Next Global Online Service












Next Global Online Service

On Air

Is What We Have Now What They Wrote Then?
Best Sermon Ever 2014

Sweet! You're now using our HTML5 Video Player beta. If there's anything you like or dislike, let us know at @MarsHillWeb.

Video (m4v) Audio (mp3)

Can’t see the video? Download and install Flash to be able to view. Get Flash Here


Dr. Daniel Wallace is one of the foremost New Testament scholars in the world today. In his Best Sermon Ever, he shares with Mars Hill important teaching on the origin of the New Testament and whether or not what we read in our Bible translations today is the same as what was written in the original manuscripts. If you or a friend have ever had doubts or questions about the validity of the New Testament, or the Bible in general, this is the sermon to watch. Dr. Daniel Wallace is a native Californian, a pastor, and a former surfer. He transplanted to Texas and has taught for more than 28 years at Dallas Theological Seminary, where he is the professor of New Testament Studies. One of his students over the years was Pastor Dave Bruskas, one of our Executive Elders at Mars Hill Church. Dr. Wallace is also the Executive Director of the Center for the Study of the New Testament Manuscripts. He earned his B.A. at Biola University and went on to earn a ThM degree and PhD from Dallas Theological Seminary. His postdoctoral studies have taken him around the world from Australia to Africa. He has been part of writing, editing, or contributing to more than 24 books. Dr. Daniel married his wife, Pati, 40 years ago and they have four sons and two granddaughters.


All right Mars Hill, Pastor Mark here. Really excited to introduce to you one of our “Best Sermon Ever” preachers.

I’m getting my summer break with the family and we’re bringing in some amazing guests, world-class Bible teachers to love and serve and invest in you.

Today we’ve got Dr. Daniel Wallace. He is a professor on staff at Dallas Theological Seminary, the alma mater of our very own Pastor Dave Bruskas. Dr. Wallace is a great guy. He’s been married for 40 years. He’s got kids, he’s got grandkids, he surfs a bit, but he is one of the leading Greek scholars on the earth. I’m really honored that he would join us.

One of the things that he is working on is taking a photo of every page of every Greek manuscript that there is. He’s thorough so I’m expecting this to be great, and whatever he has to share, I’m sure it’s going to help increase your love and trust in the New Testament as God’s Word.

We always do a little fun gag gift. Because he is one of the leading Greek scholars on the earth, of course, we’ll get him a DVD copy of My Big Fat Greek Wedding and a gift certificate for Greek frozen yogurt. Thanks Dr. Wallace.

Dr. Daniel Wallace

Well, with an introduction like that, I’m sure there’s one thing on your mind: Is this guy going to be boring? That’s a question I have on my mind too. I hope that won’t be the case, but we’ll see.

I wanted to introduce you to my bride of 40 years, Pati Wallace. She’s back there someplace. Can you—oh, there you are. Just—you can see that hand? Isn’t that a lovely hand?

It’s a great miracle that we are together after 40 years. It requires a great deal of patience from a godly woman. And I’m thankful to her and thankful to God that he gave her to me. We have a phrase that each one of us uses about our marriage. I think of 40 years of being married to her as Taming of the Shrew. And she thinks of Raising Baby Huey. So, quite different Perspectives, I guess. But nevertheless, we’re still together and I’m glad we could come back to this part of the country.

Is what we have now what they wrote then?

What I want to talk to you about is what we have now and what they wrote then. I’m addressing the question: Is the Bible that we have in our hands today, the New Testament in particular, does it go back to what the Apostles and their associates wrote? Or has it been translated so many times we have no idea what the original text said?

To give you some perspective on how important this issue is, that is, the transmission and the copies of the copies of the copies of the New Testament over the centuries, I want to tell you a story about a young monk by the name of Brother Andrew.

He lived in Ireland in the 8th Century and he had studied at what was the equivalent of a seminary back in those days. And when he got done studying the president of the seminary sent him on to a monastery where he spent the rest of his days functioning as a monk.

Now, Brother Andrew was the sort of fellow who was very detail-minded and he wasn’t given to teamwork. Not the kind of a guy who was real sociable. In other words, he was really anal. Is that okay to say here? This is Mars Hill, never mind.

So, the president sent this letter of recommendation with Brother Andrew, and he met the abbot of the monastery, and the abbot looked it over and said, “I have just the job for you young man. You’re going to be copying out the bylaws of our monastery. We’ll put you in the scriptorium. We’ve got a couple copies of those. Nobody’s done this work in decades. So you just kind of compare the manuscription and copy them accurately if you would.”

So, Brother Andrew was cheerful, excited to go and do this work. He goes to the scriptorium, starts copying out these manuscripts, and then about 45 minutes later… [knocking] The abbot hears a knock on his door.

Brother Andrew opens the door and says, “Holy Father, I think there’s a discrepancy between these documents. Have you got some older ones that I can look at?” The abbot said, “Yes, we do. We haven’t seen these in a long, long time. But we have some that are a couple hundred years older than the ones you’re working with.”

So, the abbot showed him where those manuscripts were, Brother Andrew started copying those out. Again, 45 minutes later… [knocking] Another knock at the door.

“Holy Father, there’s still some discrepancies. Have you got anything older that I could look at?” And the Holy Father sized him up and said, “Man, this guy really is anal.” And so he said, “I’m going to let you do something that I’ve never let a new monk ever do in the history of this monastery. I’m going to take you into the bowels of the library, down a serpentine path, to the subterranean archives room where we have the original documents. Nobody has seen these in centuries.”

So he took him down there and said, “Go ahead and start copying out the original bylaws of the monastery.” He figured he could trust this fellow.

