Errors in the New Testament
For more information, see our article on 1 John 5:7.
Do you know where the New Testament came from? Is the New Testament that we have today the same as the New Testament that the early church had?
Are the English translations that we have today reliable? Which is the best English translation? Is it the King James version or is it another version?
These are all questions that we are going to look at in this series of videos. I am going to present you with the facts as I believe it is important that you know the truth.
The New Testament is a collection of 27 books written between 40 AD and 100 AD in the common or koine Greek language.
Koine Greek was the language of commerce in the eastern Mediterranean from the time of Alexander the Great in the 4th century BC until around 600 AD.
The books of the New Testament were written and copied by hand for over 1300 years, as the printing press was not invented until the year 1440.
These handwritten copies are referred to as manuscripts. There are no known original manuscripts of the New Testament so the earliest manuscripts that we have are copies. And no one is really sure how many copies of copies (or generations of copies) were made prior to the earliest manuscripts that we have.
Today, we have about 4800 Greek manuscripts not including lectionaries. There are about 3000 manuscripts of the 4 Gospels, 800 manuscripts of Paul’s writings, 700 manuscripts of Acts and the general letters, and just over 300 manuscripts of Revelation.
Not all of these are complete copies and the earliest manuscripts are fragments, some only containing a few verses.
The most common writing materials were papyri (made from the papyrus plant) and parchment m which was made from animal skins.
Initially, the books were written on scrolls but beginning in the 2nd century, the codex, which looks like a modern book, appeared on the scene.
Manuscripts were subject to wear and tear that is, as they were used and read, they started to wear out. So it is not surprising that we don’t have any of the original manuscripts.
It was also a big job to copy a manuscript by hand. Imagine sitting in your house, before the invention of the electric light, paper or the ball point and having to copy the entire New Testament by hand. It was a huge job.
The earliest Greek manuscripts were in a style called uncial or majuscule. This manuscript style involved writing the Greek text in all capital letters with no spaces between the letters and no punctuation. Imagine what this would look like in English, it is hard to read and hard to copy.
Wealthier people could afford to hire someone full time to copy out the Bible so that they could have a copy. But to copy the entire Bible, Old and New Testaments could take an entire year.
A question that is often asked is whether the scribes that copied the New Testament ever made mistakes when they were copying the manuscripts?
The answer to this question is obviously, yes. In fact, one scholar has estimated that there are more mistakes than there are words in the New Testament, over 300,000 errors. Your reaction to that might be total disbelief, but it is true. However, it is also true that the vast majority of these errors aren’t that big a deal, but we will discuss that later.
Scholars deal with the issue of sorting through all of these mistakes in the New Testament manuscripts through “Textual Criticism” which is the science of reconstructing the original text of the Bible based upon the available manuscript evidence.
The job of textual criticism is to look at the manuscripts and try to determine what the original manuscripts actually said. This is done by determining which manuscripts are the earliest, comparing manuscripts to determine the differences between them and ultimately deciding which is likely to be the actual wording of the original.
While we would like to believe that God guided the hands of the copyists to ensure that there were no errors, this did not happen. There is not a single manuscript in existence that does not have multiple errors in it. These errors or different readings between the manuscripts are referred to as “textual variants”.
99% of all of the textual variants in the New Testament have no impact on the meaning of scripture. These are things like spelling mistakes and other obvious errors made by the copyists. Of the remaining 1%, none of these affect any major doctrine.
Take a look at this text and you will be surprised that you can actually read it. That is because we don’t read every letter by itself but our brains process words as a whole.
In our next video we are going to look at the kinds of errors that occur in the New Testament Greek manuscripts and how they are dealt with by textual critics.