When it comes to documents that make up the Bible, we do not have the original manuscripts. Plus, there are variants in the copies that survived. Most are minor, but there you have it. We’re faced with the question: Without originals, can we still trust the Bible?
The Bible story is simple, but its storyline is complicated. It asks that we think through richly nuanced ideas, which must be held together by a muscle greater than human intellect.
“There’s a sense that paradox is at [the Bible’s] heart. And there’s something true about that,” Sean Kelly, professor of philosophy at Harvard University, said. “Paradox is at the heart of our existence … I don’t think a moral system could tell us the right story about us.”
We Christians proclaim the Bible is, in fact, telling the enigmatic story of humankind in relation to the God who created us, which is hard enough to dig into, relate to, understand and walk out, without the threat of its reliability being thrown into question. Yet, without originals, it has been and shall be.
What can Christians say to people who side-eye the Bible because of that? Here are four ideas.
- We have over 10,000 fragments from which we compile and verify the accuracy of the Bible—which is thousands more than Homer or Aristotle’s works. All of these manuscripts, fragments, scrolls and parchments have been checked and double-checked for mismatches (known as variants) and most are a letter turned around or minor things that do not change the meaning of the story at all.
- Every known variant is cataloged here and here. Nothing is hidden or secret.
- Historians support parts of the Bible—like, really big parts. “We have more evidence for Jesus than we have for almost anybody from Jesus’ time period,” said UNC Professor of Religious Studies Bart Ehrman, who is a historian, a scholar and an agnostic.
- The folks who copied and re-copied these documents were so incredibly careful that there is only about a 10 percent difference from the bits we have from 800 B.C. compared to the copies we have from A.D. 1500. It is almost impossible to imagine how they could have been so precise.
These are good points for Christians to know. However, God tells us His Word is a light unto our path (Psalm 119:105), which begs the question: How does a God ask for utter devotion to a written word then fail to deliver that word in original form?
The answer? He doesn’t.
God doesn’t ask for utter devotion to a written word. He asks for utter devotion to the God of that written word. He walks through that idea in stories, where a spiritual God acted in physical circumstances among real people. Some of those details get lost in translation or preservation, which God could have avoided had He chosen to do so. But He didn’t.
What are the resulting implications?
For one thing, it forces us to read the whole Bible, not settle on snippets or proof texts to summarize the Bible’s doctrines. It forces us to consider consistencies between the God represented on that page over there with the God represented on that page over here. It also forces us to study consistencies between the characters from page to page, and also between the characters’ walks with God and our walks with God today.
It forces us to acknowledge that the God of the Bible wants a relationship, not a religion.
So, even without originals, is the Bible reliable? Specifically, can its God reliably illumine Himself through the Word as it is? To answer that, we have to try it and find out.
That makes us all vulnerable, even God, who positions Himself to be accepted or rejected by the very people He created, died for and for whom He wrote His Word.
Admittedly, that does not sound like the easiest way to go. It sounds like a process that takes stumbling around and surrendering. It sounds messy. Of course, understanding truth often is.