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Is Today's Bible the Real Bible?

Is Today's Bible the Real Bible?

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Is the Bible which I own and read today the real Bible? Or has it been distorted? How can I believe the Bible if I do not even know if it is accurate? Nowadays, there are scores of English versions of the Bible. Many people wonder how accurate these Bibles are. When people ask about the accuracy of the Bible, there are two different issues they might have in mind:

  • Is the Bible really from God?

  • Has the Bible been accurately preserved over the centuries?

This article examines the question of how the text of the Bible has been copied and preserved over the centuries.

This article  focuses on the second question, trying to figure out how the Bible has been passed down from the original form to the texts used for modern translations. Specifically, it’s the accuracy of the transmission, not the translation, that this article will examine.

The Problem

Why is this even an issue? Besides the fact that the original Bible and modern Bibles are in different languages, one of the major problems is that the original manuscripts don't exist anymore. So we can't compare modern Bible versions directly to the originals. Furthermore, the manuscripts which we do have are not exactly what was originally written. To explain, the oldest manuscripts of the Old Testament go back to 250 BCE. Yet, the Old Testament was being written over a period of time long before that, from 1400-400 BCE. That's a long time, especially for the earliest books – nearly 1200 years between original and copy!

Why don’t we have the original copies which were penned by the Bible writers?  A number of factors caused the disappearance or destruction of ancient manuscripts. They were normally written on papyri (ancient paper-like material) or animal skins. Over time, these materials would decay and no longer be readable. Simply being used for many years could also ruin the manuscripts.  In many areas of the world, humidity destroyed them. The only reason we have some manuscripts from as far back as 250 BCE is that they were found in desert areas with very low humidity. In times of war manuscripts were sometimes destroyed as part of the pillaging. The Bible is not unique in this aspect – the earliest copies of other ancient writings are missing for similar reasons.

What is left are copies of the original Bible manuscripts, and these do not all match each other perfectly. This fact has led many people to doubt the accuracy of the Bible's transmission. However, we shouldn’t be too hasty and conclude that an accurate biblical text is a lost cause. Let’s first look at exactly how Jewish and Christian scribes over the centuries did their job and what the scholars who study this area have learned about the surviving Bible manuscripts.

Copying the Bible

First, we need to learn a little about the copying process for the Old Testament (Hebrew Bible). The Old Testament was written in Hebrew, a language which originally did not use written vowels. Ancient Jews were able to read this vowel-less text because they knew the language intimately, especially the traditional reading. To preserve this traditional reading, a group called the Masoretes added vowels and punctuation between 500 C.E. and 1000 C.E. That means they added vowels from 1000 - 3000 years after the books were written. This version of the Hebrew Old Testament was known as the Masoretic Text.

The care with which these Jews edited the text has been described by F.F. Bruce, a well-respected biblical scholar:

[The Masoretes wrote] with the greatest imaginable reverence, and devised a complicated system of safeguards against scribal slips. They counted, for example, the number of times each letter of the alphabet occurs in each book; they pointed out the middle letter of the Pentateuch and the middle letter of the whole Hebrew Bible, and made even more detailed calculations than these.1

In 1948, some Old Testament manuscripts (along with some non-biblical writings) were found in caves near the Dead Sea which dated as early as 250 B.C.E., about a thousand years before the Masoretic text. These are known as the Dead Sea Scrolls. Instead of being anywhere from 1000-3000 years from the original, these are as close as a few hundred. In the case of one of these scrolls – a copy of the book of Isaiah – the only difference between its text and the Masoretic text, was three words, and these only differed in spelling! Though over 1000 years separate these two texts, there are only three spelling changes! This shows the care with which the Masoretes and other scribes had worked.2

The New Testament was copied more quickly, and thus less carefully, than the Old. It is likely that this happened in order to immediately spread the good news about Jesus. F.F. Bruce wrote, “The New Testament was complete, or substantially complete, about AD 100, the majority of the writings being in existence twenty to forty years before this.”3To those of us who have become accustomed to hearing today’s news about the world, 50 years between event and record may seem like a lot. However, this seems like a moment in time compared to other ancient literature.  

In philosophy and history classes, for instance, students read the works of Plato, Aristotle, and other ancient writers, assuming that the authors wrote exactly what they study. Unfortunately, much time passed between the original writing and the earliest surviving manuscripts. So we cannot know how much the text was altered in the in-between time.

Let’s compare the quality and quantity of surviving New Testament manuscripts to other literature from the ancient Near East. 4

 

Name Number of years between original and earliest surviving manuscript Number of existing manuscripts
Caesar’s Gallic Wars 900 10 good ones
Tacitus’ Annals 1,000 2
Thucydides’ History 1,300 8
History of Herodotus 1,300 8
New Testament 150-200 1 (entire book of John)
250 1 (almost entire New Testament)
Less than 300 2 (complete New Testament)
Within first few centuries Over 5,000 Greek fragments; 24,000 in other languages

 

For most ancient literature there is a thousand years or more separating the original writings and the oldest surviving copies. However, in the case of the New Testament, there are two complete copies of books that date within three hundred years of the original composition, as well as thousands of partial copies that date even earlier! Thus, the transmission of the Bible, while not perfect, is vastly more accurate than any literature from the ancient world.

Textual Criticism

There are 24,000 manuscripts of the New Testament, 5,000 of which were written in the original Greek language. Of these thousands of manuscripts, no two manuscripts are identical. These differences lead to hundreds of thousands of variations. At first impression, this fact makes the Bible sound like the most unreliable book possible! These variations, however, are surprisingly not a major concern. Rather, more manuscripts lead to a greater possibility of figuring out what the original was. F.F. Bruce explained it well:

Fortunately, if the great number of MSS [manuscripts] increases the number of scribal errors, it increases proportionately the means of correcting such errors, so that the margin of doubt left in the process of recovering the exact original wording is not so large as might be feared; it is in truth remarkably small.5

For instance, if I only have 2 manuscripts, I would be unable to figure out which of the following is correct: 

Manuscript #1: In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.
Manuscript #2: In the beginning, God created the earth and the heavens.

