Is the Bible textually Reliable? Or has it been corrupted?

Textual Criticism and the Bible

Ancient Bible Manuscripts

In our scientific and educated age, we question many of the non-scientific beliefs that earlier generations had.  This skepticism is especially true of the Bible.  Many of us question the reliability of the Bible from what we know about it.  After all, the Bible was written more than two thousand years ago.  But for most of these millennia, there has been no printing press, photocopy machines or publishing companies.  So the original manuscripts were copied by hand, generation after generation. Concurrently, languages died out and new ones arose, empires changed and new powers ascended. 

Since the original manuscripts have long been lost, how do we know that what we read today in the Bible is what the original authors actually wrote?  Perhaps the Bible was changed or corrupted. Maybe church leaders, priests, bishops, or monks did so because they wished to change its message for their purposes.

Principles of Textual Criticism

Naturally, this question is true of any ancient writing.  Textual Criticism is the academic discipline of determining whether an ancient text has changed from its original composition until today. Because it is an academic discipline it applies to any ancient writing from any language.  This article explains some basic principles of Textual Criticism and applies them to the Bible to determine its reliability.

This diagram shows an example of a hypothetical document written 500 BCE. The original text did not last long. So before it decays, is lost, or destroyed, a manuscript (MSS) copy of it must be made (1st copy). A professional class of people called scribes did the copying. As the years advance, scribes make copies (2nd & 3rd copy) of the 1st copy. At some point a copy is preserved so that it exists today (the 3rd copy).

Timeline of our example document

Principle 1: Manuscript Time Intervals

In our example diagram, scribes produced this extant copy in 500 CE. So this means that the earliest that we can know of the state of the text is only after 500 CE. Therefore the time from 500 BCE to 500 CE (labeled x in the diagram) forms the period of textual uncertainty. Even though the original was written long before, all manuscripts before 500 CE have vanished. Therefore we cannot evaluate copies from this period.

Thus, the first principle used in textual criticism is to measure this time interval.  The shorter this interval x, the more confidence we can place in the correct preservation of the document to our time, since the period of uncertainty is reduced.

Principle 2: The number of existing manuscripts

The second principle used in Textual criticism is to count the number of existing manuscripts today. Our example illustration above showed that only one manuscript is available (the 3rd copy). But usually, more than one manuscript copy exists today. The more manuscripts in existence in the present day, the better the manuscript data. Then historians can compare copies against other copies to see if and how much these copies deviate from each other. So the number of manuscript copies available becomes the second indicator determining the textual reliability of ancient writings.

Textual Criticism of Classical Greco-Roman writings compared to New Testament

These principles apply to any ancient writings. So let us now compare New Testament manuscripts with other ancient manuscripts that scholars accept as reliable. This Table lists some well-known ones…

AuthorWhen WrittenEarliest CopyTime Span
Caesar50 BC900 AD95010
Plato350 BC900 AD12507
Aristotle*300 BC1100 AD14005
Thucydides400 BC900 AD13008
Herodotus400 BC900 AD13008
Sophocles400 BC1000 AD1400100
Tacitus100 AD1100 AD100020
Pliny100 AD850 AD7507
Manuscript data of well-known ancient writers accepted as reliable
McDowell, J. Evidence That Demands a Verdict. 1979. p. 42-48

*from any one work

These writers represent the major classical writers of antiquity. Basically, their writings shaped the development of European and Western civilization.  But on average, they have been passed down to us by only 10-100 manuscripts. Moreover, the earliest existing copies are preserved starting about 1000 years after the original was written.   We treat these as our control experiment since they comprise writings that form the foundation of history and philosophy. So academics and universities world-wide accept, use and teach them.

New Testament Manuscripts

The following table compares the New Testament manuscripts along the same principles of Textual Criticism. Then we will compare this to our control data, just like in any scientific investigation.

