I have received a lot of questions about this subject, so here it is again:
I don’t know about you, but the copyright date on my Bible is 2002 (I usually read from the ESV). What does that mean? It means that the Bible that I read from, study from, and teach from is nearly 2000 years newer than the original. How do we know that errors have not crept in after 2000 years? You may have an older version. If you use an NASB or NIV, your Bible will not be much better off. Thirty years closer to the original is not saying much. Even if you are a hard core KJV advocate, using an “original” 1611 version, your Bible is still over fifteen hundred years past the original New Testament and over two thousand years newer than the Old Testament. More than that, these Bibles are all in English and the New Testament was written in Greek and the Old Testament was mostly written in Hebrew. More than that, the Greek and Hebrew of the Scriptures are both dead languages, meaning that they are not spoken anymore.
With all this time and change, doesn’t it seem likely that there have been many errors in transcription that have crept into the text, corrupting the original beyond repair? How can we know our Bible is reliable?
What is Textual Criticism?
This is where the discipline of “textual criticism” comes in. Don’t be afraid of the word “criticism” in relation to the Bible. Textual criticism is the art and science of reconstructing the original text of the Scripture. A “text critic” is one who examines the available evidence and makes important decisions as to how the Bible we hold two thousand years later should read. There are not many text critics who are trained and skilled enough to make these type of decisions. It is both time consuming and expensive to devote yourself to this field. One has to be highly trained in the language in which he or she is working, they have to devote much time to tedious examination of ancient texts, and they have to travel—a lot! This all gets expensive.
As well, it is not a job that will get you much recognition. The work of a text critic forms the background of all our studies in the Scriptures, yet we hardly give this issue a first thought.
The first thing that must be understood is that we don’t have the originals of the various books of the Scriptures. We don’t even have an original fragment. All we have to work from are copies of copies of copies, etc. Before the invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century, all copies of the Scriptures were hand produced. There are approximately 6000 handwritten copies of the New Testament in Greek that we have cataloged. There are far less of the Old Testament. These copies date from around 125 A.D to the fifteenth century. These copies are referred to as extant (existing) manuscripts.
Are there errors in the manuscripts?
This question is somewhat misleading. What some may call an error, text critics will call a “variant.” A variant is where one text differs from another. There are, in the New Testament alone, somewhere between 300,000 to 400,000 variants. Ouch! This means that among the 6000 extant New Testament Greek manuscripts, there are nearly half a million differences. This amounts to about four variants per verse.
Don’t get scared, just hang with me . . .
These variants come in different forms and need to be understood within the context in which the copies were made. There were different types of people who would copy the text of Scripture for different reasons. This might be referred to as the “personality of the text.” Questions asked of the copies include:
1. Is the text produced by a “pastor personality” who will transcribe the text into the vernacular of his people, smoothing out the reading kinda like the Message or the Living Translation does in English? This personality is valuable, but obviously will make intentional changes in order to update the language and make the Scriptures more readable. Therefore, this type of scribe will be responsible for more variants.
2. Is it by an apologist/theologian who is concerned with preserving orthodoxy? This type of scribe will often try to smooth out any apparent contradictions to silence the skeptics of his day. He may also add formulations of doctrine to try to provide definite, albeit irresponsible, legitimacy to orthodoxy. This is probably the case with regards to the Comma Johanneum of 1 John 5:7 where a late manuscript reads, “For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one” while all the earliest manuscripts do not contain this. It seems that the scribe was zealously attempting to defend the doctrine of the Trinity by making sure that this doctrine could be found articulated in one single verse. While it is good to defend the doctrine of the Trinity, this methodology is irresponsible and destructive. This reading found its way into the Latin Vulgate early on and is also found in today’s KJV.
3. Was it done by a pietist? This type of scribe may, in his excitement, add liturgical additions such as “May God be glorified!” after a reading. The addition to the Lord’s Prayer “Thine be the kingdom, the power, and the glory forever. Amen” in Matt 6:13 was more than likely a late liturgical addition by a sincere scribe who added it because of his piety, not knowing that it would find its way into many translations.
4. Was it done by a commentator? This type of scribe would often add footnotes, side notes, or even notes in the text itself to explain what the text means. Often it would be hard for a later scribe to distinguish between what was in the original and what was an addition of the previous scribe. Therefore, many notes of these scribes were accidentally assumed into the transcription.
