Podcast: How Reliable Is the New Testament? (Peter Williams)

This article is part of the The Crossway Podcast series.

A Question Every Christian Must Answer

Peter Williams, author of Can We Trust the Gospels?, answers a crucial question: can we really trust the New Testament Gospels? He discusses what it means that the Bible is inspired, why we can have confidence that our modern English Bibles are consistent with the original manuscripts, and how we should approach apparent contradictions in the New Testament.

Can We Trust the Gospels?

Can We Trust the Gospels?

Peter J. Williams

Written for the skeptic, the scholar, and everyone in between, this introduction to the historical and theological reliability of the four Gospels helps readers better understand the arguments in favor of trusting them.

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Full Transcript

01:25 - Welcome

Matt Tully
Peter Williams, thank you for joining us on The Crossway Podcast.

Peter Williams
It’s great to be with you.

01:30 - Copies of Copies of Copies

Matt Tully
So you did your PhD at the University of Cambridge.

Peter Williams
Yes.

Matt Tully
And you’re a member of the ESV translation committee. You currently serve as Principal of Tyndale House in Cambridge. And so I think all those things combined and many other things that you’ve done–pretty safe to say that you’ve devoted your, really your entire professional career to studying the Bible. One of the main arguments that we often hear against the reliability of the Bible as a whole but in particular the New Testament and what it teaches us about Jesus and the gospel is that we don’t have the original documents, and I want to read a little quote here from Bart Ehrman’s book Misquoting Jesus and just hear how you would sort of approach responding to something like this. In the book he writes, “It’s one thing to say that the originals were inspired. But the reality is that we don’t have the originals. So saying that they were inspired doesn’t help me much unless I can reconstruct them. Not only do we not have the originals, we don’t have the first copies of the originals. We don’t even have copies of the copies of the originals or copies of the copies of the copies of the originals. What we have are copies made later, much later.” How would you respond to that kind of critique of our confidence?

Peter Williams
Yeah. Well, it does make me laugh, you know, and some versions, of course, it’s copies of copies of copies as he says. So really the idea–if people say, you know, "The originals were inspired," they may not be using very useful language because when Christians believe that God spoke, God gave words, it’s not that they believe that God gave words and those words are only God-given on the original copy. If someone makes a–let’s say God gives the verbal sequence, "In the beginning was the Word," so from John 1:1. It doesn’t become less God-breathed when someone makes a copy of that or when it’s a second or third or fourth generation copy of it. And so what we’ve got to recognize is that the reason we have any access to classical literature at all from the past is because it was a copying society. There were copyists that were people who would transmit things.

And so what Ehrman seems to be doing is making a presumption that something has not survived, which is really quite absurd. We rely on our mobile phones and our computers to pass on information from around the world, and we receive copies of copies of things. So even as we’re talking over the internet right now, how many times does my voice get copied before it gets to you? Well, it’s more than we can count. So I think for some reason into Ehrman’s analysis has come this idea that copying doesn’t usually work, or copying is really quite suspicious activity. And that’s where I’d want to say, "Look, actually copying can be incredibly reliable, and when Christians talk about God-breathedness, or inspiration, they are not saying that the words are only inspired on the first copy but also on all subsequent copies that contain the same words. It’s the words that are given by God, not the physical manuscript. So God doesn’t specifically inspire papyrus and leather. God breathes words. That’s what Christians believe. And so therefore if you don’t have the original papyrus or leather that they were written on, you really don’t care because the original papyrus or leather is not more special than anyone else’s papyrus or leather.

05:30 - Comparing Translation to a Game of Telephone

Matt Tully
Yeah, that’s really helpful. But how would you respond to the person who replies to that, “Yes, these are copies, and we’ve all acknowledged that, but copies can become corrupted.” I think maybe some of us have played as kids the game of telephone where you are whispering into someone else’s ear, and they whisper that same message into someone else’s ear, and it doesn’t–sometimes it’s surprising and humorous to see how quickly a message can become distorted beyond recognition. How can we know that that hasn’t happened when it comes to the Bible?

Peter Williams
Well, what we’ve got to remember is the game of Telephone is an optimized game. It’s a game which is optimized to get the message corrupted. So try and play it with three people. You’ll say, "Well, we don’t have enough to play it with. We need some more. Let’s get ten or twenty." And then you say, "Well, we have to whisper the message, and you’re only allowed to whisper it once, and you’re only allowed to whisper it to one person, and they can only hear it from one person." And so it’s only once you’ve actually optimized in order to get the corruption that you get the corruption. But if you were to play a game without that sort of rule where someone’s allowed to shout the message out loud to a team of, a room full of ten people, you know, it’s not going to get corrupted like that. So I’d want to say that in normal circumstances, messages get passed on far better and particularly when we think about scribes. It’s their job to pass things on. People ought to have the presumption that things are normally properly transmitted and that it’s more occasional that things are not properly transmitted. That seems to be justified on the basis of manuscripts when we look at whether it’s the New Testament or Classical works or other things, that actually most copying from antiquity is valid. Sometimes things can miscopy. Sometimes things could be changed. But the idea that it’s somehow a rational presumption that things have not been transmitted correctly, that should be your first–your starting point–doesn’t seem to be right.

07:44 - Scribal Habits

Matt Tully
Yeah, and you’ve actually done a lot of work professionally studying the habits of the scribes and the copyists who made it their life’s work to copy Scripture faithfully. What would be some bits of information that you think it would be helpful for Christians to know about these people? We don’t really think about them when we think about our Bibles, but what were their lives like, and what were some of the habits that they had to help ensure accuracy?

Peter Williams
Well, I think when Jesus talks to people, he talks to a whole group of people called scribes. Now, what’s their job? Their job in life and within the culture in Judaism is to copy things correctly. You know, that’s part of it. You know, so what you need to recognize is that there have been people whose professional major activity has been copying. Likewise in monasteries in the Middle Ages people might spend some of their day gardening and doing practical work in the monastery, but what they would spend a lot of their time doing is actually copying manuscripts. And they copy them out to be, you know, as careful as they can. And so, you know, it’s their one job. It’s the thing they focus on. And so I think that gives us an assurance that things are often handed down very correctly. Now with the Old Testament, of course, we know a lot of the very specific situations that Masoretes would hand down manuscripts in, and they were extremely careful. Things vary from time to time, place to place, but the good thing with the New Testament is not all the copyists are in the same place. So you’ve got some who are in the Byzantine Empire. You’ve got some who are in Egypt. You’ve got them in different places. And if you have particular oddities of copying going in one place, we’ll see that that won’t show up in the other place. So that’s where again the variety of manuscripts we’ve got enables us to have quite a bit of confidence about the text as a whole.

09:57 - Full vs. Partial Manuscripts

Matt Tully
And how many manuscripts do we have access to, and how many of those are full texts of books of the Bible or even Testaments of the Bible, and how many are little fragments?

Peter Williams
Yes, well, I mean, it’s hard to get the very precise numbers on this. So in terms of the numbers of things that might be called manuscripts, it’s going to be about five and a half thousand, but then we start getting into trouble about how we count things because when we give that number, we’re not counting generally things that are written on stone and clay. So if someone copies out a bit of the Bible onto a bit of clay, does that get in pottery? Does that get it into our list of manuscripts? The answer is no. And then we’re dealing with some things which should be only a few letters and other things are complete copies, and we don’t have those in equal numbers for all of the New Testament. So when we’re dealing with the book of Revelation, we’re under 300 manuscripts. When we’re dealing with the Gospel of John we’re closer to 2,000. So you’ve got to sort of take a look at these as a whole. But having said that of course, we don’t just have those New Testament manuscripts. You also have commentaries on the New Testament. So probably five and a half thousand manuscripts of John Chrysostom, the church father, who on different parts of the Bible, which will have quotations in, and so you can start adding up that the overall number of manuscripts that there are can be quite a bit bigger–maybe 10,000 manuscripts of the Latin New Testament. So it really just depends what you count. In terms of complete manuscripts of the entire New Testament, there aren’t really that many. Codex Sinaiticus from the 4th century is one of those. But what we do have is that for any particular part, such as for the Pauline letters or the Gospels, you know, we have good numbers at every point.

