Welcome to OCBC. Current series, The Prophetic Word Made Sure - we’re working our way through the book of 2nd Peter, but particularly focusing on difficult questions concerning the reliability and authority of the Scriptures. You can keep up with the series on our Facebook page that I’m trying to keep up to date with putting some supplemental resources on there. 

So far we have worked through two issues: 1. Are the New Testament documents written by those who they are claimed to have been written by, or are they, as some claim them to be, forgeries? 2. The sufficiency of scripture - that Christianity, as a revealed religion, proclaims that in the scriptures God has granted to us his pure and precious promises so that through the knowledge of Him we might become partakers of the divine nature having access to all things pertaining to life and godliness. What a promise!

Therefore, Peter writes in 2 Peter 1:12-15, I intend always to remind you of these qualities, though you know them and are established in the truth that you have. I think it right, as long as I am in this body, to stir you up by way of reminder, since I know that the putting off of my body will be soon, as our Lord Jesus Christ made clear to me. And I will make every effort so that after my departure you may be able at any time to recall these things.

Which is why Peter says that he always intends to remind them of these things, and to stir up their faith by way of reminder. Yet Peter recognized a problem. He was getting older. I don’t know how the Lord Jesus had made it clear to him that his martyrdom was approaching, but Peter knows he’s going to die soon. How is he going to continue to “stir them up by way of reminder” after he has passed on? Well, he has made every effort to do so, by writing this very letter to them - look at “This is now the second letter that I am writing to you, beloved. In both of them I am stirring up your sincere mind by way of reminder,” (2 Peter 3:1 ESV) Peter knew that the message of the gospel that he had received from the Lord was something that we believers needed constant reminder of, and the means through which God chose to preserve those reminders to us were through the letters that Peter and the rest of the apostle’s penned. That’s why these letters are of utmost importance for us, in them we are reminded of the precious and very great promises that God has granted to us in the gospel, so that through the knowledge of Him we may have everything pertaining to life and godliness. Christians - this is your food to eat and be nourished by so that your faith can be stirred up by way of reminder. This is why you daily immerse yourself in God’s word - daily Bible reading. this is why you memorize and meditate on God’s word - its why you study and sit under the preaching of God’s word. You cannot grow in life and godliness without the word of life.

This brings us to today’s question. Do we have now what they wrote then? This is one of the most common objections raised to the bible, particularly by Muslims and skeptics. And the idea is this, that Peter or the other Biblical authors may indeed have written something, yet over the centuries, and indeed very early on, the scriptures were copied, and then they were copied again, and then copied some more, and as they were copied they were corrupted, altered, changed, edited, revised, added to, etc, so the bottom line is that the Bible cannot be trusted as the Word of God. So the question is this, when i hold up the Bible and say, the word of God says, or the apostle Peter wrote … is what we have in our hands really what was written thousands of years ago. 

Now obviously, a clarification. Peter and the apostles did not write in English. So I’m holding a translation of what they wrote, and as long as it is a good translation, faithful to the original language, the Christian faith has never had an issue with understanding that God’s Word could be translated and still retain the original meaning. and, since almost everyone in here speaks more than one language, you guys can understand that translations can differ a little bit but still convey the same meaning, which is why we have so many different English Bibles - some very wooden in their translation, others very colloquial, some poetic - whatever, as long as they are good translations, we’re fine. So when i ask the question, do we have now what they wrote then, I’m not talking of our English Bibles, I’m speaking of the Greek from which our English Bibles were translated. Here is my Greek New Testament, for example. This is what I am talking about.

So the question, Do we have now what they wrote then?


  •  We do not have the originals. These are called “autographs” - the actual documents the apostles wrote. They are most likely long since decayed, having been written on Papyrus, an ancient for of paper. Paper, sadly, does not last forever. So no, we technically do not have what the apostles wrote. We don’t even have the copies of the originals, or the copies  of them.
  •  We have copies of copies of copies of copies of the original. And that’s the issue. Most of these copies were written hundreds of years after the original was supposedly written.
  •  These copies differ from one another at many points. These copies were not made by Xerox. They were copied by hand, sometimes in dark places, sometimes even by people unfamiliar with the languages being copied! And as they were copied human error crept in, and so the copies that we have all differ from one another in many, many places. Sometimes even, well meaning scribes tried to correct errors in the copies that they were making, but corrected it wrong and we are left with even more places in which the copies differ. And of course, overtime an error was made in a copy, all the copies made after that copy would retain the error, so that over time more and more differences would creep in. How many differences? Well, as of today, we have found over 5800 handwritten copy’s of the New Testament. Some of these are big - whole collections of books, and some of them are very small, like a postage stamp. And I said they differ from one another, but just how many differences are there? Among these 5800 copies there are anywhere between 300 and 400 THOUSAND points of difference - as our friend Bart Erhman likes to say, there are more differences among the copies than there are words of the New Testament. More than twice as many in fact as there are about 140,000 words in the GNT.
  •  Conclusion: It would be impossible to claim that any one manuscript contains the exact words the apostles wrote , so no, in that sense, we do not have now, what they wrote then. 