MSSWhen WrittenDate of MSSTime Span
John Rylan90 CE130 CE 40 yrs
Bodmer Papyrus90 CE 150-200 CE 110 yrs
Chester  Beatty50-60 CE 200 CE 20 yrs
Codex Vaticanus50-90 CE 325 CE 265 yrs
Codex Sinaiticus50-90 CE 350 CE 290 yrs
Textual Data of the earliest New Testament manuscripts
Comfort, P.W. The Origin of  the Bible, 1992. p. 193
Old Bible Manuscript

However, this table gives just a brief highlight of some of the existing New Testament manuscripts.  The number of New Testament manuscripts is so vast that it would be impossible to list them in one table. 

Testimony of the Scholarship

As one scholar who spent years studying this issue states:

“We have more than 24000 MSS copies of portions of the New Testament in existence today… No other document of antiquity even begins to approach such numbers and attestation.  In comparison, the ILIAD by Homer is second with 643 MSS that still survive”

McDowell, J. Evidence That Demands a Verdict. 1979. p. 40

A leading scholar at the British Museum corroborates this:

“Scholars are satisfied that they possess substantially the true text of the principal Greek and Roman writers … yet our knowledge of their writings depends on a mere handful of MSS whereas the MSS of the N.T. are counted by … thousands”

Kenyon, F.G. (former director of British Museum) Our Bible and the Ancient Manuscripts. 1941 p.23

This data pertains specifically to the New Testament manuscripts. This article looks at Textual Criticism of the Old Testament.

New Testament Textual Criticism and Constantine

Significantly, a large number of these manuscripts are extremely ancient.  For example, consider the introduction of the book transcribing the earliest Greek New Testament documents. 

“This book provides transcriptions of 69 of the earliest New Testament manuscripts…dated from early 2nd century to beginning of the 4th (100-300AD) … containing about 2/3 of the new Testament text”

Comfort, P.W. “The Text of the Earliest New Testament Greek Manuscripts”. p. 17. 2001

This is significant because these manuscripts come before Roman Emperor Constantine (ca 325 CE). They also precede the rise to power of the Catholic Church. Some wonder whether either Constantine or the Catholic Church altered the biblical text. We can test this by comparing the manuscripts from before Constantine (325 CE) with those coming later. However, we find that they have not changed. The manuscripts from, say 200 CE, are the same as those that come later.

Thus, neither the Catholic Church nor Constantine changed the Bible. This is not a religious statement but is based solely on the manuscript data. The figure below illustrates the timeline of manuscripts from which today’s New Testament comes from.

New Testament manuscripts from which modern Bibles derive
University presentation on Textual Criticism of New Testament

Implications of Bible Textual Criticism

So what can we conclude from this?  Certainly, at least in what we can objectively measure, the New Testament is verified to a much higher degree than any other classical work.  The verdict can be best summed up by the following:

“To be skeptical of the resultant text of the New Testament is to allow all of classical antiquity to slip into obscurity, for no other documents of the ancient period are as well attested bibliographically as the New Testament”

Montgomery, History and Christianity. 1971. p.29

What he means is that if we doubt the reliability of the Bible’s preservation, we should discard all that we know about classical history. Yet no informed historian has ever done so.  We know that the Biblical texts have not been altered as eras, languages and empires have come and gone. We know this because the earliest existing manuscripts precede these events.  For example, we know that no overly zealous medieval monk, or plotting pope, added in the miracles of Jesus to the Bible. We have manuscripts that come before all medieval monks and popes. Since all these early manuscripts contain Jesus’ miracles then these imaginary medieval conspirators could not have inserted them.

What about translation of the Bible?

But what about the errors involved in translation? Why are there so many different versions of the Bible today? Do the existence of many versions mean that it is impossible to determine what the original authors wrote?

The Bible is translated into many different languages

First, let us clear up a common misconception.  Many think that the Bible today has gone through a long series of translation steps. They imagine each new language translated from the previous one. So they visualize a series something like this:  Greek -> Latin -> Medieval English -> Shakespeare English -> modern English -> other modern languages. 

Linguists translate the Bible into diverse languages today directly from its original languages. So for the New Testament, the translation proceeds to Greek -> modern language. For the Old Testament, the translation proceeds to Hebrew -> modern language (further details including Orthodox translations here). But the base Greek and Hebrew text is standard. So the different Bible versions come from how linguists choose to translate them into the modern language.

