The Textual Reliability of the New Testament (2)

The aim of this page is to examine the claim that the text of the New Testament is very reliable.

Why are there footnotes in my Bible?

Graham Stanton, Professor of New Testament Studies at the University of London, in his book 'Gospel Truth' explains why there are footnotes in the Bible. He opened the NRSV translation at random and reached Mark 10:40-11:17. He then looked in the 27th edition of the Nestle-Aland text. He found that there were 48 places in that short passage where the manuscripts differ. Of those 48 places, there were sometimes only 2 possibilities, often there were 3 or more and in one case (Mark 11:3) there were 6. Is this good or bad?

For another perspective, Geisler and Nix say that the text is 98.33 percent pure. (A General Introduction to the Bible - Moody Press). Is this high enough? Is it even meaningful?

It is often claimed that no point of Christian doctrine is affected by a variant reading in a manuscript. Is this true? Does it mean Christians altered wordings and readings to make them support their doctrines? Or does it mean that Christians will not change their doctrines simply because some manuscripts say other things?

For example, one favourite doctrinal passage is John 1:1. The eighth century manuscript 'L' (Codex Regius) has a different wording in John 1:1. Can Christian doctrine be built on passages which vary in some ancient manuscripts?

An Atheist perspective on all this

Most atheists would say that Christian books ought to contain Christian doctrines, so that it is hardly surprising that manuscripts of the New Testament would agree on Christian doctrines. A closer look at some of the manuscripts however,does reveal some interesting points. It appears that scribes would alter the texts to make them conform more closely to Christian doctrine. In that case, it is hardly surprising that the manuscripts reflect Christian views - they were doctored to do exactly that.

To say that no variant affects Christian doctrine is rather like the prosecution in a court case saying that evidence should be accepted, even if it has been tampered with, provided it has only been tampered with by prosecution witnesses.

A lot of the discussion below is based on Bart D. Ehrman's brilliant book 'The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture' (Oxford University Press ,1993). He is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina. I shall also be using some of the very earliest manuscripts. It cannot be denied that after the ninth century, manuscripts were much more tightly controlled and that many of the variations found in the earliest manuscripts are not present in many manuscripts written more than 800 years after the birth of Jesus.

To keep the article fairly short, I can only look at some of the changes that Christians made to their own Scriptures. A glance at Nestle-Aland 27 will show that virtually every verse in the New Testament has variant readings in some of the early manuscripts.

Corruptions of Scripture

Let us look first at two disputed verses in Luke's Gospel and show that these verses were used in arguments with heretics. This will help to show that the motivation for altering the text was to get ammunition to use against other Christians, and that the alterations can not just be written off as scribal errors.

Take Luke 22:43-44 'And being in an agony, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down upon the ground'.

These are omitted by Clement (AD 200) p69, p75 (3rd century), Codex Alexandrinus, Codex Vaticanus (4th century), Codex Washingtonensis (5th century) etc, but are in the great majority of other manuscripts including Sinaiticus (4th century). They are cited by Justin (c. AD 130).

Whenever these verses were added or dropped, it must have been very early. We know that these verses were used in the second century to counter the docetic view that Jesus was not a real human being and only for that purpose. We know that they were used against heretics.

Who needs to guess motivations when we can see that the only 2nd century uses of a verse, missing from other very early manuscripts, are to refute heretics?

On the other hand, it is impossible to see why these verses would ever have been dropped, if they had been original. Why would such high quality witnesses as p75, Codex Alexandrinus, and Codex Vaticanus etc drop these verses if the scribes had them in the manuscripts they were working from This means that Luke's Gospel must have been changed by about 100-120 AD, in time for Justin to use them.

An other place where the New Testament was altered to make it more convincing was in the Gospel accounts of the Resurrection. Take Luke's account. There are 5 clear instances in Luke's Gospel.

Luke 23:53

In Luke 23:53, it says that Jesus was placed in a tomb 'where no-one had ever yet been laid'. Just to make sure that nobody could argue that people stole Jesus's body, some scribes added the words 'and he rolled a great stone before the door of the tomb'. No less a manuscript than Codex Bezae was altered to add 'and having placed him there he positioned before the tomb a stone that scarcely twenty people could roll'

Luke 24:12

Luke 24:12 reads 'But Peter, rising up, ran to the tomb; and stooping down he saw the linen cloths alone, and he returned home marvelling at what had happened'. This was just after Luke writes that the disciples did not believe the women , whose words seemed nonsense to them. This verse is missing from Codex Bezae and some Old Latin manuscripts. The text varies in other manuscripts. Why would this verse be dropped from Codex Bezae by a scribe, especially given the reluctance of scribes to delete anything from the text? There are far more than insertions than deletions, especially in the Codex Bezae, which is notorious for adding stuff, not subtracting stuff.

For technical reasons, whenever Bezae and the Old Latin manuscripts agree, that reading must date back to at least the second century, if not earlier. Also, readings from Codex Bezae are found very early. Polycarp's letter to the Phillipians (AD 110) quotes the version of Acts 2:24 found in Codex Bezae.

