The Bible Was Copied So Many Times. Can We Trust It?

Updated: Apr 6


When Jesus departed into the clouds, the Greek New Testament floated down on a soft pillow into the apostle's hands.


It had all 27 books fully intact with no variations or errors of any kind.


Just one perfect copy of the Christian Bible—with a table of contents.


This is how some seem to think of the Bible, or worse—they talk as if a 1611 King James Version glided down into the apostle’s hands.


But how we got our Bible can be a difficult topic.


It raises controversies.


It has the potential to harm our faith.


But it can also rebuild and redefine our faith because it can smash the Evangelical conception of “inerrancy” or “inspiration of Scripture” with reality.


A reality that can be scary, but it shouldn’t because it's true.


This process, which some call deconstructing, is a necessary component for those of us who want to wake up out of the drunken stupor of our traditions.


It’s for those who want to be truly Biblical Christians.


It’s necessary. But don’t stop there!


Demolish what needs to be demolished, but don’t leave it as a pile of rubble.


Continue to the next phase: reconstruction.


Tear down the traditions based on myths and half-truths, but then rebuild it with the freeing and surprisingly beautiful story of how we actually got our Bibles.


This article will attempt to do just this because as Christians, we should never fear the truth.


Ever.


The Rise of Darth Vader


There’s a Darth Vader in the world of Biblical scholarship.


Darth Vader, as most of you probably know, started out as a good character. He started out as the hope for the Jedi Council in the cosmic conflict between light and dark, but he became one of the greatest enemies to the Jedi.


Similarly, there is a man who started with what appeared to be a zeal of fire from the altar in heaven itself.


This passion led him into the halls of seminary at Moody Bible Institute (an Evangelical educational hub).


Like most Evangelicals, he had a concrete understanding of the inerrancy of the Bible that was heavily reinforced by his experience at Moody.


He was taught (only) one perspective about the nature of the Bible: “The Bible is the inerrant word of God. It contains no mistakes. It is inspired completely and in its very words” (Misquoting Jesus, pg. 4).


Sounds good right?


Nevertheless, it is often taught as the unbending truth, and anyone who challenges this presupposition risks being ostracized as a heretical wolf.


He climbed the academic ladder until he was working on his Ph.D. with one of the world’s greatest New Testament Greek scholars: Bruce Metzger, who is most responsible for compiling the Greek New Testament of the 21st century.


This was a rare opportunity for any post-graduate student, somewhat like Anakin Skywalker being mentored by Obi-Wan Kenobi and Master Yoda.


His future looked bright.


He learned more about how the Bible went from the apostles' hands to our bookshelves than nearly any other human being at the time.


But he came out the other end of this process a full-blown agnostic, and a critic of the intellectual reliability of Christianity.


He saw the Evangelical definition of Biblical inerrancy: a tradition which was taught as a foundational, dogmatic doctrine holding up the whole of Christianity.


But he also saw the truth of what our Bibles are, first-hand, by researching and cataloging the original manuscripts.


He was quickly troubled by the disparancy between Evangelical's presentation of the Bible and the evidence. The version of Christianity he understood starkly contradicted the Biblical research.


He turned to agnosticism, denouncing Christianity as a man-made religion that was based on texts that were altered to favor particular theologies (like Jesus’s deity or the Trinity).


He then wrote books to discredit Christianity and the trustworthiness of the Bible, including the Jesus described in the Bible.


His name is Bart Ehrman.


He's an intelligent, charasmatic, and talanted man.


And he has become quite successful at telling partial truths about Christianity in best-selling books such as Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why, Jesus Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions, and How Jesus Became God.


He also debates other New Testament Greek scholars, such as Daniel Wallace: an Evangelical professor who has written Greek Grammars, and helped collect, document, and discover new Biblical manuscripts at The Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts.


This is where any Biblical manuscript can be viewed by the public.


And I encourage you to investigate for yourself to see if the claims of Mormons, Muslims, KJV-only people, church doctrinal statements, as well as this article, are true or not.


