The January 2, 2015 issue of Newsweek magazine featured on its cover an article in which the author states that we can't possibly know, today, what the authors actually said in the original bible documents. To quote from the article:
At best, we've all read a bad translation -- a translation of translations of translations of hand-copied copies of copies of copies of copies, and on and on, hundreds of times.
The premise is that the bible we have today is not an accurate representation of what the original authors wrote. But is this claim true?
Has today's bible really come to us via a long series of language translations, say from Greek to Latin to Armenian to Russian to German to Spanish to English? Or something similar to that? Absolutely NOT.
Our modern English translations of the bible come directly from Greek, the original language in which the New Testament was written. Whether you're using NIV, NASB, NLT, etc., the English text was translated by a team of scholars directly from the Greek. Many bibles will include an explanation of the translation process used.
So on this point the Newsweek author is clearly wrong. Either he is woefully misinformed, or he is purposely trying to mislead readers regarding the process by which modern bibles were translated..
On the other hand, he is correct that our bible came from copies; we don't have the original of any document from antiquity. However, he exaggerates significantly; many New Testament copies are dated quite close in time to the originals, and cannot simply be dismissed as "copies of copies, and on and on, hundreds of times."
Not just bible documents are copies, but so are all other ancient documents you've ever read. For none of them do we have the original that was penned by the author. The materials used in ancient times simply don't last for 2,000 years. They decay over time, and thus make it necessary for scribes to copy documents in order to perpetuate the author's work. The copies available to us are called manuscripts, where 'manuscript' can mean a copy of the entire book, or of only a chapter of the book, or perhaps of just a fragment of one page.
Even though it was from a copy, my high school English teacher still made me read Homer's Iliad, so apparently she thought the manuscripts we have are good enough. (In fairness though, no one is basing their worldview or religion on the Iliad.)
How do we know that copies we use today accurately reflect the originals? Well, here's an analogy.
Let's say you write (not electronically, but by plain old handwriting) a history of your family. You then convince 100 people to each make one hand-written copy of your original. Then you mail the copies to 100 family members.
Twenty years later you cannot find your original. So you write family members and ask them to let your borrow their copies so that you can carefully reconstruct the original. If you have enough copies, you will be able to detect what the original actually said to a high degree of accuracy. Two copies would clearly not be enough -- if you found a discrepancy you wouldn't know which version was correct and which was wrong. But if you had 10, or 20, or 50 copies, you could determine quite precisely what the original said.
With sufficient copies, scholars can compare manuscripts to eliminate errors and determine what the original actually said. If we have, say 20 copies, and all but one have a punctuation mark in the same spot, but one does not, we can safely conclude that an omission was made by that one scribe. Or if the spelling of a word in one manuscript differs with the spelling in all the others, we conclude that an error was made by that one scribe. Or if an entire line of text is missing in just one manuscript, but present in the others. we know the scribe simply (mistakenly) skipped a line.
So scholars take on the role of detective. To accurately reconstruct the originals what scholars desire is two things: 1) a large number of manuscripts, and 2) manuscripts produced close in time to the date of the original document. In short, we want LOTS of OLD copies. The more copies, and the older the copies, the higher the chance that we can accurately reproduce the original document.
How Many Exist?
So how many manuscripts exist for various works of antiquity? Below is a short table (compiled by Dr Clay Jones) of some well-known works. The "Time Gap" is the number of years that elapsed between the date of authorship, and the date of the earliest manuscript we have. For example, the Iliad was written around 800 BC, but our earliest manuscript is dated about 400 years after Homer wrote, i.e. 400 BC. The time gap is 400 years.
For most of these ancient works, only 30 to 250 manuscripts exist. The Iliad stands out by having over 1,700. And for most of these works, the earliest manuscript we have is dated between 400 and 1,300 years after the original work was penned. In contrast, for the New Testament there are nearly 5,800 Greek manuscripts, and the earliest one dates to within 40 years of the author's original work.
Author - Work - Time Gap - # Manuscripts
Homer - Iliad - 400 yrs - 1,757 mss
Herodotus - History - 1,350 yrs - 109 mss
Sophocles - Plays - ~150 yrs - 193 mss
Plato - Tetralogies - 1,300 yrs - 210 mss
Caesar - Gallic Wars - 950 yrs - 251 mss
Livy - History of Rome - 400 yrs - 150 mss
Tacitus - Annals - 750 yrs - 33 mss
Pliny - Natural History - 400 yrs - 200 mss
New Testament - 40 yrs - 5,795 mss
We have manuscripts of entire New Testament books that date to within about 125 years of the original documents. We have individual manuscripts containing most of the New Testament books (and all the gospels) that date to within about 175 years of the originals. The bottom line is this: the New Testament has many more manuscripts, much nearer in time to the originals, than for any other work of antiquity. If we are going to say that the New Testament is unreliable, then we've got to also toss out every other ancient work.
Besides almost 5,800 Greek manuscripts of the New Testament, there are more than 10,000 Latin manuscripts, and 5,000 in other languages (such as Armenian, Syriac, Coptic). Altogether, scholars are working with over 30,000 manuscripts.
In addition, the early church fathers such as Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Clement, Origen, Tertullian and others quoted the New Testament exhaustively. In fact, even if we had zero manuscripts of the New Testament, we would be able to reconstruct all but 11 verses of the New Testament from works of the church fathers.
As a result, scholars can reproduce the original books of the New Testament to an extremely high degree of accuracy. Of the 20,000 lines of text in the New Testament, only about 40 lines contain wording that is still being debated. And none of these disputed lines brings into question any significant doctrine of Christianity. (For comparison, about 10%, or 1,500 lines of the Iliad are debated.)
In summary, our modern New Testament is a direct, Greek to English, translation of an extremely accurate reconstruction of the original Greek text. The New Testament is by far the best attested of any document from antiquity, with many times more manuscripts, and manuscripts much closer in time to the originals.
To Learn More
For more information, please refer to these online resources: