Can We Trust Our Bible Translations?

It is written:

The words of the LORD are pure words, Like silver tried in a furnace of earth, Purified seven times. 7  You shall keep them, O LORD, You shall preserve them from this generation forever. (Psalm 12:6-7)

During his investigation of the credibility of Christianity, Lee Strobel recorded his thoughts when he was investigating whether or not we can trust the Bible.

“When I hold a Bible in my hands, essentially I’m holding copies of ancient historical records. The original manuscripts of the biographies of Jesus—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—and all the other books of the Old and New Testaments have long ago crumbled into dust. So how can I be sure that these modern-day versions—the end product of countless copying throughout the ages—bear any resemblance to what the authors originally wrote?” (Lee Strobel, The Case For Christ: A Journalist’s Personal Investigation Of The Evidence For Jesus, 20-46 (Kindle Edition, Interview With Dr. Craig Blomberg); Grand Rapids, Michigan; Zondervan)

It is also commonplace to hear from our atheist/agnostic (as well as our Mormon) friends that we cannot trust the Bible.

Is this true?

Let’s study.

The New Testament was written by the Apostles and their companions. However, the original manuscripts (known in the discipline of textual criticism as autographs) have long since been lost. Like any kind of book, they were worn out and degraded over years of time and use. Fortunately, the content of those original manuscripts has been preserved.

The New Testament has been preserved for us through three means.

“1. It is well known that for determining the Text of the New Testament, we are dependent on three chief sources of information: viz. (1.) on MANUSCRIPTS,—(2.) on VERSIONS,—(3.) on FATHERS.” (John William Burgon, The Last Twelve Verses According To Saint Mark, 363-368 (Kindle Edition))

Unicals And Miniscules

The New Testament manuscripts are generally divided into two types: unicals and minuscules. The unicals are thus named because they are written in all capital letters. Some 260 of these have been found. Minuscules are written in lower case “cursive” letters, and there are around 2700 of them. These form the bulk of the Byzantine text (see below).

Writing Materials

It will also help us to become familiar with the writing materials that were used in the construction of the Bible.

Papyri: Job 8:11; 2 John 12. Plant based material which (when properly conditioned) could serve as fantastic writing material. Written on papyrus, usually in capital letters. In codex (book) form. Over eighty of these have been recovered. They are usually designed with the letter “p”.” One of the most famous is the Rylands Papyrus 52, which dates to the late first century and contains several verses from John 18.

Stone: See Exodus 31:18; 4:1, 28; Deuteronomy 10:1-5.

Clay: Jeremiah 32:14; Ezekiel 4:1. One of the most famous clay tablet archives was found in the ancient city of Ebla. Over 16, 000 tablets were found, and many of them predate the Old Testament. Amazingly, they contain references to many Bible names and places!

Metal: Exodus 28:36. The use of metal as writing material was extremely well known and prevalent. Some fifty metal books have recently been found which some scholars believe date back to the mid to late first century. Known as the Jordan Codices, these metal books (some small enough to fit in the palm; others large enough to be the size of a good sized paperback novel) appear to be very similar to the Book of Revelation in their writing.

Wood And Wax: Numbers 17:2-3; Ezekiel 37:16-17; Isaiah 30:8; Habakkuk 2:2. Plaster would be overlain on wooden sticks. These could be joined together as a book.

Parchment: 2 Timothy 4:13. Animal skin. Very famous especially during the Intertestamental period. Jewish scribes were given the regulation that all copies of the Old Testament had to be copied onto parchments.

Over the years, there have been several major New Testament manuscript finds which help confirm the accuracy and authenticity of the New Testament Scriptures.

Let’s notice some of the more important manuscript discoveries.

7Q4.1 & 7Q4.1; 7Q5; 7Q6; 7Q7.2; 7Q8; 7Q9; 7Q10: Fragments of manuscripts found amount the Dead Sea Scrolls including copies of Mark, Acts, Romans, James, and 2 Peter. Other manuscripts in the same location dated no later than 50 A.D.

The Oxyrhynichus Papyri: Group of Greek and Latin manuscripts found in a garbage dump in the town of Oxyrhynichus, Egypt. Several ancient copes of New Testament Books found: Matthew, John, Ephesians, 1 & 2 Thessalonians, Hebrews, James, and Revelation. Dates back to the second century A.D.

