Author Greg Koukl
Published on 05/06/2024

Why We Don’t Need the Original Copy of the Bible

Greg and Amy share some ways you can respond to a self-proclaimed “Christian” who claims the Bible is not reliable because it is missing passages.


Question from Laurie: How do you respond to someone who continually talks about missing verses in the Bible—the Bible is owned by a corporation and is not trustworthy—who claims to be a Christian. This person does not read the Bible or attend church.

Greg: Well, there’s a number of questions that come to mind on this. The standard question with people who claim to be Christian but don’t evidence a classic Christianity of any sort is, what do they mean when they say they’re Christian? I’m not trying to challenge that. I’m just curious. Different people mean different things when they use the word. In fact, 65%, apparently, of Americans self-identify as Christian. Well, it’s pretty obvious that 65% of the people in this country are not classic Christians. They are not holding to the classical standards of Christianity. So, they mean something else. They might mean, “Well, I’m not Jewish, and I’m not a pagan, and I’m not a Muslim. I’m not a Hindu. And I think Jesus was cool, and I believe in the Golden Rule, so that would make me a Christian.” I think there are probably a lot of people like that. I’m not sure, in this person’s case—Laurie’s friend’s case—but that’s the question to ask, and that might uncover some things.

If she thinks verses are missing, then the question is, what does she mean by that? I know I sound like a broken record. What exactly are you getting at here—that verses are missing? Where are they missing? It’s interesting when people say that because you can read through any text in the New Testament, especially the Epistles, and there’s a continuity. There’s a flow of thought. It’s a letter from one person to another person or group of people. So, something is being communicated. Now, there is a change of pace at different places. They shift to another topic, and, I guess, in between the shift there could be paragraphs that are missing, but I don’t know why anybody would say that. By the way, there are things that are missing in some manuscripts, but there are so many manuscripts to compare one with another that the missing piece really jumps out. Why is it that all of these manuscripts have this line, but this other manuscript doesn’t have it? Well, that might have been through a scribal error.

If you want to claim that all of these manuscripts are missing something important, you’d have to have a reason for that. How would you know? You must have in mind a pristine original that has a section in it that none of the manuscripts have, and therefore the manuscripts at our disposal are missing important things. But why would anyone say that? There must be a reason.

J.P. Moreland wrote a piece once, talking about autographs—that is, the original—and why it’s really important that we don’t have the autographs. You’d think it would be the other way around, but it’s not. It’s important that God did not allow the autographs to survive, because if the autograph—that is, the single, sole document—is the key, then that could be toyed with, it could be altered, it could be destroyed, and then you’re gone. When there are multiple copies that are made of the autograph, and then copies of those, and then copies of the third generation, and subsequent thousands of copies with multiple generations, you are in a position, now, to compare all of these to see if changes actually have been made. It shows up very, very vividly, and this discipline of textual criticism allows us to do that.

Of course, there’s Bart Ehrman, who has written as an expert in the field. He was trained by Bruce Metzger. Right after Bruce Metzger died, he started writing these popular pieces about how you can’t trust the Bible—the New Testament documents have been messed with. At the back of his most famous work, Misquoting Jesus, there’s an appendix, and it said, here are the verses that are not in the original Bible. It’s meant to shake people up, but what’s interesting to me is he, as a textual critic, is able to separate the wheat from the chaff, which means he knows they weren’t in the original, and therefore we know what the original said.

Amy: And most Bibles note these things.

Greg: Of course. There was no surprise in that. Hardly a single verse that I wasn’t aware of that was in that list. Most Bibles will note that. “Not in earliest manuscripts,” etc., etc. Famously, the long ending of Mark, and, famously, the woman caught in adultery. That showed up in different manuscripts at different times, different Gospels, actually, and so this is where it kind of settled out over time, but there’s a lot of reasons to believe that wasn’t canonical. I actually think it took place, for a number of reasons. It’s historically sound, but it’s not canonical. So, if somebody says that there are these Bible verses that are missing or says that it’s corporations, all these manuscripts were written long before corporations. So, where is she getting her understanding of how this took place? That’s the question.

Amy: Also, there are certain publishers who have translations, but the actual Greek text that is determined by textual criticism, I don’t think anyone has a copyright to that.

Greg: Nobody owns it. What is copyrighted are the collections of those things, like Nestle’s Greek text. There’s a number of volumes where you can get all the variations and stuff. You can go online and check them out. They’re all available. Nobody has a copyright on the originals or any of the text material. So, when you aggregate them together, your formation of that is something that’s copyrightable, but not the Greek text itself.

Amy: I think what I would do, Laurie, is ask your friend to explain what the evidence is for what she believes about missing verses. I think, a lot of times, people just don’t have an understanding of how the Bible was transmitted from one generation to the next—that it’s geometric. It’s not like one line—one person copies it out, and then the next person copies it out, and just in one long line. You could lose them that way. As you pointed out, there are whole families of manuscripts where five people copy from the one copy and then five from each of those. And so, you can look back, and you can see what has been changed and where something’s been taken out, but the thing is, it’s always somewhere. And this is something I think Dan Wallace, I think I heard him say this. We can be confident that we have everything that was originally written. Now, we might not know, okay, this verse. Was this original? Was this not original?

Greg: We have more.

Amy: What he was saying is that we’re not going to come across something that we never saw before that’s actually original. It’s just not going to happen. We have all the parts. It’s just a matter, now, of figuring out what is original, what isn’t, and there are a couple verses that are in question—hardly any, at this point. And, like we said earlier, you can look in your Bible, and it will say if the verse is in question. And so, you can always see that. It’s nothing hidden. There’s nothing out there that has been taken away that we just don’t have any record of. It’s just not reasonable to think that’s the case.

Greg: So, the vast majority of these differences called textual variations are simply not viable. We can tell which are the mistakes and which aren’t. Sometimes singular citations. You have one manuscript that has this thing in it, so what’s the chance that all these hundreds and thousands of other manuscripts left it out and this one got it right? That’s unlikely. But even when you have viable differences, that doesn’t mean that the difference is relevant in any theological sense. It’s just sometimes inconsequential. Some passages say “Jesus Christ.” Some say “Christ Jesus.” Some say “Lord Jesus Christ.” Well, these are variants, and even if you figure out what was the original rendering, I think everybody can see that no matter which rendering you use, the meaning of the text isn’t changed in any significant fashion. So, this is the way that textual critics address these issues and come up with the confidence that Dan Wallace, a worldwide expert in this field, has come up with.

Amy: And, of course, everything that we’ve said here can help explain why it’s incorrect to think this, but the question is, why does your friend think this? And I think you need to do a little more digging. What do you think has been taken out? I think that might give you a clue as to what’s going on in her mind or his mind. What does she think is missing? Is it some theological idea? What theological idea is it? I think you might get an idea of what your friend truly believes, and once you can find out what she believes and what she thinks is true, now you can talk to her about the truth and the gospel and maybe even leave aside this question for the moment and find out what it is that your friend believes and why and then just discuss that belief and how Christianity is the truth and why the solution of Christianity to all the big questions is better than anything else because it’s true but it’s also beautiful. So, I think you have to do a little digging.