Why Can We Rely on the Bible - Part I

**Since this lesson I have written a 30 page document on the Reliability of Scripture which I used to teach a Deeper Life class in my church - Click Here for Info.

A slight detour from our lesson in John, this lesson on the reliability of Scripture is precipitated by the oddest cast of characters – namely John’s Gospel, Bart Ehrman and Megan Fox.

In this lesson we will discuss the following questions:
• Does the NT contain the actual words written by its authors?
• Why are the words the NT writers wrote considered Scripture?
• What was the NT writers’ view of Scripture?
• What was Jesus’ view of Scripture?
• Why does Scripture warrant our belief?

A number of presuppositions:
• We accept and believe that the Bible is the inerrant word of God.
• We accept that whatever we learn concerning the reliability of the New Testament will also hold true for the Old Testament.

Why, one might ask, do we start with our first question?
• This is because when we speak of the inerrancy of Scripture we are saying two things.
• First, we are affirming only the inerrancy of the original manuscripts (autographs) not the copies; “Scripture in the original manuscripts does not affirm anything that is contrary to fact” – Wayne Grudem.
• Second, we are affirming that through the original words “the Bible always tells the truth, and it always tells the truth concerning everything it talks about” – Wayne Grudem.

Therefore, we need to know if our Bibles contain the original words; the words of the autographs.


The Bible you read today comes from hand written documents (manuscripts) which are copies of the original writings (autographs).
• When it comes to manuscripts, both quantity and proximity in date to the originals are relevant in determining their accuracy and faithfulness to the autographs.
• You will see that The Bible is excels in both.

Greek Manuscripts (See NT Manuscript Comparison PDF):
• Currently, there are 5,700+ hand written manuscripts of the 27 NT books dating from the early 2nd century to the 1500’s.
• There are 10-15 Greek manuscripts (most are fragments) dated within 100 years of the last original NT document.
   o It is worth noting that there aren’t any other ancient documents with copies within decades of the original writings.
• Within 200 years there are about 48, and prior to 400 A.D. there are about 99.
• The oldest complete NT is the Codex Sinaiticus completed before 400 A.D.
• The NT has “well over 1000 times as many manuscripts as the works of the average classical author” – ESV.

Other Manuscripts:
• And taking in to account the Latin, Coptic, Syriac, Armenian, Georgian, Gothic and Arabic language manuscripts the total number of Bible manuscripts increases to 20,000 – 25,000 copies.
• BTW – one of my favorite books, “Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes”, draws many of its insights from three Syriac versions of the Gospels – the Old Syriac, the Peshitta and the Harclean.

But, over and above manuscripts, we have additional sources – the Church Fathers.

Church or Apostolic Fathers:
Over 1 million quotations from the early church Fathers have been cataloged to date that attest to the accuracy of the manuscripts” – ESV Study Bible.
• The editors of the ESV Study Bible (Wayne Grudem) state that “the NT text could be reproduced almost in its entirety by quotations of it in sermons, tracts, and commentaries written by” the Church Fathers.
• One early source for this info is a book called, “The New Testament in the Apostolic Fathers”, which was written in 1905.
• It is worth noting that the Church Fathers wrote mainly between 90 A.D. and 160 A.D, less than 140 years after Jesus death. (F.F. Bruce).

Some examples of the Church Fathers and what they quoted:
• Bishop Clement (96 A.D.) in a letter to the church at Corinth quoted from the Gospels, Acts, Romans, 1 Corinthians, Ephesians, Titus, Hebrews and 1 Peter (F.F. Bruce).
• Bishop Ignatius (115 A.D.) in letters he wrote on the way to martyrdom in Rome quoted from Matthew, John, Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus (F.F. Bruce).
• Polycarp (Ignatius’ brother and student of John), in a letter to the Philippians, quoted from the Gospels, Acts, Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 & 2 Timothy, Hebrews, 1 Peter and 1 John (F.F. Bruce).

Compared to other documents that inform our ancient history (not to mention documentaries on TLC and The History Channel), the Bible is in a league of its own.

Comparison Chart of Bible and Other Historical Documents (ESV Study Bible):
HistoriesOldest ManuscriptsNumber Surviving
Livy 59 b.c.–a.d. 174th century27
Tacitus a.d. 56–1209th century3
Suetonius a.d. 69–1409th century200+
Thucydides 460–400 b.c.1st century20
Herodotus 484–425 b.c.1st century75
New Testament100–150 A.D.c. 5,700 (plus more than 10,000 in Latin, more than a million quotations from the church fathers, etc.)

It is for the above reasons that F.F Bruce states, “if the New Testament were a collection of secular writings, their authenticity would generally be regarded as beyond all doubt” – F.F. Bruce.

What about differences that exist between manuscripts?
• We need to be clear, differences do exist between manuscripts.
But are they significant? We will see that the answer is no.

The differences between manuscripts are called textual variants.
• Yet we will see 99% are completely innocuous; they do not affect doctrine at all and can be weeded out.
• And a huge majority of them are not even relevant to the meaning of the text in which they are found.
• As Wayne Grudem puts it when dealing with textual variants, “the correct decision is often quite clear, and there are really very few places where the textual variant is both difficult to evaluate and significant in determining the meaning” of the original text.