Either of these could be correct. It’s a 50-50 chance.

However, if I have more manuscripts, it will be quite easy to figure out what was most likely the original passage, even though none of the following are exactly correct. I have marked which parts of each variant are differing from the others. By removing each of these variants, I will be able to best get at the original phrase:

Manuscript #1: In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.
Manuscript #2: In the beginning, God created the earth and the heavens.
Manuscript #3: At the beginning, God made the heaven_ and the earth.
Manuscript #4: In the beginning, Jesus created the heavens and the earth.
Manuscript #5: In the beginning, God created the sky and the earth.

*Original: In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.

Thus, even though none of the multiple manuscripts match up exactly, they allow us to find the most probable original. 

The process of finding the original text is called Textual Criticism, which does not mean criticizing the text! Rather, it is a systematic way to determine which text was more likely the original. Very basically, four points show how to find the preferred text: 1) The shorter text, since scribes would rather add to God’s Word than risk taking anything away, 2) the older text, for it had less time to be corrupted, 3) the harder reading, because scribes tried to smooth out the reading and make it more understandable, and 4) most importantly, the text from which the others could have come. Textual criticism is more complicated than this, but the idea is the same—in most cases, it is easy to find the original reading. 

Common Copying Errors

There are two kinds of copying errors: (1) those done accidentally, and (2) those done intentionally.

Accidental. Many of the variations in the biblical manuscripts can be easily explained in several ways. First, bad eyesight was common because the Bible was copied in places which often were poorly lit. Scribes, working with the text for many hours each day, sometimes had trouble reading the details necessary to correctly write each work and phrase.6

Second, a word may be replaced by a similar sounding word. Sometimes, instead of each scribe reading a manuscript and copying it, one scribe would read the manuscript aloud while others copied the words. For instance, 1 John 1:4 states, “We write these things so that ____ joy may be full.” Does this verse say that the author wrote so that “your joy may be full” or so that “our joy may be full”? Multiple manuscripts contain each reading. Just like “your” and “our” in English, the Greek words ‘υμων and ‘ημων are spelled nearly identically and they sound similar. Either of these could have been the original. Though the meaning of the sentence is slightly changed depending on which word was written, no important beliefs are challenged. This kind of mistake is merely a misspelling.7

A third type of unintentional mistake is caused by repeated words. In John 17:15, one manuscript8 is missing the following part in the bracket: “I do not pray that you should take them from the [world but that you should keep them from the] evil one.” Notice how the sentence still reads properly with the bracketed material, even though the meaning was changed.

The Greek manuscript that the scribe was copying from most likely read:

.............................. α̉υτους ε̉κ του
κοσμου........................................
.............................. α̉υτους ε̉κ του
πονηρου.......................................

After reading and copying the first line, a scribe’s eyes could easily recognize the three identical words on the third line and then begin the copying on the fourth line.9

Intentional. Scribes, in their earnestness to have the correct text, would try to correct the text. Sometimes scribes would combine together multiple passages that were similar, called harmonizing. When talking about Jesus on the cross, John 19:20 described a sign that "was written in Hebrew, in Latin, and in Greek." Some manuscripts of Luke have this phrase included in 23:38, as the scribes had tried to make the two passages say the same thing.

Another intentional mistake is called conflation. This is when a scribe would combine multiple readings instead of choosing one over another. An example of this is the end of Luke. Some manuscripts said that the disciples ‘were continually in the temple blessing God’ while others read ‘were continually in the temple praising God.’ Rather than discriminating between the two, later scribes decided that it was safest to put the two together, and so they invented the reading ‘were continually in the temple praising and blessing God.’10

Conclusion

The Bible, despite textual variations, has been preserved over the centuries with a remarkable degree trustworthy.  Though variations exist, the four rules of textual criticism allow us to have a Bible that is very close to what the prophets of Israel and Jesus’ followers originally wrote.

Keith E. Gephart, a professor at International Baptist College in Tempe, Arizona, summarized how these variations are actually not problems:

It is a commonly recognized fact that 80-85 percent of all the manuscript evidence is in total agreement even on such matters as spelling and punctuation. [He added in a footnote that the percentage “rises considerably” when spelling and punctuation differences are eliminated.] …. [S]ome of these variants do affect the theology of those particular verses. But even in these instances, our doctrine is not affected since there are so many other verses which teach the doctrine in question.11

We have good reason to be confident that the Bible as we have it today is indeed faithful to the original.

*Daniel Bowman is a graduate student at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary.

 


 
Endnotes

1.   F.F. Bruce, The Books and the Parchments (London: Pickering & Inglis Ltc., 1963), p. 117.

2.   Walter C. Kaiser, Jr. The Old Testament Documents: Are They Reliable and Relevant? (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2001), p. 45-46.

3.  F.F. Bruce The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? 6th ed. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 1981), 9.

4.  Bruce, The New Testament Documents, 11.

5.   Bruce, The New Testament Documents, 14.

6.  Bruce Manning Metzger, The Text of the New Testament (New York: Oxford University Press, 1968), 186-188.

7.  Metzger, The Text, 191.

8.  This manuscript is the Codex Vaticanus.

9.  Metzger, The Text, 189.

10.  Metzger, The Text, 200.

11.  Keith E. Gephart “Are Copies Reliable?” in God’s Word in Our Hands, ed. James B. Williams and Randolph Shaylor (Greenville, South Carolina: Ambassador Emerald International, 2003), 164.