The History of our Bible
It is a sad fact that believers in Christ (especially those commonly known as evangelical, fundamentalist, born again, Charismatic or Pentecostal) can generally be relied upon to be a fairly ignorant bunch as regards Bible knowledge. They have a Bible, but few have read it from cover to cover and fewer still have absorbed its contents. Even more scarce are those who know where the book they hold so dear comes from or how it reached them in the condition it is in. They correctly claim that it is inspired by God, but press them on what they mean by that and you may discover that they are referring to their favourite translation, thus revealing even greater gullibility. Yes, the Holy Spirit did inspire prophets and apostles to record his revelation, but that was not in English, neither the King James Version nor the New International. The “Authorised” Version does not mean that God authorised it, but that many years ago King James I of England authorised it to be read in church buildings in his land.
In this document we shall trace the development of the Bible text so that believers may know how our beloved book reached us. It is quite a journey and it is worth following. This is not a paper on what is known as Textual Criticism but it will touch on that subject and give some examples. Many others have written on that subject but unfortunately there are difficulties in accessing their work. Many are highly technical, they all need a reasonable knowledge of Greek and Hebrew, they are often bulky tomes, and worst of all, most are written by doubters, not believers. I intend to avoid those problems and present an accessible document that will help all believers have a sound background history to the Bible. I hope that by the end of it your faith in God and His Word will be increased rather than challenged, as you see the preserving work of the Holy Spirit through millennia of vicissitudes.
The Reliability of the Text
When we say that the Scriptures are inspired by God we have to be very clear at the outset that we are referring to what was written by the prophets and apostles - not what was copied by later hands or translated by others, for both of those processes introduced errors. When we study the text of either Testament in the original language, one of the first things we find is that there are variant readings, because copying scribes were not as good as they thought they were. But before this starts to raise doubts in our minds we need to realise another very important fact, and that is that with all these thousands of textual variations, not one doctrine of Christian belief is called into question. To me, this is one of the most remarkable evidences of the work of the Holy Spirit down through the centuries, that the message of redemption is perfectly clear, both in its history and in its doctrine. We can improve the text, clear up obscure passages and make various other corrections, but none of these variations change the message to the slightest degree. In all our investigations we must never lose sight of this precious truth. Opponents of the faith (especially Moslems) like to pounce on these textual variations as proof of unreliability but they are wrong. There is not one textual variation that affects any crucial issue. The Bible’s message remains clear and unambiguous. It is worth remembering that what is required in any court is proof beyond reasonable doubt, not 100% accuracy. While the original writings were 100% accurate, what has been passed down to us is not, but it is still reliable beyond any reasonable doubt.
This evidence of reliability should lead us on to another very logical deduction, but unfortunately it does not for many people, either for the experts writing their tomes or for the average believer. The fact is that the Holy Spirit who inspired the text will also assist us in deciding between variant readings and also assist us in understanding the text. We must understand that this quest for the correct text is not just a scholarly exercise but a spiritual journey. The more we delve into the text the more the Holy Spirit is involved in our studies and the more he will reveal to us. This has been my experience and it ought to be so for every believer.
The bulk of what follows focuses on the Old Testament, largely because that has been my field of study, but also because that is where we find the bulk of the problems. I have, though, added a small section on the New Testament just to bring some kind of completeness and a conclusion that I hope is worthy of consideration.
The Masoretic Text
Most people know that the Old Testament was written mainly in Hebrew. Sections of Daniel and Ezra were written in Aramaic, a closely related language that was the language of Palestine in Christ’s time. We see it in Mk 5.41 and 15.34. What many do not know is how the text got to us in the state it is in. We shall begin our journey in the middle, which may seem strange but with good reason.
The Hebrew text on which our Bibles are based is called the Masoretic Text (abbreviated to MT) so called from the Hebrew word masorah, which some say means tradition. It is the form of the text traditionally accepted by Judaism, but that does not mean it is the best text available. One of the controls scribes used was to count the letters in a document, the idea being that if old and new documents had the same letter count then there was a good chance of accuracy. Unfortunately, that did not stop them putting wrong letters in or swapping letters around. Also, it did not stop them counting wrongly. Just because MT is used as the standard text is no reason to assume it is the most reliable text. That will become clear as we proceed.
MT is not one document but many, with the oldest of these dating from about the Middle Ages. Our Old Testament is based mainly upon a manuscript dating from about 1200 AD, held in a museum in St Petersburg. This immediately introduces us to the biggest problem, namely that the texts are about one thousand years removed from New Testament times (and much further than that from their originals). The reason for this is that once the scribes were happy with a copy they discarded the old. It was not destroyed but put away in safe storage, but time and regular persecution of the Jews got rid of most (but not all) of those old copies..
The next thing we need to realise is that Hebrew is a consonantal language, like Arabic. In these languages you do not need to write the vowels, for the trained reader can supply them for himself. But as time went on and the Hebrews remained scattered from Israel, many forgot how to read and speak the language, so scribes invented systems of punctuation using dots and dashes above and beneath the consonants. Three different systems were invented, known as Palestinian, Tiberian and Babylonian, but one prevailed, the Tiberian. We must remember that these vowel points were never part of the original text, and that sometimes, the adding of vowels by scribes who did not fully understand what they were reading changed a meaning. Also, those early texts did not have spaces between words or any punctuation, so there was much scope for misunderstanding.
MT was established by the Jews long after Christianity had separated from Judaism, which introduces another problem. In places the text has been changed to represent the thinking of dead religion rather than preserving God’s original revelation. Judaism is NOT the same as Old Testament religion. Scribes were not averse to changing what they did not like or did not understand, as we know from the evidence that has filtered down through the ages. Therefore, documents other than MT are very important, for they reveal an earlier text that helps us get closer to what was originally written.
Some examples of errors follow. In each case I have shown the transliterated Hebrew, so that the nature of the error is apparent. Please remember that these are just a few examples only. Many more errors exist.
Examples of Textual Corruption
Duplicated letters (e.g. loose instead of lose)
Lev 27.12 (contains an extra k - ke’erekka instead of ke’erek). It reads “as you, the priest, value it”, but it should read, “as the priest values it”.
Ruth 3.14 (contains and extra h - boh ha’ishah instead of boh ‘ishah). It should read “a woman came” not “the woman came”.
Jer 46.20 (bo’ bo’). Our text therefore incorrectly has “it is coming” twice.
Ezek 11.15 (a’chika a’chika). Thus we see “your brothers, your relatives”.
2 Ki 7.13 contains the duplicated phrase, “which are left in the city. Behold, they will be like all the multitude of Israel“.
2 Sam 6.4 is largely a duplicate of the previous verse. The only section that should be kept is “and Ahio was walking ahead of the ark”.
Wrong letters (e.g. queen instead of queer)
Isa 5.17(has gerim instead of karim). Read “rams” not “strangers”.
Isa 48.16 (has verucho instead of berucho). It should read, “has sent me by his Spirit”, not, “has sent me and his spirit”.
Ezek 21.20 (has birushalayim instead of virushalaylim). This gives the geographically
impossible “Judah in Jerusalem“, whereas it should read, “Judah and Jerusalem”.
2 Sam 7.7 (has shibti instead of shophti). It should read “judges” not “tribes” as in 1 Chr 17.6, which has the correct text.
Missing letters (e.g. ripe instead of tripe)
Gen 23.11 (needs an extra letter yodh - lo ‘adoni shema’ni instead of lu ‘adoni yishma’ni). This change to the last word would give the reading, “oh that my lord might hear me”, instead of the grammatically impossible “not lord hear me”.
Ex 32.4 (missing an m - vayyiqach miyyadam instead of vayyiqachem miyyadam). It should read, “he took them from their hands”, whereas the text omits the “them”.
Ps 68.4 (missing a ch - beyah shemo instead of beyah simchu). This then smoothly reads, in “Jah rejoice”, instead of the impossible, “in Jah his name”.
Jer 3.1 (le’mer instead of lek emor). The Hebrew as it stands is impossible, so the translators fudged something, but the added letter and word division gives the quite sensible, “go, say”.
Isa 8.19 (el hamethim instead of al el hamethim). The missing “not”, once supplied, makes the whole thing readable and sensible.
2 Ki 7.1 (machar instead of yimkar machar). By dropping the similar sounding word, a scribe left out the word “sold”, which would make sense of the sentence.
Transposition (e.g. fear instead of fare)
Gen 38.21 (meqomah instead of hamaqom). This reads much better as, “the men of the place”, rather than the given, “the men of her place”.
Ps 22.15 (kichi instead of chiki). Thus we should read, “my palate is dried up in the heat”, not, “my strength is dried up like a potsherd”. There is also a wrong word here (kacheres instead of bachoreb) which gives the change from “potsherd” to “heat”.
Wrong vowels (e.g. shot instead of shut)
Remember that the vowel signs were never part of the inspired text.
Isa 9.20 (zero’o instead of zare’o). People will not eat their own arms but their offspring.
Isa 2.4 (robbim instead of rabim). We should read “contending peoples”, not “many peoples”.
Ps 78.4 (nekachad instead of nikechad). This must be read as a passive, not active, thus, “it was not hidden”.
Ps 55.12 (lo instead of lu). Do not read, “it is not an enemy…nor is it one”, but “if an enemy…and if it is one who hates me”.
Wrong spacing (e.g. nowhere instead of now here)
Ps 44.4 (elohim tsuvveh instead of elohi metsuvveh). Thus we read, “O God, command”, whereas it should read, “my God, who commands”.
Jer 23.26 (hayish beleb hanebi’im instead of yachsob leb hanebi’im). It should read, “how long will the heart of the prophets invent?” The text as given is grammatically impossible and the translators have invented something that looks reasonable in English.
Jer 23.33 (eth mah massa’ instead of athem hamassa). Thus, instead of Jeremiah responding, “what burden?”, he scathingly replies, “you are the burden”!
Ps 73.1 (tob leyisra’el instead of tob leyashar el). Thus the nationalistic “God is good to Israel” is replaced with the theologically sound, “God is good to the upright”.
Translators seem to aim for a readable text rather than accurate representation of what is present in the Hebrew, so when we read the Bible in English we are not aware of the deficiencies of the text (as we have mentioned above). Here are three examples of missing text that has been obscured by the translators.
Gen4.8 - “And Cain said to his brother….and it came about”. The missing phrase can be found via LXX (see below) so that it reads correctly as, “And Cain said to his brother, ‘let us go into the field’. And it came about”.
Ps 145 is an acrostic (a poem where each successive line or section starts with the succeeding letter of the alphabet. See below.) When we look at this psalm in Hebrew it becomes clear that a verse is missing between our v13 and 14, the stanza beginning with the Hebrew letter nun. The verse can also be found in LXX so we can safely add “The LORD is faithful in all his words and holy in all his works”.
Ex 19.25 reads, “so Moses went down to the people and said”. This time we cannot recover what he said, for the missing words have not survived in any version.
Glosses are remarks added to the text to make something clearer, and as the Scriptures were copied down through the ages, scribes added a few words of explanation here and there to explain something that his readers may no longer have understood.
1 Sam 9.9. The early word for a prophet was a seer.
Jos 1.2. “To the sons of Israel” is clearly an unnecessary addition.
Jos 1.4. The great river has to be named Euphrates for those who did not know that.
Jos 3.16. The sea of the Arabah is named as the Salt Sea. (I’ll add my own gloss to illustrate the process. This is the Dead Sea in our modern terminology).
Ex 38. 9 & 13. These two show up slightly in KJV (east side, eastward and south side, southward) but not in NASB. They are clear in Hebrew, for if they were properly translated they would read, “on the east side (toward the sunrise)” and “on the south side (on the right)”.
Ancient scribes abbreviated just as we do, but this practice led later scribes to misunderstand in places. One common abbreviation was of the divine name Yhwh, often abbreviated to Y. But Israel was also so abbreviated!
Jos 22.12, 16 and 18 show this error. In two of these verses the abbreviation is lengthened correctly to (the congregation of )Israel but in v16 it is written out wrongly as (the congregation of) Yhwh.
Zec 12.1. The same abbreviation is used, but written out incorrectly as Israel instead of Jerusalem. (remember that in Hebrew, Yhwh, Israel, Judah and Jerusalem all start with the letter yodh).
2 Chr 28.19. Ahaz was king of Judah, not Israel, so either this is a misunderstood abbreviation or a copying error.
As mentioned above, the acrostic pattern of some sections makes it easy to spot a textual problem.
Ps 9 and 10 are one psalm in LXX and so they should be for this is one acrostic poem. Whoever split it into two made an obvious error. Each stanza of this psalm consists of two lines but the text is quite corrupt so that several lines are missing and unrecoverable. If complete and in one psalm it would have contained 44 verses.
Ps 25 is another acrostic that has been corrupted, the clearest corruption being the scribal addition of the last verse, which does not fit the acrostic pattern and is a typical scribal gloss that should be ignored.
Ps 34 also has an extraneous verse tacked on to the end, but is missing a verse between v 5 & 6.
Correction via Parallelism
Hebrew poetry does not rhyme in sound but in thought, so that the second line explains and amplifies the first. For example, Isa 9.6 says, “unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given”. This technique, known as parallelism, enables us to spot errors that have crept into the text.
Ps 75.9 has its first line corrupted, for the last two words (declare forever) do not fit the thought of the second line. If however the text is amended from ‘agid le’olam to ‘agil be’elyon it then reads harmoniously as “I will exult in the Most High”.
Isa 5.17 (see above under Wrong Letters) is another example of using parallelism to determine the correct text.
Prov 10.7. Rot is not a good antonym for blessed so consider the following change. Substitute yinnaqeb for yireqob and “will rot” becomes “will be cursed”.
Ps 37.28 can be corrected using parallelism and the acrostic format and spotting a scribal error of skipping over a word because of its similarity to the previous one. This is rather complex to explain so I will simply present the finished article. Read the verse as “the LORD loves justice and does not forsake his holy ones. The unjust are exterminated and the descendants of the wicked will be cut off.”
Ps 9. 5, 15, 17, 20 (goyim instead of ge’im). This one, like the previous error is something that crept in because of Judaistic thinking. Their thinking was that since God had chosen them, the Jews were somehow special in God’s eyes - He looked after them but cursed everyone else. Consequently, Ps 9 (and other psalms where this word occurs, e.g. Ps 118.10) were understood to say that God would look after Israel but dump all other nations in she’ol. But read “arrogant” instead of “nations” and you get a much better theology.
Scribal correction and censorship
Religion always tries to be holier than God so we should not be surprised to discover that both scribes and translators have tried to cover up the text at times. We know about this because scribes have left records of some of the changes they made. Here are some examples.
Gen 18.22. This is the account of when God came to visit Abraham and we read that Abraham was standing before God. But that is not what was written. God was in fact standing before Abraham, but since that seemed irreverent in the scribes’ eyes, they changed it.
Job 2.9. Our translators have (correctly) adjusted this one so that we read what Job’s wife actually said, namely, “curse God and die”. The Hebrew says, “bless God and die“, because the scribes could not bring themselves to write the two words “curse“ and “God“ in the same sentence.
1 Sam 3.13. This is similar to the last, for what was actually written was that Eli’s sons cursed God. The scribes were horrified by that thought so they changed it to read that the sons brought a curse upon themselves.
Deut 28.30. A word appears here, shagal (and in Isa 13.16; Jer 3.3; Zec 14.2 but nowhere else in Scripture) that the Jews consider too vulgar to speak out, so they substitute it when reading aloud with shakab, meaning “violate”. A down-to-earth word like “shag” or “fuck” would be about right when used with its proper meaning and not as an expletive. (Its noun form appears in Neh 2.6 and Ps 45.9, where it clearly indicates a member of the royal harem, not the queen.) The issue we must face here is that if God chose to use a strong word because he wanted to sound a serious warning, then how dare anyone substitute something “nicer”?
Jdg 18.30. This verse records that Jonathan, a descendant of Moses, was responsible in leading Israel into idolatry. The Jews held Moses in such respect that they changed the text to read Manasseh (an addition of just one letter in Hebrew).
Yhwh. The Jews were so in awe of the divine name that they never pronounced it, with the result that they eventually forgot how it was pronounced. (Remember that the text only had consonants.) Fortunately, its close to correct pronunciation exists in a Greek transliteration, so we know that God’s name is Yahweh. Unfortunately, most translations obscure this by rendering the Name as LORD.
We are not left to the MT alone, for there are numerous other sources and they all provide assistance in improving the text. The first we will consider is the very important source of the Septuagint abbreviated to LXX). This was a translation into Greek made in Alexandria by a group of seventy scribes, hence its name. It was made for the many Jews who had forgotten Hebrew but spoke Greek (the international language of the time). This work was started in about 250 BC but there is much disagreement as to when it was finished. This work is important for three reasons.
Firstly, it was the Old Testament of the early church and many of the New Testament quotations of the Old are taken from this translation, not from the Hebrew.
Secondly, it is possible for linguists to work backwards, discovering what Hebrew word may have been the source of a particular Greek translation. In this way it is sometimes possible to discover ancient copying errors and correct them.
Thirdly, this ancient translation is important because LXX was based on a Hebrew source text older that MT by over a millennium and it shows considerable variation from it, even allowing for suspect translation. Some examples of correction via LXX have appeared above but three more illustrations of its value are given below. Many more could be given, of course, especially where the improvement comes from NT quotations.
Having said those things to show the importance of LXX, it is also necessary to be aware of its drawbacks. The first is that the quality of translation varies from book to book (and even within books at times). Thus, according to the language experts, some books are translated almost literally while others (such as Job and Daniel) have been translated with great freedom. Secondly, the text has been revised by several ancient authors, so that we have a variety of LXX texts. Thirdly, LXX includes the Apocrypha, both the apocryphal books and additions to the canonical books, an inclusion that has caused much confusion for many years since these texts were never part of the Hebrew Scriptures but treated as canonical by the Roman Church. Therefore, we must always be aware of the drawbacks when assessing the value of LXX as a witness to the Bible text.
Isa 42.4. The last line of this verse is quoted in Matt 12.21 but see how differently it reads. Matthew is quoting from LXX. We should therefore assume that the reading in Matthew correctly represents what Isaiah actually wrote, while the Hebrew represents a scribal corruption. (Remember that the Jews did not like to read promises of God saving the Gentiles.).
Ps 72.3-4. This verse is unscrambled by LXX so that it reads, “let the mountains and the hills bring peace to the people. In righteousness He will save the children of the needy.”
Hos 6.6. Here we read that God requires “loyalty” but in Matt 9.13, following LXX, we read that the desired element is compassion. Once again, believe Matthew rather than the scribes of Judaism.
LXX is not just valuable for variations in readings of individual verses, for in places it shows blocks of variations. The biggest variation is in Jeremiah, which is about one eighth shorter and in a different sequence. The largest portions missing from LXX are 27.19-22; 33.14-26; 39.4-14; 48.46-47.The difference in sequence is that 25.14-45.5 are at the end of the book.
Another large variant is in the story of Saul, David and Goliath in 1 Sam 16-18, where once again LXX is shorter, lacking 39 verses. Missing are 17.12-31, 55-58; 18.1-6a, 10-11, 17-19, 29b-30. If you read the story carefully you will see that by dropping out these sections the contradictions in the story disappear. Maybe those extra sections were later scribal additions that were not there when LXX was created.
There are also interesting variations in Joshua and Judges that we should consider. Firstly, there are some small sections missing in LXX and a quick look at them shows them to be later glosses. A more important omission is in Jos 20.1-6, where LXX lacks v4-6 and most of v6. As with the variations in Samuel, these omissions remove a contradiction, so maybe once again we are looking at a purer text via LXX.
Then there is an important addition, an extra paragraph at the end of Joshua that leads straight into the story of Judges as if they were one book. Couple this with the likelihood that Jdg 1.1-3.11 is another scribal addition (for it is a duplicate story) and we would then have a smooth transition from Joshua to Judges.
LXX also contains an extra psalm at the end of the book.
The second most important source for the Old Testament text is the treasure of Qumran, commonly known as the Dead Sea Scrolls. A whole library was discovered there in 1947 containing parts of every Old Testament book except Esther as well as other non-canonical books. Some of these parts were only fragments, but others were complete books. These fragments must not be underestimated, as even the oldest ones, portions of a copy of Samuel made about 250 BC, have proved useful in clearing up textual obscurities. (Samuel is the book with the most textual corruption, so any help there is to be welcomed.) The most popular books for the Qumran community were the Law, Psalms and Isaiah, several copies of each being found. Since these finds were dated at 100-300 BC they are currently the oldest Hebrew manuscripts available. In numerous places they agree with LXX against MT so once again they provide a valuable tool for improving the text.
There are some interesting extra lines in the Qumran text of 1 Sam 11 that belong before v1 and they read as follows. “Nahash, king of the children of Ammon, sorely oppressed the children of Gad and the children of Reuben and he gouged out all their right eyes and struck terror and dread in Israel. There was not left one among the children of Israel beyond the Jordan whose right eye was not gouged out by Nahash king of the children of Ammon; except seven thousand men fled from the children of Ammon and entered Jabesh Gilead. About a month later”. It is plain how this section, missing from MT, clears up some otherwise inexplicable details of the story.
Some improvements from the Qumran text of Isaiah
28.21. Our Bibles have “as” in two places - “as at Mount Perazim” and “as in the valley of Gibeon”. Omit those two words as the Qumran text does and you have a clearer reading. This change involves the substitution in Hebrew of just one easily confused letter.
42.6. Instead of “a covenant to the people” read, “an everlasting covenant”. (For le‘am read ‘olam.)
47.10. Replace “wickedness” with “knowledge”. Again, this requires the change of just one letter in Hebrew to bring a much better sense to the passage.
14.4. The KJV translators were faced with an unknown word (mdhbh) so they guessed and put in “golden city”. Qumran shows the word to be mrhbh, which translates as “assault”.
The New Testament
There are differences in our English Bibles between what the Old says and what the New quotes, and this deserves our serious consideration. Interestingly, few experts in Textual Criticism have examined this field, leaving themselves exposed to an accusation of gross neglect of a valuable source. Since the apostles were inspired by the Holy Spirit in their writings, we should take careful note of what they made of the Old Testament text. When we examine their quotes we find no consistent pattern. Sometimes they agree with the Hebrew text, sometimes they follow the LXX text, and at other times they reject both to give us a different reading. Following on from our two premises we are left with a logical deduction. If the apostles were inspired by God and if the New Testament text is more reliable than either the Hebrew or the LXX translation of the Old, then we must conclude that the apostolic versions of Old Testament quotes reflect the original intention of the Holy Spirit.
There are numerous other ancient translations ,such as those into Aramaic (called targums, with rabbinic commentaries added), Arabic, Coptic and Latin. These are not as useful as other records in determining the text, but do help to clear up some obscurities. Then there is the Samaritan text. This consists only of the Torah, for that sect only accepted Moses as inspired. This too shows agreement with Qumran and LXX against MT so once again there are improvements that can be made, although here we have to be aware of the deliberate changes made by the Samaritans to make the text agree with their doctrines.
There is also the matter of conjecture, which is another way of saying guesswork, but is not as hazardous as it may seem. There are places where the Old Testament text is so corrupt that the Hebrew does not make sense. But a language expert can often make a knowledgeable guess at what the text should have been. Some examples of this process have been included above.
What exactly is the inspired Word of God? Textual criticism aims to give us the information necessary to make a sensible judgement under the direction of the Holy Spirit. Let us remind ourselves once again that the Lord Jesus and the apostles had complete faith in the minute accuracy of Scripture (Matt 5.18; 22.32; Gal 3.16; Heb 11.19) even though in their day there were plenty of textual variations around. As for us, two millennia later, we still have a reliable (if imperfect) witness.
Since we have a reasonable idea as to what the Old Testament might have looked like in Christ’s time, we should now journey back in time to establish how the books came that far. As one can imagine, the first clues are sparse. We know that writing is as old as man, for the first mention of books is in Gen 5.1. While humanist anthropologists may have their theories about the origins of language and writing, the believer should have no doubt that God was the source of both. We know he spoke to Adam, so it is reasonable to assume that He showed him how to make written records. We also know that Ancient Egypt was an advanced society whose learning Moses had absorbed (Acts 7.22) so it should be no surprise that he should be used by God to put together the first Bible books. That does not mean that he wrote them without using source materials, for the earlier prophets would have left their records of events. Scripture tells us that both Abel and Abraham were prophets (Lk 11.50-51; Gen 20.7) and therefore would have been channels of God’s revelation. There was a succession of prophets from Abel through Abraham and Moses to Malachi. There were the prophets Samuel, Nathan and Gad who were used (inspired) by God to record Israel’s history (1 Chr 29.29) and we read that Jeremiah used a scribe to record God‘s word. He also rewrote the whole thing when an evil king cut a scroll and burned it (Jer 36.17-23, 27-28). These records were collected and revered because men (even rebellious, unbelieving men) knew that God had spoken (Jn 9.29). This reverence for Scripture was found even amongst those who killed the prophets who brought the revelation (Matt 23.29-31)!
The New Testament Text
The problems with the New Testament text are far fewer than with the Old because the manuscript evidence is far better, both in quality and quantity. Also, these manuscripts date from far closer to the time of the originals and have suffered less from scribal emendation. There are complete New Testaments in existence that date back to the fourth century, sections that date from the second century and a few fragments from the first century. We should also remember that these documents were preserved (by and large) by believers, whereas the Old Testament texts had been in the hands of Jews who had resisted the Gospel, and therefore more likely to be manipulated.
The biggest NT textual problem is the ending of Mark’s Gospel. To the delight of non-Pentecostals, 16.9-20 is missing from the oldest manuscripts. This means that anyone wanting to base doctrine upon this passage must first present proof that these verses are indeed part of what Mark wrote. Interestingly, although the manuscripts of the fourth century omit it, Irenaeus (2nd century) and Hyppolitus (3rd century) both quote it. “The Angus Bible Handbook says, ‘the overwhelming mass of manuscripts, versions and fathers are in favour of the verses.’ Doubt concerning them does not seem to have been expressed until the fourth century.” (Baxter). Those words come from a non-Pentecostal, by the way.
Other New Testament variations are much smaller. For example, Acts 7.37 and a large portion of 1 Jn 5.8 are missing from the oldest manuscripts and therefore from our translations. On the other hand, there is an interesting variety to Acts 8.39 that most translations omit but that we would do well to ponder, namely, “the Spirit of the Lord fell upon the eunuch”.
Then of course there are hundreds of minor variations just as there are with the Old Testament text. Here are just a few.
Jn 1.18. “The only begotten God”. Some manuscripts replace “God” with “Son”.
Eph 1.1. The words “at Ephesus” are missing from some of the oldest manuscripts.
Col 1.7. “on our behalf” reads “on your behalf” in some manuscripts.
1 Tim 3.16. “He was revealed in the flesh” reads “God was revealed in the flesh” in some manuscripts.
A Concluding Thought
We have to make do with texts that have suffered from two millennia of human fallibility but that does not leave us in a state of confusion. I present to you two New Testament texts that I believe are highly relevant to this situation.
Heb 1.1-2. “Having spoken long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, God has in these last days spoken to us in His Son”.
2 Pet 1.19. “We have the more sure prophetic word to which you do well to pay attention”.
The detail of the Old Testament text may be obscure in places but there is no doubt whatsoever about what God revealed in Christ and what God has spoken through the apostles. This means that we should always show a degree of caution when using the Old Testament to prove minute points, being very careful to follow the Holy Spirit’s prompting, but that we can have full confidence in the text of the New Testament.
The History of the Bible in English Translation
Although there were sporadic attempts to translate the Bible into the vernacular, the general trend wherever the Roman church held sway was to keep the Bible away from people. It was known to the scholarly monks, but even among them only in Latin. Very few of them ever bothered to learn Greek and Hebrew so as to read in the original languages. Consequently, ignorance was great.
The first name we should remember in the history of Bible translation into English is John Wycliffe, who produced an English Bible (from the Latin translation) in 1382. This was before the invention of printing, so copies had to be made by hand, making them scarce and expensive. He earned the wrath of the church hierarchy for his efforts, but he still died in peace, unlike William Tyndale. He produced the first printed New Testament in English in Belgium and smuggled copies into England, but the Roman bishops caught him and killed him (1532). Before his death he had started translating the Old Testament from Hebrew, but only got about halfway. His work was finished by Miles Coverdale, who brought out his Bible in 1535. By this time, Henry 8th was king of England and the Bible a permitted book, but that changed again during the reign of Mary (1553-1558) when once again the English saints paid for their faith with their lives. The next significant event as regards the Bible was the authorisation in 1611 of a new translation by King James (see Introduction). This translation, in places just a revision of Tyndale’s work, proved to be a landmark of English literature, becoming such a fixed part of the church landscape that many people still use it today, despite its two major problems. The first of those is that its English is 400 years out of date and the second is that there are now far better source materials to work from - but tradition dies hard, so some people still act as though KJV were itself the inspired Word of God.
The Problems with Translations
There are three problems we face when we look at any Bible translation (into any language). The first is the translator’s bias. We all know only as much as we have learned, so the blind spots we have will be with us when we approach the Scriptures. This is most obvious when we look at some modern translations. Some of these (like Moffatt, NEB and RSV) were produced by liberal, modernist sceptics and most have been produced by people who have not had any Pentecostal or Charismatic experience. Consequently, they try and render into English expressions that describe experiences they have never had, and they fail miserably. Similarly, all translations have been made by men of the institutional church, so their Babylonian worldview creeps into their translations with expressions like “bishops, deacons, preaching, baptism“. This not only clouds the issues but also provides the basis for all sorts of authoritarianism and control in church groups. This is because words describing the functions of servants are twisted into meanings of superior position, authority and dignity. (For the benefit of the unlearned, those words above should be translated “overseer, servant, proclamation, submersion”.)
Secondly, there is the problem of human fallibility. It is so easy to put into a translation what we think should be there instead of faithfully reproducing what the original says. There is also the problem of not recognising what the writer is trying to say and thus misrepresenting him in our translation. Another error (seen especially in NIV, Good News Bible and Message) is the attempt to put the Scriptures into popular, easy to read language. It might sound like a good idea but the result is something that is no longer faithful to the original. It might be understood, but what is understood is not what was intended. We thus fail to grasp the meaning of the authors.
We saw earlier that the scribes were so religious that they sometimes shuddered at the down-to-earth expressions used by the Holy Spirit. The same malady affects translators, with the result that when we read in English we do not always get the message intended. Possibly the greatest loss we suffer here is the obscuring of the bold sexuality and eroticism of the Song of Solomon, but there are also other passages where the translators have been too shy to deal with bodily parts and functions the way the Holy Spirit speaks of them.
Thirdly, and possibly the biggest problem of all, is the non-reliance on the Holy Spirit. We know that He inspired the original writers and we know that he enlightens us as to many meanings. Sadly, the middle step is missing, for no Bible translator has ever acknowledged that he (or they) ever sought the help of the Holy Spirit in their work of translation.
Thus, while we can be thankful that we have the Bible in our own language (and in English that means a variety of translations) we should never assume that what we have is the perfect and inspired Word of God. Any knowledge of the original languages and any understanding of the historical process of textual transmission will put us on a firmer footing.
British and Foreign Bible Society - Hebrew Old Testament
- Greek New Testament
Holladay, W. - Concise Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament
Kennedy, J. - An Aid to the Textual Amendment of the Old Testament
Tov, E. - Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible
Wurthwein, E. - Der Text des alten Testaments
Miller, A. - Church History
Benyon, Sir L. - The Septuagint with Apocrypha
Harris, R.L. - Inspiration and Canonicity of the Bible
Cross, F.M. and Talmon, S. - Qumran and the History of the Biblical Text
NB: This work may be freely copied and reproduced on condition that no part of the text is changed. The work should be cited as: Collins, P, The History of our Bible, www.emeth.co.za/pcbible.html