In my sermon on May 5th, I explained that I didn’t preach from John 7:53-8:11 as it was not likely included in the original manuscript of the Gospel of John. Several of you commented that this helped you better understand how we got our New Testaments. Over the next two newsletters, I plan to talk about that in more detail. This month we’ll look at variation in the texts, and next month we’ll look at how the books were chosen to be included in the New Testament.
In my conversations with people outside the church I hear a couple of different objections to the trustworthiness of the Bible, but most of them fit into one of the two categories:
Our Bibles emerged from something like the game of telephone, where a message is passed from person to person and gets changed (intentionally and unintentionally) in the process. Likewise, our Bibles are based on translations of translations, so we don’t really know what the originals said.
Our Bibles developed in a power struggle between different sects in the early church. The group that won out ensured passages and books that didn’t fit with their theological views were left out; thus our Bibles were the work of theologically motivated groups.
Let’s look at how we got our New Testament texts as a way of answering these objections.
Where are the originals?
It might surprise you that we don’t have any original texts of the New Testament; instead there are gaps of 30 to 100 years between when the New Testament books were written and the earliest fragments we have. This can seem shocking; how can we know the New Testament wasn’t changed at some point?
Some historical context is helpful. While we are used to having easy access to original documents today, it’s virtually unheard of to have original documents for historical writings. In fact, if you place the New Testament manuscripts alongside other historical documents, you’ll see that 100 years is actually a small gap for a historical document. So while original manuscripts are certainly good, we are actually fortunate to have biblical texts so close to the originals. You might wonder why we don’t have those, but the explanation is quite natural: paper doesn’t keep for that long! Unless carefully preserved, paper and papyrus disintegrate. The way people preserved the original copies during that time was to make copies of them.
Another way the New Testament texts stand apart is through the number of old copies we have of them. There was an incredible demand for copies of the New Testament. In fact we have far more copies of the New Testament than any other historical document. As people would take their copies to various locations families of texts developed. Think of it as something like a family tree of texts, and just as certain genetic traits are passed down in a family, so also, certain traits of the text would be passed down the various branches of the new testament texts. If a mistake was made in the copying process that error would be passed down to the texts that were copied from the parent. At first glance it might be concerning to learn that mistakes were made in copying the biblical text, but again, as you learn more it will become clear these errors don’t need to cause great concern.
Errors could be introduced to the text for a number of reasons, but by far the most common are unintentional mistakes, like spelling errors, flipping words around (in Greek word order doesn't matter as much as in English), or accidentally skipping words or phrases. All copies were done by hand, and some copyists were better than others. It’s kind of like when you have a popular product; people will often create knockoffs that look similar but are lower quality. The New Testament was a victim of its own success. No one person or even group of people controlled the Bible; therefore anyone could copy it, and some copies were better than others.
Sometimes though, there were intentional changes. Often this happened with passages that dealt with controversial doctrines, or where something was unclear or perhaps seemed to conflict with other parts of the New Testament. Some copyist, eager to “improve upon” the original text would make slight emendations to it. For instance, Matthew 24:36 reads, “But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only.” Some manuscripts omit “nor the son;” this was likely done by a copyist who didn’t think it was appropriate for Jesus not to know something.
How we decide which textual variants are original
This leads us to ask, if we have so many texts how do we know which one is correct? Our modern New Testament translations come from what is called an eclectic Greek text. Scholars from all different backgrounds (including non-believers) laid out all the known texts and then worked to reverse engineer the original text. The King James Version comes from the received text, which came from a certain set of texts instead of all the manuscripts. The translators of the KJV did not have access to the oldest texts like scholars do today. This is why certain passages and verses show up in the KJV but not in (or are only noted in some way) in modern translations. And yet, the KJV has relatively few differences from these modern translation that use all the manuscripts. In our modern translations scholars worked through a set of criteria to figure out what was originally written. Two influential textual scholars, Bruce Metzger and Bart Ehrman, summarize the process as follows:
Do any of the variants occur in a majority of the early manuscripts? If a variant only shows up later, it’s likely it’s not original.
Does any variant have more widespread geographical support than others? If a variant is in manuscripts from various regions, it’s more likely to be original.
Which variant comes from the most reliable sources? Certain families of texts tend to be more reliable than others. For instance, western manuscripts tend to show more paraphrasing than copying while texts from Alexandria, Egypt indicate a careful copying process.
Can you explain any of the variants as an unintentional error of a scribe? For instance, is a word misspelled or switched around?
Which reading is more difficult? In general, the variant that is most puzzling is more likely original, because a scribe would naturally want to make things more clear. Although some variants are so absurdly difficult that they are unlikely to be original.
Can certain variants be explained by a scribe’s desire to conform the text to certain beliefs or practices of a particular Christian group?
Can you explain any of the variants as the scribe attempting to harmonize the passage with another part of the bible? In general, you should prefer the reading that resists harmonization.
Does one reading fit better with the original author's style and usage elsewhere?
Daniel Wallace, the Director of the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts, has put all these variants into the following categories:
Untranslatable variations are often changes in the Greek word order that don’t come across in English. Meaningful, but not viable variations are ones that make a change to the meaning of the sentence or passage, but are not viable for some reason. This could be because the variation only shows up in an unreliable manuscript or only shows up in much later manuscripts.
The blue sliver on the chart represents the less than one percent of the variations that are meaningful and viable. After working through the process outlined above, we find that in less than one percent of the variations, we are not exactly sure what the original said. But even in these cases, no crucial doctrines are at stake. In seminary we had to do a text criticism project where we examined one of these instances. I studied John 19:39 which says, “Nicodemus also, who earlier had come to Jesus by night, came bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds in weight.” Instead of the word “mixture,” some variants say, “package” or “ointment” or a spelling variation of the greek word for “package.” As you can see, none of these options brings a substantial challenge to any key doctrines of our faith.
Congratulations if you’ve made it this far! Hopefully you’ve been able to follow what I’ve written and now have a greater confidence in the authenticity of the New Testament. The Bible was incredibly popular early on, which led to an overwhelming number of copies--some good and some less good. But all the variants that did occur have been documented and taken into account in our modern translations. Our Bible didn’t come from a “telephone game” process; in fact, our translations go back to the earliest documents we have. Additionally, our Bibles are not the work of theologically motivated groups; where theological changes were introduced into other texts, they have been noted by textual scholars and removed as not original. We should have confidence that the New Testaments we have closely mirror what was originally written.
If you’re interested in learning more check out these two websites: