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Bible Preservation: Transmission, Ancestry, and Canon of Scripture

Preservation of the Bible: Transmission, Ancestry, and Canon of Scripture (textual criticism)Has the Bible been accurately preserved and transmitted to us over the centuries? Have we accepted the proper books in the canon of Scripture, or have books been lost or added improperly?

 What about the apocrypha? Do ancient manuscripts contradict one another? A study of the preservation, transmission, ancestry, and accuracy of the Bible: textual criticism.

This material is also available in print as part of our book on Bible Inspiration and Preservation. For more information, go to

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People sometimes question the accuracy of the Bible as we have received it.

The Bible claims to be the standard of right and wrong in morals and religion, revealed by God Himself to tell us how to live. But can we be sure that the text of the original message has been accurately preserved and transmitted to us over the centuries?

Skeptics sometimes doubt the preservation of Scripture, claiming that “hundreds of errors” have crept into ancient manuscripts over the years. Others question the canon of Scripture, saying books are missing or others should be added. What about the apocrypha?

In this study we will consider the preservation, ancestry and transmission of the original text of the Bible to see if it has been accurately preserved for us over the centuries.

Have parts been lost? Have uninspired parts been added?

Note: it is not in the scope of this study to consider the evidence that the Bible was inspired by God to begin with. That question can be answered for those who sincerely wonder, but we must refer such people to other studies on that topic (see the links at the end of this study). In this study we will assume that the Bible was originally revealed by God. We consider here only the preservation, ancestry and transmission of the original text of the Bible to see if it has been accurately preserved for us over the centuries.

Part 1: God's Plan and Purpose
Require that He Preserve the Scriptures.

The Bible teaches that God is all-powerful and can do anything He chooses to do (Jer. 32:17,27; Matt. 19:26; Mark 14:36; Job 42:2). If He therefore chooses to preserve the Scriptures so that man cannot destroy them, He is completely able to do so. The question then is whether or not He has chosen to preserve the Scriptures.

A. God Desires All Men to Know, Believe, & Obey His Will.

Consider the following principles:

All men are guilty of sin and need forgiveness - Rom. 3:23; 6:23; I John 1:8,10.

God desires to have all men turn from sin and be saved - I Tim. 2:4; 2 Pet. 3:9; Tit. 2:11,12.

Jesus died to make salvation available to all men - I Tim. 2:6; Heb. 2:9; John 3:16; Matt. 11:28-30.

To be saved, men must hear, believe, and obey the gospel - John 6:44,45; 8:24,32; Heb. 5:9; 2 Thess. 1:8,9; I Pet. 1:22; Rom. 6:17,18; 1:16; 10:14,17.

So God desires to have all men learn the gospel so they have the opportunity to believe and obey it - I Tim. 2:4; Matt. 28:18-20; Mark 16:15,16; Acts 2:38,29; 17:30,31; Lk. 24:47; Col. 1:28.

The gospel, revealed in the first century to the apostles, is complete, providing all that is good and all that we need to please God - John 14:26; 16:13; 2 Pet. 1:3; 2 Tim. 3:16,17; Acts 20:20,27; Matt. 28:18-20; Jas. 1:25.

From these passages we conclude that all people need the gospel, God wants all to have the gospel, so the gospel was completely, accurately, and adequately revealed in the first century. Since all men need that gospel, people today need it too. And since God wants all to know it, we can be sure He will make it available to people today. The question then is: how does the gospel come to us today?

B. God Revealed the Scriptures So Men Could Know His Will.

The Old Testament was inspired by God to teach men his will.

Exodus 24:3,4,7 - Moses wrote in a book all the words and ordinances of God that the people were to obey.

Deuteronomy 28:58,59; 30:9,10 - If the people obeyed the commands written in the book, they would be blessed. If not, they would suffer.

Deuteronomy 31:9-13,24-29 - Moses wrote the law and placed it where the people could read it in the future and learn to fear God and to observe all the words of that law.

Jeremiah 36:1-4 - God commanded Jeremiah to write in a book all the words God gave him to teach Israel to repent.

2 Peter 1:21 - Holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit.

The New Testament was likewise inspired by God to teach men His will.

1 Corinthians 14:37 - What Paul wrote were commands of the Lord.

John 20:29-31 - John wrote so people would have an eyewitness record of Jesus' miracles and thereby could believe in Jesus and have life in His name, even though they did not personally see Him (cf. 21:24,25).

1 John 1:1-4; 2:1-17 - John wrote so people could have his eyewitness testimony regarding Jesus, could have fellowship with God, could know we should not sin, and could be told God's commands we should obey.

Revelation 1:1,2,10,11,19; chap. 2 & 3 - John was instructed by Jesus to write a message from Jesus and the Spirit to instruct the churches of Asia regarding Jesus' will for them (cf. 14:13; 19:9; 21:5).

Ephesians 3:3-5 - What Paul received by revelation from the Spirit, he wrote so others could understand what he had received.

Luke 1:1-4; Acts 1:1,2 - Luke wrote so the reader might know the certainty of the things he had been taught about Jesus' life and the early church.

Jude 3 - Jude wrote about salvation and exhorted people to earnestly contend for the faith despite the danger of false teachers.

1 Timothy 5:18 - That which is properly called "Scripture" includes quotes from New Testament writing (Luke 10:7) right along with Old Testament writings.

2 Peter 3:15,16 - Peter classifies Paul's epistles right along with "other Scripture." Hence, they should be treated with the same respect as any other Scripture.

2 Timothy 3:14-17 - All Scripture (both old and new) is inspired by God and was given to teach and instruct men so they could know all good works. Just as Old Testament writings were given to be a guide that people must follow to please God in their day, so the New Testament serves as an inspired guide in this age.

All men, we have learned, need to know God's will, and God desires all men to have that opportunity. To meet this need, God inspired men to record His message in writing in the Scriptures.

C. God Intended the Scriptures to Guide People 
of Future Generations

The spoken word benefits only people who immediately hear it. It cannot be repeated to others except by memory (with all the fallibility and weaknesses that the human memory involves). One reason God had the Scriptures recorded as written word was so the message could be copied, circulated, and made available to other people in addition to those to whom it was immediately addressed.

In particular, God intended for the written word to be used to guide and instruct future generations of people, even after the generation in which it was written. This made it necessary to preserve the word in an accurate form.

Old Testament Scriptures were to benefit future generations.

Deuteronomy 17:18-20 - Future kings of Israel were to copy God's law, study it, and obey it strictly without variation. But note that Israel did not even have a king until several generations after this was spoken (v14).

Deuteronomy 31:9-13,24-29 - The words of the law were written down and placed where they would be available to the people. Every seven years, after Moses died, the laws should be read to the people so they could remember them, their children (who did not know the laws) could learn them, and all would obey.

Psalm 102:18 - The psalmist wrote "for the generation to come."

Clearly, the Old Law was intended to be a pattern or standard of authority for future generations. We will see later that this law was preserved and was still being followed as law and authority hundreds of years later, just as God intended.

New Testament Scriptures were also to benefit future generations.

John 20:29-31 - John wrote so people, who had not seen Jesus or witnessed His miracles, could read the eyewitness record of them and so could believe on Jesus and have eternal life. But this means that the record was written especially for people like us today.

2 Peter 1:12-15 - Peter expressly states that he wrote what he did so that people could have the written record of his teachings to remind them in the future, even after Peter was dead.

2 Peter 3:1,2 - Specifically, he wrote so people would be reminded of the commandments revealed by Jesus' apostles.

2 Peter 3:15,16; 1 Timothy 5:18 - Even in the first century people were studying the New Testament writings of inspired men and were citing them as authority. In particular, the writings of Paul and Luke were known to the people to whom other men wrote.

Further, these writings are classified right along with other "Scripture," which shows why they were being circulated and studied. They were recognized as authoritative statements of God's will that people should study in order to obey God, even as the Old Testament had been (cf. 2 Tim. 3:16,17; Col. 4:16; Acts 2:39; Mark 14:9; I Thess 5:27.)

When God inspired men to write the Scriptures, He intended that those sacred writings would be used to teach people His will in other places and future times. This was done with the Old Testament, and He clearly intended the New Testament to be used as the Old had been in this regard. In order to accomplish this purpose, it follows that the Scriptures would have to be preserved accurately for future generations.

D. Other Inspired Sources of Revelation Have Ceased.

God chose to reveal His will, not all at once, but gradually over a period of 1500 years from Moses to the end of the first century. During that time, certain men were guided directly by the Holy Spirit, as we have studied, to both speak and write God's will.

But it was God's plan that, when all His will had been revealed and recorded, He would bring to an end the miraculous powers by which the Holy Spirit delivered the message. At that time, the written word would become the only inspired means the people would have to know God's message.

1 Corinthians 13:8-10 - Spiritual gifts would cease.

Prophecies, tongues, and miraculous knowledge are three of the miraculous gifts that the Holy Spirit used to deliver God's will to men (12:7-11). But there is something more important or "more excellent" than these gifts (12:31), and that is love (chap. 13). Love is greater than the spiritual gifts because love, faith, and hope would continue to abide (v13) even after the spiritual, miraculous gifts had ceased (v8).

These gifts would cease because they were “in part” (v9), and they would cease when that which is perfect or complete would come (v10). Note: “that which is perfect” is contrasted to the gifts that were “in part.” In some sense the gifts were partial and would cease when their partial nature was made complete or was replaced by that which was not partial.

In what sense were the gifts "in part"? The only explanation that harmonizes with Scripture is that the gifts, at the time Paul wrote, had only partially completed their purpose of revealing God's will. The revelation was delivered by means of these gifts, and that work was not yet completed. But when the work was completed, the gifts would have fully accomplished their task and would no longer be needed, so they would cease.

"That which is perfect" must, therefore, refer to the completed revelation of God's will, and when it had all been completely and adequately revealed, the spiritual gifts would cease. But we have already learned from verses previously listed that all the truth was revealed to the apostles in the first century, and they recorded it in the Bible.

The whole will of God ("the perfect law of liberty" - Jas. 1:25) had been recorded in writing before the end of the first century. When that happened, all other means of revelation from the Holy Spirit ceased, and the Scriptures or written word became the only inspired means men had to learn God's will.

Jude 3 - The faith was once for all delivered.

Jude instructs us to contend for "the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints" (NKJV, ASV, etc.; KJV just says "once"). The phrase "once for all" refers to "what is so done as to be of perpetual validity and never need repetition" (Thayer).

The same word is used to refer to Jesus' death, which occurred only one time, in contrast to the Old Testament animal sacrifices which had to continually be repeated (Heb. 9:26,28; 10:10; 7:26,27; I Pet. 3:18). Jesus' sacrifice was done so perfectly it did not need repeated - "once for all".

Likewise, the gospel needed to be delivered to God's people only "once." When it had been completed, it did not need to be repeated. We may as well affirm that Jesus' sacrifice needs to be repeated as to affirm that the gospel needs to be delivered by inspiration to men again.

So if God wants people to have the gospel, but it is not to be delivered to people again, then it necessarily follows that God intended to preserve that written message, which He originally delivered, so people in all ages could have it available.

There are not apostles today to deliver the message again.

Apostles were always involved whenever anyone received the power to deliver the gospel message by the direct guidance of the Holy Spirit. The apostles themselves received that power on the day of Pentecost (Acts 1:2-8; 2:1-11). Others received such power when apostles personally laid their hands on them (Acts 8:14-21; 19:1-7). Cornelius’ household received power to speak in tongues when Peter was teaching them, so the Jews would know Gentiles could receive the gospel (Acts 10:1-11:18). But in every case, without exception, apostles were involved whenever anyone received this power. [Cf. John 14:26; 16:13.]