Translation Reliability

Due to the vast classical literature that was written in Greek (the original language of the New Testament), it is possible to precisely translate the original thoughts and words of the original authors. In fact, the different modern versions attest to this. For example, read this well-known verse in the most common versions, and note the slight variance in wording, but consistency in idea and meaning:

For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Romans 6:23 (New International Version)

For the wages of sin is death, but the gracious gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Romans 6:23 (New American Standard Version)

For the wages of sin is death, but the gracious gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Romans 6:23 (New Living Translation)

You can see that there is no disagreement between the translations because they say exactly the same thing using only slightly different words.


To summarize, neither time nor translation has corrupted the ideas and thoughts expressed in the original Bible manuscripts. These ideas are not hidden from us today.  We know that the Bible today accurately communicates what its authors actually wrote back then.

But it is important to realize what this study does not show.  This does not necessarily prove that the Bible is the Word of God. 

Textual Criticism of Old Testament

But understanding the textual reliability of the Bible provides a start-point from which we can start investigating the Bible. We can see if these other questions can also be answered. We can also become informed about its message.  Since the Bible claims that its message is God’s blessing to you, what if it is possibly true?  Perhaps it is worth taking the time to learn some of the important events of the Bible.  A good place to start is in its beginning.

The Final Countdown – Promised in the Beginning

We have looked at how mankind fell from their first created state. The Bible tells us God had a plan based on a Promise made at the beginning of history.

The Bible – Really a Library

© Jorge Royan / / CC BY-SA 3.0

First, some facts about the Bible.  The Bible is a collection of books, written by many authors.  It took more than 1500 years to write all these these books from start to finish.  This makes the Bible more like a library and sets it apart from other Great Books. If just one author, or a group that knew each other, wrote the books of the Bible its unity would not surprise us. But hundreds and even thousands of years separate the different authors of the Bible.  These writers come from different countries, languages, and social positions.  But their messages and predictions connect with each other and the facts of history recorded outside the Bible.  The oldest copies of the Old Testament books (the books before Jesus) that still exist today are from 200 BC.  Existing copies of the New Testament date from 125 CE and later.

The Gospel Promise in the Garden

We see at the very beginning of the Bible an example of how the Bible predicts into the future. Though it records the Beginning, it was written with the End in mind.  Here we see a Promise when God confronts Satan (who was in the form of a serpent) with a riddle just after he brought about the Fall of mankind.

“… and I (God) will put enmity between you (Satan) and the woman and between your offspring and hers. He will crush your head and you will strike his heel.”

Genesis 3:15

You can see that this is prophetic by “will” repeated in the future tense.  The text specifically identifies five different characters. They are:

  1. I = God
  2. you = serpent or Satan
  3. The woman
  4. The offspring of the woman
  5. The offspring of serpent or Satan

The Promise predicts how these characters will relate in the future. The diagram illustrates their future relationships.

Relationships between the characters depicted in the Promise
Relationships between the characters in the Promise

It does not say who ‘the woman’ is. But God will cause both Satan and the woman to each have an ‘offspring’. There will be ‘enmity’ or hatred between these offspring and between the woman and Satan. Satan will ‘strike the heel’ of the woman’s offspring. But the offspring of the woman will ‘crush the head’ of Satan.

Who is the Offspring? – a ‘he’

We have made some observations, now for some deductions. Because the ‘offspring’ of the woman is a ‘he’ we can discard some possibilities. 

As a ‘he’ the offspring is not a ‘she’ and thus cannot be a woman. 

As a ‘he’ the offspring is not a ‘they’.  This rules out a group of people, or a race, or a team, or a nation. At various times and in various ways people have thought that a ‘they’ would solve the human situation. But the offspring, being a ‘he’, is not a group of people whether a nation or those of a certain religion as in Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, or Muslims.

As a ‘he’ the offspring is a person and not an ‘it’.  The offspring is not a philosophy, teaching, political system, or a religion – since these are all ‘it’s. An ‘it’ like these would have been our preferred choice to fix the corruption since people are always thinking up new systems and religions. God had something else in mind – a ‘he’- a single male human.   This ‘he’ would crush the head of Satan.

