What to make of reported inconsistencies in the Bible?
How do we know that what is written in our Bible’s is what the authors originally wrote down? How do we know it has not be corrupted or compromised? How can we trust the reliability and validity of Scripture?
We must first understand that the Bible was not transmitted orally – by word of mouth. Rather, it was transmitted by means of writing it down. The text of Scripture was first recorded on paper, or more accurately on pieces of parchment or papyrus. But the printing press was not invented until the 15th century. So, in order to reproduce the texts of Scripture it was copied onto other pieces of parchment, and then recopied, and recopied in order for it to be distributed.
It is true that we do not have any of the original manuscripts of Scripture. But while we do not have any of the original manuscripts of Scripture, we do have more than 5800 Greek manuscripts dating back to the 2nd century BC and more than 18,000 manuscripts in other languages. That is exponentially more manuscript data for the Bible than we have for the average Greco-Roman author, such as Julius Caesar's Gallic War (10 manuscripts) or Tacitus’s Annals and Histories (2 manuscripts).
Some people though argue against the reliability of Scripture because they look at all of these manuscripts and they see variations, or discrepancies between them. These are scribal errors, where one manuscript does not say exactly what another manuscript says, and the total of these errors amounts to 400,000 variants. The conclusion is that due to these variants the Bible cannot be trusted. While that number sounds staggering, the vast majority of these variants make little difference to the meaning of the passage.
For instance, 75% of the variants are considered spelling and punctuation variants. It would be like the text saying the word "color" in one manuscript and "colour" in another manuscript. That variant does not affect the meaning of the word whatsoever. Another major group of variants that do not carry any weight are word order variants, which account for about 20%. An example of this would be for one manuscript to say “the cow was in the field mooing,” and another to say “the cow was mooing in the field.” The different word order doesn’t affect the meaning of the sentence. In actuality less than 1% of all textual variants are meaningful and viable. They might affect what a particular passage teaches, and thus what the Bible says in that place, but they still do not jeopardize essential doctrinal beliefs.
A lot of people have the idea that we have lost the original bible. The reality is that most of the differences in the manuscripts are additions, not omissions. So, it is not that we only have 90% of the original bible; more like we have 105% of the original bible. And using the various manuscripts we are able to deduce what the additions are. These additions are usually noted in your Bibles (see John 7:53-8:11; Mark 16:9-20). We have everything we need to recover the biblical text – nothing is missing.
We can have assurance in the reliability of Scripture for multiple reasons. First due to the insurmountable number of manuscripts that we have, but second, and most importantly because our God has made sure that His Word has remained unchanged and true. Because of this we can have confidence and can trust and believe in the reliability of Scripture.