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View Full Version : Textual Reliability of the New Testament

Ansar Al-'Adl
03-03-2005, 09:52 PM

It is worthwhile knowing how 'accurate' and variant 'free' is the Bible. It has been claimed by the Christian missionary Jochen Katz that:

And I believe that with the basis of many thousands of manuscripts for comparison we can be very confident that the text is today faithfully restored and the researchers in textual criticism assert that the actual literal text is restored to 99.8% leaving only a very few uncertainties.

The claim here is that the actual literal text of the Bible is faithfully restored to 99.8% accuracy by the New Testament textual critics. In other words the 99.8% of 'original' reading has been restored. This high-flying claim can be easily grounded by just asking a simple question which Bible among the following is the 'true' Bible:

Protestant Church
Roman Catholic Church
Anglican Church
Greek Orthodox Church
Coptic Church
Ethiopic Church
Syriac Church

For the sake of simplicity let us assume that it is the Protestant Bible which is the 'true' Bible. The aim of of this page is to examine the claim that this Bible is restored faithfully to 99.8% and also to see what the textual critics actually say about the New Testament Bible and its 'original' reading.

1. The New Testament, Its Manuscripts & Their Problems

Before going into the issue of accuracy of the New Testament, it is worthwhile establishing what are the problems with the New Testament manuscripts. The New Testament is now known, whole or in part, in nearly five thousand Greek manuscripts. Each one of these manuscripts differ from other. Hence The Interpreter's Dictionary Of The Bible is forced to say:

It is safe to say that there is not one sentence in the NT in which the MS tradition is wholly uniform.[1]
The lack of uniformity in the manuscript tradition is further aggravated by the fact that the original copies of the New Testament books have perished long ago. Hence there is no way of verifiying what the 'original' reading is. The Interpreter's Dictionary Of The Bible again informs us that:

The original copies of the NT books have, of course, long since disappeared. This fact should not cause surprise. In the first place, they were written on papyrus, a very fragile and perishable material. In the second place, and probably of even more importance, the original copies of the NT books were not looked upon as scripture by those of the early Christian communities.[2]
In addition to the lack of uniform manuscript tradition as well as the original manuscripts of the New Testament books, we also have the problem that the early Christian communities did not consider the New Testament books as scripture! Further information about this issue can be obtained by clicking on the links below.

Church Tradition & Apostolic Fathers

Clement Of Rome
Ignatius Of Antioch
The Didache
Papias Of Heirapolis
http://www.islamic-awareness.org/Bib...ycarp]Polycarp Of Smyrna[/url]
Hermas Of Rome
The So-Called Second Epistle Of Clement

Tersely, after studying the writings of all the above Apostolic Fathers, Bruce Metzger concludes that:

For early Jewish Christians the Bible consisted of the Old Testament and some Jewish apocryphal literature. Along with this written authority went traditions, chiefly oral, of sayings attributed to Jesus. On the other hand, authors who belonged to the 'Hellenistic Wing' of the Church refer more frequently to writings that later came to be included in the New Testament. At the same time, however, they very rarely regarded such documents as 'Scripture'.

Furthermore, there was as yet no conception of the duty of exact quotation from books that were not yet in the full sense canonical. Consequently, it is sometimes exceedingly difficult to ascertain which New Testament books were known to early Christian writers; our evidence does not become clear until the end of second century.[3]

Coming back to the main problem of issue of the non-uniform manuscript tradition of the New Testament, The Anchor Bible Dictionary mentions about the sky-rocketing number of variant readings:

Within this context, what NT textual materials have come down to us? As early as 1707, John Mill claimed that the (relatively few) NT mss examined by him contained about 30,000 variant readings (Vincent 1903: 6); 200 years later B. B. Warfield (1907: 13) indicated that some 180,000 or 200,000 various readings had been 'counted' in the then existing NT mss, and in more recent times M. M. Parvis reported that examination of only 150 Greek mss of Luke revealed about 30,000 readings there alone, and he suggested that the actual quantity of variant readings among all NT manuscripts was likely to be much higher than the 150,000 to 250,000 that had been estimated in modern times (Parvis IDB 4: 594-95). Perhaps 300,000 differing readings is a fair figure for the 20th century (K. W. Clark 1962: 669). The textual critic must devise methods by which to sort through these myriad readings and to analyze the many mss that contain them.[4]

Most of the variant readings are brushed aside as 'unimportant' scribal errors by Christian missionaries. But the reality is different. The Interpreter's Dictionary Of The Bible informs us that:

