When you first start thinking about how we go from manuscripts and their copies to a Bible that we hold in our hands, you might think that that’s a little academic and stuffy. There is certainly a lot of information to learn, but right off the bat I want to tell you why that’s important. If you learn and understand how this process works, you can combat the claims of many different types of groups and people just by knowing this one set of information.
There are some today, you might call them radical egalitarians who say the Bible has been changed over time to say that men have different roles than women. That requires that the Bible actually have been able to be changed over time. Muslims say basically that the Bible’s been corrupted over time. That’s a simplification, but, nonetheless, they make that claim. The question is do the facts support it? Mormons say well we trust the Bible and in as much as it’s translated or transmitted correctly. Well, has it been translated correctly? Has it been transmitted correctly? We need to be able answer those claims and if we understand the process that we go through, we’ll be able to talk with those different types of people in different groups.
The first thing to point out is that we do not have the original manuscripts that were written by the biblical authors. That may pose some concerns for people, but in some ways this shouldn’t trouble us too much. None of us have ever read the original manuscript penned by an author of a book, most likely. We all base our life off of books that are copies. The electrical engineer doesn’t say well he can’t build a system because his text book is only a copy. In the same way we shouldn’t reject things simply because they’re copies because we actually have a lot of copies of new testament manuscripts. We have about 5800 Greek new testament manuscripts and if you include Latin and Coptic and Syriac the number goes very close to 30,000 or more. Now, lets compare this to other ancient works of antiquity. Homer has about 1800 manuscripts. Caesar and Plato and Pliny the Younger have all about 200 manuscripts. That’s not much evidence for those by comparison.
But for the new testament we have a ton of manuscripts to work with and many of them are early. The copy time gap for some parts of the new testament is 25 years. That’s the time from when the original was penned to the earliest copy we have. That’s very low. If you look at Homer or Pliny the Younger or Caesar those are all 500 to 750 to a 1000 years old from when the original was supposed to have been written to the copy. We have a lot of evidence for the new testament. We also have early evidence. We have biblical manuscripts that are copies that are copied throughout many different centuries. Some of them date to the first century, some to the second, third, fourth, all the way through the 12th and the 14th, and we have copies of copies of copies. That is certainly true.
Something you need to know and I would rather you hear here first than somewhere else is that there are differences between these copies and these differences are called variants. They are where a manuscript varies from another text and they’re estimated at over 200,000. I want that number to have some shock value because when someone like skeptical critic Bart Ehrman uses that term he expects it to have shock value too. I want us to talk through that number together. To put this in context, there are only 31,102 verses in the King James Bible, but the variants between manuscripts are estimated at 200,000 or more. That’s an overwhelmingly large number and for some they want to present this in the way where it makes it seem like we can’t know what the original said. We can’t have any confidence in it, but that is simply false. We need to understand what a variant is to put that number into context. While a textual variant is simply any different from a text that involves spelling, word order, omission, addition, substitution, or a total rewrite of the text. If you put two words in different order that’s a variant. In Greek, word order means so much less than it does in English. If you misspell a word, that’s a variant. If you abbreviate a word, that’s a variant.
There are many scribes who copied manuscripts who actually abbreviate divine names, so instead of spelling out the name of Jesus or God, they’ll just abbreviate it. Well, that leads to a variant and so there are highly trained people who look at all these manuscripts and see the differences between them and they recreate what the originals most likely said and through a scientific process and they can do this by looking at the date. Earlier manuscripts are more likely to be accurate than later manuscripts. The location of a manuscript has a lot to do with it, too. We can actually tell something about the scribes that copied certain manuscripts and the mistakes they’re likely to have made by where they were located. Then we look at the type of a difference. Generally, over time it’s more likely that something gets added than something gets removed, so there are many other rules too, but these are just three simple principles, date, location, type of difference, that we can use to recreate what the originals most likely said.
One principle that we have to realize is that newer variants are less likely to be accurate. The further you go away from the source the less likely it is that what’s copied is going to reflect the original. Along with that, more copies that all say the same thing doesn’t mean something is more accurate. You can write a lie on a piece of paper and photocopy it 1000 times and that makes it no more true. Just because something is represented in more manuscripts doesn’t mean it’s necessarily more accurate.
With such a large number of variants can we have any confidence in what the text said? The answer is yes. There are no known variants that substantially change the meaning of the text. There are not variants that say Jesus was God and others that say Jesus wasn’t God. There are some that say something like in Matthew 1:22 “through Isaiah the Prophet” as opposed to “through the prophet,” as opposed to “through the mouth of Isaiah the Prophet.” That is not a profound difference, but there are multiple words that are different in these three copies, but they all communicate the same truth, that this scripture that’s being quoted came through Isaiah the Prophet. That doesn’t mean we can’t have confidence in what scripture said at all.
