Apologists Nick Peters and Joel Furches explore how accurate this ancient writing really is

This is part one of a two-part series on the reliability of the New Testament. Here, we will be focusing on handing down the Bible. In the next article, which will be published here soon, we will look at the historical accuracy of the Gospel accounts and some of the epistles.

Transmitting ancient writings

The Bible is an ancient book. This is a fact beyond dispute. The New Testament is the younger of the two testaments and the one upon which this article will focus.

Likely, the reader has some basic idea of how these texts were handed down. That idea probably goes something like this: one person wrote something, and then another person came along and copied that, and then another person found that and copied that, and then that copy was translated into another language, and then that was translated into another language, and eventually it all became the Bible. 

While this is not an exact description, many people do believe that the Bible was passed along a path that was fraught with mistranslations and mistakes that led to the Bibles printed today.


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Something must be understood at the outset: what is true of the New Testament is true of all ancient writings. The lives of Plutarch, the philosophical dialogues of Plato, or the Analects of Confucius – all of these works were written at one time in the past and any ancient work on a shelf today had to go through that same process.

However, comparatively speaking, the New Testament does remarkably well. There are far more copies of the New Testament than of any work in the ancient world. Not only that, but these manuscripts or pieces of manuscripts are far closer to the time of their original writing than any other work of similar antiquity. There will be resources listed at the end of this article so that any interested readers can look up the statistics.

The bottom line is that if the New Testament documents are not trustworthy, at least in their transmission, then no work from the ancient world is. To throw all of them out just to avoid the New Testament would be a major sacrifice. If one accepts the works that are outside of the New Testament, then on the same grounds, one should accept the New Testament.

Thousands of mistakes

But having the manuscripts close to their origin doesn’t mean that they have been handed down accurately, does it? Sceptical scholars like Bart Ehrman have popularised the idea that there are thousands of differences amongst the New Testament manuscripts. Surely with all of those differences, it would be impossible to find out what the New Testament says. Right?

Again, this is a popular idea, but it is wrong. For one thing, many of the differences in manuscripts are simple slips of the pen. These are easily detectable and can be adjusted. Anyone reading any text in any form can see a typo of some kind and still tell what the message was originally intended to say and mentally fix the message to say what needs to be said.

Some people might be surprised to see that some of these changes to the manuscripts are intentional, but this is not with devious intent. Many churches would have lectionaries that were written out for the scripture reading of the day. Suppose there is a text that says “He went into the town” that is based on the manuscript that the church has. The person writing out the text for the day then has it say, “Jesus went into the town.” This is a change, and it is intentional, but it does not alter the meaning of the text at all.


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Thousands of manuscripts

This doesn’t answer the question of how we know what the manuscripts originally said. After all, consider all these differences. It’s easy to tell how it could go from one manuscript to the next and be able to tell what the original said, but when readers today are so far removed from the original text and have a huge multiplicity of manuscripts, how are they to know what the original said?

The multiplicity of manuscripts sounds like it would be a problem, but in reality, the multiplicity of the manuscripts is the answer to the problem. Because there are many manuscripts, it is easier to cross-reference them with one another. Imagine if there were only two manuscripts that existed of a work and those two manuscripts were vastly different from one another. It would be near impossible to tell what the original said.

However, with each new manuscript, it becomes easier and easier to compare them. After all, it’s extremely unlikely that the same mistake will be made in all the manuscripts. If there are ten manuscripts of a book and in nine places the manuscript says X and only one says Y, then all things being equal, X would be the most likely original reading. This is not a hard and fast rule, of course, but there are several general principles like this.

The problematic texts

Surprisingly, the more problematic reading is to be preferred in the differences in the text. After all, it is easy to understand that a scribe would want to smooth matters out by making a text that was difficult to explain easier to explain. It is hard to picture why a scribe would see a simple text and decide that it needed some ambiguity and/or difficulty.

What about passages like the long ending of Mark or the story of the woman caught in adultery or the Trinitarian passage in 1 John? It is well-known that these are not part of the original manuscripts, and this does not show that what the original said is unknown. It shows the opposite. It is because there are so many texts of the New Testament that it is easy to look and see what the original said and that the original did not contain these parts, at least in the way that they exist today.

Are there still passages that are hard to translate? Yes. No major doctrine of the New Testament relies on these. Does the text say “We have peace with God” or “Let us have peace with God” in Romans 5:1? Does 1 John 1:4 say, “that your joy may be complete,” or “that our joy may be complete”? These are disputed, but no one builds any major doctrine on these verses.

In the end, the New Testament text has been handed down reliably. That does not mean the content is true, but it does mean that problems are not related to the accuracy of transmission.


Nick Peters has mentored under apologists Michael Licona and Norm Geisler and currently attends seminary, pursuing a degree in philosophy. Nick has Asperger’s Syndrome, a high-function form of autism, which has become a guiding force in his ministry to disabilities within the Church. Nick’s apologetics focus is on the historical Jesus, biblical scholarship and evidence for the resurrection.

Joel Furches is an apologist, journalist and researcher on conversion and deconversion, based in the USA.


Recommended reading

Myths and Mistakes in New Testament Textual Criticism by Elijah Hixson and Peter Gurry.

Can We Still Believe The Bible? By Craig Blomberg

The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? By F.F. Bruce

A Student’s Guide To Textual Criticism Of The Bible by Paul Wegner

Trusting The New Testament by James Patrick Holding

Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible by Emanuel Tov