About 30 minutes later, all of the sudden, his door was pounded on by 10 different hands. All the rest of the monks were at his door and they said, “Holy Father, this new monk has gone berserk. You’ve got to come see what’s going on.”

So they all run down this serpentine path to get to the bowels of the library, and they see Andrew in there pounding his fist on the desk and weeping.

“What’s the matter young man?”

He said, “They left out the letter ‘r.’“

“Oh my gosh, this guy really is anal.”

“The word is supposed to be ‘celebrate.’”

[pointing] You guys came in dead last. I mean, here they get it, then they get it. I don’t know what’s wrong with that part of the group. You all from Portland? How many people are here from Portland? Okay, a couple of you. I’ll tell my jokes a little slower for your sake.

Well, it is kind of important, even down to the letters sometimes when we think about the transmission of texts. Let me begin by quoting from that famous scholar, Dan Brown, in his Da Vinci Code, where he says, “The Bible has evolved through countless translations, additions, and revisions. History has never had a definitive version of the book.” We all have heard that kind of a statement: Has the Bible been translated and re-translated so many times that we can’t possibly get back to the original? Well, that’s going to be a question that we address to begin with, and we’re going to look at, actually, four questions this hour. We’ll see how that actually works out.

It’s not just novelists who are making this kind of claim. We also get atheists who are saying the same thing. CJ Werleman wrote a book called Jesus Lied. Before that, he wrote a book called, now get this, God Hates You, Hate Him Back. This is a book written by an atheist, God Hates You. In other words, the one who doesn’t exist hates you so hate back the one who doesn’t exist. That’s—I’m not sure what the logic there is, but anyway, he certainly likes provocative titles.

So in this book he said, “We don’t have any of the original manuscripts of the Bible, the originals are lost.” We don’t know when and we don’t know by whom. What we have are copies of copies. In some instances the copies we have are 20th generation copies.

It’s not just novelists and atheists who are saying this. Muslims, Muslim apologists, Muslim intellectuals are saying something very similar. M.M. Al-Azami is a British Muslim and his book, The History of the Qur’anic Text, from Revelation to Compilation, has been doing quite well in Britain. In that book he says, “The Orthodox Church, being the sect which eventually established supremacy over all the others, stood in fervent opposition to various ideas, also known as heresies, which were in circulation. These included adoptionism, the notion that Jesus was not God but a man; docetism, the opposite view that he was God and not man; and separationism, that the divine and human elements of Jesus Christ were two separate beings.” What M.M. Al-Azami is claiming is that in the second, third, and fourth centuries these views were circulating, which is true. But he’s also claiming that in the original New Testament these views were part of the text, and the New Testament is hopelessly filled with contradictions, and the Orthodox Church sorted all this out and changed the text to conform it to one view of Christ.

So he goes on and says, “In each case this sect, the one that would rise to become the Orthodox Church deliberately corrupted the Scriptures so as to reflect its own theological visions of Christ while demolishing that of all rival sects, especially the deity of Christ.” In other words, he is claiming that the deity of Christ is not found in the original New Testament but the Orthodox Church added that later by corrupting the Scriptures.

We’ll examine that issue in particular, but let me go to a source that is one of the best sources that these folks used. In other words, this is what— a popular book by Dr. Bart Ehrman called, Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why, and he is a bonafide New Testament scholar. His field is Textual Criticism, the discipline of trying to ascertain the wording of the original document when we no longer have that original.

I’ve known Bart for over 30 years, we’re good friends, we’ve debated each other three times, and we’ve worked on projects together as well. And here’s what he has to say in this very popular book that came out in 2005, “Not only do we not have the originals, we don’t have the first copies of the originals. We don’t even have copies of the copies of the originals or copies of the copies of the copies of the originals.”

Sounds like Werleman, doesn’t it? We’re waiting until 20 copies. Werleman took that out of thin air. We have no idea where he got that from, but this is the basis that he’s really using, Bart Ehrman’s book.

Ehrman goes on and he says, “The more I study the manuscript tradition of the New Testament, the more I realize just how radically the text had been altered over the years at the hands of the scribes. It would be wrong to say, as people sometimes do, that the changes in our text have no real bearing on what the texts mean or on the theological conclusions that one draws from them.” This sounds like M.M. Al-Azami: The Orthodox Church has changed the text so much, so radically, that it’s really been difficult to try to get back to the original wording; in fact, it’s changed who Christ is in the hands of these scribes.

Two Extremes

Well, as we start looking at these issues there’s two attitudes to begin with that I want all of us to avoid. The first attitude, and of those of you are non-Christians, this is the one that you’d probably be more tempted to follow is that of “radical skepticism.” “We can’t possibly tell what the original text said, it’s been translated so much we have absolutely no idea.”

I will show, historically, why that is a naive and foolish view to hold to. It’s one that is only held by the ignorant, this radical skepticism.

There’s a view that Christians typically succumb to and that’s “absolute certainty.” “The Bible I have in my hands, this Bible, is exactly the word of God in every single word.”

Well, that’s a view that is also unsupportable by the evidence. Let me just give an illustration. If you use the NIV, it first came out in 1984 as a whole Bible. Maybe you’re using now the NIV 2011. It’s not only been updated in the language, but in the textual basis. There are a few places, about two dozen, not many, but about two dozen places, where the wording has changed because of either new manuscript evidence or because the scholar said, “We are now convinced that this is the original wording of the New Testament rather than that.” And so if you have a 1984 NIV and you said, “I’m absolutely certain this is the word of God in every single respect,” and with the 2011 NIV you say the same thing, then you are filled with contradiction yourself. We don’t have absolute certainty about what is exactly the word of God in every place.

There’s an attitude that is between this radical skepticism and absolute certainty, and I’ll show you where we should line up more closely. But these are two extremes that we really need to avoid.

