“The Reliability of Scripture”

The sum of your word is truth,

and every one of your righteous rules endures forever.

Psalm 119:160

One of the most common questions people ask concerning the Bible is how we know with any degree of certainty that our modern English translations are anything close to what the original authors wrote (the autographs). Beneath this question lies a number of skeptical assumptions: The texts have been copied and recopied so many times that errors must have crept in at some point. Those errors would then be compounded over a 2,000 year-long game of “telephone.” Add to that the translation from one language to another and you end up with a recipe for inaccuracy.

Another common question is how we came to have only these 27 books in our New Testament while other writings were left out. What if those other books, such as the “gospel of Thomas” or those attributed to Judas, James, Nicodemus and Peter, are “inspired” writings too? Who gets to determine canonicity anyway? Is our current New Testament just a result of ecclesiastical politics? Let’s briefly address these questions.

Text and Translation — We have over 5,700 handwritten Greek manuscripts of part or all of the New Testament today. These range from small scraps with a few verses to completed copies of the New Testament. This large body of textual resources continues to grow (in number and in the amount of text represented) and stretches from the early second century to the invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century. In addition, we have over 15,000 translations (which all required a source) and the writings of early Christians (which quote the New Testament extensively). In terms of manuscript evidence, we have an “embarrassment of riches.” We are not 2,000 years removed from the original documents but, in some cases, only a few decades (Google John Ryland’s papyrus P52 and you’ll see what I mean). This means transmission and translation of the text was no “telephone” game.

When compared with one another, textual critics find a remarkable degree of agreement between the manuscripts which speaks to the great care and accuracy with which they were copied. Most of the textual variants (the differences between them) are due to alternate spellings, the accidental omission or repetition of a letter, the substitution of a word with its synonym, etc. None of these variants change the message or meaning of Christianity in the least.

The formation of canon — Lists of books believed to be canonical (on par with the Hebrew Scriptures as God’s inspired word) were compiled as early as the second century. This was necessary to distance them from heretical Gnostic writings such as the so-called “Gospel of Thomas” and others previously mentioned. As time drew on, agreement on the number the books considered canon grew, until they were formally listed by Athanasius in AD 367. While the second-century writings of the early “church fathers” were considered (and rightly dismissed), the Gnostic writings were never even considered serious candidates for inclusion.

When held up to the 27 books which comprise our New Testament, these writings failed to meet the major criteria set by those councils: apostolicity (that a book was either written by an apostle or a close associate with an apostle), coherence (not contradicting previously accepted Scripture) and catholicity (widespread acceptance by the early Christian community). These apocryphal writings fair no better today. They lack both the historical and textual witness of the originals as well as the content and structure of the originals. For example, they say nothing of Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection, the very heart of the gospel message (1 Cor. 15:3-4). We have no reason for placing any confidence in those extra-canonical books and every reason for confidence in the 27 books we do have.