Read a discussion on textual criticism. Suppose someone in your church comes to you, telling you that she has just discovered that some manuscripts of the Bible do not always agree on how the text should read. Her faith has been shaken. How would you inform and encourage her, in light of what you have studied about the state of textual critical understanding?
Unfortunately, many Christians today are uninformed about how we obtained our Bible. We don’t have the actual, original letters written by the Apostle Paul. Neither does anyone possess Jeremiah’s originally written Old Testament book. What we do have are copies that have been passed around and duplicated further since they were reproduced. When believers discover this historical information, they often wonder if the Bible we have today accurately preserves the inspired Word of God. With this in mind, it is not hard to imagine people’s faith being shaken when they learn about different copies of Scripture. Suppose someone in my church came up to me and told me that she has just discovered that some manuscripts of the Bible do not always agree on how the text should read. How would I respond and encourage her?
To begin, I would assure her that it is perfectly understandable and acceptable to wonder about these issues. After all, we’ve all played the “telephone game,” where we’ve started to pass a message down a line of people only to discover by the end that the message the last person hears bears little resemblance to the original message. Could the Bible be any different? After all, there was no printing press for most of the Bible’s history. The only way copies were made was by hand. A member from one church would visit another church which has a copy of a letter from an apostle. He would then write it down and take it with him. This practice continued as Christianity continued to grow. Even if all the copies were in the original languages (and they obviously are not, having been translated numerous times), then after 2000 years knowing what was originally written appears impossible.
However, the “telephone game” does not really apply to the transmission of Scripture. First, the distribution was not linear, where one person gave a copy to a second who gave another copy to a third, etc. The Bible was spread geometrically. For example, one letter made five copies which then became twenty five which then became two hundred. Copies were normally reproduced multiple times. Second, transmitting something by writing allows for much more accuracy and testing than spreading a message by word-of-mouth. The more copies we have from different places and different periods of time, the more comparisons we can make.
We have an amazing number of copes from the Bible, especially the New Testament—over 5000 Greek manuscripts or parts of manuscripts. There are 8000 more partials or complete manuscripts of versions. All of these manuscripts are divided into text types, where copies are classified on the basis of which location they originated from. Mixed types result when a manuscript was taken from one region to another and then reproduced along with other local manuscripts. When copies are very similar and show evidence of direct borrowing, they are classified together as a family.
With this information in mind, it is usually not hard to tell which copy reflects the original (also called the autograph). Misspellings become clear and changed word order is easily noticed. When a copyist wanted to mistakenly assist the reader by adding something to a manuscript for further insight, these additions are straightforwardly detected. Are there differences between the copies that we possess? Sure there are. But the vast majority are easily resolved. There is simply no reason to doubt the accuracy of a Bible translation. The translators are almost always able to determine the original words of the inspired biblical writer.
As D. A. Carson and Douglas J. Moo summarize: “The overwhelming majority of the text of the Greek New Testament is firmly established. Where uncertainties remain, it is important to recognize that in no case is any doctrinal matter at issue.”
Christians don’t have to worry about any of our beliefs depending on one debated textual difference. These scholars continue to explain: “Of course, textual variants may raise the question as to whether a particular doctrinal stance or historical datum is or is not supported in this or that passage, but inevitably one can appeal to parallel passages where the text is secure to address the larger doctrinal or historical issues.”
God has clearly revealed himself to us in Scripture, and we can trust his truths as they are communicated throughout the Bible.
It is also wise for us as Christians to trust in our all-knowing and all-powerful God to preserve his revelation for us. We do not know why God did not allow us to keep the autographs of Scripture, but it ultimately was for our good. If we did have the original texts today, they would have brought with them their own problems. Believers would most likely care more about them as a sacred artifact than they would pay attention to the message they actually convey. Just look at how many Christians throughout history have handled relics! Imagine what people would do with the actual scroll written by the hand of the Apostle Peter.
Of course, I would also welcome questions and the opportunity for further discussion when talking with a woman about these issues in my church. There are answers to her questions and doubts. She can trust in her Bible, and in the Savior that it reveals to us.
D. A. Carson and Douglas J. Moo, An Introduction to the New Testament, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005), 31.