The Reliability of the Biblical Text

When considering the question of the reliability of the Biblical text, a number of factors must be cited in defense of the Scriptures. First, the autographical texts of the Old and New Testament Scriptures were indeed inspired or “God breathed” (θεόπνευστος > 2 Tim 3.16) and is therefore a direct product of the mind of God. Because God inspired the Scriptures, and God cannot do anything that is imperfect and against His nature, we can lay claim that the Scriptures are free from error and in this sense, inerrant. However, when one looks at the manuscript (MS) tradition, they may be puzzled as to how we as the church can claim that we possess an inspired and inerrant text, given the nature of textual variants within the tradition itself. And this leads to the discussion prompt, “How can conservatives claim to have God’s very words?”

There are a number of factors that help to answer such a question in the affirmative. First, the reliability of the scribes of the OT is well documented. As Ellis R. Brotzman notes, “Students of the Old Testament text . . . have to deal with fewer variants than their New Testament counterparts,”[1] and “It is generally accepted that the Old Testament was copied more carefully than the New.”[2] A statement such as this is reflected in Fields work, where he rightly notes that only about 10 percent of the OT text is under dispute;[3] a remarkable testimony to God in the preservation of His word. On the NT side of things, it can be noted that of the 138,000 words in the Greek NT, and among the 5800+ manuscripts in the MS tradition, there are about 400,000 textual variants in existence. This would be a shocking number, if left by itself. However, this is not the entirety of the story.

First, the textual variants which are present in the MS tradition are presented in four categories, the largest of which are errors of sight or hearing (during copying). As Daniel Wallace notes, “Of the hundreds of thousands of textual variants, the majority are spelling differences that have no impact on the meaning of the text.”[4]  The smallest of the categories of variants are those which are both meaningful and viable. Meaning, they are meaningful because they affect the understanding/interpretation of the text in some degree and they have a possibility to be the original wording of the autographic text. This variant class, which is the only one that is problematic to the textual scholar, consists of less than 1 percent of the NT text. Hence, a 99+ percent assurance. When one couples this with the different “text-types” that produced very similar readings throughout the MS tradition (Alexandrian, Western and Byzantine text-type traditions), it can be noted that different streams of MS traditions were producing the same Scripture over what is often the case, the same time period in the history of the church. Meaning, if the Scriptures had been corrupted wholesale, it would show up in one of these lines of text-types (one text-type would conflict with the others), but, this is not the case at all. Instead, the text-type traditions are remarkably similar, thus demonstrating a static text throughout the history of the church. On this point, note the words of Gregory Koukl when he states, “What can we conclude from the evidence?  Virtually all of the 400,000 differences in the New Testament documents—spelling errors, inverted words, non-viable variants and the like—are completely inconsequential . . . This means that our New Testament is over 99% pure.  In the entire text of 20,000 lines, only 40 lines are in doubt (about 400 words), and none affects any significant doctrine.”[5]

Finally, there is the issue, of the “tenacity” of the text. Textual tenacity, as defined by Kurt and Barbra Aland is “a stubborn resistance of the readings and the text types to change.”[6] What this means is once a textual reading is introduced into the MS tradition, it remains in the MS tradition. The result of this is an overabundance of textual words, because any change in the MS tradition is a change which is additive and not subtractive. Meaning, when we look at the NT MS tradition, we are in essence looking at a one thousand piece jigsaw puzzle with one thousand and twenty-five pieces. Meaning, we have more information then we should (because of scribal additions and errors) but not a lack of the original wording. James White explains, “Why is this so important? Because readings just don’t ‘disappear’ in the New Testament. And this means we still have the original readings of the New Testament works.”[7] Also, a text which utilizes/contains variant readings is hardly a concern, as demonstrated by the Lord Jesus Himself, who held the Hellenized Jews of His day to accountability regarding the Scriptures, even though they would have been utilizing the LXX rather than the Hebrew text.

In conclusion, it is right to proclaim that we have a reliable text (both OT and NT) that God has supernaturally preserved via His perfect providence. It is likewise right to proclaim that in the case of textual variation, that no cardinal doctrine of the Christian faith is affected by a variant reading, as admitted by skeptic and textual scholar Bart Ehrman when he proclaimed, “The position I argue for in Misquoting Jesus does not actually stand at odds with Prof. Metzger’s position that essential Christian beliefs are not affected by textual variants in the manuscript tradition of the New Testament.”[8] And, since the MS tradition remains intact, it stands to reason that we have both the inspired words of Scripture and the inerrant message of Scripture when the entirety of the MS tradition is considered (but not in individual MS form). Hence, we do in fact have the preserved word of God before us as we read our English translations.

[1] Ellis R Bortzman, Old Testament Textual Criticism: A Practical Introduction, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1994), 18.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Lee M. Fields, Hebrew for the Rest of Us, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008), 44.

[4] Andreas J Kostenberger, Michael J Kruger, The Heresy of Orthodoxy: How Contemporary Culture’s Fascination with Diversity Has Reshaped Our Understanding of Early Christianity. (Wheaton, IL: Good News Publishers/Crossway Books, 2010), 478-479.

[5] Gregory Koukl, “Misquoting Jesus? Answering Bart Ehrman.” (Stand to Reason, Sept/Oct 2010), 264-266, Kindle.

[6] Kurt Aland, Barbara Aland, The Text of the New Testament: An Introduction to the Critical Editions and to the Theory and Practice of Modern Textual Criticism, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing., 1995), 69.

[7] James R White, The King James Only Controversy: Can You Trust Modern Translations? (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House, 2009), 78.

[8] Daniel B Wallace, ed. Revisiting the Corruption of the New Testament: Manuscripts, Patristic, and Apocryphal Evidence, (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Academic, 2011), 55.