Has the New Testament Evolved over the Centuries?

The attack on the divinely inspired Word of God continues relentlessly. This week, I read an amazingly skewed article by National Public Radio entitled:How Bible Stories Evolved Over the Centuries”.

Notice how strongly the articles title re-enforces the notion that the Bible is just a bunch of man-made myths, fairy tales, and childrens stories which have continuously changed over the ages? The article also says that it was written by “NPR Staff”. Gee… That sure is specific.

According to “NPR Staff”, the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary (NOBTS) has spent 11 years combing “the earliest Greek manuscripts of each book in the New Testament and found more than 17,000 pages of variations.”

Oh, good grief! That right there is probably why NPR decided not to acknowledge the authors’ secret identity. The fact is, the NOBTS’ Center for New Testament Textual Studies (CNTTS), directed by Dr. William F. Warren Jr., has created an electronic database for Bible scholars and students. According to Dr. Warren, they painstakingly put numerous Greek manuscripts of the New Testament into a computer database which now contains 17,000 pages of “compiled data”. Not 17,000 pages of “variations.” That is a pretty HUGE difference, don’t you think?

Before I go on, I need to explain what an actual manuscript is. A manuscript, is simply a hand written document. In our context concerning ancient documents, it is a hand written reproduction of another hand written document. In the 1st century, manuscripts were often written on paper scrolls made from papyrus. Really great stuff, if you were a scribe. Except that in time, it eventually rotted or wore out. So, before that happened, a scribe’s huge task was to make sure an accurate reproduction was made. The new manuscript would then be used and would probably be fine for maybe a century or so. Then a copy of that copy would need to be made, and so on and so forth it went down through the centuries, until the invention of the movable type printing press by Johannes Gutenberg in 1440 A.D.. Well, you can easily imagine just how rare existing ancient manuscripts are these days. They are all hundreds and hundreds of years old and all falling apart.

Now, let’s get back to that new searchable database. It contains the complete Greek manuscripts in digital form, which include not only the Biblical texts themselves (what we see in our Bibles today), but also the comments made by the early scribes. The scribes often wanted to help the reader better understand the true meaning of the text. According to Dr. Warren, these Greek texts are somewhat like reading an ancient Greek Study Bible.

During the NPR radio interview, Dr. Warren never hinted that the New Testament “evolved over the centuries”. According to Dr. Warren’s previous interviews, the few differences in the various Greek text’s are “not all that consequential” and the database containing the various Greek text’s does not “undermine the Bible, but actually upholds its authority.”

The NPR article does mention a few New Testament verses that are found in some later Greek texts which are not in the earliest ones (that still exist). But, what does that prove? Actually nothing. All anyone can do (including Dr. Warren) is speculate, since we cannot possibly travel back in time. The few missing verses may have been in the very first manuscripts, then lost, then rediscovered a hundred years later for all we know. I think, when one considers the severe warnings in the Bible about what happens to anyone who would dare add or subtract anything from God’s Word (Deuteronomy 4:2, Deuteronomy 12:32, Proverbs 30:5-6, Galatians 1:6-12, and Revelation 22:18-19), while also considering how devout the early scribes must have been, while painstakingly copying the New Testament slowly by hand, word by precious word, and letter by precious letter… Well, I think it becomes clear. The few unique verses we see in the later Greek manuscripts are still indeed part of God’s inerrant Word. But, how much evidence do we have that what we read today in our current New Testament is anything like the original?

Ever heard of Thucydides? He was a Greek Historian who lived in the 4th to 5th Century B.C. Many scholars consider him to be one of the most accurate historians of all antiquity. Guess how many manuscripts we have for his writings? A grand total of eight and there is a 1,300 year gap of time between when the earliest one of those was penned from the date of the original which was written down by Thucydides himself. But, even with only eight manuscripts left in existence and a 1,300 year gap of time, does anyone question the veracity and authority of Thucydides? No way! And does anyone think his text “evolved over the centuries”? Certainly not.

Herodotus is the name of another famous ancient Greek historian. Guess how many manuscripts of his works exist today? Once again, a whopping eight. And there is also a 1,300 year gap of time between the earliest existing copy and the one Herodotus wrote. Strange, nobody ever questions his writings either. Well, what about Homer’s Iliad? Guess what? By ancient manuscript standards it ranks second in the total number of manuscripts that still exist for an ancient document. The Illiad is extremely authoritative, because a grand total of 642 full or partial manuscripts are still in existence today, and there is only a 400 year gap of time between the earliest one and the epic poem that Homer penned himself. Simply amazing!

Well, now comes the big question. How many manuscripts exist for our poor New Testament. You know… “God’s Holy Word…”?

Apologist Josh McDowell can answer that one better than myself. He is a graduate of Talbot Theological Seminary and in his book “Evidence for Christianity” he has documented 24,970 complete and partial manuscripts! It only gets better. The earliest partial manuscripts date back to within 50 years of the original texts. The New Testament is hands down the most authoritative ancient document in existence today. Nothing else even remotely comes close.

Josh McDowell also discovered that when comparing all the existing manuscripts of the New Testament, (just focusing on the Biblical text and not on the commentary additions, spelling mistakes, etc..) there is less than half of a page of discrepancies between them. But, none of the discrepancies involve any major doctrine. That is a far cry from NRP’s crazy claim of 7,000 pages of variance! He also discovered that if we were to destroy every single New Testament in the world and also destroy every single existing New Testament manuscript, he could still recreate the entire New Testament except for 19 verses, just by using the writings and letters of the early church fathers who lived in the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd century.

The evidence is simply overwhelming! Any accurate “literal” translation of the New Testament (NKJV, NASB, etc..) in your hands today does in fact contain the same Divinely inspired Word of God and doctrines it contained back in the 1st century. That was when eyewitnesses of Jesus Christ Himself, were inspired by the Holy Spirit to write down God’s inerrant Word. Any attack today on the authority of God’s Word over the miniscule differences in the almost 25,000 existing hand written manuscripts is simply without merit. If we are to disregard the New Testament as being unreliable, unhistoric, and full of error, then we MUST also disregard all the other ancient historical manuscripts as well.

Jesus was crystal clear when He proclaimed: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will by no means pass away.” – Luke 21:33 NKJV

As for “NPR Staff”, God’s Word says this: “the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written:

I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, And bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent.” – 1 Corinthians 1:18-19

Have a blessed day!

Sean Kirkpatrick

Additional Recommended Resources:

Book of Apologetics: Evidence for Christianity by Josh McDowell

Evidence for Christianity

By Josh McDowell

Sean Kirkpatrick posted at 2011-7-22 Category: Historical Evidence