Was Luke 24:12 added by a scribe in the second century so that it could be shown that somebody found the witnesses to the resurrection to be credible? If it was not added, then some scribes must have chosen to delete it. Why on earth would they do that?

The verse is very similar to Peter's rushing to the tomb in John 20:3-10. The word for the linen cloths in Luke 24:12 (othonia) is not the word that Luke has just used in Luke 23:53 (sindoni), but it is the word used in John 20:5.

This one verse (Luke 24:12) has 3 words or phrases used nowhere else in Luke or Acts. It also uses an 'historic present', which Luke shuns elsewhere, - for example of the 93 historic presents in the Markan verses that Luke used, no less than 92 were changed by him.

By this, I mean that Luke uses 'he sees', when everything else in Chapter 24 is in the past tense. Notice that the NIV translates that as 'he saw'. Even they recognise that writers do not suddenly change tense for no good reason.

Luke 24:12 uses words for 'stooping down', 'the linen clothes', 'went away home' , which are never used elsewhere in Luke or Acts.

Exactly those words in Luke 24:12 which are not otherwise in Luke-Acts, are in John 20, with John 20:5 being very close indeed!

There is an Illustrations page available for readers to double check my claims.

Clearly, a scribe has added in the verse. It is missing from important manuscripts, it has many non-Lukan features, but features which resemble John's Gospel and it is impossible to see why a scribe would ever have wanted to delete the verse. Nobody has ever come up with such a reason.

It is sometimes argued that Luke and John were using a common source, written by someone before them. Suppose this is true. . In itself, this destroys the idea that John is an eyewitness report. Fancy an eyewitness having to rely on an account written by someone else of what he did! It also makes clear that even a careful historian like Luke could not find oral testimony of the resurrection and had to rely on sources , the authenticity of which is now lost to us.

Luke 24:40

Codex Bezae and many Old Latin texts do not include Luke 24:40 - 'having said this, he showed them his hands and feet'. Either some scribe added this verse, or some scribe dropped it. It is hard to see why any scribe would drop the verse. It is easy to see why a scribe would add the verse, basing it on John 20:20. He would have had to alter it as John 20:20 mentions 'hands and side' and there was no spear-thrust in Luke's Gospel, but that would only be a small change. It would all help to show that the Gospels 'recorded' a physical resurrection.

Luke 24:3

In Luke 24:3,Codex Bezae and most of the Old Latin texts do not have the phrase 'the Lord Jesus' in 'they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus' Clearly, the phrase 'the Lord Jesus' was added by a scribe to make sure that the Gospels recorded that the women went to the right tomb. The phrase 'the Lord Jesus' only occurs in the Gospels here and in Mark 16:19 (another addition by a scribe!) and it is hard to see why the phrase would have been dropped if it were original to Luke's Gospel.

Luke 24:6

In Luke 24:6,Codex Bezae and most of the Old Latin texts do not have the phrase 'He is not here, but has been raised'. Clearly, this phrase was added by a scribe to make sure that the women knew that Jesus had been raised It is hard to see why the phrase would have been dropped if it were original to Luke's Gospel.

We have clear evidence that Christians tampered with the text of the Gospels to make them better evidence for the Resurrection. How much tampering went on that we don't have evidence of?

Other Corruptions

There were many kinds of Christians in the first few centuries after Jesus died. What is called 'Orthodoxy' nowadays is just one strand of Christianity that happened to prevail. Just as their 'heretical' opponents did, Orthodox scribes would alter the texts to better reflect Orthodox views, views which are what we call Christianity nowadays.

One place where orthodox battled heretic was over when exactly Jesus became Son of God. Orthodox Christians maintained that Jesus was Son of God from conception or even earlier. Heretics maintained that Jesus became Son of God at his baptism or at his resurrection. Romans 1:4 says that '(Jesus was) designated Son of God in power according to the spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead', which seems to imply that even Paul was not unsympathetic to this view.

The orthodox said that Joseph was not really Jesus's biological father. Some heretics said that Jesus was an ordinary man until he became Son of God and so was born in the normal way. Sadly for the orthodox, the Gospels did say that Jesus's father was Joseph. So some of them simply eliminated those places which said that Joseph was the father of Jesus. For example, Luke 2:33 says that Jesus's 'father and mother began to marvel'. Many Greek manuscripts changed the text to read 'Joseph and his mother began to marvel'. Luke 2:48 says 'Look, your father and I have been grieved'. Some manuscripts were altered to read 'Your relatives and I..' or 'We have been grieved'. In Luke 2:43 'his parents' was often changed to 'Joseph and his mother'.

Jesus the Son of God?

John 1:34

The NIV says here 'And I have seen and borne witness that this is the Son of God'. But is 'Son of God' the original reading?

A new manuscript has recently been found called p106. It is an early third century manuscript and it says , not Son of God, but the 'Elect of God'. This is also the reading of the very early manuscripts , p5, and Codex Sinaiticus - the only Greek manuscript before AD 800 which has all 27 New Testament books. The reading of 'Elect' is also present in Old Syriac and Old Latin manuscripts. This seems to be a place where later scribes altered the original Gospel to read that Jesus was the 'Son of God'.

