The Corruption of the Text of the New Testament

No Comments | June 2009

The authenticity of the texts of the New Testament have been debated and have often been outright rejected by the majority of the Muslim population. On the other hand, the Christian world see it as the complete truth, words inspired by God Himself to chosen men who wrote down the events and narrations of Jesus(as) within a few years of his departure and have been copied accurately till this day.

The above account believed by most Christians today is not wholly accurate, as we shall we see; the text of the New Testament may not match up to its reputation of being ‘Gospel Truth’.

True Status of the Bible

I believe a middle course is to be taken with regards to the authenticity of the Bible. While it can be proven to have been edited and corrupted, it is also one of the few books in the world which has survived for such a long period of time with the major part of its text intact.

The contents of the Bible can be verified against other historical works covering the same period, the most famous being the works of the Jewish historian, Josephus, who lived in the first century of this era.

Josephus discusses a number of personalities mentioned in the four gospels, at times often agreeing with the gospels, at other times dis-agreeing. But the point remains that the personalities are verified with this very ancient text which also has survived the test of time and was written by a historian of a different faith.

The local governor Pilate is mentioned by Josephus1, along with Herod Antipas2 and his arrest and murder of John the Baptist.3 The appointment of the Jewish High Priest Joseph Caiaphas is also stated.

As can be seen the leaders or rulers are mentioned, as this information was available and of interest to the historian. He tells us of another leader who is referred to in the gospels and who plays a very prominent role in early Christianity: James the Righteous, the brother of Jesus(as)5 who headed the Church after Jesus(as)’s departure6.

Possibly the earliest record of the canonical gospels is attested in the Rylands Library Papyrus P52 manuscript, which dates to the early second century. It contains a few verses of the Gospel of John. This can be cited as an example of portions of the Gospels remaining unchanged within a few years of being penned by the authors. Chapter 18 verses 37-38 of the Gospel of John have remained the same for almost 2000 years as attested in this manuscript.

The gospels are without doubt the most detailed accounts of the life of Jesus(as). They contain a vast amount of information about his life and his sayings, many of which are declared almost unanimously authentic by scholars (for example, Jesus(as)’s words and belief that he would return before the death of his disciples7). Such a saying caused a great deal of embarrassment to the Church when the second coming of Jesus(as) prophesied failed to materialise as the years went by, thus proving that the saying was from Jesus(as), as it is impossible that the church would invent such a bogus prophecy.

Jesus’s prediction of the destruction of the Temple8 is another example. Renowned biblical scholar E.P Sanders explains this passage and believes it to be authentic:

‘…the prediction was not precisely fulfilled. When the Romans took the city in 70 CE, they left much of the Temple wall standing; indeed, much of it is still there, supporting the Muslim holy area. Most of the stones in the surviving wall weigh between two and five tons, but some, especially those on the corners, are much larger. One is 12 metres long and weighs almost 400 tons. Jesus said that not one would be left on another.

When ‘prophecies’ are written after the event – that is, when a later writer composes a bogus prophecy – the prophecy and the event are usually in perfect agreement. Had the prediction in Mark been written after 70, we would expect it to say that the Temple would be destroyed by fire, not that the stone walls would be completely torn down. This prophecy, then, is probably pre-70, and it may be Jesus’ own.’9

Numerous other examples can be cited which objectively can be seen to prove that the writers of the Gospels were accurate in their citation of Jesus(as), and that the words have remained unchanged.

But that does not mean that the entire text of the New Testament is to be viewed as accurate or unchanged. True, it contains a wealth of information, much of it authentic and accurate. Yet changes and modifications have been made, as will be proven and discussed in the following pages.

Writing Material

Before delving into the authenticity of the Gospels, it is worth discussing how the texts came about and how they were preserved. The first texts of the New Testament were written on papyrus. Papyrus was often the writing material of choice at the time of Jesus(as), that being the 1st century CE. It is made from the papyrus plant, known as Cyperus Papyrus. It is said to have been first manufactured by the Ancient Egyptians during the First Dynasty, around 3100 – 2990 BCE.