When it comes to evaluating variants, it’s not the number of them that’s important, it’s the magnitude of what the difference is. How different are they? If there’s simply slight spelling differences and word order differences, which most of them are, well then those don’t need to erode our confidence in scripture at all, but if they are larger then we should look at them, but what you see is even the “large variants”. They don’t change Christian doctrine at all. Lets look at another one, so we looked at Matthew 1:22, which is the through Isaiah the Prophet one. Matthew 18:15 says “If your brother sins, go and show him fault”. Well, some new manuscripts say “If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault”. That actually changed the meaning of the text. One is if your brother sins in general, go talk to him, but later manuscripts some of the actual say if your brother sins against you. Well, that is a difference. We’ll look at the evidence and we determine that the older reading is more likely to be accurate, but that doesn’t substantially change the meaning of what’s being talked about. There’s still a process described in the following verses for how to deal with sin of a brother in Christ. There are two long textual variants and these are known to not be original.
There’s the long ending of Mark, which is Mark 16:9 through 20 and this is probably in your Bible, but in a very real way it shouldn’t be. This is not actually Holy Spirit inspired scripture. It wasn’t in there when Mark wrote it originally. This was added on later and this is most likely why your Bible either omits it or puts it in square brackets or it’s in italics or it has a footnote to tell you we’ve included this for historical purposes, but it’s not actually Holy Spirit inspired scripture. That’s the long ending of Mark.
There is also the woman caught in adultery passage. That passage (that has many bad sermon preached out of it where Jesus doesn’t condemn sin) is not in the earliest and best manuscripts. John 7:52 through 8:11 that’s the woman caught in adultery passage and that is known to not be original. That was not there when John wrote John. Now, you can make the case and some have that this sounds a lot like Jesus, it has the earmarks of being a true story about Jesus. Nonetheless, it was not in the scriptures when John wrote it, when he wrote his letter. It’s probably also in square brackets in your Bible or in italics or it’s just omitted.
We need to know about these because we shouldn’t preach a sermon or a Bible study out of a passage that’s not actually scripture. I know this makes people uncomfortable. Why is it in my Bible if it’s not scripture? Well, because there was a time in history when it was thought to be, so at the very beginning it was not included and then it was included in later manuscripts, and now we know it shouldn’t have been included, but there are many works like devotionals and other things that reference that passage and so it’s been left there for it’s historical significance.
We need to know that it’s not actually scripture. There are some other verses. For instance, John 5:4, which is what’s described when the angel comes to stir the pool at Bethesda. That’s not actually original either. Your Bible will most likely go John 5:2, John 5:3, John 5:5. It will most likely skip verse 4 because that’s the convention these days. Since the verse numbers were based on verses which sometimes should not have been concluded and there are about 10 to 15 of these, that we just skip the number, we don’t redo the verse numbers because that would throw everyone off, we just don’t include it. I don’t want to say we omit the verse because it never should have been there in the first place. This is an interesting issue for Bible translators.
I have worked for Bible.org for several years and they are the ones that sponsored the creation of the New English Translation, the NET Bible, and we get people who write in and say well why does it say “empty” for this verse? Why did you leave out part of the Bible? We have to reply well it’s not omitted, we just simply say that verse number is empty because there’s nothing actually there because there was nothing ever supposed to be there. When the verse numbers were made they included verses which were not actually in the original manuscripts. You know what’s interesting, some people want to say well based on this how do we have any confidence? I want to return to what I just said: we are able to know what was original and what was not. The very way that we know that the long ending of Mark is not scripture and the woman caught in adultery passage is not scripture, should show us that we can have confidence in this process of determining what the original manuscripts most likely said.
Some takeaways from this, there are no authentic variants that substantially change the meaning of the text. That is a huge point. When we hear that number 200,000 variants, it’s got shock value. We can’t deny that. We have to return to the fact that it’s not the number of variants, it’s the extent of the variants—what do they actually mean. There are no authentic variants that substantially change the meaning of the text.
Most of these variants are spelling and grammatical changes and some of them actually and perhaps ironically were helpful additions by scribes. It’s hard when you’re hand copying a manuscript to tell the difference between well the Bible and a marginal note. We all write in our Bibles today. People wrote in theirs long ago. When it’s all hand written and all by the same person, it can be difficult to distinguish between what’s the Bible that you’re copying and what’s just a marginal note. Sometimes scribes who may be writing in Matthew and copying Matthew would say hey I know what he’s talking about here, that’s from over in Luke, I’ll bring that over to be helpful to the reader. We actually are able to kind of undo those as we now know that they weren’t original.
In future weeks, we will talk about how we go from the manuscripts to the english translation we have. I haven’t quite fulfilled my promise to talk about copies to the coffee table, but we will have a part two of this. But what you need to know right now is that there are extremely educated, dedicated people who participate in the science of what’s called textual criticism and this is the process of looking at all the manuscripts and pulling out the readings that are authentic and that are original. We can have great confidence that what we read today in our Bible reflects what John wrote, what Paul wrote, what Matthew wrote 2000 years ago. There has been no opportunity for these to be changed, so when Bart Ehrman or a radical egalitarian or a Muslim or a Mormon says well the Bible’s been changed. Well, how is that possible? We have manuscripts that go back to the first and second century that contain the same readings that our Bibles contain today.
When we understand this process, we can confront those claims. We don’t have to be knocked back on our heels when someone tells us that not all of the manuscripts agree. You can say yeah I know that, but have you considered that it’s not the number of changes that are important, but the type of changes. We should be equipped and prepared to deal with these types of objections. We’ll talk more about this in future weeks on Unapologetic.