"He is also head of the body, the church; and He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that He Himself will come to have first place in everything."
Colossians 1:18

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Friday, March 22, 2013

God's Word Is Not a Haymaker

"Well...the Bible has been translated so many times into so many different languages over the years that it becomes effectively impossible to know what the Bible originally said." 

Perhaps you have heard just such a statement as this, and you have been certain that it could not be true, but you have not known how to respond.  Or perhaps it sowed a seed of doubt in your mind, and you filed it under the "Things To Investigate Someday After the Kids Are in Bed" file - a file that sometimes grows, but never shrinks.  Or perhaps you know exactly what the answer here is.  I certainly cannot say what opinion you might hold on this matter, but I would like to address it briefly, and not so simply you know how to argue with an atheist, but so your esteem for your sovereign, superintending Lord will grow.

Let us, for the sake of simplicity, deal with the New Testament as an example.  I will start by saying that we possess none of the originals (or autographs) of the New Testament writings; all are copies that were created no earlier than roughly the second century (by which time, of course, the New Testament had been completed, and all the apostles had died).  And I shall not sport with anyone's credulity by suggesting that these copies are in 100% agreement.  There are different readings of given passages, for certain.

So far, this sounds like fodder for skepticism - scoffers are sharpening their knives - but this is far from the case.  In truth, we almost never have the autographs of ancient literature, and must determine what the original was from the copies at hand (hence the discipline of textual criticism).  This is the norm with ancient literature.

So what of the New Testament copies?  Are they useful for these purposes?  It seems clear that relying upon copies that were laid down decades or centuries later would be a dubious enterprise.  However, our understanding of most ancient writings rests upon the use of no more than a few dozen copies that were penned at least 500 years later.  If we have a body of ancient New Testament manuscripts that, as of about a year ago, numbered some 5,800 in the Greek and over 10,000 more in other languages, and that begin possibly from as early as the late first century, then we have vastly more with which to work, and vastly more from which to be certain, than we do from any other ancient writing.  The New Testament is uniquely striking amongst its contemporaries for the weight and antiquity of the manuscript support it enjoys.

There is a good foundation, then, for coming at the true wording of the New Testament, especially when we consider that those who seek to create a good and accurate representation of New Testament Scripture do not merely look at the latest translation to hit the market, and fretfully work to tweak it in order to form it to current literary or cultural trends.  Solid Bible translators go back to the manuscripts and seek to derive an understanding from them.  It is not a game of "telephone" across centuries, languages, and continents - they get as close to the source as they can, and they apply science, scholarship, and a healthy dose of common sense as they do so. 

This "common sense" element merits a bit of discussion here.  What I mean is that in the discipline of textual criticism, common sense plays a key role in seeking to answer the vital question:  how will we determine which reading of a particular passage is the best; that is, the most accurate to the original?  We have already mentioned that there are variations between the different manuscripts at times, and while most are trivial and minute, there are those which are anything but.  How then do we conclude what the original must have said?

The answer lies with a number of common-sense principles, a few of which I will list here.

  • The older reading is likely to be more reliable than the newer, there having been less time for errors to have been introduced.  This is not absolute, of course, because there is usually nothing to prove that, say, a second-century manuscript was not copied ten times, while a fifth-century manuscript was copied only once or twice from a much older manuscript. 
  • The reading which is more difficult (unless the more difficult reading is due to an obviously nonsensical copying error) is more likely the original, as opposed to the reading that is smoother and fits into the overall passage better (i.e. has fewer rough edges).  A scribe, when copying a manuscript, would not render a passage more confusing, but might on the other hand seek to elucidate it with paraphrase, additional explanation, or word substitution. 
  • The reading that is shorter is more likely the original than the longer reading.  Again, a scribe would hardly excise a phrase, but would ostensibly add clarification.
  • The reading that could most easily have given rise to the alternate readings is probably the original.  Scribes would sometimes endeavor to harmonize the gospels by adding to one gospel account what was contained in another, or would add phrases to strengthen the devotional or theological thrust of a passage.
Note that the maverick acts of these early copyists which I have just related are not to be condoned, whatever their intentions.  There is an incredible presumption in seeking to augment the clarity, the unity, or the flow that God has built into His perfectly-delivered Word, as though the Holy Spirit somehow came up wanting in His mission to bring forth the divine and unbreakable Word (cf. John 10:35). 

In actuality, as I believe Daniel Wallace once pointed out, these variations between manuscripts actually aid in the endurance of Scripture, rather than hurt it, because in the prolific quantity of the manuscripts, spread across centuries, we are given a record of the alterations which were made to the Holy Word through the centuries, and can therefore determine what the original said.  Were we given only a uniform army of writings from which to base our Bible translations, we could not know with any certainty if we were looking at the original vintage, or something more corrupted. 

All this being said, it is left simply to conclude that God has shown Himself careful and mighty in the preservation of His Word.  In so doing, He has faithfully kept it "profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work." (2 Tim. 3:16b-17) It would not be amiss, my friend, to take a moment to thank Him for His excellent work, this grace in the protection of His divine revelation!  His Word is not a haymaker; everything about it is intentional, and tends to His glory, and our good.

Tenney, Merrill C.  The Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible.  Vol. 5.  Grand Rapids, MI:  Zondervan,
     1976.  pp. 712-713.




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