But to be an apostle, one had to be an eyewitness of Jesus after His resurrection (Acts 1:21,22; 26:16; I Cor. 9:1; 15:1-8; John 15:27). One also had to have miraculous powers to confirm his apostleship (2 Cor. 12:12). But no one today can be an eyewitness of the resurrected Christ, and no one can do miraculous signs like the apostles could do.

Therefore, there are no apostles today, nor is there anyone today that the apostles have laid their hands on. So there is no means by which people could receive miraculous, spiritual powers of direct guidance from the Holy Spirit.

(For more information, see the links at the end of this study.)

All of these facts lead us to the necessary conclusion that the only inspired source from which people today can receive the will of God is the Bible. But people still need the truth, and God still wants people to have the truth, so it must follow that He has accurately preserved the Scriptures to our day so people can know the truth.

E. God Promised to Preserve His Word for People of All Ages.

By studying God’s purpose for the Scriptures, we have concluded that God must have intended to preserve His written word as an accurate revelation of His will for future generations. Now consider some passages that directly state that indeed this was His intent.

God intended to preserve the Old Testament Scriptures.

Psalm 119:160,152 - Everyone of God's ordinances endures forever.

Isaiah 40:8 - God's word is not like a flower that blooms and then dies. God's word will stand forever.

Isaiah 30:8 - God's words were to be written in a book that it may be for the time to come for ever and ever.

God also intended to preserve the New Testament Scriptures.

John 12:48 - Jesus' words will judge us at the last day. It necessarily follows that they must endure till the judgment and must be available to men, so we can know what to do to prepare for the judgment. But the Scriptures are the only inspired source of Jesus’ words today. Hence, God’s justice and His desire to see men saved require Him to preserve the Scriptures throughout all ages till the judgment.

2 John 2 - The truth will be with us forever.

2 Peter 1:15 - Peter wrote so that, after he died, people would be able to remember these teachings "always" (KJV, NKJV) or "at every time" (ASV).

1 Peter 1:22-25 - We must obey the truth in order to be cleansed from our sins and be born again. That truth will live, abide, and endure forever. It will not be like grass or a flower that springs forth then dies. This is exactly what Isa. 40:8 said, but it is here applied to the gospel. God will preserve the New Testament just like He did the Old Testament.

2 Timothy 3:16,17 - We have seen that the New Testament constitutes “Scripture,” just like the Old Testament (2 Pet. 3:15,16; 1 Tim. 5:18). Just as God preserved the Old Testament Scriptures so they could guide people to know God’s will, so He must preserve the New Testament Scriptures, if they are to provide men to “all good works.”

If we believe that God is an all-powerful Supreme Being who always keeps His promises, then we must believe that He has accurately preserved His will for man in the Scriptures. It is clear that this is what He intended to do. To deny that He has done it is to deny either His power or else His faithfulness to His promises.

Part 2: The Old Testament Demonstrates God's Preservation of His Word.

God has not just promised to preserve the Scriptures for future generations, He has also given a convincing demonstration to prove that He has kept and will keep this promise. This demonstration is the Old Testament.

A. Note the Parallels in the Background of the Two Testaments.

1. Both testaments were given by inspiration of God.

For both Old and New Testaments, we have already cited Scriptures showing that the Holy Spirit gave inspired men the very words they should write down.

2. Both testaments were collected, copied, circulated, studied, and translated over a period of year.

Some critics have questioned the accuracy of the New Testament, because it was written by different men in different places. The writings were gradually collected and determined to be canonical, then they were translated to other languages. Some say we cannot be confident all this was done accurately, since uninspired men were involved.

But the same can be said for the Old Testament as for the New. Both testaments were gradually written, collected, copied, and lists of canonical books were developed. Both were translated so people of other languages could know them. For example, the Septuagint is a translation of the Old Testament from Hebrew to Greek, which was made several centuries before Jesus' time.

