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Corrupted Manuscripts?

by Garry Williams, Ph.D. , Tutor in Church History and Doctrine at Oak Hill Theological College in London.

We hear much about the so-called corrupted manuscripts used to form our Bible. The first question we need to ask here concerns the ancient copies of the Gospels which have survived and on which our modern translations are based. Are these manuscripts reliable copies of the originals? Were they corrupted in transmission?

A basic answer to this question is easily given because it is possible to compare manuscripts from different periods of time and from distant places to see if a major variation has been introduced at some point and they are in fact corrupted manscripts. In fact there are more than 2,300 surviving manuscripts of all or part of the Gospels from the earliest Christian centuries. Comparing these Gospel manuscripts reveals only two passages where the textual evidence is sufficiently uncertain to question the wording of more than a verse or two, namely Mark 16:9ff. and John 7:53-8:11. With the other shorter variations the established principles of textual criticism normally make clear what the correct reading should be. Significant differences between the manuscripts are noted at the bottom of the page in a good edition of the Bible, so there is nothing being hidden here.

Corrupted Manuscripts - Not in the Gospels

It is estimated by experts that 97-99% of the original text of the Gospels is known to us in its original wording. In the remaining verses the uncertainties do not affect any fundamental aspects of the Christian faith. We may explain this accuracy by remembering that the Christians who copied the manuscripts through the ages themselves thought that the text they were reproducing was the very words of God himself, which would be enough to make anyone work carefully.

While speaking of manuscripts, it is also revealing to note how strong the manuscript tradition is for the New Testament compared to other ancient documents. Among the New Testament manuscripts which include the Gospels, two of the more extensive ones, known as Codex Vaticanus and Codex Sinaiticus, date back to about AD350, just under 300 years from when the Gospels were first written. The John Rylands papyrus fragment, a portion of John 18, dates back to around AD125. Compare this with other ancient documents, documents on which we rely for much of our knowledge of ancient history. We have only nine or ten good manuscripts of Caesar’s Gallic Wars. The earliest of them comes from around 900 years after Caesar wrote. We have thirty-five books of the ancient historian Livy, but they survive in not more than twenty manuscripts of any worth. Only one of them goes back as far as around 400 years after he actually wrote the text. Of the surviving portions of the Histories and Annals by Tacitus we have only two manuscripts. The earliest comes from the ninth century, about 800 years after he wrote. There is no comparison here: 2,300 manuscripts of the Gospels compared to nine, twenty, and two of the works of these authors; around 350 years until the first good manuscripts of the Gospels, compared to around 900, 400 or 800 with these authors.

Corrupted Manuscripts - the evidence is in

By the standards of ancient history we have far more manuscript evidence for the Gospels than for any of these classic works. In fact, if anyone wishes to claim that the manuscript evidence for the Gospels is weak, he or she will have to reject huge swathes of ancient history as well. Our modern translations of the gospels are not based on corrupted mauscripts, but on reliable copies of the original documents.

Williams, Garry The Da Vinci Code - From Dan Brown’s Fiction to Mary Magdalene’s Faith

© 2006 Christian Focus Publications, Ross-shire, Scotland pp.38-41

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