But keep in mind: this is a process of deconstruction for the purpose of reconstruction.


Don’t follow Bart Ehrman to his agnostic conclusions, which are completely inappropriate and unfounded in view of the evidence.


He deconstructed then moved on.


He saw that the typical definition of inerrancy wasn't true but demolished the whole of historical Christianity, instead of just the part that was wrong.


Reconstruct.


The Bible of the First Church


Paul said, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16), but it leaves questions:

  • What “Scripture” did he have in mind?

  • What does “breathed out by God” mean?

  • Does this support the Evangelical concept of “inerrancy”?

To the first question: what did Paul mean by “Scripture”?


The New Testament didn’t exist at this point, just a few letters written by the apostles and their companions scattered in a couple house churches.


The Bible Paul had at his reach, which he quoted the most, was the LXX (Septuagint): the Greek translation of the Old Testament.


What we call “the New Testament” was not official until the fourth century.

Up until then, the church could not agree on what belonged in the New Testament. There were several lists of what should be in the Bible, called the canon, but they were all different.

Why would this be so confusing? Why wouldn’t Jesus or the apostles leave more clear instructions about what belonged in the Bible, or how to preserve the Bible for future generations?


The very fact that we are asking this indicates that the early church, including Jesus and the apostles, did not see this the same way we do.


First of all, the majority of early Christians did not think of Christianity as a text-based faith (as we do), but a Messiah-based faith (as we should), and as such, the gospel story about Jesus was circulated through oral tradition.


This was the custom of the time.


These oral traditions contained stories about Jesus that were eventually written down by Mark, Matthew, Luke, then John.


Oral traditions about Jesus were also in the form of hymns, some of which are preserved in the New Testament (Eph. 5:19, Jas. 5:13, Phil. 2:5-11, Col. 1:15-20, Heb. 1:1-3).


By the ’50s, the apostles were writing letters that were considered Scripture early-on (see 2 Peter. 3:16). These letters were circulated too.


Paul said that “When this letter has been read among you, have it also read in the church of the Laodiceans; and see that you also read the letter from Laodicea” (Col. 4:16).


When the first church gathered in one another’s houses, or sometimes at cemeteries or catacombs (during times of heavy persecution), they would tell Jesus’s stories, sing Jesus’s hymns, and read portions of the LXX with the apostle’s letters (if available) to encourage them to live passionately and productively for their resurrected king.


While they certainly treasured the apostle’s writings (the proto-New Testament), they were often too busy living out Christianity to focus more on documentation.


They were too involved with bringing the kingdom of God to an evil generation that often assaulted and murdered them to get around to making a list of New Testament books or nailing down a sophisticated procedure for making a written witness to Jesus.


They were more focused on being living witnesses than writing books.


We should be as well.


To us modern Christians, whose faith is firmly founded on and centered around a book, it seems careless, even blasphemous.


To us, many of whom are rightfully called Bibolaters (worshipers of the Bible), this was insanity.


Nevertheless, the first church did not seem to think too much about the New Testament. At least not like we do.


How We Actually Got the New Testament


Most church websites have doctrinal statements as a central piece to display their doctrinally-centered version of Christianity.


Typically, you must agree with their doctrinal statements to join their congregation, but that’s a deconstructing discussion for another article.


These doctrinal statements typically have a bit on Biblical inerrancy which is defined as having a flawless Bible without any errors “in the original autographs”.


Just as Ehrman was taught.


There is a huge problem with this claim.


The original letters penned by the Biblical authors are called autographs. Whether you think this is strange, funny, or just sad, the fact remains that there are no known autographs of the Bible.


Nope.


Not one.


What we have are copies of the autographs, which are called manuscripts, and these manuscripts have some problems.


The early Christians were not usually trained scribes but were simply trying to get the content down to take back to their home churches. So, the apostles' letters were copied by laymen.


Then the copies were copied.


Then the copies of the copies were copied.