Four Questions

There are four questions that I want us to answer this morning. The first is, how many textual variants are there? That is, how many wording differences do we have? This has to do with the number of variants, the number of differences.

What kinds of textual variants are there? Or the nature of variants, one is dealing with the quantity of variants, the other is the quality.

Are they important variants? Do they affect things like the deity of Christ? If we have 100,000 textual variants, are they all important? Do they change who Jesus Christ is? So, we can’t possibly tell what the original said. What theological beliefs depend on textually suspect passages? We’ll wrestle with that, which is really dealing with the kinds of variants of a particular nature.

And finally, has the essence of the Christian faith been corrupted by the scribes? That’s really where we want to end up.

Are you all ready? I’m glad to hear that because I have a long preface, and then I deal with this first question that goes about an hour, hour and a half. And then, I deal with the other three questions in about 20 minutes. So we’ll be done—I’m sure we’ll be done by 1, 1:30 p.m., something like that. So, all right. You guys think I’m joking.

Don’t we have the original New Testament anymore?

All right, let me begin with a preliminary question: Don’t we have the original New Testament anymore? The answer is no, we don’t. If we did, then the discipline known as Textual Criticism would not be necessary. We could just look at the original text.

The original New Testament, originally 27 different documents sent to various churches and individuals, were all written on papyrus. Papyrus is an ancient form of paper. That papyrus would be made from strips of papyrus reeds that would be hammered so you have all these vertical fibers this way. They’d lay it out flat, hammer it out, and then they’d get some more reeds and lay it in a diagonal, so you have now horizontal fibers that would be naturally glued to these vertical fibers, and then they’d cut this into long rolls so they could have a papyrus scroll. That’s how ancient books used to be written.

And so, they always wrote only on the inside of the scroll— this is going to be important for later on. They wrote only on those horizontal fibers and the outside of the scroll were the vertical ones; those would be too hard to write on so they just wrote on the inside. That’s what the New Testament documents were originally written on.

We don’t have New Testament documents written on scrolls. All of them are written on what’s called a “codex” like this, where it’s bound on one side and it’s got cut pages, you know, like this. Some of you have seen this kind of a thing known as a book. Most of you, because I think this is a younger audience than the first hour, have not. You’re used to that retro design known as a scroll on your computer. But this is a book; it’s actually more advanced than scrolling, but nevertheless.

We don’t have the original New Testament documents anymore. Well, what about the many Scriptures we do have? Don’t they all agree? Don’t they all say exactly the same thing? Consequently we can say, “Well, that tells us what the original said.”

No, they don’t all agree. In fact, there’s no two New Testament manuscripts that agree exactly and completely. If you look at the two very old, very, very important manuscripts, through the first eight centuries that are more closely related to each other than any other manuscripts through those first 800 years, they have between 6 and 10 differences per chapter. Well, if you were to multiply that out by the whole New Testament, 260 chapters, you’d have about 2,000 differences between the two most closely related early manuscripts.

Now, what happens when we have all these other manuscripts that are not nearly as closely related? We have thousands upon thousands of differences in these manuscripts.

Precisely because of the disappearance of the originals and because of the differences among the manuscripts, we have to try to compare these manuscripts and do what’s called textual criticism to get back to the original New Testament.

So, we’re ready for that first question, the number of variants. Let me just define what a variant is again. It’s any place among the manuscripts in which there is variation in wording including: word order, omission, or addition of words, even spelling differences. The minor spelling differences that can’t even be translated; those all count as a textual difference or a textual variant.

So, how many variants do we have? There’s a way to put this in perspective and we can start by counting how many words we have in the Greek New Testament. There’s approximately 140,000 words in the Greek New Testament. To be more precise, there’s 138,162. That’ll be a bonus question on the quiz. Don’t ask me how I know that number, but I have some affinity with Brother Andrew.

So, how many variants do we have? Well the number is about 400,000. So we have approximately two and a half variants for every word in the New Testament on average. Well that’s great news. Let’s close with prayer, shall we?

If this is all the evidence we had, we’d all be Chicken Littles saying, “We can’t possibly get back to the original.” We’d all hold to radical skepticism, and that’s what these radical skeptics want you to see. They don’t want to tell you, as Paul Harvey says, “The rest of the story.” But that’s where we’ll go here.

The reason that we have a lot of textual variants is very simple. We have a lot of manuscripts, a lot of manuscripts. Back in the year 1713, Richard Bentley wrote a book called, Remarks on a Discourse of Freethinking. He was an Oxford-trained scholar who worked in New Testament manuscripts and he was talking about a book that had just been published in 1707 by John Mill, a man who spent 30 years of his life looking at as many manuscripts of the New Testament as he possibly could. And also looking at ancient translations and quotations by the church fathers, Mill spent 30 years and produced 30,000 textual variants that he put into the footnotes of this Greek New Testament, 2-volume Greek New Testament.

When that got published in 1707, Romans Catholics looked at that and they scorned him. They said, “Look, you guys have a Protestant Pope, it’s called the Greek New Testament, but your Pope has footnotes. He has—well maybe I said this instead of this. Our Pope doesn’t do that.”

And Protestants looked at John Mill’s work and they said, “This is the work of the devil, to show these variants.” Mill was looking at historical data— that’s never the work of the devil. Pursuing truth is never the work of the devil.

Mill did not defend himself, he didn’t even spend a word in defense because 2 weeks after he got his volume, his magnum opus, published, he died. So he avoided all the critics that way. That’s exactly the timing I want to have for my last book, is die 2 weeks later.

