Textual Criticism

Perhaps you have heard the statement, “Well, only a fool would believe the Bible. It contains so many errors.”
How do you answer?
Notice there are several parts to the statement. 1. The derogatory and completely arbitrary portion about fools. 2. A measurable assertion stating that the Bible contains many errors.
You can provide them with some more proof of the first assertion depending on your response. That is why we will focus on the second.
Let’s be honest about several things right from the start.
  1. To our knowledge, we do not have any original manuscripts. We only have copies.
  2. In the copies that we do have, there are many variants, perhaps between 300,000 to 400,000 of them. (Patton)
How do we know that what we have is really God’s Word? The short answer that I would give is: Abundance. God has blessed us with an incredible abundance of manuscripts.
Here is the break down.
We have somewhere between 5,800 catalogued hand copied manuscripts from the 2nd to 15th century. This includes fragments, books, large portions of the NT, and complete NT. The majority of these come from the 2nd millennium and the average is 450 pages.
Not only do we have manuscripts, but also quotations by church fathers (over 1 million have been tabulated)
In comparison,
  1. There are 643 copies of Homer’s Iliad
  2. There are 8 copies of Herodotus’ History, the earliest from 900 A.D., 1,350 years after the original
  3. There are 10 copies of Caesar’s Gallic Wars, the earliest from 900 years, 1000 years after the original
  4. “The average classical author’s literary remains number no more than twenty copies” (Wallace)
So, back to those pesky variants. There are four different kinds of variants:
  1. Spelling and nonsense readings – 75%. Most are from a movable nu
  2. Changes that can’t be translated; synonyms – word order is different (ex. “Jesus Christ” to “Christ Jesus”)
  3. Real changes, but not likely to be the original – there is significance to what is being said, but there is really no chance that it could be the original wording (because there are older and more trustworthy text against it)
  4. Real changes, and possibly the original – less than 1%, with no cardinal belief at stake.
    1. The largest ones are John 8 and Mark 16
    2. Christ’s virgin birth, sacrificial death, resurrection, and return are not questioned. We are still sinners, saved by grace alone, through faith alone.
So how do critics choose? (Patton)
  1. Date. As a general rule, the earlier the date, the better. 
  2. Geographic Distribution. When there is wide geographic distribution (i.e., the manuscript has representation in multiple areas), this adds to its authenticity since it evidences multiple early attestations through its wide geographic distribution.
  3. Number of manuscripts. 
  4. The harder reading is usually closer to the original. Scribes would normally smooth out difficulties rather than add them.
  5. The shorter reading is usually closer to the original.
So, what does that mean?
Sir Frederic Kenyon’s statement, “The interval then between the date of original composition and the earliest evidence become so small to be in fact negligible, and the last foundation for any doubt that the Scripture have come down to us substantially as they were written has now been removed. Both the authenticity and the general integrity of the books of the New Testament may be regarded as finally established.”
So here is how should you respond to that original statement, “Well, only a fool would believe the Bible. It contains so many errors.”
  1. “What do you mean by that?” – They probably are repeating someone else’s idea and would struggle to put it in their own words.
  2. “How did you come to that conclusion?” -They need to give some proof for their conclusions. 
  3. “Can I should you some other evidence?” – If they say no, you haven’t made them angry. If they say yes, they have committed themselves to hear you out.
Two blog posts that are very helpful, and are quoted above are:
For a good look at how to diffuse a statement like this, see Greg Koukl’s book, Tactics