The Reliable Bible – The Reliability of the New Testament

Excellent infographic showing the the reliability of the New Testament text as compared to other ancient documents. The New Testament has many more existing copies from antiquity which are closer to the the writing of the original text than any other well known ancient text we have – which would be expected for a document understood by believers as being Divinely inspired.

The reliability of the New Testament

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20 Responses to The Reliable Bible – The Reliability of the New Testament

  1. Tafacory says:

    What must be noted is that reliability and truth value are completely different things. I can have one million hand-written copies of Green Eggs and Ham from all over the world which would establish its reliability in terms of consistency because one would be able to note any discrepancies in the writing as they were given over time. But something can be reliable and false at the same time. These concepts or properties are not intricately linked together. They are not inseparable.

    All the best.

  2. tobeforgiven says:

    No, but often Atheists like to argue against the existence of early source material. I once had to pull aside a book store owner for telling a customer that there had been no Biblical Materials discovered that had been written before 500AD.
    There is a good deal of mis information out there. And knowing that the source materials do exists now then leads people to asses those source materials.
    Some of which are available online. We have heard for years that the story in the early documents was different than that of the current texts. It is interesting to see how, now that these texts are available for laymen to see, that that arguement has seemingly died out. Putting some authors and scholars in a very embarreising position.

  3. Mike D says:

    You should swing by and take my Gospel challenge. I hope you’ve got something better than this, because it’s almost comedic that you present something this flimsy and then claim it’s consistent with the concept of Divine Inspiration*. In addition to what Tafacory says, last I checked nobody stakes their eternal salvation on the infallibility of the writings of Socrates or The Iliad. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

    Having lots of copies, in addition to saying nothing of truth value, similarly bodes poorly for the fact that the New Testament is so riddled with contradictions, omissions, additions, and historical inaccuracies. If the book came from God, all the multitudes of copies ought to reinforce the truth of the text by marginalizing any errors. But that’s not what happens. Instead, more copies pop up and the errors just keep multiplying.

    * Since there’s not really any ubiquitously agreed upon definition of what “Divinely Inspired” entails, you can define it in whatever way makes it convenient at the time. All it takes is some good old fashioned confirmation bias, which you’ve done a fantastic job of showing here.

    ** Also, you really need to learn to distinguish between something being “consistent” with something, and actually validating a hypothesis through falsifiable evidence. The fact that the Earth rotates on its axis is consistent with the theory that a divine Harlem Globetrotter spins it on his invisible, undetectable finger. And you know how the Earth bobs a bit as it orbits the sun? Have you ever seen a Globetrotter? They don’t keep their arms still, but move it around to balance the ball. See, it’s totally consistent! But it’s not exactly a testable hypothesis, is it? Can you give some sort of falsifiable criteria to establish that the Bible is Divinely Inspired?

  4. jackhudson says:

    @Tafacory

    What must be noted is that reliability and truth value are completely different things. I can have one million hand-written copies of Green Eggs and Ham from all over the world which would establish its reliability in terms of consistency because one would be able to note any discrepancies in the writing as they were given over time. But something can be reliable and false at the same time. These concepts or properties are not intricately linked together. They are not inseparable.
    All the best.

    Absolutely right, and the reliability of the Scriptural text doesn’t in and of itself prove that what it documents to be true. However, if the text is unreliable, it can’t be trusted at all, so knowing the text is reliable forms a baseline for considering its claims. And it answers skeptic’s claims that the texts were developed over time as error-prone copies.

    Thanks for the comment.

  5. jackhudson says:

    You should swing by and take my Gospel challenge. I hope you’ve got something better than this, because it’s almost comedic that you present something this flimsy and then claim it’s consistent with the concept of Divine Inspiration*.

    What is comedic is the notion that this is the only thing I have ever presented (or the only thing that could be presented) to verify the claims of Scripture – I have written extensively on this throughout this blog. Other much more capable than I am have written much more.

    With regards to your ‘Gospel challenge’, every one of those supposed contradictions has been claimed for decades. A five minute Google search would provide explanations for most of them – and of course ‘contradictions’ you culled from skeptic sites have nothing to do with this subject.