5. Is he a “hired hand” or a devout scribe? This type is usually more objective. He normally won’t make intentional changes, but will often make accidental changes. These accidental changes range anywhere from leaving off a movable nu (like leaving off the “n” in the word “an” in English) or skipping an entire sentence due to a similar ending (homoioteleuton).
How significant are the variants?
In this matter, it is encouraging for Christians to know that the vast majority of the variants found in the Scriptures are either non-viable or insignificant. “Non-viable” means that it is very easy for the text critic to spot the mistake and make the correction. I know the word “insignificant” is very hard to hear when it comes to Scripture, but you must realize the nature of most of the variants. Of the nearly half-million variants, the majority have to do with minor issues that do not change the meaning of the text at all. Most don’t even translate into English such as the movable nu mentioned above, article usage, transposing of words (“Jesus Christ” instead of “Christ Jesus”; metathesis) and other minor variations.
There is approximately only one-percent of variants that in fact make any theological difference. But, even then, these differences don’t affect any major doctrine. In other words, these variants do not call Christ’s deity into question, they don’t place the second coming in jeopardy, salvation is not going to be by works, and Christ’s resurrection is not vitiated by them.
The two most significant variants are John 8 (which contains the story of the woman caught in adultery) and the longer ending of Mark 16 (where snake handling and drinking poison seem to be encouraged). Both of these passages, in the opinion of most scholars, should not be in the Bible. But whether you take these two passages out or leave them in, Christianity is still completely intact with no theological variations worth getting bent out of shape over. In other words, even without the woman caught in adultery, Christ is still gracious and hypocritical attitudes are still wrong!
To put this into perspective, if the two most significant variants don’t change the faith, none of the others will either. Even more, like the case with the longer ending of Mark 16 and John 8, most of the variants are very simple for a trained eye of the text critic to make decisions about.
How do text critics make their decisions?
While there are different theories in text criticism, most respectable text critics follow what has become known as reasoned eclecticism. Briefly, reasoned eclecticism takes all the evidence into account, understanding that any manuscript might contain the original reading, and therefore none should be discounted. The quality of the manuscript is determined by several factors.
1. Date. As a general rule, the earlier the date the better. This does not guarantee that the earliest manuscript most accurately represents the original (since a variant could have found its way into the text early) but generally speaking we have more reason to believe that earlier manuscripts are closer to the original because there is less time for corruption to find its way into the text.
2. Geographic Distribution. This pertains to where the manuscript finds representation. Is it only in the West? Is it only in the Byzantine area? Is it only in Alexandria? When there is wide geographic distribution (i.e., the manuscript has representation in multiple areas), this adds to its authenticity since it evidences multiple early attestation through its wide geographic distribution.
3. Number of manuscripts. If there is a text-type that finds representation in many manuscripts, then this might add some weight. Now, this is not as significant as some would assume since there could be 4999 manuscripts that have a certain variant, yet they were all copied from the same faulty original producing a new family. This original could be wrong and therefore have produced thousands of manuscripts with a wrong reading. We find this to often be the case in the Byzantine text-type (also referred to as the “majority text” since it represents the majority of the manuscripts).
Finally, there are two general rules that text critics often follow that need to be mentioned:
The harder reading is usually closer to the original. This may seem odd until you consider the philosophy behind this rule. Scribes would normally smooth out difficulties rather than add them. It is only natural that a zealous Scribe might change the original reading when it seems to contradict another passage. Because of this, text critics will seek to find the original reading, not the reading that solves any apparent problems.
The shorter reading is usually closer to the original. This is closely connected with the last, but with a difference. Because scribes would often paraphrase, make additional “side notes” that get assumed into the text, or try to correct difficulties, this often produced a longer reading. This principle assumes that scribes would more inclined to add to the original rather than take away from it.
In the end, I believe that, because of the faithfulness of many text critics who labor tirelessly in this field, we can be more than confident that the Bible we read today accurately represents the original, even if it does not do so with absolute technical perfection. The message of Scripture has been preserved due to men of the past whose names we do not know and because of men of the present who work with these men of the past to hand us the word of God in a reliable form.