I read that there are many variants in the bible manuscripts. Does that mean that the bible has not been accurately transmitted and the bible we have today is different from the original?
Not at all. In fact the authenticity of the bible is so strong that if you reject the bible, you might as well reject all other historical documents.
Why then are there so many variants in bible manuscripts?
We learn about historical events from manuscripts that survived. In the past, before paper was invented, historical events were written on plant materials, which did not survive for very long. After a while the original documents rotted and had to be recopied onto new ones.
After many years of recopying, won’t there be many copying errors? I have read that there are hundreds of thousands of textual variants in the manuscripts.
It is true that there are hundreds of thousands of textual variants in the manuscripts but we have to note that there are tens of thousands of bible manuscripts. If the same error has been copied multiple times, it is counted as multiple variants. If we only had one bible manuscript we would have zero textual variants.
So the actual number of unique variants are not so many?
That’s right. Furthermore more than 99% of these variants do not affect the meaning of the bible at all. Most of them are just differences in spelling. For example, we could spell “color” or “colour” etc.
What about the other types of variants?
These are mainly due to errors of memory that arises when a scribe reads a text and then copies it. These could be synonyms – that is two different words having the same meaning or difference in word order. For example, Jesus Christ or Christ Jesus. Even these errors do not affect any doctrine of the bible at all.
With all these textual variants, how do bible scholars know which is the right version?
More weight will be given to documents that are earlier because they are nearer timewise to the original documents. Furthermore the sheer number of bible manuscripts we have allow us to compare across the board to determine which version is likely to be the original version.
You are saying the sheer number of manuscripts helps scholars to reconstruct the original?
Yes, if we only have one manuscript, how do we know whether the content has been accurately copied since there is no way to compare this manuscript with others. The greater the number of manuscripts, the more we are able to compare them with one another and know where the copying errors are.
How large a number of manuscripts do we have?
The New Testament stands way above all other historical manuscripts as we have more than 24,000 New Testament manuscripts. The second highest in terms of the number of manuscripts is a document called the “Iliad” which talks about the trojan war. It has far fewer manuscripts than the New Testament as there are only 647 surviving manuscripts.
You have shown me that the New Testament has been accurately transmitted through the centuries but how about the Old Testament?
In 1947, archaeologists discovered many caves in the region of the dead sea that contains many scrolls of Old Testament manuscripts. They discovered a scroll of the book of Isaiah, which was dated 125 BC. Before this discovery, the earliest manuscript of Isaiah we had was dated 1008 AD. This latest manuscript is more than 1000 years earlier than the previous one.
Over the span of more than 1000 years, how accurately has this Old Testament document been transmitted?
When they compared the two manuscripts they found that they are virtually identical except for minor spelling and grammatical mistakes. So we can also trust that the Old Testament we have today has been accurately transmitted.
Thank you for explaining this to me. I now understand that people that accuse the bible of being changed did not look deep into the facts before they made that conclusion.
I suggest that you get a copy of the bible and read it for yourself. That way you will be able to understand what it has to say.