    In addition to what Tafacory says, last I checked nobody stakes their eternal salvation on the infallibility of the writings of Socrates or The Iliad. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

    Atheists always say this, but never offer an empirical measure of ‘extraordinary’ probably because no such measure exists. Obviously the point of this is that in terms of reliability of the text we have, the New Testament is much more reliable than other ancient texts – that is all this is. Truth claims would be considered by other criteria.

    Having lots of copies, in addition to saying nothing of truth value, similarly bodes poorly for the fact that the New Testament is so riddled with contradictions, omissions, additions, and historical inaccuracies. If the book came from God, all the multitudes of copies ought to reinforce the truth of the text by marginalizing any errors. But that’s not what happens. Instead, more copies pop up and the errors just keep multiplying.

    What ‘copies’ do you know of that have ‘popped up’ and ‘multiply’ errors?
    Please attempt to be specific.

    Since there’s not really any ubiquitously agreed upon definition of what “Divinely Inspired” entails, you can define it in whatever way makes it convenient at the time. All it takes is some good old fashioned confirmation bias, which you’ve done a fantastic job of showing here.

    Actually, I agree here, ‘Divinely Inspired’ would be a rather esoteric consideration – I think it is sufficient to merely claim the accounts are true. . As far as supposed ‘confirmation bias’, whatever my personal views on Christianity, it doesn’t change the fact that the New Testament we have is more reliable than other ancient texts.

    ** Also, you really need to learn to distinguish between something being “consistent” with something, and actually validating a hypothesis through falsifiable evidence. The fact that the Earth rotates on its axis is consistent with the theory that a divine Harlem Globetrotter spins it on his invisible, undetectable finger. And you know how the Earth bobs a bit as it orbits the sun? Have you ever seen a Globetrotter? They don’t keep their arms still, but move it around to balance the ball. See, it’s totally consistent! But it’s not exactly a testable hypothesis, is it? Can you give some sort of falsifiable criteria to establish that the Bible is Divinely Inspired?

    I don’t think you understand the purpose of claiming something is ‘consistent’. While it may be true that a rotating earth would be consistent with the idea of a divine Globetrotter, such an entity would be inconsistent with other things we know about the nature of the solar system and Globetrotters. Consistency is merely the necessary condition of the truth of any argument. For example I could not argue both that my dog is all black or all white – the two claims contradict each other.

    Thus the wide availability of demonstrably reliable copies of the New Testament would be consistent with the idea that a loving and powerful God had a hand in their production and desires humans to know the truths contained within those texts – which is a pretty decent if general explanation of Divine Inspiration.

    Thanks for your comments Mike.

  6. Justin says:

    “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”

    In some recent discussions with skeptics, it became clear that what they were requiring was not extraordinary evidence but rather irrational evidence. The skeptic in question literally listed off things like DNA evidence, video evidence, or “identifying tattoos” (on a first century Jew of all people). None of these make sense to demand of what is a historical question focused on events in the first century. He then went on to say that if the rest of history was as poorly documented as the New Testament that he would have a hard time accepting it.

    Extraordinary evidence is subjective, as Jack pointed out. Often, presuppositions brought to the investigation lead to such ridiculousness. Hyperskepticism, when applied consistently, is ultimately self-contradictory. Selective hyperskepticism, when applied inconsistently, is simply question begging.

    We cannot replicate Jesus’ resurrection repeatedly in a lab setting.

  7. but none of those other writers claim they were inspired or God-breathed

  8. Mike D says:

    With regards to your ‘Gospel challenge’, every one of those supposed contradictions has been claimed for decades.

    You’re more than welcome to pop by the blog and educate me, but I should reiterate that in the movie The Case for Christ, Lee Strobel, William Lane Craig and several other prominent theologians did not dispute the existence of these factual contradictions within the gospels – on the contrary, they acknowledged them, but then claimed that a certain degree of contradiction is desirable. But that’s another conversation. The important point is that no honest critique of the Bible can deny the existence of those contradictions.

    p.s. – btw, that list wasn’t “culled from skeptic sites”. I actually got it from a Bart Ehrman lecture, but verified the scriptures for myself before using them.

