This week on our radio/podcast show we had a conversation with Dr. Andreas Köstenberger on the reliability of the Bible. Below is a skeptic quote from a popular agnostic professor (Bart D. Ehrman) about the Bible, and then a response from Andreas. The quote, I think, reveals something that many skeptics and even Christians struggle with. I hope Andreas’s brief answer gets you thinking.
Bart D. Ehrman
“One of the things that people misunderstand, of course, especially my 19-year-old students from North Carolina, is that when we’re reading the Bible, we’re not actually reading the words of Matthew, Mark, Luke, John or Paul, we’re reading translations of the originals of Matthew, Mark, Luke, John or Paul, because we don’t have the originals of any of the books of the New Testament. What we have are copies made centuries later, in most instances, many centuries later.”
Dr. Andreas Köstenberger
“There’s a certain rhetorical surface until you look a little deeper. For example, just picking up on the quote that was just mentioned, I mean, who says that if you have something in translation that it’s necessarily inaccurate? It doesn’t logically follow at all. If it’s an accurate translation, then you don’t need necessarily the words in the original language. By that token, we would all have to read the Old Testament in Hebrew, and the New Testament in Greek. Few of us are able to do that, right? We all are very grateful for our accurate English translations.
So, I think we find a highly-exaggerated standard for accuracy, and I think that’s more a result of skepticism than having reasonable concerns with the Bible. But that said, it’s true, we don’t have the original autographs, that is, we don’t have the actual, letter Paul wrote to the Romans, for example. I think that’s probably a good thing, because if we did, some people would probably worship the actual document!
I think what Ehrman overlooks here is, what we have in our Bibles – we don’t need the physical papyrus or codex manuscript, all we need is a reliable text. And the text that we have is reliable because it has been faithfully passed on and copied from the originals. Of course, some might say that we have a variant reading, so-called variants, so we can’t know what the original readings were…
…and most of those variants, of course, are completely inconsequential. We’re talking about spelling errors, some might be skipped words if scribes had manuscripts that they copied in front of them, or some other inadvertent copying mistakes that can easily be spotted. So I think saying that we don’t know what was in the original manuscripts just because we have certain variants is, again, vastly exaggerating the problem.
In fact, we have a vast number of manuscripts, we have almost 6,000 manuscripts of the entire New Testament, or at least parts of the New Testament. So I think, again, the reason why we have so many variants is because we have so many manuscripts to begin with. It’s one of those situations where you can’t seem to win. If we only had few manuscripts, skeptics like Ehrman would say, ‘Well look, how come you have so few manuscripts?’ Right? But because we have so many, which results in more variants, somehow that’s turned into a liability as well.
The fact is, we can trust our Bibles, we can trust the translations, we can trust the process that was used in copying. Of course, you would imagine scribes who believed they were copying sacred Scripture to make every effort to be accurate in what they copied. And of course, copying is a human process, so error occasionally crept in. But, in most cases, we are easily able to reconstruct the original reading behind those inadvertent mistakes that some scribes occasionally made.”