Question: is there any evidence (like numbers, things etc.) that prove that the bible has been preserved? And why do a lot of heaven and hell visions and testimonies say things contrary to the bible? They might be seeing the truth—while we're being blinded to the corrupted scripture made by mere men. Please help!
Answer: Thank you for submitting this question… it is loaded! After all, if the documents that Christians look to for their instructions in faith, doctrine and life are not properly founded and transmitted, why should they give them more credence than the purported visions of heaven and/or hell that sell so many books? Besides, following wild-eyed visionaries or innocent children into heaven sounds like a lot more fun than grinding away at theology! So, the Bible had better be worth the trouble. Well… it is! And you have come to the right place to find out why. Let’s explore.
Most Christians believe that the Bible is God’s word—but knowledgeable Christians understand why they believe this is true. We have piles of evidence concerning the Bible’s uncorrupted nature (“evidence, numbers, things, etc.”) which show that we Christians are the ones who have 20-20 vision—and those who are chasing after contemporary, sensationalist and populist visions not supported by the Bible, are the blind ones. But all we ask is a hearing—and you have given us one. So, thank you.
Your question hints that you want to believe in the veracity of the Bible. I say this because you’ve asked if the Bible “has been preserved.” A person who was antagonistic to the Scripture would not use the word preserve. It implies that God did indeed have an authoritative word at one time—one in jeopardy of corruption. Such a person would rather argue that the biblical writings were not from God of all—that the documents had questionable provenance, that these were the ramblings of mere men, that they had scribal errors, etc… but not you. You are asking about preservation. And yes—God’s word has been wonderfully preserved—supernaturally so… and yes again, we have proof! But what we do not have is the original documents.
What! How can we say that we have preserved God’s word if we have no original documents? How do we purport to evaluate the veracity of documents when no originals even exist? That is indeed the question for a layman. Fortunately for us, a range of specialist brings their skills to the project. Archeologists, historical scholars, paleographers, preservationists and more, seek to recreate the content of a document which we don’t have by studying the documents that we do have. But this is a specialized world with a specialized vocabulary—and you’ve asked for any “…evidence, numbers, things etc.” So, learning some new terms is the price of admission.
An original document (whether or not it exists) is called an autograph, and the non-original documents that remain are called witnesses. Any physical thing left behind by a culture (including a document) is an artifact. The things that we have in hand are extant—that is, they exist. The things we do not have in hand (like Paul’s original letter to the Galatians) are nonextant. But the term nonextant does not carry over into imaginary things. It refers only to things which are known to have existed. Some of these artifacts might have been destroyed and are gone forever. But some might be waiting for the archaeologist’s spade—and such discovery would change their category from nonextant to extant. This occurs with some regularity as archaeology advances.
But what does this mean for the Bible? Scripture is continually tested by archaeology, but it is never defeated by it. Now, please understand—God is true, and his word is true; they need no corroboration. But artifacts often do corroborate Scripture. And of all these corroborations, the ones that interest the paleographers most are the documents—the papyri, parchments, etc.—that reach back toward the apostolic era.
Of these documents, we have witnesses from the second century (100–200 AD)! This represents an unheard of closeness to the reported events among ancient documents. (The apostle John died around 95 A.D.) But when we start including the documents from the later centuries, we soon have over 5600 witnesses to the New Testament! And that’s before we even consider the translations of those documents into other languages, which brings the number of witnesses up to about 24,000. These numbers might not mean much to the layperson, but to someone who understands the rarity of non-scriptural ancient documents, these are amazing statistics. But are these numbers important?
As new discoveries add to our data, our knowledge base broadens. This means that our “structures”—the nonextant autographa that we are “building” with these bricks of witness—become more stable as the number of witnesses increase. With every addition to the dataset, the specialists consider their impact upon the autographa with an eye toward publishing the results for peer review. Then… we all argue about it! But that is the process of scholarship, and that is the data’s strength. The idea that biblical manuscripts are a few scraps of parchment lifted high by a few Christian crazies is unfounded. These manuscripts are lifted high by a group of culturally homogenized crazies—some are religious, and some are not. Yet, these people are interested in the same thing—the documents themselves. They have no interest in fostering religious propaganda.
The dataset continually grows as it is fed by archaeology, submissions from private holders, and as technology improves. In days past, a textual critic would have to travel to the institution that housed a certain set of manuscripts to view them (and these are located all around the world). Later, some institutions photographed their collections and made them available on microfilm. This was better, but not great. But with the advent of the Internet, and with cheaper data storage and higher resolution photography, the average person can simply Google many of these manuscript witnesses—and view for themselves these centuries old artifacts. This represents a previously unknown transparency—a democratization of the data, if you will. So, since we can now stare (virtually) right into the eyes of God, do you think that our indolence in coming to grips with his word will be excused?