Chester Beaty Papyri: Collections of ancient manuscripts mostly dating to the second-third centuries A.D. Included are P46 (all of Paul’s Epistles except the Pastorals and Hebrews) dating to the late first century A.D.; P45 (Gospels and Acts) dating to the second century; P47 (Revelation) dating to the third century.

Dishna Papers/Bodmer Papyri: Found in 1952 north of the Dishna Plain in Jabal Abu Manna. May be from fourth century monks. Manuscripts include copies of Luke, John, 1 & 2 Peter, and Jude. Date to early second to third centuries A.D.

Magdalene Papyrus: Known as P64. Three fragments which contain 24 lines from the Gospel of Matthew. Textual scholar Carsten Thiede has determined that the manuscript is a copy of Matthew which was copied out around the mid 40’s A.D., putting the Gospel of Matthew firmly into Eyewitness Period.

Manuscript “Families”

Thousands of copies of the New Testament (the manuscripts) were written in Greek. Some of these manuscript copies (as we have noticed) date back to within a few years of Jesus’ resurrection.

It is here that we need to speak about different manuscript “families.”

During the handwriting process of copying manuscripts, there would be small differences that would crop up between manuscripts.

For example, one scribe may copy out a passage that would read “the Lord.” Another one would realize the context of that same passage was talking about Jesus, so he may write “the Lord Jesus.” As a result, some manuscripts would be copied that had “the Lord,” and some that would have “the Lord Jesus.”

From this, there would be different “manuscript families.” These differences did not change the meaning of the text.

“The Greek manuscripts of the New Testament were written very soon after the writing of the original texts. The manuscripts are from various parts of the ancient world-Palestine, Asia Minor, Egypt, and the West. Because so much has been said about textual variants, many people have received the impression that the New Testament is on shaky ground. Not so! Fully eighty-five percent of the text is the same in all types of manuscripts. As for the other fifteen percent, we should point out that much of the material concerns details that do not even show up in an English translation. Such things as word order, spelling, and slightly variant forms of some verbs seldom are reproduced in translation.” (Arthur L. Farstad, The New King James Version: In the Great Tradition, 105 (Kindle Edition, emphasis added); Nashville, TN; Thomas Nelson Publishers)

To give you an idea of the inconsequential nature of these different manuscript families (and in illustrating one of the great benefits of the footnotes in the New King James Version of the Bible), Farstad provides the following example:

“On every page of the NKJV New Testament the studious reader will find three different textual views represented. 1. The text of the New King James New Testament itself is the traditional one used by Luther and Calvin, as well as by such Catholic scholars as Erasmus, who produced it. Later (1633) it was called the Textus Receptus, or “TR.” Very few scholars would today support this text exactly as it stands, but it certainly is not the corrupt and “villainous” thing that F. J. A. Hort vowed to destroy when he was twenty-three years old.” 2. “NU” in the NKJV notes stands for the critical text, based on Westcott-Hort, Hort, but with other selected readings as well. NU stands for Nestle-Aland and United Bible Societies, whose Greek texts are virtually identical. However, their “apparatuses” (sets of footnotes detailing variant readings) are different. This is the preference of a majority of present-day scholars, but not of the majority of the manuscripts. 3. “M” in the notes stands for the majority text. It is close to the TR, except in Revelation. However, those TR readings that have weak support, such as I John 5:7, 8, are corrected. This text is available in print as The Greek New Testament According to the Majority Text (see Bibliography). Thus, there is a greater selection of textual material in the NKJV footnotes than in most other English versions. A good example of all three options occurring in one verse is Acts 5:41: “So they departed from the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for His name” (Acts 5:41). The NKJV footnote reads: “NU Text reads the name; M-Text reads the name of Jesus.” Thus interesting textual variants are cited carefully with their general source for comparison and study. F. F. Bruce praises the NKJV on this very point: . . . the textual notes are specially helpful, indicating not only where the wording differs from that of the generally accepted critical text but also where it differs from the majority text. These notes make no value judgments but enable the reader to see at a glance what the textual situation is and to assess it in the light of the context.12 No matter what one’s viewpoint is on this difficult subject, there is enough material in the NKJV footnotes on the New Testament manuscript variations for the vast majority of Bible students.” (Arthur L. Farstad, The New King James Version: In the Great Tradition, 111-112 (Kindle Edition); Nashville, TN; Thomas Nelson Publishers)

As you can see from this example, there is really no change in the subject from the different manuscript families rendering of the text.

