Why did God Allow Variants in the New Testament Manuscripts?


Atheist Arguments

Some atheists argue the New Testament can’t be trusted because it’s been changed and corrupted over the past two thousand years. (Parts of the Old Testament are about 3,500 years old. Imagine the alleged changes over that amount of time!) The argument then goes on to state that if God really did inspire the Bible, He would have prevented any changes from occurring in the text. Since New Testament manuscripts clearly show changes have been made1, God didn’t preserve the text, therefore it’s not an inspired text, therefore God doesn’t exist.

Variations in the Bible are a legitimate concern. If the Bible has been corrupted, then we don’t know what the authors originally wrote, and maybe it can’t be trusted. Some non-Christians give the (false) analogy of the telephone game2, where a message is whispered among a group of people, hoping the message will change. Christians believe God inspired the authors of the Bible3, and that the original written text was without errors. In 1 Peter 1:24-25 (NLT)4, and in Matthew 24:35 (ESV)5God clearly promises His word will remain forever.

God’s Word

There were times in the Old Testament when God’s word was forgotten6, but since the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Gospel (Good News) has spread across the world. The Apostle Paul wrote:

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas [Peter], and then to the Twelve [disciples]. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. (1 Corinthians 15:3-6 NIV)

The eyewitnesses to Jesus’s life and resurrection would have talked to their families, friends and neighbors about the Good News. Some scholars estimate there were perhaps as many as 500,000 to 1,000,000 Christians in the Roman Empire by the end of the first century7. There is no point in history where the teachings in the New Testament could have been corrupted without anyone noticing. The existing manuscripts do have variations, but the message God gave to the early Christians has been passed down to us. So, why did God allow variations to enter the text?

God Uses People

The Bible consistently shows God uses people to accomplish his work. He uses people when they have the ability to accomplish a task, and God uses miracles when people don’t have the necessary ability.

  • Noah saved the human race from a world-wide flood
  • Joseph saved the Israelites from a famine
  • Moses freed the Israelites from slavery
  • Esther saved the Israelites from genocide
  • Mary was Jesus’ mother
  • Apostles were given the Great Commission

All of these people had flaws8, but God used them anyway. God can also use the people who make changes to His word (accidental or intentional) to spread the Good News.

Faith in the Word

If we ask why didn’t God inspire copyists, then, it will have to follow, why didn’t God inspire translators, why didn’t God inspire Bible scholars that author commentaries on the Bible, and so on? If God’s initial purpose was to give us a fully inerrant, authoritative, authentic and accurate Word, why not adequately protect the Scriptures in all facets of transmission from error: copy, translate, and interpret? If God did this, and people were moved along by the Holy Spirit, it would soon become noticeable that when people copy the texts, they would be unable to make an error or mistake or even willfully change something. Where would it stop? Would this being moved along by the Holy Spirit apply to anyone who decided to make themselves a copy, testing to see if they too would be inspired? In time, this would prove to be actual evidence for God.9

If God provided proof He exists, people might feel coerced into following His rules. Instead, God has provided sufficient evidence of His existence for people to freely choose to love Him. Proof means people wouldn’t need faith of His existence, but faith is an important part of being a Christian

  • It’s impossible to please God without faith because the one who draws near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards people who try to find him. (Hebrews 11:6 CEB)
  • For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9 ESV)
  • Faith is the confidence that what we hope for will actually happen; it gives us assurance about things we cannot see. (Hebrews 11:1 NLT)

The fact that the existing manuscripts are astonishingly consistent is a miracle itself (and I’m not using the word miracle lightly). The number of changes that could have been made are unimaginable. God promised His word would remain forever, and He kept His promise (as He always does). Even the variations in the manuscripts and the scholars who study them give evidence of His promise, and encourages our faith in Him.

Bibliography

  • Andrews, Edward D. From Spoken Words to Sacred Texts: Introduction-Intermediate to New Testament Textual Studies (Cambridge, Ohio: Christian Publishing House, 2020; Kindle) (Amazon) (Google Play)

Footnotes

  1. Why are there Variations in Different Translations of the New Testament?
  2. Were the Gospels Transmitted like the “Telephone” Game?
  3. “All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right.” (2 Timothy 3:16 NLT)
  4. As the Scriptures say, “People are like grass; their beauty is like a flower in the field. The grass withers and the flower fades. But the word of the Lord remains forever.” And that word is the Good News that was preached to you. (1 Peter 1:24-25 NLT)
  5. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. (Matthew 24:35 ESV)
  6. e.g. 2 Kings 22 ESV
  7. Schaff, Philip. Ante-Nicene Fathers 4: Fathers of the Third Century: Tertullian, Part Fourth; Minucius Felix; Commodian; Origen, Parts First and Second (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdsmans Publishing Company, 1885) Tertullian: Part Fourth, De Fuga in Persecutione, Elucidations (CCEL.org); Andrews, Edward D. From Spoken Words to Sacred Texts: Introduction-Intermediate to New Testament Textual Studies (Cambridge, Ohio: Christian Publishing House, 2020; Kindle) Location 634, 1458. (Amazon)
  8. for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23 ESV)
  9. Andrews, Edward D. From Spoken Words to Sacred Texts: Introduction-Intermediate to New Testament Textual Studies (Cambridge, Ohio: Christian Publishing House, 2020; Kindle) Location 897.(Amazon)

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