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Has the New Testament been corrupted over the centuries?

Updated on May 5, 2016


Bible critics claim that the New Testament has been changed so drastically that we can no longer decipher the original message of it's authors. They reason that because humans are prone to error, that makes the New Testament full of mistakes. While this makes sense, i take the position that there is no evidence to support it. It's true that humans are inclined to error by nature, but only a disciplined mind can correct most mistakes. This doesn't mean they'll be infallible, but it does train them to make less mistakes. If it turns out that the New Testament is full of errors then it undermines the reliability of the Scriptures. If however the New Testament is indeed the Word of God then we should expect the general message to be preserved.

Before we delve into anything else, we must have an understanding of the historical method. Our criteria of evaluating the credibility of the New Testament must meet historical analysis if it is to be historically reliable.

From Reliable Sources: An Introduction to Historical Methods
From Reliable Sources: An Introduction to Historical Methods

"From Reliable Sources is a lively introduction to historical methodology, an overview of the techniques historians must master in order to reconstruct the past. Its focus on the basics of source criticism, rather than on how to find references or on the process of writing, makes it an invaluable guide for all students of history and for anyone who must extract meaning from written and unwritten sources.

Martha Howell and Walter Prevenier explore the methods employed by historians to establish the reliability of materials; how they choose, authenticate, decode, compare, and, finally, interpret those sources. Illustrating their discussion with examples from the distant past as well as more contemporary events, they pay particular attention to recent information media, such as television, film, and videotape.

The authors do not subscribe to the positivist belief that the historian can attain objective and total knowledge of the past. Instead, they argue that each generation of historians develops its own perspective, and that our understanding of the past is constantly reshaped by the historian and the world he or she inhabits.

A substantially revised and updated edition of Prevenier's Uit goede bron, originally published in Belgium and now in its seventh edition, From Reliable Sources also provides a survey of western historiography and an extensive research bibliography."


The Historical Method:

The historical method consists of following questions which will determine how reliable a historical document is.

1. When was the source produced?

2. Where was it produced?

3. Who produced it?

4. From what pre-existing material was it produced?

5. In what original material was it produced?

6. What is the value of it's content or credibility?

Core principles for evaluating source reliability:

1. Human sources such as relics or stories. Relics bear stronger proof than stories.

2. The source must be original, increasing it's reliability.

3. The closer a source is to the original story of events described, the more accurate it is.

4. An eyewitness is more reliable than hearsay

5. If numerous independent sources contain the same message, the credibility of the message is increased.

6. The motivations of a source to produce bias must be thoroughly analyzed.

Eyewitness evidence:

1. Is the real meaning of words different from their literal meaning? Are words used in senses that are obsolete now? Are the words meant to be sarcastic? How well could the author observe the thing he is reporting? Did his senses match his observations? Was his location suitable for using the five senses? Did he have the proper social status and expertise to understand? Was he intimidated by external forces?

2. How did the author report and what was his ability? Was he biased? Was there proper timing and place for a report? Effective reporting instruments? When did he report? Soon? Much later?

What was his intention in reporting? For who? Would the audience suggest distortion of the author's report? Are there more clues indicating verifiable information? Did he care about what he was reporting? Did he damage his reputation, thus not seeking to distort information? Did he give casual information not intended to mislead?

3. Do his statements seem improbable or contradictory to what we know about nature?

4. Are there contradictions in the document?

Indirect witnesses are people not present at the event but may have heard it from others. Sometimes historians rely on this as most cases come from indirect witnesses. He asks: "On who's primary testimony does the indirect witness base his claims?", "Did the indirect witness accurately report events in agreement with the primary source?", and "If not, what details did he get accurately?" If just the 2nd or 3rd questions are satisfying, the historian may prove the indirect witness to be reliable enough to substitute the primary source.

Oral tradition:

There are either two conditions that can be met: 1) Broad or 2) Particular 3) Archaeology proof. For this article, we will verify the New Testament through Archaeology.

