July 23, 2022 - Finding the Right Text

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How do we know that our copies of the Bible are reliable? How do we know that no plain or precious parts have been taken out of the copies that we have? How can you trace the original reading at those points where there are variations in the Biblical text? And how can you find out where those points are? Let’s begin with what we know about the copies that we have.


God has given us a wealth of manuscript evidence for the text of God’s word. Let’s start with the Hebrew Bible. Our oldest complete copies of the Hebrew text date to around 900-1000 AD. I call these the “Temple-quality” texts. They were preserved for us by scribes known as the Massoretes. They are the ones who invented vowel markers for the Hebrew text (which did not originally have vowels). These scribes counted every letter of the text to make sure it was accurate. They preserved the best quality copies that were handed down to them from the time God’s word was stored in the Jerusalem temple. That’s the standard Hebrew text we have.


God has also given us the Dead Sea Scrolls to prove how accurate our standard Hebrew text was. The Dead Sea Scrolls date from about 150 BC to 100 AD. They contain around 230 pieces from every OT book except Esther, including 104 pieces of the Pentateuch, and one very good copy of Isaiah. How well did our scribes do in over 1000 years of copying? Take a look at Isaiah 53. Compare the Dead Sea Scroll copy with our standard text. Other than differences in spelling, there is only 1 word in question (out of 166 words) in over 1000 years of recopying (verse 11 says either “he shall see” or “he shall see light”). The rest of the Dead Sea Scroll material backs up the amazing accuracy of our standard Hebrew Bibles from 1000 years later.


God has also given us the Greek translation of the OT, called the Septuagint. Scholars in Egypt started by translating the Law of Moses about 280 BC, and then translated the prophets and other books over the next 150 years or so. The Greek OT gives us a snapshot of what the Hebrew text they had looked like at the time. Sometimes the Greek version gives us a different reading that agrees with the Dead Sea Scrolls; when the Greek version and the Dead Sea Scrolls agree, they may have preserved a better reading than the standard Hebrew text.


For the Law of Moses, God has also given us the Samaritan Pentateuch, which also dates from more than a century before Christ. We also have the Latin version, the Vulgate, which dates from 400 AD, which gives us a snapshot of what the Hebrew text looked like in Jerome’s day. Finally, we have loose translations of the OT into Aramaic, which are called targums; again, they date to around the time of Christ. God has given us a lot of textual evidence to work with!


For the NT, we start with pieces of the Greek text (we call them the papyri). The very oldest is about 2 verses of John that date to 125 AD, barely 30 years after John was written. The rest of our papyri date to anywhere from 200-300 AD, including almost complete copies of the Gospels and the letters of Paul. Parts of almost every book in the NT can be found at this time.


Next, God has given us complete copies of the entire NT on sheepskin starting in 300 AD. We have almost 300 NT’s or portions from over the next 5 centuries. After this, there are hundreds of mass-produced copies in Greek from 800-1500 AD, on which our KJV is based. We also have not only the Latin Vulgate (400 AD), but several Latin translations that are earlier than the Vulgate. We also have early translations into Syriac and Coptic. Finally, the vast majority of the NT can be reconstructed just from quotes from early church writers.


God has given us so much evidence for the original text of the Bible, that very few words are left in question. The chances of us permanently changing the original text in any given place without being found out are so great, it would be like dumping a pillow full of feathers out the window of a speeding car, and then trying to get every feather back.


When variations take place in the text of the Bible, they normally leave behind evidence, and the burden of proof lies on those who would claim that such changes happened without them leaving a trace. Nobody was ever in a position of being able to change all of the copies of a Biblical passage, without the original reading being preserved somewhere.


A good example of how tracing the original reading works where there are variations in a Biblical text can be found in Deuteronomy 9:24. In the earliest complete copies of our standard Hebrew text, we read that Moses says to the Israelites, “You have been rebellious against the Lord from the day that I knew you.” But both the Greek translation and the Samaritan Pentateuch (both of which are very early) read, “from the day that he knew you” (meaning God). (Fragments of Deuteronomy in the Dead Sea Scrolls do not contain this verse.)


Which reading is more likely to have been changed to which? “From the day I knew you,” or “from the day he knew you?” is more likely to be the original? It’s about a 50/50 tossup, both in terms of logic and of evidence from the copies we have. The case for both readings is strong. Most textual issues are not this difficult to resolve. But whether it is God or Moses who has always known Israel to be rebellious does not make much difference to our faith (probably both are true). But notice how an early change like this was caught and preserved in the manuscript evidence we have. Such changes do not go undetected.


The heretic Marcion (150 AD) is proof that no one could have pulled off a major chop-job revision of the Bible, without being detected. Marcion believed that there were 2 gods: the evil creator god of the Hebrew Bible, and the sweetness-and-light God of Jesus Christ. So Marcion throws away the entire OT, and accepts only a mutilated Gospel of Luke and 7 mutilated letters of Paul, with everything Jewish removed. Marcion’s attempt to remove these plain and precious teachings, however, was a colossal failure. There were too many unaltered copies floating around to correct his version.


Interestingly, Marcion’s own writings were suppressed, but even Marcion’s writings could not be stamped out entirely: our source for what little we know about Marcion is what Tertullian, one of his opponents, quoted from him. (And Tertullian wrote 5 volumes to refute Marcion’s theology, so Tertullian quoted Marcion quite a lot.)


So the chance that huge changes were made in the Bible undetected without leaving behind telltale evidence, is virtually zero. Let me give you another example from my book The Historical Jesus and the Historical Joseph Smith. If someone claims there was originally a prediction of a famous prophet in Genesis 50 that is no longer in our Bibles, we can ask: why is there no evidence for it in our oldest complete Hebrew scrolls, nor in the Greek translation, nor in the Dead Sea Scrolls, nor in the Samaritan Pentateuch or the Vulgate? If such a prophecy had been “plain and precious,” the evidence that it was ever part of the original text is non-existent.


God has sometimes given us evidence in the text of the Bible that makes us wonder. The Greek version of Jeremiah is 16% shorter than our Hebrew version, and the chapters about foreign nations from the end of the book have been moved to the middle. At some points, some of the fragments from the Dead Sea Scrolls back up the short version. My theory is that Jeremiah wrote both a standard version and a “director’s cut,” and God made sure that neither one of those versions got lost. (There is nothing new in the long version, just repetition.)


In Genesis 4, the words that Cain says to his brother Abel, “Let us go to the field,” are missing from some of our earliest Hebrew manuscripts, but they are found in the Greek version, the Samaritan Pentateuch, the Vulgate, and the other Hebrew copies we have. So one of the questions we always have to ask is: Which is more likely? Which version best explains how the other one came about? One general rule is that words are far more likely to be added to the holy text than taken out. When Paul says in Galatians 6, “I bear on my body the marks of Jesus,” that easily grew from “Jesus” to become “our Lord Jesus Christ,” a harmless addition to the text.


The shorter reading is usually the best. But sometimes words do drop out. Usually it’s accidental. In John 17:15, Jesus prays, “I do not ask that you would take them out of the world, but that you would keep them from the Evil One.” But in one copy, the scribe accidentally skipped an entire line, and wrote, “I do not ask that you would keep them from the Evil One”! God preserved both the mistake and the correct reading, and it was easy to tell which was which.


So in famous cases such as the ending of Mark, or the story of the woman caught in adultery in John 8, both of which are missing from the earliest and best copies of Mark and John, we have to ask: Is it more likely that someone took out a whole section that was originally there, or is it more likely that somebody added that section? It’s more likely that someone added it.


The last 12 verses of Mark are missing from our 2 earliest Greek manuscripts, and from our earliest Syriac and Latin manuscripts. These verses have some details that don’t seem to fit with the rest of what we know from the Gospels. They say that Jesus appeared to 2 men on the road (which sounds like the Emmaus Road), but when the men report that they’ve seen Jesus, it says the rest “did not believe.” They also tell us that Jesus appears to the apostles and chews them out for their lack of faith, which doesn’t sound like any scene we know from the Gospels. So was this section edited out of our earliest manuscripts? Or was it added because, otherwise, if Mark ends at verse 8, it sounds like Mark leaves us hanging there? Either way, God gave us both versions, to make sure we had enough information for what we need to believe and do.


The same is true of the passage where Jesus forgives the woman caught in adultery. The evidence indicates that this passage was not an original part of the Gospel of John. It is missing from our two oldest texts of John (200 AD). It is missing from Codex Sinaiticus, Codex Vaticanus, and at least 8 other major Greek manuscripts. These verses are missing from four Old Latin manuscripts, as well as from the early Syriac version and half of our Coptic manuscripts. No Greek commentary on John mentions the passage until 1100 AD, and even copies that contain this passage mark it off to show doubt that it belongs in the original text. The earliest Greek text where we find this story is from 400 AD, along with four other major Greek manuscripts, the rest of our Latin manuscripts (including the Vulgate), half of our Coptic manuscripts, and the large number of Greek texts on which the KJV is based.


