When somebody says that the Bible is inerrant, a good reply is to ask "Which Bible?" The first task of translators of the Bible into English is to decide which verses they want to put into each of the 27 New Testament books. There are more than 5,000 Greek manuscripts, but not one has the same collection of verses as any popular English Bible. Indeed, there is no Greek manuscript before A. D. 800 which has 27 books in its New Testament. The Codex Sinaiticus, from about A. D. 350, comes closest, but it also contains the Epistle of Barnabas and the Shepherd of Hermas.
How did this textual variety come about, and what significance does it have?
The King James Version was produced on the basis of relatively few late manuscripts. Since then, many early manuscripts have been found. The impression is often given that these early manuscripts help us get back to what the authors originally wrote. Instead, they reveal that we can only guess what was originally written and that what was written was changed within decades, often for purely doctrinal reasons.
Let me give just a few examples, from many which could have been chosen. Take Luke 22:43-44, "And being in an agony, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down upon the ground." This is not present in the very earliest Greek manuscripts p66 and p75 from the third century. (P66 stands for papyrus number 66, p75 for papyrus number 75). Will they be dropped from future printings of the King James Version because they are not in the earliest manuscripts we have? Somehow, I doubt it.
These verses are also omitted by Codex Alexandrinus, Codex Vaticanus (4th century), Codex Washingtonensis (5th century), etc., but are in Sinaiticus (4th century) and the great majority of later manuscripts. They are cited by the early church father Justin (c. A. D. 130). Whenever these verses were added or dropped, it must have been very early.
We know that these verses were quoted, not always exactly, in the second century by the early church fathers to counter the heretical view that Jesus was not a real human being and only quoted for that doctrinal purpose.
For example, Justin said, "(I)t is recorded that His sweat fell down like drops of blood while He was praying... in order that we may perceive that the Father wished His Son really to undergo such sufferings for our sakes, and may not say that He, being the Son of God, did not feel what was happening to Him and inflicted on Him" (Dialogue with Trypho, 103).
Irenaeus (c. A. D. 170) wrote, "(N)or would He have wept over Lazarus, nor have sweated great drops of blood; nor have declared, `My soul is exceeding sorrowful'; nor, when His side was pierced, would there have come forth blood and water. For all these are tokens of the flesh which had been derived from the earth, which He had recapitulated in Himself, bearing salvation to His own handiwork" (Against Heresy, 3, 22, 2).
Hippolytus (c. A. D 190) said, "Thus then, too, though demonstrated as God, He does not refuse the conditions proper to Him as man, since He hungers and toils and thirsts in weariness, and flees in fear, and prays in trouble. And He who as God has a sleepless nature, slumbers on a pillow. And He who for this end came into the world, begs off from the cup of suffering. And in an agony He sweats blood, and is strengthened by an angel..." (Against Noetus, 18).
These verses were cited only for doctrinal purposes and are missing from the earliest manuscripts of Luke's Gospel. What more proof is needed that Luke's Gospel was altered no more than decades after being written and that this was done for doctrinal reasons?
The biggest doctrinal issue in Christianity is whether Jesus is God and what the Trinity means. The earliest Christians held all kinds of views about the status of Jesus. Even as late as A. D. 200, the majority of Christians did not believe in the Trinity, as Tertullian freely conceded: "The simple, indeed, who always constitute the majority of believers, are startled at the dispensation (of the Three in One), on the ground that their very rule of faith withdraws them from the world's plurality of gods to the one only true God; not understanding that, although He is the one only God, He must yet be believed in with His own `economy'" (Against Praxeas, Chapter 3).
These sorts of disputes led to many alterations of the New Testament. At the time Tertullian wrote, many Christians believed that Jesus was God the Father. Noetus based this belief on John 14:9, "Whoever has seen me has seen the Father." The orthodox Christian Hippolytus had to go through contortions to show that this does not mean that Jesus was the Father. Is it any surprise that just a few years later, one of the very earliest manuscripts of John's Gospel we have was altered to read, "Whoever has seen me has seen the Father also"? A very useful change for doctrinal reasons.
Of course, people who said that Jesus was God the Father were also altering manuscripts. The earliest manuscript of 1 and 2 Peter is called p72. It states, in 1 Peter 5:1, that Peter was a witness of the sufferings of God, not a witness of the sufferings of Christ. This is not an accidental slip. Second Peter 1:2 in English Bibles today says, "May grace and peace be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord." P72 removes the "and" so that it becomes "God, our Lord Jesus." P72 also alters Jude 5 to say that the person who saved the people out of the land of Egypt was "the God Christ." Christians nowadays draw back from the idea that God the Son and not God the Father led the Israelites out of Egypt.
The earliest manuscript of 1 and 2 Peter and of Jude is distinctly heretical, which is why English translations often give its readings as mere footnotes, and later readings are put in the main text.
Another 3rd century manuscript, which differs from what is selected to go into Bibles today, is called p46. It includes Hebrews 1:8, which today says about Jesus, "Your throne, O God, is forever and ever and the righteous sceptre is the sceptre of your kingdom." P46 says about Jesus, "God is your throne forever and ever; the righteous sceptre is the sceptre of his kingdom." The earliest manuscript of Hebrews that we have says that the kingdom is God's, not Jesus's. This reading is also backed up by the earliest Great Codices, Sinaiticus and Vaticanus. Naturally, English Bibles prefer later manuscripts.
The evidence of the earliest manuscripts is that Christianity was split into many factions. Orthodox views did not win out until the fourth century or later. Until then, people wrote and rewrote the New Testament books, trying to put the correct spin on the texts. This happened extremely early. By about A. D. 110, Polycarp was quoting, in his letter to the Philippians, a version of Acts called the "Western" version, which is about 10 percent longer than the other version.
If the New Testament books really were inspired by an omnipotent God, why was he unable to prevent their being changed within decades of being written, by people acting in his name?