I know Yahoo Answers isn’t a very reliable source, so I am asking you about an answer that was  there. Someone commented on a question that was asked. The question was ” Where were the Gospels written?” One of the answers was “Tons of people compiled, copied and translated and edited the gospels all over the Middle East, Europe, and Russia.In every country and church, they copied some existing texts from somewhere else and added whatever they wanted to add. A lot of the gospel were written by church boys and young priests who did a lot of hand “copying” and writing. The gospels and the Bible were like wikipedia articles. Being edited and written to by people from all over. Except that everyone have their own versions. P.S. A lot of version have major differences. Everyone thinks their own version is the “CORRECT” version.”

So, my main question is, is this guy right? And if he is, how is the Bible reliable?


I have answered this or related questions many times at the web site. I will supply a partial answer to the question you ask, but suggest you spend some time in the section of the Q & As at the web site in the reliability of the Bible. Also, there is an entire chapter on the reliability of the biblical texts in my book “Reasons for Belief” which is available at

My general response to the comment you found at Yahoo Answers is that there is a grain of truth in the claim, but that the claim is so exaggerated and so misleading that it is downright deceitful. The person who made this statement is either extremely uninformed about the actual facts of the transmission of the New Testament or is well-informed and is purposefully deceiving his readers. I hope the former is the case.

Let me explain. It is true that thousands of people made copies of the Greek text of the New Testament. It is also true that over the course of many hundreds of years and many tens of thousands of copies of the various books of the New Testament being made, a lot of copying errors occurred, and in very rare cases, some copyists made changes, not by accident, but in an attempt to “improve” the text they were copying. To this extent, what the person said at Yahoo Answers is true.

However, his conclusion is vastly unreliable and misleading. Here is why. We have almost 10,000 partial or complete manuscripts of the Greek New Testament. Most of these are later copies–for example well past 500 AD. Changes made by “church boys and young priests” (a very disrespectful description) after about AD 500 are almost completely irrelevant to the reliability of our Greek New Testament. This is a major reason the statement above is so misleading. It is the many dozens of manuscripts from the second through sixth centuries which are relevant to help reproduce as accurate a Greek New Testament as possible. We have several partial New Testament manuscripts from the second century, the oldest being the Rylands Papyrus from about AD 125. There are dozens of manuscripts from the 200s and complete manuscripts from the 300s, including the Codex Vaticanus, Codex Alexandrinus and Codes Sinaiticus. By comparing the earliest, most reliable manuscripts, scholars can produce a Greek text for which, depending on what scholar you talk to, somewhere between 98 and 99.5% is almost absolutely certainly identical with the original. It is true that there is a very small number of significant textual variations even in the early manuscripts. It is also true that in very rare cases, some changes were made by people with theological agendas. However, in almost every case, scholars can make reasonable deductions from the evidence to decide what is the most likely original.

I am copying and pasting a recent article at the web site on one such passage for which some have questioned the reliability of the Greek text. The passage in question is Luke 23:34b (“Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”). There are variations in this passage, even in the eariest manuscript. The conclusion is that, using a common-sense approach, considering reasonable arguments, we can reach a conclusion on this passage with is very likely, but not absolutely certain.

This person says that those who copied the New Tesatment texts, “added whatever they wanted to add.” This is a gross exaggeration. There were thousands of copies of the New Testament circulating by the fourth century. Church leaders knew the Greek New Testament nearly by heart. If a scribe were to change the Greek text willy nilly, such bogus texts would have been rejected out of hand.

In a short response, I cannot do a really good job of answering your question, but let me provide a tentative response to the misleading or even deceitful statement you found at Yahoo Answers. Based on the manuscript evidence, especially from the second to fifth century, combined with common-sense logic and knowledge of things going on in the early church, we can produce a New Testament text which is a nearly exact copy of the original. The very small number of passages in doubt–less than 1/2 of 1% of the entire New Testament–does not involve anything essential to the teaching or theology of the New Testament. Our Greek New Testament is extremely reliable.

See the Q & A below.

John Oakes


Does this not give you something to think about ? [editor’s note: some personal info about where the questioner got this info and generated the question is left out here]