But Richard Bentley took up the mantle and he said, “If there had been but one manuscript of the Greek Testament at the restoration of learning about two centuries ago, then we would have had no various readings at all.” Back when the first Greek New Testament was published on a printing press in 1516— that’s what he’s referring to— it was based on seven manuscripts but they only printed the text, they didn’t talk about the variants. There weren’t that many variants, but he basically said, “Would the text be in a better condition then than it is now that we have 30,000 variant readings that Mill has discovered?” His argument is, “No, if you have just one manuscript you have no variants. You have another manuscript, you can compare these things and you start seeing the differences, and you can start thinking about which reading gave rise to the other.”

There’s so many examples I could use but I’m just going to use one very, very quickly. In Romans chapter 8, verse 1, our earliest manuscripts have this wording, “There’s therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Period. End of story. Isn’t that great news? If you’re in Christ you’re not waiting for the other shoe to drop. You’re not under the wrath of God. He poured all of his wrath out on his Son so that we could live with him. But if you’re not in Christ then God’s wrath still abides on you. And so, scribes were concerned about how people would react to that and thought, “Maybe they’re going to try to live a certain way that we don’t appreciate.” So, they added something about three centuries later. And so now the text reads in these later manuscripts, “There’s therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus who do not walk according to the flesh.”

And then later scribes said, “That’s not enough. We have to have a positive statement in there too.” And so the fullest version, which by the way we find in the King James Bible is, “There’s therefore now no condemnation for those who do not walk according to the flesh but do walk according to the Spirit.” So those last two phrases were added centuries later. Bentley said, “When you compare these manuscripts you can look at the date of the manuscripts, the wording of the manuscripts, you can determine which wording gave rise to the others.” And it’s pretty obvious that scribes wanted to add those things to the free grace of God, and Paul originally did not say it. So, Bentley goes and says, “It’s good therefore to have more anchors than one and another manuscript to join the first would give more authority as well as security.”

Well how many manuscripts have we discovered since that day? How many textual variants do we have? We had 30,000 in Mill’s day, now 300 years later we have 400,000. Let me talk to you about the number of manuscripts we’ve got.

We have officially 5,839 Greek New Testament manuscripts. Folks, that is a huge number, and they’re not all tiny fragments either. The average sized Greek New Testament manuscript, we’re talking about a document handwritten before the time of the printing press, is 459 pages long.

There are more than 2.6 million pages of these manuscripts, and I know this not because I counted them up, but I asked my wife to when we were on Sabbatical in Germany for a year. She said, “I am bored.” So I said, “Okay, here’s a little job for you.” And so she went through this catalog of all the known Greek New Testament manuscripts and keyed in all the data, so now I can talk about how many manuscripts there are. And I look really impressive that way when I did none of the work. But 5,839 manuscripts, 459 pages for the average size, 2.6 million pages of manuscripts.

My institute, The Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts, CSNTM, is trying to digitize these manuscripts. We have photographed so far 300,000 pages. There’s 2.6 million pages all together. What that means is it is great job security.

Now, the New Testament was, early on, translated into other languages. The first one was Latin, and then Coptic, and Syriac, and Georgian, and Ethioptican, Armenian, and Old Church Slavonic. Latin manuscripts we have today, handwritten manuscripts of the New Testament, more than 10,000. Why do we have more in Latin than we have in Greek? Because Western Europe started to use Latin as the lingua franca starting in the 4th century. At that point, Greek started to have far less control because the emperor, Constantine, moved the empire, the capital, from Rome to Constantinople, or today’s Istanbul. Greek started to have a shrinking influence, Latin had a broadening influence, and so we have more manuscripts in Latin than we do in Greek.

When you think about other ancient versions or translations, we have between 5,000 and 10,000 of those, nobody knows the exact number; it’s probably a lot higher than that but these are conservative estimates that I have used in debates with skeptics and they have not been able to refute them. This means we have 20,000 to 25,000 manuscripts of the New Testament that all are important for us to try to get back to the wording of the original.

That’s a lot of manuscripts, folks. And yet if I had a magic wand that could wipe all those out in one fell swoop, we would still not be left without a witness. That’s because of people known as “The Church Fathers,” patristic writers. People like Jerome, and Origin, and Christensen, and others who wrote commentaries, and homilies, and theological treatises. And these folks did not have the gift of brevity. They would quote a verse of Scripture and then go on for two pages commenting on what that text meant.

If we wiped out all of these manuscripts, we would still be able to produce virtually the entire New Testament many, many times over just from the quotations of the Church Fathers, because we have over a million quotations of the New Testament from these Church Fathers today. That’s astounding. I don’t know how many times we could reproduce the New Testament from their writings because we have 7,941 verses in the New Testament and we see that they were quoting from it a million times. I don’t know what it comes out to, but it’s a lot.

So let’s think about comparing— here’s the data for the New Testament. Let’s compare this to the average classical work, the average Greek or Latin scholar, author. And we have at most about 20 copies of the average classical Greek authors still in existence. In other words, some ancient author. You get Plato, we may have 20 copies of his writings, that’s it. We stack it up, it’d be about 4 feet high. Now actually, that’s a generous estimate. Usually we have two to three copies from these authors, from the average.

The greatest is Homer. We have about almost 2,000 copies of Homer’s writings, and so Homer comes in at less than 10% of what we have for the New Testament. But he has a 900-year head start on the New Testament. It’s remarkable.

It just doesn’t matter how you look at this. The New Testament, far and away, is the best attested ancient document from the Greco-Roman world.

Well let’s just compare these two a little bit, if you would. And let’s think about how high this stack would be of just average classical text versus the New Testament. Yeah, we need to make it a little higher. That’s as much as I wanted to do in PowerPoint. I was getting tired. That stack of New Testament documents is still not the total number. You multiply that size by 10, and what we have is a stack of New Testament manuscripts that goes up more than a mile high; 6,600 feet high for New Testament manuscripts, 4 feet high for the average classical author.

