The Trustworthiness of Bible Translations
Critics of Christianity like Bart Ehrman say that the New Testament has undergone so many alterations that we have no way of really recovering what the original New Testament text said. Some will bring up the astounding numbers, saying that there are about 400,000 differences in the manuscripts. They will note that this amounts to twice as many changes as total words in the New Testament. They will claim that the manuscripts that we are trusting are from hundreds of years after the events. Some King James Only-ists will catch on to this method of historical scrutiny and cast doubt on the most ancient available manuscripts.
Don’t cast me off as a heretic if I say that most of these critiques are correct… at least on the surface. Vociferous non-Christians will typically use these little facts in a misleading fashion. They are telling one side of the story—the side that lends aid to their avoidance of the Bible, the facts of the Bible, and the God of the Bible. I want to show why you don’t need to be uncomfortable with the stats that are brought up to try to discredit the New Testament.
First, I propose that there have been more “changes” to the New Testament text in the last hundred years than there were in 1500 years of extant manuscripts. Just look at a comparison between the NASB and the New Living Translation:
|In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth.
|In the beginning the Word already existed.
The Word was with God,
and the Word was God.
So the Word became human* and made his home among us. He was full of unfailing love and faithfulness.* And we have seen his glory, the glory of the Father’s one and only Son. 
Depending on how one counts, this is as many as 27 differences in two verses1. If all we could look at were these two verses in these two texts, that would account for 15 variants (assuming the NLT as the variants and the NASB as the standard). You may be thinking that 15 is still a long way off from 400,000—like 1/25,000th of the way there! Stick with the process. Variants are not counted across a single document. Let’s assume that instead of just having these two that there are 100 of each of these. Suddenly, instead of having 15 variants, we have 15 across 100 texts, for a total of 1,500 variants. This would mean that in a text of only 45 words, there are 1,500 variants.
Let’s assume that another 100 are found in another version—the NIV2:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.
Now there are 35 differences, to be counted as either 3,500 variants or 2,300 variants. With only 45 words, that is more than 50 variants per word.
This math is done on 300 texts, 2 verses per text, over 50 variants per word… and the texts basically still say the same thing. Based on these, we might not know the exact original. But we could know very very closely. The 168 words across three texts account for 35 differences, or about one difference every 5 words, or 6 variants per verse.
Let’s compare that with the math of the Greek manuscripts. Instead of 300 texts, we have 5,839. 400,000 variants among that many manuscripts would mean just under 70 variants per manuscript. I just showed what 15 variants looks like in 2 verses. Instead of 2 verses, the average manuscript is 450 pages3. Therefore, we have around 2,600,000 pages of text. Assuming 400,000 textual variants, that would imply that there is on average only one variant for every 6.5 pages of text. That scarcity sure takes the wind out of the skeptic’s sails!
Lending further credence to the reliability of the texts are the places where the vast majority of variants are seen. In King James Only—Refuted part one I showed side by side comparisons of two of the more opposite Greek New Testaments. There were just enough differences to make one pause and consider why changes came about in the transmission of the text. Language had changed, as it typically does, to be more convenient, particular, simple, and familiar. If we were translating from British to American English, which diverged just a couple hundred years ago, there would be appropriate, non-meaningful changes to be made. We would drop the “u” out of certain words like “colour”; we would change “mum” into “mom,” etc. Such changes make up around 99.5% of the textual variants, or one in 200. That would equate to one meaningful and viable variant for approximately every 1300 pages of manuscript text. No wonder Daniel Wallace was surprised that the number of variants wasn’t even higher!
We continue to uncover new evidences of old manuscripts, all of which further attest to an unchanged core of transmission through the centuries4. As manuscripts increase, variants also increase, but so does our understanding of what was probably original in those unique cases. The Nestle-Aland text and the UBS text are staying current with the totality of the textual evidence to provide Bible translators with the best information possible. These are the standards that typical Bible translations go off of to assure accuracy and integrity in their transmission of God’s word. The criticism that we don’t really have any idea what the original text of the New Testament actually said does not seem to hold water. This general reliability does not eliminate every difficulty. Some of the texts that remain challenges will be addressed in an upcoming blog.
1There are 7956 verses in the New Testament.
2102 other English translations could have been chosen. We can’t just assume to multiply by 102. While they’re all required to be different for copywrite reasons, it would have multiplied the total number of English variants an unknown amount. One would have to count the number of words and word orders that are unique to only that version. I would guess that nearly every word would have some kind of “variant” in another translation.
3Daniel Wallace of the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts says that the average manuscript is 450 pages. James White said the average size is about 200 pages. I am taking the higher because of Wallace’s field of study, and am thinking that the difference is due to Wallace counting front and back pages or folded pages as 2 pages.
4“With all the previously published New Testament papyri (127 of them, published in the last 116 years), not a single new reading has commended itself as authentic. Instead, the papyri function to confirm what New Testament scholars have already thought was the original wording or, in some cases, to confirm an alternate reading—but one that is already found in the manuscripts” (D. Wallace).
 New American Standard Bible: 1995 update. (1995). (Jn 1:1). LaHabra, CA: The Lockman Foundation.
 New American Standard Bible: 1995 update. (1995). (Jn 1:14). LaHabra, CA: The Lockman Foundation.
 Tyndale House Publishers. (2013). Holy Bible: New Living Translation (Jn 1:1). Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers.
 Tyndale House Publishers. (2013). Holy Bible: New Living Translation (Jn 1:14). Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers.
 The New International Version. (2011). (Jn 1:1). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
 The New International Version. (2011). (Jn 1:14). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.