Has the Bible Been Transmitted To Us Accurately?
[Editor’s Note: This article is taken from Appendix 1 of the author’s book The Quran Unveiled.]
The science of textual criticism is a field of inquiry that has been invaluable in ascertaining the original reading of the New Testament text. Textual criticism involves “the ascertainment of the true form of a literary work, as originally composed and written down by its author.”1 The fact that the original autographs do not exist,2 and that only copies of copies of copies of the original documents have survived, has led some falsely to conclude that the original reading of the New Testament documents cannot be determined. For example, Mormons frequently attempt to establish the superiority of the Book of Mormon over the Bible by insisting that the Bible has been corrupted through the centuries in the process of translation (a contention shared by Islam in its attempt to explain the Bible’s frequent contradiction of the Quran). However, a venture into the fascinating world of textual criticism dispels this premature and uninformed conclusion.
The task of textual critics—those who study the extant manuscript evidence that attests to the text of the New Testament—is to examine textual variants (i.e., conflicting readings between manuscripts involving a word, verse, or verses) in an effort to reconstruct the original reading of the text. What has this field of inquiry concluded with regard to the integrity and genuineness of the Bible?
Is the Old Testament still Reliable?3
If there are scribal errors in today’s manuscript copies of the Old Testament, many wonder how we can be certain the text of the Bible was transmitted faithfully across the centuries. Is it not possible that it was corrupted so that its form in our present Bible is drastically different from the original source?
The accuracy of the Old Testament text was demonstrated forcefully by the discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls. Prior to 1947, the oldest Hebrew manuscripts of significant length did not date earlier than the ninth century A.D. However, when the Dead Sea scrolls were found (containing portions of all Old Testament books except Esther), this discovery pushed the record of the Old Testament text back almost 1,000 years. These copies were produced sometime between 200 B.C. and A.D. 100. One scroll found in the Qumran caves was of particular importance. It was a scroll of the book of Isaiah, which had only a few words missing. What was amazing about this scroll is that when it was compared to the text of Isaiah produced 900 years after it, the two matched almost word for word, with only a few small variations. In commenting on this comparative reading of the two texts, A.W. Adams observed:
The close agreement of the second Isaiah Scroll from the Dead Sea with the manuscripts of the ninth and tenth centuries shows how carefully the text tradition which they represent has been preserved…. We may therefore be satisfied that the text of our Old Testament has been handed down in one line without serious change since the beginning of the Christian era and even before.4
Amazingly, a comparison of the standard Hebrew texts with that of the Dead Sea scrolls has revealed that the two are virtually identical. The variations (about 5%) occurred only in minor spelling differences and minute copyists’ mistakes. Thus, as Rene Paché noted: “Since it can be demonstrated that the text of the Old Testament was accurately transmitted for the last 2,000 years, one may reasonably suppose that it had been so transmitted from the beginning.”5
Even within the various passages of Scripture, numerous references to copies of the written Word of God can be found. A copy of the “book of the law” was discovered in the Temple during the days of King Josiah (c. 621 B.C.), thus demonstrating that Moses’ writings had been protected over a span of almost 1,000 years (2 Kings 22). Other Old Testament passages speak of the maintenance of the Holy Writings across the years (Jeremiah 36; Ezra 7:14; Nehemiah 8:1-18).
During Jesus’ personal ministry, He read from a scroll of Isaiah in the synagogue at Nazareth, and called it “Scripture” (Luke 4:16-21)—a technical term employed in the Bible for a divine writing. Jesus endorsed the truth that the Old Testament Scriptures had been preserved faithfully. Even though Jesus read from a copy of Isaiah, He still considered it the Word of God. Hence, Scripture had been preserved faithfully in written form. Furthermore, even though Jesus condemned the scribes of His day for their many sins, never did He even intimate they were unfaithful in their work as scribes. Indeed, Jesus gave approval not only to copies, but even to translations (e.g., the Septuagint) of the Old Testament by reading and quoting from them.
