How do we know that the text of the Bible has been reliably preserved throughout the centuries?
If I were to make a list of all the objections that I commonly hear from skeptics against Scripture’s authority, this question would probably come close to the top of that list. It is often argued that if the extant manuscripts of the Bible contain errors, then we can have no confidence in our ability to recover the words of the original authors, and thus no basis for affirming doctrines like inspiration and inerrancy. For example, critical scholar Bart Ehrman has noted that there are more textual variants in the over 5,000 surviving manuscripts of the New Testament than there are words in the New Testament. If that’s the case, then how can Christians claim to know that the Bible is the Word of God? If all of the original texts (known as autographs) are long gone, and all we have left are copies of copies riddled with errors and corruptions, then does inerrancy even have a leg to stand on?
What is textual criticism?
This is where the science of textual criticism comes into play. Textual criticism is the process by which scholars compare all the various surviving manuscripts of the Bible—taking into account such factors as date/place of origin, geographical distribution, the degree/kind of variations, and comparison with patristic quotations—in order to determine what the autographs likely would have said. These scholars also apply certain common-sense rules about how texts change over time as they are copied. For example, difficult texts are more likely to be “smoothed out” and replaced by easier readings than vice versa (this principle is called lectio difficilior potior), and shorter texts are more likely to be lengthened or elaborated on than vice versa (this principle is called lectio brevior potior). Further, since most of the variants are both minor and obvious—such as spelling errors, omitted or repeated words/lines, etc.—they are easily identified and corrected. So the tools of textual criticism give us full confidence in our ability to determine the text of the autographs, about 99% of the time.
But what about the other 1% of the time? Exactly what are these problem texts, and how do conservative evangelical scholars deal with them? The two longest and best-known passages of questionable authenticity are the long ending of Mark’s Gospel (16:9-20) and the story of the woman caught in adultery, also known as the Pericope Adulterae (John 7:53-8:11). I could mention a handful of other texts (Matt. 6:13; 1 John 5:7-8; etc.), but these two seem to get the most attention in debates over textual criticism, so I will focus on them in particular.
In order to understand why these passages are so contested, we need to take a brief look at their transmission history. Both of them are found in quotations by various early church fathers, as well as in the Latin Vulgate, the text translated by St. Jerome in the late fourth century and used by the medieval Catholic church. They can also be found in the majority of Greek manuscripts that circulated throughout the late Middle Ages and into the post-Reformation era. This “family” of Greek manuscripts is commonly known as the Majority text-type or the Byzantine text-type, owing to its connection with the textual tradition dominant in Constantinople from the 5th century onward. This text-type also served as the basis for the first printed edition of the Greek New Testament, produced by Erasmus of Rotterdam in 1516, which in turn served as the basis for the King James Version of 1611, as well as for what would become the “gold standard” of Greek NT texts for the next two and a half centuries, the Textus Receptus, produced in 1633. Thus both of the above disputed passages are found in the KJV and daughter translations like the NKJV.
Minority witness, majority view
In 1881, Westcott and Hort produced a critical edition of the Greek NT based largely on another, smaller manuscript family—the Alexandrian text-type. While not as well-known or widely circulated as the manuscripts of the Majority text-type, the Alexandrian manuscripts are much older—for example, the famous Alexandrian codices Sinaiticus and Vaticanus date back to the early to mid-fourth century AD. By contrast, most Byzantine manuscripts date no earlier than the ninth century AD, and no Byzantine readings find any textual support in the Greek manuscripts for the church’s first three hundred years [update: this is a disputed but defensible claim; I will attempt to examine it more closely in a later post]. The Alexandrian manuscripts also tend to have shorter and rougher readings when compared to the more polished Majority text-type, which is why they are favored in modern text-critical editions of the Greek NT, such as Nestle-Aland and UBS. They are also favored in modern Bible translations, such as the ESV, the NIV, and the NASB. And tellingly, the Alexandrian text-type lacks the long ending of Mark and the Pericope Adulterae. Modern translations usually deal with these passages by either omitting them, bracketing them out, or inserting a parenthetical note: “The earliest manuscripts do not include this passage.” This approach to textual criticism is often called eclecticism, since it selects the best reading for any given passage based on the cumulative weight of evidence from all text-types, without a bias in favor of any particular text-type. Eclecticism is the majority view among today’s evangelical scholars, including Daniel Wallace and Stanley Porter.
Fortunately, no major Christian doctrine stands or falls on the authenticity of any of the disputed Byzantine passages. The long ending of Mark records resurrection appearances by Jesus, but so do the other Gospels. The Pericope Adulterae teaches us about the importance of mercy over judgment, but plenty of other undisputed texts teach that as well. So even if the current text-critical consensus is correct in regarding these passages as spurious, it does no damage to our theology or practice.
