So just how reliable is this Bible these Christians carry round? Has the original text been scrambled by all the mistakes and 'improvements' made each time it was copied by hand over the centuries?
I am sometimes asked questions along these lines about how reliable our Bible text is. The answer, in brief, is 'very reliable'! However, to pad out this summary with a little reputable content, I have taken some quotes from the Encyclopaedia Britannica.
Please note that the term 'received text' (commonly referred to as 'TR' from the Latin 'Textus Receptus') more often refers to the Greek version of the New Testament originally produced by Erasmus, but in connection with the Old Testament it refers to the Masoretic text.
Please find below some references to the received text of the Old Testament in Hebrew, taken from volume 14 of the 15th edition (1997) of the Encyclopaedia Britannica.
From page 907:
"The text of the Hebrew printed Bible consists of consonants, vowel signs, and cantillation (musical or tonal) marks. The two later components are the product of the school of Masoretes (Traditionalists) that flourished in Tiberias (in Palestine) between the 7th and 9th centuries CE. The history of the bare consonantal text stretches into hoary antiquity and can be only partially traced.
"The earliest printed editions of the Hebrew Bible derive from the last quarter of the 15th century and the first quarter of the 16th century. The oldest Masoretic codices stem from the end of the 9th century and the beginning of the 10th. A comparison of the two shows that no textual developments took place during the intervening 600 years. A single standardized recension enjoyed an absolute monopoly and was transmitted by the scribes with amazing fidelity. Not one of the medieval Hebrew manuscripts and none of the thousands of fragments preserved in the Cairo Geniza (synagogue storeroom) contains departures of any real significance from the received text."
From page 909:
The importance of the Qumran scrolls cannot be exaggerated. Their great antiquity brings them close to the Old Testament period itself - from as early as 250-200 BCE... many of the scrolls are practically identical with the Masoretic text, which thus takes this recension back in history to pre-Christian times.
Of quite a different order are scrolls from other areas of the Judean Desert. All of these are practically identical with the received text. This applies to fragments of Leviticus, Deuteronomy, Ezekiel and Psalms discovered at Masada (the Jewish fortress destroyed by the Romans in CE 73), as well as the finds at Wadi al-Murabba'at, the latest date of which is CE 135.
The following quote was taken from an online search facility provided by the Encyclopaedia Britannica.
"Textual criticism of the Greek New Testament attempts to come as near as possible to the original manuscripts (which did not survive), based on reconstructions from extant manuscripts of various ages and locales. Assessment of the individual manuscripts and their relationships to each other can produce a fairly reliable text from various readings that may have been the result of copying and recopying of manuscripts. It is not always age that matters. Older manuscripts may be corrupt, and a reading in a later manuscript may in reality be ancient. No single witness or group of witnesses is reliable in all its readings.
"Even with all these witnesses, there remain problems in the Greek text. These include variants about which there is no settled opinion and some few words for which no accurate meaning can be found because they occur only once in the New Testament and not in prior Greek works. Very early translations of the New Testament made as it spread into the non-Greek-speaking regions of the missionary world, the so-called early versions, may provide evidence for otherwise unknown meanings and reflections of early text types.
"In referring to manuscript text types by their place of origin, one posits the idea that the major centers of Christendom established more or less standard texts: Alexandria; Caesarea and Antioch (Eastern); Italy and Gallia plus Africa (Western); Constantinople, the home for the Byzantine text type or the Textus Receptus. While such a geographical scheme has become less accurate or helpful, it still serves as a rough classification of text types."
At first sight, this does not look too good.
But what it means is that we have a vast number of ancient manuscripts to compare, and the differences between them come down, for the most part, to individual words.
We know what all the variants are in all the ancient manuscripts, and not a single one of these variants makes the slightest difference to the Christian faith. Not a single doctrine is inserted, modified or denied by any of these variants.
I have read discussions of a good number of these variants, and while there is great academic interest in establishing the best possible version of the original text, from the point of view of someone wanting to know what to believe and how to live, there is nothing of interest in these discussions.
The most interesting questions concern two disputed passages: the 'long' ending of Mark, and the story of the woman caught in adultery in John. You can cut both these passages from your Bible, and it would make no practical difference whatsoever. The two passages so accurately reflect what we are taught in other parts of the Gospels that there is no point in arguing over them.
For what it is worth, in my view the arguments come down on the side of the long ending of Mark being a slightly later addition, while the story of the woman caught in adultery in John was more likely to have been in the original text, and left out of some copies at a fairly early date - probably because some early Christians were uncomfortable with aspects of the story.
You have only to compare these passages with any of the New Testament Apocrypha to see the vast difference between the early New Testament writings - including the two disputed passages - and the later stories which were written to meet the needs of the early church.
In short - we can rely on the New Testament because it is, as far as we need, an accurate record created by the earliest followers of Jesus.