Manufacturers would often gather papyrus plants, strip them of their stems and cut the inner pith in thin strips. The strips would then be placed on a flat surface and using the plants natural glue, pressed together into sheets. Scribes would then estimate the length of writing material required for their work and cut just about enough. Of course if more was required, another piece could be purchased and glued onto the original piece.

Papyrus was used for a couple of hundred years after Jesus(as) and was eventually replaced by the more durable and longer lasting Parchment, or vellum. Vellum was made from the skins of cattle, sheep and goats, especially the young. The process was very lengthy and messy, involving the skinning of the animal, removing remaining and clinging flesh, removing all the hair, washing the skin and polishing.

In the early years of the Church, scrolls were produced on papyrus by individuals or churches who wished to have extracts or complete gospels in their churches. The task was quite laborious as it involved scribes writing each and every letter by hand, copying from earlier handwritten scrolls. Some such manuscripts or scrolls have survived even to this day, possibly the earliest being the Rylands Library Papyrus P52, which contains 5 verses from the Gospel of John. It dates to the early second century CE and is housed in Manchester.10

Parchment eventually replaced papyrus, not only due to its superior quality in both durability and writing, but the fact that scribes were able to create a book or codex from parchment was very advantageous. Attaching numerous parchments or pages together, writers were able to write on both sides and then form a book. This not only allowed more writing on less material (thus making it more cost effective) but also, finding relevant passages became a great deal easier. As with scrolls, to find certain passages, especially at the end of books, priests would often unroll the entire scroll. This was particularly annoying when the average scroll was 35 feet in length! This is why Callimachus, a poet and scholar of the Library in Alexandria, noted ‘μεγά βιβλίον μεγά κακόν, ‘mega biblion, mega kakon’, ‘a big book is a big nuisance’.11

The Codex became the chosen material for Christians in writing their scriptures. Once Christianity had become a state religion after Emperor Constantine converted in the fourth century, the production of copies of the Gospels increased dramatically, resulting in book manufacturers or scriptoria. Often sitting in large halls or rooms scribes equipped with ink pots, parchment and pens would come together and write the Gospels and other books of the Bible by hand. Often scribes would be given older copies to copy from, or sometimes a reader would be in the middle of the room and would dictate verses which each scribe would then write down.

It is quite easy to see how errors crept into numerous copies of the Bible in the early stages. A moment’s distraction would lead scribes to miss out lines of the text; or in the case of a reader, a cough or a sneeze by another would results in gaps in the texts.

Errors Occurring during Dictation

Scribes would often make mistakes during the dictation of the texts by a reader. Words pronounced in the same way would cause problems too, e.g. in modern language was the scribe to write ‘there’ or ‘their’, ‘whether’ or ‘weather’?

An example of the above can be found in the following two versions of verse 5 of the Book of Revelations:

King James Version:

And from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the first begotten of the dead, and the prince of the kings of the earth. Unto him that loved us, and washed us from our sins in his own blood.

New Revised Standard Version:

And from Jesus Christ the faithful witness, the first-born of the dead, and the ruler of kings on earth. To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood

The difference of the above is highlighted in bold. The King James version, which is based on The Textus Receptus12 the Greek word is ‘λουω’ pronounced ‘louo’.

While the New Revised Standard Version, which is based on earlier Greek manuscripts (Codex Sinaiticus1, Codex Alexandrinus1) has the word ‘λυω’ pronounced ‘luo’.

The difference is very subtle, but still present, and it is likely that some scribes heard the former, while others heard the latter. Modern Textual Critics such as Bruce M. Metzger argue that the latter is more accurate as it is based on earlier and stronger manuscripts.

Mistakes by Copying

In Mark chapter 1 verse 40:

And a leper came to him beseeching him, and kneeling, and said to him, ‘If you will, you can make me clean’.

The above is found in all present versions of the Bible. However, two early manuscripts:

Codex Vaticanus15 and Codex Bezae16 omit the ‘kneeling’. This was probably due to the Greek word ‘and’ being found both before and after the word ‘Kneeling’, and so the scribe’s eyes may have jumped from one ‘and’ to the other omitting the word in between.

Scribal Corrections

Often, the Gospels make blatant errors, e.g. in Mark chapter 1 verse 2-3:

As it is written in Isaiah the prophet, “Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, who shall prepare thy way; the voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight…

The problem with the above verses is that the passages which are quoted are in fact a combination of Mal 3:1 and Isaiah 40:3.