This process continued for fifteen hundred years.


All we have remaining today are copies of copies of copies of copies—these are also from copies that have come down from other copies of copies.


How many times were the copies copied?


We don’t know exactly, but in some cases, our manuscripts may be 50-100 or more generations of copies removed from the autographs.


Not only does this show the unreliability of church statements, but this exposes a serious flaw in how we see the Bible.


Not only do we not have any of the original manuscripts, but out of all the surviving manuscripts that we have today, not one is identical to another.


Out of the tens of thousands of ancient copies of the Bible, none are the same.


No.


Not one.


It’s understandable since these were all copied by hand with primitive instruments (often) by untrained laymen with limited time and resources.


It could take months or years to produce a full copy of the Bible in the ancient world.


It’s also worth noting (again) that people at that time did not value or rely on written content as we do today. They were mostly illiterate and relied on oral tradition, not books.


They did not even view the New Testament like we do, since most scribes were not too worried about making minor errors, and many scribes intentionally made changes to improve the text for clarity or theology.


Horrifying to us, but not to most of the New Testament scribes (the Old Testament scribes were much more fastidious).


Each error a copyist makes is called a variant, which is when two or more manuscripts of the same passage have different words or letters.


Imagine if you had to write an entire book in a limited amount of time, and you didn't care so much about accurate documentation, how many mistakes would you make?


As you can guess, they made a lot of variants.


And worse, each copyist not only made their own mistakes but they also (unknowingly) copied the mistakes and changes that were made in the copy they used.


The more a document was copied, the more the variants multiplied.


This brings up another problem.


There are an estimated 500,000 variants in the Greek New Testament manuscript collection (this doesn’t include ancient translations).


There are more variants than there are words in the New Testament itself.

That sounds like too many; like a fatal blow to the reliability of the Bible.


And it can be discouraging.


Even as it has negatively contributed to the faith of people like Bart Ehrman. It shouldn’t though.


Nope.


Not at all.


Time to Update Our Doctrinal Statements


Ehrman concluded that out of all the manuscripts we have today, “None of these copies is completely accurate, since the scribes who produced them inadvertently and/or intentionally changed them in places. All scribes did this. So rather than actually having the inspired words of the autographs (i.e., the originals) of the Bible, what we have are the error-ridden copies of the autographs” (Misquoting Jesus, pg. 5).


This is accurate.


Biblical scholars agree with this assessment, even the most conservative ones. Plus, anyone can easily validate these claims on their own at The Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts.


This is the reality we must configure into our perception of the Bible; these are the facts we must include in our definition of inerrancy—the truth we must update our doctrinal statements with.


This reality is also what got Ehrman and others interested in textual criticism (of which he is an active scholar at North Carolina University).


Have you ever noticed that most Bibles have a note at the end of Mark 16 that says, “Some of the earliest manuscripts do not include 16:9-20”?


What does this mean? What are the implications for the nature of the Bible?


The answers are found in the study of textual criticism, which is the art and science of restoring the original words of the autographs by analyzing the variants in the manuscripts.


This method uses detective-like reasoning and manuscript evidence to piece together what was most likely the original words penned by the Biblical authors.


It’s quite a fascinating endeavor, which we will explore in the next article.

But first, to build up where things have been knocked down in your understanding of the Bible, consider some reassuring facts that textual criticism reveals about the New Testament:

  • There are over 5800 Greek manuscripts

  • There are over 20,000 ancient translations

  • It’s quoted more than a million times by the church fathers

  • It’s quoted extensively enough to construct the whole New Testament

  • It has more than 1,000 times the manuscript data of the average Greco-Roman document

  • It has 10 times more manuscript data than the average ancient document

  • It has better quality manuscripts than any other ancient document

The Bible didn't float down from heaven, but it is miraculously more testified to by manuscript evidence than any other document from the ancient world—all of which are considered trustworthy in academia (so why not the Bible?).


Now to continue the story of how we got the Bible.


