Tough Questions: Has the New Testament Been Changed or Edited?

One common idea I see and hear all the time is that the New Testament of the Bible was altered from its original form. That somebody (the Emperor Constantine, say, or the medieval church) changed it to fit their agenda. This is obviously troubling for Christians - while it is Jesus who provides our ultimate identity, all of our information about Jesus comes from the Bible. We say that it is God's Word. So let's look at how reliable the Bible we have actually is.

How Manuscripts Work
Alright, to get this, you have to understand how all ancient texts were transmitted. Until the invention of the printing press in 1440, if you wanted a copy of the book, somebody had to copy it for you. By hand. Which took a huge amount of time and (often) money. What's more, these copies (manuscripts) were very perishable. A codex (an old type of book) or parchment got wet, or their was a fire, or some barbarians sacked your castle and needed toilet paper, and your manuscript was ruined.

Whenever we deal with historical texts, then, we are not dealing with the original autographs. We are dealing with copies. That's not just true of the Bible, but of every book written before 1440. What scholars do to reconstruct those texts is to gather the manuscripts we have and compare them with each other. If there are any disagreements (more on that later), they try to sort through them by looking at the earliest or best-witnessed readings.

Before we talk about the Bible, let's get some context. Here are a two examples, one of another writer with massive influence in the ancient world and another with significant influence who was roughly contemporaneous to the New Testament period:

  • Plato, the famous philosopher, wrote around 400 B.C. The first scraps manuscripts of two of his works (bits of the Laches and Phaedo) were found in the Oxyrhunchus Papyri and probably date from around 200 A.D., some 500-600 years after they were originally written. The earliest manuscript of any size, the Codex Oxoniensis Clarkianus, dates from 895 A.D., almost 1300 years later. All told, we have around 250 manuscripts of parts or all of the works of Plato.
  • Tacitus, the Roman historian, was writing at the end of the 1st century A.D. His Annals, one of our most important sources on Roman history, are divided into two parts. The first part, 1-6, has only a single manuscript surviving, copied about 850. The second part, 11-16 (we are missing the middle section) has 32 manuscripts, all copies of the earliest, which dates from between 1030 and 1055 A.D. So were talking 800-1000 years after Tacitus wrote.
The thing to bear in mind is that this is par for the course. I didn't pick unusually poorly-attested examples - in fact, as far as I know, Plato has the best manuscript attestation of any ancient work (except the Bible... spoilers). But we regard these sources as basically reliable and unchanged.

Biblical Manuscripts
So after that fun historical side trip, let me just drop this on you: we have almost 6,000 manuscripts of the Bible, with many significant portions dating within 150 years or less of when the books were written and whole copies of the bible within 300 years. And that's just in Greek. If you include early translations into Latin and other languages, which would help us potentially recognize changes, that number is 25,000.

Let's talk about a few of those early manuscripts:

  • The Rylands Library Papyrus P52 is a fragment of the Gospel of John, and is probably the oldest manuscript we have. Depending on the scholar, it is dated between 100 and 175 A.D. While John is one of the gospels whose date of writing is most debated, at most this is 125 years after it was written, and maybe as few as 10 years or less.
  • The Chester Beatty Papyri: There are three separate manuscripts that are a part of this collection. One is of the four gospels and Acts - while fragmentary (because most of it has crumbled with age), it has significant parts of all five books, and dates from around 250. The second is a collection of many of Paul's letters (parts of Romans and 1 Thessalonians and all or basically all of Hebrews, Ephesians, Galatians, Philippians, Colossians and 1&2 Corinthains), and is dated between 175 and 225 A.D. The third is part of the book of Revelation, and dates sometime in the 3rd century as well. Let's be clear - this means that we are talking about manuscripts copied within 100-200 years of their original writing, and contains a significan part of the New Testament.
  • In the Bodmer Papyri we have a copy of the Gospel of John (P66) which also dates around 200 A.D.
  • We have complete manuscripts of the entire New Testament, like the Codex Vaticanus (300-325 A.D.) and the Codex Sinaiticus (330-360 A.D.), from the 4th century. So within 200-300 years of the original books.
And we could multiply the list - lots of manuscripts start popping up in the 4th century. Indeed, this is noteworthy, because in the Diocletian persecution in 303-305, probably the most intense persecution of the church by the Romans, hundreds of copies of the New Testament were destroyed. What is remarkable is the number that survived.

One other thing to note - when we talk about having these manuscripts, we seriously mean that we have them. You can go online and find scans of many of them. And they all essentially agree with the New Testament as we have it (you'll notice the "essentially" - more on that in a minute). So already, most of the ideas that get circulated are nonsense. The medieval church didn't change the Bible. Neither did Constantine. We have texts from before any of that. Texts from before the church was institutionalized or made official or was connected to the Roman state. Claiming those ideas is like claiming that I wrote the Great Gadsby, even though I wasn't born until decades later.

What About The Differences?
You'll notice above that I said those manuscripts are "essentially" the same, and that might raise someone's eyebrows. The reality is that there are various small differences between manuscripts, so let's talk about that.

