20110817-022728.jpgOne of the most frequent issues raised by skeptics when discussing the validity of the Gospel accounts is the veracity of the documents. Claims generally center on the idea that the books were heavily edited by leaders within the church or by the Catholic authorities in order to present a certain message that the church thought was desirous. The less sophisticated version of this argument is the: “what if some guy just made it all up” question. This installment of the defending the faith series will look at how accurate the original texts are to the original writers’ intent.

In order to understand the texts properly, we must begin with understanding where they come from and how they were distributed. The texts themselves were originally hand written and hand copied documents, printed on vellum or papyrus. Both were fairly expensive medium. Documents had to be copied by hand and were shared from church to church. By the end of the second century, most of the documents that are in the Bible we use today had been spread to all of the churches in the world. This is no small feat considering the fact that these documents had to be hand copied and hand delivered during a time when travel could be dangerous and Christians were not always that popular.

Hand Copying-

20110817-022652.jpgIt is frequently suggested that hand copying documents is not a very reliable method. Skeptics further suggest that the hand copying results in significant changes in the texts themselves. While it may be the case that hand copying was less reliable than photocopying, hand copying has proven to be remarkably reliable in the ancient world. This is particularly the case amongst the Jewish scribes. In the ancient world, people who professionally hand copied documents were called scribes. This was a profession of some prestige. Scribes were frequently experts in the law and were well educated. They took their jobs very seriously, because they feared God. One example of this fear is the fact that Jewish scribes would not write the name of God for fear of committing blasphemy. They would only write part of the name and they would dispose of the pen when they were done for fear of offending God with their using a pen that wrote His name to write anything else. It was this fear and reverence that was brought to the table by the copyists.

The beginning of understanding why the texts of the Bible were accurately copied is understanding the rigor that went into the copying process. After the text was copied, the letters in both the original and copied documents were counted. If there was variation between the number of letters the copy was destroyed. The scribe then compared the middle letter of each document. If the middle letter was different in either, the copy was destroyed. This was repeated with the letters in the middle of the first and second halves. Here again, variations resulted in the destruction of the copied documents. This level of professional rigor testifies to the seriousness of the professional scribe, particularly in light of the fact that the paper they were writing on was quite expensive.

It is worth noting that this was not a foolproof system of checking documents. Copies of New Testament books exist with misspelled words, changed phrasing and other variations. In addition, some scribes did alter texts. However, the amount of variation in the New Testament manuscripts is fairly minute and the vast majority of variations relate to the misspelling of words and other clearly typographical errors. However, the hand copying of texts has provided us with over 5,000 copies of each manuscript, though some are newer than others. The manner that those manuscripts were copied and distributed is illustrated in the above diagram. Again, this is very simplified. An original text was copied several times. Those copies were copied and so forth. Errors can be attributes to specific “families” of documents. In the diagram, I use the example of a misspelled word. Translators backtrack through the manuscripts and identify which copies belonged to which group. This helps them to identify variations and determine which variant is most accurate. This tracing of variations is called “textual criticism.” It has provided us with very accurate copies of the original documents. If you are interested in understand how minute most of these variations are, take the time to read the bottom page of a Bible. You will find the word variations noted there.

The widespread distribution of texts has other advantages. The biggest is that it prevented any one person from dramatically altering the books. We see this fairly early in church history. In 140 AD, a man named Marcion attended a meeting with all of the leaders of the church from all of the churches in the world. (This was called a council. It seems to have been a practice from as early as the church in Acts.) Marcion had assembled a Bible. In his book were several heavily edited copies of the book of Luke and Paul’s letters. The church leaders immediately recognized the changes in the books and called Marcion to task. He was unable to foist his altered books on the church because they all already had copies of the books. After the first few years of Christianity, it would have been impossible to alter the books through copying. Further, the entire Bible wasn’t assembled until a couple of hundred years later. This means that in order to truly alter the message of Christianity, a person would need to change not just one book, but 27 books that had been distributed all over the world. The task would be utterly impossible because of the distribution of the books.

The Early Church Fathers reenter the story at this point. The 50-volume set of writings from the early leaders of the church provides the next layer of protection against tampering with the documents. The early church leaders quoted the original books of the Bible extensively. This begins with the earliest of the writings from the church fathers. Using the works of the church fathers, we can piece together almost the entire New Testament. Therefore, if there had been dramatic alteration to the texts, we would be able to detect it through the variations with the early fathers.

Early manuscripts and fragments are another source for evidence regarding the distribution and some of the wording for ancient biblical texts. Scraps and fragments of the original documents are sometimes found by archeologists. These scraps indicate the distribution of texts and can occasionally provide small segments of text. The most notable chache of manuscripts and fragments discovered in recent history is the dead sea scrolls. The documents included 9 fragments of New Testament documents. However, these are not the only examples of early manuscripts. These sorts of items are important because they augment the arguments for the ancient texts by demonstrating age, how widespread the documents were distributed and some portions of the texts themselves.

The preceding arguments are enough to easily answer accusations that the Catholic Church or other early church leaders altered the books. The manuscripts were far too spread out for this to happen and scholars have a plethora of manuscripts to check for consistency in the texts. Further, most of the variations are minimal. Those variations that are more significant than misspelled words don’t relate to any major doctrines of the faith. The New Testament is very well preserved. In fact, we have a more complete picture of the New Testament than we do for any other ancient text.