If it turns out that the Old Testament was accurately preserved though these methods were used, who can doubt that the New Testament has been accurately preserved when the same methods were used for it?

3. Both testaments were intended to serve as a standard of authority even for future generations.

We have cited Scriptures showing that God intended for people to keep the inspired writings, study them, obey them, and pass them on to future generations. The very reason why people copied, circulated, and translated the Scriptures was so that they would be available to the people who needed them.

4. Both testaments passed through generations in which no new revelations were added, and generations in which people neglected the Scriptures.

Some people say we cannot be sure we today have accurate New Testaments, because it has been so long since inspired men were alive to confirm it. Others claim that parts of the New Testament may have been perverted or lost during the generations when people generally neglected the Bible or were guilty of widespread apostasy.

But the Old Testament also passed through many generations when God’s people neglected it and were guilty of wholesale apostasy. Many generations passed in which no prophets lived and no new Scriptures were written. Specifically, there were over 400 years from the time the last Old Testament book was written till the birth of Jesus.

If it can be shown that the Old Testament was accurately preserved despite these problems, who can doubt that the same would be true of the New Testament?

5. Both testaments contain promises that God would preserve them.

We have already cited passages where God promised, both for the Old Testament and for the New Testament Scriptures, that He would preserve them forever. What He promised for one Testament, He also promised for the other. In this sense, the New Testament is as fully “Scripture” as is the Old Testament.

Now if we can clearly demonstrate that God did in fact keep His promise and accurately preserved the Old Testament for multiplied centuries, surely we must conclude that He has and will likewise keep His promise to preserve the whole Bible, including the New Testament. So let us consider the evidence for God’s preservation of the Old Testament.

B. The History of the Old Testament Prior to Jesus' Birth

The Old Testament writings began approximately 1400 years BC. (all dates in this section are approximate). We can trace the history of these Scriptures throughout the rest of the Old Testament period and into the time of Christ and His apostles. We can see whether or not they were accurately preserved, and whether or not people were expected to continue to use them as inspired authority.

Joshua 1:7,8 — About 40 years after Moses wrote, God commanded Joshua to meditate day and night on Moses’ words, and to observe and obey them without variation. The writings had been preserved accurately, and should be studied and obeyed as an authoritative standard.

Joshua 23:2,6 — About 60 years after Moses wrote, Joshua died. But just before he died, he charged Israel to exactly keep all Moses wrote. The Scriptures still were accurately preserved and were to be studied and obeyed as God’s law.

1 Kings 2:3 (about 960 B.C.) — About 400 years after Moses wrote, David charged Solomon to keep God’s commands as written in the law of Moses. The Scriptures were still accurate and authoritative.

2 Chronicles 34:14-19,29-31 (about 605 B.C.) — About 800 years after Moses, Josiah found Moses’ book of the law. He restored the worship and service of God by performing the commands he found written there.

Note that the Scripture was still accurate and authoritative, even though it had been preserved for centuries and though God’s people had neglected it and been in apostasy for years. Yet all that was needed to restore faithful service to God was simply to practice what was written in the book. [Cf. chap. 35; 2 Kings 22,23.]

Nehemiah 8:1-3,8 (about 450 B.C.) — Perhaps some 900 years or more after Moses, the people of Israel again re-established the service of God in Palestine. This occurred following an apostasy so great that it led to the Babylonian captivity. Yet the Scripture was still so accurately preserved that it could be understood and obeyed as authority [cf. v13-18; 9:3].

Clearly God was keeping His promise to preserve the written word. Furthermore, He continued to expect people to study it and honor it as an inspired revelation showing how they should pattern their lives.

C. The Attitude of Jesus and His Disciples toward Old Testament Scripture

Now we come to the lifetime of Jesus and His disciples. This was about 1400 years after Moses began to write, and over 400 years since the last Old Testament Scripture had been recorded. These men were themselves inspired by the Holy Spirit. They clearly rebuked the Jews of their day regarding any error of which they were guilty. Surely they would have pointed out any problems in the Jewish Scriptures, if such problems existed.