Now, those are all facts, but they are not the full story. But the reason we are looking at these questions here in the church is because these facts will often be presented as the full story on the internet or in your religion classes - I just talked to a guy the other day and this was the story he told. And so when you here these things I don’t want to you be shocked or dismayed or feel like the church kept this from you, but remember - that is not the full story. That is the story that skeptics and muslim apologists would like you to hear, but it is only one side of the story. There are really two things that we need to investigate when we are exploring the question of whether what we have now is what they wrote then. The first is related to the copies themselves, The second issue we have to investigate is the actual differences (or variants) themselves. How do they differ? 

The Copies: The New Testament is in a Class by Itself When it Comes to the Age and Number of Early Manuscripts. I don’t want to spend a lot of time here, for you can look up any of this information online. As I said before, we have over 5800 (5838 as of this year) handwritten copies of parts of the New Testament in Greek, which means that they were copied before the advent of the printing press in the 1400’s. Additionally, we have over 10,000 more in Latin and, when you add all the other languages we have found handwritten translations in, that number drives up to about 25,000 copies - that is 2.6 million pages of handwritten copies!  How does this compare with other works of antiquity? If you were to stack the 2.6 million pages that we have on top of each other, they would reach over a mile high. How does that compare with the average ancient writer? The average ancient writer has less than 20 copies his work now in existence, forming on average, a pile four feet high. The New Testament is in a Class by Itself When it Comes to the Number of Early Manuscripts.

Why does this matter? Well, if we only had one copy, then guess what? There would be no variants because there would be nothing to compare it to, however, we would have no idea if the copy we had was any good. However, with 25000 copies, we can do a lot of comparing and, yes, that means that you will have more variants, but you also can know whether or not your copy is good - in other words, the more copies we have, the more confident we can become in knowing that we have the right words. 

Not only do we have a huge amount of copies, but from very early on these copies were distributed widely across the Roman Empire. From the very beginning, the books of the New Testament were sent out as letters, to churches scattered across the empire, who would make copies, and send them out to other churches, and so God’s intent was from the very beginning to democratize the process of copying and preserving the text. What that means is that there was never a time in history when one small group of men had control over the Bible, to edit it according to their whims. We can safely leave such conspiracy theories to the fiction writers. 

What about the dating of the copies? Again, the New Testament stands in a class by itself. Here’s a chart with a good representation of a number of ancient authors and the gap and time that there is between when they wrote and the first copy that we still have today. I chose these because they would be some that you might know. Surprisingly, Confucius holds up pretty well. You are hard pressed to find any ancient writings that we have copies of within 500 years of when they were written. That is, unless you look at the New Testament. We have copies of the entire New Testament not 500 years, or 400 years, but within 300 years of when it was written. Multiple copies. If you break up the NT into specific books, the picture is even more staggering. 

2 Peter, as I said a couple of weeks ago, is the worst attested book in the New Testament, and we have a copy of it about 240 years after written - half of the gap of Homer or Confucius. Go to the letters of Paul - about 100 years. How about the Gospel of John? In 1920 a small credit card sized fragment of the Gospel of John was found  in an Egyptian market. It has been dated to anywhere between AD90-150. Since the gospel of John is widely believed to have been writing in the early nineties, it is possible that this is a document from one of the first generations of copies. There is nothing like it in history. Except that we’re finding new manuscripts all the time. In just the past few years three more very early papyrus have been found, one fragment of the Gospel of Mark that is the earliest document yet - it was dated by one of the world’s leading paleographers. He said he was ‘certain’ that it was from the first century. We now have 19 different manuscripts from before the end of the second century covering more than 43% of the New Testament. Again, the New Testament stands in a class by itself in regards to the number and age of of early manuscripts. If we were to cast doubt upon the New Testament on the basis of manuscript evidence, we would need to throw out everything we know about history from any ancient source. It is reasonable to believe that somewhere, in this mountain of manuscript evidence we have now what the authors wrote then.

