The Text of the Christian Scriptures—How Accurate?
SINCE you are able to read this magazine, likely you possess a copy of the Christian Scriptures, commonly called the “New Testament.” The twenty-seven books that comprise this part of the Holy Bible were completed about 1,879 years ago. Can you be confident that your copy accurately represents what the original Bible writers said?
That might seem doubtful to some. They may reason that transmitting these writings down through nearly two millenniums of time has resulted in losing the original Bible text.
The facts, however, are quite to the contrary. A noted authority on the Bible’s text, Frederic G. Kenyon, states: “It cannot be too strongly asserted that in substance the text of the Bible is certain: Especially is this the case with the New Testament.”
How can scholars be so sure that we today have the Christian Scriptures substantially as they were written? Because of examining many thousands of handwritten copies of these Bible books. Known as “manuscripts” (from Latin, manu scriptus, “written by hand”), these handwritten copies give evidence that the text of the Christian Scriptures is amazingly accurate.
A REMARKABLE CONTRAST
It is uncommon for an ancient document to be supported by a large number of manuscripts. For example, of the History by the Roman writer Pliny the Younger (61-113 C.E.) only seven copies survive. The earliest of these is from 850 C.E., more than seven centuries after the time of composition. Similarly the history by Greek writer Herodotus survives in only eight copies, the earliest of which is 1,300 years later than the time of writing.
But what about the Christian Scriptures? In remarkable contrast, recently published figures for manuscripts of this part of the Bible in the original Greek now total 5,269. Moreover, manuscript finds of early translations of these writings into Syriac, Latin, Coptic, Gothic and other languages increase the testimony by another 10,000 or more. Such extensive copying and translating is true of no other document in all human history. But it is to be expected only of writings that are truly “inspired of God.”—2 Tim. 3:16.
A noteworthy feature of these original-language manuscripts is their closeness to the time of Bible writing. Papyrus fragments of parts of the Christian Scriptures in Greek have been dated back to the beginning of the second century (the 100’s) C.E., and possibly to the end of the first century.
It is to be expected that many thousands of copies made over centuries of time would result in their differing from one another in certain respects. There are many reasons for this.
For example, the older Greek Bible manuscripts were produced in a style of handwriting known as “uncials.” This term comes from a Latin word meaning “a twelfth part,” perhaps referring to large letters that originally occupied a twelfth part of a line. Uncial manuscripts have all-capital letters, with practically no division between words.
Bible scholars have illustrated a problem that may arise from this type of writing by the use of the expression “GODISNOWHERE.” This could mean “GOD IS NOWHERE,” or “GOD IS NOW HERE.” When this type of problem turns up in manuscripts of the Christian Scriptures, however, never is the difference in meaning so serious.
To illustrate: According to the book Encountering New Testament Manuscripts different viewpoints of word division and punctuation of the original Greek text give the following two major possibilities of translation at John 1:3, 4:
a. “All things came into being through Him; and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being. In Him was life; and the life was the light of men.”
b. “All things came into being through Him; and apart from Him nothing came into being. What has come into being was life in Him; and the life was the light of men.”
It is evident that the general sense of this Bible passage is the same either way.
Another reason why ancient Greek Bible manuscripts differ in occasional details is that certain Greek capital letters resemble one another. Thus, two manuscripts or two groups of manuscripts may have similar-looking, but different, words at certain places. Too, at times copying was done from dictation. Certain manuscripts indicate that in isolated instances scribes confused words that sounded alike (as the English words “bare” and “bear”).
As further causes for variant reading in Bible manuscripts, The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible notes: “A scribe’s eye might skip from the first to the second occurrence of the same word, causing omission of the intervening material; he might read the same word or phrase twice; or he might confuse a word for a word of similar appearance. . . .”
Thus, quite early in the Common Era manuscripts copied in different areas began to exhibit variations from one another. As these documents were copied and recopied, families of manuscripts having the same basic peculiarities came into existence. And so, scholars today speak of the Alexandrian text, the Western text, the Caesarean text, and the Byzantine text.
Interestingly, most manuscripts have “mixed” or “fluid” texts. Why? One reason is that scribes would often copy one section (for example, the gospels) from one manuscript, and another section (for instance, the letters of the apostle Paul) from a different one. Too, after completing a new copy, scribes might make corrections from a manuscript different from the one they had copied.
PRINTED EDITIONS OF THE GREEK TEXT
It was in the year 1514 that the whole of the Christian Scriptures in Greek first appeared in print. This was in volume five of the work known as the “Complutensian Polyglot.” This edition of the Christian Scriptures in Greek, however, was delayed in publication and did not go on the market until 1522. It is not known what manuscripts served as the basis for this printed Greek text.
In 1516, Dutch scholar Desiderius Erasmus produced a printed edition of the Christian Scriptures in Greek. Though printed two years later than the Polyglot text mentioned above, Erasmus’ text was the first to be put on the market. Because of its small size and low price, it gained great popularity. During the eighteenth century Erasmus’ text became known as the “received text.” All principal Protestant translations of the Christian Scriptures in Europe prior to 1881, including the celebrated Authorized, or King James, Version, were based on this Greek text.
However, Erasmus compiled his Greek text from, at most, only six manuscripts, none earlier than the tenth century C.E. For the most part, he had his printer copy from two manuscripts of about the twelfth century. Thus, the manuscript authority for the received text is scanty and many centuries removed from the time of writing of these inspired Bible books.
With the discovery of numerous manuscripts of greater antiquity, scholars began printing the received text with a system of footnotes for showing where and how these more ancient handwritten copies differed from the received text. In modern times, many editions of the Christian Scriptures in Greek have appeared that differ markedly from the printed text that was first published by Erasmus.
The reason for this is simple. Whereas Erasmus had but a few manuscripts to work with, scholars today have many thousands of them. Experts can often trace the history of different readings and pinpoint what the inspired author of a Bible book most probably wrote. The result of painstaking work by textual scholars has been editions of the printed Greek text that represent more accurately than the received text what the Christian Bible writers actually penned.
‘HARDLY MORE THAN A THOUSANDTH PART’
To what extent do manuscripts of the Christian Scriptures differ from one another? Estimates of the number of differences, called “variant readings,” in Greek manuscripts and ancient translations exceed 200,000. Does this suggest that the text of the Christian Scriptures has become hopelessly obscured? Actually the figure is quite misleading. How so?
In A General Introduction to the Bible, Norman L. Geisler and William E. Nix point out: “There is an ambiguity in saying there are some 200,000 variants in the existing manuscripts of the New Testament, since these represent only 10,000 places in the New Testament. If one single word is misspelled in 3,000 different manuscripts, this is counted as 3,000 variants or readings.”
Moreover, most of the variant readings are merely mechanical, having to do with matters such as spelling (comparable to the difference between “honor” and “honour”) and word order. One scholar declared that out of 150,000 variant readings those that could raise doubt as to meaning amounted to only 400. Of these, only 50 were truly significant. Similarly, Fenton John Anthony Hort, a world-renowned scholar of the Greek text of the Christian Scriptures, writes:
“The proportion of words [in the entire Greek text of the Christian Scriptures] virtually accepted on all hands as raised above doubt is very great, not less, on a rough computation, than seven-eighths of the whole. The remaining eighth, therefore, formed in great part by changes of order and other comparative trivialities constitutes the whole area of criticism. . . . the amount of what can in any sense be called substantial variation . . . can hardly form more than a thousandth part of the entire text.”
Whatever version of the Christian Scriptures you possess, there is no reason to doubt that the Greek text upon which it is based represents with considerable fidelity what the inspired authors of these Bible books originally wrote. Though now nearly 2,000 years removed from the time of their original composition, the Greek text of the Christian Scriptures is a marvel of accurate transmission.
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Part of Vatican Manuscript No. 1209 (fourth century C.E.). It has all-capital letters, and hardly any spacing between words
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Printed Greek text by Erasmus with his Latin translation. This Greek text (with minor variations) became the “received text”
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A recent edition of the Christian Scriptures in Greek, edited by Eberhard Nestle. A system of footnotes gives variant readings