Too busy to read? Check out the podcast.
“We can’t trust the Bible because it was corrupted through years of translation.”
We’ve all heard this line before. Recently, I’ve heard it a lot. It’s an argument for why people should not or cannot trust the Bible.
The theory goes that through the ages people copied and recopied the Bible, each time changing it just a bit so as to reflect what they wanted it to say.
It’s a bit like a massive game of Chinese Telephone or Chinese Whispers for my British friends. (Either way, what’s with the name? Are the Chinese known for a consistent breakdown in long-distance communication or something? What’s the deal?)
Usually, people who question whether the Bible is reliable come from a wide array of backgrounds. Anyone from staunch atheists to devote Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses have questioned why we should trust the modern Bible.
For atheists, it is a book of myths passed down from generation to generation, suffering severe alterations due to translator bias or Christian agendas. For Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses, it is a damaged scripture missing theological points restored only by their scripture.
So, why the unlikely alliance of biblical distrust between believers and non-believers alike? Is the Bible reliable? Can we trust a book that was changed after years and years of translations?
TRANSLATION VS. TRANSCRIPTION
First, it’s important to know at the outset that the Bible wasn’t translated through the ages – it was transcribed. When it comes to the unreliability of the Bible, the word translation gets tossed around a lot; however, alterations to the original text cannot be blamed on a bad translation.
When the Bible is translated, scholars render the Bible from its original languages into a foreign language. So, for example, when you pick up an English Bible you’re not actually reading the original language, you’re reading an English translation of the original Hebrew and Greek.
In the Chinese Telephone analogy, it’s as if someone told you a phrase in English and you told the next person in German. But that’s not how the game is played. From start to finish the message is in the same language.
Transcription, on the other hand, is when scholars copy the Bible without rendering it into a different language.
We must remember that back in the day there were not copy machines, no scanners, no Kinkos.
Professional scribes, usually monks, would spend hours on end painstakingly copying letter after letter in order to preserve the original message.
So, were there changes made during the transcription process? Yes, of course. It’s okay to admit this – the Bible you read is an English translation from copies of copies of ancient Greek and Hebrew manuscripts with errors.
The question becomes, Are these errors bad enough to render the Bible unreliable? Just how well did the monks play Chinese Telephone?
ISSUES IN TRANSCRIPTION – FOUR TYPES OF ERRORS
One New Testament scholar divides these transcription errors into four types: spelling differences and nonsense errors, minor changes, meaningful but not viable, and meaningful and viable.
1. Spelling Differences and Nonsense Errors
The largest type of errors are spelling differences and nonsense mistakes. Some of these are as small as copying an improper article, such as ‘a apple’ instead of ‘an apple’. Others are simple spelling mistakes, like Iōannēs (Greek for John) without the second ‘n’ (Iōanes).
Another type of error is even a bit humorous. In one late transcript, a scribe copied “we were horses among you” (Gk. hippoi) instead of “we were gentle among you” (Gk. ēpioi) in 1 Thessalonians 2:7. Close, but no cigar…
This would be like copying the Preamble as, “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Onion.” Obviously, there was a mistake – equally obvious is the correction.
So, just because one scribe misspelled John’s name and another thinks were all horses doesn’t mean Jesus never resurrected.
2. Minor Changes
The second-most common type of error is minor changes in the original language. If you’ve never studied the language, the first conclusion you draw about ancient Greek grammar is that it’s the Wild Wild West of languages. Sometimes, you can express the same thought up to sixteen different ways by messing with the word order in a sentence.
With that in mind, changes in the text can be something as trivial as the presence or absence of the article “the” before a noun. Is the meaning of that sentence lost? No way, because Greek is awesome and you still have fifteen more variations to go before losing meaning.
Again, just because one manuscript might say that “disciples went to empty tomb” doesn’t mean that the tomb wasn’t empty. (But it does mean that text sounds a bit cavemanish.)
3. Meaningful, but Not Viable
The third type of errors are those that have meaning, but are not viable. This means that the change made has some type of relation to the original word, but isn’t necessarily the same thing. Thus, they are an unviable substitute.
One example is found in 1 Thessalonians 2:9 where almost all manuscripts render the phrase “gospel of God.” However, in one medieval manuscript we are given the phrase “gospel of Christ.”
Is Christ God? Yes, of course. So, the difference is meaningful. However, there is still an important difference between the words God and Christ. So, the difference is not viable.
Perhaps a well-meaning trinitarian monk didn’t see the difference. Nevertheless, he would have been wrong for transcribing it incorrectly, no matter the motivation.
4. Meaningful and Viable
Finally, the fourth type of errors are those that are both meaningful and viable. Unlike the types before, when the word is change it still makes sense. These are challenging errors to deal with.
However, these errors only represent 1% of all variations in the manuscripts.
This is incredible considering the fact that the New Testament alone is 2,000 years old. Not only that, but this 1% typically involves just a single word or sentence. For an ancient text, this is unparalleled.
So, what is an example of such a ‘meaningful and viable’ error? The ending of the Gospel of Mark is one of the most widely-known. Bible scholars can’t be sure if this actually belongs in Mark’s Gospel, but it’s not like they’re trying to hide this fact from the world.
