Episode 44: Is the text of the New Testament reliable? Part 1

In this two-part episode Dan talks to Phil Evans about what the discipline of Textual Criticism can tell us about the New Testament that we read today.  Is it reliable? How strong is the evidence behind it?  Can we ever know how close it is to the original?  In this first part, Dan and Phil compare the manuscript evidence for the New Testament with the writings of other ancient, classical Greek and Latin authors.

Show Notes

Dan and Phil start off by emphasising that they are the ordinary people, and are by no means experts in textual criticism! The aim of the conversation is to find out whether we can be confident that the New Testament we read today is a fair reflection of the text that was originally written. And they make it clear that the only way of approaching this is to look to the experts in several resources.

The problems with the New Testament

They first of all frame the question as a problem. It’s often presented that way because, as Phil explains, the New Testament documents were copied by hand for centuries before the printing press was invented. This process has created a whole host of variations within the manuscripts, often accidental errors, but also sometimes deliberate changes. The original documents, known as the autographs, no longer exist to compare these many changes against. Consequently, some people, including the textual critic Bart Ehrman, have suggested that the sheer numbers of variants and changes to the text mean we can’t be certain that we are reading anything that is closely aligned with the original text.

Christians base their faith on the evidence for the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, and these claims are made within the New Testament documents. If we can’t be sure that the New Testament is a reflection of what was originally written, this strikes right at the heart of the evidence for Christianity. So, where does the evidence point?

Ancient manuscripts

Dan and Phil first of all discuss the amount of ancient New Testament manuscripts that have been found. The volume, (about 6,000 Greek manuscripts), is staggering when compared to other ancient classical writings. This means we have a huge amount of evidence to assess. The other striking observation that Phil discusses is that many of these manuscripts date from within a short period of time after the time of writing. Again, comparing this with many of the classical literature, the New Testament is extremely well represented by multiple ancient manuscripts that have been dated close to the time of the original writing.

How is the New Testament reliable if it has changed so much?

Even if there are so many manuscripts, the sheer volume of changes that have been made still causes concern about the reliability of the New Testament. Dan turns to the Wikipedia page for “Textual Variants in the New Testament” which lists estimates of between 200,000 and 750,000 variants. This is a huge number and stated just like that, it can seem an insurmountable problem.

Phil begins to explain the process of textual criticism, which is the discipline that examines variation within ancient manuscripts to determine what the original text likely said. He uses an analogy based on a family recipe for cookies! The recipe may have been passed down through generations of different sides of the family and some variations will have crept in because the recipe wasn’t copied thoroughly, for example. If we were to examine all the different changes, patterns may emerge, such as one distinct variation in the cookie that only appears in a specific location. Textual critics of ancient manuscripts use these principles to spot the patterns and work out how changes have taken place and thereby understand as much as possible what the original text said.

More to discuss

At this point, Dan and Phil dive into some examples, which is where Part 2 continues the conversation.