Have you ever had someone tell you face to face that the New Testament is “corrupt”? What did he/she actually mean by stating that claim? What reasons, if any, did that person give for concluding with that kind of judgment? How did you respond to that person’s claim?
Instead of just wanting to believe the NT is corrupt or is not corrupt, we should first find out if the meaning we have today is the same exact meaning as the original text. Setting aside any preconceived notion of NT corruption, an honest researcher will test the claim of textual corruption, setting aside personal bias, and determine if the NT is textually accurate or if it has changed over time. This blog post will give one main reason why we can know whether or not the NT has any textual corruption.
What does it mean to say that the “NT text is not corrupt”? It means that the text we have today has not lost its original meaning, and the original meaning has not changed over time.
Evidence Whether the NT Is/Is Not Corrupt:
1.) Quantity – With over 5,000 early Greek copies and over 15,000 ancient non-biblical citations, our database can compare ancient texts with each of the 27 NT books we have today. Even though some of those texts are small fragments, the average-size manuscript among the first 20,000 surviving translations (in languages such as Latin, Syriac, Coptic, Georgian, Gothic, Armenian, and Arabic) is more than 450 pages long. Numerous manuscripts help us determine the original writing locations in the Middle East and the first days of Mediterranean distribution throughout western Asia and southern Europe. The evidence of “numerous copies” is very relevant when it comes to the issue of being the best attested book of all ancient books. Numerous ancient NT manuscripts make the NT we have today the best textually supported book from antiquity. With Homer’s Iliad numbering at 643 early copies, and Histories of Tacitus numbering at 20 early copies, we can undoubtably ascertain that over 5,000 early Greek NT texts and over 15,000 non-biblical citations are by far the most numerous pieces of evidence given to any ancient writing, affirming that 27 NT books have been significantly preserved. “Virtually the entire NT could be reproduced many times over just from the quotations of these (early church) fathers,” said Daniel B. Wallace, professor of NT studies at Dallas Theological Seminary. Wallace estimated, “More than a million quotations of the NT by the church fathers have been collected so far.”
(It has been noted on Dan Wallace’s blog that the number of papyrus manuscripts of Iliad is up to about 1,500 copies, but the span of years is not noted. Thank you, Scott Shifferd for pointing that out.)
Don’t make the mistake of thinking that numerous copies and millions of subapostolic citations alone lead us to conclude that the original text has not changed. Logicians would call that kind of a jump a non sequitur. Instead, numerous ancient copies and non-biblical citations make the NT the best ancient document to check for accuracy, which leads to an affirmation of an unchanged, historical document.
(Note: the Didache is a book, Teaching of the Twelve Disciples, that was found and published by P. Bryennios in 1883. Early church Fathers refer to it in their writings, but the exact date is not easy to pinpoint. Some scholars place the Didache earlier in the first century. “Hence a date for the Didache in its present form later than the second century must be considered unlikely, and a date before the end of the first century probable,” wrote Jonathan Draper in Gospel Perspectives. Steven J. Patterson places a date range at the end of the first century whereas Audet disagrees. “The trend is to date the Didache much earlier, at least by the end of the first century or the beginning of the second, and in the case of Jean-P. Audet, as early as 50-70 C.E.)
2.) Dating – Since the culture was much different in the early first century, a first century writer had no publishing house such as Harper Collins or Random House who required a copyright page or a list of people to thank for the entire publishing process. Do the dates even matter? The dates *do* matter because early dates wipe out any notion of mythology. Early dates wipe out any possibility of legendary development, and early dates contribute to historical reliability. Today, historians place the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ in AD 33, and we can determine that the recorded ministry of Christ lasted for three years. The life of Christ and the events during his earthly ministry were from AD 3-33. The original twelve disciples of Jesus were from AD 30-33. Historical accounts of the life of Jesus Christ are given by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, but when were they written?
Early writings such as those listed below give evidence to the traditional dating of the four original Gospels, also called the fourfold Gospel or the tetramorphic Gospel. The four Gospel accounts all consist of a common message of eternal life through Christ. Even though the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) were written earlier than John, the four Gospels were all written in the first century while the author was still alive. The synoptics were presumably written before a major historical event, the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70. Events from the early days of the universal church are from about AD 33-67, including the Jerusalem phase under the leadership of Peter, the Gentile phase under the leadership of Paul, and the Roman phase under the joint action of both apostles, Peter and Paul. With 27 NT books, one would need to look at each book, the content within, and cross reference with other historical books, both biblical and non-biblical, in order to determine the year or window of years that the individual author wrote that particular book. One of the five founders of the Evangelical Theological Society named Robert H. Gundry stated, “These books were written over the latter half or so of the first Christian century.” Scholars who study authorship in an intellectually honorable way will agree that each writer of the fourfold Gospel originally wrote his account during his lifetime.