    Atheists always say this, but never offer an empirical measure of ‘extraordinary’ probably because no such measure exists.

    Yes, it’s a qualitative, not quantitative, term. But here’s the catch: there’s a reason we don’t, in general, take claims of the supernatural, whether modern or historical, at face value. That’s because in every single instance ever where supernatural claims have been examined under reasonable experimental conditions, they’ve been shown to be false. So the burden is on you, the one making the claims of divine intervention, to demonstrate that there is indisputable evidence that the supernatural events in the Bible actually took place. Because you can’t just assume we ought to take them at face value as we would with more mundane historical claims (i.e., there lived a rabbit named Jesus who was an apocalyptic preacher and had a cult following). Otherwise, in order to avoid a special pleading fallacy, you are forced to take *all* supernatural claims throughout history at face value.

    What ‘copies’ do you know of that have ‘popped up’ and ‘multiply’ errors?
    Please attempt to be specific.

    I’m claiming that as the copies multiplied, so did the errors – the opposite of what we ought to expect if this was the one book given to us by a perfect god.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_major_textual_variants_in_the_New_Testament#Variations_between_Textus_Receptus_and_Majority_Text

    and this:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Textual_variants_in_the_New_Testament

    These are incomplete lists, but they clearly show that later copies of the manuscripts were full of omissions, additions, and straight copy errors.

    Now, you could argue that the “gist” of the text is preserved in all cases. But if these are the divinely inspired words of God, then isn’t it really important what the words actually are? Why would the one book given to us by the one true god be full of contradictions, omissions, additions, and copy errors?

    Consistency is merely the necessary condition of the truth of any argument.

    You’re right! But you’re objecting to my Globetrotter theory not because it’s internally inconsistent, but because it’s inconsistent with other, external factors. In the same way, your assertion of divine inspiration, while it can be rationalized post hoc as internally consistent (because the definition of “divinely inspired” is vague at best), is inconsistent with external evidence – the very human errors comprising the Bible. Occam’s Razor tells us not to multiply assumptions beyond necessity. So, based on the evidence, the burden is on you to demonstrate why we must assume that the Bible can only be explained as divinely inspired, and not merely the work of ordinary human minds.

    Further, you fail to understand that internal consistency, while a necessary condition for reliability, is not a sufficient condition to establish something as reliable. This is called the “Isolation Objection to Coherentism”:

    http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/justep-coherence/#IsoObj

    Anyway, that should be enough for you to sift through for now. I’d also highly recommend you pop over to Tristan’s blog, because he did an in-depth critique of the problems with this particular graph. I could elaborate, but I don’t want to just parrot him when he already said exactly what I would say, and then some.

  9. subayaitori says:

    I assume the NT texts being referenced in the chart stem from the Dead Sea Scrolls discovery. That’s the only way to account for the large some of surviving texts they claim to have. Before that Qumran discovery, however, there weren’t so many surviving fragments to list.

    Why is this problematic?

    Because the more fragments there are the more variation between them there is. In fact, there is no real evidence that the Dead Sea Scrolls make the NT any more or less reliable. More of the same doesn’t equate reliability.

    But more of the same story which is discrepant from another of the same story is, in point of fact, considered unreliable. Do you ever wonder why Biblical tradition separates Gnostic and Apocryphal texts and subsequently kept them out of the canon? Because of the very fact that they contain discrepant information which throws into question the very reliability of the content of these ancient texts in the first place! Notice, however, that the above chart actually includes both Gnostic and Apocryphal fragments, which made up 40% of the Dead Sea Scrolls, as part of their support for the reliability of Biblical scripture.

    You can’t include the very texts which call into question the reliability of your text, and then just add their number to the bulk because they are of similar origin, and then claim they add support to your claim. In fact, they do the opposite. Talk about shooting yourself in the foot!