Right as the Middle Ages were giving birth to the modern era, a few things happened that were game-changers.

The first was the invention of the Gutenberg Printing Press in 1440, which then created the Gutenberg Bible in 1455.


Up to this point, Bibles had to be hand-written, which was such an arduous, meticulous, time-consuming task, that one usually had to hire a scribe, which was expensive, so only the wealthier citizens could afford a Bible.


But the printing press allowed for multiple copies of Bibles to be printed in a relatively short period of time for very little money, allowing almost anyone to have a Bible.


There’s a problem with the Gutenberg Bible though.


It’s a translation from the 4th century Latin Bible written by Saint Jerome.


This is a problem because:

  • It’s a translation from a translation

  • It’s not based on the original Greek and Hebrew

  • It’s based on one source, instead of multiple

  • It’s based on an old source, instead of a new one

  • It’s based on a source that's far removed from the original culture

Jerome’s Bible also had undergone incredible corruption from being copied for a thousand years, and the Latin had morphed over the centuries, implanting foreign concepts into the Latin wordssuch as penance instead of repentance, which led to the gross practice of indulgences Martin Luther opposed.


The age of the printing press changed everything.


There was another game-changer around this time though.


A New Age for Bibles


You may have heard of Erasmus.


He was Martin Luther’s aponant in his popular book, The Bondage of the Will.


Erasmus was a scholar in his day who studied the Bible, including the form of the Bible.


He compiled the first modern textual critical version of the New Testament, which means that he took all the known manuscripts at that time and compiled them into one readable text.


The text he produced is called the Textus Receptus.


You may have heard of this because it is the base text from which the King James Version and the New King James Versions are based.


There’s something else.


The Textus Receptus was way more advanced than the Gutenberg Bible because it was based on the original Greek and Hebrew. But it had problems too.


The Textus Receptus was based on a few manuscripts, all of which were:

  • From one region (Byzantine) instead of multiple

  • From one later branch of copyist tradition (see below)

  • Written in the 10-16th centuries

  • Far removed from the ancient context

Erasmus did his best with what he had, but what he had wasn’t much. He only had a half dozen manuscripts.


Today, we have over 5800.


He also only had later manuscripts, which are statistically less reliable because they’ve gone through more copies with more—you guessed it—mistakes and changes.


He also had a limited type of manuscripts.


What’s a type of manuscript?


As the New Testament was copied, certain strands of copies could be identified because they shared unique variants.


These are families of manuscripts related by common features.


Here’s how it works.


If a first-century copyist accidentally added the word “faith” to a passage, then all future copies of that particular copy would replicate the addition of “faith”. But only that strand would have it.


“Faith” would be an identifying mark for this strand of copies.


Textual critics have used these techniques to categorize the current library of manuscripts into five geographical regions.


The more sections that are represented by a manuscript collection, the more likely a textual critic will be able to detect the original.


Here’s why.


If you have manuscripts from five strands of copies that evolved independent from one another, then you can cross-examine each strand against one another because they will each have unique variants.


So you can take the strand that has the “faith” variant, and when you discover that no other strand has that addition, then you can confidently conclude that the original did not have “faith” either.


Erasmus had one strand of manuscripts.


So, he couldn’t compare it with the other four strands.


He couldn't know what errors were unique to this strand of manuscripts.


He had to include them, erroneous or not.


Worse, when he was translating the end of Revelation, he couldn't find a Greek manuscript that had this section, so he translated it from the Latin back into the Greek to fill in the blank chapters.


It was less than ideal.


Bibles Today


A lot has changed since Erasmus:

  • Thousands of Greek manuscripts have been discovered

  • Tens of thousands of ancient translations have been discovered

  • Tens of thousands of archeological findings have been unearthed

  • Books influential to the New Testament authors have been discovered

  • Our understanding of the ancient world has radically advanced

  • Textual critical methods have been fine-tuned by hundreds of years of practice by numerous experts

This is fantastic news.