a.) One of the earliest undisputed fragment collections of the NT surviving today is known as the John Rylands Papyri, dated around AD 117-138, located at John Rylands University in Britain, encased within a climate-controlled cabinet.
b.) In 1972, a Spanish paleographer named Jose O’Callahan determined from the “Dead Sea Scrolls Discovery of 1947” that the scroll collection included many fragments from the Gospel of Mark, written as early as AD 50. (It was not noted whether or not the Mark fragments were the original or copies.) Since the original must have been written before the copy, the original must be as early as AD 50 or earlier if the Mark fragments from the Dead Sea Scrolls are copies, but not any later than AD 50. In comparison, a NT scholar and liberal critic, John A. T. Robinson, dated the book of Mark at AD 45-60.
c.) The Gospel of Luke is traditionally thought to have been written by Apostle Paul’s disciple, a physician named Luke, during Paul’s imprisonment at Caesarea, dated to about AD 58-60. In comparison, NT scholar John A. T. Robinson dated the book of Luke at AD 57-60.
d.) The formation of the Gospel of Matthew probably took place before AD 44 while others insist on a date as late as AD 70. In comparison, NT scholar John A. T. Robinson dated the book of Matthew at AD 40-60.
e.) The Gospel of John is known by some scholars as the Gospel that was written as late as AD 95. In comparison, NT scholar John A. T. Robinson dated the book of John at AD 40-65.
3.) Scribes – Back in the first century, the culture had no “copy and paste” computer system to generate millions of unabridged copies of the original. The NT originals were most likely all written on papyrus scrolls at a time when bookbinding was just beginning to emerge with a new codex form (pages, not scrolls) and a new type of book cover called cases. Eventually, more durable writing materials such as parchment came into use since papyrus was fragile and susceptible to cracking and moisture. It was a common practice for authors back then to dictate to a writer called an amanuensis. Back then, reliable scribes were the ones who needed to make precise copies on papyrus scrolls in order to reproduce a copy and have it distributed to another place for people to read in another city. As demand for more copies increased, a reader dictated to a roomful of copyists. Highly literate scribes wrote in a way that strove to produce exact replicas with 100% accuracy, but some of the copyists made sight and sound errors or produced slight differences of inconsequential items. Wallace estimated, “More than 70% of all textual variants are mere spelling differences that affect nothing.” Today, scholars follow certain rules to compare these texts, and they can determine the original wording with great success.
4. Accuracy – Textual scholars examine and compare the earliest copies and the earliest fragments. Gundry explained it is necessary to do textual criticism. He stated it is necessary “to decide between differences in wording in the early Greek manuscripts, translations, and quotations of the New Testament for what its authors are most likely to have written. Fortunately, we have an abundance of materials to perform this task; and there is a large-scale agreement on the original wording.” Through a process called textual criticism, scholars such as B. F. Westcott and F. J. A. Hort have evaluated multiple texts with textual variants to confirm the original. The main reason we know the NT text we have today is completely uncorrupt in transmission and completely unchanged in its meaning is because the text we have today corresponds directly to the earliest copies in a completely accurate way. Textual criticism is the main reason why the NT text is not corrupt. Accurate transmission and accurate translations give us an uncorrupted text today. Once we compare the old texts on a firm footing, we can confidently determine that the NT meaning has not changed.
The purpose of this blog post is to establish that the NT we have today is not corrupt. Numerous early Greek manuscripts and early versions such as Syriac and Latin, early manuscript dating, and the scribes who transcribed the books, all lead to a manageable process of textual criticism. Chancellor and Distinguished Professor of Apologetics at Veritas Evangelical Seminary Dr. Norman Geisler stated, “The historicity of the New Testament is based on more solid evidence than that for any other events from the ancient world. For no other events are based on more manuscripts, that are more accurately copied, that were written by more people, who were eye-witnesses or contemporaries of the events.” We can indeed make a reasonable conclusion that we have complete accuracy today in the NT text. We can safely conclude that the NT English versions we have today, including KJV-1611, ERV-1881, NKJV, NIV-1978/84, NASV-1963, and ESV-2001, are not corrupt. We can safely conclude that the NT text we have today is completely accurate, that is, it is the same text as the original.
Ok, the Text Hasn’t Changed, But Is It True?
