Can we trust the Bible?

And my short answer is predicably enough, “Yes!” I bet you weren’t expecting me to say that!

Normally when someone asks me “Can we trust the Bible?” I like to ask them why they struggle to trust it themselves – and their answers usually fall into one of a few categories:

  1. The Bible can’t be trusted because it has been changed since it was written (people usually blame Chinese Whispers for this, or Emperor Constantine if they read Dan Brown’s book the Da Vinci Code and forgot it’s a work of fiction.
  2. The Bible can’t be trusted because the gospels (or some other part of it) are factually inaccurate (ie the original writers set out to deceive us).
  3. The Bible can’t be trusted because it’s full of contradictions.

Each of those is actually a big question worthy of attention in it’s own right, so I’ll tackle them one at a time over the next few issues, starting today with:

Hasn’t the Bible been changed since it was written?

Let me start by saying why this is a tricky question to answer: we simply don’t have the original manuscripts. Barring an unlikely series of archaeological finds, we will never know with 100% certainty that the Bible we have today is the same as what was originally written.

What we can a lot more confident of is that the Bible’s text hasn’t changed greatly over history. To explain why, let’s think first about how a bible book was written, and we’ll take Luke’s gospel as an example because it’s author (Luke) tells us who he wrote it for (his sponsor, Theophilus) and why he wrote it: Theophilus had sponsored him to go to Israel to investigate all the stories about Jesus. So if you like Luke is the first investigative journalist!

So how did Luke’s work go global? Presumably after his research was complete, he sent his completed gospel manuscript to Theophilus, who found it so helpful, that he arranged for it to be copied and copied and copied so that all the churches in his area had access to it. And many of those copies were copied too…and it’s from all of those copies, spread over the 1900 years (or so) since the New Testament was completed, that the accusation of “Chinese whispers” arises.

So how can we test whether changes have been made? Well the obvious answer is also the right answer here: by comparing today’s Bible with Bibles from ancient history. And thankfully we don’t need a time machine to do that, just a trip to the British Library to see a document called the Codex Sinaiticus. Dated to between 330-360AD, it is the oldest complete manuscript we have of the Bible. And by comparing it with a modern Bible, we can be confident that the Bible hasn’t substantially changed since 350AD. The words written in ancient Greek then are the same (allowing for translation) as the words we have today. So that’s 1650 of the 1900 years of Chinese whispers wiped dealt with.

While you’re in the British Library, you could also go to see the Chester Beatty Papyrus. This is a collection of New Testament books dated to the end of the 2nd century. They also are the same as what we have today. So that’s 1800 of our 1900 years of Chinese whispers taken out of the equation.

A trip to the Institut Français d’Archéologie Orientale in Cairo would enable you to see “Papyrus 98”, which is a portion of the book of Revelation – dated to around 150AD (1850/1900!)

And if you flew home via Manchester, and popped into the John Rylands Library, you could see “Papyrus 52”,a small fragment of the gospel of John, dated to 125AD (1875/1920).

And what those manuscripts show us is that we can be certain that chunks of the Bible has been copied pretty accurately for 1875 of the 1900 years (98.5%)  it’s been in existence.

However “pretty accurately” is not totally accurately. One of the features of the Codex Sinaiticus is that there are marks on it that show corrections being made. So how can we be certain that bits haven’t been altered?

Well answering this question involves a whole university discipline called textual criticism. Textual critics compare multiple copies of the same ancient documents in an attempt to work out where Chinese Whispers has gone on. And the more copies of the ancient document they have, the more confidence they have in its accuracy.

So let’s compare the Bible with another ancient book that no one accuses of Chinese whispers – Caesar’s history of The Gallic Wars (written around 50BC). We have ten full copies of it, the earliest of which dates to 900AD (so we know it hasn’t changed for 1150 of the 2170 years since it was written – ie 53%). But those ten copies are enough for the Textual Critics to declare the text reliable.

Let’s compare that with the Bible. We’ve already seen we have manuscripts going back for 98.5% of the Bible’s history. But how many manuscripts do we have? Well to date archaeologists have over 25,000 handwritten New Testament manuscripts (in a number of ancient languages). If 10 is enough for Caesar then surely 25,000 can give us confidence that the Bible we have today has not been subject to Chinese Whispers!

Bible historians are actually so confident about the accuracy of our modern Bibles, that they have no difficulties highlighting the few areas of the Bible where doubts do exist. For example, if you look at the end of Mark’s gospel in a modern bible you will see it begins with this note – “The most reliable early manuscripts and other ancient witnesses do not have Mark 16:9-20”. Reading an honest note like that isn’t a sign of doubt, but of confidence!

So has the Bible been changed since it was written? Not substantially  – and where historians think it has been – they tell us. But that doesn’t mean what was originally written was accurate – we’ll come back to that next time!

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First published March 2017 in the Bridge Magazine.

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