The science of Textual Criticism to see if the Bible is corrupted or not

“Why should I even consider the books of the Bible? It was written so long ago, and has had so many translations and revisions done to it – I have heard that its original message was changed over time.”  I have heard questions and statements like this many times about the books of the Taurat, Zabur and Injil that make up al Kitab or the Bible.

This question is very important and is based on what we have heard about al Kitab/the Bible. After all, it was written two thousand plus years ago. For most of this time there has been no printing press, photocopy machines or publishing companies. So the original manuscripts were copied by hand, generation after generation, as languages died out and new ones arose, as empires crumbled and new ones were born. Since the original manuscripts are no longer in existence how do we know that what we read today in al Kitab (the Bible) is what the original prophets actually wrote long ago? Apart from religion, are there any scientific or rational reasons to know whether what we read today is corrupted or not?

Basic Principles in Textual Criticism

Many who ask this do not realize there is a scientific discipline, known as textual criticism, by which we can answer these questions.  And because it is a scientific discipline it applies to any ancient writing.  This article will give the two main principles used in textual criticism and then apply them to the Bible.  To do so we start with this figure which illustrates the process by which any ancient writing is preserved over time so that we can still read it today.

A timeline showing how all ancient books come to us today

A timeline showing how all ancient books come to us today

This diagram shows an example of a  book written 500 BC. This original however does not last indefinitely, so before it decays, is lost, or destroyed, a manuscript (MSS) copy of it is made (1st copy). A professional class of people called scribes did the copying work. As the years advance, copies are made of the copy (2nd copy & 3rd copy). At some point a copy is preserved so that it is in existence (extant) today (3rd copy). In our example diagram this extant copy was made in 500 AD. This means that the earliest that we can know of the state of the book is only from 500 AD onwards. Therefore the period from 500 BC to 500 AD (labeled x in the diagram) is the period where we cannot make any copy checks since all manuscripts from this period have disappeared. For example, if corruptions occurred when the 2nd copy was made from the 1st copy, we would not be able to detect them as neither of these documents are available to compare against each other. This time period before the existing copies (the period x) is thus the interval of textual uncertainty – where corruption could have happened.  Therefore, the first principle of textual criticism is that the shorter this interval x is the more confidence we can place in the correct preservation of the document to our time, since the period of uncertainty is reduced.

Of course, usually more that one manuscript copy of a document exists today. Suppose we have two manuscript copies and in the same section of each of them is the following phrase (Of course it would not be in English, but I use English to explain the principle):

This shows a variant reading (one says ‘Joan’ and the other says ‘John’) but with only a few manuscripts it is difficult to determine which is the one in error.

The original author had either been writing about Joan or about John, and the other of these manuscripts has an error. The question is – Which one has the error? From the available evidence it is very difficult to decide.

Now suppose we found two more manuscript copies of the same work, as shown below:

with more manuscript copies it is easier to determine the variant reading

Now we have four manuscripts and it is easier to see which one has the error

Now it is easier to decide which manuscript has the error. It is more likely that the error occurs once, rather than the same error repeated three times, so it is likely that MSS #2 has the copy error, and the author was writing about Joan, not John. ‘John’ is the corruption.

This simple example illustrates the second principle in textual criticism: The more manuscripts that exist today the easier it is to detect & correct errors and know what the original said.

Textual Criticism of Historical books

So now we have two principles that of scientific textual criticism that are used to decide the textual reliability of any old book: 1) measuring the time between original writing and earliest existing manuscript copies, and 2) counting the number of existing manuscript copies. Since these principles apply to all ancient writing we can apply them to both the Bible as well as other ancient books, as done in the tables below (Taken from McDowell, J. Evidence That Demands a Verdict. 1979. p. 42-48).

AuthorWhen WrittenEarliest CopyTime Span#

50 BC

900 AD




350 BC

900 AD




300 BC

1100 AD




400 BC

900 AD




400 BC

900 AD




400 BC

1000 AD




100 AD

1100 AD




100 AD

850 AD



* from any one work

These writers represent the major classical writers of ancient times – the writings that have shaped the development of modern civilization. On average, they are passed down to us by 10-100 manuscripts that are preserved starting only about 1000 years after the original was written.

