If you're curious why Christians believe that we can trust the story of Jesus, you've come to a good place! This is the first episode in a series of 10 videos on the reliability of the Gospels. The Gospels are the first four books of the New Testament—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—which talk about the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
My name is Matthew. I’m a speaker and author with Josh McDowell Ministry. I look forward to our time together. Please feel free to ask questions along the way by leaving a comment here or on any of my social channels, which are listed below. I’d love to hear from you and be a small part of your own journey wrestling through these important questions about Jesus. Let’s get into it!
The books of the Bible were written thousands of years ago on material that typically only lasted for a couple of hundred years. So the original writings of the gospels are long gone. Instead, we have copies of copies of copies of the original writings. These copies are called manuscripts, and they are all different from each other in subtle ways because people make mistakes in the process of copying manuscripts.
In order to reconstruct what the original would have said, it helps to have as many copies as possible so that we can cross-check them with one another. We also look for the age of these manuscripts. Manuscripts that date closer to the time of the original writing have less time to become corrupted by mistakes or changes.
In both of these questions, the New Testament does far better than any other ancient document in history. If we take the New Testament, which is the writings about Jesus and content from his disciples, we have around five thousand eight hundred manuscripts in the original language, and almost 23-hundred of them include text of the Gospels.
To put this in perspective, most ancient historical writings of high regard have around a couple hundred manuscripts. Plato’s Tetralogies have about 237. The plays of Sophocles have about 226. The next runner-up after the New Testament is Homer’s Iliad, with around 1,900 manuscripts. Compared to the average ancient text, that’s incredible. But compared to the New Testament, it’s really small.
We also have a lot of manuscripts written very early after the original. According to New Testament scholar Dan Wallace, a manuscript specialist, “Today we have as many as 12 manuscripts from the second century, 64 from the third, and 48 from the fourth — a total of 124 manuscripts within 300 years of the composition of the New Testament. Most of these are fragmentary, but the whole New Testament text is found in this collection multiple times.”
If a manuscript lasts an average of several hundred years, then the earliest manuscripts we have may well be only a small handful of generations removed from the original. If there were only a few generations of copies, we would expect the manuscripts to be pretty close. There would be some spelling differences, some words missing or copied twice by mistake. And for the most part, that’s all we get when comparing our earliest manuscripts. But that’s no reason to doubt our confidence in what the original would have said.
For the sake of example, let’s say I have four different manuscripts which read as follows:
Everyone left for home when the party died down.
Everyone left for home as the party died down.
Everyone left as the party died down.
Everyone left for home when the pary died down.
Even after all these differences, do you have a sense of what the original was trying to communicate? Certainly! When the party died down, people went home.
The exact wording is less clear. But the fourth manuscript has an obvious spelling mistake (“pary” instead of “party”). One of them doesn’t mention the people going home, but all the others do. It’s not clear whether people left “when” or “as” the party died down, but the meaning is essentially the same. With actual manuscripts we would have more to go by, like the dating. So let’s imagine that the earliest ones used the word “when,” making reading 1 most likely the closest to the original.
If we turned to the internal evidence for these manuscripts, looking at the larger context of the writing, looking at the typical styles and writing behaviors of the authors, we might be able to get even closer to an accurate and confident assessment of what the original text would have said.
When you work with manuscripts of the gospels and the Bible in general, the vast majority of your problems are not much different than this. There are some tricky spots, but there is no important doctrine or fundamental teaching of Christianity jeopardized by the differences in our manuscripts.
What if the Gospels were intentionally changed? Well, our early manuscripts come from different places around the middle-eastern world. It’s not like any person could travel the middle eastern world and change all of the manuscripts without the churches noticing. For this to work, they would have to access the text of the Gospels before it was copied and spread around the world. But how would they have known that the text was important enough to mess with until after it was already starting to spread? There’s just no good reason to suspect that we’ve lost the meaning of the original text, either by accident or by malicious intent.
Since we can be confident that the text we have today reflects the text that was written down, we are ready to ask if the text written down is true. I invite you to watch the rest of the videos. And please subscribe to my channel!
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