Chester Beatty
Chester Beatty

Early date for the New Testament:

The first step in discovering the New Testament's reliability is establishing when it was written. Bible critics will argue that a late composition of the New Testament makes both it's written and oral transmission unreliable. We will shortly see that this isn't the case. The New Testament manuscripts will be examined to see when it was in circulation earlier than most critics claim (see charts below.) The use of the Dead Sea Scrolls will compare Christianity and Judaism's core beliefs to establish an early date. The writings from the early church fathers would qualify as an indirect witness to the New Testament despite them being a few centuries later.

New Testament manuscripts:

Name of Manuscript:
Chester Beatty
1800-800 A.D
Bodmer Papyrus
200 A.D
Ryland's Papyrus
117-138 A.D
DSS fragment of Mark
50 B.C - 50 A.D

Writings from early Church fathers:

Name of writing:
Polycarp's letter to the Philippians
110-140 A.D
Letter of Ignatius
115 A.D
Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians
95 A.D
Shepherd of Hermas
100-160 A.D
All quote from the New Testament, suggesting that the New Testament has been in circulation at an earlier period.

William F. Albright notices similarities between John's Gospel and the Dead Sea Scrolls. If he is correct, this pushes the date of the New Testament even farther back.

An early existence of the New Testament to it's original source implies greater reliability by the historical method.

Writing in the 1st century:

Bible critics may argue that most ancients could not read or write, therefore they had to rely on oral transmission. Because oral transmission is very unreliable, the New Testament must be full of errors. There is no evidence that people in the ancient world were illiterate. Writing was actually common in first century Palestine. Oral transmission was simply the preferred method of preserving traditions. Samuel Byrskog in "Story as history" writes:

Writing was usually seen as supplementary to the oral discourse. Orators should avoid notebooks that were too detailed. One is reminded of Quintillian's criticism of Laenas' dependence on such notes and his clear-cut advice: "For my own part, however, I think we should not write anything which we do not intend to commit to memory." Writing was not avoided, as such, but functioned mainly as a memorandum of what the person already should remember from oral communication - not the other way around!

— Samuel Byroskog

Excavations in ancient Israel reveal numerous alphabet texts used for practice in elementary schools. These suggest some literary training in the 8th century before Christ. Archaeological findings in Nabataea unveil 35 detailed legal documents on property issues of a twice-married woman named Babata. There were scribes even in this backwater town. Discoveries of writing existed from high classes to slaves (1). Middle and lower classes were found using certain materials for writing. Public notices indicate literacy among the general public.

Much importance was placed on transmitting traditions especially in Judaism to suit the needs of the people. This is because the ancients felt that just reading material was less reliable than asking a preserver of oral tradition questions. It is not true that oral transmission relies on unreliable memory. Many people both in ancient and contemporary societies were able to recall a tremendous amount of information thanks to oral techniques. Plato says that the Sophist Hippias of Elias was "able to repeat 50 names after hearing them once." Pliny the Elder reports that Cyrus was able to name each person in his army and that Lucius Scipio remembered each person in the Roman empire. One named Charmadas, recited by heart every book in the library. Seneca boasted of being able to repeat 2,000 names read to him and "recite in reverse order over 200 verses his students told him." Oral stories needing 25 hours and days to recite have been documented.

Jewish education consisted of memorizing each book in the Old Testament. Students were expected to remember major events in stories. Some incidents could be retold in their own fashion as long as the main story was not affected. Jesus disciples were preservers of oral tradition and students:


1. Bowman, “Literacy in the Roman Empire,” 123-7; Horsfall, “Statistics or States of Mind?,” 59. - See more at:

The only hypothesis with enough flexibility to meet the requirements is that a body of loose notes stands behind the bulk of the synoptic tradition. The wide use of shorthand and the carrying of notebooks in the Graeco-Roman world, the school practice of circulating lecture notes and utilizing them in published works, and the later transmission of rabbinic tradition through shorthand notes support this hypothesis. As a former publican, the Apostle Matthew would have been admirably fitted to fill

It is likely that the disciples took notes while listening to Jesus' teachings. Matthew being a tax-collector by trade could very well have been educated enough to write the Gospels. It's been known in Egypt that many tax-collectors knew 111 kinds of tax. Tax-collectors would earn their pay by interviewing tax-payers and discussing affairs in Aramaic then writing them down in Greek.