The 3 most common textual variants are:
Spelling and Nonsense Variants – 75%
• This is by far the largest kind of variants that exist and account for about 75%.
Example of a Nonsense Variant is in 1 Thessalonians 2:7
   o “we were gentle among you” vs. “we were infants among you” vs. “we were horses among you”.
   o In the above case, the word for infants (nepioi) or for gentle (epioi) is miscopied as horses (hippoi).
   o It is called a Nonsense Variant because “horses” makes no sense and is clearly a miscopy.
   o This variant is noted in the ESV Study Bible.
Example of a Spelling Variant would be in English using “a book” vs. “an book” or “abook” or “anbook”.

Synonym and Word Order Variants – 24%
• These variants account for about 24%.
Example of Word Order Variant would be the Greek version of “Jesus loves John”.
   o In Greek, this can be written 16 different ways without changing the meaning (ESV Study Bible).
   o Thus in differing manuscripts you see a variety of different wordings, but the same meaning.
Example of Synonym Variant is in John 4:1, “The Lord” as in ASV vs. “Jesus” in ESV.
o Synonym variants, as exampled above, do not change the meaning.

"Meaningful and Not Viable" and "Meaningful and Viable Variants" – 1%
• These variants are the least common and account for about only 1%.
Example of Meaningful and Not Viable Variant is John 7:53-8:11 which is the account of the women caught in adultery.
   o The earliest manuscripts don’t have it so modern Bibles either notate that or exclude it all together.
   o Though it contains meaning, because it is not in early manuscripts it is not viable.
   o And leaving it out does not affect the meaning of John’s Gospel whatsoever.
   o This variant is noted in the ESV Study Bible.
Example of Meaningful and Viable Variant is Romans 5:1, “we have peace” vs. “let us have peace”.
   o The difference in the Greek is just one letter.
   o This variant is noted in the ESV Study Bible.
   o The meaning changes but not significantly and does not affect any doctrine.

POI – A comparison between different versions or a good study Bible will note many of these variants for you.
• NT critics insinuate that variants are “not shared because many pastors who learned this material in seminary have, for a variety of reasons, not shared it with their parishioners” – Bart Ehrman.
• In fact, the critics write books sensationalizing textual variants as if they are revealing something never before known.
• However, the idea that variants are “not shared” or known is simply not true.
   o As stated, any decent Study Bible will note variants (usually with the phrase “some manuscripts say”).
   o Any attempt to harmonize Scripture (such as the Gospels) will expose variants.
   o Any comparison of differing Bible translations will expose variants.
   o And it is worth noting that as far back as the 4th century Augustine addressed the issue of differences between manuscripts as did John Calvin in the 1500’s.
• The real problem is that, and this is one thing liberal Bart Ehrman is correct on, “…most Americans are increasingly ignorant of the contents of the Bible”.

Conclusions based on manuscript evidence:
We readily admit the following:
• “It is easily proved by experiment that it is difficult to copy out a passage of any considerable length without making one or two slips at least. When we have documents like our New Testament writings copied and recopied thousands of times, the scope of the copyists’ errors is so enormously increased that it is surprising that there are no more than there actually are” – F.F. Bruce.
• “But the original manuscripts [autographs] are those to which the claims to be God’s very words apply. Thus, if we have mistakes [textual variants] in the copies as we do, then these are only the mistakes of men. But if we have mistakes in the original manuscripts, then we are forced to say not only that men made mistakes, but that God himself made a mistake and spoke falsely. This we cannot do” – Wayne Grudem.
• And referring to the way in which the early Christians made copies of NT manuscripts D.A. Carson says, “the private copy made by an eager and well-meaning layperson was likely to include more transcriptional errors than copies made and checked in a scriptorium.

However, given the sheer quantity of Manuscripts (See Textual Variant PDF):
• “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 not so large as it might be feared; it is in truth remarkably small. The variant readings about which any doubt remains among textual critics of the New Testament affect no material question of historic fact or of Christian faith and practice” – F.F. Bruce.
   o In other words, the more copies there are, the more comparisons can be made among them, and the more variants can be reconciled.
• And, “the wealth and range of material supporting the Greek New Testament is staggering” – D.A. Carson.

So, the answer to our question, “Does the NT contain the words the NT writers actually wrote?”
• “As [the late] Bruce Metzger [the well-respected but not conservative professor emeritus at Princeton Theological Seminary] once said--- we know what about 92% of the NT said in its original manuscripts with a rather high degree of certainty. As for the other 8%, very little of theological or ethical consequence is at stake.” – Ben Witherington.
• “In the final analysis, no cardinal doctrine, no essential truth, is affected by any viable variant in the surviving NT manuscripts…although scholars may not be certain of the NT wording in a number of verses, for the vast majority of the words in the NT, the modern English translations accurately represent what the original authors wrote, and therefore these translations can be trusted as reproducing the very words of God” – ESV Study Bible.
• “The overwhelming majority of the text of the Greek NT is firmly established. Where uncertainties remain, it is important to recognize that in no case is any doctrinal matter at issue” – D.A. Carson
• Or as Wayne Grudem puts it, “for over 99% of the words of the Bible, we know what the original manuscript said”.