Atheist Tuesday: Is the Bible Reliable?

“The Bible has been changed and translated so many times over the last 2,000 years it’s impossible to know what it originally said. Everyone knows that.”

How can we know that the Bible and what Jesus said in the New Testament is true? Is it one gigantic leap of faith? Atheists and other unbelievers will say so. Greg Koukl answers these questions in his article below, while this video gives a great overview of why Christians believe the Bible to be true.

“Misquoting” Jesus? Answering Bart Ehrman!”
By Greg Koukl

In “Misquoting Jesus”, the New York Times bestseller subtitled “The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why,” author Bart Ehrman fires a shot meant to sink the ship of any Christian who thinks the New Testament documents can be trusted. Here it is:

What good is it to say that the autographs (i.e., the originals) were inspired? We don’t have the originals! We have only error-ridden copies, and the vast majority of these are centuries removed from the originals and different from them, evidently, in thousands of ways….There are more variations among our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament.

Ehrman is right on the facts, as far as they go. There are 130,000 words in the New Testament, yet the surviving manuscripts (the handwritten copies) reveal something like 400,000 individual times the wording disagrees between them. Indeed, Ehrman points out, the manuscripts “differ from one another in so many places that we don’t even know how many differences there are.”

Further, Bart Ehrman is an accomplished scholar with impeccable bona fides. He co-authored The Text of the New Testament (4th Edition) — an academic standard in the field — with Bruce Metzger, arguably the greatest New Testament manuscript scholar alive at the time.

The Washington Post says Misquoting Jesus “casts doubt on any number of New Testament episodes that most Christians take as, well gospel.” Publishers Weekly promises that Ehrman’s arguments “ensure that readers might never read the gospels or Paul’s letters the same way again.” Read the rest of the article by clicking here.

Comments (20)

  1. Nohm


    I’ll let someone else take this, as I don’t even know where to begin with so many incorrect claims being made as bare assertions.

    To put it lightly, I think this is some horrid scholarship.

  2. BathTub


    Of course it’s unreliable, it’s written/edited/translated by adulterous, murderous liars!

  3. Nohm


    Well, would you like the top three from the video, or from Greg’s article?

    I don’t really see the point, though. This is all just used to convince people like yourself that you’re right, and it has little to no effect on someone who has studied these things but isn’t already a believer.

    The video is far worse than the article, that’s for sure.

  4. vintango2k


    Go for it Nohm. Debating with Thomas about this same subject has left me drained. Though I think BathTub is onto something Steve, I’ve perused several verses from the Bible and looked at several different versions and very few have verses that are exactly the same. Some are similar in context but others drop words, add words, or use different words entirely. Books written, rewritten, and translated by flawed or even sinful men are bound to get things wrong over the many years. That’s my argument against Genesis, Steve.

  5. Mark


    It’s definitely an interesting topic, I had to put on my thinking cap to answer this one. I’ve got 6 objections to Greg Koukl’s analysis.

    1 – Greg assumes that we have all the variations that occurred in our possession. The Gospels were written anonymously 60 years after the events they describe, and were presumably kept by oral tradition before this. The oral tradition could have drifted in any direction from the actual events, and the autographs would start from the point of maximal oral variation.

    2- The Aunt Sally example assumes concentric, evenly spread propagation of copies. Suppose instead that one of Sally’s friends passed on one correct copy, another wrote ten incorrect copies and the third friend lost hers, and secretly asked the second friend to give her an (incorrect) copy. When Aunt Sally assembled her copies, she would disregard the correct copy because it was underrepresented, I.e. nonconcentric spread had magnified a single error. This issue is especially relevant for the Bible, as we have no timetable of when copies were written and distributed.

    3- Greg Koukl makes an assumption that the gospel chroniclers were motivated to be as accurate as possible. Everyone has an agenda, both now and 2000 years ago. Xenophon’s history of Sparta , for instance, was deliberately incomplete because he did not want to immortalize people hedisapproved of.

    4- Greg introduces interpretation bias in assuming most errors are inconsequential. To use an example, suppose you were a jury member in the trial of a man accused of driving the getaway car from a bank robbery. Then suppose the three witnesses said they saw him driving a blue Mini, a black limosouine and a milk van. The prosecutor then says that the variations were “inconsequential”, because they all saw him driving away. Myself, I’d say the variation indetails would make the entire story doubtful.

    5- as well as written variations, the gospels are most likely affected by cultural mistranslations as well. Many gospel phrases may have different meanings from what we assume, based on the colloquial language at the time. An example would be if a historian in 4000 AD, stumbles across the phase “better dead than red”, and assumes Ginger-haired people were persecuted.

    6- It’s hard to believe that the gospels are the inerrant word of God, an all-knowing, all-powerful being if he can’t keep his book straight for more than a few decades. Couldn’t he have done the talking tree thing, and suggested a couple of alterations forclarification.