Memory and Manuscript with Tradition and Transmission in Early Christianity (Biblical Resource)
Memory and Manuscript with Tradition and Transmission in Early Christianity (Biblical Resource)

"Explores the way in which Jewish rabbis during the first Christian centuries preserved and passed on their sacred tradition, and he shows how early Christianity is better understood in light of how that tradition developed in Rabbinic Judaism."


Jesus disciples would approximately match the description of a type of school known as "disciple circles." Disciples in the ancient world would surround their master, clinging to his every word and learning from him. They were free from organized institutions. They set a pattern for high education in the Greco-Roman and Jewish world. Because Christianity was revolutionary in ancient Judaism, Jesus' disciples would've had more need to write it down.

"Disciples in early Jewish settings were learners, and, yes, also reciters and memorizers. This was the way Jewish educational processes worked. In fact it was the staple of all ancient education, including Greco-Roman education....those who handed on the tradition would not have seen themselves primarily as creators but as preservers and editors."

We can conclude that the eye-witnesses had the tools necessary to record the events on material. Jesus' disciples did not have to rely on oral transmission to record the New Testament.

Oral transmission:

Let's assume that the critics are right and the Disciples relied solely on oral transmission. How reliable would oral transmission be? Many compare it to a game of Telephone where information would be transmitted over many generations until the message is skewed. Critics argue that because our memory is flawed, it is unlikely for the authors of the New Testament to preserve traditions. This is far from accurate.

Kenneth Bailey spent 30 years in the middle east where oral transmission is still practiced. He noticed a gathering among a community of villagers. They would all share their oral traditions in an informal yet controlled manner. Only members who grew up learning the traditions held special privileges to tell it. Anyone else in the public was forbidden from telling the stories. The oral traditions were guarded as a treasure. The community relied on mnemonic devices such as proverbs, poems, parables, and so forth. This is the pattern he observed:

Types of flexibility:
No flexibility
The reciter must repeat the traditions word-for-word. If just one word is missing or incorrect, he is rebuked by the community.
Some flexibility
The order of events can be reversed. The flow of the story, the names of characters, the summarizing punchline, the proverbs, and conclusion must remain the same. The reciter is not allowed to alter the basic storyline. He or she can only change the way the story is told.
Total flexibility
Only informal and casual events such as gossip could be altered in any way. The traditions however are safeguarded.

Paul being a Jewish rabbi, would've preserved the Gospel traditions in this fashion:

Learning through sayings or ingraining text until one memorizes it.
Text and commentary
The text aids in memorizing what is learned and the commentary refers to understanding the text.
Mnemonic devices
Concise terms and other devices such as poetry, proverbs, parables, etc. all make learning more effective.
Jews would repeat the material over and over until the students could repeat it back by heart.
Living the lesson
The rabbis were concerned with understanding and living the lessons learned.

Jesus' sayings consisted of parallelisms, proverbs, poems, symbolism, and other sayings involving mnemonic devices. These were easy to memorize compared to other works much longer than the Gospels.

"..the transmission of traditions in oral societies follow a generally fixed, if flexible pattern - similar to the type witnessed to in the Gospels themselves. Related to this, contemporary psycholinguistic studies have served to confirm that the techniques that characterized Jesus' oral teaching methods would have made for 'very accurate communication between Jesus and his followers' and would have 'ensured excellent semantic recall."

"based on clear parallels of oral transmission processes between early Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism, one could conclude that the oral Jesus tradition was passed along with a high degree of care and continuity."

Another claim held by critics is that oral tradition bearers were not concerned with preserving history. Morality and folklore was the utmost importance. Because factual inaccuracies were acceptable, the New Testament cannot be a reliable historical document. The findings of oral specialists show otherwise. Scholars have noted that oral tradition bearers had a clear distinction between fact and fiction (2)

2. Annikki Kaivola-Bregenhoj, “Varying Folklore,” in Thick Corpus, Organic Variation and Textuality in Oral Tradition (ed., L. Honko; Helsinki: Finnish Literature Society, 2000) 101; and Ruth Finnegan, Oral Literature in Africa (reprint ed. Nairobi: Oxford University Press, 1979 [1970]) 370. - See more at:

"..folklore is is historical content..more importantly, so are the historical attitudes of the tradition bearers.."

