Picking Out the Cherry Red Honda: The Reliability of the Bible

Published July 25, 2016 by

A Word on “In the Original Manuscripts”

In speaking with some of you, I felt impressed to further explain an area in the first sermon–Pillars: The Bible. I want to give special attention to the phrase “in the original manuscripts.” I’m aware that this may be a source of confusion that can cast doubt on the Bibles we hold in our hands. Since we don’t have the autographs (the original New Testament documents), then how can we know what we have is accurate? Do we need to know Greek and Hebrew to determine what is original? For those of us that feel this way, allow me to assure you that our English Bibles are reliable—especially those translations that retain a word-for-word translation like the ESV and NASB. And though I would love for every one of us to learn the original languages of Greek and Hebrew, it’s not necessary to understand the Bible.

So let me first give a primer on all this business of manuscripts, and copies of copies. Hopefully, this will answer any lingering questions you may have concerning how we got the Bible. Currently, we possess around 5,800 manuscripts of the Greek New Testament, and that number is growing every day. Out of these, we have zero originals (called autographs). We have copies (called manuscripts). Now these largely aren’t manuscripts of the entire New Testament, or even entire books of the New Testament. They are portions and fragments—some larger then others. But we have many, and every year we find more. In fact, the Bible possess more textual witnesses than any other book in antiquity. Furthermore, the ones that are found are dating closer to the autographs.

But in discovering more copies, consequently we also discover more errors. I don’t know if all of us are aware of this, but human beings aren’t perfect. We make mistakes. I will often throw out a challenge to my students to copy 1 John word for word without any error. The point being that whether we are copying by sight, or by hearing, ninety-nine percent of the time we get something wrong. The Bible, in its transmission, operates the same way. The copies have errors. The area of scholarship that deals with these errors is called “Textual Criticism”—an arena that runs deep and wide.

Right away, some of us may feel uneasy about this—that we don’t have the originals, and the copies we do have may have been intentionally changed, and major doctrines altered to fit certain theologies. But let me put your mind at ease. A vast majority of textual variants don’t affect any major doctrine. Most of them are minor variants like, “Does ‘Christ’ have ‘the’ in front of it or not? Does ‘light’ take the preposition ‘in’ or ‘on’?”

But, in case we feel that more manuscripts is a bad thing, let me suggest the opposite. It’s a good thing to have more manuscripts, even if it comes with this blundering baggage. Here’s why: Finding more copies brings us closer to the original. For example:

Suppose a cherry red Honda Civic ran a red light on 13th and Hillyard. It then crashed into a parked blue Ford Explorer outside of the Bubble Tea shop. And suppose there were only two witnesses. In giving their testimonies to the officer, both accounts matched with the exception of the described color. One man said the Honda was “red” while the other said it was “cherry red.”

Now one is completely accurate, but how could we determine which one? We only have two witnesses. We would have a 50/50 chance of getting it right. But suppose we had 100 witnesses, and 95 of them said it was “cherry red”. Of course three said it was just “red”, one said it was “maroon”, and the college kid with Jack and Coke on his breath said it was “blue.” What could we conclude based on these witnesses? Probably that it was cherry red. We could also conclude that some people aren’t as descriptive as others. We could conclude that one person saw the accident with the sunlight in their eyes and misidentified the cherry for maroon. And of course we could conclude that the college kid is a heretical drunk.

The point is, the more manuscripts we discover, the more witnesses we have. Many say “cherry red”. Some say “maroon”. Some leave out “cherry”. And very few change it altogether and their reasons for changing it vary. So yes, we do have more errors, but we will also have more witnesses that confirm the originals. But also keep in mind that whether it was cherry, red, or maroon, none of these are imperative to our understanding of what actually took place. We know that a car crashed. We know where it crashed. And we know whom it involved. All the fundamentals are there, and nothing pertinent to the account is missing.

So when we say that the Bible is infallible in its original manuscripts, we are accounting for the errors we discover, while affirming that the inspired author had none. Regardless, we can be confident that what we have in our English Bibles is reliable for communicating God’s truth about himself. I would not teach from the English if I believed otherwise. God has used the labor of many–giving their whole lives to this work, and some dying for it—to ensure that we have God’s infallible word. So take it, know it, and stand in assurance that “the grass withers, the flower falls, but the word of the Lord remains forever (1 Peter 1:34).”

 

For more information on Textual Transmission see:

Dan Wallace’s website https://danielbwallace.com/

Bill Mounce’s  Greek For the Rest of Us

Bruce Metzger’s The Text of the New Testament: It’s Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration

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