Reliability of the Gospels V

Phase 3: Defense of Accurate Scribal Transcription

From the Pen of the Gospel Writer to the Manuscripts We Have Access to Today

In the past two posts, I demonstrated (biblically and extrabiblically) how the Apostles either wrote the Gospels or supplied their testimonies to the authors of the Gospels.

If we can defend the reliability of testimony transmission up to the point of the Gospels being written down, can we say that those Gospel “autographs” were then copied accurately?  In other words, are the manuscripts we have access to today accurate copies of that which the Apostles and their associates wrote?  Before we can go any further, we need to clarify a few terms:

An “autograph” is the first final draft of a book.  Each book of the Bible had an autograph.  For example, Paul wrote Galatians with his own hand (Gal. 6:11).  That document he penned is called the “autograph.”  Likewise, when the Gospel writers wrote their final drafts of the Gospels, each of those documents are called the “autographs.”

A “manuscript” is a hand-written copy of the autograph or of another manuscript.  After the Gospel writers penned their autographs, scribes copied them by hand.  Each copy is referred to as a “manuscript.” 

A “variant” is a place of variation between two manuscripts.  This can be anything from a spelling differentiation to a total insertion or deletion of material.

Skeptical Claim: The Manuscripts Do Not Accurately Reflect the Autographs

Appealing to the reality of variants, skeptics claim that we cannot trust that the Gospel manuscripts accurately reflect the autographs.

This is a serious claim.  As Christians, we hold firmly to the doctrine of inspiration, that “men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pet. 1:21).  When we speak of inspiration, we do not contend that the scribes who copied the autographs were inspired for they sometimes misspelled words and skipped lines (i.e. produced variants).  Instead, inspiration is with regards to the autographs of the biblical Texts.  Therefore, if the manuscripts do not accurately reflect the autographs then we do not have access to the inspired Word of God because the autographs have been lost to time and the only thing that remains is their copies (manuscripts).

However, we can rest assured that the Bibles we have today (as translated from the oldest manuscripts archaeology has unearthed) do indeed accurately reflect the autographs that the biblical authors penned.  We can show this by responding to two assumptions behind the skeptics’ claim above.

Faulty Assumption #1: Variants Affect the Theology & Praxis of the Church

A common assumption people make when they hear about the variants in the manuscript tradition is that those variants significantly influence the theology and praxis of the church. Skeptics propagate and even inflate the notion of variants without actually giving examples of them. This is because the variants – wherever they do occur – are harmless, and do not lend credence to the skeptic’s position.

Consider scholar Dr. Timothy Paul Jones on this matter:

Spread across millions and millions of words in more than 5,000 manuscripts, the variations represent a small percentage of the total text… the New Testament text is 92.6% stable. In other words, all these differences affect less than 8% of the New Testament text! What’s more, the overwhelming majority of these differences have to do with words that are misspelled or rearranged – differences that have no impact on the translation or meaning of the text.


One of the most common variants is the simple misspelling of a word.  As scribes would copy texts by hand, usually by candle light, it wasn’t uncommon for their eye to drop down a line or lose its place.  For example, sometime in the manuscript tradition, the spelling of Matthew changed.  In codex vaticanus (4th c.), “Matthew” is spelled with two thetas (θθ) in Mt. 10:3.  In codex washingtonianus (4th – 5th c.), “Matthew” is spelled with a tau and a theta (τθ).  See the comparison of the spelling in the two manuscripts below:

Codex Vaticanus, Mt. 10:3
Codex Washingtonianus, Mt. 10:3

How much of an impact has this variant made on the teaching and practice of the church?  ZERO.  This – as with each of the variants – is virtually insignificant.

Faulty Assumption #2: The Church Didn’t Confer Authority Onto the Texts Until the 4th Century

There is an assumption even more basic than the first one.  Skeptics try to use the reality of variants to support a presupposed narrative that the church convened at a council in the 4th century (or later) to decide which books would be canonized and which ones would be banned.  The Council of Nicaea (AD 325) is usually chosen to host the decisions of this narrative as it is the first ecumenical council and fits the time frame.  However, there are a couple of things wrong with this theory:

What Happened at Nicaea

First Ecumenical Council at Nicaea (AD 325)

Unfortunately, most people learn more about the Council of Nicaea from fictional works like The Da Vinci Code than from history.  This gathering of 300 bishops in AD 325 had nothing to do with conferring authority onto texts to form a canon.  The council gathered to settle the Arianism controversy, a debate regarding the eternality of Jesus Christ.  

Conspiracy theorists simply assume this council canonized Scripture because they need such a setting to support their narrative.