Textual Criticism of Bible/al Kitab

The following table compares the Biblical (Injil in particular) writings along these same points (Taken from Comfort, P.W. The Origin of  the Bible, 1992. p. 193).


When Written

Date of MSS

Time Span

John Rylan

90 AD

130 AD

40 yrs

Bodmer Papyrus

90 AD

150-200 AD

110 yrs

Chester Beatty

60 AD

200 AD

140 yrs

Codex Vaticanus

60-90 AD

325 AD

265 yrs

Codex Sinaiticus

60-90 AD

350 AD

290 yrs

 Summary of Textual Criticism of Bible/al Kitab

The number of New Testament manuscripts is so vast that it would be impossible to list them all in a table. As one scholar who spent years studying this issue states:

“We have more than 24000 MSS copies of portions of the New Testament in existence today… No other document of antiquity even begins to approach such numbers and attestation. In comparison, the ILIAD by Homer is second with 643 MSS that still survive” (McDowell, J. Evidence That Demands a Verdict. 1979. p. 40)

A leading scholar at the British Museum agrees with this:

“Scholars are satisfied that they possess substantially the true text of the principal Greek and Roman writers … yet our knowledge of their writings depends on a mere handful of MSS whereas the MSS of the New Testament are counted by … thousands”  Kenyon, F.G. (former director of British Museum) Our Bible and the Ancient Manuscripts. 1941 p.23

I own a book about the earliest New Testament documents. It starts with:

“This book provides transcriptions of 69 of the earliest New Testament manuscripts…dated from early 2nd century to beginning of the 4th (100-300AD) … containing about 2/3 of the new Testament text”  (P. Comfort, “The Text of the Earliest New Testament Greek Manuscripts”. Preface p. 17. 2001)

In other words, many of these existing manuscripts are very early, merely a hundred years or so after the original writings of the New Testament.  These manuscripts come earlier than the rise to power of Constantine and the Roman church.  And they are spread across the Mediterranean world.  If some from one region were corrupted we would see the difference by comparing it with manuscripts from other regions.  But they are the same.

So what can we conclude from this? Certainly at least in what we can objectively measure (number of extant MSSs and time spans between original and earliest extant MSS) the New Testament (Injil) is supported much more than any of the other classical writings.  The verdict to which the evidence pushes us is best summed up by the following quote:

“To be skeptical of the resultant text of the New Testament is to allow all of classical antiquity to slip into obscurity, for no other documents of the ancient period are as well attested bibliographically as the New Testament”  Montgomery, History and Christianity. 1971, p.29

What he is saying is that to be consistent, if we question the reliability of al kitab (the Bible) we may as well discard all that we know about classical history in general – and this no historian has ever done. We know that the Biblical texts have not been altered as eras, languages and empires have come and gone since the earliest existing MSSs come before these events. For example, we know that no pope or the Roman Emperor Constantine changed the Bible since we have manuscripts that are earlier than Constantine and the popes and all these earliest manuscripts contain the same accounts.   The manuscripts used to translate Bibles today come before the time of the Prophet Mohamed PBUH, and the fact that he confirmed the Bible as he found it in his day is significant since we know just from the manuscripts used that it has not changed from his day.

This is shown in the following timeline where the manuscript sources that are used in translating modern Bibles are shown to come very early.

Modern Bibles are translated from the earliest existing manuscripts, many from 100-300 AD. These source manuscripts come long before Constantine or other religious-political powers, and before time of Prophet Mohamed PBUH

Modern Bibles are translated from the earliest existing manuscripts, many from 100-300 AD. These source manuscripts come long before Constantine or other religious-political powers, and before time of Prophet Mohamed PBUH

To summarize, neither time nor Christian leaders have corrupted the original ideas and messages that were first placed into the original writings of al kitab or the Bible. We can know that it today accurately reads what the authors actually wrote from the many thousands of early manuscripts that we have today.  The science of Textual criticism supports the reliability of al Kitab (the Bible).

