I don’t know about yours, 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 has a nearly 2000 year gap between it and 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 use a KJV original 1611 version (which is celebrating its 400th anniversary this year), your Bible is still over fifteen hundred years past the original New Testament and over two thousand years newer than the Old Testament.
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? Bart Erhman, in his book Misquoting Jesus, sums it up well:
“[How] Can we hope to get back to anything like the original [biblical] text, the text that the authors actually wrote? It is an enormous problem. In fact, it is such an enormous problem that a number of textual critics have started to claim that we may as well suspend any discussion of the “original” text, because it is inaccessible to us.” (p. 58)
Is this true? Do we have to adopt a defeatist attitude toward what the Bible originally said? 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 afford 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.
I know that this may be a given, but let me say it anyway: we don’t have the originals of any of the books of the Bible. 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. Our copies of the New Testament date from around 125 A.D to the fifteenth century. These copies are referred to as “extant” (or existing) manuscripts.
How about a word picture?
In short, it can be said that textual criticism works with number 2 to produce a number 3 that reflects number 1 so that we can read number 4!
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 three variants per word.
Don’t get scared, just hang with me . . .
First, we need to settle on this. The reason why we have so many variants is because we have so many manuscripts available! If we were to burn 5,999 of the extant New Testament manuscripts and be left with one, guess how many variants we would have. Right. Zero. But solving the problem of the amount of differences in the manuscripts by ridding ourselves of so much evidence creates much greater problems: we don’t know which ones to burn and which one to keep. Plus, the one kept, no matter how good it is, can be improved upon by comparing it to others. So we want as many manuscripts as we can get our hands on, even though we know that this is going to greatly increase the number of variants.
Types of Scribes
All 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.” There are five different copiest “personality-types.”
1. Pastor: 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. Theologian: 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 King James Version.
3. Pietist: 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. Don’t fault him too much. He just get’s excited. 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, not knowing that it would find its way into many translations. He may have even put it in the margins, while the next scribe did not know whether he put it in the margins because he accidentally left it out or not (often because words at the end of a sentence were the same and a full sentence got skipped—homoioteleuton). Eventually, the marginal “notes” of exclamation and praise may get integrated into the text.
4. Commentator: 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, like described before, 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 the commentator-type scribe were accidentally assumed into the transcription. This is probably the case with John 5:3b-4. Notice the difference between the King James Version (KJV) and the English Standard Version (ESV):
After this there was a feast of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 2 Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, which is called in Hebrew, Bethesda, having five porches. 3 In these lay a great multitude of sick people, blind, lame, paralyzed, waiting for the moving of the water. 4 For an angel went down at a certain time into the pool and stirred up the water; then whoever stepped in first, after the stirring of the water, was made well of whatever disease he had. 5 Now a certain man was there who had an infirmity thirty-eight years. 6 When Jesus saw him lying there, and knew that he already had been in that condition a long time, He said to him, “Do you want to be made well?”
After this there was a feast of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 2 Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, in Aramaic called Bethesda, which has five roofed colonnades. 3 In these lay a multitude of invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed. 5 One man was there who had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. 6 When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had already been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be healed?”
You will quickly notice that the ESV doesn’t even have this section of Scripture. Due to many factors including its exclusion from many of the best manuscripts, the translators of the ESV (along with just about every other modern translation) believed this to be a spurious addition. What probably happened was that some “commentator-type” scribe felt the need to explain why sick people were waiting by the pool.
5. Scribe: The final type of copyist was a the scribe. This would include both hired hands and devoted believers whose only purpose is to faithfully pass on the text. 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?
Now, let’s get to the variants. How significant are they? What is the damage?
It is important (and encouraging) for Christians to know that the vast majority (99% according to some) of the variants found in the Scriptures are either “non-viable” or “insignificant.”
Insignificant Variants: I know the word “insignificant” is very hard to hear when it comes to Scripture, but you must realize the mass majority of the variants in the Bible are insignificant. This means that they do not change the meaning of the text at all. Most don’t even translate into English such as the movable nu mentioned above (“an apple” or “a apple”), article usage (“the Peter” or “Peter”), transposing of words (“Jesus Christ” or “Christ Jesus”; metathesis) and other minor variations.
Non-viable Variants: “Non-viable” means that it is relatively easy for the text critic to spot the mistake and make the correction. For example, if I were to give you these two options: 1) “The atheist says God is now here” and 2) “The atheist says God is no where,” which would you choose? More than likely you would quickly see that the first represents a non-viable variant. Unintentional mistakes were often made by word fusion. In this example, the phrase “now here/no where” comes from the letters NOWHERE. It is easy to see how “now here” could arise from “no where,” especially when you understand that the original Greek and Hebrew did not contain spaces between words. It is non-viable because the internal context pushes us in one direction (“God is no where”) rather than the other (“God is now here”). In other words, an atheist is not going to say “God is now here.” Got it?
