I honestly believe you are in only one of two camps. You believe truth is inspired, preserved, and contained in the Bible or Not. I am unapologetically in the prior camp. The only real apartheid in the world is spiritual and correlates with this question!
How do We know the Text of Scripture is Accurate?
Despite thousands of variation units between various ancient manuscripts that constitute the source of our Bibles, Anderson and Widder (2018) quote Bruce Waltke who claims that within the OT there is “no significant variation in 90 percent of the text” (p. 12). If you are like me then this is not as comforting as it sounds. Rat poison is 99% good food and 1% poison. Anderson and Widder attempt to allay our fears by stating that the thousands of variations in the Bible are almost exclusively concerned with spelling, word order, and alternate word choices that do not affect the meaning (p. 12). All those that effect meanings are clearly identified and explained in the footnotes of our modern Bibles and do not affect doctrine or theology (p. 13).
Anderson and Widder define textual criticism as, “analyzing the manuscript evidence in order to determine the oldest form of the text” (p. 6). What if the oldest form was corrupted? Could it have been more corrupted than a newer form that underwent painstaking scrubbing to eliminate variances which might have been introduced because of the rapid copying undertaken as Christianity expanded and demand for the writings of the Apostles similarly increased (p. 15)? This paper attempts to answer some of these important questions that arise in the church from concerned members of the body of Christ.
New Testament Source Documents
Thousands of manuscripts, copies of the original autographs, survive today and these were largely copied within the three centuries of the originals (p. 15). These, however, exhibit greater variation than the 90% claimed by Waltke above. They have been sorted into text-types which originally followed geographical regions but more recently the geographical connection has been tenuous, but they kept the names Alexandrian, Byzantine, Western, and Caesarean (p. 15). These manuscripts were written in Greek capital letters without spaces, paragraphing, end of line hyphenation, or punctuation (p. 16). Additionally, as mentioned above, based on the demand for these writings there were cases where scribes were transcribing what was read aloud to them rather than working individually copying a source to a target document with the benefit of seeing the original (p. 16). To top it all off the translators of these manuscripts would not have had the source language as their primary language (p. 16). It is not surprising then that textual critics have an immense task to categorize and resolve these variations.
In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, we encounter the omission whereby the salute was given is to the saints in Ephesus (Eph. 1:1), upon which most versions are based, but a select few manuscripts omit the destination church because the earliest and best manuscripts do not specify the recipients. This may be a case of addition rather than omission (p. 19). One possible reason cited in the footnote is that the letter may have been addressed to multiple locations in a region and the one letter was written to the church at Ephesus was just a single copy of multiple others that omitted the specifics. Regardless of the reason, one thing to bear in mind is how does this variant affect our understanding of the truths of God’s Word, or does it?
Many of the variations that are included in the “thousands” detractors use to cast doubt on the Bible are simple spelling mistakes (p. 28). Other variations are less easy to explain and will be covered, starting with unintentional and progressing through intentional, in more detail in the paragraphs that follow.
An example of “haplography” is observed in 1 Thessalonians 2:7 where some English Bibles say Paul became gentle while others say he became an infant. Haplography occurs when the scribe misses a portion of a repeated sequence of letters resulting in a single rather than a double transcribing of a sequence of letters or words (p. 19). It is easy once you know the Greek language to identify the possible error made by the scribe and to decide on the most likely original wording of the author.
“Parablepsis” is like the previous example except the scribe might omit everything in-between the repeated letters, words, or phrases (p. 21). In the Codex Vaticanus, we find a strange rendition of Jesus High Priestly prayer which reads, “I do not ask that you should take them from the evil one” (p. 22). Possibly the scribe’s eyes jumped from the prior to the latter line which ended with the same words and he omitted everything in between. A similar example can be found in some manuscript’s rendition of 1 John 2:23. The fact that we have most English translations accounting for this obvious error should give us confidence that the textual critics are being effective in resolving these variations.
“Dittography” is the unintended practice of double writing words or letters as for example in the Codex Vaticanus for Acts 19:34 where “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians” is repeated but this is found in the singular in all other manuscripts (p. 25). Does this render the Word of God errant or could it be that a crowd of townspeople might have repeated this shout?
Sometimes scribes conflate two or more manuscripts to avoid choosing between two differing versions. Another source of this variant is explanatory marginal notes that are subsequently copied into the running text (p. 25). An example is Luke 24:53 where some manuscripts read the disciples “blessing” God after Jesus ascension and others record “praising” God whereas the Codex Bezae has both praising and blessing (p. 26).
What is called “glosses” occurs when someone made notes in the margins or between lines of text in manuscripts (p. 26). Later scribes copied these manuscripts and it was not clear if these notations were additions by readers or prior scribes correcting omissions. Luke 23:17 contains what could be an explanatory gloss, written by an early Christian, to explain the reason why Pilate offered to release a prisoner (p. 28). It is evident because some copies omit it while others include it after verse 16 and at least one other after verse 18. Another example can be seen in the description of why people lay at the pool of Bethesda which is omitted from the Lexham English Bible because its source text never had the explanatory note. The meaning of the passages is not altered with or without the glosses.
Although spelling and grammar changes occur with more frequency in the OT, understandably since the longer period it took to record those events compared with the NT, we do have an example in the gospel of Matthew where within the genealogy of Jesus is an Asaph whereas in other manuscripts he is named Asa.
Another source of variations is harmonization whereby details from similar books are adjusted to match details (p 36). This is the case within the Synoptic Gospels where Jesus responds to the rich young ruler who calls him a good teacher and in most English translations Jesus says, “there is only one who is good” but a few have been harmonized with the parallel account in Mark where it is recorded that Jesus said, “there is none good but one, that is, God”.
A few changes have been made for theological reasons, to protect the reputation of God or to correct a seeming error (p. 37). Finally, we have arrived at a class of variations that are more than superfluous! In the opening verses of the gospel according to Mark who quotes Malachi and Isaiah, the earliest manuscripts include “as it is written in Isaiah the prophet” while the quotation is more general. The scribes in the Byzantine tradition corrected the confusion by recording, “as it is written in the prophets” (p. 39).
In 1 John 5:6-8 we have an example of an alarming theological change where the three that bear record in heaven are identified as the Spirit, the water and the blood in all but one set of manuscripts which were used to translate the KJV version of our English Bible which reads, “…the Father, the Word and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one,” (p. 40). This Johannine Clause has a long history of controversy and was not present in manuscripts before the fourteenth century.
As has been demonstrated, the abundance of sources can be used to identify the most probable initial reading of the text as can be seen by what Wegner says, “The plethora of New Testament manuscripts is a great benefit when trying to determine the original reading of the New Testament, for it is easier to sift through and evaluate the various extant readings than to amend texts with no evidence” (as cited by Anderson & Widder, p. 41).
We most certainly can be assured that what we hold in our hands, what we treasure and study, the Word of God revealed to us in the pages of the Bible is accurate and has been painstakingly preserved over the 2 millennia of the history of the church. Evidence from various sources has been analyzed and continues to be, by scholars who are dedicated to preserving God’s revelation of Himself to humanity.
Anderson, A., Widder, W. & Mangum, D. (2018). Textual criticism of the Bible. Bellingham
United States: Faithlife Corporation.