Facts for Skeptics of the New Testament

This article first appeared in the Effective Evangelism column of the Christian Research Journal, volume 27, number 3 (2004). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal go to: http://www.equip.org

“The New Testament has been changed and translated so many times over the past 2,000 years, it’s impossible to have any confidence in its accuracy. Everyone knows that.”

This challenge has stopped countless Christians in their tracks. The complaint is understandable. Whisper a message from person to person in a group, then compare the message’s final form with the original. The radical transformation that occurs in so short a period of time is enough to convince the casual skeptic that the New Testament documents are equally unreliable. Communication is never perfect. People make mistakes and errors are compounded with each generation. How then can we know that the New Testament documents we possess correctly reflect the original documents that were destroyed nearly two thousand years ago?

This challenge is remarkably easy to answer if you know a few simple details. In most cases, the person making the skeptical claim doesn’t have the facts. To prove this, just ask, “Have you studied how the ancient documents were handed down?” Be prepared for a blank stare — they haven’t. Let’s go over some of the facts you can use to respond in case they ask you the same question.

Setting the Facts Straight. It’s hard to imagine how one can reconstruct the text of something written two thousand years ago. The skepticism, though, is based on two false assumptions about how an ancient document such as the New Testament was transmitted over time. The first assumption is that the transmission was more or less linear — one person told a second who talked with a third, and so on, leaving a single message many generations removed from the original. The second assumption is that the text was transmitted orally, in which case it is more easily distorted and misconstrued than if it had been written. Neither assumption, however, applies to the text of the New Testament. First, the transmission was not linear, but geometric — that is, one original birthed 50 copies, which generated 500 copies, and so on. Second, the transmission was done in writing, and written manuscripts can be tested in a way oral communications cannot.

Reconstructing Aunt Sally’s Letter. Here’s a little story you can use to illustrate how such a test works. Pretend your Aunt Sally learns in a dream the recipe for an elixir that preserves youth. When she wakes up, she scribbles the directions on a scrap of paper, then runs to the kitchen to make her first glass of the potion. In a few days Aunt Sally is transformed into a picture of radiant youth because of her daily dose of “Sally’s Secret Sauce.”

Aunt Sally is so excited that she sends detailed, handwritten instructions on how to make the sauce to her three bridge partners. They, in turn, make copies for 10 of their own friends.

All goes well until Aunt Sally’s dog eats the scrap of paper on which she first wrote the recipe. In a panic she contacts her three friends who have suffered similar mishaps, so the alarm goes out to the others in an attempt to recover the original wording.

Sally rounds up all the surviving handwritten copies, 26 in all. When she spreads them out on the kitchen table, she immediately notices some differences. Twenty-three of the copies are exactly the same. Of the remaining three, however, one has misspelled words, another has an inverted phrase (“mix then chop” instead of “chop then mix”), and one includes an ingredient that is not listed on any of the others.

Do you think Aunt Sally can accurately reconstruct her original recipe from this evidence? Of course, she can. The misspellings are obvious errors and are easily corrected. The single inverted phrase stands out and can easily be repaired. Sally would then strike the extra ingredient, reasoning that it is more plausible that one person would accidentally add an item than that 25 people would accidentally omit the same one. Even if the variations were more numerous or more diverse, the original could still be reconstructed with a high level of confidence if Sally had enough copies.

This, in simplified form, is how scholars do “textual criticism,” an academic method used to test all documents of antiquity, not just religious texts. It’s not a haphazard effort based on hopes and guesses; it’s a careful linguistic process allowing an alert critic to identify and correct the possible corruption of any work.

How Many and How Old? Confidence that the original text has successfully been reconstructed depends on two factors: how many copies exist and how old they are. If the numbers are few and the time gap wide between the original manuscript (called the autograph) and the oldest copy, then the original text is harder to reconstruct. If, however, many copies exist and the oldest are close in time to the original, the scholar can be more confident that the exact wording of the original can be pinpointed.

To get an idea of the significance of the New Testament manuscript evidence, let’s first look at the manuscript evidence for other ancient, nonbiblical texts. Josephus’s first-century document The Jewish War survives in only nine complete manuscripts dating from the fifth century AD — four centuries after they were written.1 Tacitus’s Annals of Imperial Rome is one of the chief sources for the history of the Roman world during New Testament times, and yet it survives in partial form in only two manuscripts dating from the Middle Ages.2 Thucydides’s History survives in eight copies. There are ten copies of Caesar’s Gallic Wars and seven copies of Plato’s works. Homer’s Iliad has the most impressive manuscript evidence for any secular work with 647 existing copies.3

Note that for most documents of antiquity only a handful of manuscripts exist, some facing a time gap of 800–2,000 years or more. Scholars, nevertheless, are confident they have accurately reconstructed the text of the originals. In fact, virtually all of our knowledge of ancient history depends on documents like these.