Is the Bible today what they wrote back in the day?
Dr. Patrick Marks’ Blog: Quick Answers to Tough Questions
(4 minutes reading time…)
Hello everyone: Today’s question is, “How can you trust the Bible when it’s been translated so many times?”
This can be an honest question – or not! It’s sort of like asking someone “So, have you stopped beating up your wife yet?” If you say “yes” then you admit you’ve been beating up your wife and you’re a horrible person. If you say “no” then you admit you’ve been beating up your wife and you’re a horrible person. Either way – you lose. In the same way, people sometimes ask this question about the Bible and imply IN the question that you can’t really trust the Bible because it has been translated so many times – so don’t bother trying to answer the question!
But is the fact there are many translations of the Bible automatically mean you can’t trust it? The implication is that Bible translations are something like the telephone game. If you’re familiar with the telephone game, it’s pretty simple and it can be pretty fun. You get a group of people and you put them in a circle. You come up with a message, whisper it into the ear of the first person, that person takes it and whispers it into the ear of the next person and so on along the chain.
Some people might change the message just because they think it’s funny, others because they don’t like the original message. Some might change it because they want to change it for one reason or another, but some may change it just because they didn’t hear it accurately as it was whispered in their ear. One way or another you start out with the original message that says, “Ten turkeys were tied to a toad on Ted Turner!” and you end up in the end with a message that says, “Two llamas are reciting the Declaration of Independence on the beach this afternoon!” When you hear about the llamas you’ve got to wonder - Is that the original message?
The only way to find out is to check the original message.
We have to do the same thing when it comes to ancient literature. The only way to find out if a translation you have today is the same as the original, you have to go back to your oldest documents and compare them to each other. Scholars call this the Bibliographic Test and the Bible passes the bibliographic test better than any other ancient document ever written in any language.
In comparison, if we do the bibliographic test on the works of the ancient Greek philosopher Plato, we find a gap of 1,300 years between the oldest ancient example of Plato’s work and the time Plato was actually writing. In addition, we only have seven copies (or parts of copies) of the oldest versions of Plato’s work.
Another example is the Roman emperor Julius Caesar. Caesar wrote his History of the Gallic Wars in 44 B.C. The oldest examples of the Gallic Wars is dated 900 years after the time Caesar wrote and we only have ten of the oldest manuscripts to examine. In fact, the best ancient document modern scholars have, outside of the Bible, is The Iliad by the Greek writer Homer. The oldest copies of the Iliad date to 400 years after Homer died and we have 643 of the most ancient copies.
An ancient document scores better or worse on the bibliographic test based on the number of ancient sources scholars have to examine and how close is the gap between when the writer composed it and the oldest example. By comparing the oldest documents that are closest to the writer, scholars can determine how accurate are modern copies. Most scholars and university professors have little trouble accepting Plato’s Republic (it was required reading at my university), many Latin teachers require translation practice from the Gallic wars and a great many scholars accept the Iliad as a genuine work of Homer.
So, what about the Bible?
Well when we do a bibliographic test on the New Testament, we find 24,970 ancient documents. That’s ten times better than all other ancient documents combined and that’s just for the New Testament. We also have 14,000 copies the Old Testament or portions of it as well. Of the 24,970 copies of the New Testament, most of them were written between 60 and 100 years after the originals. From a bibliographic test point of view, this is extraordinary. In fact, there’s only two percent of the entire New Testament that’s in doubt.
That is only 400 words.
Of the 400 words scholars may doubt, none of them affect the meaning of any teaching at all. What’s even more interesting is we have 30,000 plus quotes from other ancient literature quoting the Bible. There are many verses quoted in ancient letters outside the Bible. Scholars have found that we could rebuild the entire New Testament except for 11 verses just from those quotes alone.
So, the truth of the matter is the Bible passes the bibliographic test better than any other ancient document ever written in any language. Of course, just because the copies we have today are over 99% accurate to the original does not mean people will believe what the Bible says. There are plenty of other reasons to believe what the Bible says (another blog entry), but what we can be certain of – beyond a reasonable doubt – is that what we have, is what they wrote!