12:00 - Comparison to Other Ancient Texts

Matt Tully
Yeah, and how does that–you mentioned maybe 5,000 is a conservative estimate for true manuscripts–how would that compare to other texts from the ancient world that we might all know like The Iliad or The Odyssey or things like that?

Peter Williams
Well, The Iliad and The Odyssey are doing really quite well. I mean they’re amongst the most famous bits of literature, and you know, Homer copies can be found in the thousands. Now it doesn’t mean you’ll have thousands for every single passage in The Iliad. And also there’s a big gap between–let’s say if The Iliad is first composed in the 8th century BC, and we don’t have copies of it for, you know, over half a millennium afterwards. You know, there’s a substantial gap that you don’t really have with the New Testament. Also, probably Homer is composed in a slightly different alphabet from what we have for all the subsequent Greek copies, which are made in the alphabet that only really comes about at the end of the fifth century BC in Greece. So there are all sorts of things like that.

But what I’d want to say is look, I’m not trying to knock other pieces of literature. I more put it like this. There are some things like Tacitus or parts of Livie in Latin, which only survive in one manuscript. And people take that one manuscript very seriously. And so if we’re prepared to have quite a bit of trust in things that only survive in a single manuscript, I think there’s every reason to say we should trust things that survive in many more manuscripts, particularly when the gap is a lot less. So with Tacitus our earliest copy is the 9th century. And so if Tacitus is writing early 2nd century, you know, there’s a substantial gap there. So I’d want to say that I more prefer the comparison with Classical works as a point of analogy to say look, if you’re prepared to trust x, then you’re prepared to trust y. And so, you know, for me you’re prepared to trust the Classical works, then there’s every reason to trust that we’ve got the New Testament correctly handed down.

14:21 - Contradictions

Matt Tully
That’s helpful. Another common claim that’s kind of thrown at Christians is that we can’t trust the Bible and particularly the New Testament because of all the contradictions in the Gospels. And they can point to different stories that seem to be the same story between maybe Matthew and Mark, and yet they differ on some key detail or point. How should we think about those supposed contradictions?

Peter Williams
Well, I mean again you’ve got to say well, are they contradictions, or are they just differences? So the fact that we have four Gospels means almost certainly there’s going to be tensions between them. You could have any four narratives about any set of events and you’d expect there to be some sorts of tensions. So, you know, I think that you ought to start with an expectation that there will be tensions, but not to see the fact that–let’s say in the resurrection one Gospel will have an angel, and another will have a man, and another will have two angels, and other will have two men–as a contradiction so much as a difference. I mean, it’s not that any of them said it was only one angel, and it’s not as if a man dressed in white is not the same as an angel in that sort of context. So I think sometimes people have made too much of these sorts of things there. I mean, there’s some more difficult cases, but I’d want to say that we would expect there to be substantial differences if we have different accounts. But we shouldn’t begin with a hermeneutic of suspicion, you know, thinking these things can’t be right.

16:04 - Unexplainable Discrepancies

Matt Tully
So would you say that as you’ve approached looking at all of these, and I’m sure you’ve examined all of them, that upon careful study and reflection, none of them stand out to you as unexplainable?

Peter Williams
Yes, so what it is; none of them I believe are defeaters. None of them are things that can’t possibly be correct. And it’s not that you can say this is necessarily the solution to this particular one. I don’t like attaching myself too much to particular solutions. If they don’t stand out, it may be that simply we can say there are a number of possible solutions. I don’t know which is correct.

16:45 - Undesigned Coincidences

Matt Tully
Yeah, one of the other things that you point to in your new book in addition to addressing some of the contradictions that we see or the supposed contradictions are undesigned coincidences, and that was an interesting idea. Can you explain what you mean by undesigned coincidences and why they are helpful as we think about this?