Mark 1:1

Mark 1:1 says 'The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, Son of God'. However, important witnesses, including Origen, and Codex Sinaiticus, the only Great Codex to contain the entire New Testament, omit the phrase, Son of God. Did a scribe add this phrase or did a scribe drop it? In any case, it is clear that the idea that Jesus was the Son of God is an important point of Christian doctrine about which manuscripts differ.

Matthew 27:49

In 'Evidence that Demands a Verdict', Josh McDowell, the million selling Christian evangelist, has a nice story about the discovery of the very important document, Codex Sinaiticus, in a monastery in 1859. He also makes much of John 19:34-35, where Jesus's body is pierced by a sword after he died. He cites much medical opinion that only eyewitnesses could have observed that. 'The 'blood and water' from the spear-thrust is proof positive that Jesus was already dead'

Surprisingly, he forgets to inform us that Codex Sinaiticus says , in Matthew 27:49, that the spear was thrust into Jesus before he died. Codex Vaticanus (mid 4th century), Codex Ephraemi Rescriptus (5th cent), and other manuscripts back that up. It seems that an orthodox scribe added that detail to Matthew. The issue of the spear-thrust became a major point of controversy between orthodox and heretic. The heretical 'Acts of John' denied that Jesus suffered on the cross - 'You heard that I was pierced , yet I was not wounded, that blood flowed from me , yet it did not flow'. What could be more natural for an orthodox scribe to alter the Gospels to make clear that Jesus suffered on the cross and shed real blood, as Church Fathers like Irenaeus maintained?

Although very ancient and valuable manuscripts maintain in Matthew 27:49 that blood and water came out of Jesus's side before he died, most translations of today drop the statement, probably because it clashes so horribly with John's Gospel. It is clear that the account of the spear-thrust in the Gospels was not written by eye-witnesses but by scribes, who wanted to show , in Matthew's Gospel, that Jesus really did suffer on the cross, or, in John's Gospel, that Jesus was definitely dead.

If orthodox scribes were prepared to alter the accounts of their Lord's crucifixion to make them agree with their doctrines, how much alteration went on , especially in the 300 years between the writing of the Gospels and our earliest complete manuscripts?

Luke 22:19-20

'And taking bread, giving thanks, saying ,'This is my body that is given for you. Do this in my remembrance. And the cup likewise after supper, saying 'This cup is the new covenant in my blood that is poured out for you'' Why does the RSV have these famous words by Jesus as a footnote? They are not in Codex Bezae , from the 5th century.

Probably because they were not original to Luke's Gospel. The phrase 'for you' occurs twice in that verse , but nowhere else in Luke-Acts. The word for 'remembrance' occurs nowhere else in Luke-Acts and nowhere else does Luke use the term 'the new covenant'. More importantly, nowhere else does Luke say that Jesus died 'for your sins' or 'for you'.

Luke , in the Gospel or in Acts, had many opportunities to say that Jesus died 'for' anybody or 'for' anything, but he consistently spurns them all. For example, in the famous 'prophecy , Isaiah 53, Luke in Acts 8 ignores 53:5 'wounded for our transgressions', or 53:5, 'bruised for our iniquities' or 53:10, 'an offering for sin'. As Luke never says that Jesus died 'for our sins', why would he add those words in Luke 22:19-20? If he did write those words, why would any scribe have dropped them? It is clear that the RSV is right and they were not original to Luke's Gospel.

Luke 22:14

'he sat at table, and the twelve apostles with him'. Some Christians had difficulties with calling Judas Iscariot one of the twelve apostles. The very earliest manuscript of Luke 22:14, p75, omits the word 'twelve'. Other manuscripts omit the word 'apostles'.

Luke 23:34

'Father forgive them for they know not what they do.' These words are often cited as an example of Jesus's ability to forgive his persecutors even while on the cross. However, many Christians had difficulty with the idea of Jesus forgiving the Jews who killed him. This verse is missing from the earliest manuscript of Luke, p75. It is also missing from the very early manuscripts Codex Vaticanus and Codex Bezae, along with others. The early manuscript, Codex Sinaiticus, originally contained the words, but a later corrector indicated that they should not be regarded as original to the text. An even later corrector reinstated them.

Similarly, they were added to Codex Bezae by a later corrector, although omitted at first.


One Christian doctrine which varies a lot from one manuscript to the next is teaching about divorce.

The early manuscripts have some twenty different sayings about divorce. I list just a few of them. All of them are different versions of the same passage :- Matthew 19:9 They give different teachings about whether a man can remarry or whether a man can marry a divorced woman.


We have seen that scribes were prepared to alter the most crucial parts of the Gospel accounts to make them more convincing and more suitable for Christian doctrine. Many more examples could be given , but examples from the Last Supper, the Passion and the Resurrection show that Christians themselves altered and tampered with the texts. They were prepared to alter the teachings of Jesus about such basic issues as divorce. In doing so, they have reduced their status as evidence for the life of Jesus.

Further reading

Bart D. Ehrman, Neglect of the Firstborn in NT Studies

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