Most Bibles tell you flat out in a footnote, “Hey, we’re not sure if this belongs here, so read at your own discretion!” (In my Bible, ESV Study Bible, there’s a huge break before the ending of Mark with a note in all CAPS about this very issue.)
Luckily, we have three other Gospels to help us make a decision on whether or not it belongs. But if you can’t trust the Bible based on a potential addition to Mark that is essentially repeated information from the other Gospels, then that’s on you.
At any rate, none of these types of errors alter any significant theological meaning at any point.
SO, IS THE BIBLE RELIABLE?
With these errors in mind, we must still ask ourselves whether or not the Bible is reliable. Can we really trust a book that has been transcribed over thousands of years even if the errors are minor and do not alter significant theological points?
Well, let me ask you this – Do you think Homer’s Iliad is reliable? You know, the story about the Trojan War and the mighty Greek warrior Achilles?
If you do, you’re betting on fairly good odds that what we have today is what Homer meant to say. Why? Because we have a little over 700 copies of the Iliad with a 95% accuracy rating. Pretty impressive, eh?[5,6]
Now, there is a catch with the Iliad. Unfortunately, we don’t have early copies of the work – copies that were made around the time that Homer wrote it. The Iliad is said to have been written around 900BCE, but the earliest copy we have is from 400BCE. That means, as far as we know, there is a 500–year gap between when Homer wrote the Iliad and when it was first copied.
Still, 700+ copies all saying pretty much the same thing is a lot. 500 years between the original and first copy is a lot as well, but not enough to keep the Iliad from being a popular epic and cool story line to a Brad Pitt movie. So, let’s give the Iliad the benefit of the doubt. Helen’s face started the Trojan War.
Now, what about the Bible? If the Iliad is reliable, does the Bible stack up? Actually… no.
The Bible blows the Iliad out of the water.
Instead of 700+ copies, the New Testament alone boasts 5,000+ with an astounding 99% accuracy rate between them. Not only this, but the shortest gap between the originals and first copy is a mere 100 years, compared to the Iliad’s 500–year gap.
Here’s a visual representation of the differences between the two.
“Alright,” you may say, “but that’s just for the Iliad. What about other ancient writings?” To date, the Iliad boasts the richest, most numerous amount of copies of any other ancient writing, with one exception – the Bible.
“Well,” you may further say, “the longer we march into the future, the further that gap is becoming. So, this evidence won’t be as convincing in the future.” True. However, much to the dismay of critics, even though we are getting farther from the original date, we are actually getting closer to the original text. This is because we are discovering more and more manuscripts that are closer to the original date.
THE UNLIKELY ALLIANCE
All this to say, we can’t really argue about whether or not the Bible says what it originally said. The argument must shift to whether or not we accept what the Bible says.
Now that’s a completely different story. It also happens to be the very reason we see that unlikely alliance of believers and unbelievers. What do an atheist, a Mormon, and a Jehovah’s Witness all have in common? They all (typically) believe the Bible has been corrupted.
Additionally, each group, generally speaking, are not keen on what the biblical text has to say. Indeed, it’s a rough read if you allow it to honestly speak to our own fallen and messed-up state of being in relation to God (although without this bad news, the good news wouldn’t be so sweet).
So, there are two options – reject it outright or change what it has to say. In both cases, the easiest way to go about doing this is to claim that the text is corrupt and unreliable. This way atheists can discount it as fairytales and Jehovah’s Witnesses can tweak the text in their New World Translation.
Either way, as we’ve seen, it’s fairly dishonest to say the Bible is unreliable as an ancient text. If that’s the case – remember, the Bible is the best example of an ancient text – then much of what we understand of history needs to be scrutinized because we rely too heavily on other, less reliable ancient texts.
In other words, we can’t have our cake and eat it, too.
A special note to LDS and Jehovah’s Witness readers. Do you find your unlikely alliance with many bible critics and some atheists a bit odd? I would humbly ask that you honestly consider why your organizations have altered the New Testament text (Joseph Smith Translation, New World Translation) in order to conform to Mormon and Watchtower Society theology.
 J. Ed Komoszewski, M. James Sawyer, Daniel B. Wallace, Reinventing Jesus: How the Contemporary Skeptics Miss the Real Jesus and Mislead the Popular Culture (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Kregel Publications, 2006), 56.
 Wayne Grudem, C. John Collins, Thomas R. Schreiner, et. al., Understanding Scripture: An Overview of the Bible’s Origin, Reliability, and Meaning (Wheaton, Illi.: Crossway, 2012), 115.
 Ibid., 116.
 Martin L. West, “The Textual Criticism and Editing of Homer,” Editing Texts, ed. Glenn W. Most (Gottingen: Aporemata, Kritische Studien zur Philologie-geschichte, 1998), 102. (Note: Many Christian authors like to throw around the number 643 for the number of extant Iliad manuscripts. This number most likely comes from Norman Geisler’s popular work From God to Us, which was published in 1974. However, more manuscripts have been discovered since the 70s bringing the total number to a little over 700.)
 Norman L. Geisler and William E. Nix, From God to Us: How We Got Our Bible (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 1974), 181.
 Norman L. Geisler and William E. Nix, A General Introduction to the Bible (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 1986), 405.
 In his debate with New Testament scholar (and critic) Bart Ehrman, Dan Wallace observed that the earliest copy of Mark that we have dates to the first-century.