Dear Theophilus: How Can We Trust The Bible?

By Christian Wilder

Bible surrounded by notebook, coffee and glasses

Dear Faculty,

Hasn’t Christianity changed so much over the last 2,000 years? How can we trust the Bible or the Church when there has been so much change?

Sincerely,

Theophilus

 

Dear Theophilus,

These are important questions. So, let’s start with the Bible as it forms the church’s foundation. Then, we’ll move to the church.

Has the Bible Changed So Much We Can’t Trust It?

Christianity divides the Bible into two sections, the Old Testament and the New Testament. The Old Testament has not changed in any meaningful way since it became canon (Canon is a group of sacred writings that a community of faith believes is genuine), but I won’t spend much time on it as a colleague has already written on the Old Testament.

As for the New Testament (NT), the Bible has changed very little in any meaningful way over the last 2,000 years. Now, I know, that’s a big statement to make, so how do we know it’s true? First, thousands of ancient manuscripts of the New Testament exist. Of these manuscripts, the oldest one is P52 (Papyrus number 52—Scholars name manuscripts in the order they find them). Someone wrote P52 around AD 125 making it perhaps one of the first copies of the book of John.

P52 consists of four verses, but it agrees with what we have now. We also have eight other papyri from the same century and over thirty from the next century. These, too, show an incredible amount of similarity.

In the bigger picture, we have found over 5,000 ancient manuscripts and they support the statement that the Bible we have today is accurate. Of course, differences do exist. Most of them, however, are minor. For example, one document might change “Jesus” to “Jesus Christ.” Another might change “Jesus” to “Christ Jesus.” A third might change it to “savior.” Yet, all of these changes mean the same thing.

Another way differences occur is by scribes making mistakes on copies. For instance, a scribe might have copied part of a line twice, misspelled a word, or skipped a line by accident. These differences are easy to note.

In the end, only two percent of differences in the New Testament can be considered major. But these differences still are not significant. Take, for instance, the shorter and longer ending to the book of Mark. Nothing in the extended ending adds to the Christian faith. Everything said there also occurs somewhere else in the New Testament.

Another passage is John 7:53-8:11 (the woman caught in adultery). The central point of this story is that God forgives and so should humans. But again, Jesus teaches the same thing in other passages such as the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32). Consequently, we can trust today’s Bible is a faithful copy of the original texts. So, that takes care of the Bible, but what about the church?

Has the Church Changed So Much We Can’t Trust It?

The answer to this question is an earth-rattling no! Why? Because we know all the changes that happened and why they happened. How do we know? One thing about the church, even from the beginning, is its leaders love to write! So, we have a long literary history documenting the changes

There are hundreds, if not thousands of documents written by the church leaders, starting with the Didache. Someone (or a group of people) wrote the Didache around AD 125, This document describes Christian beliefs in the early second century, beliefs that come directly from Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

There are other types of documents as well. For instance, we have two recorded defenses given to Emperor Hadrian, one from Quadratus and one from Aristides. These defenses originated about ten years after the Didache. Then, we also have the writings of Polycarp, who lived between AD 69-155, Irenaeus (AD 130-202), and many others.

In general, these writings express a young church working out what it means to believe in Jesus. For many of them, their interest was in Jesus being both God and man. However, this focus (and the later debates on this and other topics) did not change what the church believed. Instead, it sharpened those beliefs.

Of course, there are some changes in the church that help people in different cultures understand the gospel. So, there might be different music or languages or ways of dressing. The seating might be a mud ground or hardback pews or soft office chairs. Still, none of those differences affect the message of the church. In fact, every church in history and across the world today that follows the Christian faith focuses on Jesus Christ as savior. It is a message the Christian church, at its heart, has preached for two thousand years.

Have your own theology questions? Get your questions answered by emailing cotblog@gcu.edu using the subject line “Dear Theophilus.” To learn more about GCU’s College of Theology visit our website or use the request more information button at the top of the page. If you feel called to a life of ministry, visit our Theology and Ministry degree page.

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