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Is the Bible Corrupt? You may know less about Christian manuscripts than you think!


Indeed, the classical Biblical narrative is not lacking in opposition. We can recall books suggesting a very questionable history behind the Christian corpus such as "The DaVinci Code" by Dan Brown, "Misquoting Jesus" by Dr. Bart Ehrman, and "Jesus Lied" by C.J. Werleman. Claims of corruption come in a variety of forms. Some say that Constantine, the Roman Emperor of the fourth century, and the Nicean council, invented the concept of a divine Jesus out of thin air. Others claim that numerous revisions by scribes have altered the Bible's message so extensively that there is no way to know what the original manuscripts said at all. Still, others claim that the Roman Catholic Church created a system of manuscript normalization in the distant past to "destroy all original manuscripts" and usher in "an official state copy" and thus eliminated the originals. Still, others state that the textual errors in the Biblical manuscripts are so exceedingly numerous that there is no way it can be seen as reliable.

What are the actual facts on the matter of the Biblical manuscript tradition?

One compelling voice speaking on this matter is Dr. Daniel Wallace, of the Dallas Theological Seminary, executive director of the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts. Daniel is a renowned and profound scholar of the Greek language found in the New Testament and has successfully debated with the infamous Dr. Bart Ehrman on numerous occasions. In one of his lecture series, called "Is What We Have Now What They Wrote Then," he brought up a more complete body of data by which to analyze the New Testament manuscript tradition.

The process of determining the reliability of the texts in the case of the New Testament is called "Textual Criticism," which generally refers to comparing two or more ancient manuscripts of the same text to spot variations in the spelling, wording, and meaning. For example, we could have three manuscripts of John 1 from the Bible all reading differently. Any place in the documents where a variation occurs, it is called a textual variant. The idea is that a large number of textual variants that directly affect the meaning would call the reliability of an examined body of text into question. Also, if the message is consistent we can determine with general confidence what the original document said if the originals are missing.

What is the data for the New Testament?

According to Daniel Wallace, we have over 400 000 textual variants in the New Testament. The reason for this is primarily on account of two factors: 1) The sheer volume of New Testament Manuscripts, and 2) the nature of the Greek language of the New Testament. Let us explain with some quotations:

Daniel Wallace said, speaking of the number of New Testament manuscripts:

"5, 938 Greek New Testament manuscripts 10, 000 Latin New Testament manuscripts 5, 000 – 10, 000 New Testament manuscripts in other languages. That means we have between 20 000 – 25 000 manuscripts of the New Testament that are all important for us to study to attempt to get back to the original wording."

He also said, speaking of the nature of the Greek language of the New Testament:

"There are also word order differences in the Greek language. Greek is a highly inflexive language in the sense that one sentence can be given in many different ways without changing the meaning. For example, if we say "John loves Mary" in Greek, it can be said in any order we desire. "John, Mary loves," "Mary loves John," "Mary, John loves," and every single time it means "John loves Mary" in Greek, not by the word order but by the endings of these words – one is always the subject, and the other is always the direct object, regardless of word order. And so, in this one example, thinking about these issues – the use of the article, the word order differences working in tandem with the nature of the subject/object, word endings in the Greek, For example, how many ways can we say "John loves Mary" without changing the meaning of the text?

...possible variants of "John loves Mary" swells up the over 1, 200 variations all bearing the same meaning."

Thus, he also said:

"99% of the textual variants of the New Testament make virtually no difference at all. In fact, the mast majority of the textual variants are (grammatical variations) that cannot even be translated. (Which in no way affects the meaning of the text.) Most of them are differences in spelling. "

Concerning variants appearing the text of the New Testament that are able to actually change the meaning, Daniel Wallace said:

"These are the smallest group of textual variants. Textual variants that change the meaning of the New Testament text make up less than 1% of all textual variants in the New Testament. "

He gave two examples of this. In the first, in Mark 9:29. "this kind can only be cast out by prayer and fasting." This is an occurrence where the earlier manuscripts do not have "and fasting." In the second, Revelation 13:18 – "Let the one who has insight calculate the beast's number, for it is the number of a man, and his number is 666." Here, the variant was the number of the beast; two early dated manuscripts were found where the number was demonstrated to be 616.

The professor further commented: "We don't have absolute certainty what the Word of God is in every place in the New Testament, (namely that in ¼ of 1% of textual variants are occurrences which are viable) but we can tell you this. Even though this is a meaningful and viable variant, we don't know of any Church denomination, Bible College or Seminary, or theological institute that emphasizes the number of the beast being 666 or 616, the exact methodology of casting out demons as their key doctrinal tenets, or any that believe these to be a core, critical component to the overall message of the Gospel. "

Apparently, Dr. Bart Ehrman also agrees in general.

Professor Daniel Wallace commented:

"WHAT CORE THEOLOGICAL TENETS OF CHRISTIANITY ARE AFFECTED OR JEOPARDIZED BY THESE TEXTUAL VARIANTS? Well, we can have Bart Ehrman answer that question for us. In the paperback version of his book, "Misquoting Jesus," which was done six months after his hardback book came out, the editors added in some teasers that they threw into the appendix on the paperback version. They asked Bart Ehrman in Q&A format: "Why do you believe these core tenets of Christian orthodoxy to be in jeopardy based on the scribal errors you discovered in the biblical manuscripts?" Bart Ehrman, the author of "Misquoting Jesus," answered: "Essential Christian beliefs are not affected by textual variants in the manuscript tradition of the New Testament." Ironically the popular source behind most of the skeptics of the manuscript tradition, even the other writers, typically is Bart Ehrman. Yet what they claim is not even what Bart Ehrman said or believes, that essential Christianity looked different in the original Gospels- that is not the case. "

"I (Daniel Wallace) have used this quote in debates with Bart Ehrman, and he cannot refute it because he knows that he said it. Classically, I save that quote for the end to keep the debates exciting and long. Interestingly, a few months after they released the paperback version, it was quietly taken out of the (successive prints of the) paperback version of "Misquoting Jesus" because it hurt sales. "

Another interesting fact pointed out by the professor was that the gap between the timing of the actual events and the earliest manuscript appearance is exceedingly short when compared to other classical Greek works, which is a strong point for the Biblical reliability.

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