Answering the Telephone Game: The Reliable Transmission of the Text of the New Testament

September 13, 2016

This is the second in a series of posts on Textual Criticism of the New Testament and the Church that will run through 2016 and into 2017. Part 1 can be found HERE. Part 3 entitled “The Question of the Corruption of the New Testament” will be out next month.

 In my previous blog post I tried to summarize the three most common questions I get related to textual criticism and discuss why they are important. All of these questions are related to the reliability of the New Testament, and they ultimately concern the transmission of the text of the New Testament from the original autographs until now. In other words, is the English Bible I have open in front of me right now a reasonably accurate representation of the original inspired text of Scripture?

The first of these questions I stated like this: How do we know that the text of the New Testament wasn’t accidentally corrupted through the process of centuries of copying? This is the question we will consider in this blog post.

A few facts might be helpful to get us started here. First, the New Testament was originally penned a long time ago. The first book of the New Testament was written probably in the AD 40s. The last book of the New Testament was finished by around AD 90. That means that the New Testament is approaching its 2,000th birthday. That’s a long time. Second, for nearly 1,500 of those 2,000 years, the New Testament was copied by hand, simply because the printing press hadn’t been invented yet. Third, in the first few centuries of the life of the New Testament, it was primarily copied by “amateurs,” meaning it was not copied by professional scribes and manuscript makers but rather by pastors, missionaries, and lay ministers. You don’t need a Ph.D. in Textual Criticism to realize that manuscripts that are copied by hand for fifteen hundred years, often by amateurs, aren’t going to be perfect. There is going to be some variation in the manuscripts, because although God’s Word is perfect and Jesus is perfect, Fred the Scribe who lives in Caesarea in the fourth century and is making a copy of the Gospel of Matthew isn’t.

It may sound like those three facts above hinder rather than help the credibility of the New Testament. Remember our discussion of the telephone game? Could this just be the ancient manuscript version of that? A closer look reveals that this isn’t actually the case. The New Testament is remarkably well preserved. In fact, the New Testament is, by far, the most well preserved and well attested to ancient work in the history of planet Earth. Let me give you a few more facts to make my case.

(1) We have an extremely replete manuscript history of the New Testament.

We have a few ancient copies of books of the New Testament that go all the way back to within about forty years of their original writing, and we have a vast number of witnesses to the text of the New Testament—more than 6,000, ranging from tiny fragments to entire Bibles—from the second century all the way to the invention of the printing press and beyond. There is no other ancient text that even comes remotely close to the New Testament in its antiquity (how close to the original the current manuscripts are) and in its manuscript number. Second place is a distant, distant second.

(2) The manuscripts of the New Testament aren’t really all that different from one another.

If you take a course in Textual Criticism, you will hear your professor say something like “95% of all the New Testament manuscripts agree in 100% of their text, and 100% of the New Testament Manuscripts agree in 90% of their text.” That’s a nice round approximation, but it isn’t far off. In other words, if you took all of the ancient copies of the New Testament, from tiny fragments to whole Bibles, and you piled them up on my desk and started sorting them into two piles—a pile for all of the manuscripts that are essentially the same and a pile for all the manuscripts that have significant variation in them, 95% of the manuscripts would be in the “same” pile, and 5% would be in the “different” pile. And then if you started to ask the question, “How different are the 5% from the 95%?” you’d quickly discover that 90% of the text isn’t in dispute at all after 1,500 years of copying by hand. Turns out Fred the Scribe is really pretty good after all.

(3) We know the kinds of errors scribes made; that makes them pretty easy to spot in many cases.

“But wait!” you may say. “10% of the Bible sounds like a lot to me!” You are right; 10% is quite a bit. But what if I told that that the vast majority of that 10% were just disagreements over the spellings of words? Even by Shakespeare’s day, people weren’t spelling their own surnames in a consistent way, and way back in the early days of the copying of the New Testament spellings of words weren’t fixed either. There were regional spelling variations back then just as there are today as well (e.g. color vs. colour, etc.). Scholars call these orthographic variations, and the vast majority of all the differences between the ancient manuscripts of the New Testament are nothing more than differences in spelling.

Not all of the difference among the manuscripts of the New Testament, however, are spelling variations. What about everything else? Sometimes scribes made obvious errors in copying; they accidently skipped a word or accidently skipped half a sentence. These errors are often easy to spot, because the resulting reading is nonsense. Sometimes scribes accidentally reordered the words in a sentence (e.g. “Jesus Christ the Lord vs. The Lord Jesus Christ”). Many of these types of errors don’t even show up in our English translations. But there are, beyond all these, some major, viable variants among the texts of the New Testament. Anyone with a decent study Bible knows about these. All our modern Bibles have a note near the end of Mark 16 that talks about how some ancient manuscripts of the New Testament end at verse 8 instead of vs. 20. All our modern Bibles have a note at John 8 indicating that some ancient manuscripts of the New Testament don’t contain the story of the woman caught in adultery. These are the kinds of textual issues that Christian Studies students study and New Testament Scholars write articles about. It is important to note, however, none of these major, viable variants have any impact on Christian doctrine or what we believe about Jesus. We study them and you have notes about them in your Bibles, because they are an important part of how God has kept his Word for us to the modern day. Nothing in Christianity rises or falls with any of these variants.

At this point you should be able to see how the facts of the transmission of the New Testament really do work in favor of its reliability. We have manuscripts of the New Testament from all across the history of the transmission of the text. Those manuscripts are remarkably similar to one another considering they were copied by hand for 1,500 years. And though scribes do sometimes make errors, most of those amount to nothing more than variations in spelling and are pretty easy to spot. There are still a few head-scratching variants among the manuscripts of the New Testament, but no readings change anything about the person of Christ, the gospel, or Christian doctrine.

Imagine playing that telephone game that we talked about in my last blog post. But imagine instead of having to listen to just the person whispering in your ear, you get to listen in on what is whispered in the ears of everyone else in the circle. The game would be pretty different, wouldn’t it? Well, that’s what it is like being a New Testament textual critic. Our modern Bibles were put together with access to all of the manuscripts from across all of the centuries, and that’s how we know that the text of the New Testament has been brought down to us with a tremendous degree of accuracy.

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