Are the Gospels Reliable? Part 3 – What About All the Mistakes?

Are we having fun yet?  If you are still reading…let me just say “thanks” and I hope you have found some of this helpful.  Maybe even some of this can serve to build your faith stronger in the reliability of the gospels!

To trace where we have been – we started with an Introduction and laid the questions and objections on the table and have been systematically addressing each of them.  In Part 1, we engaged with the issue of illiteracy.  Meaning, if hardly anyone could read or write, isn’t it impossible that they could have recorded the events of gospels, in writing, in a reliable way?

In Part 2, we looked at the question of the integrity of the gospels. Meaning, wasn’t stuff changed in the time between when the events happened and the time they were written down?

Hopefully, you will not be surprised that the answer of both of those two questions is NO.  It is not impossible that a mostly illiterate culture could accurately record the events of the gospel in writing, and those events were not changed by the time they actually did write them down.   Definitely read those other posts if you haven’t already.

So now onto our last question that we will look at, in the hopes of getting to the bottom of this question of the reliability of the gospels.  Since we don’t have the original manuscripts, and all we have are copies – what about the thousands of differences in the text between all the manuscript copies? Doesn’t all the differences between the manuscripts indicate mistakes? And therefore, doesn’t this prove that the gospels are not reliable?  [OK, so that was more like four questions, but same idea…]

It’s something we’ve probably all heard.  “The Bible has mistakes.”  One of my favorite responses is to ask “Can you show me one?”  A lot of times, people won’t know any.  But there are also times where people WILL be able to identify a few “mistakes” in the Bible.

Here’s what I mean.  The Bible says that upon the death of Jesus, the curtain in the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.  In Mark’s gospel, the curtain rips the moment after Jesus dies, but in Luke’s version it rips when he is still living. 

What about the account of the baptism of Jesus, recorded in all the gospels.  In Matthew, the voice says something different than in Mark.  Matthew 3:17 says “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” Mark 1:11 says “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”

There are countless other differences/mistakes. Doesn’t this prove the gospels aren’t reliable?

No.  And actually, they aren’t countless. Most of them are counted, critiqued and catalogued.  This is the discipline of Textual Criticism of the manuscript copies.

You see back in the first century, let’s say you wanted a copy of the gospel of Matthew for yourself.  Well, you would hire a scribe to copy one for you. Scribes would make many copies of the manuscripts and there would inevitably be differences.  Maybe they skipped a word, or misspelled a word, or even maybe they added a word or two to clarify.  So yes, there are differences between the manuscripts, lots of them, and they are referred to as “variants.”  But are these variants/mistakes that take away from the credibility of the gospels if we have identified them all? 

No, not at all.  Reason being is the massive number of copies of the manuscripts that we have.  It’s hard to get an exact count on the number of manuscripts due to a host of issues like manuscript types [fragment or full copy?], potential double counting, and not to mention the constant discovery and loss of items in any collection.  So it’s hard to land on a solid number, let’s just say there are thousands of them – and that’s a lot and really important for three reasons.

First reason is that is noticeably more than other literature. Again,  I’m not going to go into numbers here for the same challenges noted above, but the takeaway is that as James Prothro writes, “the New Testament has a better textual basis for scholars to work with than classical works.” [Elijah Hixson and Peter Gurry, Myths and Mistakes in New Testament Criticism, 86]. What does that mean?  It means that we have a lot of source material to work with in doing textual criticism and that only increases reliability.  Especially when we are talking about the second reason.

The second reason is that we can compare these thousands of manuscripts and partial manuscripts to each other and see what they all are saying.  When scholars spot a variant, they investigate.   Do you know what they find the majority of the time?  A simple copying error that sticks out like a sore thumb.  Meaning, if you have hundreds of copies where a word is spelled one way in the Greek and five copies where it is spelled another way, what does that say about which is right?  And what does it say about the critical importance of the mistakes?  That brings us to our third reason of support…

In all the variants that are found and studied, time and time again it is clear that there is no theological doctrine that is in question.  The overwhelming majority of variants [“mistakes”] are very minor and have no effect on any major doctrine whatsoever.  Gurry writes “we are safe then, to claim that neither the Christian faith nor the Bible’s inspiration is threatened by textual variants. The words of Stephen Neill from half a century ago remain true: “Indeed, I think it is no exaggeration to say the the very worse Greek manuscript now in existence…contains enough of the Gospel in unadulterated form to lead the reader into the way of salvation.” [Hixson and Gurry, 209]

And that’s where all of this has been leading us to – the question of reliability of the gospels is really a question of salvation.  We’ll tackle that final topic in our last blog post.  Stay tuned!


8 thoughts on “Are the Gospels Reliable? Part 3 – What About All the Mistakes?

  1. “No. And actually, they aren’t countless. Most of them are counted, critiqued and catalogued. This is the discipline of Textual Criticism of the manuscript copies.”

    aka the entire industry invented to make excuses for the bible author’s mistakes. Do explain how a supposedly “perfect” god that wants to be understood and has some “truth”, creates a bible full of mistakes. Christians love to blame the authors, to excuse their god, but that only begs the question.