One of the great language scholars of the Old Testament text was Dr. Robert Dick Wilson. A master of over 35 languages, Wilson carefully compared the text of the Old Testament with inscriptions on ancient monuments. As a result of his research, he declared: “We are scientifically certain that we have substantially the same text that was in the possession of Christ and the apostles and, so far as anybody knows, the same as that written by the original composers of the Old Testament documents.”6
Is the New Testament still Reliable?
What about the integrity of the New Testament? One may say unhesitatingly and confidently that the uncorrupted preservation of the New Testament has been thoroughly established. In evaluating the text of the New Testament, textual critics work with a large body of manuscript evidence, the amount of which is far greater than that available for any ancient classical author.7 As of 2018, the number of Greek manuscripts—whole and partial—that attest to the New Testament stands at an unprecedented 5,874.8 This figure does not include the other sources of evidence such as the superabundance of patristic citations and ancient versions. The best manuscripts of the New Testament are dated at roughly A.D. 350, with perhaps one of the most important of these being the Codex Vaticanus, “the chief treasure of the Vatican Library in Rome,” and the Codex Sinaiticus, which was purchased by the British from the Soviet Government in 1933.9 Additionally, the Chester Beatty papyri, made public in 1931, contain eleven codices (manuscript volumes), three of which contain most of the New Testament (including the Gospel accounts). Two of these codices boast a date in the first half of the third century, while the third is slightly later, being dated in the last half of the same century.10 The John Rylands Library vaunts even earlier evidence. A papyrus codex containing parts of John 18 dates to the time of Hadrian, who reigned from A.D. 117 to 138.11
Other attestation to the accuracy of the New Testament documents can be found in the writings of the so-called “apostolic fathers”—men who lived from A.D. 100 to 550, and who often quoted from the New Testament documents.12 Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Tatian, Clement of Rome, and Ignatius (writing before the close of the second century) all provided citations from one or more of the Gospel accounts.13 Other witnesses to the authenticity of the New Testament are the Ancient Versions, which consist of the text of the New Testament translated into different languages. The Old Latin and the Old Syriac are the most ancient, being dated from the middle of the second century.14
The fact is, the New Testament enjoys far more historical documentation than any other volume ever known. Compared to the 5,700+ Greek manuscripts authenticating the New Testament, there are only 643 copies of Homer’s Iliad, which is undeniably the most famous book of ancient Greece. No one doubts the text of Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars, but we have only 10 copies of it, the earliest of which was made 1,000 years after it was written. We have only two manuscripts of Tacitus’ Histories and Annals, one from the ninth century and one from the eleventh. The History of Thucydides, another well-known ancient work, is dependent upon only eight manuscripts, the oldest of these being dated about A.D. 900 (along with a few papyrus scraps dated at the beginning of the Christian era). And The History of Herodotus finds itself in a similar situation. “Yet no classical scholar would listen to an argument that the authenticity of Herodotus or Thucydides is in doubt because the earliest MSS [manuscripts—DM] of their works which are of any use to us are over 1,300 years later than the originals.”15 Thus Bruce declared: “It is a curious fact that historians have often been much readier to trust the New Testament records than have many theologians.”16 Even as far back as 1968, Bruce Metzger, longtime professor of New Testament language and literature at Princeton, stated: “The amount of evidence for the text of the New Testament…is so much greater than that available for any ancient classical author that the necessity of resorting to emendation is reduced to the smallest dimensions.”17 Truly, to have such abundance of copies for the New Testament from within 70 years of their writing is nothing short of astounding.18
In one sense, the work of the textual critic has been unnecessary, since the vast majority of textual variants involve minor matters that do not affect doctrine as it relates to one’s salvation. Even those variants that might be deemed doctrinally significant pertain to matters that are treated elsewhere in the Bible where the question of authenticity and originality is unobscured. No feature of Christian doctrine is at stake. As Ewert noted: “[V]ariant readings in our manuscripts do not affect any basic teaching of the NT.”19 Old Testament scholar Gleason Archer wrote in agreement:
In fact, it has long been recognized by the foremost specialists in textual criticism that if any decently attested variant were taken up from the apparatus at the bottom of the page and were substituted for the accepted reading of the standard text, there would in no case be a single, significant alteration in doctrine or message.20
Nevertheless, textual critics have been successful in demonstrating that currently circulating New Testaments do not differ substantially from the original autographs. When all of the textual evidence is considered, the vast majority of discordant readings have been resolved.21 One is brought to the firm conviction that we have in our possession the New Testament as God intended.
The world’s foremost textual critics have confirmed this conclusion. Sir Frederic Kenyon, longtime director and principal librarian at the British Museum, whose scholarship and expertise to make pronouncements on textual criticism was second to none, stated: “Both the authenticity and the general integrity of the books of the New Testament may be regarded as finally established.”22 The late F.F. Bruce, longtime Rylands Professor of Biblical Criticism at the University of Manchester, England, remarked: “The variant readings about which any doubt remains among textual critics of the New Testament affect no material question of historic fact or of Christian faith and practice.”23 J.W. McGarvey, declared by the London Times to be “the ripest Bible scholar on earth,”24 conjoined: “All the authority and value possessed by these books when they were first written belong to them still.”25 And the eminent textual critics Westcott and Hort put the entire matter into perspective when they said:
Since textual criticism has various readings for its subject, and the discrimination of genuine readings from corruptions for its aim, discussions on textual criticism almost inevitably obscure the simple fact that variations are but secondary incidents of a fundamentally single and identical text. In the New Testament in particular it is difficult to escape an exaggerated impression as to the proportion which the words subject to variation bear to the whole text, and also, in most cases, as to their intrinsic importance. It is not superfluous therefore to state explicitly that the great bulk of the words of the New Testament stand out above all discriminative processes of criticism, because they are free from variation, and need only to be transcribed.26
Writing over one hundred years ago in the late 19th century, and noting that the experience of two centuries of investigation and discussion had been achieved, these scholars concluded: “[T]he words in our opinion still subject to doubt can hardly amount to more than a thousandth part of the whole of the New Testament.”27 This means that 999/1000th of the text of the New Testament is the same today as when it came from the pens of the inspired writers. The miniscule portion that remains uncertain (1/1000th) consists of trivial details that have no material effect on matters of faith or doctrine. J.I. Packer, Board of Governors Professor of Theology at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia, summarized the facts: “[F]aith in the adequacy of the text is confirmed, so far as it can be, by the unanimous verdict of textual scholars that the biblical text is excellently preserved, and no point of doctrine depends on any of the small number of cases in which the true reading remains doubtful.”28 Indeed, again in the words of textual scholar F.F. Bruce: “By the ‘singular care and providence’ of God the Bible text has come down to us in such substantial purity that even the most uncritical edition of the Hebrew or Greek…cannot effectively obscure the real message of the Bible, or neutralize its saving power.”29 Therefore, the charge alleged by Muslims (and Mormons), that the Bible has been corrupted in transmission, is completely false.
The Quran Compared
Anyone who has taken time to investigate the manuscript evidence that exists for ascertaining the original state of the Bible knows that we have the Bible in its near-original condition—a claim that has not been established for the Quran. The attention given to ascertaining the original state of the Quranic text pales in comparison to that given to the Bible in general, and the New Testament in particular. As John Gilchrist observed:
[T]here is no translation of the Qur’an to compare with translations of the Bible such as the Revised Standard Version or New American Standard Version. These were done by committees of scholars and the result has been a remarkably consistent and accurate rendering of the original. Every well-known translation of the Qur’an has been the work of an individual and, to one degree or another in every case, the value of the final product is tempered by the presence of the author’s own personal convictions and interpretations.30
Of course, unsubstantiated claims are made for the transmission of the Quran: “[A]ll Muslims agree that the Quran is the verbatim revelation of God. They also agree about its text and content; that is, no variant texts are found among any of the schools.”31 The fact that Muslims claim unanimity of opinion regarding the purity of the Quranic text does not prove that the Quran has been exempt from the peculiar attribute of textual variation to which all documents from history are subject.
Ironically, the Quran itself offers both implicit and explicit endorsement of the integrity of the biblical text—at least in its condition at the time the Quran arose in the early seventh century:
And believe in that which I reveal, confirming that which ye possess already (of the Scripture), and be not first to disbelieve therein, and part not with My revelations for a trifling price, and keep your duty unto Me. Confound not truth with falsehood, nor knowingly conceal the truth…. Enjoin ye righteousness upon mankind while ye yourselves forget (to practice it)? And ye are readers of the Scripture! Have ye then no sense?…. O Children of Israel! Remember My favour wherewith I favoured you and how I preferred you to (all) creatures (Surah 2:41-42,44,47).32
Or do they say, “He has forged it”? Say: “Had I forged it, then can you obtain no single (blessing) for me from Allah. He knows best of that whereof you talk (so glibly)! Enough is He for a witness between me and you! And He is Oft‑Forgiving, Most Merciful.” Say: “I am no bringer of new‑fangled doctrine among the Messengers, nor do I know what will be done with me or with you. I follow but that which is revealed to me; I am but a Warner open and clear.” Say: “Do you see? If (this teaching) be from Allah, and you reject it, and a witness from among the Children of Israel testifies to its similarity (with earlier scripture), and has believed while you are arrogant, (how unjust you are!). Truly, Allah does not guide a people unjust.” The Unbelievers say of those who believe: “If (this Message) were a good thing, (such men) would not have gone to it first, before us!” And seeing that they do not guide themselves thereby, they will say, “This is an (old,) old falsehood!” And before this, was the Book of Moses as a guide and a mercy: and this Book confirms (it) in the Arabic tongue; to admonish the unjust, and as Glad Tidings to those who do right…. “O our people! We have heard a Book revealed after Moses, confirming what came before it” (Surah 46:8-12,30).33
Say: “O People of the Book! do you disapprove of us for no other reason than that we believe in Allah, and the revelation that has come to us and that which came before (us), and (perhaps) that most of you are rebellious and disobedient?…. If only they had stood fast by the Law, the Gospel, and all the revelation that was sent to them from their Lord, they would have enjoyed happiness from every side. There is from among them a party on the right course: but many of them follow a course that is evil. O Messenger! proclaim the (Message) which has been sent to you from your Lord. If you did not, you would not have fulfilled and proclaimed His Mission. And Allah will defend you from men (who mean mischief). For Allah guides not those who reject Faith. Say: “O People of the Book! You have no ground to stand upon unless you stand fast by the Law, the Gospel, and all the revelation that has come to you from your Lord.” It is the revelation that comes to you from your Lord, that increases in most of them their obstinate rebellion and blasphemy. But you do not grieve over (these) people without Faith. Those who believe (in the Qur’an), those who follow the Jewish (scriptures), and the Sabians and the Christians,—any who believe in Allah and the Last Day, and work righteousness,—on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve (Surah 5:59,66-69; cf. 2:62).34
And if thou (Muhammad) art in doubt concerning that which We reveal unto thee, then question those who read the Scripture (that was) before thee. Verily the Truth from thy Lord hath come unto thee. So be not thou of the waverers (Surah 10:95).35
These verses from the Quran provide confirmation of Muhammad’s belief in the accuracy of the Law and the Gospel (cf. Surah 87:18-19; 6:155-158). They even appeal to a Jew, contemporary to Muhammad, who verified that the Quran confirmed the Scripture that preceded it. Indeed, the Quran claims to be in unison and harmony with, and complementary to, previous Scripture (the Bible).
The underlying thought in all of these Quranic verses is that the Quran is to be accepted, reverenced, and obeyed every bit as much as the previous Scriptures (i.e., the Bible). These verses are worded in such a way that they assume the legitimacy and acceptability of the Bible. The Quranic criticism directed against Jews (and Christians) is not that they corrupted their Scriptures (cf. Surah 7:169-170). Rather, they are criticized for not concluding that Muhammad and the Quran were the confirmatory sequel to the previous revelations of Jews and Christians. In fact, when the Jews insisted to Muhammad that they had been given sufficient knowledge by means of the Torah—an admission made by the Quran itself [“Again, We gave the Scripture unto Moses, complete for him who would do good, an explanation of all things, a guidance and a mercy, that they might believe in the meeting with their Lord” (Surah 7:155)]—Muhammad responded with a new surah: “[I]f all the trees in the earth were pens, and the sea, with seven more seas to help it, (were ink), the words of Allah could not be exhausted” (Surah 31:27).36 If the Quran endorses the integrity of the Bible, and we have in existence manuscripts of the Bible that predate the Quran, then the accuracy and authenticity of the Bible stands vindicated—not only by the voluminous manuscript evidence—but even by the Quran itself.
To repeat: We can know that the Bible has been transmitted accurately through the centuries. The Bible is, in fact, the Word of God.
1 Sir Frederic Kenyon (1951 reprint), Handbook to the Textual Criticism of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans), second edition, p. 1.
2 Philip Comfort (1990), Early Manuscripts and Modern Translations of the New Testament (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House), p. 4.
4 Sir Frederic Kenyon (1939), Our Bible and the Ancient Manuscripts (London: Eyre and Spottiswoode), pp. 69,88.
5 Rene Paché (1971), The Inspiration and Authority of Scripture (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans), p. 191.
6 Robert Dick Wilson (1929), A Scientific Investigation of the Old Testament (New York: Harper Brothers), p. 8.
7 David Ewert (1983), From Ancient Tablets to Modern Translations (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan), p. 139; Kenyon, 1951, p. 5; B.A. Westcott and F.J.A. Hort (1964 reprint), The New Testament in the Original Greek (New York: MacMillan), p. 565.
8 Michael Welte (2019), personal e-mail, September 17, Institute for New Testament Textual Research (Munster, Germany), http://www.uni-muenster.de/NTTextforschung/.
9 F.F. Bruce (1960), The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans), revised edition, p. 20.
13 Donald Guthrie (1990), New Testament Introduction (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press), p. 24.
17 Bruce Metzger (1968), The Text of the New Testament (New York, NY: Oxford University Press), p. 86.
18 Norman Geisler and Ronald Brooks (1990), When Skeptics Ask (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books), pp. 159-160.
20 Gleason Archer (1982), An Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties (Grand Rapids: Zondervan), p. 30, emp. added.
22 Sir Frederic Kenyon (1940), The Bible and Archaeology (New York: Harper), p. 288.
24 Dabney Phillips (1975), Restoration Principles and Personalities (University, AL: Youth In Action), p. 184; L.L. Brigance (1870), “J.W. McGarvey,” in J.W. McGarvey (1962 reprint), A Treatise on the Eldership (Murfreesboro, TN: DeHoff Publications), p. 4.
25 J.W. McGarvey (1956 reprint), Evidences of Christianity (Nashville, TN: Gospel Advocate), p. 17.
27 Ibid., p. 565, emp. added.
28 J.I. Packer (1958), “Fundamentalism” and the Word of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans), 1976 reprint, p. 90, emp. added.
29 As quoted in Packer, pp. 90-91.
30 John Gilchrist (1986), Muhammad and the Religion of Islam, http://answering-islam.org.uk/Gilchrist/Vol1/index.html.
31 Seyyed Hossein Nasr (2003), Islam (New York: HarperCollins), p. 8, emp. added.
32 Translation by Mohammed Pickthall (n.d.), The Meaning of the Glorious Koran (New York: Mentor), emp. added.
33 Translation by Abdullah Yusuf Ali (1934), The Qur’an (Elmhurst, NY: Tahrike Tarsile Quran), ninth edition, emp. added.
35 Pickthall, emp. added.
36 Cf. Martin Lings (1983), Muhammad (Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions International), p. 78.