Organizations like the CSNTM (Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts) exist to give the world better access to these ancient treasures. They make digital photographs of ancient documents to preserve the record. They can then be duplicated without deterioration and accessed by scholars doing textual research. They also utilize developing technologies such as MSI (Mass Spectrometer Imaging) and OCR (Optical Character Recognition) to read these manuscripts and create exhaustive collations. They even plan to analyze individual scribal habits in order to predict scribal tendencies in any given textual problem! But their overall objective is to, “….cooperate with other institutes in the great and noble task of determining the wording of the autographa of the New Testament.” And to that I say, Amen!
But my point in mentioning an organization like the CSNTM is that our dataset for establishing the New Testament autographa is getting larger, with better quality photos, via more technical tests and additional analyses. Additionally, thousands of manuscripts lie in private holdings—not yet evaluated by scholars. These, too, keep feeding into the great set of documents. So, although we have a stunning dataset already, its quality and quantity are continually growing.
Because we have so many documents, and because the documents must be examined under so many criteria, it would be impossible to reproduce all the Bible’s statistics into a manageable document (which is what we try to give you with these answers… in spite of this one exceeding 3000 words!) So I must now provide links to the relevant data to satisfy your need for “the numbers.”
I will begin with a table from CARM ministries which compares other ancient documents to the New Testament—but looking especially at the number of witnesses and the date-span between the first copy and the original document. Examine the first chart at the following link:
I like to use this particular chart because it shows how good the New Testament documents are—but especially when compared to other ancient documents. The New Testament has so many more copies than any document of comparable antiquity that comparison fails. All you can really do is look at the huge difference—mouth agape. So, how’s that for numbers! I have more.
Not only does the New Testament have an abundance of copies, they are in extraordinary agreement. I’ll take you to one of my own charts now. When you examine the following table, I want you to do two things: first, let your mouse hover over any of the Bible verses in question. Read the passage and ask yourself, would it matter if these passages were either included or excluded in the Bible? Your answer will be, no. None of the verses affect Christian doctrine in any way. They are decidedly mundane. Second, note the percent of uncontested verses at the bottom of the table. Visit this link:
How’s that for numbers! And what these numbers mean is that verses like, “You must be born again” (John 3:7) stand uncontested. So, anyone who is attacking the Bible by virtue of some alleged manuscript copying errors should be responsible to the portions of absolute agreement. I mean, that’s only fair. If the complainants are so “error sensitive,” they should also be “perfection sensitive”—and fall on their faces before God for this amazing feat of preservation!
This means, too, that the quintessentially Christian themes such as, “All have sinned,” and “all must come to Christ for redemption” are non-contested in the manuscripts. Therefore, people who dismiss God on the grounds of the New Testament manuscripts, have a perceived—and not an actual—manuscript problem. How does one get there? Poor scholarship? Taking somebody’s word for something and not looking it up for yourself? Or, do they wish to pick a fight with God? If so, they have a heart problem… because there is obviously not a manuscript problem—certainly not, according to the numbers you requested.
Want more numbers! I’ve got one—72! That’s the number of pages it takes in a PDF file to detail the New Testament manuscripts. This dispels any notion that we take manuscript issues casually, that nobody knows what they’re talking about when it comes to manuscripts, that they are not subject to scholarship and peer review, etc. I do not expect a layman to tackle this document. But I do expect a person to appreciate the light that is shown on the criticism of our manuscripts. Visit the following link:
Now, in case you think I am top-loading this answer with Christian data, I invite you to go to the following Wikipedia link. They are neither for nor against God—they just supply the encyclopedic data. So, see what their numbers say at the following link:
The people who investigate these documents, like the paleographers, are objective scientific specialists; this is not a group of Christians who are out there trying to vindicate God by cobbling together a few document scraps. These are scientists—people who use the scientific method and are responsible to publish their results for peer review. To do this, they must study a culture through its artifacts—using the things that do exist to build an accurate picture of the things which must have existed. And here’s what so many people miss: Artifacts point to necessary accouterments and antecedents.
For example, a perfectly round clay pot tells us that some kind of potter’s wheel existed—even if the archaeologists have not found one. It also tells us of a craftsman who had a knowledge of clay, drying, firing, etc.—but it can do this in the absence of the specific artifact of a drying rack or an oven. Documents can act the same way. First, they are physical artifacts; their construction, their ink, their shape, their lettering style—these all speak. But with documents, their content also speaks—and so much so, that we have reassembled the New Testament autographa with stunning accuracy—and with a product that will only improve with time.