What do we find? Did they say some necessary portions of Old Testament Scripture were missing or uninspired parts had been added? Did they say the Scriptures could no longer be trusted as an accurate revelation of God’s will?

1. In the first century, copies of the Old Testament were widely circulated and studied as revelation from God.

Luke 4:16-21 - In the synagogue in Nazareth Jesus read from the prophet Isaiah, and said the passage was fulfilled in Jesus Himself.

Acts 8:28-35 - The Ethiopian treasurer was reading Isaiah. Philip used it as authority to teach about Jesus.

Acts 15:21 - For many generations, every city had a copy of the Scriptures (of Moses), and they were read in the synagogue every sabbath. The message was still preserved, had been copied and circulated, and was being studied and cited as authority. Did Jesus and His apostles believe this was proper treatment of Scripture?

2. Inspired men quoted Old Testament Scriptures, and expected people to study and respect them as accurate, authoritative revelation from God.

Matthew 4:4,7,10 - Jesus quoted Scripture to defeat Satan's temptations.

Matthew 15:1-9 - Jesus quoted the Old Testament as being the commandment of God, and He rebuked those who did not obey it.

Matthew 22:29-33 - Jesus rebuked people for not knowing the Scriptures. He then quoted Moses, saying that God said this “to you” (to the people in Jesus’ day). Though this passage had been written perhaps 1400 years earlier, Jesus still expected people in His day to understand it and respect it as God’s message to them.

1 Corinthians 10:11; Romans 15:4 — Paul said the Old Testament Scriptures were written for the learning and admonition of people in his day, even though they lived many centuries after the passages were written.

Acts 17:11 - The Bereans were noble-minded, because they were willing to search the Scriptures to determine whether or not they were being taught the truth.

Clearly Jesus and His apostles expected people to view the Scripture as authority to be studied and respected as revelation from God, even though it had been in existence for as much as 1400 years. This necessarily implies that the Scriptures had been accurately preserved. All of this is exactly how we are saying that the Scriptures should still be viewed and used today.

3. Inspired men appealed to Old Testament authority to confirm their own teaching.

Luke 24:27,44-46 - Jesus claimed He fulfilled Moses, all the prophets, and the psalms. Here Jesus appeals to the whole Old Testament as being authoritative.

Acts 17:2,3 - Paul demonstrated that Jesus was the Christ by reasoning with people from the Scriptures.

John 5:39,45-47 - Jesus said that Moses and the Scriptures testify of Him.

(Note that Jesus and His apostles taught that the gospel would replace the Old Testament as God's commandments for His people, but this was because the Old Law had fulfilled its purpose and God had intended all along to replace it - Heb. 8:6-13; 10:1-10; Rom. 7:2-7; Col. 2:14,16; Gal. 3:23,24; etc. At no point did they imply that the reason the law should be replaced was that the written record of it had become lost or perverted in content.)

4. Inspired men used evidence based on minute details of the Scriptures.

Matthew 22:31,32 — Having rebuked men for being ignorant of the Scriptures, Jesus proved the resurrection because God said, “I am the God of Abraham …” [Cf. Gal. 3:16.]

Jesus’ proof was based on a quotation from Moses — the oldest part of the Scriptures. It depended on the accuracy of the written word in verb tense and would have meant nothing had there been any possibility the written word had become inaccurate.

Clearly inspired men viewed the Scriptures as accurate revelation from God, and they expected other people in their day to do likewise. But remember, these men rebuked every point in which the Jews of their day were in error. Had there been any error in the Jews’ Scriptures, these inspired men would surely have told them so. Instead, they quoted the Scriptures and respected them as authority from God.

But the New Testament was written, copied, circulated, collected, translated, and preserved in exactly the same way as the Old Testament had been. God described the New Testament as “Scripture,” just like He did the Old Testament. He clearly stated that the New Testament should be used as written proof of His will for man, just as the Old Testament had been. He promised to preserve the New Testament, exactly as He had promised to preserve the Old Testament.