Approximately, only one-percent of variants are viable and significant. But, even then, the significance of these variants are not that significant. In other words, they don’t affect any major doctrine. 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 in the New Testament, in my opinion, 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 (For more on the woman caught in adultery see Dan Wallace, “My Favorite Passage the is Not 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 the 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). This is why the King James Version of the Scripture, which exclusively follows the Byzantine text-type, is not as respected as the newer version of Scripture (ESV, NAS, NIV,NLB, RSV, TNIV, HCSB, etc).
Rules for making decisions between variants
Finally, there are three general, and related, rules that text critics often follow that need to be mentioned:
1. 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! I love it!
2. 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, more often than not, produced a longer reading. This principle assumes that scribes were more inclined to add to the original rather than take away from it. That is why the King James is thicker than other translations.
3. The reading that best explains the rise of the other reading(s) is preferred: This is kind of a summary statement of the previous two. The idea here is that the text critic is searching for an explanation as to why the given variant(s) would be present. He is trying explain how a scribe could have made a mistake, intentional or unintentional. Once he finds the reading that gives a viable explanation for the others in question, that reading is preferred.
The “Drinking Apples” example:
Let me give you an example in English. Say I was to give you five pieces of paper (manuscripts) that all had the same date with the same quote with some important variations:
Manuscript 1: “Drinking apples is good for you.”
Manuscript 2: “Eating apples is good for you.”
Manuscript 3: “An apple a day keeps the doctor away.”
Manuscript 4: “Drinking apples is good for you.”
Manuscript 5: “Drinking apple juice is good for you.”
Notice the major variation here is between eating and drinking apples.
Manuscript #3 is easy to identify as a “pastoral personality” type-text. It is the “easiest” reading, since it appeals to a common idiom of our day: “An apple a day keeps the doctor away.” It is very unlikely that it is the original since there is no way to explain the rise of the others from this manuscript. The scribe would not make an easy idiomatic reading harder to understand and more stilted. But it is easy to understand how manuscript #3 came from the others.
Manuscript #2 differs from the others in that it has “Eating apples” rather than “Drinking…” The temptation is to go with eating because it makes more sense. This might be the case. However, it is hard to explain the rise of “Drinking apples…” if “Eating apples…” is original. A scribe would not likely change something that makes more sense to something that makes less sense. Therefore, “Drinking apples…”, in my opinion, is preferred. It is the harder reading.
Manuscript #5 has another variation. It says “Drinking apple juice…” Once again, it is hard to understand the change from “Drinking apple juice…” to “Drinking apples…” if the former were the original. Why? Because “Drinking apple juice…” makes more sense. We drink apple juice. We don’t drink apples. Nevertheless, the harder, shorter, more preferred reading, in my opinion, is “Drinking apples…” because it explains the rise of the others.
We have been examining the issue using “internal evidence” alone. If we were to add to this multiple “external” factors such as where the manuscript was found and, most importantly, the date of the manuscript, we could be even more assured of our conclusions.
Let’s take the “Drinking Apples” illustration and change the dates. Let’s say that the original was thought to have been written in A.D. 1999:
Manuscript 1: “Drinking apples is good for you.” (dates to A.D. 2000)
Manuscript 2: “Eating apples is good for you.” (dates to A.D. 2005)
Manuscript 3: “An apple a day keeps the doctor away.” (dates to A.D. 2006)
Manuscript 4: “Drinking apples is good for you.” (dates to A.D. 2004)
Manuscript 5: “Drinking apple juice is good for you.” (dates to A.D. 2001)
Now our case is strengthened. The earliest manuscript dates to within one year of the original. The “smoother” readings come in later. This is just what we would expect. As time goes on it becomes more and more likely that variations get introduced.
This is not at all unlike the situation we find with regard to the manuscripts of the Bible. While most of the decisions, as I have said, are very easy, some are a bit more difficult and require experience and hard thinking. Congratulations! You have just done some text criticism.
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. This does not mean that I believe that it perfectly represents the original. There are definitely some variants that have made their way into your Bibles. But these variants are small and insignificant. Most importantly, they don’t change the meaning of our faith at all. Bart Erhman’s statement above is quite an overstatement. The vast majority of the variants that give people, for lack of a better word, “spiritual constipation” need not bother us at all.
The message of Scripture has been preserved due to men of the past, most of whose 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.
Let us read our Bibles with great confidence.