Now, modern Bibles have many luxuries that previous generations never had because these are based on the most up-to-date collection of manuscripts, textual critical technology, and techniques available—which is growing (there were only 5737 manuscripts when I was in seminary a few years ago).


Now to our original question: is the New Testament we have today reliable?


The answer is yes.


This can be hard to believe in view of how plentiful the textual variants are.


This can be hard to believe with experts like Bart Ehrman shouting from the New York Times Best Seller’s stand that the Bible isn't trustworthy.


But it is.


These are some reasons for this claim, apart from everything that has been said so far.


First, consider all the variants in the Bible:

  • 500,000 from the Greek New Testament

  • More than 20,000 from New Testament translations

  • Many times more in the Hebrew Old Testament

Totaling over a million variants.


It sounds bad, but it’s not.


Why?


It’s not the number of variants that determine the accuracy of the text; rather, it’s the quality and kind of variant.


Here’s what I mean.


You can put all these variants into two categories: in the first category are insignificant variants, and in the second are significant variants.


Insignificant variants make up the vast majority of all variants, and they are mostly differences in spelling, grammar, or word order. These changes have no effect on our translation


This means that most of the differences in the million or so variants have no effect at all on meaning, interpretation, or even the translation of our Bibles.

It has been estimated that the New Testament text is 99.5% accurate. These are insignificant variants.


But the remaining .5% are made up of significant variants.


These are variants that contain multiple words or even sentences (like John 8 and Mark 16), which do affect our translations, our interpretations, and potentially more.


For example, these verses have textual variants that are well-accepted as late additions not original to the autographs:

  • There are three that bear witness in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit, and these three are one (1 John 5:7)

  • Let the one who is without sin among you be the first to cast a stone at her (John 8:7)

  • In his anguish Jesus began to pray more earnestly, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling to the ground (Luke 22:44)

  • These signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will cast out demons and they will speak with new tongues (Mark 16:17)

If you want to know exactly why these are not considered to be original, the next article will go through, step-by-step, the process of textual criticism.

These and more are listed at the back of Ehrman’s book as examples of important verses that were added to the Bible.


He builds from this that the Bible is not reliable and that Christianity is basically fraudulent.


Maybe this is supposed to wound our faith like it did his, but it shouldn’t.

Let’s just say that these verses aren’t original (which they most likely aren’t), what difference does it make?


About 0%.


What theology is solely dependent on these verses?


None.


Not one.


The same is true about every verse or word in the mass sea of textual variants: they don’t change our faith, or our message, or our theology, or our understanding of anything, except the nature of the Bible.


They practically don’t matter because they are effectually ineffective.


We can trust our Bibles.


The Conclusion


The Evangelical understanding of the Bible is simply not true:

  • Our Bible as it exists today does have errors in it

  • Our translations are not based on the original autographs

  • Our Bibles are based on tens of thousands of error-ridden manuscripts

  • Our Bibles do not have a table of contents

Deconstruct from this.


What should we think about it all?


That God chose to use a very human process to give us an accurate-enough text to live out our faith.


God did this.


He could have given us a text without errors—it can't be that hard for him!


But he didn't.


This means that the point of Christianity is not to acquire a perfect ideology (or theology) in our minds, but an effective ideology that changes our hearts, lives, relationships, then our communities.


It's enough to connect us with the living God behind the text to live out our humanity.


Remember: the point of a God-breathed scripture is not for mental perfection but so "that the person of God would be equipped for every good work" (2 Tim. 3:17).

Reconstruct with this.


We may want answers to our questions.


We may want to understand everything.


We may want a text and a theology that is flawless.


We may want a Christianity centered around our wants and our ways, but we're not God.


The person who is God chose to do things this way.


And we can trust him.


That's the gist of the situation, though of course there is a lot more that could be addressed, so this article will be quickly followed by a sequel to address the KJV, what Paul meant by "God-breathed", as well as a real example of textual criticism, done step-by-step with pictures and notes.