— Richard Dorson

In each of the Gospels, there is an 80% agreement in the words of Jesus. How significant are the other 20% of changes in the Gospels? Many disagreements are due to cultural variations. For example, Luke out of respect for his gentile audience, refrained from using the term "Son of Man." Matthew replaced using the name of God and instead chose "Kingdom of heaven" for a substitute. We will look more on the disagreements later.

The New Testament manuscripts:

There are thousands of New Testament copies in existence in Greek, Latin, Gothic, Syriac, Slavic, Ethiopic, Coptic, Armenian, etc. They are dated around c. 125. Most manuscripts date after the 10th century. There are three major manuscript traditions: Alexandrian type text, Western type text, and Byzantine text type (including over 80% of all manuscripts).

Who wrote the New Testament?:

In the ancient near east, scribes worked to transmit information through writing. They were exceptional for their high literacy skills and known for being editors.

Where was it written?

The Gospels were written in Israel while the rest of the New Testament were written as described.

What materials were used to write the New Testament?

Papyrus - The most common material used 2500 years before Christ. It was a durable, recyclable, and reusable.

Parchment - It had more durability than papyrus and smoother.

Vellum - More durable than paper and often used for special documents.

The New Testament was then transferred to Codexes, books of vellum, paper, and papyrus.

Koine Greek:

In first century Palestine, Koine Greek was a common dialect descended from classical Greek. Koine Greek is the dialect from which all modern Greek is based on. Koine Greek was a language of the common people. It was easy to understand and had many words with several meanings.

There are about 300,000 variations within the New Testament manuscripts. One would think that there would be alterations from the originals but there are not. As we shall see, the mistakes are only minor.

Scribal errors

* Similar letters - There are letters confused when written down such as round or triangular Greek letters. Sometimes letters were written so closely together that they were mistaken for another letter.

* Dittography and Haplography - This is accidental repeating and omitting text caused by eyes skipping forward.

* Confusing similar sounding letters - Scribes read words outloud and sometimes confused them with similar sounding letters.

* Word substitutions - Sometimes scribes try to retain a line in memory and replace it with a close sounding synonym.

* Re-ordering of words - Sometimes scribes would unintentionally and unnecessarily re-order words or phrases. This is caused by flawed memory.

* Assimilation of notes - Scribes would write notes in the margins. Overtime, they would find their way into the manuscript text.

* Harmonization - Words altered in order to reflect more common ones.

* Conflation - When a Scribe uses more than one manuscript to make his copy. He may merge several readings into one.

* Grammatical corrections - Scribes attempted to correct a style of writing to improve grammar.

Questionable changes:

There are variant alterations of the originals which are much stronger than unintentional scribal changes. However, we will look at several examples in which textual criticism can determine which reading is most likely correct:

Mark 1:41 Jesus is approached by a man with a skin disease asking to be healed. Most texts say he was moved with compassion but some say he was angry. The textual critical response is to go by what the majority of texts read. There is also no error in the usage of the Greek word for compassion in the text.

Hebrews 2:9 "so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone" but some manuscripts read "..apart from God, he might taste death.." The reading "by the grace of God, he might taste death for everyone" appears 20 times and is found in manuscripts A,B,C,D,Ψ, P46, 81, 330, 424c, 614,0121b, 1739, in most Vulgate and Coptic manuscripts. The earliest Syriac tradition maintains this reading. The Alexandrian and Western manuscript text types support this reading. It's attested by Origen, Ambrose, Jerome, and Fulgentius.

As for the reading "apart from God, he might taste death", it's weakly supported. No early unical manuscripts support it except for the 10th century minuscule 1739 occurring 13 times. Origen also mentioned several variants containing this reading.

John 1:18 are split between two different readings: "God" and "Son." The Greek word "Monogenes" meaning "only son." In other verses such as John 3:16, John uses "Monogenes" to modify "God" thus rendering it "the only son God." Since John 1:18 lacks a definite article, Fennema writes on it's adjectival usage:

"Reading the terms individually, rather than as a unit, is consistent with the lack of an article to bind them together."

