In several Apologetics articles (including one answer of mine on a different question), I see the statement that "there is overwhelming manuscript evidence to support the fact that the Bible has been transmitted accurately through time". Often, these sites contain a chart like the following, with no explanation of why the number of copies, or the gap between the original written version and the earliest known manuscript matters.

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So how does all of this prove anything? Does it prove the Bible is the Word of God? If not, what's the point?

  • One more important book missed in the above list is Quran. Today the earliest copies of Quran are dating back to 688 A.D., a time span of 56 years after the death of Mohammad or a time span of more than 56 years after it was written on fragmented parchments, scapula, leafstalks of date palms etc. – JoaoRodrigues Sep 29 '12 at 15:49
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    This is true. I'm sure there are charts that include it. To be honest, I just grabbed the chart I used in the question because it was short, and one of the first I ran across that was formatted nicely. – David Stratton Sep 29 '12 at 15:51
  • Are there really 24,000 manuscripts from the year 125AD, as this chart implies, or are there "merely" 24,000 ancient manuscripts that corroborate the earliest one (1), which dates from 125AD? There is a difference there. Also, can you source that chart? I'd be very interested in using it elsewhere, but not unless I have a source. – Joel Coehoorn Sep 30 '12 at 7:04
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    @JoelCoehoorn - I've actually seen a huge variance in the numbers, but from what I understand, that chart does not mean 24,000 copies from 125AD. It means 24,000 copies exist, and the earliest of them date to 125AD. It's two distinct stats in one chart. This particular chart is from godandscience.org/apologetics/bibleorg.html but as I said, I've seen other charts with other numbers. Simply goolging "Manuscript Evidence" brings up hundreds of sites, many with charts. – David Stratton Sep 30 '12 at 14:08
  • If anyone else has an answer, and if it's good, I'd like to see it. I hate accepting my own answer. – David Stratton Oct 3 '12 at 4:02

"Manuscript Evidence", as the question implies, serves to provide evidence that the Bible has been transmitted accurately throughout time. It does not prove that the Bible is God's word.

The usefulness of knowing what manuscript evidence means, and what it tells us about the accurate transmission of Scripture through time is to address the statement that "The Bible has been changed many times over the years" - a common charge leveled by atheists and non-Christians.

The manuscript evidence argument stems from a branch of literary criticism, which seeks to identify and eliminate copying errors that occur over time. Regardless of how careful people may be when copying texts, it is all but inevitable that errors will be made along the way. The more often a piece of work is copied, the more likely an error will occur.

In layman's terms, the process of identifying and removing errors is done by comparing various copies of ancient works, and using a rigorous approach to determining what the original document actually contained. All discrepancies are examined, and the original intent is deduced.

How well this works depends heavily on two factors, which are included in the chart in the question:

  • The number of copies is useful because it gives a wider amount of copies to examine. The more copies there are, the more likely there will be discrepancies.
    • This is good, because it helps to weed out the obvious errors - there will be fewer instances of errors because it's not as likely that various transcribers will make the same mistake.
    • Similarly, additions to the text, intentional alterations can be detected if they are present only in a limited number of texts.
  • The date between the original writing of the text and the earliest known manuscript is also critical. Put simply, there is no way to compare copies of the text for manuscripts that do not exist, so if early mistakes occurred, resulting in discrepancies in later copies, it's impossible to ascertain which is more likely to be correct.
    • If the earliest known manuscript of a recorded event is within the lifetime of those who experienced the event, the argument is stronger, as there would be people alive at the time of the writing to correct or dispute inaccuracies.

A good example of how comparing discrepancies to ascertain original meaning can be found at Reasoning from the Scripture Ministries:

Let us suppose we have five manuscript copies of an original document that no longer exists. Each of the manuscript copies are different. Our goal is to compare the manuscript copies and ascertain what the original must have said. Here are the five copies:

  • Manuscript #1: Jesus Christ is the Savior of the whole worl.

  • Manuscript #2: Christ Jesus is the Savior of the whole world.

