The New Testament as we have it was originally written in Greek. The first printed Greek New Testament coming off a printing press happened in the year 1516, which means that for 1,500 years, the text that John and other biblical authors wrote was passed down by handwritten copies. It was copied by hand and passed on and on and on. That’s significant.
When the New Testament was printed in 1516, it simply turned the world upside down. And I should just pause here and say if you want to read one of the best biographies that I’ve ever read, read David Daniell’s biography of William Tyndale to learn about that era and the heroism, and sacrifice, and reformation that this printing took so that anybody could read it — not just a few monks tucked away making faithful copies, but anybody who took the time could have it in their hands. It simply turned the world upside down in 1516 and beyond.
But for 1,500 years, it came down to us in handwritten form. We do not have the original manuscript of any of the New Testament books; that is, the very piece of parchment or paper that John or Paul or Matthew or Mark or Luke wrote on. We don’t have that piece of paper. Everything we have is copies, and the question is: Did they get it right? Were they faithful with it? And frankly, I think it’s probably just as well that we don’t have those originals because we’d make idols out of them and charge money probably for people to come worship at the shrine of the original manuscript of the apostle Paul. So the books of the New Testament are all preserved by these faithful, hardworking scribes and copyists for all those centuries.
Let me describe those manuscripts to you and give you some amazing facts. There are four ways that those manuscripts appear. One is a group called uncials, which are capital letters in the Greek. These are very old manuscripts. The next group is minuscules, and they’re little Greek letters. So some were written in all caps and some were written in little letters, and then there’s a group called papyri. These are the oldest fragments, written on papyrus, which was a plant common along the Nile in Egypt. The other group is lectionaries, which are collections of text used in public worship, not in the order they were written necessarily, but it lays out what you read on a particular Sunday.
Now, here’s what’s simply amazing: The abundance of those manuscripts in those four different forms is so startling compared to the oldest manuscripts of any other manuscript coming from the first century. It’s simply breathtaking. Caesar’s Gallic Wars was written about 50 BC. It has ten surviving manuscripts in the language in which it was written, and all of them date from AD 900 and after. Livy’s History of Rome has twenty surviving manuscripts, which are all late. Two manuscripts survive of Tacitus’s Histories and Annals, written about AD 100. There are only two manuscripts and they’re all from the AD ninth and eleventh century. Eight manuscripts exist for Thucydides’s history, which was written around 400 BC.
So, typically when you’re a historian working with manuscripts that come from the period that we’re talking about — the very early first century or so — you have up to twenty manuscripts to work with, and they’re all from the ninth and tenth century, not earlier. And virtually all those historians working in universities around the world are confident they’re interpreting Caesar, Thucydides, and Tacitus.
Compare the numbers of the manuscripts that we have of the New Testament. And these numbers all come from the main think tank called the Institute for New Testament Textual Research in Münster, Germany, who have the data all collated. These manuscripts exist in libraries around the world, but of course they’ve been digitized now. And the numbers of these are plain for everybody to see. There are 322 of the uncial texts, there are 2,907 miniscule texts, there are 2,445 lectionary portions, and there are 127 papyri, adding up to about 5,801 manuscripts or fragments. They’re not all complete New Testaments, but they are either whole or fragments of the New Testament. So these handwritten copies of the New Testament are in existence today and now are visible to the scholars who want to work with them to try to discern what the original words were that the biblical authors wrote.
Now, as you can imagine, the copying of those texts produced variations for all kinds of human reasons. So the multiplicity of the numbers of manuscripts increases the problem of variations, and also increases the powers of control by which we can assess which are the most original. The more you have, the more you can test which were the original ones. If we only had two manuscripts of the Gospel of John and one of them included the story about the woman caught in adultery, and one of them omitted it, and they’re both old, what would we do? It would be very difficult to decide.
That’s not the situation with any text in the Bible. The variations are many, but we have hundreds of texts. So we can say, “Here it is in these, but here — the number of these texts, the antiquity of these texts, the geographical distribution of these texts — it makes it crystal clear: that’s the original right there.” The number of manuscripts, while creating more variations, also creates the very control that scholars are able to use in order to decide which is original.
Here’s the way F.F. Bruce from a generation ago put it. He wrote this in 1943:
If the great number of manuscripts increases the number of scribal errors, it increases proportionately the means of correcting such errors, so that the margin of doubt left in the process of recovering the exact original wording is . . . in truth remarkably small. (The New Testament Documents, 19)
What’s most significant for the reliability and the authority of the New Testament is that the variations that remain, that we still wonder about, do not affect any biblical doctrine. Here’s the way Bruce puts it: “The variant readings about which any doubt remains among textual critics of the New Testament affects no material question of historic fact or of Christian faith and practice” (The New Testament Documents, 20).
Now, nothing in the last seventy years or so since he wrote that has changed in my judgment, except the fact that some very popular teachers, especially Bart Erhman, have become renowned for calling the New Testament into question precisely on the basis of textual critical issues.
On the other hand, Paul Wegner, writing in 2006, reaffirms Bruce’s judgment: “It is important to keep in perspective the fact that only a very small part of the text is in question… Of these, most variants make little difference to the meaning of any passage.” And then he closes his book with this quote from Fredric Kenyon: “It is reassuring at the end to find that the general result of all these discoveries and all this study is to strengthen the proof of the authenticity of the Scriptures, and our conviction that we have in our hands, in substantial integrity, the veritable word of God” (A Student’s Guide to Textual Criticism of the Bible, 301).
I agree with Don Carson and the others that the story of the woman caught in adultery was not in the Gospel of John when he wrote it. When I say that, I don’t at all mean for you to respond, “Oh, everything then is up for grabs,” or “How can I count on any text?”
On the contrary, you and I should be very thankful that in God’s sovereign providence over the centuries, these thousands and thousands of manuscripts are so abundant today — that in the science of textual criticism, as they are compared one with the other, there is a high degree of certainty that we have the original wording. And where there isn’t a degree of certainty, it affects no doctrine of the Christian faith.
John Piper (@JohnPiper) is founder and teacher of desiringGod.org and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. For 33 years, he served as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is author of more than 50 books, including Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist, and most recently Expository Exultation: Christian Preaching as Worship.
A version of this article previously appeared on the Desiring God website under the headline, “Isn’t the Bible Full of Errors?”
Truth and Accuracy
We are committed to truth and accuracy in all of our journalism. Read our editorial standards.