Do we have an embarrassment of riches? Oh, we sure do. In fact, on the basis of manuscript evidence we can say that we have 1,000 times more evidence that Jesus Christ existed than we do that Alexander the Great existed. In fact, we’re waiting almost 1,000 years before we get our earliest manuscripts that tell us that Alexander the Great existed and did things. How long are we waiting before we see the earliest manuscripts of the New Testament? Well, not quite 1,000 years. It’s a little bit shorter than that. Let me just compare this to some specific authors.

Pliny the Elder, we’re waiting 700 years before we get a single copy, and then we get very few of these. Plutarch, I think we have 200 copies of Plutarch, which is very, very high for a classical author. But we’re waiting 800 years after Plutarch wrote before we get any copies at all. Josephus, we have five books of his, Antiquities of the Jews, where he speaks about this guy named Jesus, and his brother James, and a fellow named John the Baptist. Why do we have five books? Because that’s the most popular work by Josephus because of those three people. Christians copied out the text. We’re waiting 800 years before we see the first copy of Antiquities of the Jews.

Polybius, 1,200 years; Pausanias, 1,400; Herodotus, we’re waiting— he’s one of the two great ancient historians writing in the 5th century B.C., and really set the path on how history needs to be done. We’re waiting 1,500 years before we get a copy of any substantial size, more than just a tiny fragment. Fifteen hundred years. Herodotus scholars though, say, “What we’ve got tells us pretty much what Herodotus said. It may not be exact but we’re not going to be so skeptical as to think we don’t know what he said.” Xenophon’s Hellenica, another ancient Greek writer, we’re waiting 1,800 years before we get something. More than just a tiny scrap from Xenophon’s Hellenica.

Now let’s just compare apples with apples. What if we were waiting 1,800 years after the completion of the New Testament before we got anything more than just some tiny fragments? That would be like saying, “The earliest copy we had of the New Testament would have been written about the time that the Wright Brothers invented the airplane.” Would we say, “Oh yeah, but that certainly goes back to the New Testament”? Think how skeptical people would be if that were the case. Yet, that’s what classical authors are dealing with all the time, manuscripts that come so much later that’s all they’ve got to go on.

Well, how earliest is the earliest New Testament manuscript? The earliest one we have is known as “P52.” This is not the follow-up To the P-51 Mustang, the fighter plane in World War II, this stands for “Papyrus Number 2.” And P52, here’s a picture of it. Let me give you a little background about this.

It was discovered in 1934— and 90 years earlier than that. This is about John’s gospel. It’s got six verses from John’s gospel. On this side that you see it’s John 18, verses 31 through 33. On the back side—which is very significant, and you’ll have to think through what I said earlier. You know, take a look at your notes because this will all show up on the test, and you can see what I said earlier about the back side of manuscripts. When do you have writing on the back side of a manuscript and when don’t you? We’ll get to that in a minute. Well the back side has John 18, verses 37 and 38.

So 90 years earlier than the discovery of this in 1934, in the year 1844, a German professor by the name of F.C. Bauer at the University of Tubingen did some philosophical fancy footwork and came up with the argument that John’s gospel has to be dated after A.D. 160, and the preferred date is about A.D. 170.

Bauer was a towering figure who convinced most of European scholarship that he was right. Well if that’s the case, John’s gospel is certainly not written by an eyewitness. Therefore, it probably doesn’t have much historical credibility. That’s how much of European scholarship thought about John’s gospel for the next 90 years. Until a fellow by the name of C.H. Roberts, working at the University of Manchester in the John Rylands Library, going through a box of papyri came across this one.

This thing is the size of a credit card. It’s 3 1/2 inches tall, 2 1/2 inches wide, smaller than the palm of my hand. And when Roberts looked at this he said, “Oh my gosh, this is written on both sides.” What he realized when he saw that was, “This is almost surely a Christian manuscript.” Why? Because all Christian manuscripts that he had seen, at least of the New Testament, were written on both sides. They had come from a codex.

Now, some of you may think the codex was not invented until the Middle Ages, but the codex actually was invented by the end of the 1st century A.D. Christians, as far as we know, didn’t invent it. But they were the first to popularize it. For the first five centuries of the Christian era, 80% of all Christian books were written on a codex. All of our New Testament manuscripts are written on a codex. Only 20% of non-Christian books were written on a codex during those first five centuries. By A.D. 500, now the whole rest of the world caught up with the Christian form of the book and decided to adopt that for how they would go forward. So for the first time in our history, and frankly the only time in the history of the church, we were ahead of the technological curve.

Now, if you want to see how people used to live 50 years ago, as Howard Hendricks, one of the profs at Dallas Seminary some time back, used to say, “Come and visit Dallas Seminary and you’ll see how people used to live in the ‘50s.” It’s a little bit dated, you know, but nevertheless, once we were ahead of the technological curve.

C.H. Roberts looked at this manuscript and he said, “You know, this is from the New Testament.” He was able to figure that out pretty quickly, and at the same time he said, “I think this is very early, but I’m going to send it to the three leading Papyrologists,” the folks who study these ancient papyri for a living, and get their estimates on the date.

So he sent photographs to these three guys. Each one, independently, wrote back to him and said, “This manuscript should be dated no later than A.D. 150 and as early as A.D. 100.” All three of them preferred the earlier date. A fourth one demurred and he said, “I think it may have been written as early as the ‘90s.” Now most New Testament scholars nowadays, in part because of this discovery but other reasons as well, would date John’s gospel in the ‘90s. That’s when the original was written.

It’s possible, then, that this manuscript, P52, was a copy of John’s gospel when the ink was barely dry on the original document.