Peter Williams
Well, it’s a phrase invented by John J. Blunt in the beginning of the 19th century. And really he’s talking about very subtle agreements between one text and another or one passage and another, one author and another, where they supplement each other but in such a subtle way that you can’t say one was written in order to support the other. So one of the examples I give is that in John’s Gospel, you have Jesus turning to Philip–the feeding of the five thousand–asking Philip where to get bread from, you know, for these people, and Philip and Andrew get involved in the reply. And it doesn’t tell you why he turns to these particular disciples. But in Luke’s gospel, it’s told you the feeding takes place near Bethsaida. And suddenly you realize the information from Luke explains, you know, why he approaches these particular people in John. And I think that’s where you get those sorts of dovetailing between independent narratives. And that happens quite a lot in the Gospel. So overall it’s a powerful argument for their truth.

Matt Tully
Because that dovetailing you would say helps to establish that there is a real history behind these accounts. There’s a real geography that kind of ties them all together.

Peter Williams
Yeah.

18:28 - Encouragement for Believers

Matt Tully
Fascinating. I think a lot of us love the Bible. We want to study the Bible. But you’ve really made a career out of it. What has been the driving factors in that decision?

Peter Williams
So, had the privilege of growing up in a Christian family, and for my parents the Bible was very, very important. And so I naturally studied that, but also I had the opportunity of going to a school–a high school–where there was very good opportunity to learn Greek and Latin. And so I did that with great teachers, and that got me into the idea of doing biblical languages. And so I got to do that at university as my first degree. Greek, Latin, Hebrew, and Aramaic was my first degree. And so I’ve kept up with those sort of things ever since.

19:11 - The Importance of Original Biblical Languages

Matt Tully
So you’ve put a lot of this study of these original biblical languages to use in the pursuit of your work on textual criticism. Can you briefly describe what that is and why it’s important?

Peter Williams
Well, textual criticism is really about trying to study the manuscripts and wording of the biblical text very precisely and any changes that go on and how things develop over time and trying to work out what the earliest form is and also know how changes take place. So my angle in on that was to study translation–so early translations of the Bible. I did the Syriac version of the Old Testament with my PhD, and then I wrote a book on the Syriac versions of the New Testament. And an early translation can be like a camera shot of a particular moment in history because it’s not that the translation is always correct, but it shows you how a group of translators understood the text at a particular time. So that can be a very good thing to do. And then from that I went on to looking more at Greek manuscripts and so on. So it’s one of those things that I think happens once you’ve got the language base. You can look at these things quite easily. And so when I’m asking a question about the correct understanding of the text in the Bible one of the things I very naturally do is ask myself the question, "Well, how has this been understood down the ages?" And sometimes you find that, you know, a particular interpretation that people have nowadays is really quite an oddity in historical terms. And so it’s helpful to get that perspective from history.

21:03 - How Translation Enriches Understanding

Matt Tully
Are there any examples of bits like that where your study of the history of translating a certain text has kind of shed new light on how to understand a passage that maybe we would be familiar with?

Peter Williams
Well, I mean one of the things that I did with the opening of John’s Gospel is simply looking at all of the manuscripts that there are and realizing that none of the early texts, whether in Greek or other languages, treated the first 18 verses as a sort of separate unit like a prologue. That didn’t come along till quite a lot later. And so it’s helpful to see that, and then you realize as you read more about John chapter 1 that actually it’s an unfolding opening. It’s not that you can say there’s an opening in the first 18 verses, and then you stop opening things up. Actually, you have a series of encounters with John the Baptist that run through the entire chapter. And so actually thinking of, say, just the first 18 verses as a detached prologue is not very helpful.

22:18 - Misconceptions about the Bible

Matt Tully
Yeah, interesting. As I think about my Bible, John’s prologue, it always seems to sit right there on the front of those verses and it does tend to influence how we approach the text. What would you say are some of the one or two maybe most common misconceptions about the Bible that you encounter when you talk with other Christians?

Peter Williams
I think sometimes people haven’t thought through very much what they mean by the Bible. They haven’t necessarily thought through the history very much. They haven’t–often people think of the Bible as one book when they should really be thinking of it as a library, as a, you know, set of 66 books that have incredible agreement amongst themselves. But there is–the plurality is very important. But I think on the whole people haven’t necessarily understood how cohesive Scripture is. When people read the Old Testament, they often think that things that are recorded in narrative are approved of, and so whatever Abraham does or whatever David does must be okay. And in fact, the Bible is not telling us that at all. Often you read that, you know, Abraham and David and others married multiple people, and then you also see in the narrative that this worked out very badly, and that’s the way the story has in telling us this is a very bad idea. So I think that’s where people are a little bit unused to thinking that Abraham can be a hero and yet nevertheless do things that are quite wrong.