Textual Criticism in university lecture

I had the privilege to give a public lecture on this topic at the University of Western Ontario in Canada not too long ago.  Below is a 17 minute video of the part of the lecture that covers this question.

Thus far we have really only looked at the textual criticism of the New Testament – the Injil.  But what about the Taurat and Zabur – the books that make up the Old Testament?  In the following 7 minute video I summarize the textual criticism principles of the Old Testament.

5 thoughts on “The science of Textual Criticism to see if the Bible is corrupted or not”

    1. Salaam wa alykum mochammad
      Thank you for your comment. I have actually studied the Gospel of Barnabas. Now this intent of my article here is to show why we know from science that the books of Injil in al kitab (Bible) have not changed. The problem with Barnabas is that it contains factual errors that you yourself do not believe. For example. Is Isa (Jesus) the Masih (Messiah)? You (and I) would believe this from testimony of Quran and Bible. But Gospel of Barnabas has Jesus say the following (in ch 96)

      The priest answered: ‘… I pray thee tell us the truth, art thou the Messiah of God whom we expect?’

      Jesus answered: ‘It is true that God hath so promised, but indeed I am not he, for he is made before me, and shall come after me.’

      Then in the next chapter (97) Jesus says that the Masih is the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). This contradicts the Quran

      Then said the priest: ‘How shall the Messiah be called, and what sign shall reveal his coming?’

      Jesus answered: ‘… Mohammed is his blessed name.’

      This was a Gospel where the earliest (and only as far as I know) manuscript is from 13th century. In other words it was written 1300 years after Jesus lived. So from standards of Bible, Quran and Textual criticism this book is shown to be false.

    2. Hello Mohammed Choudry
      Believing the entire contents or part of the contents of the Barnabas book to me means you only read and quote out of context, you picked what appealed to you and then leave the rest. I want to tell you that that book is entirely false. Please study it again and again and look into it well. You will then see beyond reasonable doubt that the entire book is false. I am Christian if you care to know.

  1. A.Rasheed h|o GuleRana

    Look please, ‘Deen’ was and would be always same in all times i.e. God is One, He created all including angels;He created Paradise & hell, He created destiny; He sent His messangers (prophets) with Holy Books to guide mankind ; He will establish doomsday to judge our acts in world. This collective faith is basis of “Islaam” which was the common preaching of all prophets.Equivalent words for ‘Islaam’must have been present in different languages of Scriptures e.g Hebrew, Aramaic.This is only Faith approved by Allah,not changed anytime ;But laws code(shariaah) altered more or less in different times of prophets|Scriptures. All these holy Books had been correct & accurate first in original form, but over time, selfish people tampered them according to their wills.(Quran will be secured ,safe & original till last of world as Allah promised so).
    That is why statements of Quran are clear, free of contradictions, while there is ambiguity and misconceptions in other Scriptures e.g. Christians postulate theory of Trinity and that Jesus was son of God , while Quran tells that He is too sacred rather to have conjugal relations and have children…..Mary was virgin,but she married to someone_Joseph. These are clear cut devious and self contradictory concepts, never revealed by God in Injeel(Bible).
    To be brief but precise, here is another example :
    Some Christian scholars tell
    Sodomites (Ummah of Lot) were not ravaged due to their heinous act of homosexuality but main cause was inhospitability & indignation they showed towards angels sent by God; while Quran states that angels already informed Abraham about this wrath ful decision of Allah;it is another thing that Sodomites looked angels with ill will.Therefore,are these not manipulations of facts, not self contradictory statements and ultimately not examples of nihilism ??
    Think sincerely and contemplate that salvation & absolution lies now only to follow last prophet & Holy Book Quran which enjoins monotheism and states that healthy original rules, moral values and tales which former revered prophets & Original Scriptures told mankind. It is right that last prophet Mohammed(PBUH) & Quraan fulfilled and confirmed the former ones.
    Yours sincerely….A.Rasheed

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