Here’s the thing, though: until this discovery, almost all European scholarship late-dated John, said it had no historical reliability whatsoever because of all this philosophical description and argument that a guy named F.C. Bauer had worked out.

I don’t know about you, but growing up in Southern California I was taught this, that generally speaking the original of a document is not written later than a copy of that document. Is that what you’re taught here too? Except in Portland, but anyway.

So what this did—here’s a manuscript no later than 150, Bauer argued 170, this sent two tons of German scholarship to the flames. Basically it’s a fragment, a tiny fragment, and Bauer used all these convoluted arguments, and it reminds me of a statement of a professor, William Lane, who said, “An ounce of evidence is worth a pound of presumption.”

Folks, what we as Christians have is an ounce of evidence. It may not be a lot but it’s worth a pound, or in this case, two tons of presumption, the evidence.

Because our faith is a historical faith, it’s always important and always needs to be examined. That was a terrific discovery. It’s not just P52 though. We have as many as a dozen papyri from the 2nd century and by the time we get to the 4th century, by the time we get to the 300s, we have over 120 manuscripts of the New Testament. Through those first three centuries, what do you have for classical texts?


You’re waiting 500 years for the average classical text before you get any copies at all.

So, it doesn’t matter how you slice it. If we’re talking about the number of manuscripts or we’re talking about the date of the manuscripts the New Testament comes out way, way ahead.

Within 150 years of the New Testament’s completion, over 40% of all the verses are found in these papyrus manuscripts. By the time you go to A.D. 300, now we get the whole New Testament many times over.

And here’s the opposite end of this, to think about: 150 years after the New Testament we’ve got over 40% of all the verses. But what about the last 150 years? What have we seen?

In the last 150 years all of the New Testament papyri have been discovered. Not one was known before then. These manuscripts are our earliest manuscripts. After that comes parchment manuscripts, those written on animal skins when that became popular starting really in the 4th century. So here we have these manuscripts, all these papyri that have been discovered in the last 50 years—150 years. If they have new wording that we’ve never seen before found in earlier manuscripts then we may have a problem. If those places where you have new wording in this papyri commend themselves, you know, “This looks like it’s the original wording.” Then what we would have to say is, “Without those discoveries we wouldn’t know what the original New Testament had to say.” And yet, in the last 150 years not a single newly discovered reading has commended itself as original to New Testament scholars.

What these papyri have are readings that are already found in the other manuscripts that we already knew about. So, we have a great deal of confidence that the text of the New Testament is found in this book. And this is a Greek New Testament that’s got either the Greek text above or the apparatus with the texture variants here. We find the original text either above the line or below the line in our Greek New Testaments, and you find it essentially in your English New Testaments.

This is exciting news frankly. Now, has the Bible been translated and re-translated so many times that we don’t know what it originally said?

Here’s one other way to look at it, to look at the New Testament from the perspective of the King James Bible published in 1611, based on seven Greek New Testament manuscripts, the New Testament was, the earliest of which came from the 11th century. Now, 400 years later we have over 5,800 Greek New Testament manuscripts, almost 1,000 times as many as the King James translators used, and our earliest come from the 2nd century. As time goes on we’re not getting further removed from the original, are we? We’re getting closer and closer. We haven’t lost those seven manuscripts. We still have those and we have a ton more that are earlier.

Time goes on and we’re getting closer and closer to the original text, not farther away.

What kinds of textual variants are there?

So that’s my first point. Now, the second one will take about half an hour too. The quality of variants. What kinds of variants are there? What’s the nature of these variants?

Well, 99% of them virtually make no difference at all. In fact, the vast majority of our textual variants can’t even be translated. Most of them, in fact, are differences in spelling. Sorry. But you knew what I meant.

In fact, the most common textual variant we have is what’s called “a moveable new.” That’s “n” at the end of a word when the next word starts with a vowel, like “a book, an apple.” Or in Arkansas they say, “A book, a apple.” But we all understand what they really mean.

The name for John in Greek, for example, is spelled either Ioanes with one n or Ioannes with two n’s. Every single time we see the name John in the New Testament there are manuscripts that spell it differently from others. Every time we see that, that counts as a textual variant.

And so, there’s so many differences in just the spelling, and then you’ve got the Greek definite article, the word “the” in Greek. This is the most common word we have in the New Testament. It occurs 20,000 times. One out of seven words is the Greek article. I wrote my Master’s thesis on when the Greek article does not occur. I wrote my Doctor’s dissertation on when it does occur. Those two works I can guarantee you would cheer the most hopeless insomniac. And yet, I’m still not quite sure how the Greek article is being used. Scholars have 20,000 of these in the New Testament alone, yet we still are trying to figure it out.

For example, in Greek you can say, and Luke does say, “The Joseph and the Mary left Jerusalem looking for the Jesus.” Now we never translate it that way. We’re not exactly sure why the article is used with these but it is, and there are variants that have the article and don’t at times.

There’s also word order differences. Greek is a highly inflected language, which means if I say something like, “John loves Mary,” I can say it in any order I want: John loves Mary; Mary loves John; John, Mary loves; Mary, John Loves; and every single time it means John loves Mary not by the word order but by the endings of these words. One is always the subject, one’s always the direct object, and so thinking about these issues, about the various spelling differences, the use of the article, and this statement, “John loves Mary,” I asked myself a year ago, “How many ways can you say, ‘John loves Mary,’ in Greek?” This is my anal side coming out, and so take out your pads of paper. You need to write all these down. Here’s the eight ways you can say, “John loves Mary,” in Greek. Every single line is translated, “John loves Mary.” There’s another eight ways. Sorry, there’s more.

All of these, every single line, it says, “John loves Mary.”