The vast majority of these differences boil down to simple copying errors. There is the wrong letter in a word, or a word left out, or a couple of words copied twice in a row. Which is completely understandable when you consider that these texts were hand copied by people over the course of months. It had to be brain-numbing work. Indeed, the fact that most manuscripts are so consistent are a testament to the safeguards and editorial oversight they had in place to catch such errors.

There are times though, if you flip through an English translation of the Bible or venture into the darker corners of the internet, that you'll hear discussions about a few more significant variations. Let's look at two of them, one easy and the other more complicated.

Depending on your translation of 1 John 5:7-8, you might see an interesting footnote. It shows that a phrase is present in some manuscripts but left out of the NIV: " heaven: the Father, the Word and the Holy Spirit, and these three are one. 8 And there are three that testify on earth..." This is usually noted because there is one widespread translation, the King James version, which includes this section in the Biblical text. Some might wonder, was the Bible changed?

The answer is... sort of. You know those 5,800 Greek manuscripts we mentioned? None of them have this added section. None of them. However, we have eight manuscripts from the 1500s that have it, although four of them show it as a note in the margins rather than part of the verses. So what happened? Nobody knows, but what seems plausible is that somewhere someone had that phrase (the phrase does appear in one early Latin liturgy). Maybe they added it to the text. More likely, they added it as a marginal note (not uncommon). Then some other scribe copied it into the text itself on accident. This probably wouldn't have mattered except that it was those texts that the King James Bible happened to be translated from.

But all of that really misses the point. WHich is that, because we have so many manuscripts, it is easy to see that this alteration was just that - an alteration. We can compare it to earlier manuscripts and other manuscript traditions and be clear that it doesn't belong.

Now for a trickier case: Mark 16:9-20. Basically every copy of the Bible will note that there is debate about this passage - and there is. A couple of early manuscripts have it, a couple don't, a couple have a different single-verse summary. Some early church Fathers quoted it; Eusebius of Caesarea, however, notes that many manuscripts don't have it and that it probably shouldn't be in the Bible.

First, let's just dwell on that fact. Here's what Eusebius concludes, after discussing the different readings: "That is where the text does end [in v. 8], in almost all copies of the gospel according to Mark. What occasionally follows in some copies, not all, would be extraneous, most particularly if it contained something contradictory to the evidence of the other evangelists." Think about that for a minute Eusebius was the first historian of Christianity, writing in the early 300s. He isn't being arbitrary or just making stuff up - he's doing exactly what modern historians do, comparing manuscripts for the most accurate reading. That doesn't sound like somebody playing fast and loose with the Bible.

That said... the simple answer is that it's unclear. The tradition that has the long ending is very old, as is the short ending. It was debated by the Church Fathers who were living within a hundred or so years of it being written, so I doubt we can settle it with any certainty.

But the real point is... it doesn't really matter. In the first place, that is one of the two large and debatable texts in the whole New Testament, the other being John 7:53-8:11. There are two of them. What's more, we know about those debates. There was one inconsistency in the manuscripts from the earliest days, at the end of Mark, and we are aware of it, and the church has been aware of it for two thousand years. Which should make us pretty confident it wasn't a regular occurrence.

On top of all that, even if we take those texts out of the Bible, nothing changes. It's not like there's debate about Jesus's resurrection or the call to love our enemies or really anything theological at all unique to those texts. Here, you can go read a list of all the major textual variants of the New Testament. See if any of them undercut something we believe, leaving us without evidence for it.

What That Does And Doesn't Prove
Alright, so let's talk about what that means. It means that the Bible is an incredibly reliable document, as far as ancient documents go. Perhaps even uniquely reliable. It means that the Bible I'm reading is the same ones used by the Church Fathers. It disproves the conspiracy theories that see Constantine or some pope or somebody else as altering the Bible.

Of course, that doesn't prove the Bible. And it doesn't prove that the earliest authors didn't make it up (although if they did, they certainly paid dearly for it). That would take another blog post even longer than this one, and I have other things that need doing. And ultimately, you couldn't give the kind of proof certain people demand, because it's impossible.

That's probably a good point to close on, actually. What bothers me the most when I read people who disagree with the above is that they show a commitment to doubt about Christianity that they don't show about any other part of history. Think back to what we said about Plato. If the Biblical text isn't reliable, then Plato is a joke. Probably made up by some medieval monk as a gag for his buddies ("Look, guys, it's just shadows on the cave wall! Mine's a duck!") As is Tacitus, and Homer and Virgil and literally every other ancient author. We have far less evidence for the texts of their works than we do the Bible's.

Now of course, I'm all for trusting Plato as reliable. Or, at least the text of Plato - not really his philosophy. And the texts of all those other works too. Because nothing survives absolute skepticism, especially nothing in history. But if you want to take that route, that's fine. You just need to make sure you're being consistent. The logic you're using to deny the Bible is going to make it pretty hard to prove anything in history happened. Like, say, the moon landing or Holocaust. 

Just saying.