At this point, I have only addressed half of your question! But relax—the rest is much briefer. So far we have addressed the preservation of the New Testament manuscripts—and with a special view toward the numbers and the techniques. But you also asked me why we should not trust the testimonies of people who have had visions of heaven and hell instead of Scripture. At this point, the answer is easy: all those people who are represented by books and movies that claim to have been to heaven and back—but whose accounts disagree with the Bible—are either lying or deceived. And all those people who are represented by books and movies that claim to have been to heaven and back—but whose accounts more or less agree with the Bible… are also either lying or deceived. But I have no numbers for you on this.
What I do have for you is all the time that we just spent to emphasize the pains that people take in the process of publishing and peer review, to make sure that scholastic findings are well “vetted.” So, who vets an individual’s vision of heaven? Another “visionary?” Please! Spare me that peer review. You have to think about what you’re asking: You are asking me to compare the excruciatingly exacting, millennia long, shared and transparent discipline of manuscript criticism… with a single person telling his dream. I hope it sounds as silly as it is when I say it like this.
As you can tell, I have little patience for extra-biblical revelation that is designed to sell books—particularly of the populist sort. People of the world do not want the truth about heaven—they want stories about heaven; they want stories that they can plug their loved ones into and project them into glory. The Bible does indeed speak of future glory, but it’s not warm and fuzzy. In fact, heaven is communicated most clearly in terms of hell… and we know how people hate to talk about hell! So, they sell these books by the millions to their usual audience—the saps.
This is strong language. But this is a huge issue. The place to get information about God—and everything that he is up to—is through prayer, study of the Bible, sound teaching and serving in a Bible believing church. If you do all this, nothing will lack.
Am I advocating reading only the Bible and no other books? No—not at all. But the purpose of your reading should be for pure pleasure or to supplement your learning. It should never be to replace the Bible when it comes to the Bible stuff. So, why do people read these books? They want a second opinion. God is not enough for them. By way of contrast, those who work and sweat over the biblical manuscripts are the ones who are satisfied with God’s first opinion. They just want to make sure that they have it right! That is a refining process with a pure purpose.
It might be difficult for you to believe at this point, but I am not one of those fellows who limits God’s revelation. I figure, if he wants to come to someone in a dream, who am I to say that he cannot—just because we now have the completed Bible. And if he wants someone healed, who would I be to say that he cannot—just because we no longer live during the Church’s infancy? I believe fully that God has revealed himself in his Son, in his written word, in creation and in our moral cores. Furthermore, believe that the Holy Spirit that dwells within us can act outside of us—and work the work that he wants to in this age. But I do not believe that Alex Malarkey went to heaven. And as it turns out, neither does he.
The following is from the NPR blog dated January 15, 2015:
Nearly five years after it hit best-seller lists, a book that purported to be a 6-year-old boy's story of visiting angels and heaven after being injured in a bad car crash is being pulled from shelves. The young man at the center of The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven, Alex Malarkey, said this week that the story was all made up.
The book's publisher, Tyndale House, had promoted it as "a supernatural encounter that will give you new insights on Heaven, angels, and hearing the voice of God."
But Thursday, Tyndale House confirmed to NPR that it is taking "the book and all ancillary products out of print."
The decision to pull the book comes after Alex Malarkey wrote an open letter to retailer LifeWay and others who sell Christian books and religious materials. It was published this week on the Pulpit and Pen website.
"I did not die. I did not go to Heaven," Alex wrote. He continued, "I said I went to heaven because I thought it would get me attention. When I made the claims that I did, I had never read the Bible. People have profited from lies, and continue to. They should read the Bible, which is enough. The Bible is the only source of truth. Anything written by man cannot be infallible."
He concluded, "Those who market these materials must be called to repent and hold the Bible as enough."
I absolutely applaud Alex Malarkey. He has provided his own cautionary tale. He lied—people lie—and you don’t need a Scripture for that one. But God does not lie because he cannot lie… yet we challenge his every word. Do you see what’s happening? We applaud the sinner in his folly, yet we hold God’s feet to the flame over his documents.
Alex Malarkey said it all: "Those who market these materials must be called to repent and hold the Bible as enough." I would add, those who purchase these should do the same.
I would also add that those who feel that the extra-biblical might be super-biblical need to spend more time with God and less time with the media.