Can We Trust the Gospels? – Ch 6: Has the Text Changed?

This is a chapter summary of Peter J Williams, “Can We Trust the Gospels?”.  For the book overview and chapter summary links, click here.

In this chapter, Williams discusses whether the text has been changed.

As mentioned earlier, the Christian scribes which also passed down Greek and Latin literature were very competent and objective. 

This general approach to copying of manuscripts is not limited to Christian scribes too. Arabic, Hebrew, Chinese, Sanskrit and Syriac texts have also been passed down for many generations with very high accuracy. 

Williams argues that one should ‘avoid the trap’ of assuming a text is untrustworthy until proven trustworthy. Instead, one should view the texts as reasonable representations of the original.

The first printed and published edition of the New Testament was produced by Desiderius Erasmus in 1516, who apparently was the world’s most learned man.

For the Gospels, he only had 2 manuscripts to work with, both from the twelfth century. Since then, many new manuscripts have been discovered, some of which were even earlier than the manuscripts that Erasmus used. 

Between copies of the Gospels of the 16th century and modern day, the biggest differences lie in John 7:53-8:11 and Mark 16:8. However, it seems he already knew of the uncertainty with regard to the passages as one of the manuscripts indicated as much for the Mark passage and omitted the one in John. 

Therefore if much of what was discovered in the years since has not significantly increased unreliability in the copies, there is no reason to expect any future discoveries to do the same.

On the last point on whether the Gospels could have been changed very early on, before the first manuscripts we have today were created, Williams argues that it is not as rational as believing that they were not. Continuing with the argument that future discoveries follow past discoveries, it is more unlikely that there is a major discontinuity that has not yet been found than that the manuscripts were copied faithfully.

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