  6. Thomas Moore


    This is neat because I just started a book entitled, “Misquoting Truth: A Guide to the Fallacies of Bart Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus” by Timothy Paul Jones. It is really good so far and shows how Ehrman uses the “skin of the truth stuffed with a lie.” Ehrman gives pieces of truth, but someone with an open-mind and heart can see that what he is teaching is a lie. There is another person or should I say creature that works in the same way Ehrman does, oh now I remember his name is satan. Check out Matthew 4:1-11 on how satan attacks and how to stand up to his lies! Merry Christmas everybody!!!

  7. vintango2k


    I still think the Hebrew origin of Satan is the most correct, in that he’s an agent of God, to be anything else would invalidate the power of God.

  8. Thomas Moore


    The quote “skin of the truth stuffed with a lie” comes from the Bible Answer Man, Hank Hanegraaff. Forgot to mention that. Here is an article by Hank that addresses this issue of the Bible and it’s reliability.

    Bible Manuscripts: The Reliability of Bible Manuscripts
    Non-Christians, (skeptics like New Agers or Mormons) claim that in the process of copying Scripture the text of the Bible was corrupted. Is this really true?
    Suppose you wrote an essay and asked five friends to copy it. Each of them in turn asked five more friends to do the same — kind of like a chain letter. By the fifth “generation,” you would have approximately four thousand copies. Now, obviously, in the process, some people are going to make some copying errors. The first five people to copy it would make mistakes, and then most of the people who copy from them will make some more mistakes. Eventually you’d have thousands of copies and all of them flawed.
    Sounds pretty bad, right? But hold on. Your five friends might make mistakes, but they wouldn’t all make the same mistakes. If you compared all of the copies, you would find that one group contained the same mistake while the other four did not — which of course, would make it easy to tell the copies from the original. Not only that, but most of the mistakes would be obvious — things like misspelled words or words that were accidentally omitted. Anyone looking at all four thousand copies would have no trouble figuring out which was the original.
    THE BIBLE MANUSCRIPTS- Same as the Bible
    That’s essentially the same situation with the Bible. We’ve got thousands of copies of the Bible in its original language, and scholars who have studied them have been able to classify them into groups and in most cases determine what the original documents actually said. The few cases which are still debated by scholars really don’t affect the basic message of the Bible at all.
    In fact, interestingly enough when the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered at Qumran, they predated the earliest extant text — the Masoretic text by almost one thousand years — yet in spite of this vast span of time, there was no substantive difference at all…..In fact, in looking at Isaiah 53 there were only 17 changes between the Masoretic text and those found at Qumran — 10 involved spelling, 4 style and 3 involved the Hebrew letters for the word light in verse 11. However, none of these differences were substantive — God has indeed preserved His Word.
    On Manuscript reliability, that’s the CRI Perspective. I’m Hank Hanegraaff.

  9. Garrett


    Kind of a moot point, ain’t it? I certainly wouldn’t rely on the book being 100% accurate from the original, it doesn’t make a difference.

    Let’s say we have go into the year 4010 and have a book about a monster of ice that comes to life upon certain magic words being uttered. We go back, however, and discover it’s just the mangled translations of Frost the Snowman.

    Now let’s go to the year 4010 and assume that Frosty survived the generations of being passed down. Well, Frosty isn’t any less real.

    Oh, a more modern example? The Book of Mormon. I don’t think that book is very old at all when compared to other religious texts. Why, there’s not even a need for translation!

    So the Book of Mormon is reliable as far as expressing the author’s thoughts. Does that make its content true? I think that may be one of the few things on this site we all agree on: the Book of Mormon is not accurate or containing of any significant truths.

    This is just Steve trying to mire us in the details. Forest for the trees and all that. The Bible can be a 100% accurate translation of the original texts, but it means nothing if the authors were not being honest.

    • Reply

      And there’s the point.

      We do believe it’s authors are honest which means that I’m glad that I’m not going to be in your shoes on Judgment Day, my friend.

      As you may have guessed, this article is less for atheists and posted more as an encouragement to believers that they can trust the Bible!

      Somebody say “Amen!”

  10. vintango2k


    I would find a skeptics judgement day interesting, a sentence like, “Lord, why does the Genesis account in the Bible vary so greatly with your creation? I understand that you have, at numerous times tested the faith of man, but was Genesis a test of our will, to see if we could strive to look beyond biblical dogma and understand the truth of your creation? Or was it vice versa, that you changed reality to contradict your book in order to test people’s faith. It sort of seems like its one or the other Steve, and for Thomas if the Bible contained any real science in it, it would be taught in science classes and be the preeminent book on the subject. But not even Christians who are scientists refer to it in any manner on any subject of science from biology to physics. The best that’s out there are apologetics or evangelists who claim to be scientists ie. Kent Hovind who are quite ignorant of the subjects of science and are generally loony.

  11. perdita


    “As you may have guessed, this article is less for atheists and posted more as an encouragement to believers that they can trust the Bible! ”

    I would say that this is the only point of apologetics.

    “We do believe it’s authors are honest which means that I’m glad that I’m not going to be in your shoes on Judgment Day, my friend.”