If God accurately preserved the Old Testament multiplied centuries till Jesus’ day, in fulfillment of His promises, who can doubt that God has likewise preserved the whole Bible through the centuries till today? All who believe in God’s power ought to accept the Bible as God’s word today and ought to use it as the absolute and infallible standard of authority to learn God’s will for our lives.

Part 3: The Fulfillment of God's Promise
to Preserve His Word.

We accept our modern Bible as being an accurate record of God’s word because of our faith in God’s power and His promises to preserve His word. The actual fulfillment of these promises regarding the New Testament, however, had to occur after the New Testament was completed. By examining ancient copies of the Scriptures, we can appreciate how thoroughly God has fulfilled His promise to preserve His word.

A. Modern Evidence for the Original Text of Scripture

We today do not have any of the “autographs” — the original manuscripts of the Bible in the very hand-writing of the authors. But as mentioned earlier, men carefully copied, quoted, circulated, and translated God’s word through the years. As a result, we today have volumes of evidence to establish what the original texts said.

1. We have more than 4500 hand-written copies of the Bible in the original languages.

Some of these manuscripts are complete, others are partial or fragments. Some of them are dated to within a few centuries of the time of the New Testament writers, and a few are dated to within a few decades of their time.

2. We have many ancient translations of the Bible into other languages.

3. We have thousands of Scripture quotations found in ancient non-inspired writings.

In fact, all but a few verses of the New Testament could be reproduced just from these uninspired quotations.

Compared to the writings of other ancient authors, our evidence for the Bible’s content is overwhelming. For other writings, “convincing evidence” may consist of just a few manuscripts dated less than 1000 years from when the men lived. But with the Bible we have thousands of manuscripts dated less than 1000 years from when Jesus lived, and many manuscripts dated within just a few centuries.

These manuscripts were copied by men such as the “Scribes” of Jesus’ day, who were fanatically precise in their work. They checked their work by counting number of letters and words per line, per page, etc. No errors were tolerated. Remember that Jesus often disagreed with these men about their explanations of the Scriptures, but He never criticized the accuracy of their copies of the Scriptures.

B. Variations in the Manuscripts

But what are the “thousands of errors” critics claim exist in the text? These are differences or variations that can be found when ancient manuscripts are compared to one another. With all these hand-written copies, one would naturally expect some variations to have crept into the text, despite the copyists’ best efforts.

But the main reason we have so many variations is that we have so many manuscripts to work with. For example, if 2000 manuscripts spell a word one way and 2000 others spell the word a little differently, that is counted as “thousands of variations.”

So the very volume of evidence we have is what leads to the large number of variations. This should be taken as evidence supporting the preservation of the Bible, instead of evidence against it. Would critics be better satisfied if we had far fewer manuscripts and therefore far fewer variations?

What is the nature of these variant readings?

1. Different spellings which in no way affect the meaning of the text

These account for fully one half of the variant readings! This would be like the difference between “Elias” and “Elijah” in our English versions. No diligent student could ever misunderstand God’s word because of such variations.

2. Differences in word order which in no way affect the meaning

Examples might be “the Lord Jesus Christ” as compared to “Jesus Christ the Lord.” No one could be misled by such instances. And due to the grammatical structure of the languages, such variations in word order are of enormously less significance in Hebrew or Greek than they are in English.

3. Insertion or omission of a word, or use of a different word, but the meaning is not affected

Examples might be "God your Father" compared to "God the Father," or simply "the Father."

4. Variations in which whole phrases or sentences are inserted or omitted.

These may seem to be real problems. But in fact none of these variations affect our understanding of God's word, because the teaching in the questionable texts can be found clearly taught in other passages which are unquestioned. Often a questionable phrase (for example, perhaps a phrase in Matthew's account) can be found word-for-word in a parallel account which is beyond question (such as perhaps in Mark's account).