24:05 - The Trustworthiness of the Bible

Matt Tully
When it comes to the issue of textual criticism, I would imagine many of our listeners are familiar with people like Bart Ehrman, and that might actually be maybe their only context for hearing the term textual criticism or thinking about some of the issues related to sorting through all the different manuscripts and putting them together to understand what the biblical writers really said. And people like Ehrman have written popular books. You know, I think his most popular is Misquoting Jesus. And we hear some of their criticisms, some of their arguments against the reliability of Scripture, and it can be a little bit disconcerting and even maybe faith-shaking for I think a lot of Christians, especially someone like Ehrman who–he grew up in a Christian home and attended Moody Bible Institute and Wheaton College and studied at Princeton and got an MDiv. It seems like he knows his stuff, and he’s kind of been in our shoes and yet was ultimately convinced that God’s Word isn’t truly God’s Word and isn’t reliable. Was there a time in your own journey towards where you’re at now when you feel like your faith was was shaken and you wondered about the trustworthiness of the Bible?

Peter Williams
Yes, that would have been in my early twenties, which I think is quite a similar time to when Bart Ehrman was losing his faith. And I think that’s–we’ve got to remember that those sort of times in life can be quite unsettling where people are looking through all the possibilities, but it’s not that when Bart turned away from the faith that he necessarily had a really thorough grounding in evangelical faith. I mean he says in Misquoting Jesus that he grew up in a nominal Christian home. He encountered evangelicals and had an evangelical conversion at age 16. He then went to Moody Bible Institute, but as I understand, he didn’t do biblical languages when he was there. So he really only did those when he was at Wheaton, and it was even while he was at Wheaton that he began to have some doubts. So I’d want to say it’s not that he had, you know, decades of familiarity with evangelical things and turned away from them. But at the end of the day, you know, people have conversion stories both ways. You get plenty of atheists in China who are becoming Christians and plenty of people from Christian families in America who might becoming atheists. Looking at these things globally, it’s not that atheism is winning overall or agnosticism winning overall. It’s not like that. So I’d want to say you have to look down then at particulars, and I think when it comes to particulars, we’re able to defend our faith in every area.

27:02 - Unsettling Realities

Matt Tully
Before we get to the things that bolstered your faith and maybe restored your confidence in the Bible, what were the things that were first unsettling to you in your 20s as you were studying these things?

Peter Williams
Well, I think it was thinking about how to fit different parts of Scripture together because, you know, you do have quite a diversity of texts within Scripture, and so it was–I think when you’ve sometimes learnt to misread things and to read more into a text than is actually there, that can be a problem. And I think that, you know, you struggle. And I think also it can be that you have a false expectation because you think of Scripture as something which is meant to be simple. And one of the things about Scripture I think is quite clear is that parts of it are meant to be simple and parts of it are meant to be hard. I mean clearly God could have made the book of Ezekiel far easier. And so I think when you recognize that there will be difficulties, you don’t see difficulties as something that necessarily should undermine your confidence in the faith at all.

28:20 - Moving Past Doubt

Matt Tully
Yeah, and as you were studying yourself, what were those things that helped you to move through and past the period of doubt or uncertainty?

Peter Williams
Well, I mean, I think that you’re certainly helped by people around you. I was helped, and, you know, there were questions I could ask questions to, and then I think there’s also reading literature–people who struggle with questions in the past who have sought to give answers. And it’s not that you get answers to all of your questions. It’s simply that you find that some of your questions, you get answers to, and so you’re prepared to think in principle, there are answers to questions–even questions that seemed unsolvable before, you find answers and say, "Aha, there are some."

29:08 - Closing

Matt Tully
Peter Williams, thank you so much for talking with us today and sharing a little bit more about the work that you do and the great service that you’re doing to the church as a whole.
Peter Williams
Well, thank you.


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