Recognizing Authority vs. Conferring Authority

The truth is that the church has never seen herself in the position to confer authority onto the Texts of Scripture.  Instead, the church has only recognized the authority intrinsic to the Texts.  And we see this happening as soon as the New Testament Texts are being written down. For example, Peter recognizes the authoritative nature of Paul’s letters being of the same authority as the OT Scriptures (2 Pet. 3:15-16), which Peter says are the result of God’s Spirit revealing Truth through the human author (2 Pet. 1:20-21). The Gospels themselves were identified as Scripture as soon as they were written down as well.  An example of this is when Paul quotes the Gospel of Luke alongside of Deuteronomy as Scripture in 1 Timothy 5:18.

As the New Testament Texts are being copied and becoming available, collections of them began to be compiled together. For example, the Muratorian Canon (c. AD 180) lists 22/27 books of the New Testament.  We also have a complete list of the 27 books of the New Testament with Origen of Alexandria (AD 184 – 253) in his Homilae on Iosuam 7:1.

The hypothesis that I put forward – that the church recognized the authority intrinsic to the Texts – better fits the historical data than the skeptical theory of the church conferring authority onto the Texts.  Skeptics have even had to go as far as fabricating the events at Nicaea to find support for their theory.

Accurate Scribal Transcription

In the decades between the autographs and the extant manuscripts of the Gospels, scribes entrusted with transmitting the eyewitness testimony have given us ample evidence to trust they did so accurately.  In fact, the more manuscripts we find, the better we can appreciate the degree of accuracy by which they transcribed manuscripts.

The finding of the Dead Sea Scrolls is an incredible example of how effective scribes were in accurately transcribing manuscripts.

When the Dead Sea Scrolls were rediscovered in the twentieth century, it became clear that the text of the Old Testament had remained remarkably stable over the centuries. In fact, a scroll of Isaiah found among the Dead Sea Scrolls (1QIsaa) was copied more than a hundred years before Jesus was born; yet, the wording of this scroll of Isaiah agreed almost completely with Masoretic texts that were copied a thousand years later!


Conclusion: The Voice of the Shepherd

We could speak all day of the psychological impact the Resurrection had on the memories of those who witnessed it, the various controls the church had in place during the oral period, and the accuracy of ancient scribal practices.  While those things are important and provide us with reasons to trust the Gospels, they do not answer the “why” question.  Why did the church in the first century take such care to preserve the Apostles’ eyewitness accounts of Jesus?

To find this answer, we must turn to the words of Jesus Himself:

I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.

JOHN 10:14-16

Jesus came into a dark world, a world full of sin, hate, and despair.  And we were all fully deserving of God’s wrath, to perish under the weight of judgement against our own wickedness.  But God is a gracious God.  Although there was nothing worthy in ourselves, He nevertheless set His love on us.  

To be reconciled to a holy God requires a Mediator, a Redeemer, a Deliverer, a Shepherd.  This Savior must gain for His people right standing before God (righteousness) and also endure the just judgement for their sin.  Only then can they be reconciled to Him.  This is Who Jesus is and what He came to do.  He came as a good Shepherd to guide His sheep out of darkness and into light.

His sheep, however, are not just those who were with Him during His earthly ministry.  There are sheep of every tribe, tongue, and nation throughout the rest of this age (Rev. 7:9).  And the thing about Jesus’ sheep is that they know His voice.  This is not a matter of instinct; this is a work of the Spirit.  God the Father draws His chosen people to Christ by His Spirit (Jhn. 6:44).  When His sheep, who once were spiritually blind (1 Cor. 2:14) and hating God (Rom. 8:7-8), receive the life-giving work of the Spirit, they are given a new heart with new affections by which they now have a love for Christ (Ez. 11:19; 36:26).  This new heart is the necessary “eyes to see and ears to hear” the Gospel (Isa. 6:10; Jer. 5:21; Ez. 12:2).  This is how the sheep hear the Shepherd.  This is why they know His voice out of all the others – they have received His Spirit.

The reason why we see the early church clinging to the words of the Apostles is because the Apostles were carrying the Shepherd’s voice (Acts 1:21-26; 15:6-16:5; Mt. 16:19; 1 Cor. 14:37; 1 Thes. 5:27; 2 Thes. 3:14).  They knew these words were life and so they ensured that they be preserved from being tainted or lost. 

This is also why other works in this time (e.g. The Shepherd of HermasThe Epistle of Barnabas, or the pseudepigraphical texts like the Gospel of Thomas, etc.) were not counted among the New Testament Texts. Those texts which did not come from the Apostles do not carry the voice of the Shepherd. Serapion, bishop of Antioch in the latter part of the 2nd century, gave this very reason as to why he didn’t want his congregation reading the so-called Gospel of Peter as though it were Scripture:

For we, brethren, receive both Peter and the other apostles as Christ; but we reject intelligently the writings falsely ascribed to them, knowing that such were not handed down to us.


There is no grand council responsible for the Bible, no such conspiracy to “ban” books that didn’t fit a predetermined theological position. The Bible is simply the voice of the Shepherd as carried by those who were commissioned by the Shepherd to deliver it to the sheep.

Open your Bibles. Listen attentively to the voice of the Shepherd and follow Him for He is bringing many sons to Glory (Heb. 2:10).

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