The following is based upon information taken directly from David Limbaugh’s “The True Jesus: Uncovering the Divinity of Christ in the Gospels,” chapter two, “New Testament Basics Building Blocks of the Revelation.” I recently added this book to my personal library and highly recommend it, along with Limbaugh’s “Jesus on Trial.” Both are available at Amazon.com through this link: David Limbaugh
The authenticity of the New Testament documents is shown by dating the original documents – none of which still exist – and determining how much time passed between those writings and the events they record, assessing how many copies we have of those writings, and examining them for accuracy, measuring the time gap between the original writings and the oldest copies we have, and then comparing our findings with those of manuscripts of ancient secular history.
Most scholars – liberal and conservative – agree that Christ died between 30 and 33 A.D., and that all the gospel accounts were written in the first century between twenty-five and fifty years after those dates. This is a short period considering this was an oral culture in which people would have memorized these accounts before reducing them to writing. Many scholars believe the gospel writers may have referred to earlier written accounts for some of their material. As noted, Christians agreed on and shared much creedal information about Jesus well before the New Testament writings, and many references to this “Jesus tradition” appear in Paul’s epistles, some of which predate the writing of the gospels. You might be thinking that such an oral tradition, combined with scribes writing down information over hundreds of years in various geographic locations, would lead to errors in the text. You’re correct. But, as we’ll see later, these were minor spelling, grammatical and punctuation errors that had no impact whatsoever on the doctrine itself.
The original twenty-seven New Testament manuscripts probably perished within decades of their composition because the writers didn’t write on bricks, rocks, or wooden tablets, but on paper – Egyptian papyrus (see John’s reference to his writing tools in 2 John 1:12; 3 John 1:13). What remains are handwritten copies called manuscripts. Inevitably, mistakes occurred in the copying process, no matter how meticulous and skilled the scribes were. To evaluate the accuracy of manuscript copies for the New Testament writings – or any other ancient books for that matter – textual critics study the differences in wording to determine the precise composition of the original manuscript. New Testament manuscripts are so plentiful that, according to Professor Craig Blomberg, textual criticism enables us to reconstruct what the New Testament authors wrote with a high degree of accuracy.
There are more than 25,000 New Testament manuscripts in existence, some 5,800 of which are in the original Greek (kione – common Greek vernacular spoken on the streets during the time of Jesus), which range from the early second century to the sixteenth century. Though we don’t have a complete manuscript dated before the third century, many fragments exist that include a substantial amount of the New Testament. There are also a million-plus New Testament quotations in the writings of the early church fathers. The number of surviving New Testament manuscripts dwarfs those of ancient secular writings. There are one thousand times as many existing manuscripts of the New Testament than of the average classical author’s works (between ten and twenty copies). Homer’s Iliad is the exception, but even those copies are limited to about 1,800, which is less than ten percent of the total amount of New Testament copies.
What about the “errors” in the New Testament? Aren’t they terribly problematic for those who maintain the Bible is inerrant? In a word, no. Inerrancy only pertains to the oral or written proclamation of the originally inspired prophets and apostles. As such, it does not exist. Not only was their communication of the Word of God efficacious in teaching the truth of revelation (there is literally power and life in the Word), but their transmission of that Word was error-free. David Limbaugh relates that he was skeptical about the issue of errors, especially as it might relate to doctrine. His research led him to the discovery that nearly every error was relative to spelling, style, and other grammatical trivialities, and that only about one percent of the variants – differences in wording – bear on the meaning of the text, with none affecting any major Christian doctrine. (Limbaugh notes this refers to one percent of the errors, not one percent of the entire text!) Richard Bentley, a classical English biblical critic, confirms that these minor errors do not pervert or set aside “one article of faith or moral precept.”
Even Bart Ehrman, the most famous manuscript scholar who has been skeptical of orthodox Christianity, affirms that “the essential Christian beliefs are not affected by actual variants in the manuscript tradition of the New Testament.” Evangelical scholars Ed Komoszewski, M. James Sawyer, and Daniel B. Wallace observe, “Any uncertainty over the wording of the original New Testament does not have an impact on major teachings of the New Testament. They certainly do not affect the deity of Christ. There is simply no room for uncertainty about what the New Testament originally taught.” What matters, says Carl Henry, is whether these variants corrupt the substantive content of the original and whether they “convey the truth of revelation in reliable verbal form, and infallibly lead the penitent reader to salvation.”
As an aside to David Limbaugh’s work, I want to note that it is not uncommon for Muslims to claim that the Bible is corrupted, and therefore not trustworthy. It is their contention that the angel Gabriel came to Mohammad and dictated to him – and only him over a period of twenty-three years in a cave – and that the Qur’an is the corrected truth. We should ask when this supposed corruption occurred? The Qur’an actually states that the Bible is the Word of God (Surah 5:43, 44, 46, 68; Surah 4:136; Surah 10:91; Surah 15:9; Surah 6:34; Surah 10:64). If the Bible was corrupted, was it before the time of Mohammad? Why then would God (Allah) tell Mohammad to look to the Scriptures for guidance and light? If the corruption occurred after the time of Mohammad, then why don’t Muslims accept the Bible as authoritative as our current translations are based upon manuscripts that predate Mohammad by hundreds of years? The earliest textual evidence we have for the Bible (the Dead Sea Scrolls and thousands of partial and complete Greek New Testament manuscripts dating back to within the first three centuries A.D.) simply does not allow for the claim of widespread corruption of the Bible.
The gap between the earliest New Testament manuscript fragment – the John Rylands Fragment (117-138 A.D.), which contains five verses from John 18 – and the original is less than fifty years. Another New Testament fragment, the Bodmer Papyri, which contains most of John’s books and Luke, 1 Peter, 2 Peter, and Jude, is dated circa 200 A.D., so there is a gap of between 100 and 140 years between the manuscript and the original. Even more impressive is the Chester Beatty Papyri (circa 250 A.D.) – a gap of 150-plus years from the completion of the originals – which contains most of the New Testament. The Codex Vaticanus (325-350 A.D.) contains the great majority of the New Testament and the Greek Old Testament. The Codex Sinaiticus (340 A.D.) – found on the Sinai Peninsula – is the oldest existing manuscript of the entire New Testament, and contains much of the Old Testament. These date some 250 years from the originals. Again, compared to existing manuscripts for ancient secular texts, the gap between the original and the copies is much smaller for the New Testament. The time gap between the original Iliad and the oldest existing manuscript of the work is between 350 and 400 years, but for most other secular works the gap exceed a thousand years.
The New Testament documents are copied accurately, and there are more copies, with many earlier copies, than any other book from the ancient world. As British paleographer and biblical and classical scholar Sir Fredric Kenyon states, “The interval between the dates of the original composition and the earliest extant evidence becomes so small as to be in fact negligible, and the last foundation for any doubt that the Scriptures have come down substantially as they were written has now been removed. Both the authenticity and the general integrity of the books of the New Testament may be regarded as finally established.”
I never had any doubt.
Carlson, J. (Mar. 19, 2014). Responding to the Muslim Claims That the Bible is Corrupt. [Msg. 1] Message posted to: https://www.chess.com/clubs/forum/view/responding-to-the-muslim-claims-that-the-bible-is-corrupt
Limbaugh, D. (2017). The True Jesus: Uncovering the Divinity of Christ in the Gospels. Washington, DC: Regnery Publishing