    This only goes to show that Christian apologists are trying to have their cake and eat it too. But by this standard, they would have to account for why the Gnostic and Apocryphal texts did not agree with the canonical texts, and well, they’d simply point out that they were not part of the divinely inspired works. Then why include them as support if you are simply going to dismiss them?

  10. Justin says:

    No, I don’t think there were New Testament scrolls among the Dead Sea discoveries, save for one or two papyri that are debatable. And by using the thousands of manuscripts that exist, you can actually get a clearer picture of what the originals must have said.

    The fact that not a significant portion of the DSS were New Testament kind of messes up your hypothesis. Typically, the gnostic texts were kept out of canon were because they came much later, not simply because they taught something variant, which of course, is part of the reason.

    You should do a little research before making up a theory.

  11. subayaitori says:

    No, I was saying that the Gnostic texts and Apocryphal were included in the number given–which accounts for 40% of that number.

    In which case my objection stands. If not, I want to know where he’s getting that large number–but that’s not my burden. I did however point out that the DSS don’t make the NT any more or less reliable, so I kept that distinction in mind. You merely jumped to the conclusion that I meant the DSS had fragments of the NT, but I don’t say that.

    I agree that the NT documents weren’t among the DSS. But the number of scrolls provided in the above list seems to suggest the person who created the chart is including the DSS among that number. Again, if not, where’s the number coming from?

    Yes, I agree that thousands of manuscripts aids historians in piecing together a more accurate account of history, yes, but only if you ignore each and every discrepancy, where are plentiful. Not only within the NT texts themselves, but among their variants, and as well as competing Gnostic and Apocryphal texts.

    Also, yes, much of the Gnostics are from a later date. The Apocryphal texts certainly are. But some of the Gnostic texts date as far back as the Synoptics, if not older. The Gospel of Thomas (from the Nag Hammadi library) for example, as it contains material from the first stratum and sayings as early as 30-60, for example.

    You should learn to read a little more carefully before you critique someone’s theory. BTW, it wasn’t a theory. It was an observation. Better luck to you next time.

  12. subayaitori says:

    I should mention that I don’t doubt that we have thousands of surviving copies of the NT, just to be clear.

    But the only place I can verify the number of 24,000 surviving fragments is the Christian apologist Josh McDowell. Not a proper historian. What the real number is I do not know. But as I cannot corroborate McDowell’s figures exactly, I will hold out on a final judgement on the exact number of surviving fragments. If someone can point me to a second, third, and fourth source which coroborate McDowell’s statistics exactly, I’d be much obliged.

  13. subayaitori says:

    Actually, according to Wiki, there are actually more than 24,000 surviving fragments.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biblical_manuscript

    Just reading through the numbers they give I tallied 25,154 fragments. (Although this number includes duplicates which the smaller number might not).

    But then we are told that there are more than 400,000 variations of these fragments!

    That doesn’t seem reliable to me. That seems the opposite.

  14. subayaitori says:

    I think Bart D. Ehrman’s quote is worth sharing:

    “It is true, of course, that the New Testament is abundantly attested in the manuscripts produced through the ages, but most of these manuscripts are many centuries removed from the originals, and none of them perfectly accurate. They all contain mistakes – altogether many thousands of mistakes. It is not an easy task to reconstruct the original words of the New Testament….”

  15. subayaitori says:

    Newsflash!

    It appears that I am wrong about the chart borrowing from the DSS.

    Hey, it’s been known to happen.

    However, I still cannot find the exact number of surviving fragments. If anyone has a link to an up to date count of all the fragments which is sourced in addition to the Wiki link, I’d much appreciate it.

    I, for one, would actually like to know the exact number of fragments.

  16. Justin says:

    When you dig a bit deeper, and find out that all but about 1% of the variations are spelling errors, inverted words, scribal mistakes, etc. it puts things in perspective. It’s actually quite interesting.

    As for a sources, there are lots of sources. Daniel Wallace, Geisler, FF Bruce, and many others have similar statistics in books they’ve written. Geisler puts the number at 5,686 Greek manuscripts, and over 19,000 Latin, Coptic, Syriac, and Aramaic manuscripts.

