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Can we trust the Bible we have?

This last Sunday I preached on Hebrews 2:1-4, you can listen to the sermon here.  The author of Hebrews was calling his readers to “pay attention” to the message of Christ.  A main thrust of his argument was that if God’s word was reliable in the past, all the more reason to pay attention to what Christ had to say.  In emphasizing the reliability of the message of Christ, he reiterated that the message came directly from Jesus and was “attested to them” by those who heard.  The readers were given confidence in the reliability of the message they heard and knew even though they hadn’t heard it first hand.  As followers of Christ today, we too can have great confidence in God’s word.

It’s not uncommon to hear people question the reliability of the Bible that we hold today.  People will often ask “with so many years passing and so many human hands touching it don’t you think the message has been changed and corrupted?”  People will use the example of the elementary school game of telephone to show how quickly a message can change when fallible humans get involved.  I’m not upset or saddened when I hear this question, especially when it’s coming from a genuine searching for God.  I’m actually more saddened when I hear Christians respond with “oh just have faith and don’t ask questions.”  Don’t get me wrong; there will always be faith required when it comes to God and his written word to us.  But, the historical reliability of scripture, its journey of how it came about,  gives us great reason to have confidence in the Bible that we hold in our hands today.

We believe that the Bible is the Word of God, fully inspired and without error in the original manuscripts, written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and that it has supreme authority in all matters of faith and conduct. (John 17:17, Romans 15:4, II Timothy 3:16-17, II Peter 1:19-21)  The doctrine of inerrancy acknowledges that, while we don’t have the original autographs,  we have reliable copies.  

Even as a young believer I had questions about trusting in the bible that I hold in comparison to words spoken or written down centuries earlier.  As it turns out, the historical reliability and accuracy of what we have is amazing.  The original autographs were copied vastly and spread widely.  Because of the large number of copies that happened in a short time, even when people made slight mistakes (or even intentionally altered the text) it’s easy to compare those variants to the other manuscripts that don’t have the alterations or mistakes.  As I mentioned in my sermon there are approximately 6,000 ancient greek manuscripts and fragments and approximately 19,000 ancient manuscripts in Syriac, Latin, Coptic, and Aramaic languages.   Scholars can use these manuscripts to get back to the content of the or original that the authors wrote down.  Here is an example to help you understand.  See if you can can figure out the original sentence with just “10 copies” .

  1. Danny is an excelnt hockey player, at least his mom thinks so
  2. Danny is an excellent hockey player, even his mom thinks so
  3. Danny is an excellent hockey player, at least his mom thinks so
  4. Danny is an excellent hockey player, at least his parents think so
  5. Danny is an excellent skater, at least his mom thinks so
  6. Danny is an excellent hockey player, at least his mom thinks so
  7. Danny is an excellent hockey player at least his mom thiks so
  8. Danny is an excellent hockey player, NHL bound, at least his mom thinks so
  9. Danny is an excellent hockey player, NHL bound, at least his mom thinks so
  10. Danny is a great hockey player, at least his mom thinks that

As you can see from this small sample there are some minor mistakes, some word changes and then even an addition.  But, because there are 10 sentences you can work your way back to the original.  So if you were able to get “Danny is an excellent hockey player, at least his mom thinks so” then you got it correct. So again, scholars have 25,000 manuscripts (and more discoveries that show up with new archaeological finds) to get back at the authors original manuscript. 
This just scratches the surface but I hope that this gives you a starting point to understand the confidence you can have if the scriptures. Those looking for an in depth study of inerrancy I will point you to some great resources below:

Short Blog Post:  New Testament Reliability 

Starter Book: Is the Bible True: A Dialogue on Skepticism, Evidence, and Truth by Josh Mcdowell

Scholarly Book:  Understanding Scripture: An Overview of the Bible’s Origin, Reliability, and Meaning by Wayne Grudem

 

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One Comment

  1. I have my bachelors degree in linguistics and have been fascinated by the transmission of ancient texts and the corresponding confidence we have in their accuracy. I think the example you gave above demonstrates well the process of distilling the message transmitted via copy-text editing…And also that Danny is indeed an excellent hockey player, at least his mom thinks so…

    The “Short blog post” you provided is a useful and concise look at how many more contemporary copies of the NT we have than we do of any other ancient text, as well as how short of time passed between the creation of the original and the copies compared to other established texts. Both of these criteria provide strong evidence that the NT was transmitted without error.

    The difficult question that I wrestle with: how do we know that the canonization of texts that we (Protestants) now call the Bible include the right texts? Especially when looking at the original texts being mostly decided on between the 1st-4th centuries AD and then a bunch of changes in the 16th and 17th centuries. I’ve read the Mcdowell book but not the one by Wayne Grudem. Does it address this issue?

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