Many thousands of the variants which are found in the MSS of the NT were put there deliberately. They are not merely the result of error or of careless handling of the text. Many were created for theological or dogmatic reasons (even though they may not affect the substance of Christian dogma). It is because the books of the NT are religious books, sacred books, canonical books, that they were changed to conform to what the copyist believed to be the true reading. His interest was not in the "original reading but in the "true reading." This is precisely the attitude toward the NT which prevailed from the earliest times to the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the invention of printing. The thousands of Greek MSS, MSS of the versions, and quotations of the Church Fathers provide the source for our knowledge of the earliest or original text of the NT and of the history of the transmission of that text before the invention of printing.[5]
Since the 'original reading' of the New Testament books was unknown the copyists went for what could be the 'true reading' and hence adding variants to the already existing variants unknown to them. It is worthwhile to add that as early as in the time of Jerome, he complained of the copyists who

write down not what they find but what they think is the meaning; and while they attempt to rectify the errors of others, they merely expose their own.[6]

The present day textual criticism of the New Testament also involves knowing what could be the 'original' reading.

Since - like virtually all ancient literature - no autographs are extant for the NT, its most likely original text must be reconstructed from these imperfect, often widely divergent, later copies.[7]

There is, of course, no guarantee that the 'original' reading could be obtained, as we shall see later. This leads us to the issue of how much of the New Testament that we have in our hands today is variant free or 'accurate'.

As a slight digress let us examine the reasons for the corruption of the New Testament text. Bruce Metzger categorizes them as Unintentional Errors and Intentional Changes.[8]

1. Unintentional errors

Errors arising from faulty eyesight
Errors arising from faulty hearing
Errors of the mind
Errors of judgement

2. Intentional changes

Changes involving spelling and grammar
Harmonistic corruptions
Addition of natural complements and similar adjuncts
Clearing up historical and geographical difficulties
Conflation of readings
Alterations made because of doctrinal considerations
Addition of miscellaneous details

So, if the Bible is really the word of God then why did the scribes made intentional changes? Certainly the Holy Spirit was not guiding them to make unintentional errors and more so when making the intentional changes!


[1] George Arthur Buttrick (Ed.), The Interpreter's Dictionary Of The Bible, Volume 4, 1962 (1996 Print), Abingdon Press, Nashville, pp. 594-595 (Under "Text, NT").

[2] Ibid, p. 599 (Under "Text, NT").

[3] Bruce M Metzger, The Canon Of The New Testament: Its Origin, Significance & Development, 1997, Clarendon Press, Oxford, pp. 72-73.

[4] David Noel Freedman (Ed.), The Anchor Bible Dictionary On CD-ROM, 1997, New York: Doubleday (CD-ROM Edition by Logos Research Systems), (Under "Textual Criticism, NT").

[5] George Arthur Buttrick (Ed.), The Interpreter's Dictionary Of The Bible, Volume 1, p. 595 (Under "Text, NT").

[6] Bruce M Metzger, The Text Of The New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption & Restoration, 1992, Oxford University Press, New York, p. 195 (See footnotes).

[7] David Noel Freedman (Ed.), The Anchor Bible Dictionary On CD-ROM, (Under "Textual Criticism, NT").

[8] Bruce M Metzger, The Text Of The New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption & Restoration, Op.Cit, p. 186-206.

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Ansar Al-'Adl
03-03-2005, 09:53 PM
...more to come! :)

03-03-2005, 11:59 PM
Once again brother Ansar schooling us ;)

03-04-2005, 05:26 AM
So, if the Bible is really the word of God then why did the scribes made intentional changes?
There are some Bible scholars, not all, who believe that some verses in some Gospels, were put into others, as to fill in a passage. First, there is no manuscript evidence to support this idea. Second even if this was the case, it doesn't change the substance of what the Gospels say. If one were to scrape together all the worse variant reading of each verse in the Gospels, and make one text out of all these; translated into English, this text would read no differently then any of the English translations on the market.
If one to compose a NT from the quotes of the earliest Church Fathers, one would get a text which would read very much like the traditional Byzantine Text which is still used for translations today.

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03-04-2005, 05:11 PM

Nice article, the Islamic-awareness team really has put forth some legitimate questions which really should be addressed.
They wrote:

  1. Which Bible or the books are inspired? Is it the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Protestant, Ethiopic, Coptic or the Syriac? Please remember that they contain different number of books. It is just not the "oh! those are different translations".
  2. How can we trust the Church tradition when she herself cannot produce a reliable bunch of books worth calling a Bible?
  3. Why should we trust the Church which cannot even produce a set of manuscripts throughout the centuries which can be relied on instead of the guess work to find which reading is the original?
  4. How do we know that Isa(P) said what is there in the Bible as there is no way of confirm how his words got transmitted? This is one of the major argument of Islamic traditionalists against the Older scriptures which deal with Israa'iliyat stuff. And they were rejected outright for very obvious reasons.

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