Notice what is not said. God does not say that this offspring will come from the woman and the man, but only from the woman. This is especially unusual since the Bible almost always records only the sons coming through fathers.  Some see the Bible as sexist because it just records fathers of sons. But here it is different – there is no promise of an offspring (a ‘he’) coming from a man. It says only that there will be an offspring coming from the woman, without mentioning a man.

A much later Prophet builds on that Promise

Hundreds of years later, an Old Testament prophet added the following:

the Lord himself will give you the sign. Look! The virgin will conceive a child! She will give birth to a son and will call him Immanuel (which means ‘God is with us’).

Isaiah 7:14, 750 BCE

More than 700 years after Isaiah, Jesus was born (the New Testament says) from a virgin – fulfilling Isaiah. But is this scripture foreseeing Jesus even this early – right at the beginning of human history? This fits with the offspring as a ‘he’, not a ‘she’, ‘they’ or ‘it’. With that perspective, if you read the riddle it makes sense.

Jesus born in Bethlehem of Judea
Internet Archive Book Images, No restrictions, via Wikimedia Commons

‘Strike his Heel’??

But what does it mean that the serpent would strike ‘his heel’? One year I worked in the jungles of Cameroon. We had to wear thick rubber boots in the humid heat because the snakes lay in the long grass and would strike your foot – your heel – and kill you.  After that jungle experience it made sense to me.  The ‘he’ would destroy Satan, the serpent. But ‘he’ would be killed in the process.  That does foreshadow the victory gained through the sacrifice of Jesus.

‘The woman’ – a Double Meaning

So, if this Promise at the Beginning concerns Jesus, then the woman would be the virgin woman who gave birth to him – Mary.  But there is a second meaning.  Notice how another Old Testament prophet refers to Israel.

O Israel, … I will make you my wife forever, … I will be faithful to you and make you mine, and you will finally know me as the Lord.

Hosea 2:17-20. 800 BCE

Israel, in the Bible, is referred to as the wife of the LORD – a woman.  Then, the last book in the Bible, describes a conflict which this woman will go through with her enemy

I saw a woman clothed with … a crown of twelve stars on her head. She was pregnant, and she cried out because of her labor pains and the agony of giving birth.

Then …I saw a large red dragon … in front of the woman as she was about to give birth, ready to devour her baby as soon as it was born.

She gave birth to a son who was to rule all nations with an iron rod. …

This great dragon—the ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, the one deceiving the whole world—was thrown down to the earth with all his angels…

When the dragon realized that he had been thrown down to the earth, he pursued the woman who had given birth to the male child… And the dragon was angry at the woman and declared war against the rest of her children… 

Revelation 12:1-17, 90 CE

Since Jesus was a Jew, he is at the same time the offspring of Mary, the woman, and Israel, the woman.  The Promise came true both ways.  The ancient serpent is in enmity with Israel, ‘the woman’, and has declared war on her.  This explains the unique troubles that Jews have suffered through their long history, and it was predicted in the very beginning.

The offspring of the Serpent?

But who is this offspring of Satan?  In the last book of the Bible, many pages and thousands of years after the Promise in Genesis, predicts a coming person. Note the description:

The beast you saw was once alive, but now it is not. However, it will come up out of the bottomless pit and go away to be destroyed. The people who live on the earth will be amazed when they see the beast, because it was once alive, is no longer living, but will come again. These are the people whose names have never been written in the book of life since the beginning of the world.

“You need wisdom to understand this.

Revelation 17:8-9, written by John ca 90 CE

This describes a fight between the offspring of the woman and Satan’s offspring. But it is first revealed in the Promise of Genesis, at the very beginning of the Bible, with the details filled in later. The countdown to a final contest between Satan and God started long ago in the Garden.  It could almost make you think that history is really His-Story.

The Biblical Account continues

The drama of that day does not end with this Promise. God next moves to clothe them, a move full of symbolic meaning.

The Biblical account then relates the cataclysmic flood which destroyed almost all of mankind, followed by the origin of different languages and races. After these events God took His first step to complete this Promise above. He did so by calling a man to go on a long journey.