Hasn’t the text been copied so many times it is unreliable?

[This article was taken from our book The Bible: You Can Believe It.]


It is occasionally stated that the Bible has been copied and/or translated so many times that it has become unreliable. The actual evidence refutes this idea. The text of Scripture was copied, yes, but not to the end that it cannot be trusted. In actuality, the fact that the Bible has been copied over and over enables us to be sure we have a biblical text that is very close to the original. This is easy to understand. We will examine two scenarios to show that making multiple copies actually helps to establish what the original said.

In scenario number one, you are living in the “BC” era (before computers)—no photocopy machines, not even carbon paper. You write a letter to a friend and make a handwritten copy for your files. Later, you are told that your letter never arrived at your friend’s house, so you go to your files to make a copy from your copy. However, as you are making the new copy, you do not see something you are sure was in your original letter. It occurs to you that when you made the copy you might have left a line or two out. Unfortunately, you have no way to check. The original is lost and you are holding the one and only copy. There is simply no way to determine whether your memory, or the copy you are holding, is faulty.

In scenario number two, you write a letter and then copy it ten times and send it to ten friends. In this situation, if you lose your original you can still recover what it said with a high degree of accuracy. The way to reconstruct the original is to get the ten copies together and compare them. Then you can usually tell very quickly if mistakes were made. The multiple copies allow you to determine the content of the original. People endeavoring to make an exact copy may make a mistake, but rarely do they make the same mistake on several different copies. They may leave out a word on one, misspell a word on another, and even skip a line or double a line on a third, but the same mistakes would not be made on all the copies. Comparing the copies would reveal the mistakes, and the original could be reconstructed. When several people are making the copies, it is even easier to reconstruct an original because it would be rare indeed for different people to make the same mistake. Thus, it is almost always the case that the more copies of a document that exist, the greater the likelihood is that an accurate original can be reconstructed. This principle is recognized by scholars and is sometimes referred to as “the tenacity of the text.”

There are more manuscripts of the Bible in existence today than of any other document from the ancient world. There are more than 5,500 Greek manuscripts of the New Testament and more than 10,000 manuscripts of the Latin New Testament. Furthermore, the New Testament was translated into other languages as well, including Aramaic, Ethiopic, Armenian, Slavic, Bohairic, and Anglo-Saxon. There are, in fact, more than 24,000 ancient handwritten manuscripts of the New Testament that can be read and compared and used to rebuild the original text. [1] That is not all. Have you ever written a letter to a friend and quoted someone in it? Many of the early Christians and Church Fathers wrote letters and essays in which they quoted the Bible. There are more than 36,000 patristic citations of the Bible (i.e., quotations of the Church Fathers or “Patriarchs”) that scholars use to help determine the original text. [2]

Generations of biblical scholars have carefully read, reread, and compared these texts to get back to the original New Testament. Furthermore, the use of computers to compare and contrast manuscripts has greatly increased scholarly confidence that we are very close to the original documents penned by Matthew, Paul, Peter, and others. Does that mean the New Testament text we have today is perfect? No, but it is very close. Ezra Abbot places the purity of the New Testament text at 99.75% pure, and A. T. Robertson’s estimate is 99.9%. [3] Scholars testify there is not one essential doctrine of the Church that is in question because of an inaccuracy in the text. [4] Not one! This means if you are reading an accurate translation of the Bible, you can believe what you read.

In contrast to the more than 24,000 New Testament manuscripts on hand today, in a distant second place for the most ancient manuscripts from which to build and check an original text is the Iliad by the Greek poet Homer. There are only 643 manuscripts of the Iliad that have been preserved and are available for us to study today. Yet the same critics who say the Bible cannot be trusted would never say you should not bother to read the works of Homer because they have been copied over and over and there are so few manuscripts existing that we just cannot trust that we are reading what Homer wrote. Interestingly, those same critics support the teaching of ancient history using the works of Homer, Caesar, Pliny, Herodotus, Livy, Tacitius, Plato, and others.

I received my degree in philosophy from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and I do not remember one professor saying that the works of the ancient philosophers were in doubt because we could not trust they had come down to us intact. Yet I heard over and over that the Bible was untrustworthy. The evidence, however, is that the text of the Bible is much more surely established than is the work of any other ancient writer. Why was I not taught this in school? Because there is a bias against the Bible—a bias not based on the facts of the case. The facts of the case prove that the text of the Bible is the most reliably established of all the ancient writings.

Not only is the New Testament text we have today very close to the original, the evidence shows that the Old Testament text is too. First of all, there are tens of thousands of manuscripts of the Old Testament available to check and compare. [5] However, unlike the Greek scribes, the Hebrew scribes handled the text with an almost superstitious reverence. There were specific regulations about the types of materials onto which the biblical text could be copied, the kind of ink that could be used, the size of the printed columns, and the spacing of the words. There was even a specific ritual that was to be performed before writing down the name of God. It was also forbidden to write anything from memory. After a scribe wrote, each line was counted to assure none were doubled or skipped, and each letter was counted so that if one were omitted, the error was immediately discovered. If, at the end of copying, even one error was found on the manuscript, it was destroyed. [6] Modern textual scholars agree with Sir Fredrick Kenyon who stated, “The Christian can take the whole Bible in his hand and say without fear or hesitation that he holds in it the true Word of God, handed down without essential loss from generation to generation throughout the centuries.” [7]

To summarize the main points we have covered so far: (a) God is the Author of Scripture, (b) He communicated what He wanted written to men who wrote it down accurately, and (c) the content of the Bible has been copied many times over, which has preserved the accuracy of the text and allowed researchers to verify it. These are significant truths, and they give us confidence in the integrity of the Bible.


[1] Josh McDowell, The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict (Thomas Nelson Publishers, Nashville, 1999), p. 34.
[2] Norman Geisler and William Nix, A General Introduction to the Bible (Moody Press, Chicago, 1986), p. 467.
[3] Ibid., p. 474.
[4] Josh McDowell, op. cit., The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict, p. 35.
[5] Norman Geisler and William Nix, op. cit., A General Introduction to the Bible, pp. 357 and 358.
[6] Ibid., p. 380.
[7] Ibid., p. 382.

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