In other cases, the teaching may not be found word-for-word elsewhere, but the concept is unquestionably taught elsewhere. Men who study these problems say these "significant variations" make up less than 1/1000 of the text of the New Testament. If all of them were put together, they would take up less than half a page. And none of them affect the total content of teaching of God's word!

Sir Frederic Kenyon, who served 21 years as Director and Principal Librarian of the British Museum (which houses many significant ancient manuscripts of the Bible) said: "The Christian can take the whole Bible in his hand and say without fear or hesitation that he holds in it the true word of God, handed down without essential loss from generation to generation throughout the centuries." Many similar statements can be quoted from other such men.

(Material in this section is gathered mainly from: How We Got the Bible, by Neil Lightfoot; The Theme of the Bible, by Ferrell Jenkins; and A Book about the Book, by John Jarrett.)

C. The Apocrypha

The Apocrypha refers to 7 Old Testament books plus portions of other books, that are accepted by the Roman Catholic Church as being inspired, but are rejected as uninspired by non-Catholics. Consider these observations regarding the inspiration of the Apocrypha.

There is no disagreement as to which books belong in the New Testament.

The disagreement concerns only Old Testament books. But God’s commands for today are in the New Testament, not in the Old. So the Apocrypha are of little doctrinal significance. A person can surely learn the truth about how to be saved by studying the Catholic Bible, provided he obeys the text of the New Testament, not the Old Testament (and certainly not the uninspired footnotes that the Catholic church has added.)

The Hebrew Old Testament, as accepted by Jews both today and in Jesus' day, rejects the inspiration of the Apocrypha.

This fact is also undisputed. For example, Catholic Bibles plainly admit the following in the introduction to the apocryphal book of 1 Machabees: “Jews and Protestants do not regard these books as Sacred Scripture…” (quoted from the St. Joseph New Catholic Edition).

But remember that Jesus and His apostles used the Old Testament as the Jews of Palestine accepted it. They taught Jews from the Jewish Scriptures and corrected the Jews on every point in which the Jews erred, but they never once disagreed with them about what books they accepted in the Scriptures. Clearly Jesus and His apostles agreed with the Jews about which books to accept in the Old Testament. And the Apocrypha were not included.

Jesus and His apostles repeatedly quoted Old Testament books, but they never quoted nor appealed to the authority of any of the apocryphal books.

Even the Catholic Church did not officially require Catholics to accept the Apocrypha as canonical until the Council of Trent in 1546 AD.

The Catholic Dictionary by Addis and Arnold (pp. 107-110), while claiming that the books are canonical, yet admits the following facts: (1) The tradition of Palestinian Jews in Jesus' time did not accept the Apocrypha (remember, Jesus was a Palestinian Jew who lived and taught among Palestinian Jews). (2) Church "fathers" held various views on the issue, and at least one Catholic council held the books to be non-canonical. (3) Finally the Council of Trent declared the books must be accepted as "sacred and canonical" under penalty of anathema.

Much more evidence exists, but this is sufficient to show that the Apocrypha should not be viewed as true Scripture. And again there is no question about what books should be included in the New Testament, which we must obey to be saved.


God’s word has been preserved for us today in a form that is complete and reliable. Our faith in the preservation of the Bible should be based on the promise of God that He would preserve His word. He has demonstrated throughout history that He has kept His promises and will continue to do so.

We should appeal to the Scriptures as our only infallible source of God’s will. We ought to study them diligently, obey their precepts, and teach others to do the same. If this has not been your attitude toward the Bible, we urge you to begin now to study and obey it.

Note: We have a number of other related topics on our web site. If you wish to study further about the evidence for the inspiration of Scripture or the authority of the Bible as our standard for today, please notice carefully the links listed below.

(C) Copyright 1998, 2000, David E. Pratte;
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Topics for further Bible study

The Claims of the Bible
Why So Much Religious Confusion and Disagreement?
The Importance of Bible Knowledge
Bible Validation: How to Test It
The Inspiration of the Bible
Evidences for God, Jesus, & the Bible
Can We Understand the Bible? - Return to the Gospel Way home page.

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