    Honest and Wrong aren’t mutually exclusive. The Bible authors can be terribly honest and still be quite wrong. Though, I have to say that it was rather convenient for King Josiah to find all those ancient scrolls when he did.

  12. Sam


    The Bible says you can cure leprosy with bird blood.

    We know today that bird blood cannot cure leprosy, so I can say without a doubt that the Bible is not reliable. In fact, it’s hard to not laugh at just how unreliable it is.

    I would find it much easier to laugh if people didn’t cherry pick Bible verses over the course of history to justify slavery, misogyny, and homophobia.

  13. Dennis


    Amen Steve!

    All this talk of the bible being full of “mistakes” and what not.
    Yet here we are – still the number one selling book of all time. Even the non-believers have to admit it’s not just some fantasy book.
    People have been trying to discredit the bible for hundreds of years and yet here it remains.

    I for one, happily and confidently, place my trust in God’s word.
    Hey it even explains exactly what’s going on in this blog – that they (the unbelievers) have exhanged the truth for a lie.
    That their eyes and ears have been closed to God’s truth.

    Amen and Amen – keep up the awesome labor in the Lord!

  14. vintango2k


    I brought up the same point with Thomas, Steve, if we’re to adhere strictly to the Bible then why don’t we obey passages like these:

    Deuteronomy 25:11-12 NASB

    If two men, a man and his countryman, are struggling together, and the wife of one comes near to deliver her husband from the hand of the one who is striking him, and puts out her hand and seizes his genitals, then you shall cut off her hand; you shall not show pity.

    Leveticus 20:9

    For every one that curseth his father or his mother shall be surely put to death: he hath cursed his father or his mother; his blood shall be upon him.

    Leveticus 20:17-23

    17 Speak unto Aaron, saying, Whosoever he be of thy seed throughout their generations that hath a blemish, let him not approach to offer the bread of his God.
    18 For whatsoever man he be that hath a blemish, he shall not approach: a blind man, or a lame, or he that hath a flat nose, or anything superfluous,
    19 or a man that is broken-footed, or broken-handed,
    20 or crook-backed, or a dwarf, or that hath a blemish in his eye, or is scurvy, or scabbed, or hath his stones broken;
    21 no man of the seed of Aaron the priest, that hath a blemish, shall come nigh to offer the offerings of Jehovah made by fire: he hath a blemish; he shall not come nigh to offer the bread of his God.
    22 He shall eat the bread of his God, both of the most holy, and of the holy:
    23 only he shall not go in unto the veil, nor come nigh unto the altar, because he hath a blemish; that he profane not my sanctuaries: for I am Jehovah who sanctifieth them.

    (Sounds like a lot of people are excluded from worshiping God)

    Deuteronomy 13:12-15

    12 If thou shalt hear tell concerning one of thy cities, which Jehovah thy God giveth thee to dwell there, saying,
    13 Certain base fellows are gone out from the midst of thee, and have drawn away the inhabitants of their city, saying, Let us go and serve other gods, which ye have not known;
    14 then shalt thou inquire, and make search, and ask diligently; and, behold, if it be truth, and the thing certain, that such abomination is wrought in the midst of thee,
    15 thou shalt surely smite the inhabitants of that city with the edge of the sword, destroying it utterly, and all that is therein and the cattle thereof, with the edge of the sword.

    (Why don’t we do this nowadays Steve? If God commands us to kill other people who worship other Gods, that includes all men, women, children, and their livestock, then why don’t we do this? Doesn’t it concern you that on your day of judgement when you speak with God he will ask why you disobeyed his message and did not take up your sword and strike down those Krishnas you encountered in one of your videos? Its in the Bible its the word of God it MUST be correct, 100%, so why do you disobey it?)

  15. Sam


    “All this talk of the bible being full of “mistakes” and what not.”

    10% of Christians have actually read the entire Bible, so I don’t think they’re the most reliable group when it comes to knowing whether or not the Bible is full of mistakes.

    If I were to jump to a conclusion by using the same sort of logic anti-gay Christians use when they get their hands on statistics, I would say that reading the Bible all the way through is very likely to lead someone away from Christianity.

    It did it for me. Anyone who reads the Bible from front to back will see for himself that it definitely is full of mistakes. Plus it has some really creepy archaic laws that are probably too explicit to mention on this site. The irony is not lost on me.

  16. Thomas Moore


    Hey Sam quick comment, I have read the Bible through several times and I am still a disciple of Jesus Christ. The Bible is a hope and faith strengthener, for those who have been born-again. And there are no mistakes, probably what you are referring to are places that don’t makes sense to our finite mind and/or you are misunderstanding the text. It is a art and science to reading the Bible and it must have the rudder of the Holy Spirit steering the way. God bless and Merry Christmas!

  17. nyctornado


    Still even if the bible is accurate in it’s preserving it’s core message with only insignifigant errors and a few sigifigant ones….that still does not mean the authors of the new testament were sincerely wrong. The native tribes of america, africa, australia and china for example preserved their religon with amazing accuracy for thousands of years yet they were still sincerly wrong about how life really works.

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