How Reliable Is Our Bible Text?
DESPITE the rapid decline of Christendom’s churches, the Bible is still in popular demand. This is reflected in the release virtually every year of new Bible translations. Some of these quickly reach a circulation of hundreds of thousands of copies and, in some instances, even millions of copies.
But a person might inquire, ‘Why keep on publishing new translations? There are in English the King James Version, Catholic Douay and other older translations. Why do we need new ones?’
Reasons for New Translations
There are a number of good reasons, but three are prominent. First, language continually changes. This makes older translations difficult to understand and, at times, even misleading in their meaning.
For example, the English word “coast” in former times did not refer just to a seacoast. It used to mean the side or border of a country. Thus the King James and Catholic Douay, both first published over 360 years ago, speak of the apostle Paul as traveling through the “upper coasts” to Ephesus. (Acts 19:1) However, the Bible record shows that Paul traveled to Ephesus from the “country of Galatia and Phrygia,” a journey that would take him nowhere near a seacoast! (Acts 18:23) Thus The New American Bible, a modern Catholic translation of 1970, reads: “Paul passed through the interior of the country and came to Ephesus.”
Many similar examples could be cited. Thus the change, over the years, in the meanings of certain words makes a new, up-to-date translation valuable.
A second reason for publishing new Bible translations is that many thousands of ancient written documents have been found in recent years. And these secular documents give a better understanding of the original languages—Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek—in which the Bible was written.
Not so long ago it was thought that many words in the Christian Greek Scriptures were special Bible words, so to speak. But now these same words have been found in ordinary correspondence of Bible times—in deeds, official documents, and even in receipts. Seeing how these words were used in secular documents of the time has been helpful in achieving, in certain instances, a more precise Bible translation.
A third important reason for new Bible translations is the discovery of more and more ancient Bible manuscripts. For the Christian Greek Scriptures alone there are now over 4,600 extant manuscript copies, in whole or in part, in Greek; also over 8,000 more copies in Latin and about 1,000 in other languages. Of particular value to modern Bible translators is that they have had available to them three major manuscript discoveries made in about the last forty years.
The first of these was a number of second- to fourth-century Bible manuscripts written on papyrus that were acquired by the late Sir Alfred Chester Beatty in 1930. Then from 1947 forward over 40,000 manuscript fragments were found in several caves near the Dead Sea, and these include about 100 manuscripts of the Bible. They cover at least parts of every Hebrew Bible book except Esther. The most famous of them is the Dead Sea Scroll “A” of the book of Isaiah. And a third recent discovery consists of some papyri believed to date from about 200 C.E. This was acquired by the Bodmer Library in Geneva, Switzerland.
The significance of these finds is not that they are radically different from manuscripts already possessed, indicating need for basic changes in the Bible text. To the contrary, their differences are minor. Yet, if you are a Shakespeare enthusiast, even one word altered in Hamlet would be important to you, although it would really make no difference to the characters, the plot, or the result. Similarly, to a Bible student the change of one word can be important for the meaning of a Bible verse, yet not alter any doctrine or basic interpretation.
However, this may raise the question in some persons’ minds: ‘How can a Bible translator, who desires to make use of all these manuscript discoveries, possibly check each verse in the many different available manuscripts? Would this not take more than a lifetime of work?’
Constructing a Text
Fortunately the Bible translator does not personally have to check each manuscript. Specialist scholars, men like B. F. Westcott and F. J. A. Hort, D. Eberhard Nestle and Rudolf Kittel, have compared the distinguishing features and variations of each important manuscript and have constructed what are called “texts,” in the original language. The “texts” they have prepared adopt the best readings available from all the manuscripts. Often listed in footnotes are the code letters and designations of manuscripts and versions that support the reading, followed by details of all important alternative readings. These scholars are not concerned with translating the Bible into English or any other language, but work only with the original language.
Then the Bible translator comes on the scene. His work is to put that original-language text into whatever language he desires. He is guided by the evidence the textual scholars have collected.
Textual criticism has to do with the work of textual scholars in making the original-language “text” from which Bible translators work. The work of textual critics is sometimes called “lower criticism” to distinguish it from “higher criticism.” Since its purpose is to recover the original text of the Bible writer, it is a constructive criticism rather than being destructive.
As one example of the work of textual scholars, consider the Bible verse 1 Timothy 3:16. The King James Version reads, “God was manifest in the flesh.” However, most modern translations say: “He was made manifest in flesh.” Why the difference? And why have modern translations replaced “God” with “He”? It is because of the identification by textual scholars of how the original text of the Bible writer obviously read.
The ancient contraction for “God” was represented by the Greek form [Artwork—Greek characters], while the Greek letters literally meaning “who” in the uncial or capital-like lettering were OC. You can see how easy it would be to convert “who” to the title “God” by just putting a single stroke through the “O” and a bar over the top of both letters. And this is an alteration that was made in some ancient manuscripts.
Textual scholars have exposed this alteration. Westcott and Hort show in their Notes on Select Readings that the alteration is found only in manuscripts written from the end of the fourth century C.E. onward. Even in the famous fifth-century Alexandrine manuscript in the British Museum, a microscope examination has revealed that the stroke and bar were added by another hand at a much later time!
Textual scholars also are able to identify other alterations, or mistakes. Various clues assist them. For example, confusion of letters that look very similar, omission or duplication of phrases due to the eye following the wrong line, or the incorporation of a marginal gloss into the text itself.
Meticulous Care in Copying
The existence of such mistakes may cause a person to ask: ‘How common are mistakes or variations in the manuscripts? How can we be sure that ancient Bible manuscripts from which textual scholars work are reasonably accurate, since none of them are originals made by the Bible writers themselves?’
It is true that it is easy for errors to creep in when repeated copies of a writing are made. However, it is important to note the meticulous way in which copies of the Scriptures were checked and corrected by the copyists.
Hebrew scribes were particularly reverent. They used scrupulous care in dealing with the text. They had check systems, such as counting the number of letters in each section, even the number of times certain letters appeared. No word was written from memory. Even if a king should speak to the scribe while he was writing the name of God, Jehovah, he was to be ignored. After a manuscript was completed, it was verified, or examined by correctors.
Manuscripts copied in Greek give evidence of the work of correction. This can be seen, for example, in the famous Codex Sinaiticus, a Greek Septuagint manuscript of the fourth century. The corrector added in the top margin a passage that had been omitted in error from First Corinthians chapter thirteen. Then he placed arrows to indicate where the passage should have appeared in the actual text.
Regarding the effect of such scrupulous care, Dr. Hort notes: “The great bulk of the words of the New Testament stand out above all discriminative processes of criticism, because they are free from variation, and need only to be transcribed. If comparative trivialities . . . are set aside, the words in our opinion still subject to doubt can hardly amount to more than a thousandth part of the whole New Testament.”
The late Bible text scholar Sir Frederic Kenyon made this reassuring statement in the introduction to his seven volumes on the “Chester Beatty Biblical Papyri”: “The first and most important conclusion derived from the examination of them [the then recently discovered second- to fourth-century papyri] is the satisfactory one that they confirm the essential soundness of the existing texts. No striking or fundamental variation is shown either in the Old or the New Testament. There are no important omissions or additions of passages, and no variations which affect vital facts or doctrines. The variations of text affect minor matters, such as the order of words or the precise words used.”
That care in copying was effective in practically eliminating errors is also evidenced by the recently discovered Dead Sea Scroll “A” of Isaiah, which is dated around 100 B.C.E. This scroll is about a thousand years older than what was formerly the oldest known copy of the Bible book of Isaiah in Hebrew. And yet there are few differences between the two copies of Isaiah, causing Professor Millar Burrows to observe in his book The Dead Sea Scrolls: “It is a matter for wonder that through something like a thousand years the text underwent so little alteration.”
Are They Really So Old?
Yet someone may ask: ‘How can one be so sure those Dead Sea Scrolls and other manuscript finds are so old? Is there really evidence that they are?’
Yes, there is. Paleography, which has to do with the study of ancient scripts or writing, offers noteworthy evidence. Writing styles vary from period to period, changing with the fashion of the day, and also as a language changes over the years. Old written documents are often dated by employing this science of paleography. Consider an example.
In the Dead Sea Scroll “A” of Isaiah both the Hebrew letters waw and yohdh are similar in appearance. This was the style around the first and second centuries B.C.E., but in later periods the yohdh was noticeably smaller than the waw. This is just one example of how a study of the writing style can help in dating a manuscript.
Of course, there is the possibility that someone may try to fake an ancient manuscript, making the whole thing look old. And there are one or two people in the nineteenth century who did try that. One was Constantine Simonides. But he was exposed by careful scholarship. Today the use of carbon-14 dating tests, although not conclusive, would also help to expose a forgery. However, careful study is still the most valuable means of determining the age of manuscripts and exposing any attempts at forgery.
Aiding Bible scholars in such work today are photographs of ancient manuscripts, which are put on microfilm, or issued in facsimile. Then scholars world wide can give manuscripts detailed study. Thus the chances of a forgery escaping detection are slight indeed. It would be far easier to forge bank notes, for then only technical skill would be required, rather than knowledge of paleography too.
Basis for Confidence
It can therefore be seen that study of ancient manuscripts is a real science that becomes more exact every year. And each new Bible translation, if it builds on the full evidence in an unbiased manner, becomes more refined and accurate. Thus modern scholarship gives reason for complete confidence that the Bible has come down to us today essentially unaltered.
Of course, this is only what one should expect. For Almighty God himself has unquestionably had a hand in seeing that his Word has been preserved so faithfully all these years. Any way one looks at it, the overall reliability of the Bible text is beyond question.
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Hebrew lettering styles differed at various periods of manuscript making. These differences aid scholars to date manuscripts. Notice the distinctions in these two examples:
Divine Name from Isaiah Scroll “A” (c. 100 B.C.E.)
Divine Name from Manuscript Dated 895 C.E.