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What about all those New Testament manuscripts? Do they prove the reliability of the NT?



Christian apologists are often fond of bringing up the thousands of available New Testament manuscripts, according to them; the fact that there are thousands of NT manuscripts is proof of both the NT’s reliability and preservation. They argue that no other book in antiquity is as well attested to, as the NT with its so many manuscripts.

It is true, we have a lot of NT manuscripts, it is also true, compared with many other ancient-historical books, the NT is certainly much better attested to, but none of this means that the NT is either reliable or has been properly preserved. The Christian apologists have basically jumped the gun with the manuscripts, painting a false picture to their audiences.

When one looks at the NT manuscripts we have, what we do find are a lot of problems, in fact the NT manuscripts are the best evidence that attest to the unreliability of the NT, rather than the reliability of the NT.

One of the first problems you will notice with the thousands of manuscripts is that no 2 manuscripts agree with each other, all the manuscripts contain differences and variants with one another. Christian apologists will argue that most of these variants-differences in the manuscripts are not a big deal, but a simple spelling error or something of the kind. While it is true, that a lot of these variants-errors are down to innocent human scribal error, we do have variants that do pose a problem.

For example we have a variant reading of Romans 5:1, as Dr. Bart D. Ehrman explains:

Another example occurs in Paul’s letters to the Romans, where Paul states that “since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God” (Rom. 5:1). Or is that what he said? The word for “we have peace,” a statement of fact, sounded exactly like the word “let us have peace,” an exhortation.  And so in a large number of manuscripts, including some of our earliest, Paul doesn’t rest assured that he and his followers have peace with God, he urges himself and others to seek peace. This is a passage for which textual scholars have difficulty deciding which reading is the correct one. (Bart D. Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus, the story behind who changed the bible and why, pg. 93)

Another example of a variant comes from the last supper in the Gospel of Luke, in many manuscripts the version we read is the following:

They left and found things just as Jesus had told them. So they prepared the Passover. When the hour came, Jesus and his apostles reclined at the table. And he said to them, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. For I tell you, I will not eat it again until it finds fulfillment in the kingdom of God.” After taking the cup, he gave thanks and said, “Take this and divide it among you. For I tell you I will not drink again from the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.” (Luke 22:13-19)

So according to these passages, after Jesus takes the bread and breaks it, he says “this is my body given for you”. However so in one of the earliest available Greek manuscripts, the text does not say “this is my body given for you”, and so the meaning is obviously different from the other reading that says Jesus is giving his body for you.

Another example of variant manuscript comes from Luke 3:22 concerning what happens after Jesus’ baptism when the voice from heaven comes speaking to Jesus:

and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” (Luke 3:22)

However in a variant manuscript, the voice from heaven tells Jesus “You are my Son, today I have begotten you”.  This is an obvious difference from the other version, and this version has obvious implications. If Jesus was begotten by God on that day after the baptism, then it means he wasn’t the begotten son of God before that day, which was the opinion of some early Christians, known as ‘adoptionists’, that God adopted Jesus as his son, and that Jesus was not always eternally the son of God as many Christians today believe.

A final example of a variant comes from John 1:18, which has two different versions, one of which that says:

No one has seen God at anytime but the unique son

However another version of this says:

No one has seen God at anytime but the unique God

So an obvious difference-variant, one refers to Jesus as the unique son, the other refers to him as the unique God. In fact the NIV translation of the Bible try to clear this variant up by including both within the verse:

No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son who is himself God

So the NIV go with the manuscript that says the ‘unique son’ but they also then decide to add their own version by saying “who himself is God” to try and fit in with the other manuscript that says “unique God”, so the NIV invented their own version.

We could continue to bring up many other variants within the manuscript tradition that have two different meanings with certain implications as the 3 examples we have just shown, but the point is that real and problematic variants do exist, contrary to the claims of Christian apologists that all these variants aren’t a big deal which doesn’t render any changes to the meanings of the verses etc.

Other problems we find in the NT manuscripts is not only limited to the variants, but we also find changes and additions being made within the manuscripts, basically scribes who were writing these manuscripts were going on to add their own writings in these manuscripts.

The story of the adulteress (John 7:53-8:12), which has become a very famous and popular story from the NT is an example of this, and this may shock a lot of Christians, but this story was added by a scribe. Dr. Bart D Ehrman explains:

It was not originally in the Gospel of John. In fact, it was not originally part of any of the Gospels. It was added by later scribes…Scholars who work on the manuscript tradition have no doubt about this particular case…The story is not found in our oldest and best manuscripts of the Gospel of John; its writing style is very different from what we find in the rest of John (including the stories immediately before and after); and it includes a large number of words and phrases that are otherwise alien to the Gospel. The conclusion is unavoidable; this passage was not originally part of the Gospel. (Bart D. Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus, the story behind who changed the bible and why, pg. 65)

Another example of verses being added comes from the ending of Mark, specifically verses 9-20, these verses were added into the manuscripts, in fact if you read most Bible translations, they will make a footnote mentioning this fact, though they obviously won’t say the verses were ‘added’, they do however point out that verses 9-20 are absent from the earliest manuscript and witness account. You can see this for yourself from the NIV:

So here we have additions being made to the manuscripts by the pens of scribes, this obviously leads us to ask how many more additions have been added to these texts by the pens of scribes. The fact that scribes were able to make these additions, leaves the door open to other additions being made, and shows the NT is not reliable, what else would you call it, reliable? How can the NT be reliable when the manuscript tradition shows us scribes making additions to the text, additions that would later become part of ‘God’s inspired word’.

This also brings us to another major problem, often the way we can distinguish between forged-added verses from an original verse, is by the dating of the manuscript, so in the case of the ending of Mark, the story of the adulteress, the early manuscript tradition did not contain these texts which in turn allow scholars to know that these verses were added on in the future by scribes. But therein lies the problem, because the ‘earlier’ manuscript are not as early as you think, when we say early manuscripts, we’re not talking about manuscripts from the lifetime of Jesus, or the lifetime of his disciples-apostles, or even the lifetime of those who lived with the disciples-apostles of Jesus. The manuscripts we have, those that are called the ‘earliest’, come centuries after Jesus and his disciples. So in all that time period, who knows what else was added, altered, or deleted. If such changes are being made to the manuscripts we do have, manuscripts that are copies and copies of the supposed originals, then what happened to the supposed texts in the time period between the original and the first known manuscripts we now have in our possession. So at it’s root and foundation, the earliest manuscripts we do have with us, cannot be trusted, because the door is completely open to them containing alterations-changes-additions from earlier manuscripts-texts before them.

In conclusion, yes we do have thousands of NT manuscripts, but these manuscripts do not attest to the reliability or preservation of the NT, they are in fact the best witnesses to the unreliability in the transmission of the NT.

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