If we only have copies, why should we trust the Bible?
Today, we’re going to talk about an extension of what we started talking about last week. Now, if you’ll recall from last week, we talked about why publishers change how the Bible translates different original-language manuscripts. The Old Testament is largely written in Hebrew; the New Testament is almost entirely written in Greek. Well, we don’t read those languages, so we need to read a translation.
We discussed that a good translation accurately and faithfully represents the original, but I did mention that we are discovering more things about the ancient world and its languages that lead us to translate things differently, and sometimes, we actually discover older and better manuscripts. Well, this raises the question, how do you go from a manuscript to the Bible on your nightstand? How do you know which manuscripts should be included, and which are authoritative, and which are true?
Now, before you start saying, “Okay, we’re talking about manuscripts, that’s a little too intellectual, I’m checking out,” consider this: If you believe the Bible is God’s word to us, then you should know how we got it. You should know the history of this thing to which you ascribe so much authority in your life. We need to know how to demonstrate that it is reasonable to believe that the Bible is true. Because often, the non-Christian will say, “Well, you can’t trust the Bible, you just have copies, you only base your life on copies.”
There is a quick way to maybe address this. You could ask the person, “When have you ever read the original penned version of a manuscript by an author?” Hardly anyone has ever done this. We have all looked at copies of books. The chemist doesn’t say, “Oh, I can’t figure out how to make this drug, because my chemistry textbook is not the original one penned by the author; I can’t know if it’s true.” We shouldn’t allow people to put the Bible in a secondary category where that type of claim can apply to it either, because the Bible makes claims about history, and as such, it talks about the way the world really is, and it’s either true or false in that regard, just like your chemistry textbook either accurately describes the physical world or it doesn’t. The fact that it’s a copy has nothing to do with its truthfulness.
It is true, we do not have original manuscripts of the Bible, we have copies, but far from being a problem, this is actually a helpful type of thing. We have over 5,800 partial copies of the New Testament and that’s just for the Greek ones. If you include the Latin, Coptic, and Syriac versions, we have tens of thousands of more.
All these copies are an interesting problem, because they’re not all exactly the same. I don’t want to lead you on and make you think that they are; there are some differences, but at the very least, let’s just take a moment and consider the amount of evidence for the New Testament. Like I said, 5,800 copies. Let’s compare that to the next greatest work of antiquity, which would be Homer, which has 1,757 copies. Plato only has 210, Herodotus only has 60, and Tacitus only has 31, so we have so much more data to work with for the New Testament.
Another thing to point out is that you don’t copy something, if you’re a 1st-century scribe, unless it’s important. I remember being in school, and one of my punishments when I acted out (which never happened) was to write something or copy a story. That was tedious and painful. I hated it; it was a great punishment. This was at school. My mother, as an English teacher, did not make me write for a punishment; she didn’t want to make me hate writing. Anyways, enough about that.
My point is, you don’t copy something and spend the time on it unless it’s important, so the fact that we have so many copies of the New Testament, that on its own doesn’t make it true, but it demonstrates that people held it in extremely high esteem compared to any other document that is ancient.
It’s not just that we have a lot of copies. We actually have copies that are very shortly after the original was written. Parts of the New Testament and their copies date to within about 25 years of the events they describe. The next closest in terms of ancient documents is Homer, with 500 years between the earliest copy and the original penning. Pliny the Younger, 750 years; Plato, 1,200; Herodotus, 1,400; but the New Testament, we have remarkably early evidence for it. Now, as you go further on in time, into the centuries, you get more and more copies, so there are more copies from, for instance, the 9th and 12th centuries than there are for the 2nd through 4th. We have a lot of evidence to work with, a lot of copies, and many of them are early, though some of them are late, but this is helpful too, and we’ll get to that.
There are differences, as I alluded to earlier, and these differences are estimated at about 200,000. I don’t want you to hear that number somewhere else, I want you to hear it here, because consider that in the full Old and New Testaments in the King James Bible, there are only 31,102 verses, so this is almost seven times as many variants or differences as there are verses in the Bible. If the first time you hear this is from an atheist on the street, or in a Bible class at your secular college, this can be jarring, but let’s give this a little context. A variant— difference—is simply any difference from a standard text that involves spelling, word order, omission, addition, substitution, or a total rewrite. If you spell a word wrong and you’re copying it, you’ve now gotten a variant. If you accidentally flip two words in order (which is less important in Greek, where sentences could be in very different orders and still have the same meaning) then that’s a variant. If you omit a word when you’re copying a line, that’s a variant.
This whole 200,000 number seems really, really high, until we realize that the variants almost always are incredibly minor, and there are no known authentic variants that change any actual doctrinal teaching. It’s not like one variant says, well, “Jesus is God,” and the other says, “Jesus is a pony.” That does not occur, and so we should not be swayed by the amount of variants, as we’ll talk about in a minute, but we should care about what the magnitude of them is, what are their nature. The fact of the matter is, is that the variants are incredibly in line with each other. Like I said, spelling, substitution, addition, but not like one of them snuck in some heretical teaching and the others didn’t. They’re just the types of normal errors you would expect for someone who’s copying a text over and over again.
There are differences, so how do we get an accurate picture of the originals? Well, here’s what scholars do, and there’s a whole field of very educated people who do this following type of thing, and it’s called textual criticism. They look at the date and geographic location, the types of differences between manuscripts, and several other data points, to get an accurate picture of what the originals said.
There are some principles that aid in this process. The first is that newer variants are less likely to be accurate. If a story has been around longer and has been copied more and more and more, it’s less likely to be accurate. There’s more likely that someone made an error, which was then copied by someone else, and maybe someone else down the line made another error, and that type of thing. You’re more likely to get more errors as you go throughout time, so earlier manuscripts are almost always better.