The different manuscript families were soon associated with different locations (where a larger number of a certain manuscript family would be stored).

“We know that the apostles wrote and sent their letters to different churches in different geographical regions in the Roman Empire. Christians began copying these letters in other languages for missionary purposes or to give to their family and friends. Soon copies were circulating in a large number of languages. As time went by, many of these copies began to accumulate in certain geographical areas and came to be referred to in groups. Thus, when the people in the Western part of the Roman Empire began to turn away from Greek and spoke primarily Latin, many of their New Testament documents were translated and copied in Latin. Both the Greek and Latin documents from this geographical area are called “The Western Text” family. Another family of manuscripts comes from the geographical area of Alexandria, Egypt, and is called “The Alexandrian Text” family. The third family comes from the geographical area surrounding the city of Byzantium, later renamed Constantinople and known today as Istanbul, Turkey. Ninety percent of the manuscripts of the New Testament that have survived have come from this area and are known as “The Byzantine Family of Documents.” Out of this family has also come what is known as the Majority Text, so named because it adopts readings on the basis of numerical majority. It is believed that the reading found in most mss. is probably the original.” (Dr. John Ankerberg & Dr. John Weldon, The Facts On The King James Only Debate, 464-477 (Kindle Edition); Eugene, Oregon; Harvest House)

Following is a brief description of the different “textual families” of New Testament manuscripts.

Byzantine: These manuscripts are the textual basis behind the KJV and the NKJV. They were preserved by the Byzantine Empire. The vast majority of Greek manuscripts (over 2, 000) are Byzantine. They are also sometimes referred to as known as the Majority Text. These manuscripts were diligently preserved by the church over years of time. It is also worth noting that some of the earliest manuscripts found are in the Byzantine form. Most are extremely late, mostly because the earlier existing manuscripts were lost through constant use over the centuries.

Alexandrian: These are a small number of manuscripts based primarily on two manuscripts, Codex Vaticanius and Codex Sinaiticus. These manuscripts are generally much more complete and older then many of the Byzantine manuscripts. It is believed that this is the case because the church didn’t see a need to preserve these manuscripts (perhaps believing that they were an inferior Greek text). Most modern day Bible translations are based on the Alexandrian text.

Western: Most of these manuscripts date to the fifth century A.D. They are especially noted for paraphrases, textual expansions, and striking omissions of the text. In many ways, they confirm the accuracy of the New Testament text. Some of the scribes of these manuscripts would “add” verses from different passages to similar ones. For example, Luke 11:2 in the Codex Bezae adds ““Do not babble on as the others; for some think that they will be heard for their many words. But when you pray…”. This is an almost direct quote from Matthew 6:7. A Western scribe “mixed together” these passages.

Significance Of The Variants

Critics of the Bible text often claim that the various New Testament manuscripts contain “errors” or “textual variants.” A textual variant describes the situation when one manuscript of a passage differs from another manuscript of the same passage.

How many textual variants exist between the manuscripts?

Some estimates claim as many as 400, 000 or more!

Strobel and Metzger discuss this in their interview:

“With the similarities in the way Greek letters are written and with the primitive conditions under which the scribes worked, it would seem inevitable that copying errors would creep into the text,” I said. “Quite so,” Metzger conceded. “And in fact, aren’t there literally tens of thousands of variations among the ancient manuscripts that we have?” “Quite so.” “Doesn’t that therefore mean we can’t trust them?” I asked, sounding more accusatory than inquisitive.” (Lee Strobel, The Case For Christ: A Journalist’s Personal Investigation Of The Evidence For Jesus, 20-46 (Kindle Edition, Interview With Dr. Craig Blomberg); Grand Rapids, Michigan; Zondervan)

All textual variants may be classified into two categories: unintentional and intentional.

