Apologetic Wednesday: Was the Bible Just A Big Game Of Telephone?
One attack that is commonly levied against Christianity is that the Bible we hold today cannot accurately represent what was written nearly two thousand years ago. It surely must be frocked with errors, changes, and manipulations of the text. How can we expect that the Bible was not changed throughout the ages?
Remember playing the game telephone as a kid? You would have a big circle, one would whisper a word to the person sitting next to them, and they would pass it on to the next. This would continue full circle until the person who began the telephone chain had the supposed word he started the chain with told to him. Generally, through transmission from one person to the next, the original word spoken would be greatly altered. You might start with the word “Red” and by the time it made it back to you it might be “rutabaga.”
Can’t we only assume this is what happened with the Bible? Did the message get changed each time it was copied? Actually, no, it has remained constant over time and we can be confident that what we read today in scripture is what was originally penned.
There are relatively few “mistakes” in the Bible. Mistakes? Am I saying that the Bible is errant? Absolutely not. I affirm the full inherency of scripture as it was first penned by God/Prophets/Apostles. In its original form it was completely perfect and without errors. Yet, over time, human agents would make mistakes as they copied the text.
Several years ago, I purchased a study Bible. While I was reading it, I noticed that a whole chapter was left out. I contacted the manufacturer and they addressed the problem. Does this mean that the Bible is errant? Of course not, it simply means that some people made a mistake. Sometimes this happened through the years of copying ad recopying, a scribe would misspell a word or copy the wrong word down. Does this mean that the Bible we have is inaccurate? Not necessarily.
Our ability to place confidence in any text rests on three factors: 1. How many copies are there? 2. How old are they? 3. How reliable are the individual copies, that is, are there vast differences between one copy and another?
Most of the works from antiquity are very limited in their number of manuscripts. For example, there is only 7 for Plato and 8 for Herodotus.
For the Old Testament, there are a staggering number of ancient manuscripts. Norm Geisler asserts, “Before 1890, a scholar named Giovanni de Rossi published 731 Old Testament manuscripts. Since that time, some 10,000 Old Testament manuscripts were found in Caria Geniza, and in 1947 the Dead Sea caves at Qumran produced over 600 Old Testament Manuscripts.”[i]
The manuscripts found in the Dead Sea caves, known as the Dead Sea Scrolls, contain fragments of all of the books in the Old Testament, except for the book of Esther, and they all date before the first century A.D. and some as far back as the third century B.C. Two copies of Isaiah were found in these caves and when compared to the modern Bibles that we have they were found to be identical in more than 95% of the text. The remaining 5% was due to slips of the pen and spelling errors. There were no changes in meaning and virtually no changes in wording, all this within 1,000 years of copying.
Jewish scribes copied the text with a meticulous attention to detail. Nothing was to be written from memory. Each time the word for “God” was written, the scribe would have a small religious ceremony to revere the name of God. If a copy was found that contained just one error, it was destroyed. Thus, we see extreme dedication to maintaining that the transmission of the Old Testament was done correctly.
Studies show that the Old Testaments maintains about a 95% accuracy level. What does this mean? It means when all of the available ancient manuscripts are compared there is only 5% of the text that has variant readings. Variant readings are where the various texts do not match up in full agreement. Most of these variant readings are differences in spelling, punctuation, grammar, and style.
So what about the New Testament? The number of New Testament manuscripts is quite vast. It is the best textually supported book from antiquity. There are more than 24,000 partial and complete manuscript copies of the New Testament. There are almost 5700 New Testament manuscripts in Greek alone. The only other writing that comes close to this is the Greek mythology The Iliad, by Homer, which boasts 643 manuscripts. Some of these manuscripts date as early as the second and third century.
Again, as with the Old Testament, the New Testament does contain variant readings, but of these are matters of spelling or where word order does not match up. Yet, none a single variant reading affects important doctrinal or theological issues, what we might call core tenets of Christianity. Greek Scholar, D.A. Carson asserts, “The purity of text is of such a substantial nature that nothing we believe to be true, and nothing we are commanded to do, is in any way jeopardized by the variants.”[ii] Again, most of the differences are dismally inconsequential and amount to: spelling errors, grammatical problems, missing words, or inverted phrasing. The New Testament does boast an accuracy level of 99.9% and the remaining .1% does not affect any core tenets of Christianity.
When it comes to understanding and solving these variants in scripture, Ron Rhodes gives us a simple example:
Let us suppose we have five manuscript copies of an original document that no longer exists. Each of the manuscript copies are different. Our goal is to compare the manuscript copies and ascertain what the original must have said. Here are the five copies:
Manuscript #1: Jesus Christ is the Savior of the whole worl.
Manuscript #2: Christ Jesus is the Savior of the whole world.
Manuscript #3: Jesus Christ s the Savior of the whole world.
Manuscript #4: Jesus Christ is th Savior of the whle world.
Manuscript #5: Jesus Christ is the Savor of the whole wrld.
Could you, by comparing the manuscript copies, ascertain what the original document said with a high degree of certainty that you are correct? Of course you could.[iii]
While this example is an over-simplification, this is how a great number of variants in the Bible are solved. The many manuscripts are compared and often, the original meaning becomes apparent.
As you can see, the evidence for us holding in our hands the very word of God is quite amazing. We can read our Bibles with confidence and know that what we receive is truth.
The question of whether scripture has been preserved is no longer contested by non-Christian scholars, and for good reason, asserts Gregory Koukl. He goes on to say, “Simply put, if we reject the authenticity of the New Testament on textual grounds we’d have to reject every ancient work of antiquity and declare null and void every piece of historical information from written sources prior to the beginning of the second millennium A.D. Has the New Testament been altered? Critical, academic analysis says it has not.”[iv]
“The vast number, early dates, and unmatched accuracy of the Old Testament and New Testament manuscript copes establish the Bible’s reliability well beyond that of any other ancient book. Its substantial message has been undiminished through the centuries, and its accuracy on even minor details has been confirmed. Thus the Bible we hold in our hands today is a highly trustworthy copy of the original that came from the pens of the prophets and apostles.”[v]
Walk good. Live wise. Be blessed
[i] Geisler, Norman. Has the Bible Been Copied Down Accurately Through the Centuries? From The Apologetics Study Bible. Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2007.
[ii] Carson, D.A., The King James Version Debate (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1979).
[iii] Rhodes, Ron, Manuscript Support for the Bible’s Reliability http://home.earthlink.net/~ronrhodes/Manuscript.html
[iv] Koukl, Gregory, Is the New Testament Text Reliable? http://www.str.org/site/News2?page=NewsArticle&id=6068#_ftn20
[v] Geisler, Norman. Has the Bible Been Copied Down Accurately Through the Centuries? From The Apologetics Study Bible. Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2007.
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