All present Bibles read as above, but some manuscripts, Codex Alexandrinus being one, have the text reading; ‘As it is written in the prophets’. The scribe who was writing it most likely picked up on the error explained above and sought to rectify it by replacing ‘Isaiah’ with ‘the Prophets’.

Another example is where a scribe thought to correct the language of the original, in Matthew’s Gospel:

And getting into a boat he crossed over and came to his own city. And behold, they brought to him a paralytic, lying on his bed; and when Jesus saw their faith he said to the paralytic, “Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven.” And behold, some of the scribes said to themselves, “This man is blaspheming.” But Jesus, knowing their thoughts, said, “Why do you think evil in your hearts? (Matthew 9:1-4)

The above translation is in all present Bibles. However, again in the Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Bezae verse 4 reads as: ‘Jesus, seeing their thoughts…’ Scribes of other manuscripts obviously thought that it would make far more sense that Jesus(as) ‘knew’ their thoughts as opposed to ‘seeing’ their thoughts.

Intentional Doctrinal Corrections

The Corruption of the Bible is mainly about later scribes modifying the holy text to suit their own beliefs or beliefs of their Church. There are numerous examples such as the first verse of the Gospel of Mark, which reads:

The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

The last part of the verse ‘Son of God’ is present in the Textus Receptus, but is omitted by both the Codex Sinaiticus and Vaticanus. The strength of these two authorities is immense and is enough to reject the authenticity of the last three words.

However, to prove it even further, whether the original Gospel of Mark contained the above phrase that Jesus(as) was the son of god, the question asked is, why would the scribes omit the phrase? What was their reason? On the contrary they would want to reinforce the position that Jesus(as) was the son of god, which leads scholars to think that the phrase was not originally there, but was added later. This would make far more sense than a scribe deleting the phrase later.

The above is just the addition of three words; however, in all present Bibles you will notice that the Gospel of Mark ends with Chapter 16, Verse 20. But it is accepted by a majority of scholars that verses 9-20 were not originally there, and officially the Gospel ended at verse 8:

And they went out and fled from the tomb; for trembling and astonishment had come upon them; and they said nothing to any one, for they were afraid.

Verses 9-20 are not present in the Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus while they are retained by the Textus Receptus, Codex Bezae and Codex Alexandrinus.  It is generally held that the verses were added to the end of the Gospel of Mark to give it a proper ending similar to the other gospels. Whatever the reason, these verses were not written by Mark and were added much later in the 5th century.

Bart Ehrman, a famous textual critic, states:

‘…the writing style varies from what we find elsewhere in Mark; the transition between this passage and the one preceding it is hard to understand (e.g., Mary Magdalene is introduced in verse 9 as if she had not been mentioned yet, even though she is discussed in the preceding verses; there is another problem with the Greek that makes the transition end more awkward); and there are a large number of words and phrases in the passage that are not found elsewhere in Mark. Obviously, scribes thought that the ending was too abrupt. The women told no one? Then, did the disciples never learn of the resurrection? And did not Jesus himself ever appear to them? How could that be the ending! To resolve the problem, scribes added an ending.’ 17

Another example of an entire passage added to the Gospels is the very famous story of the ‘Woman caught in Adultery’ found in the Gospel of John 7:52-8:11.

Here a woman (some interpret as Mary Magdalene) was caught committing adultery by the Jewish crowd. No mention is made of the man she was caught with. She alone is brought before Jesus(as) to be condemned. However, Jesus(as) forgives her and lets her go.

The Codex Bezae and Textus Receptus both contain the above story. While P6618, P7519, Codex Sinaiticus, Alexandrinus and Vaticanus all omit the entire passage. The story is not present in any pre-5th century manuscript. It may well have been an oral tradition which made its way into the text, but it is definitely not the words of the supposed author, John.

