Critics often attack Christianity by attacking the integrity of the Bible. As is the case with any written work from antiquity, we no longer have the original writings of biblical authors. Critics point out that all we have are copies of copies transcribed over centuries and not all the copies agree with each other. They say the Bible has been copied, translated, and edited until we can no longer have any certainty about what it originally said. Have you heard any of this before? Well, I'm going to explain why we can have confidence in the integrity of the Bible in amazingly easy terms.
Trying to determine the original wording of a document is called, textual criticism. Here's a reading exercise. Below are five sentences that were copied from a single sentence. (OK, they weren't really copied, but let's pretend they were.) Each one contains an error.
The book si heavy
A book is heavy
The Bible is heavy
The book is hard
The book is not heavy
My question is this: if you only had these five sentences as a reference, do you think you could reconstruct what the original sentence was? Let's look at it word by word.
Four of the sentences say, “the” but only one says, “a.” Therefore, I would guess the first word in the original sentence was, “the.”
Four sentences say, “book” and one says, “Bible.” I happen to know that “Bible” is the Greek word for “book” so the person who copied that might have thought “Bible” when he saw the word, “book.” The second word in the original sentence was probably book.
Four of the sentences say, “is.” The fifth sentence says, “si” which is not an English word. It probably is simply a misspelling of the word “is” so the third word is probably, “is.”
One sentence says, “not” but none of the other ones do so I suspect “not” wasn't in the original sentence.
Finally, the last word in four of the sentences is “heavy.” One sentence says, “hard.” Both words start with “h” so it's possible the transcriber misread the original word “heavy” and wrote, “hard.” I think the fourth word in the original sentence was, “heavy.”
So, having compared every sentence and considered the differences, I believe the original sentence was, “The book is heavy.” Wouldn't you agree? I would be confident in that conclusion even though none of the sentences above actually say, “The book is heavy,” because there are enough similarities in just these five to justify that conclusion. Of course, if I had 10 sentences to compare, I would have even more confidence. If I had 100 or 1000 sentences to compare, there would no longer be any room for doubt. In this same way, we can have confidence in the integrity of the Bible – by comparing the manuscripts.
Now, suppose I'm a scribe and it's my job to make copies of the sentences above. But, for the sake of argument, I'm not a very dutiful scribe and I take it upon myself to change what the text originally said to what I think it should have said. I think it should say, “Reading the Bible is not hard.” That could be a problem. How would anyone reading my copy know I copied it faithfully? Well, there are still the 5 sentences above that could be compared against my copy. My edit is different enough from earlier copies that it would be easily identified as a fake. None of the earlier sentences even have the word, “reading,” for example. Of course, if I were especially nefarious, I could make 5 or 10 copies, hoping that the number of edited copies would overwhelm earlier copies. That might work if there were only 5 earlier copies. However, as was the case before, the more copies that exist, the harder it becomes to add intentional edits later. If there were 100 or 1000 earlier copies that did not resemble my edited copy, they would bear more weight than all of my later copies.
So you can see, the integrity of the Bible hinges upon the number of early manuscripts we have. The more manuscripts that we have to compare, the greater confidence we can have in determining what the originals said and the harder it becomes for forgers to edit the text later. How many manuscripts do we have of the New Testament, then? Greek scholar, Daniel Wallace, tells us the following:
As far as Greek manuscripts, over 5800 have been catalogued. The New Testament was translated early on into several other languages as well, such as Latin, Coptic, Syriac, Armenian, Georgian, Gothic, etc. The total number of these versional witnesses has not been counted yet, but it certainly numbers in the tens of thousands. At the same time, it should be pointed out that most of our manuscripts come from the second millennium AD, and most of our manuscripts do not include the whole New Testament. A fragment of just a verse or two still counts as a manuscript. And yet, the average size for a NT manuscript is more than 450 pages. At the other end of the data pool are the quotations of the NT by church fathers. To date, more than one million quotations of the NT by the church fathers have been tabulated. These fathers come from as early as the late first century all the way to the middle ages.... NT scholars face an embarrassment of riches compared to the data the classical Greek and Latin scholars have to contend with. The average classical author’s literary remains number no more than twenty copies. We have more than 1,000 times the manuscript data for the NT than we do for the average Greco-Roman author. Not only this, but the extant manuscripts of the average classical author are no earlier than 500 years after the time he wrote. For the NT, we are waiting mere decades for surviving copies.
I've written before that we have more evidence for the historicity of Jesus than any other person of antiquity. All we know about ancient people is what has been written down about them. The number of New Testament manuscripts dwarfs any other ancient writing. If we know anything at all about history, then we can be as certain of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus as any other event in history.