Traditionalist criticism of eclecticism
However, some traditionalists have argued that the presence of spurious passages in Scripture would damage our theology—precisely on the point of our doctrine of Scripture. This argument generally comes from two distinct groups: 1) King James-Only fundamentalists, who accept the inspiration of the KJV and/or the Textus Receptus, and 2) strict confessionalists, who are committed a priori to a maximalist understanding of divine preservation of Scripture. [Update: let me emphasize that there is a wide theological divide between these two groups. While they make similar criticisms of eclecticism, it would be a mistake to conflate them. Since I have personally interacted only with those of the strict confessionalist view, I will focus my attention on them and leave it to others to respond to the claims of KJV-Only fundamentalists.] Several theologians in this latter group—such as John Burgon, Phillip Kayser, and Wilbur Pickering—have argued that God’s promises in Scripture to preserve his Word throughout all ages necessarily entail the protection of (at least the vast majority of) biblical manuscripts from substantial textual corruption. Some within the Reformed and Presbyterian tradition also point to the Westminster Confession of Faith 1.8, which states that Scripture has, “by God’s singular care and providence, been kept pure in all ages.” These theological and confessional commitments lead them to favor the Byzantine text-type over the Alexandrian text-type, which is why their view is also called the “Byzantine priority hypothesis.”
An Eclecticist Rebuttal
I would respond that the basic premise of Byzantine prioritists is true to a certain extent, though it is greatly overstated and inconsistently applied. We must grant that if the essential meaning of Scripture or its core doctrines were ever lost due to manuscript corruption, that would pose a significant theological challenge for Christians. But it is possible to affirm that God divinely inspired the autographs of Scripture and completely preserved them from error, while also holding that certain text-types have undergone minor changes, yet not in such a way as to compromise the essential message of Scripture or our ability to recover the original text. But there is no reason, either 1) confessionally, 2) exegetically, or 3) theologically, to expect that any single manuscript or text-type should be fully preserved from error.
In regard to the Westminster Confession’s position on the transmission of the Bible, I quote B.B. Warfield’s words in his article “The Westminster Doctrine of Holy Scripture” from The Presbyterian and Reformed Review (1893):
When it is affirmed that the transmission has been “kept pure,” there is, of course, no intention to assert that no errors have crept into the original text during its transmission through so many ages by hand-copying and the printing press; nor is there any intention to assert that the precise text “immediately inspired by God,” lies complete and entire, without the slightest corruption, on the pages of any one extant copy. The difference between the infallibility or errorlessness of immediate inspiration and the fallibility or liability to error of men operating under God’s providential care alone, is intended to be taken at its full value. But it is intended to assert most strongly, first, that the autographs of Scripture, as immediately inspired, were in the highest sense the very Word of God and trustworthy in every detail; and, next, that God’s singular providential care has preserved to the Church, through every vicissitude, these inspired and infallible Scriptures, diffused, indeed, in the multitude of copies, but safe and accessible. “What mistake is in one copy is corrected in another,” was the proverbial philosophy of the time in this matter; and the assertion that the inspired text has “by God’s singular care and providence been kept pure in all ages,” is to be understood not as if it affirmed that every copy has been kept pure from all error, but that the genuine text has been kept safe in the multitude of copies, so as never to be out of the reach of the Church of God, in the use of the ordinary means. In the sense of the Westminster Confession, therefore, the multiplication of copies of the Scriptures, the several early efforts towards the revision of the text, the raising up of scholars in our own day to collect and collate the MSS [manuscripts], and to reform the text on scientific principles—of our Tischendorfs [who discovered Codex Sinaiticus in 1844] and Tregelleses, and Westcotts and Horts—are all parts of God’s singular care and providence in preserving His inspired Word pure. (P. 643)
So according to Warfield, the “purity” of Scripture is found not in any single manuscript, but in the overall witness of the surviving manuscripts throughout the world. It is precisely because of the work of textual criticism that the Bible’s purity is upheld, not in spite of it. The Westminster divines surely would have agreed with this principle, since they would have been familiar with the textual variations even within the Byzantine tradition, as well as the numerous patristic sources supporting the Alexandrian tradition, even if they did not have access to the Alexandrian manuscripts themselves. If the framers of the Confession could have tolerated variant readings within a text-type, is it really much of a problem to find variant readings between text-types? [Update: I hope that this shows that the difference between evangelical eclecticists and strict confessionalists is more a matter of degree than of kind: how much textual variation can we tolerate before we find it theologically problematic?]
In regard to exegesis, the passages often cited to support a maximalist view of divine preservation—such as Psalm 12:6-7; Matthew 5:17-19; and Mark 13:31—are all, in my humble opinion, cases of sloppy proof-texting. None of these verses addresses the question of manuscript transmission as such. For example, when Jesus declares in the Sermon on the Mount that not one jot or tittle of the law will pass away, he is responding to the concern that his teaching somehow undermines or contradicts the Old Testament. His answer is that the spirit of OT law—down to the last letter and pen stroke—holds true for all ages (even if its application has been transformed in light of its fulfillment in Christ), but this has nothing to do with the issue of textual variants. To press Jesus’ words more literally than that is to fall into the same trap as those who question Jesus’ knowledge of botany for calling the mustard seed “the smallest of all seeds on earth” (Mark 4:31).
