Business Insider has an article and video which makes the assertion, “Many people don't realize that over the past 2,000 years, this sacred text has changed a great deal.” The video uses Bart Ehrman as one of its sources, a professor at the University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill who specializes in this sort of thing. He, and the video, mainly focus on textual criticism of the New Testament.
The video makes the following claims:
- The Bible has changed “a lot” and a “great deal” over the past 2,000 years
- No “First Edition” exists and we have only copies made “hundreds of years after the events supposedly took place.”
- For the first couple hundred years, copies were made by non-professionals which led to errors, omissions, and changes, the “biggest” being the following:
- Early manuscripts of John’s Gospel do not include John 8:7
- The Gospel of Mark did not originally include the resurrection account (Mark 16:9-20)
- Luke 23:34 - Ehrman argues that Jesus’ plea for forgiveness was originally meant to refer to the Jews, but was later “changed to refer to the Romans.”
- The Dead Sea Scrolls have alternative forms of many Old Testament books, including the “book of Samuel.”
These are general criticisms of the Bible that have been made by people over the years, but are without much import or merit. First, the Bible has not changed “a lot” or a “great deal” since it was written and it was likely written much earlier than liberal scholars acknowledge. Clement of Rome, for instance, quoted from the Gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke when he wrote his “Epistle to the Corinthians” towards the end of the first century; he also referred to Paul’s epistles to the Corinthians. Other early Church Fathers of the second century such as Ignatius, Polycarp, Justin Martyr, Tertullian, and Irenaeus also quote from the New Testament (there are over 19,000 citations from the four Gospels alone among the early Church Fathers, according to Norman Geisler’s Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics).
Of the Gospels, Irenaeus wrote:
Matthew published a written gospel for the Hebrews in their own tongue, while Peter and Paul were preaching the gospel in Rome and founding the church there. After their passing, Mark also, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, transmitted to us in writing the things preached by Peter. Luke, the follower of Paul, set down in a book the gospel preached by him. Lastly John, the disciple of the Lord, who had leant back on His breast, once more set forth the gospel, while residing at Ephesus in Asia (Against the Heresies, 3.1.1).
A related issue, then, is how the documents which became known as the New Testament were copied and distributed among the Church. Professor Larry Hurtado makes the following points in his book The Earliest Christian Artifacts: Manuscripts and Christian Origins:
- Paul’s epistles were copied and transmitted as a unit
- The four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) were copied and transmitted as a unit (and no other “gospels” were included, as they were not considered authoritative)
- Christian scribes were diligent in copying the texts and included punctuation and “nomina sacra” (i.e. symbols and abbreviations for sacred names, such as for Jesus) which indicate the care and Scriptural authority with which they viewed the texts (in fact, important Christian scribal schools were established at Antioch and Alexandria fairly early)
- Early Christians preferred the codex (i.e. a bound book) over the scroll for Scriptural texts, thus demonstrating what texts they considered authoritative
Perhaps a sidebar discussion is relevant here concerning why Christians considered some texts authoritative (and thus “Scripture”) but rejected others. The key criteria was “Apostolicity;” that is, a text had to have Apostolic authority by being connected to an Apostle. Thus, the four Gospels meet this criteria: Matthew and John were Apostles, Mark and Luke were close assistants of Peter and Paul and therefore their books were considered “Apostolic.” On the other hand, there were books considered inspired and useful, such as Clement’s epistle, the “Shepherd of Hermas,” the Didache, and even the writings of the Fathers mentioned above; however, since they were not Apostolic, they were not considered to be authoritative Scripture.
This emphasis on Apostolicity is seen even in heretical writings rejected by the Church; that is to say, Gnostic heretics in the 2nd and 3rd centuries tried to connect their books to Apostles; thus, the “Gospel of Thomas” and similar writings bear the names of Apostles as the Gnostics were trying to paint them with the veneer of Apostolicity. With the death of the Apostle John around 100 AD, however, the last Apostle who could validate the Apostolicity of writings was gone and the New Testament canon was closed. In fact, the New Testament canon was generally agreed upon through common usage by the middle of the second century. This can be seen in the citations that writers of the time make from the New Testament books, the way the manuscripts were copied and circulated as Hurtado notes, as well as from explicit lists such as that from Eusebius in his “Church History,” written around the beginning of the 300’s AD.
This also leads into a discussion about the central teachings by which writings were judged. As the Apostles founded Christian congregations, they imparted a core set of teachings which was called the regula fidei or “rule of faith.” This was the standard (i.e. the “ruler” or “measuring stick”) by which writings and teachings were judged. The rule of faith for each congregation was basically the same, but with an emphasis on certain points depending on what local heresy was trying to be defended against (for example, where Gnosticism was rampant, God the Father as the Creator of all things was emphasized, since the Gnostics rejected the goodness of creation). Each rule of faith talked about the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and what each Person does for our salvation.
Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons, described the rule of faith in his area around 180 AD (note the emphasis on the creation, flesh, and the bodily resurrection):
The Church, indeed, though disseminated throughout the world, even to the ends of the earth, received from the apostles and their disciples the faith in one God the Father Almighty, the Creator of heaven and earth and the seas and all things that are in them; and in the one Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who was enfleshed for our salvation; and in the Holy Spirit, who through the prophets preached the Economies [i.e. the Divine plan and action for our salvation], the coming, the birth from a virgin, the passion, the resurrection from the dead, and the bodily ascension into heaven of the beloved Son, Christ Jesus our Lord, and His coming from heaven in the glory of the Father to recapitulate all things, and to raise up all flesh of the whole human race... (Against the Heresies 1.10.1).
The affinity with what we today call the Apostles Creed should be evident here. In fact, the Apostles Creed derives from the rule of faith of the congregation in Rome which later became the “Old Roman Creed.” The point being, then, that these essential points of the Christian faith go back to the Apostles and were transmitted through the centuries to our own time.
This brings us back to the “errors” and “changes” mentioned in the video. None of these have any impact on doctrine or teaching. Whether or not John 8:7 was in the original manuscripts doesn’t change Christian beliefs; whether or not Mark’s Gospel originally ended at Mark 16:8 doesn’t change anything. In addition, it is hard to understand Ehrman’s contention that Luke 23:34 originally referred to the Jews but was “changed” to refer to the Romans. Read the verse and the context in which it is found. There are both Jews and Romans there at the crucifixion and Jesus is crying out, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing.” He is referring to everyone present who is mocking him, crucifying him, and generally pleased with his death, both Jews and Romans. Likewise, the Dead Sea Scrolls, rather than demonstrating that the Old Testament we have is flawed, are almost universally held up as an example of the diligence with which the texts were copied and transmitted since antiquity. Yes, there are some textual differences, but nothing that changes anything substantial, and part of this is due to the fact that the Old Testament was transmitted as both the Greek Septuagint as well as the Hebrew and Aramaic Masoretic text.
Anyone interested in learning more about the development of the New Testament canon and the history of the Church is encouraged to go read primary sources for themselves. In fact, a good resource for the dedicated scholar is the Nestle-Aland Greek New Testament, as it lists all textual variants for each passage. However, there are plenty of more accessible resources available for someone to learn for themselves about the way the original text of the New Testament was diligently copied and handed down to us.