Investigating the Variants: Ok, now that we have this mountain of manuscripts (nearly 2.6 million pages!) what do we do with the fact that they are filled with so many different readings (called variants)? Nearly 400,000! So thankfully, we don’t have to sift through this mile-high mountain, there are experts who devote their lives to such things. there is a whole science devoted to it called textual criticism. One of the leading scholars in the world in this field is a man by the name of Daniel Wallace, of whom I got a lot of my material today, and who will be coming to Ottawa next month at a conference I highly urge you to attend. When you start sifting through all of these variants, what do you find?

The great majority of textual variants are so insignificant that they cannot even be translated.

Wallace sets this figure at over 99%. Many are spelling differences. Like me, as an American, copying something written in Canada, but accidentally dropping the “u” in colour, or putting the “re” in proper order and the end of theater or center. The most common variant among the thousands of copies is something called the “moveable nu”. This is easily understood because we carried this over into the English language. For example, you would say “a” bag, but you say “an” apple. We put an “n” before vowels. But what do you do with the word “historic”? Is it “a historic day”, or is it “an historic day” - if I were a scribe and I came across, “an historic day”, I can imagine that I would slip up and take out the n. Another common variant - which is funny for our church, a Chinese church - often the scribe would add a “the” before proper names, like “the God” or “the Jesus” - some of us do that too. Or word order, John and Mary went to the mall vs. Mary and John went tot he mall. That stuff makes up 99% of the variants. The point is that most textual criticism is really boring because most of the variants cannot even be translated. 

A majority of the textual variants that are left are easily identified as slips of the eye or pen. 

So last week I was making powerpoint slides of Psalm 136 - that’s the psalm that repeats every line “His love endures forever”. Do you know how hard that was? Because every time my eye would go to the Bible that I was copying from, my eyes would see that repeating line, and I would go to the wrong place and skip over a line or two. This is common, especially when you are copying large amounts of text - your eyes and brain get tired, and you skip over lines. But it is also very easy to identify when it happens. {did you catch my error in the slide?] The point is that many of the remaining textual variants are very easily solved through applying simple rules of textual criticism (I won’t get into those rules today - but if you’re a Geek and would like to know you can ask me later). 3/4 of the that last one percent of textual variants can be easily explained away. So what about this last bit

Less than a quarter of 1% of textual variants are meaningful and viable: What are these? Well, you know them because your Bible marks them for you. Turn to Mark 16:9-20. I’m willing to bet that all of your Bible would have these verses in brackets with a footnote that says “Some of the earliest manuscripts do not have these verses”, am I right? See Christians, we don’t hide these from you. If you really are a geek like me and like this stuff, you can go to net.bible.org and read the Bible there which is published with translator’s notes and they will explain why each various reading is chosen and what the evidence was in favour of it. 

Of these meaningful and viable variants, how many affect essential Christian doctrine? ZERO. zero. Don’t take my word for it. Take this guys. Remember our friend Bart Erhman? We looked at his book, “Forged” in the last sermon? Well, Ehrman’s a busy guy, writes a lot, and before he wrote “Forged” he wrote another book dealing with the issue we’re looking at today, called “Misquoting Jesus: the story behind who changed the Bible and why?” Again, tantalizing subtitle. So this was 2005. Went on Jon Stewart’s show, promoted it and it became amazon.com’s #1 best seller, selling hundreds of thousands of copies. When the paperback version of the book came out, they wanted to include some extra content in the form of an appendix at the end of the book, and they asked him, “Why do you believe these core tenants of Christian Orthodoxy to be in jeopardy based on the scribal errors you discovered in the biblical manuscripts?” 

Now, this is a man who has maintained throughout his whole career that it has been his work as a textual critic and his study of early Christian manuscripts that has led him away from holding a Biblical faith. He has been quite clear about that and has devoted himself to publishing books discrediting Scripture as authoritative or reliable. Yet his answer may surprise you. This is Ehrman’s answer: “The position I argue for in ‘Misquoting Jesus’ does not actually stand at odds with [his mentor] Prof. Metzger’s position that Essential Christian beliefs are not affected by textual variants in the manuscript tradition of the New Testament.”

Last time I spoke I shared with you reasons why I believe that Peter indeed was the author of this letter that bears his name. Now I hope you understand why we can be assured that we still have the words the Peter wrote, even though his letter has turned to dust so many centuries ago. Peter knew his time on earth was nearing the end. That the putting off of his body would be soon. And so he left us writings, stirring up our faith by way of reminding us of God’s precious and very great promises. The words he wrote have been passed down through the ages. Sometimes scribes may have made mistakes, yet through the proliferation of these copies in every corner of the world, Peter’s words have never been lost. The voice of the Holy Spirit through God’s apostle remains as clear today in the Bibles we read as it did in the letter Peter wrote.