There’s more, sorry.

96 ways you can say, “John loves Mary,” in Greek. 96 ways. So if you hear that there’s 400,000 textual variants among our New Testament manuscripts, that tells me, “Really, that’s it? When we’ve got so many manuscripts?” There could be tens of millions of variants that never affect a darn thing; 400,000 means nothing.

Oh, I’m sorry. This is not all there are. If we add conjunctions that are often un-translated there’s a whole lot more ways—you need to really appreciate this. This took me 8 hours to put all this stuff together. And at this point I said, “I give up. I’m too tired. That’s enough.” These are only a few of the ways to say, “John loves Mary.”

Don’t worry I won’t bore you with more of these details, but there’s other legitimate word orders that swell the numbers to over 500, and if you use a different verb for “loves,” it mushrooms the numbers to nearly 1,200 ways to say, “John loves Mary,” in Greek.

Now, let’s apply that back to the issue we’re wrestling with. Bart Ehrman said, “We could go on nearly forever,” talking about specific places in which the text of the New Testament came to be changed either accidentally or intentionally. The examples are not just in the hundreds but the thousands.

He’s absolutely right. And if we were to talk about those nearly forever, we would be bored to death forever. It’s not the issue of the number of variants, and he would never want to talk about these. Textual critics are not interested in that kind of variant. They’re interested in the ones that change the meaning of the text. If we can say, “John loves Mary,” over 1,000 times in Greek without substantially changing the meaning, the number of textual variants for the New Testament is meaningless. What counts is the nature of the variants.

What kind of variants affect the meaning?

So we go on to that question, which is: What kind of variants do affect the meaning? Those that are both meaningful and viable. That is, they have a good chance of being authentic of those 400,000 variants. The number—this is the smallest group of all of them— it’s less than 1% of all textual variants with that. Less than 1% of all textual variants are both meaningful and viable. In fact, by my estimates it’s approximately 1/4 of 1%. Very, very tiny amount. Those are the only ones that count when we’re thinking about these issues about our faith. So let me give you two examples.

The first one is Mark chapter 9, verse 29. This is a text where we have a textual variant that is both meaningful and viable. After the disciples tried to cast out some demons and they were unsuccessful, they came to Jesus and complained to him, and apparently they were particularly pesky demons who could not be cast out the normal way. And so he said to his disciples, This kind can only be cast out by prayer [and fasting]. I put “and fasting” in brackets because maybe what Jesus was saying is, “This kind can only be cast out by prayer,” period. The earliest manuscripts don’t have “and fasting.” The later ones, and most manuscripts, have “and fasting.”

Scholars have had to wrestle with this. This is the one place in the New Testament where it might be required to fast if you’re going to exercise demons. Otherwise, it’s not a requirement ever. Scholars go back and forth, and debate this, and I’m sure as you can just see by looking at me, I go with the shorter reading. Let’s not talk about that. Let’s get on to a less embarrassing text now.

Revelation chapter 13, verse 18. This is a meaningful and viable variant: Let the one who has insight calculate the beast’s number, for it is the number of a man, and his number is 666.

Everybody knows the anti-Christ number is 666, right? You talk to anybody in Seattle, “Hey, what does 666 mean?” “Oh, that’s the anti-Christ or the beast,” or something like that. Well, not so fast.

In 1843, a German scholar who visited the Biblioteca Nacional was able to decipher a manuscript that has become one of the most important manuscripts for the Book of Revelation. It was a manuscript that had been scraped over, written of parchment, in about A.D. 400, written on parchment, and some scribe about 800 years later scraped all the text off and wrote on top of it. That’s called a “palimpsest.” We have a number of palimpsests for our Greek New Testament where the under text is what’s really important and extremely difficult to read.

Well, I had a chance to go to the Biblioteca Nacional a few years ago, look at that actual manuscript, and read the very place that Constantine Fontissiondorf had read, at Revelation 13:18, and it was very clear this place where it says, “The number of the beast was 616,” not 666. Extremely important manuscript for Revelation. But it’s just one manuscript.

But then in 1998, within the lifetime of most of you I suspect, there was another manuscript that was discovered at Oxford University. A papyrus, 26 little postage stamp-sized pieces that spread out over 9 chapters, and one of those postage stamps was of Revelation 13:18. In 2002, I had the opportunity to examine that, even under a magnifying glass and a microscope, and I noticed that it said, “The number of the beast was 616.”

So here we have one of our most important manuscripts in Revelation and now the earliest manuscript of Revelation chapter 13, both saying, “The number of the beast is 616.” Scholars have wrestled with this, they’ve debated this. Is this really the number of the beast or is it something different? And yet most scholars today, even though they know about this, would say, “I’m not so sure. I think 666 is the number of the beast, and 616, that’s the neighbor of the beast. He lives a few doors down,” you know? How would you like to live in that neighborhood?

This is an important variant. It’s meaningful and it’s viable. I don’t know what the original text says, I don’t have absolute certainty about what the word of God is in every single place in the New Testament. This is one of them where I’m not sure.

But I can tell you this, even though this is a meaningful variant, I know of no Bible college, no seminary, no denomination, no theological institute, and no church that says in their doctrinal statement the following, “We believe in the virgin birth, we believe in the deity of Christ, we believe in the substitutionary atonement of Christ and his bodily resurrection, and that the number of the beast is 666.” It may be important but it’s not that important.

So, what is important? What things are in the text that change the meaning? What theological beliefs depend on textually suspect passages?

We go back to Dan Brown and have his statement from Sir Leigh Teabing, the theological gadfly in this book, “My dear,” speaking to Sophie he says, “until that moment in history Jesus was viewed by his followers as a mortal prophet, a great and powerful man, but a man nonetheless, a mortal.” That moment in history was A.D. 325 when the Council of Nicaea met to define what they meant by the deity of Christ.