  • Manuscript #3: Jesus Christ s the Savior of the whole world.

  • Manuscript #4: Jesus Christ is th Savior of the whle world.

  • Manuscript #5: Jesus Christ is the Savor of the whole wrld.

Could you, by comparing the manuscript copies, ascertain what the original document said with a high degree of certainty that you are correct? Of course you could.

When it comes to applying textual criticism to Scripture, the New Testament in particular has overwhelming manuscript evidence. For the Old Testament, the evidence is not nearly as overwhelming, and the argument for trusting that they have been transmitted accurately through time rests more on the extraordinary care that was taken by the scribes.

Of course, the Bible (or more accurately, translations of the Bible) has been changed over the years, due to mistakes (such as the one that resulted in "The Wicked Bible"). Such mistakes resulted in revisions to Scripture, and it is possible that more revisions will come. However, overwhelmingly, we can place a high level of confidence that the Bible that we have today is very close to the original manuscripts, and that it has been transferred accurately through time.

So when it comes to answering the atheist's charge that the Bible has been changed over the years, the argument that we can't trust the Bible is based on a distorted definition of "has changed". What they are trying to imply is that we can't trust the Bible because it's changed so much, but the fact is that we have such overwhelming manuscript evidence that we can be very confident in the fact that the meaning of the original manuscript wasn't lost. Spelling and copyist errors, there are truly very few verses that appear to have been "added" or that the common-sense reading is disputed.

The above is meant to be a Layman's answer. and is in no way a complete, or in-depth explanation of the concept, or all of the principles applied to textual criticism. If you're interested, there are plenty of resources on the web discussing this topic. For further reading, and a deeper understanding of Textual Criticism, the Wikipeda article is as good a place as any to start.


"Manuscript Evidence" does not prove that the Bible is God's word - that is a matter of faith. Apologists use manuscript evidence to prove that the Bible has not changed over time; sceptics also use manuscript evidence to prove that the Bible has changed over time. So it takes a very objective person to look at the evidence of the manuscripts and decide between these views on a passage by passage basis.

Scholars have developed a long list of biblical inconsistencies in an attempt to establish which is more likely to be closer to the original, although few believe they can consistently come back to the original. Many of the manuscript versions are grouped under headings such as Western interpolations, Western non-interpolations and so on, which helps establish whether there was a hidden agenda to some possible changes, additions or deletions. Some passages that most critical scholars believe to be interpolations are in almost all modern Bibles (for example Mark 16:9-20), while Wikipedia provides a list of Bible verses not included in modern translations. This is evidence of change, and very probably only represents those changes or potential changes that have come to the notice of scholars.

Using manuscript evidence can be a complex task quite unlike the simplistic notion of merely finding the earliest or most likely extant manuscript. Scholars can read a manuscript verse by verse, even word by word, looking for clues as to the original text. Ronald E. Clements says in 'Israel in its historical and cultural setting', published in his The World of Ancient Israel, page 11, that the Old Testament clearly was composed as the product of a very prolonged literary activity in which few wholly separate and self-contained independent works can be identified. He says the distinction between 'authors' and 'editors' has become increasingly blurred, and in some cases almost meaningless. The prophetic books for example, were clearly not written by prophets, but represent distilled collections of prophetic material, often from diverse ages. History writing also shows every sign of having been a complex work of composition, addition and reinterpretation which, in most cases, can not now be traced back with anything more than a reasonable probability as to its main phases.

Sometimes, scholars look to extra-biblical manuscripts to see whether early Christians knew of a certain, disputed passage from the Bible. For example, Alvar Ellegard suggests in Jesus One Hundred Years Before Christ, page 18-19, the possibility that verses 15:3-8 may be an interpolation that did not exist in the version of 1 Corinthians that Ireneus knew, on the grounds that in trying to contravert the followers of Marcion he could have used the passage but did not.

