The Origin of the Bible, Part V: Manuscript Differences and Wrap-up
by Ed Vasicek
Our church's constitution asserts what we (along with most evangelical and fundamental congregations) profess: "We believe that the thirty-nine books of the Old Testament and the twenty-seven books of the New Testament are verbally inspired by God and inerrant in the original manuscripts. Scripture is the only infallible source in determining matters of faith and practice."
By proclaiming that "the original manuscripts" are inspired, we fuel an obvious question: "How close are our New Testament translations to the originally penned version of the New Testament?"
The short answer is "remarkably close." This is not to say that all the ancient manuscripts are in complete agreement without any variation at all. I am saying that the differences are generally minor and affect nothing we believe.
We have over 4,800 surviving ancient Greek manuscripts of the New Testament (the original language of the New Testament), 8,000 ancient Latin copies (translated from the Greek), and 1,000 ancient copies in other languages (also translated).
Using all available resources, scholars attempt to produce an extremely precise Greek New Testament -- a "true-to-the-original master copy" from which we can translate the New Testament into our language. These scholars look at the variations between manuscripts and apply logical principles to decide between variations. Principles of preference include: "shorter endings are preferred to longer ones, more ancient manuscripts are given more weight than newer ones," etc.
But exactly how great are these variations? Scholars Geisler and Nix, in their classic book, A General Introduction to the Bible, write: "Next to the New Testament, there are more extant manuscripts for the Iliad (643) than any other book....The New Testament has about 20,000 lines....The Iliad [has] about 15,600. Only 40 lines (or 400 words) of the New Testament are in doubt whereas 764 lines of the Iliad are questioned. This 5 percent textual corruption compares with one-half of 1 percent of similar emendations in the New Testament." In all but a few instances (mentioned below), we are talking about issues of very fine-tuning.
Since copies of the New Testament were spread throughout the ancient world, certain texts became localized. Thus variations would be multiplied and regionally different from manuscripts in other areas. But remember what Geisler and Nix pointed out: we are talking only about 400 words total, well less than one percent of the New Testament!
The basic manuscript families of texts are: Alexandrian, Caesarean, Western, and Byzantine. The Latin translations prevailed in Europe during the middle ages. When the Renaissance (and Reformation) hit Europe, an emphasis upon returning to original sources resulted. The Greek New Testament was now in vogue. The Greek manuscripts at hand in Europe were Byzantine manuscripts. These manuscripts were late copies (not very ancient). The King James New Testament was based on these manuscripts.
The other families of manuscripts were mostly unknown until the very early 20th century when they were discovered by archaeologists and scholars. One of them, a manuscript called Codex Vaticanus was found in the Vatican library! Another very important manuscript is called Codex Sinaiticus (both from the fourth century); these two documents are the most influential New Testament sources and are 400 to 1,000 years older than the manuscripts used for the King James Version.
So how did we get these variations between the manuscripts? Because printing had not yet been invented, the manuscripts were copied by hand. And ancient people, like their modern counterparts, sometimes made mistakes! Many copyist errors involved misspelling a word or the addition or omission of a word like "the." In later copies of the New Testament, it is likely that a teacher occasionally wrote an interpretative note on the margin of a manuscript. A future copyist may have thought such a note was actually part of the text to be inserted (thinking it had been inadvertently left out and then noticed later). He then inserts it. But the insertion would stand out because it would be unique to a certain region and not contained in manuscripts elsewhere. This is why John 5:4 appears only in the King James Version (which was based on late Byzantine Greek manuscripts) but the verse is not included in the NIV or NASB (based upon early manuscripts from diverse regions, manuscripts unknown to the King James translators).
When we eliminate spelling errors and other trivial differences, there are few notable differences between the most ancient and newer manuscripts (and the various families of documents). That is why almost all the differences between English translations are matters of English translation and not of source documents. Since English has a vocabulary many times greater than ancient Greek, translators must choose between a variety of English words. Translations are also based upon how English is spoken at the time of translation. So the differences between the New International Version and the King James Version are many times greater than the differences between the Greek manuscripts.
There are really only two major differences between manuscript families; these are found in the Gospels: (1) the longer and shorter ending of Mark, and (2) the story of the woman taken in adultery.
The more ancient copies of Mark's Gospel end chapter 16 with verse 8, shortly after the resurrection of Christ. Verses 9-20 were not apparently in Mark's original version. Some have conjectured that the ending to Mark's original Gospel was lost, and that these verses were spliced in later from an unknown Gospel. Luke tells us that there were several Gospel accounts circulating in his day (Luke 1:1, "Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word"). So it is possible that the longer ending in Mark was taken from one of these other accounts. Since these other Gospels were probably very short and thus not useful, it could be that this longer ending was one of the few things unique in another Gospel (and so a scribe spliced it onto Mark's Gospel to replace Mark's lost ending). But note: this was done only in a region, and so the change is easily detected! Vaticanus and Sinaiticus, for example, do not contain Mark 16:9-20. So we would want to be careful building doctrine on this passage, because it is uncertain.
The other major difference between manuscripts involves the account of the woman taken in adultery in John 8:1-11. The most ancient documents do not have this story included within the Gospel of John. Additionally, some manuscripts include this story after Luke 21:38, thus evidencing that this was an insertion. The reason for this insertion is probably the same as that above: one of the other early Gospels probably contained this story (and nothing else unique), so some scribe inserted it. These portions are not included in Codex Vaticanus or Codex Sinaiticus. This is not to say that this account is necessarily untrue (or uninspired). Rather, we are saying it was not originally part of John's Gospel. It therefore has the status of "uncertain."
In both cases, there is a remote possibility that these accounts were original. Perhaps only one family of manuscripts (Byzantine) retained them. This is why we include them with a note.
These other Gospels to which Luke alludes are not the Gnostic Gospels of The Da Vinci Code, which were fabrications written by a group of cults much later.
Modern translations or good study Bibles note text variations so that you, the reader, can be aware of such differences.
In summary, the original manuscripts of the New Testament were inspired and without error. The Greek manuscripts are not without error, but a reliable 99% facsimile of the original manuscripts (the two Gospel issues mentioned above being possible exceptions).
The Bibles we read are inspired and inerrant to the degree that the manuscripts we have match the originals and to the degree that they are accurately translated. And they do exceptionally well on both counts.
Reprinted from the November 2006 Body Builder, a publication of Highland Park Church.
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