Bruce wrote: “There are texts which may have lacked the Prayer of Forgiveness on the Cross in Luke (so like Luke to invent this in the first place). If so, the removal may reflect an irreconcilable anti-Judaism. The dates of Luke and John (especially, of their earliest textual states) are relevant here, are they not?” David I: As far as I am aware, there are texts that definitely did lack the Prayer of Forgiveness in lk. Wieland Willker lists the following: P75, 01C1, B, D*, W, Q, 070, 579, 1241, pc7, a, bC, d, Sy-S, sa, bo (where pc = 31*, 38, 435, 597*, 1808*, 2622L, 2633). [editor’s note: the abbreviations above are special symbols used to denote certain specific manuscripts. P75 is a particular papyrus, etc. you can figure this out using google if you are curious. Some of these are very important and generally reliable manuscripts] Also, Marcion did not have the prayer. However, many church fathers knew the words. Burgon lists the following: 2nd Century: Hegesippus, Irenaeus; · 3rd Century: Apostolic Constitutions, Clementine Homilies, disputation of Archelaus with Manes, Hippolytus, Origen, Tatian; · 4th: Century: Acta Apostt. (Syrian Acts of the Apostles), Acta Philippi, Acta Pilati, Ambrose, Athanasius, Augustine, Basil, Chrysostom, Dionysius Areopagus, Ephraem Syrus, Ephraim, Eusebius, Gregory Nyssa, Hilary, Ignatius (c), Jerome, Justin Martyr (c), Theodorus; · 5th Century: Cyril of Alexandria, Eutherius, Theodoret; · 6th Century: Anastasius Sinaita, Hesychius; 7th Century: Andreas Cretensis, Antiochus the monk, Maximus; · 8th Century: Amphilochius (c), Chrysostom (c), John Damascene. Some more interesting comments from Willker: “Lk 23:34 together with Lk 22:43-44 are two of the most important variants in the Gospels, perhaps THE two most important. If we accept these words to be genuine, which I am inclined to do (still with a big question mark, of course), then we must accept that P75/B suffered from some strange, selective, but serious recensional activity.” Willker has lots more on this here: (scan down to TVU 379) David Inglis.


I will not attempt to give you a “scholarly” response to this issue because it is extremely clear that your friend David Inglis has already done this far better than I could even conceivably do.

Nevertheless, here is my response. The prayer by Jesus for the forgiveness of the Romans who were in his execution detail is a significant textual issue. The reason for this is that whether Luke 23:34b was added by editors to an original which did not include it or it was removed by editors from an original which included it, this was almost certainly not a “slip of the pen.” In other words, we can assume that a theological perspective motivated the change. The way I see it, there are two important questions to be answered which are important for believers (although there are additional important questions for scholars)

1. Which was the most likely original: One with or one without this prayer?

2. Whatever you answer to #1, what, if any, are the implications for Christian teaching, practice and theology?

A possible third question:

3. What are the implications for the reliability of the New Testament overall?

Let me give my unscholarly answer to #1. The manuscript evidence is fairly evenly split, as far as the earliest manuscripts go. We could get out a balance and start weighing both sides (Sinaiticus vs Vaticanus, vs Bezae, etc.). Later manuscripts lean solidly to it being in the original, but this evidence does not add much to the debate, as you know. Because the textual evidence leans slightly toward it being in the original, but the data is not sufficient to use this strongly, we need to proceed to asking reasonable questions about which is the most likely scenario. We know that there was a significant (and embarrassing) anti-Jewish sentiment in the second and third century church. This sad story, I believe, is the key to answering the question. It is FAR more likely that an anti-Jewish sentiment motivated one or more editors to remove Luke 23:34b that that a pro-Jewish (?) sentiment caused someone to add it later on. We cannot rule out an anti-Roman bias as a reason for removing the prayer as well. I agree with your scholar friend and with Wilker that it is significantly more likely that the prayer for forgiveness of the Romans was in the original, not so much because of the manuscript evidence (which leans that way, but only slightly) but because of our knowledge of what was going on in the church in the second and third centuries. I do not think that this reasoning is a slam dunk. One could even argue (dubiously, but….) that an editor added the prayer to mollify Roman sentiment!!! However, I agree with your friend that this was probably in the original.

The best way to answer question #2 is to assume the answer to question #1 above is correct (but bear in mind at least the possibility that it is not correct). If the prayer was in the original, the effect on mainstream Christianity is zero, because it has been assumed by virtually all Christians for well over a thousand years, as far as I know, that this was in the original. The implication is that Jesus wants us to love our enemies, especially when they act out of ignorance rather than willful evil. This teaching is found in multiple places in the New Testament, including in the gospels and the letters. I will not bother to quote these. Of course, we cannot rule out the possibility that the prayer was added later. If so, the motivation would be less clear. However, the implications of this possibility are not all that different from the first. Because Jesus said we should love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us, the theological implications of a Luke 23:34 without the prayer for forgiveness is minimal. It might even be zero. I suppose we could argue that it is an additional plank in the platform which supports that Christians should not blame the Jews for the death of Jesus.

Last, there is question 3. If there is any significant implication of this debate, it is to question #3. Many believers (and I suppose many non-believers as well) are not aware that in the first three or four centuries, some of the textual variations which popped up were not the result of slips of the pen, and not even the sincere efforts of copyists to “improve” the text (for example trying to make two gospels agree more closely). The fact that some textual variations which slipped into the text were motivated by people with some sort of ax to grind. The number and significance of these is still relatively small. Maybe Luke 23:34b is one of the biggest. In the end, I think an careful analysis of this will lead us to a more accurate and nuanced understanding of textual criticism, but I believe it will have little effect on our overall confidence in the reliability of the best Greek New Testament text. This question is an example. The evidence plus reason points to a well-preferred conclusion (keeping the prayer in), but if it were removed, no significant teaching of Christianity would be changed.

John Oakes

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