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    This is good material, but it doesn't answer the question. This would be an excellent answer to a different question - perhaps one asking "what are the different approaches to using manuscript evidence", but it doesn't answer the actual question. See this post if you're unclear about the guideline for answering the actual question asked. – David Stratton Apr 7 '15 at 11:34
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    @DavidStratton I think you meant "What's the point?" at the end of your question as, "What's the point of using this table in apologetics?" but Dick answered the question assuming it meant, "What's the point of manuscript evidence?" and he's definitely giving a direct answer to the question's title. – Mr. Bultitude Apr 7 '15 at 17:50
  • @Mr.Bultitude Thank you for your clarification. That is exactly how I read the question. – Dick Harfield Apr 7 '15 at 21:36

So how does all of this prove anything? Does it prove the Bible is the Word of God? If not, what's the point?

To be completely honest with you, I do not think it proves the point it seeks to prove. First of all, the fact that there are more New Testament manuscripts than any other book from antiquity only proves that very many people were interested in reading it. Further, what the above table does not state is that the manuscripts listed very frequently do not agree with each other. The variations are not simple typographical errors. They are variations wherein entire words or phrases are different. They also are not variations where an older manuscript has different text than a newer manuscript. Manuscripts produced at roughly the same time seem to be no less prone to disagreeing with each other.

The Nestle-Aland Greek-English New Testament provides on each page a list of alternate versions of each verse, when applicable. As a representative example, we could consider John 1:1-20. According to the apparatus, within this section there is one verse that has 5 different Greek variants, one that has 4 variants, three that have 3 variants, three that have 2 variants, and one that has a single variants: an average of 1.25 variants per verse. If this sample is representative, it is possible that the number of different New Testament texts which could be constructed from all the various manuscripts is on the order of 1 followed by 8,000 zeroes.

The Old Testament is really not any less subject to textual aberrations. A quick survey of the apparatus in The Oxford Jewish Study Bible (2nd ed.) shows that there are around 20 verses in Genesis where the meaning of the original Hebrew is not known. In the Book of Psalms, the editors claim that there are well over 500 such verses.

Finally, even if the manuscripts were perfectly consistent, their meanings - even in the original language - can be distorted. Consider, for example, the passage:

John 5:26–28 (ESV)

26 For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself.

27 And he has given him authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of Man.

28 Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice

Other translations are similar and seem to be faithful to the Greek Critical Text:

John 5:26–28 (NA27)

26 ὥσπερ γὰρ ὁ πατὴρ ἔχει ζωὴν ἐν ἑαυτῷ, οὕτως καὶ τῷ υἱῷ ἔδωκεν ζωὴν ἔχειν ἐν ἑαυτῷ.

27 καὶ ἐξουσίαν ἔδωκεν αὐτῷ κρίσιν ποιεῖν, ὅτι υἱὸς ἀνθρώπου ἐστίν.

28 μὴ θαυμάζετε τοῦτο, ὅτι ἔρχεται ὥρα ἐν ᾗ πάντες οἱ ἐν τοῖς μνημείοις ἀκούσουσιν τῆς φωνῆς αὐτοῦ

In this case, however, there is an error that has crept into the Critical Text. Since the text in the available manuscripts is unpunctuated, the Nestle-Aland editors need to decide on a punctuation scheme. In this particular case, they chose one that yield the translation:

And he has given him authority to execute judgment,

because he is the Son of Man.

Do not marvel at this,

for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice

The scheme they chose, however, yields a heretical reading that was recognized and refuted by the Church Fathers. (The King James editors made the same error in interpreting the Byzantine text). The correct reading is:

And he has given him authority to execute judgment also.

That he is the Son of Man,

Do not marvel at this:

for the hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice

The alternative Greek reading was used by Paul of Samosata (3rd c.) as support for his argument that Christ was not divine (see, e.g., John Chrysostom's commentary on this passage, also summarized by the Byzantine commentator Theophylact).

Christians, I believe, have to accept the the Bible is the inspired Word of God by faith and not statistics. But I also believe that much discernment is needed in understanding that Word.

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