At least two things are left in order to fully establish historical reliability; finding out whether the content is true by taking a closer look at whether the sources are reliable and finding out whether the actual record presents a true account of the life of Jesus Christ. A complete case for historical reliability and biblical inerrancy deserves a separate, very thorough examination of interior text, which would lead to another very long investigation. In order for a person to know if the NT is true without any contradictions, he would need to take the time to sufficiently understand historical truth and discover textual inerrancy in all its glory.
Is it reasonable to believe Jesus existed? Yes. Is it reasonable to believe the New Testament we have today is the exact same text as the original documents? Yes. We can improve our epistemology, how we know what we know, once we begin to discover truthful reasons for believing what we do. You no longer need to walk around thinking the NT is corrupt. You no longer need to walk around not knowing what to say to someone who says the NT is corrupt. You can know with certainty that the NT is not corrupt, based on numerous early written manuscripts, the early dating of those manuscripts, reliable scribes, and textual criticism – the accurate transmission scholars perform when comparing ancient texts to other ancient texts. The NT text we have today has the exact same meaning as the original text. It has not been corrupted in the transmission process. The next time someone tries to tell you that the NT we have today is corrupt, you can kindly respond by saying, “No, the NT is not corrupt, and here’s why…textual criticism. We can check over 5,000 early Greek manuscripts, over 15,000 early non-biblical citations, and about 20,000 other early translations with the text we have today and see that the meaning has not changed at all. The text we have today has the same meaning as the original.”
The Gospel Endures Forever
In the following passage of 1 Peter 1:22-25, Peter the apostle of Jesus Christ referred to Isaiah 40:6-8, speaking to the New Testament saints:
Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere brotherly love, love one another earnestly from a pure heart, since you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God; for
“All flesh is like grass, and all its glory like the glory of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls, but the word of the Lord remains forever.”
And this word is the good news (gospel) that was preached to you.
WHO WROTE THE New Testament?
While it is biblically accurate to say God wrote the New Testament, it is more clearly explained by saying the New Testament was written by godly men who were carried along by the Holy Spirit.
Matthew wrote Matthew – The original author of the Gospel of Matthew is traditionally known as Matthew himself, the former tax collector and disciple of Jesus. Matthew must have been qualified by his education, knowledge, and eye witness testimony, fully capable of writing the words of Jesus into a coherent whole in the Greek language.
Mark wrote Mark – Another disciple and eye witness of Jesus, Simon Peter the businessman, helped his friend John Mark to write the Gospel of Mark.
Luke wrote Luke and Acts – Luke the beloved, skilled physician is also known as an accurate historian. He was highly educated, traveled with Paul, wrote the Gospel of Luke as well as the book of Acts, and is accepted as a qualified writer.
John wrote John, 1 John, 2 John, 3 John, and Revelation – The Gospel writer of John is accepted as John the beloved disciple of Jesus, even though a few extremely liberal scholars are tempted to deny it. Like the other three synoptic Gospels, the Johannine style of the Gospel of John is a beautiful report of the life, acts, and words of Jesus Christ. John is a qualified scribe who wrote five NT books: the Gospel of John, three epistles of John (1 John, 2 John, and 3 John), as well as the Book of Revelation.
Paul wrote Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 & 2 Thessalonians, 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus, and Philemon.
Hebrews was written by ? but possibly Paul.
James was written by James the brother of Jesus.
1 & 2 Peter was written by Peter.
Jude was written by Jude.
“It was by dying to myself that I finally understood the world-changing power of the gospel.” – Nabeel Quereshi
Black, David Alan. Why Four Gospels? The Historical Origins of the Gospels. Gonzalez, FL: Energion Publications, 2001.
“Didache,” accessed 7/25/18, http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/didache.html
Erickson, Millard J. Christian Theology. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 1983.
France, Richard Thomas. “The Gospels as Historical Sources for Jesus,” Christian Apologetics: An Anthology of Primary Sources. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2012.
Geisler, Dr. Norman. Twelve Points That Show Christianity is True: A Handbook On Defending the Christian Faith. Indian Trail, North Carolina: NGIM, 2016.
Geisler, Dr. Norman. Systematic Theology Vol. One: Introduction, Bible. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Bethany House, 2002.
Gundry, Robert H. A Survey of the New Testament. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2012.
Quereshi, Nabeel. Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervon, 2014.
Thiede, C.P. The Earliest Gospel Manuscript, 1982.
Wallace, Daniel B. “The Bart Ehrman Blog and the Reliability of the New Testament Text,” danielbwallace.com, accessed 7/25/18, https://danielbwallace.com/2012/05/01/the-bart-ehrman-blog-and-the-reliability-of-the-new-testament-text/