How Should I Respond to the Claim We Don’t Have the Original Bible?

written by Dr. Bernard Mauser

Can it be good to NOT have an original?

Norman Rockwell’s painting Saying Grace sold in 2013 for $46 million dollars. It was so valuable because it was an original and he is famous for capturing American life better than others. There are many of us who value and collect original or first-edition works.

Many people attack Christianity on the grounds that the original manuscripts of the Bible are not around. The original letter or work of an ancient author is called an autograph. For example, the apostle Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians would be considered the autograph or the original. He wrote one letter to them and sent it. They would have copied it to make sure they had more than just the original to encourage them and they sent it to other churches. This means there were twenty-seven original manuscripts (Gospels and letters) in the New Testament. Nobody has recorded what became of the originals of the Bible, though due to the material they would be written on, it should be no wonder why they decomposed. Why is it good that we do not possess the original manuscripts of the Bible? I can think of many reasons.

First, just think about how people act around an original masterpiece of an artist or a first edition baseball card or comic book. These objects are not only treated with great respect, but they are worshipped by fanatics. Worship of anything other than God is idolatry and a sin. Imagine the worship that would occur if we did have the original manuscripts of the Bible. God, in His wisdom, completely removed that as an option.

Secondly, if the original manuscripts did exist there is another danger. Whoever possessed those manuscripts would have the ability to alter what was written. In doing this the owner or owners would have the power to take away or add to the message that God delivered to the world. This would be a distortion of the message of God. However, with the thousands of early manuscripts we have that communicate the same message, it is impossible to distort this message in this way. If one were to change one of the copies it would be evident due to the great number of early manuscripts with a different message.

Third, because there are thousands of early manuscripts relating the same information, God has guaranteed that His message to us has not been lost. That Christians believed this message along with essential elements of it is corroborated in non-Christian sources as well.[1] It is important to note that there is agreement among the higher critical scholars that the essential message of the gospel is affirmed in the early Christian creed given in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. In the fifteenth chapter, it says,

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.

1 Corinthians

We know it is a creed due to the formulation ‘what I received I passed on.’ Because Paul received it, the message was around before his writing. Corinthians is the earliest letter we have. This creed can be traced to within one to two years after the resurrection. Note that the burial, resurrection and appearances to skeptics, enemies, family, and over five-hundred eyewitnesses most of whom were still alive are all recorded extremely early.

Fourth, the important thing for the Christian followers that needed preservation was the message. They were not confused about worshipping the original manuscripts. Instead, they quickly disseminated the good news that Jesus had come to save us from the punishment we deserve, reconciled us to God, and had proven these claims through his resurrection. They worshipped Jesus their creator as God and not the created manuscripts from the beginning.

Do we have the original Bible? Yes and no. Yes, in the sense that we know what the original Bible said due to the preservation of the message through the thousands of manuscripts. We can access the original by comparing all the manuscripts and reconstructing the original message. No, we do not actually have the sixty-six books or letters that were originally penned by the prophets or apostles.

So, if you are ever again confronted with “We don’t have the originals,” you can reply with “This is actually a great thing for lots of reasons!” Our faith should not be shaken given the abundance of evidence that the original message has been completely preserved.

Because of this, we can have complete confidence in taking the message of the gospel to the ends of the world.

[1] Suetonius, Tacitus, Josephus, Pliny the Younger, and even the Talmud have accounts that corroborate this. The most helpful chapter I’ve found comes from a chapter of the book of Gary Habermas called The Historical Jesus: Ancient Evidence for the Life of Christ.

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