    And this ignores the writings of the early church fathers, who quoted the Bible in their writings. One could recreate all but about 11 verses (if I remember correctly) from their quotations.

    If you have iTunes, you can view a series by Daniel Wallace that goes through the numbers and gives examples.

  17. Justin says:

    So the burden is on you, the one making the claims of divine intervention, to demonstrate that there is indisputable evidence that the supernatural events in the Bible actually took place.

    I’m not sure what this even means in relation to a historical event. It’s quite a logically incoherent request. We cannot test for George Washington’s crossing the Delaware River in a lab, either.

    I’m claiming that as the copies multiplied, so did the errors – the opposite of what we ought to expect if this was the one book given to us by a perfect god.

    The errors actually point us to what was in the originals. I’d say the number of copies and the errors are actually beneficial. If we had three manuscripts total and they all said the same thing, but weren’t original, we’d be a lot less certain than we are now. In fact, we could have 1,000 manuscripts, and if they all said the same thing, but weren’t early, we likewise wouldn’t be as certain.

    Instead, scholars can trace back variations to see when they arose, and sometimes even where they arose. The number of manuscripts, in my opinion, combined with the variances, creates for actual evidence as to what the originals most likely said. Exactly what I would expect if God is using man to preserve the scripture.

  18. Tristan Vick says:

    I do have iTunes. Good, thanks.

    I’ll look up Daniel Wallace tonight.

  19. Mike D says:

    I’m not sure what this even means in relation to a historical event. It’s quite a logically incoherent request. We cannot test for George Washington’s crossing the Delaware River in a lab, either.

    To reiterate: the point is that we do not, in general, take supernatural claims at face value. George Washington crossed the Delaware? Okay, that’s plausible enough. No reason to think it was fabricated. If someone claimed George Washington was a demigod who walked across the Delaware, well golly, that demands a fair bit more evidence, wouldn’t you say?

    The number of manuscripts, in my opinion, combined with the variances, creates for actual evidence as to what the originals most likely said

    It’s true that we can see when certain things were tacked on or omitted, and when certain errors arose. But that also means that for a really long time, many people only had access to transcriptions based on erroneous copies. Does that sound like it fits with divine preservation to you? And we still don’t actually have the originals, so best-case-scenario you’re still left with books that have many internal factual contradictions.

    I’ll ask you directly here: instead of retro-fitting everything to an a priori assumption, can you explain why mundane (i.e., non-divine) explanations of the Bible are inadequate? Can you demonstrate evidence that clearly demonstrates the need for a divine explanation?

  20. Justin says:

    To reiterate: the point is that we do not, in general, take supernatural claims at face value.

    I’m still unclear as to what it is that you expect in the way of evidence. Demanding to see Jesus repeatedly crucified in a lab beaker so you can see whether he is resurrected is simply irrational, but that is along the lines of what you seem to be wanting. Again, for non-repeatable events, “evidence” is of a different nature than that of repeatable scientific experiment.

    But that also means that for a really long time, many people only had access to transcriptions based on erroneous copies. Does that sound like it fits with divine preservation to you?

    It depends on the nature of those “errors”. I mean, it’s not the case that the King James Bible said that Jesus rose from the dead and then we found some papyri that ommitted that entire narrative, showing it to not go back to the originals. Don’t overstate your case here.

    instead of retro-fitting everything to an a priori assumption,

    That’s quite presumptive. It’s not necessary to approach the New Testament with a priori assumptions to find its veracity compelling. On the other hand, if you approach it with the a priori assumption that nothing supernatural is possible, then that is simply question begging.

    can you explain why mundane (i.e., non-divine) explanations of the Bible are inadequate?

    Because the mundane explanations I’ve seen don’t account for all of the facts, circumstances, and context surrounding how Christianity came to be. But, if you have a theory that you think is better, I’m certainly open minded enough to listen. But it would need to account for all of the phenomenons, such as why there were hundreds of Christian churches within 20 years of Jesus’ crucifixion, why the New Testament was even written, etc. Hail Mary explanations based on the presupposition that the explanation must be “natural” fail to account for all of the phenomenon.

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