Again, Bart Erhman states:

‘…its writing style is very different from what we find in the rest of John (including the stories immediately before and after); and it includes a large number of words and phrases that are otherwise alien to the Gospel…How then did it come to be added? There are numerous theories about that. Most scholars think that it was probably a well-known story circulating in the oral tradition about Jesus, which at some point was added in the margin of a manuscript. From there some scribe or other thought that the marginal note was meant to be part of the text and so inserted it immediately after the account ends in John 7:52.’18

As can be seen above, mistakes were very common in the transmission of the Bible. Some of the mistakes were honest and genuine; others were scribal corrections where later scribes sought to correct earlier scribes by second guessing what the text should have said.

But most worrying is that many alterations to the text were made for doctrinal reasons. Entire passages were added, words modified to suit the purpose of the later church, and all of this occurred whilst still being attributed to the original writers of the gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. It is these types of modifications which are cause for concern and discredit the authenticity of the Bible, thus making it impossible for many people to see it as a Holy Book written and preserved by God-inspired people.


1. The Jewish War 2.169

2. The Jewish War 2.167

3. The Antiquities of the Jews 18:118

4. The Antiquities of the Jews 18:33-35

5. The Antiquities of the Jews 20:200

6. Eusebius, History of the Church, book 2; 23:11

7. Matthew 16:28

8. Mark 13:1-2

9. E.P Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus(as), p.257.

10. The Text of the Earliest New Testament Greek Manuscripts, Philip W. Comfort and David P. Barrett. P365

11. fr. 465 Pf.

12. Textus Receptus

In Latin, ‘Received Text’ is currently the name given to the texts of the Bible which are based on the translation done by Erasmus in the early sixteenth century. Erasmus decided to compile the Bible using only Greek manuscripts as opposed to Latin which was used throughout the world at that time. He did so by using two twelfth century Greek manuscripts. Currently, the King James Version is based on the Textus Receptus, and as a result is criticised by the majority of biblical scholars for its late sources and weak traditions.

13. Codex Sinaiticus

Possibly the most famous ancient biblical manuscript, the Codex Sinaiticus (also known as א) is the earliest manuscript to contain the entire New Testament, with the addition of two extra works; Sheppard of Hermes and the Epistle of Barnabas. It is written in Majuscule Greek text on parchment, and to the Alexandrian type text.

It was discovered in the late nineteenth century by a German biblical scholar, Constantin von Tischendorf.

It is currently housed in the British Museum, and dates to the early fourth century.

14. Codex Alexandrinus

A very old manuscript, Codex Alexandrinus (also known as A) dated to around the fifth century; much like the above is written in Greek and contains most of the Septuagint (Greek Old Testament) and New Testament. The name was derived from where the manuscript was located in Alexandria. The Gospels in this manuscript is of the Byzantine type text, and the rest is of the Alexandrian. Currently the manuscript is at the British Museum along with א.

15. Codex Vaticanus

Its importance possibly is only second to א, The Codex Vaticanus (also known as B) dates to the mid-fourth century. It too is written on parchment like א and belongs to the same family, the Alexandrian type text. It contains most of the New Testament and Old Testament.

The manuscript is currently housed in the Vatican Library.

16. Codex Bezae

Codex Bezae Cantabrigensis, also known as D, is also an important manuscript, dating to some time in the fifth century. It is different to the א and B, in that it is written in both Majuscule Greek text and Latin on opposite sides on parchment. It contains most of the Gospel and Acts. It is of the Western Type text. It is currently housed in the University of Cambridge.

17. Bart Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus(as), p.67

18. P66 is a near-complete manuscript of the Gospel of John; it dates to much earlier than the א, to the early 2nd century, making it one of the earliest known New Testament manuscripts.

It is part of the collection known as Bodmer Papyri, and is of the Alexandrian type text.

It was discovered in 1952 near Egypt and is currently housed at the Bodmer Library in Cologny, Geneva, in Switzerland.

P.75 is also a very early manuscript dating to the early third century, and like the above it is part of the Bodmer Papyri collection. It contains half of the gospels of Luke and John. Just like P66, it is also of Alexandrian type text. The manuscript is currently housed in the Vatican Library in Rome.

19. Bart Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus(as), p.65

O People of the Book! there has come to you Our Messenger who unfolds to you much of what you had kept hidden of the Book and passes over much. There has come to you indeed from Allah a Light and a clear Book. (Holy Qur’an, Ch.5:V.16)

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