I’m often asked to make the case for the reliability of the Gospels in spite of the presence of scribal variants throughout the text. Remember that criminal courts do not require eyewitnesses to be inerrant to be considered reliable. In order to illustrate the trustworthiness of the text, I typically offer the following hypothetical. First, allow the skeptic to identify all the textual variants in the Gospels based on a comparison of all available manuscripts. Next, to make the point more dramatically, allow the skeptic to remove not only the variant word or phrase, but the entire verse in which the variant appears. This would require the removal of hundreds of verses, resulting in a manuscript that is much smaller than the text we have today. Finally, for the sake of argument, allow the skeptic to randomly remove additional verses until 50% of the text we have today have been redacted. Skeptics often claim that the presence of minor variants that account for approximately ½% of the text justify their skepticism in much more of the text. To dramatize the ineffectiveness of this claim, I am willing to allow them to remove 50% of the text to illustrate an important point: Even with this much of the text removed (far more than even the most liberal scholar would likely eliminate), the Gospels are reliable and still communicate the essential truths about Jesus’ life, ministry, death and resurrection:
The Remaining Text Supports the Truth Even with 50% of the text removed, the remaining text would still be sufficient to understand what each gospel writer claimed about Jesus. To be sure, there would be many confusing and incomplete passages, but with 50% of the text still intact, there would be more than enough to understand the rough outline of Jesus’ life and ministry.
The Remaining Gospels Buttress the Claims In addition to the surviving text, the repetition of events reiterated in the other Gospels would still assist us in understanding the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus. If we arbitrarily redact 50% of any particular Gospel, we will most certainly find a parallel account in another Gospel covering much of the same material, and the secondary account will very likely include the material missing from the first account. Many variant passages (Bart Ehrman is fond of citing Luke 22:20, Luke 24:12 and Luke 24:51) would likely still remain in other gospels (just as the information from Luke is found in uncontested passages in Matthew 26:28, Mark 14:24, John 20:3-7, and Acts 1:9-11).
The Remaining Students Answer the Doubts But more importantly, we can test the content of the Gospels by simply examining the writings of the students of the Gospel authors. The students of John and Paul (Ignatius, Polycarp and Clement) for example, either quote or allude to many New Testament documents, including all four Gospels, Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 Timothy, 1 Peter, and 1 John. They clearly and succinctly reiterate the teaching of the Gospel authors. Related to the life of Jesus, Ignatius, Polycarp and Clement describe Jesus in the following way:
He was conceived by the Holy Spirit He was born of the virgin Mary A star announced His birth He was baptized by John the Baptist He taught and had a “ministry” on earth He was humble and unassuming He was sinless and spoke the words of God He taught the Sermon on the Mount Ointment was poured on Jesus’ head He was unjustly treated and condemned by men He was whipped, suffered and was crucified He died on the cross This all took place under the government of Pontius Pilate and Herod the Tetrarch was king
Concerning the resurrection of Jesus, Ignatius, Polycarp and Clement confirm the following details:
Jesus was resurrected He had a physical resurrection body He appeared to Peter and the others after the resurrection He encouraged the disciples to touch Him after the resurrection He ate with the disciples after the resurrection The disciples were convinced by the resurrection appearances The disciples were fearless after seeing the risen Christ
And concerning the deity of Jesus, Ignatius, Polycarp and Clement corroborate the following claims:
Jesus returned to God the Father He is our only Master and the Son of God All things are subject to Jesus and all creation belongs to Him He is the “Door,” the “Bread of Life,” and the “Eternal Word” Jesus is our “Savior”, “Lord” and “God” Faith in Christ’s work on the cross saves us This salvation and forgiveness are gifts of grace from God Jesus will judge the living and the dead
Even after redacting 50% of the text, the remaining manuscripts (supported by the parallel accounts in the other gospels and confirmed by the writings of the students of the New Testament authors) leave us with a clear picture of Jesus as a miracle worker who claimed to be God, died on the cross for our sins and demonstrated his Deity by rising from the dead. That’s’ the version of Jesus that most skeptics want to deny, but it’s the steady, dependable, indestructible version that emerges from the reliable eyewitness accounts.