Lastly, in regard to theology, one can understandably wonder why God might have protected the autographs from error, but not the manuscripts. I can offer three thoughts in response. First, we need to keep in mind that the autographs and the manuscripts are in fundamentally different categories, even when they contain the same text. Since the autographs have their immediate origin in God’s inspiration of the human authors, that means that the words of the autographs are the words of God himself. The truthfulness of the originals is a matter of God’s character. But while God is (along with the human authors) the immediate cause of the autographs, he is only the remote cause of the manuscripts, and thus the presence of errors in the manuscripts does not impugn his truthfulness. It is for this same reason that Christians reject the notion that God could have created humanity in a state of sin, since, as the Westminster Confession says, God cannot be “the author or approver of sin” (WCF 5.4).
Second, consider the doctrine of the clarity of Scripture, as stated in WCF 1.7:
All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all: yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.
I think one can see the preservation of Scripture in a similar light: not all biblical texts have an equally clear basis in the history of manuscript transmission, yet “those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation” are so clearly preserved, that anyone (scholar or layperson), in a due use of the tools of textual criticism, can have sufficient confidence in their original content.
Third, for anyone who still wonders why God did not preserve for us perfect copies, I quote at length from Reformed theologian John Frame:
…We need to consider this question from a larger perspective. Recall the list of events that I presented at the beginning of this chapter [on Scripture’s transmission]: copying, textual criticism, translation, teaching, and so on, right down to understanding and assurance. These are all steps on the way for us to receive edification from Scripture. God intends that we will receive such edification, so he provides all these operations. But note than in each of those operations we may ask why God did not institute perfection. After all, he might have provided not only perfect copies, but also perfect textual criticism, perfect translations, perfect teaching, and so on. Indeed, he might have guaranteed that all our attempts to understand might be perfectly successful. He might even have determined to skip the steps between inspiring the Scripture and giving us understanding of it. For why should we go through the whole process of copying, translating, and teaching, if God is able to give us an immediate understanding of his Word? Why should God institute such a process? Why should he not rather give each of us an immediate, intuitive understanding of his revelation, so that we could magically understand it all, with a glance at the Hebrew or Greek text? For that matter, why did God even bother to place his revelation in a book? Why didn’t he simply reveal it immediately to every human being?
God has not given us a clear answer to any of these questions. But they are all similar. If it seems unlikely that God would provide an inerrant book, but consign the publication of it to fallible copyists, then is it not equally unlikely that he would turn the work of translation, teaching, and theology over to fallible human beings? And if it seems likely that God would provide infallible copies of Scripture, then it is equally likely that God would provide perfect translations, and so on. If we think that God would probably not provide a perfect translation, then it is equally unlikely that he would provide us with perfect copies.
The question then becomes: why did God inspire an inerrant Word, and then consign that Word to a fallible process of distribution and appropriation? That way of putting it may suggest an answer. I think it most likely that God wanted us to appropriate his personal words in a communal way. Had he given us perfect copies, perfect translations, and so on, each individual could have come to an understanding of Scripture without help from anyone else. He could have gone to the bookstore and bought for himself a perfect translation of Scripture, taught it to himself, and gained thereby a perfect understanding. But that was not God’s intention. He wanted the church to gather around the Word together, covenantally. He wanted each individual to benefit from the gifts of others in the body. Some would be gifted in languages; they would translate. Others would be gifted to teach, and they would instruct. Some would teach by words, others more by the example of their lives. Everyone would contribute something to the “edifying of the body,” building up one another. Each individual would rely on the gifts of others. Listening for God’s Word would draw the body together.
Granted, the communal process of assimilating the Word often works in the opposite way. Churches are divided over Bible translations, interpretations, theological understanding, and the rest. Sin always messes things up. But at its best, the process of learning God’s Word together is, even now, a precious one. It leads us not only to love God, but also to love one another, to honor one another’s gifts, to grow in relationships as well as knowledge.
God may have additional, or completely different, reasons for his decision to give us fallible copies of an infallible book. But certainly he has made that decision for his own reasons, and we would be unwise to second-guess him.
Frame, The Doctrine of the Word of God (P&R, 2010), 250-51.
So if there are no valid confessional, exegetical, or theological reasons to think that any manuscript or text-type is completely without error, then that means we are free to follow the evidence wherever it leads in determining the best reading for any given passage. It may turn out to be the case that, in some instances, we find the Byzantine text-type to be superior (in fact, I think a reasonable case could be made for the authenticity of Mark 16:9-20 on the basis of early patristic testimony, though I find the evidence for John 7:53-8:11 to be much weaker). But that conclusion will come as a result of thorough and painstaking analysis of all of the available historical evidence. And for any who are curious which way the evidence points for the two disputed passages mentioned above, I offer this (very abbreviated and over-simplified) chart. Judge for yourself:
Stanley Porter and Andrew Pitts, Fundamentals of New Testament Textual Criticism (Eerdmans, 2015).
David Alan Black, ed., Perspectives on the Ending of Mark: 4 Views (B&H, 2008).