Unintentional Variants

The overwhelming majority of textual variants fall into this category. These were simply the result of scribal errors that existed especially before the modern age. Metzger provided some excellent examples of this:

“First let me say this: Eyeglasses weren’t invented until 1373 in Venice, and I’m sure that astigmatism existed among the ancient scribes. That was compounded by the fact that it was difficult under any circumstances to read faded manuscripts on which some of the ink had flaked away. And there were other hazards—inattentiveness on the part of scribes, for example. So yes, although for the most part scribes were scrupulously careful, errors did creep in.” (Lee Strobel, The Case For Christ: A Journalist’s Personal Investigation Of The Evidence For Jesus, 20-46 (Kindle Edition, Interview With Dr. Craig Blomberg); Grand Rapids, Michigan; Zondervan)

Let’s take a look at some of these unintentional changes to the text.

“Unintentional changes of various kinds all arise from the imperfection of some human faculty. These constitute by far the vast majority of all transcriptional errors. 1. Errors of the eye • Wrong division of words that resulted in the formation of new words—early manuscripts were not punctuated, and letters were not separated into words by spaces. • Omission of letters, words, and even whole lines occurred when the astigmatic eye mistook one group of letters or words for another, sometimes located on a different line. • Repetition results in an error opposite the error of omission. Hence, when the eye picked up the same letter or word twice and repeated it, it is called dittography. • Transposition is the reversal of the position of two letters or words. This is technically known as metathesis. In 2 Chronicles 3: 4, the transposition of a letter would make the measurements of the porch of Solomon’s Temple out of proportion—for example, 120 cubits instead of 20 cubits as in the LXX (Septuagint). • Other confusion of spelling abbreviations or scribal insertions account for the remainder of scribal errors. This is especially true about Hebrew letters, which were also used for numbers and could be easily confused. These errors of the eye may account for many of the numerical discrepancies in the Old Testament (cf. 2 Kings 8: 26; 2 Chronicles 22: 2). 2. Errors of the ear occurred only when manuscripts were copied while listening to someone read them. This may explain why some manuscripts (fifth century onward) read kamelos (a rope) instead of kamēlos (a camel) in Matthew 19: 24. In 1 Corinthians 13: 3, kauthēsomai (he burns) was confused with kauchēsomai (he boasts). 3. Errors of memory. These are not so numerous, but occasionally a scribe might forget the precise word in a passage and substitute a synonym. 4. Errors of judgment. The most common error of this kind is caused by dim lighting or poor eyesight. Sometimes marginal notes were incorporated into the text under the misapprehension that they were part of the text….5. Errors of writing. If a scribe, due to imperfect style or accident, wrote indistinctly or imprecisely, he would set the stage for future error of sight or judgment. Rapid copying was no doubt responsible for many errors in writing. This is viewed especially in the parallel accounts of the Kings-Chronicles corpus.” (Ed Hindson & Ergun Caner (General Editors), The Popular Encyclopedia Of Apologetics: Surveying The Evidence For The Truth Of Christianity, 98-99 (Kindle Edition); Eugene, Oregon; Harvest House Publishers)

Marginal Notes

Sometimes a scribe would write a note in the margin of a text in order to clarify it somehow. Sometimes later scribes would not be able to tell where the marginal notes were actually part of the text.

“Another form of error, more difficult to solve, grows out of the practice of writing explanatory notes in the margin. These marginal notes are somehow incorporated in the main body of material and thus become a part of the text. But it should be stressed that the New Testament manuscripts rarely exhibit this kind of error, and that when it does occur, our many textual witnesses keep us on the right course.(Neil R. Lightfoot, How We Got The Bible, 88-90 (Kindle Edition); Grand Rapids, Michigan; Baker Books)

Counting The Errors

Some people do not understand how the variants are counted. Geisler and Nix point out:

“Yet there is an ambiguity in saying 200,000 variants exist, since these represent only about 10,000 places in the New Testament. If a single word were misspelled in 3,000 different manuscripts, they are counted as 3,000 variants. Once the counting procedure is understood, and the mechanical (orthographic) variants have been eliminated, the remaining significant variants are surprisingly few in number. In his recent popular book, Misquoting Jesus, agnostic New Testament critic Bart Ehrman contends there are so many “errors” (variants) that we don’t know how many there are, perhaps 4,000. He asserts, “These copies differ from each other in so many places that we don’t even know how many differences there are.”5 Ironically, the way Ehrman counts “errors” (variants), there were 1.6 million errors in the first printing of his book. For there were 16 errors, and the book printed an alleged 100,000 copies.6 Yet Ehrman would be shocked if someone denied the credibility of his book based on this count. Similarly, no one should deny the credibility of the Bible on Ehrman’s count. Ehrman himself admits the biblical variants do not affect the central message of the Bible. He wrote, “In fact, most of the changes found in early Christian manuscripts have nothing to do with theology or ideology. Far and away the most changes are the result of mistakes pure and simple—slips of the pen, accidental omissions, inadvertent additions, misspelled words, blunders of one sort or another.”. (Norman L. Geisler & William Nix, From God To Us: How We Got Our Bible, 243 (Kindle Edition); Chicago; Moody Publishers)

What are the results of the unintentional changes in the New Testament manuscripts?

“The overwhelming majority of these four hundred thousand supposed variations stem from differences in spelling, word order, or the relationships between nouns and definite articles. In other words, a copyist simply switched a couple of letters, misheard a word, or skipped a line of text. Such variants are readily recognizable and, in most cases, utterly unnoticeable in translations!…In the end, more than 99 percent of the four hundred thousand or so differences fall into this category of variants that can’t even be seen in translations!” (Timothy Paul Jones, Conspiracies And The Cross, 1531-1540 (Kindle Edition); Lake Mary, Florida; FrontLine)

Intentional Changes

When we hear the words “intentional changes,” our minds sometimes picture a scribe rewriting the text of the Bible to corrupt Christianity in some way. However, that is not what is meant by the phrase “intentional changes” to the text. Lightfoot’s words and comments here are especially helpful:

“2. Intentional errors. Unintentional alterations in the manuscripts are many, but the vast majority of them are of little consequence. What presents a more serious problem to the textual critic are the variant readings that have been purposefully inserted by the scribe. We ought not think these insertions were made by dishonest scribes who simply wanted to tamper with the text. Almost always the intention of the scribe is good and he wants only to “correct” what appears to be an error in the text. So if a word seems improperly spelled, or a Greek verb does not have the proper ending, or a form does not correspond with the classical idiom, then the scribe feels it is his duty to improve the text he is copying. Again, citing one or two examples may illustrate the point. In John 7:39 the text literally reads, “for not yet was the Spirit.” Because this could be taken to mean that the Spirit was not in existence at that time, some manuscripts and versions add the word “given” for the phrase to read, “the Spirit was not yet given.” To further clarify, a large number of manuscripts supply “holy,” that is, “Holy Spirit.”…A scribe especially might try to remove any difficulty in the texts of the Gospels. If he found a statement of Jesus in one Gospel similar to a statement in another, he might modify one to make it in perfect agreement with the other.” (Neil LIghtfoot, How We Got The Bible, 1330-1346 (Kindle Edition); Grand Rapids, Michigan; Baker Books)

Another author describes how quite often, scribes would intentionally change a text to blend it in with other accounts.

“It is of some historical interest in this regard that when the Revised Standard Version (RSV) was published in 1952, it set off an enormous storm of protest. While this antagonism focused in part on some questionable renditions, such as “young woman” for “virgin” in Isaiah 7: 14, the major point of contention had to do with “all the words they left out of the Bible.” But did the RSV translators “leave words out,” or had the KJV included extra words —hundreds of words —that were not a part of the original biblical writings? The answer to these questions has to do with the historical discipline known as textual criticism. By definition this is the scholarly discipline that sorts through the manuscript evidence for the Bible and tries to determine on scientific grounds which readings (or “variants”) are most likely to be original.” (Gordon D Fee & Mark L Strauss, How To Choose A Translation For All It’s Worth: A Guide To Understanding And Using Bible Versions, 1788-1793 (Kindle Edition); Grand Rapids, Michigan; Zondervan)

I have seen Facebook memes which tell their readers that certain Bible verses “omit” certain verses of the Bible. Generally speaking, this is not true! Rather, the different versions of the Bible usually reflect the more grammatically correct text.