    1. I can see how you would arrive to that conclusion. But the original writings had no mistakes. The thousands of copies have mistakes/differences, in a sense, it would be impossible that they didn’t. People wanted to hear the message of God and lots of copies were made in all their humanness – [is that a word?] – with misspellings, mixed up words, and omitted words. Fortunately God preserved his Word so that we can be confident of what was really intended.

      But the takeaways for me are (1) Does any of that change the clarity of the message of God in his word? Nope. (2) Couldn’t it be that a gracious [and perfect] God uses [imperfect] human beings and involves them in his kingdom work like making copies of his Word? I’d say yup.

      1. Mike, there are no “original writings” so you have no idea.

        “Fortunately God preserved his Word so that we can be confident of what was really intended.”

        No evidence of that at all. That your god can’t keep the bible free from errors is amusing, since humans seem to have little problem in keeping the qu’ran free of them.

        Each christian claism that their version is what this god “really intended” and alas, none of yuo can show this to be the case. None of you can do what the bible has JEsus promising to every baptized believer in him.

        The takeaways are amusing and wrong. 1. The clarity of this message is mangled since Christians dont’ agree on what this god wants, and which parts of the bible to claim as literal, metaphor, etc. 2. No evdience of a god at all. The failed bible is lovely evidence that there is no god at all. It’s just as if us imperfect humans made it up.

      2. This is illogical. How can there be thousands of copies, in multiple languages, spanning centuries…if there were no original writings? Logic would necessitate there had to have been an original.

        What evidence would you require in order to you to be convinced that God exists? That in and of itself is a non-starter bc if he [“she” “they”?] does exist you already are putting yourself above God and that would be super weird for you to then find out you were wrong and start off on the wrong foot with the rightful King of the Universe. But that’s just it. That’s EVERY man’s default position. We are in need of reconciliation, forgiveness and restoration as we have kicked the Creator out of His own Creation.

        You are right! This message has been mangled which is why we should read it for ourselves. If I may ask another question: have you ever read it for yourself? or are you just parroting the same tired arguments of others? It’s hip to bash on Christians these days, often from those who went to dysfunctional and unbiblical churches in their youth. I get whiffs of a scarred Christian kid, maybe? If so, I was one too and that really sucks. Then I read it for myself and realized that most of soft squishy American Evangelicalism isn’t in the Bible and God is way bigger than we make him out to be.

      3. I didn’t say that there were no original writings. I am saying you do not have them and cannot show that they were some how “better”.

        You offer yet one more classic excuse, that how dare I ask for evidence for this god and claim I am somehow putting myself above this god. Hmm, funny how your god never whined about this in the bible, happy to give evidence it existed to Gideon, Thomas, offers to give it in Malachi, etc. That is an excuse invented by humans who know god will do nothing, and show that their claims are nonsense.

        Yep, I am right! The message, if there is a message, has been mangled and every Christian claims that their version is the right one. Alas none of you can show that. You say we should read it ourselves, and surprise that gets exactly what we see, each Christian inventing their god in their image.

        I have indeed read the bible, a couple of times, as a Christian and as not. It’s full of ignorance and hate.

        It’s “hip” to show how liars fail. And I do love how yuo try to claim that anyone who shows you to be a liar simply must be somehow “injured” by those Christians you claim are wrong. Alas, Mike, you are just like them and they like you.

        Nope, no “scarred christian kid” no matter how hard you lie to yourself hoping I am.

        You are just one more Christian making up nonsense in order to feel special. Your god is no bigger than you.

      4. Oh but you did say that there are not original writings. But that’s OK. I’ll play along.

        It’s hard to pick and choose what to respond to as your response is all so scattered and emotional, but I’ll try a few responses. First, none of those biblical examples have anything to do with questioning the existence of God. They all believed God existed beyond a shadow of a doubt, but they were questioning his will. God is big enough for us to do that. I can only surmise that all the Christians you have met haven’t had the courage to bring their questions to God, because if they did, His Word and His character would stand up to any questions.

        Second, the Bible is absolutely not full of ignorance and hate, but I can see how you’d think that. The Old Testament is a very hard read in places, I’ll give you that. It must be read as two parts of the same story. But in the end it all tells one story – a God of perfect justice and holiness responding in the face of pure evil, with judgment for those who reject him and grace for those who take him up on his gracious offer of reconciliation. None of this makes any sense to you, I get it, as it has no place in your worldview.

        I’m truly sorry for what you have seen when you “were” a Christian and also sorry for how angry it has made you.

        God really does exist. He really is holy and he really does have wrath against people who reject the rightful Creator King of the universe. But he is also really full of grace, love and mercy. How else could he forgive the very creatures who spit in his face? I don’t know what else to say. Perhaps if you presented some actual intellectually honest questions, instead of ranting the same old tired rhetoric, we could have an honest discussion. I would actually like that.

  2. “There are countless other differences/mistakes. Doesn’t this prove the gospels aren’t reliable?

    No. And actually, they aren’t countless. Most of them are counted, critiqued and catalogued. This is the discipline of Textual Criticism of the manuscript copies.”

    Never knew any of this..great info

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