How Do We Know the Text of the New Testament Hasn’t Been Changed?

by Andrew Forrest

Lots of folks worry that the text of the Bible has been changed over time. How do we know we can trust the text that we are reading? How can we be sure the text hasn’t been changed over the centuries? Can we trust the text of the New Testament?

The short answer: yes.

Here’s why: there are thousands of manuscripts of the New Testament in existence; biblical scholars compare and contrast these manuscripts with each other.

  • As of 2016, there were more than 5,850 Greek manuscripts of the New Testament;
  • About 1000 of these date from before 390 AD, when St. Jerome made his Latin translation of the Bible, called the Vulgate.
  • Most of these manuscripts are partial or fragmentary, but even so we have multiple manuscripts for every single book in the New Testament. (Revelation is the least well-attested, but there are still about 300 ancient Greek manuscripts that preserve it.)

So, comparing these thousands of manuscripts, scholars can be confident that the New Testament in our Bibles is essentially the exact same New Testament that the early Christians wrote–we can see that things have not changed over time.

However, there are small discrepancies and textual problems in the New Testament, one of which is found in today’s reading:

“After this the Lord appointed seventy-two[a] others and sent them two by two ahead of him to every town and place where he was about to go.”

Luke 10:1

Notice the small [a] in the NIV? That leads to a textual note that says “Some manuscripts seventy.” What that means is that the Bible translators are letting you know that there are many manuscripts that say “seventy” instead of “seventy-two.” The translators of the NIV think that “seventy-two” is what Luke actually wrote, but they want you to know that there is some textual confusion on that point and that it is possible that he wrote “seventy.” (Obviously, we do not have the literal autograph that Luke wrote.)

To me, these sorts of textual problems make me more confident in the text of the Bible, not less:

  1. If the church was trying to perpetuate a hoax, it would be beyond stupid to print footnotes in the Bible that explain when there are textual problems!
  2. If the Bible was formed the was the church claims it was formed, i.e., organically and over time, then it would make sense that there would be small textual problems like this.
  3. The vast majority of the textual problems are exactly like Luke 10:1–totally beside the point. Whether Jesus sent out seventy-two or seventy really doesn’t matter.

You can be confident that the text of the New Testament in our Bible’s today is the same text that the New Testament writers wrote, and any small discrepancies or textual problems that exist are both irrelevant and out in the open.

Today’s Scripture:

Luke 10:1-16

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