Here are some examples of the intentional changes in the Bible manuscripts.

Orthographic Variations: Changes in word structure, order, grammar, and syntax.

Harmonization Changes: A scribe would combine various accounts in order to try and harmonize them. For example, one Gospel account might provide a detail that another neglects. The scribe (being familiar with both accounts) will provide that detail in the one that doesn’t contain it. This accounts for why some Bible translations “omit” some verses. In truth, they aren’t omitted; those verses were added from other Books of the Bible by a zealous scribe.

Liturgical Changes: Words are changed for worship and devotional reasons. Especially common in the Lectionaries.

Cultural Changes: Changes are made based on cultural and social traditions. For example, John 19:44 was changed in some manuscripts to “third hour” instead of “sixth hour” (because of the differences in telling time between cultures). Some scribes changed from “after three days” to “on the third day” in Mark 8:31.

Consequences Of Textual Variants

How serious are these textual variants?

“4. How significant are the variants? It is easy to leave the wrong impression by speaking of 200,000 “errors” that have crept into the text due to scribal mistakes and intended corrections. There are only 10,000 places where these 200,000 variants occur. The next question is, How significant are those 10,000 places? Textual critics have attempted to answer that question by offering percentages and comparisons. a. Scholars Westcott and Hort estimated that only about one-eighth of all the variants had any weight, as most of them merely involve mechanical matters such as spelling or style. Of the whole, then, only about one-sixtieth rise above “trivialities,” or can in any sense be called substantial variations. Mathematically that would compute to a text that is 98.33 percent pure whether the critic adopts the Textus Receptus, Majority Nestle-Aland Text, or some eclectic text of the New Testament. b. Ezra Abbott gave similar figures, saying about 19/20 (95 percent) of the readings are various rather than rival readings, and about 19/20 (95 percent) of the remainder are of so little importance that their addition or rejection makes no appreciable difference in the sense of the passage. Thus the degree of substantial purity would be 99.75 percent. c. Philip Schaff (p. 177) surmised that of the 150,000 variations known in his day, only 400 affected the sense; and of those, only 50 were of real significance; and of this total, not one affected “an article of faith or a precept of duty which is not abundantly sustained by other undoubted passages, or by the whole tenor of Scripture teaching.” d. A.T. Robertson (p. 22) suggested that the real concern of textual criticism is of a “thousandth part of the entire text That would make the reconstructed text of the New Testament 99.9 percent free from real concern for the textual critic.” (Ed Hindson & Ergun Caner (General Editors), The Popular Encyclopedia Of Apologetics: Surveying The Evidence For The Truth Of Christianity, 99-100 (Kindle Edition); Eugene, Oregon; Harvest House Publishers)

When we consider all of these textual variants, what does it mean for our confidence in the Bible?

Metzger had already mentioned the name of Sir Frederic Kenyon, former director of the British Museum and author of The Paleography of Greek Papyri. Kenyon has said that “in no other case is the interval of time between the composition of the book and the date of the earliest manuscripts so short as in that of the New Testament.”5 His conclusion: “The last foundation for any doubt that the Scriptures have come down to us substantially as they were written has now been removed.”6 (Lee Strobel, The Case For Christ: A Journalist’s Personal Investigation Of The Evidence For Jesus, 20-46 (Kindle Edition, Interview With Dr. Craig Blomberg); Grand Rapids, Michigan; Zondervan)

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit, be with you all. Amen.

2 thoughts on “Can We Trust Our Bible Translations?

Add yours

  1. This is what we need to understand. In over 5000 Greek manuscripts, are there errors whether intentional or not? Yep, lots and lots of them. What people need to really understand-when someone says there is an error in the manuscripts…it is not talking about right and wrong. What it is-maybe discrepancies would be better understood. When comparing two manuscripts-you find a hard time in one and the reason is in all CAPS and the other is not. So every time there is a difference even in just capitalization between texts…for each difference found-that is an error. If you see 100,000 or some big number of ‘Errors”, it is much ado about nothing.

Leave a Reply to David Emme Cancel reply

Powered by WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: