Can we trust the Bible when we don’t have the first original copies (or autographs)? Can we trust the Bible if we don’t what was first penned by Paul, Peter or one of the other notable Bible writers? These are important questions. Before we dig into these questions, let’s back up a few steps and consider some details since we are dealing with a historical document that claims to be Divine.
When we examine a document that claims to be Divine we must first allow the possibility that God has spoken to man through this medium. Simply allowing the consideration of evidence does not prove the point, but we do not want to dismiss outright the possibility before examining the evidence at hand. Some people will approach the Bible with bias whereby they dismiss any possibility of the Divine working through miracles, verbal or written revelation, or scientific foreknowledge and fulfillment. Honest thinkers want to examine evidence before granting or rejecting the testimony.
Second, we must consider that we are dealing with a work of history and we will want to treat the Bible as such. Applying some other critical test that does not readily apply to historical documents and then dismissing the Bible is not the best approach. Historical evidence employs historical or forensic tests to confirm the truthfulness or veracity of the text.
Third, consider the nature of truth when dealing with works that come down to us historically. When historians compare the Bible with other works of history they consider the date of origin and the distance to when the earliest copy is found. Take for example Homer’s Ilead that dates from 800 BC, but the earliest copy dates from 400 BC (McDowell 38). This time gap of 400 years might lead some to greater skepticism in the work. Similarly some might possess greater confidence in the historical reliability of the text if time gap were much less, say 50-100 years. If the time gap were closer, some think the document could more readily be trusted. The closer to origin a statement is made, supposedly the more reliable the statement is. But remember, we are dealing with history. A truth uttered 5 milliseconds ago or 4000 years ago is still true. It’s not qualitatively truer if the truth is more recently uttered. Truth is true no matter when it is first stated or when it is subsequently discovered. Proximity is helpful, but not the only consideration.
Forth, consider that historians and textual critics will count the number of copies of the manuscripts. Homer’s Ilead, when compared to the New Testament, has some 643 manuscripts dating within 400 years. The New Testament, on the other hand, comes in with in excess of 5,600 Greek Manuscripts dating within 50-100 years of being transcribed (McDowell 38, Wallace 29-30). How do other writings compare? Scholar Daniel Wallace writes,
“How does the average Greek or Latin author stack up? If we are comparing the same time period– 300 years after composition– the average classical author has no literary remains [sic]. But if we compare all the MSS [Manuscripts] of a particular classical author, regardless of when they were written, the total would still average at least less than 20 and probably less than a dozen -- and they would all be coming much more than three centuries later. In terms of extant [surviving] MSS, the NT textual critic is confronted with an embarrassment of riches. If we have doubts about what the autographic NT said, those doubts would have to be multiplied a hundredfold for the average classical author. When we compare the NT MSS to the very best that the classical world has to offer, the NT MSS still stand high above the rest. The NT is by far the best-attested work of Greek or Latin literature from the ancient world.” (Bold emphasis mine) (Wallace 29-30).
Sixth, let’s consider that truth is equally valid and just as true with a copy as it is with an original. Consider attempts at validating your birth. An original birth certificate could confirm the date of your birth equally with a reliable copy or one hundred or one thousand copies. With the New Testament there are hundreds of copies that confirm the validity of each book of the New Testament (Wallace 28). That’s why Wallace says we are confronted with “an embarrassment of riches.” With the Bible there are numerous copies and multiple lines of evidence to confirm the text. May our hearts accept the overwhelming evidence and be content in its certainty.
McDowell, Josh. The New Evidence That Demands a Verdict. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1999. Print.
Wallace, Daniel, ed. Revisiting the Corruption of the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2011. Print. Page 29-30.