Now Dan Brown is saying, “In A.D. 325 they didn’t just define the deity of Christ, they invented it.” In particular Emperor Constantine— here’s a picture of that handsome man— invented the deity of Christ in 325. Well your colleague said, “An ounce of evidence is worth a pound of presumption.” Let’s see if there’s any evidence before 325 that affirms the deity of Christ.

Here’s another early and extraordinarily important papyrus, P66, dated about A.D 175, about 150 years earlier than the Council of Nicaea. This is John chapter 1 and I just want to read the first verse. Read along with me if you would. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” I’m sure you’ve never heard that before, right? Every single manuscript we have of John 1, verse 1, regardless of the date, says essentially the same thing. There are two variants but it doesn’t affect this statement. That is Jesus unequivocally called “God” in John 1:1.

Not only that, but the same could be said for the major passages that affirm Christ’s deity: his virgin birth, his sinlessness, his death on a cross, his bodily resurrection, and his second coming.

What theological issues are jeopardized by these textual variants?

So we come to this last question: What theological issues are really jeopardized by these textual variants? I quoted Bart Ehrman earlier who was kind of the source behind Werleman, and Al-Azami, and others. And in the appendix, in the paperback version of his book, Misquoting Jesus, which was done about six months after his hardback book came out, and by the way, when the hardback book came out, shortly thereafter he was on Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show to talk about this book. Stewart said, “That’s one hell of a book.” Really liked it. And the next day on Amazon it was perched at number one. So hundreds of thousands of these books have sold.

So the editors decided to kind of add some teasers in an appendix thrown into a paperback version. And they asked him, “Why do you believe these core tenants of Christian Orthodox that’d be in jeopardy based on the scribal errors you discovered in the biblical manuscripts?” This is Ehrman’s answer: “Essential Christian beliefs are not affected by textual variants in the manuscript tradition of the New Testament.”

Some of you have friends and family members who have abandoned the Christian faith because of the writings of these skeptics, and yet the source, the popular source behind them is Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus, and that’s not what he actually said. In other words, Al-Azami was wrong to say that “the Orthodox Church obliterated these other views of Christ,” and that “they changed it so that essential Christianity looked different.” That’s not the case.

Ehrman makes this claim, and the three times I’ve debated him I put these two quotes up at the end of the debate, and he can’t refute them because he knows he said it. The debates could have been a whole lot shorter if he just— if I just put that up at the beginning but people would want their money back.

So a few months after this came out in the paperback version, it was quietly taken out of the paperback version of Misquoting Jesus because it hurt sales.

So let me conclude with an unnatural segue. A polar bear attacks a man in Canada and bystanders do nothing. The media didn’t even report this.

Now, have in your mind what this looks like. Everybody got a good picture? I hope breakfast was a long time ago because it could be a little scary, a little shocking.

What I just said was true, wasn’t it? A polar bear attacks men in Canada. The image you may have had was, “Oh my gosh! The sky is falling. Chicken Little. How can we get out of this mess? 400,000 textual variants. What am I going to do?” The reality is, what does it effect? Doesn’t affect the essentials of the Christian faith.

I may not know exactly what the Bible says in the original, but this I can bank on, that no essential teaching of the Christian faith is in jeopardy because of these textual variants. When I say that, when you hear about the number of variants, have this picture in mind of the attacks on the Christian faith by a polar bear of this size.

Closing prayer

Let’s pray, shall we?

You’re a great God. You’ve given us the Scriptures, you’ve inspired them, and you’ve had faithful scribes over the centuries copy them so that we could have the Bible in our hands today. We’re grateful for that Lord and I pray that we will have a clear, and deep, and abiding conviction, that what we have in our hands in all essential respects, is in fact the Word of God. In Jesus’ name, amen.

It's All About Jesus

Jesus was a man who claimed to be God. Think on that for a minute. If that were true, how would it change the way you thought, felt, and lived this life?

At Mars Hill, we believe that Jesus is God. We take him at his word. Because of this, everything we do is all about Jesus. We invite you to learn more about this man who is God and how you can find forgiveness and new life in him.

Learn More Stories

Making Disciples

God reveals himself through us to others. Our priority is to make disciples who love God and love others well.

Learn More

Planting Churches

God works through his church to make disciples. Our commitment is to plant churches that love God and love others.

Learn More

What to Expect

Visiting a church for the first time can be nerve-racking. But having an idea of what to expect can help. There are three main parts to every Sunday service: preaching, worship, and kids. To learn more about each of these, click the links below.

The Mars Hill Guide Leadership at Mars Hill

We value community

Church is more than a service. It’s people living life together and helping one another throughout our cities to serve our cities. Each week, thousands of people at Mars Hill meet in hundreds of small communities to learn about God, pray, eat, laugh, and live. We call these Community Groups—and they’re the heart of our church.

Learn More About Community  Log In to The City

Mars Hill Music

Mars Hill musicians write fresh music and rearrange timeless hymns for our worship services and recording. Explore Mars Hill Music.

Cheerful givers wanted

Jesus is the most generous person who ever lived. He gave his life so that we might live. As Christians, we give our time, talent, and money joyfully in response to Jesus’ generosity and to help more people meet Jesus.

Give Money Give Time

My Library beta

You can now save your favorite sermons, blog posts and Mars Hill content in one place!

To use My Library, you'll need to sign in or create an account.

Sign in / Sign up

My Notes

Did you know you can take notes while you stream our services on Sundays? You can view your notes at any time, and share them with anyone you choose.

To use My Notes, you'll need to sign in or create an account.

Sign in / Sign up