The next thing is, just because there are more copies that agree, that doesn’t make it more accurate. If I write a lie on a piece of paper and run it through a Xerox machine and have a thousand copies, that doesn’t make it any more true than when it was just handwritten by me. There are manuscripts that are in a family that almost agree on a lot of things, but that doesn’t make them more likely to be accurate. There can be some manuscripts and copies where only a few agree, but they’re so early that they’re almost assuredly accurate. As we find more and more manuscripts in more locations, and we date them and place them, we can actually see how the text changed over time.
You might think, “Well, this sounds scary, the text changed over time,” but compare this to the Koran, which had a controlled transmission, where there were only certain people in charge of it. Well, changes could be introduced there, and you wouldn’t know, but as it was with the Bible, people in different areas, in different parts of the world, were copying this. There was no one organization in charge of it, and yet we see, once again, it remarkably agrees in so many places, and there are no variants that change the actual meaning of the text in any substantive way, just spelling, word order, those types of things.
Let me give you an example of a variant so you know what we’re talking about here. This is actually a larger one. In Matthew 1:22, some manuscripts say “through Isaiah the prophet,” some say “through the mouth of Isaiah the prophet,” and some say “through the prophet.” They’re all talking about the same thing. Someone was a little more explicit than someone else. Sometimes, scribes tried to be helpful and say, “Oh, I know what prophet this is they’re talking about. I’ll say it was Isaiah.” We’re able to see those things as the texts go throughout the centuries and see where they get introduced, but the very fact that we know they got introduced means we know they weren’t in there originally.
Another variant, and this one actually has some practical concerns, is Matthew 18:15, which says, “If your brother sins, go and show him his fault.” At least, that’s what it says in the oldest and best manuscripts. Your translation very well may say, “If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault.” The first one is general, the second is much more specific—the sin needs to be about you. A lot of times, your Bible will have a footnote on these types of things, and it’s helpful to know they’re there.
Now, there are some additions to the text that we know are additions; they’re not just variants on a given verse. There are several, but there are two notable ones. There’s the long ending of Mark, and so if you open your Bible to Mark 16:9-20, you’re likely to find either it’s not there, or it’s in brackets or has a footnote, because this is almost assuredly not original. It’s not Holy Spirit-inspired Scripture, it was added later by someone else. This has actually appeared at different places in the Bible throughout time, but it is not original. In the same way, the woman caught in adultery passage (that I’ve heard extremely few sermons preached on correctly) in John 7:53-8:11 is not original. That should not be in our Bible as Holy Spirit-inspired Scripture. Notably, that passage has appeared at different places in the canon as well throughout time (“canon” just meaning the Bible, the list of books we consider to be authoritative.) John 5:4 is not in some Bibles, because it was a later addition.
Now, you might be saying, “There were things added to my Bible? That’s really concerning.” Here’s the point you need to realize: We know they were added. We know they were added, because we know what the originals said with extreme confidence, because we have extremely early copies. The other thing to point out is, it’s not just that we have early copies, it’s that these things were being copied and written down during the life of the original writers, during the life of eyewitnesses, and so there’s an inherent check on the correctness of what’s being taught and what’s being circulated.
Now, all of this may lead you to have questions, but I just want to bring us back to some key points. There are no authentic variants that substantially change the meaning of the text. There are none. Most are simply spelling or grammatical changes, and some of the larger ones are just helpful notes by scribes. Now, you may be wondering, “Okay, how do we go from these variants to our Bible?” I’m going to give you the very quick version.
Scholars choose which variants are most accurate, and they assemble them into a version of the Bible that contains the most accurate readings.
They’re not choosing based on our preference; They’re choosing based on an objective set of criteria. When we get, let’s say, a full New Testament that’s represented from these manuscripts, only then do we begin making a translation. When you may hear “the Bible’s a translation of a translation of a translation,” that’s not true. When any new translation is made, they go back to the earliest and best manuscripts in the process we just described. They’re not translating from the previous English version, they’re translating from the original language at every point.
It’s the same way with the Old Testament, they assemble Hebrew manuscripts that accurately reflect the originals, and translate from those. Translations change, like we pointed out last week, when scholars find older manuscripts or realize that there’s a better way to express this in modern language. Sometimes, we actually learn more about the original languages themselves. There are some parts of Hebrew, and some parts of Greek, that we don’t totally understand exactly what a given word means.
We can use context to figure it out, but sometimes, we find a discovery of a non-Biblical-related item, like a medicine jar. If there was a question about a word, let’s say, “Does this Greek word mean ‘keep away from’ or ‘keep through,'” well, if the medicine jar says “keep ____ children,” well, then we would know it doesn’t mean “keep through,” it means “keep away from.” Even non-Biblical discoveries help us better translate the Bible, because our goal is always to best translate the original thoughts and intent of the authors. Just to be clear, those original authors were men and the Holy Spirit. There’s a dual authorship to Scripture.
This has been a whirlwind. We’ll certainly talk more about this later, and I’ll try and link to some of the other podcasts I’ve done on Scripture, and how to look at it, and how to think about it, and how we got it. The main point here is: there’s a whole science, and there are people dedicated to understanding what the originals said, even though we have copies. Remember, we have so many copies. We are not missing things. We have so much evidence to work with that we can make extremely well-reasoned and intelligent choices about how to translate various passages, about which manuscripts are most likely to be authentic. Those manuscripts we have oftentimes are very early, and the original documents themselves were written down within the lifetime of eyewitnesses, by eyewitnesses.
There are excellent reasons to trust the Bible. God wrote Scripture, He inspired it by the Holy Spirit, and men wrote it also. We can have confidence in this. It shouldn’t surprise us that the evidence for the reliability of the New Testament is excellent, since God Himself breathed out its very words.