The Reliability and Inspiration of the Bible

A page containing Ephesians 4:1-11 from manuscript p46. 

There is great value in affirming biblical inspiration even though the original documents do not exist today. By affirming that the original text is inspired, the believer acknowledges that God’s original revelation is perfect and inspired, despite the variations of men that may be found among the extant manuscripts. Furthermore, the believer is motivated by the assertion of inspiration to discover the original words of Scripture and to trust what God has revealed in them. This is a reasonable undertaking since we do not need the physical autographs to ascertain the original words but we do have more than adequate manuscript evidence and a proven methodology which can ascertain the original text.

While some have despaired because the original documents of Scripture are not extant today, this concern is unfounded. It is not necessary to possess the physical originals to know the original text of Scripture. God did not inspire the physical materials used to transmit His words, He inspired the words themselves. There is nothing about the original papyrus or ink which is necessary to having certainty of the words of Scripture, it must simply be demonstrated that we have access to the same words faithfully copied and preserved.

When considering the modern situation in which believers are reliant on translations from copied manuscripts, it is helpful to consider the situation of Jesus and the apostles themselves. Neither Jesus nor his apostles had access to the original Hebrew manuscripts of the Old Testament. In fact, the Old Testament commonly used in their day was the Greek translation of the Old Testament, the Septuagint. Yet, not only did Jesus and the apostles freely use the Septuagint, they freely and unreservedly quoted from it and regarded the Septuagint itself as Scripture. In fact, the majority of Old Testament quotations found in the New Testament come from the Septuagint.[1] The fact that Jesus and the New Testament authors regarded the copies and translations of the Old Testament available to them as Scripture, should give the believer assurance that God has likewise preserved His Word for modern readers.

God has providentially allowed believers today to possess an embarrassment of riches where manuscript evidence of the New Testament is concerned. Today there are approximately 5,700 Greek manuscripts of the New Testament available today.[2] This is in addition to the thousands of witnesses among the ancient versions in Syriac, Latin, Coptic, and other languages and to the quotations from the Patristic writings.[3] Among the papyrus evidence are some manuscripts which date to the second century A.D.[4]

The modern reading of the Old Testament is likewise dependent on extant manuscript evidence. The Dead Sea Scrolls were a major discovery in 1947 which greatly bolstered the manuscript evidence for the Old Testament. Prior to their discovery, the Old Testament text was dependent upon the Samaritan Pentateuch, the Septuagint, the Leningrad Codex, the Aleppo Codex and the Nash Papyrus. The Dead Sea Scrolls were comprised of approximately 800 manuscripts dating from around 250 B.C to 50 A.D.[5] Believers have great reason to place confidence in the manuscript evidence available today.

While there are variations within the manuscripts currently extant, the original text of both the Old and New Testaments may be ascertained with staggering certainty when the process of textual criticism has been applied to the manuscript evidence. Textual criticism involves evaluating the various readings in light of the quality and age of the manuscripts, the widespread presence of the reading, the context of the passage and the style and vocabulary of the writer, and other factors. By critically evaluating the texts in this way, the original reading of the text may be asserted with confidence. Wayne Grudem effectively summarizes the confidence which believers can have in their Bible:

“For most practical purposes, then, the current published scholarly texts of the Hebrew Old Testament and Greek New Testament are the same as the original manuscripts… Thus, our present manuscripts are for most purposes the same as the original manuscripts, and the doctrine of inerrancy therefore directly concerns our present manuscripts as well.”[6]

Grudem further asserts the reliability of the modern text of the Bible, “…it may first be stated that for over 99 percent of the words of the Bible, we know what the original manuscript said.”[7] The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy was drafted in 1978 and stands for many evangelicals as a full and faithful statement on the inerrancy of Scripture. The absence of the autographs does not affect inerrancy according to the Chicago Statement:

“Article X: We affirm that inspiration, strictly speaking, applies to the autographic text of Scripture, which in the providence of God can be ascertained from available manuscripts with great accuracy. We further affirm that copies and translations of Scripture are the Word of God to the extent that they faithfully represent the original.  We deny that any essential element of the Christian faith is affected by the absence of the autographs. We further deny that this absence renders the assertion of Biblical inerrancy invalid or irrelevant.”[8]

Even Bart Ehrman, who denies the inspiration of the Bible, recognizes that the vast majority of textual variants do not seriously alter the text,

“To be sure, of all the hundreds of thousands of textual changes found among our manuscripts, most of them are completely insignificant, immaterial, and of no real importance for anything other than showing that scribes could not spell or keep focused any better than the rest of us.”[9]

            There is much value in affirming inspiration and there is great reason for doing so even though the autographs of Scripture do not survive to this day. While the physical materials are not extant, the content of those autographs do survive in the great manuscript evidence that God has providentially preserved for us. While there are variants among the manuscripts, these are mistakes of men, not of God. We may affirm that the original documents remain the Word of God, and through the work of textual criticism, we may confidently arrive at the text of the original documents. Inasmuch as the original text has been recovered, we may therefore, regard those texts as inspired and wherever questions remain, our affirmation of divine inspiration should motivate us to deduce the original reading through examination of the manuscripts.

[1] Ferguson, Everett. Backgrounds of Early Christianity. Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans, 2003, 436.

[2] Metzger, Bruce M. The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005, 52.

[3] The patristic quotations are so thorough that Metzger states, “Indeed, so extensive are these citations that if all other sources for our knowledge of the text of the New Testament were destroyed, they would be sufficient alone for the reconstruction of practically the entire New Testament.” Ibid, 2005, 126.

[4] 𝔓4, 𝔓64, 𝔓67, and 𝔓75 date to the late 2nd century, while 𝔓52 dates to the early 2nd century. Metzger Ibid., 53-61.

[5] Kaiser, Walter C. The Old Testament Documents: Are They Reliable & Relevant?Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 2001, 41.

[6] Grudem, Wayne A. Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994, 96.

[7] Ibid., 96.

[8] Ibid., 1206.

[9] Ehrman, Bart D. Misquoting Jesus. New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2005, 204.

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