While the copies we have seem to show that the account of Jesus forgiving the woman caught in adultery was not part of John’s original, what we read here fits all of the historical criteria of authenticity except multiple independent witnesses. (We talked about these in our April 4 broadcast last year.) So the Woman Caught in Adultery appears to be a genuine incident from the life of Jesus that almost fell through the cracks. It was too good to lose. Think how much less we would know about Jesus if we had lost it! God made sure it found its way into God’s word. If we had found this story on papyrus scraps in some Egyptian garbage dump, we would have added it to our Bibles.


Jesus’ words as he is being nailed to the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” are only found in Luke 23:34, and even there, they are missing from a large portion of the earliest manuscripts. They are missing from our oldest manuscript of Luke, from 200 AD. They are missing from Codex Vaticanus (300’s AD), and from the original text of manuscript D (they are added into the margin by a later scribe). They are also missing from two of the oldest Latin manuscripts, from the earliest Syriac version, and from most Coptic manuscripts. However, they can be found in the earliest text of Codex Sinaiticus (300’s AD), in the vast majority of Latin manuscripts, in manuscript 33 (a late copy of a very early Greek manuscript), and in the majority of Greek copies that were mass-produced after the fourth century AD, plus they are quoted by Hippolytus, Justin Martyr, and Irenaeus in the second century AD, which is evidence that early writers knew this passage.


In cases like this, we must weigh the evidence rather than count the manuscripts. The fact that these words of Jesus were included in the Majority Text on which the KJV is based proves nothing; 100 copies can be based on a late and unreliable original. We must also ask why copyists might have added or tried to remove these words. It is probable that some in the early church rejected this saying due to their own anger toward Jesus’ killers. It is rare for words in an early Bible manuscript to be deleted by a copyist; usually, the tendency is to add words. But in this case, we can see why strong conviction could have led some copyists to leave this saying out as they recopied this text. But God made sure that this all-important sound bite did not get lost from God’s word, and God preserved the evidence that someone tried to remove it.


Our copies of Paul’s letter to the Romans have preserved evidence that there were 3 different editions of this letter: some copies ended at the end of chapter 14, some ended at the end of chapter 15, but most have all 16 chapters. We see the evidence for the shorter editions; nobody covered it up. Likewise, some copies of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians are missing the words “at Ephesus” in verse 1, which gives us evidence that there were copies of this letter that Paul sent to other churches, such as Laodicea. (Even good old Marcion called Ephesians the “letter to the Laodiceans.”) God gives us enough evidence to see where these moves took place, while also keeping the correct reading from getting lost.


Someone might ask: If the Bible is really God’s word, then why did God allow so many variations to happen? If God’s word is without error, how can we explain this? Why didn’t God keep the text perfect? The short answer is: God didn’t need a perfect text. God gave us a text that was accurate enough to do the job it was intended to do. Besides, if every copy read exactly the same, we’d smell a rat – we’d wonder whether somebody had monkeyed with the text, and then cleaned up the scene of the crime and gotten rid of all copies that didn’t read exactly the same. The rough edges we find in the copies of God’s word that God has given us are proof that they were copied independently.


How reliable are the copies we have of God’s word? Based on the Bibles we use in our everyday reading, minor problems in the text are far less than one per page, and most of them are easy to tell what the correct reading is. Major issues in the text amount to only a few dozen for the entire Bible, and we already talked about many of the most famous examples today. In pretty much all of these changes, God gives us enough evidence to catch the change and to figure out what the original reading is. And nowhere are any of our essential beliefs or moral teachings jeopardized by the accuracy of the Biblical text that God has given us. There is zero evidence that any plain or precious parts have been taken out of God’s word.


God has given us too much evidence that backs up the text we have, for us to fear that the Bible God has given us has been altered, added to, or subtracted from. We have a Biblical text that is faithful to the original, a Bible we can rely on.


So how do we get access to this evidence as an average Bible reader? Most versions will let you know down in the margin about where there are variations in the text, so that you the reader can figure out which reading is more likely. It’s not absolutely necessary to know exactly which ancient manuscript says what, how many copies say which, or how old they are. Usually, asking yourself a few logical questions is enough. But if you’re interested in finding out more, there are major Bible commentaries that can give you detailed manuscript information.


But there is still the problem of whether the Bible has been correctly translated. How can we know what the text of the Bible really means? Is there one correct translation? And how can we put correct text and correct translation together when we read the Bible for ourselves? How can we know what God has said? We’ll talk about that next time on Biblical Words and World!