to the original:
1. The number of early copies that we do have.
2. The short time gap between the original and the earliest copies we do have.
Since writing was done on perishable material at this time, copies had to be made in order to preserve the writings. Textual critics were well aware that there were some differences in the New Testament text among these copies – differences that were the result of both deliberate and accidental changes that early scribes made when copying these texts. But the vast majority of these differences were minor things akin to the way we have different ways of spelling some words in English.
Most importantly, given that we have thousands of New Testament copies from fragments to entire books, we are able to compare these copies with each other and ferret out the changes that were made. This then allows us to reconstruct the original.
I used to give the following illustration to show the effectiveness of this process:
Imagine that you are an English teacher and you write an original poem on the blackboard and ask you class of 100 students to memorize it. After 30 minutes you erase the poem and ask your students to write the poem down from memory word for word.
You ask a third party to analyze these 100 manuscripts and try to determine what the original text of the poem was. Let’s say that he finds the manuscripts to be exactly the same except for one word. Ninety-eight of the manuscripts have the word “and” in the fourth line and two manuscripts had the word “but”. With a strong degree of confidence he could reasonably conclude that the original most likely contained the word “and”.
This is similar to what we can do with the New Testament documents. Because of the number of early copies of the texts, we can reconstruct the text to around 99.8% accuracy. As for portions in questions, the differences are so minor that, for the most part, they do not affect any major Christian doctrine or historical event.
This was considered a “settled issue” and was the standard view among critics until the textual critic Bart Ehrman, a former fundamentalist, began publishing articles and books around 12-15 years ago claiming that we can’t be sure of what the original New Testament said. Ehrman’s argument is essentially that we don’t have copies of copies of copies of the originals. Our copies come hundreds of years later. Therefore, we can’t be sure of what the originals said.
According to Daniel Wallace, a frequent interlocutor with Ehrman, Ehrman’s position was not based on any new discoveries but only on what Wallace calls Ehrman’s “fundamentalist presuppositions” which he retained even after rejecting fundamentalist theology. Wallace thinks Ehrman’s views are an example of a “radical skepticism” that goes far beyond what the manuscripts tell us. “The evidence is otherwise,” according to Wallace.
In addition, Wallace calls attention to the fact that the average classical Greek writer has less than 20 copies of his works still in existence. “Stack them up,” he says, “and they’re 4 feet high.” With the New Testament there exists 5813 copies or fragments in the original language of Greek, a stack towering over the other classic Greek texts.
Moreover, if one considers copies in one language removed from Greek, then the number of New Testament manuscripts swells to over 24,000 that can be compared with each other. And these numbers are growing! I recently had the privilege of being part of a hands-on investigation in Dallas that extracted unidentified papyri that had not been seen by human eyes for close to 2000 years. Until the results are published in a year or so, I am not able to say much more about this, but I can say that some amazing Biblical discoveries were made!
Wallace and his team, who are dedicated to digitally preserving all the Greek copies and fragments of the New Testament still in existence, have in the last few years discovered 70 more Greek New Testament documents that have been “lost” in libraries and museums around the world. Wallace estimates thousands more left to be discovered and some of these are very early documents.
We have far more partial and complete copies of the New Testament which are they dated much closer to the original than the writings of Pliny the Elder, Plutarch, Josephus, Polybius, Pausanias, Herodotus, or Xenophon. The earliest existing manuscripts of these authors are 700 – 1,800 years removed from the original. According to Wallace, when it comes to the New Testament, “There are three times more NT MSS (manuscripts) within the first 200 years than the average Greco-Roman author has in 2000 years.”
Obviously, the shorter the time interval, the less opportunity for changes to have been made; and more importantly, the greater number of copies to compare with each other the easier it is to determine the original reading. The number of early manuscripts of the New Testament we have to compare with each other is far superior to any other ancient text by far. Ehrman’s radical skepticism does not seem justified given this almost embarrassing overabundance of early manuscripts.
If you would like to read more about this topic check out Daniel Wallace’s response to recent blog comments by Bart Ehrman.
Question: Do you think we are being presumptuous if we think God should have preserved His Word in a less messy fashion?
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