Sunday, July 26, 2015

Help! They Changed My Bible!

Bible translations have a way of changing over time, and it can make some Christians quite frantic.

Textual criticism is a discipline about which many believers know very little. The average regular churchgoer can probably tell you that the Bible was written primarily in Greek and Hebrew, not English (and the average reasonably intelligent person might simply assume it), but beyond that basic piece of information, how our Bibles came to us is not all that widely understood.

Given the quality of history courses in the average high school since 1970, fewer still know that when we speak of “the originals”, they are not sitting in some airless, climate-controlled museum display case. Would they be shocked to discover such manuscripts no longer exist and have not existed for centuries? Probably not, with a few seconds consideration.

But no, they don’t exist so far as we know. Some people are fine with that idea.

Some are not. They quite rightly wonder if what we have in our hands today accurately represents what was originally written. After all, how can Christians go into spiritual battle on behalf of the truth if we have doubts about the origin and accuracy of our greatest weapon?

More Copies

It is estimated the Bible began to be written approximately 3,400 years ago. The most recent copies we have are fragments of the Old Testament dated about 250 BC. Since they were written on papyrus or animal skin, their relative fragility should not surprise us. Such things do not last. Humidity, handling, war and natural disasters all play a part in reducing the number and quality of available copies, though the good news is that many, many copies of all or parts of scripture have been made over the years. There are over 5,000 fragments of the Greek New Testament currently around, and a further 24,000 fragments or full manuscripts in other languages. Compare that to the number of existing manuscripts of Tacitus’ Annals, of which there are exactly two, and it becomes clear that the Bible has been extraordinarily well preserved.

Recent Copies

Still, if the number of years that have elapsed between the first inspired manuscript and its most recent copy makes us nervous, it should not. There are not only vastly more copies of books of the Bible than other ancient documents, there are also much more recent copies. Over 1,300 years passed between the writing of Thucydides’ History and the oldest of its extant copies. Most copies of New Testament manuscripts are much closer in date to their originals, sometimes as little as 150 to 200 years apart. Two complete manuscripts of the New Testament are only 300 years more recent than the originals of which they are copies. Daniel Bowman of the Institute for Religious Research says, “The transmission of the Bible, while not perfect, is vastly more accurate than any literature from the ancient world”.

Faith in Scholarship

All human understanding of history past a certain point depends heavily on the science of textual criticism. Still, one understands why a modern Christian might be reluctant to have faith in scholarship. I’ve wrestled with it myself. It helps to know a little bit about the process.

Accuracy might be a problem if we had to rely on any single expert or even on a group of experts that could be accused of having a religious agenda of one sort or another. But the transmission and translation of our modern Bibles depends on the labour of many thousands of experts, both secular and religious, most of them independent from one another, over thousands of years. Especially in recent years, as is the case in every field of learning, experts do not meekly accept the work of other scholars and rely on it blindly without subjecting it to round after round of vigorous criticism.

We can be sure that scholarship that survives this sort of process has been diligently picked over time and time again, and challenged every step of the way.

How Textual Criticism Works

Daniel Bowman illustrates how textual criticism works and demonstrates why an abundance of manuscripts is better than a few:
“For instance, if I only have 2 manuscripts, I would be unable to figure out which of the following is correct:

Manuscript #1: In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.
Manuscript #2: In the beginning, God created the earth and the heavens.

Either of these could be correct. It’s a 50-50 chance.

However, if I have more manuscripts, it will be quite easy to figure out what was most likely the original passage, even though none of the following are exactly correct. I have marked which parts of each variant are differing from the others. By removing each of these variants, I will be able to best get at the original phrase:

Manuscript #1: In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.
Manuscript #2: In the beginning, God created the earth and the heavens.
Manuscript #3: At the beginning, God made the heaven_ and the earth.
Manuscript #4: In the beginning, Jesus made the heavens and the earth.
Manuscript #5: In the beginning, God created the sky and the earth.

*Original: In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.

Thus, even though none of the multiple manuscripts match up exactly, they allow us to find the most probable original.”
This is of course an oversimplification of the process, but it explains why when experts are working from hundreds of copies (and more than five translations into other languages for every copy in the original language), the degree of certainty about what each author originally wrote increases dramatically. This is the case with the word of God. The illustration also indirectly explains why your English Bible may change in tiny ways over time from one edition to the next: additional manuscript discoveries or increased understanding of the process of manuscript transmission may lead textual critics to reevaluate their work periodically in the interests of making it more accurate, not less.

With the number of versions of the English Bible currently in existence, we can be pretty confident that it is scholarship and not politics that drives such changes (other than, of course, when a version of the Bible has been commissioned by a particular religious sect with only its own experts involved). Such confidence is important in today’s politically charged climate, when everything is being viewed through the lens of social justice instead of truth.

Types of Errors

What’s more important than the number of copyist’s errors to be rooted out through textual critiques is the type of error. Jeffrey Kranz has a short piece here on textual criticism that is most useful for his graphic explaining the concept simply and clearly. In it he points out that over 99% of the inconsistencies between manuscripts are simply easy-to-identify spelling errors or things like differences in word order. Less than 1% of inconsistencies in manuscripts lead to actual disagreements between scholars over what was originally written. About this less-than-1%, Daniel Wallace, professor of New Testament studies at Dallas Theological Seminary, says there is no meaningful, viable textual variant that calls a core Christian doctrine into question.

The Basis for Faith

In short, your Bible may change from time to time. Words may get rearranged and the occasional phrase may even disappear here and there (scribes tended to embellish rather than redact). Those who read enough on the subject will recognize this is a good thing. Though there may be exceptions now and again, the tendency is toward greater accuracy rather than any distortion of meaning. When we consider the quality and general availability of the word of God today, the written evidence for the Christian faith has never been this strong in all of human history.

If the church is failing in its mission, it is not the quality of our resources that is the problem.

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There are many places on the web to look for those with questions about textual criticism. These three are simply a starting point:

Jeffrey Kranz’s blog post on the subject is clearest and simplest and may be useful to teens.

Daniel Bowman’s “Is Today’s Bible the Real Bible?” is considerably more in-depth, but very, very readable.

Finally, Daniel B. Wallace’s “The Conspiracy Behind the New Bible Translations” gives an excellent and objective overview of the Westcott/Hort controversy and reasons behind the departure of modern translations from the Textus Receptus.

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