Textual criticism:

Because of the variations within manuscripts, scholars must reconstruct the original copies. By comparing and contrasting the earliest manuscripts to the latest ones, scholars can detect changes within the text. There are various methods to accomplish this laborious task. One of them is using the Majority text, a statistical construct in which a particular reading is searched among every body of New Testament manuscript. If it is common in most manuscripts, it is concluded to be the most probable reading of the original manuscripts. The Majority text isn't always successful in determining the original reading which is why scholars must then resort to other methods. The Textus Receptus is another approach in textual criticism. The Textus Receptus was constructed by Erasmus who lived around the 1500's A.D. He compiled all the available manuscripts into one which is the base of many modern translations of the Bible.

Regardless of which methods textual critics use, they ask the following questions for external readings: "In how many manuscripts does the reading occur? What are their dates? In what region of the world are they found?

As for internal readings: "What could've caused these variant readings? Which readings explain to us the origin of others?"

Since there are so many New Testament manuscripts than any other ancient writing, it is easier to reconstruct the originals. Scholar Gary Habermas writes:

"..the New Testament has far more manuscript evidence from a far earlier period than other classical works. There are just under 6000 NT manuscripts, with copies of most of the NT dating from just 100 years or so after its writing. Classical sources almost always have less than 20 copies each and usually date from 700-1400 years after the composition of the work. In this regard, the classics are not as well attested. While this doesn't guarantee truthfulness, it means that it is much easier to reconstruct the New Testament text. Regarding genre, the Gospels are usually taken today to be examples of Roman biographies.."

Other means of verifying the accuracy of the New Testament are the ancient Patristic quotations from the Church fathers. They preserved Scripture and often quoted it in Christian literature. Scholar Bruce Metzger explains the implications in this way:

"if all other sources for our knowledge of the text of the New Testament were destroyed, [the patristic quotations] would be sufficient alone for the reconstruction of practically the entire New Testament." (3)

3. Metzger, Bruce M., The Text of the New Testament (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1968), 34. This number consists of 457 papyri, 2 uncials and 188 minuscule manuscripts.

How significant are these errors?

Just how much of an impact do these changes have on the integrity of the New Testament? A comparison between the modern critical text and the Majority text show a 98% agreement.

The evidence:

For time purposes, i will summarize the amount of evidence supporting the New Testament accounts by citing New Testament scholars.

“On the whole … archaeological work has unquestionably strengthened confidence in the reliability of the Scriptural record. More than one archaeologist has found his respect for the Bible increased by the experience of excavation in Palestine. Archaeology has in many cases refuted the views of modern critics.” Millar Burrows, Professor of Archaeology, Yale University (4)

"The excessive scepticism shown toward the Bible by important historical schools of the eighteenth-and-nineteenth centuries, certain phases of which still appear periodically, has been progressively discredited. Discovery after discovery has established the accuracy of innumerable details, and has brought increased recognition to the value of the Bible as a source of history" - Archaeologist William F. Albright (5)

"archaeology can demonstrate that the places mentioned in the Gospels really existed and that customs, living conditions, topography, household and workplace furniture and tools, roads, coins, buildings and numerous other ‘stage props’ correspond to how the Gospels describe them. It can show that the names of certain characters in the Gospels are accurate, when we find inscriptional references to them elsewhere. Events and teachings ascribed to Jesus become intelligible and therefore plausible when read against everything we know about life in Palestine in the first third of the first century." Craig L. Blomberg (6)

4. Millar Burrows, What Mean These Stones? (New York: Meridian Books, 1956), p.1.

5. William F. Albright, The Archaeology of Palestine, pp.127-128, quoted by Josh McDowell, The New Evidence That Demands A Verdict (Nashvile: Thomas Nelson, 1999), p.61.

6. Craig L. Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, second edition (Nottingham: Apollos, 2007 ), p.327.

Extra-biblical witnesses:

Critics argue that there are no sources to confirm the authenticity of the New Testament which is false. There are many sources cross-referencing the New Testament such as Josephus, Tacitus, Thallus, Pliny the Younger, the Talmud, Lucian, and more.


Some critics argue that the Bible canon has been corrupted by citing missing passages or books in the New Testament. They may also point to "lost books of the Bible" such as the Apocrypha as proof that the New Testament canon was tampered with. The conclusion in their view is that the New Testament cannot be fully trusted. Here are a few examples of supposed "missing" verses followed by the criteria of the biblical canon.

Mark 16:9 This long ending of Mark is not found in the oldest witnesses and stylistic features suggesting it came from another writer. However the 2nd century writer Irenaeus in his book "Against Heresies" Book 3 10:5, he writes it was authentic Scripture. Eusebius and Jerome also affirm it's place in Scripture. In the Codex Vaticanus, there is a large space between the end of Mark and beginning of Luke. This proves that the text probably existed in the 4th century but was omitted by the scribe who thought it didn't belong in Mark.

John 7:53-8:11 - The woman in adultery is not found from manuscripts dating to the 4th century. Scholars then conclude that it wasn't in the earliest manuscripts. However, other sources indicate the story was circulating at the time. Didymus the Blind from the 4th century mentions the story. The Codex Vaticanus has a diacritical mark on the left suggesting it was originally in the text. From Eusebius, we learn that Papias translated an account "of another history concerning a woman accused of many sins before the Lord; and this history is contained in the Gospel according to the Hebrews." In other manuscripts, there are asterisks marked which signifies that they were originally included. Many Latin Church fathers such as Amrbose described it as being canonical. Augustine suggest it may have been removed because adultery was being sanctioned in the minds of it's readers. There is thus good reason to believe it was originally in the earliest manuscripts before being removed by the later Church.

1 John 5:7 is not found in many Greek manuscripts and is thus argued to originally not included in the New Testament. However early Church fathers from 200 A.D to 1500's stated that it was there.

200 A.D
Against Praxeas chapter 3
Cyprian of Carthage
250 A.D
On the Lapsed, On the Novatians
350 AD
Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Latinorum, Academia Litterarum Vindobonensis, vol. xviii, p. 6
Idacius Clarus
350 AD
Patrilogiae Cursus Completus, Series Latina by Migne, vol. 62, col. 359
350 AD
De Incarnatione
Aurelius Augustine
398 AD
De Trinitate
500 AD
Patrilogiae Cursus Completus, Series Latina by Migne, vol. 70, col. 1373.

Matt. 17:21 "However, this kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting.” People argue that this particular verse was not found within the original New Testament manuscripts. The earliest Latin and Coptic manuscripts include this verse. Many Church Fathers read these verses. Less than half of 10 Greek manuscripts omit this verse while the Latin, Old Latin, Coptic, Old Syriac, and Syriac contain the phrase "and fasting."

Luke 22:44 is not included from manuscripts A, B, R, T. This passage however is contained in the Old Latin, Peshitta, Palestinian, Syriac, some Armenian and Coptic manuscripts. The early church fathers however refer to them in the remaining early manuscripts.

Church Father:
2nd century
Justin Martyr
3rd Century
Dionysius of Alexandria
4th Century
Gregory of Nazianzus
5th Century
Cyril of Alexandria
Julian the heretic
bishop of Emesa
Theodorus Mops
6th century
Anastasius Sinaita
7th century
8th Century
John Damascene
9th century

Which books belong in the New Testament canon?

Critics claim that the Church decided which books ought to be declared canonical without any logical basis which is a complete myth. Put it simply, the New Testament books were recognized by the early Church fathers as divinely inspired because of their relationship to Jesus Christ. Some examples are listed below.

Church father:
Latin manuscript
170 A.D
Clement of Rome
Letter to the Christians in Rome and Corinth
95 A.D
Letter to the Philippians
110 A.D
Epistles of Ignatius
115 A.D
c. 180

Only in later years did later Christian groups began debating on books were canonical and introduced the Apocrypha into the list of authoritative books established by earlier believers.


In summary, there has not been one corruption found in the New Testament that would undermine the unreliability of the Scriptures. Every alleged error presented can be resolved by textual critics and other scholars studying the Scriptures. Unbelievers can simply look at the purity of the New Testament and God's faithfulness to his Word while believers can be further reassured that the New Testament is divinely inspired.


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    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 12 months ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      A very comprehensive and insightful read. Learned a lot, thank you

    • IsaiasPablo90 profile image

      IsaiasPablo90 12 months ago

      no prob, i'm here to educate.

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