the original words been lost over the centuries?
is reassuring at the end to find that the general result of all these
discoveries and all this study is to strengthen the proof of the authenticity
of the Scriptures, and our conviction that we have in our hands, in substantial
integrity, the veritable Word of God. 1"
existence of thousands of variations of texts makes it impossible to hold
the doctrine of a book verbally infallible."
Is the wording of today's Bible error free or not?
as Christians believe, the initial biblical autographa were inspired of
God without error, how can we be certain we have that same inerrant message
today? Isn't it likely that even if a perfect God gave a perfect message
to imperfect man, man would eventually get it confused over centuries of
copying? How can we tell if the original texts have maintained their fidelity
as they were passed down from one generation to the next?
Over the ages, and in
spite of stringent safeguards, copyists have still made mistakes. Textual
comparisons between the many biblical documents known to exist will verify
this. Of course, the more ancient copies we have to compare between, the
more easily the errant words or forgotten sentences can be identified. Currently
there exist well over 24,000 ancient copies or portions of Scripture. These
have revealed the variations to largely concern spelling and, to a lesser
degree, word order and grammar.
is the Bible not free of error?
It is the contention
of conservative biblical scholars and orthodox interpretation that the original
autographs, being directly inspired by God, were completely free of errors,
but not necessarily the subsequent copies. Some of the earliest typeset
Bibles, for example, had notable problems. One printing omitted the word
"not" in the sixth commandment so that it read "Thou shalt murder".
But today we do not consider "Thou shalt murder" the correct rendering of
that verse. Why? Because of the process of textual criticism. It is by this
process that we can trust the modern Bible to be as inerrant as the earliest
known and best preserved copies.
7.2 What are examples of textual criticism?
The process of distinguishing
the original wordings from any deviations among the ancient documents is
called textual criticism or lower criticism. (Higher criticism
was coined by J. G. Eichhorn in 1787 as the process of judging the authorship
and date of biblical writings by their content. 2)
Textual criticism is a surprisingly formalized study that actually categorizes
different kinds of variations, or mistakes, found in ancient writings. 3
example, is the term to describe the dividing up of one word into two words.
An example in English would be the erroneous writing of "hardship"
as "hard ship". Although the same letters are present in both,
a totally different meaning is conveyed when the word is split. Fusion,
conversely, describes the errant combining of two words into one. Dittography
is the writing twice of a letter or word which should have been written
only once. Haplography, opposite of the latter, is something that
was only written once but should have appeared multiple times.
the reversal of two words or letters or phrases in a passage. Homophony
is the substituting of one homonym for another. There are also mistakes
which are simply the product of a copyist misreading the text. These
include the confusion of similar appearing letters, or the omission of an
entire line of text, usually due to two consecutive lines beginning with
the same word or words.
7.3 Where are the errors in the Bible?
Because the number of
extant manuscripts is in the tens of thousands (50,000 I am urged, though
I have not seen confirmation of that figure), the total number of variations
between documents as defined above is around 200,000 by the highest estimate.
Although as critics might put it, these are "errors in the Bible", they
must be accepted for what they really are - transmissional variations,
not factual mistakes.
An example of a textual
critique will put the question variations pose into proper perspective.
Here are twelve simulated writings of the same sentence as a biblical scholar
might encounter them among twelve worst-case copies of the same piece of
- She trimmed his gray
- She trimed his gray
- She trimmed his
- She trim med his
- Trimmed she his
- She trimmed his
- His grey beerd she
- She trimmed his
- His grey beerd she
- Shet rimmed his
- She trimmed his
- She trimmed hes
These phrases, by the
rules of textual criticism, offer thirteen variations in spelling and at
least three different word orders. This yields a total of sixteen variations,
or errors, in a single sentence that is itself only five words long. Yet
even with three times more "errors" than words, it is still quite
clear as to what is being said.
If a scholar officially
declared the original wording to read, "She trimmed his gray beard", one
would be hard-pressed to disagree based on the evidence of document comparison.
This is exactly why proponents of the Bible stand firm in their support
of modern translations such as the New International Version and others.
Similar variations within the biblical writings present no threat to
the original words conveyed or to any of the basic biblical doctrines.
Gleason Archer confidently states that:
a careful study of
the variants of the various earliest manuscripts reveals that none of
them affects a single doctrine of Scripture. The system of spiritual truth
contained in the standard Hebrew text of the Old Testament is not in the
slightest altered or compromised by any of the variant readings found
in Hebrew manuscripts of earlier date found in the Dead Sea caves or anywhere
else. It is very evident that the vast majority of them are so inconsequential
as to leave the meaning of each clause doctrinally unaffected.
...Even though the
two copies of Isaiah discovered in Qumran Cave 1 near the Dead Sea in
1947 were a thousand years earlier than the oldest dated manuscript previously
known (AD 980), they proved to be word for word identical with our
standard Hebrew Bible in more than 95 percent of the text. The 5 percent
of variation consisted chiefly of obvious slips of the pen and variations
in spelling. [emphasis mine] 4
7.4 What percent of ancient documents are in agreement?
On the average, Old
Testament documents yield about one variation per page of text; New Testament
manuscripts yield only a tenth of one percent variance. In other words,
99.9% of those manuscripts are in perfect agreement.
Though an occasional
scribe altered a text to be copied, the resulting deviant copy constitutes
only an infrequent departure from the plethora of copies available for corroborating
comparison. Even as later copyists unknowingly passed on certain aberrations,
appeals to still earlier or more reliable documents preserve the original
Thanks to textual
criticism and on-going archaeological discoveries, even as time passes far
beyond the date of the original writings, we may be confident that the Bible
of today is a fully trustworthy duplication of the original autographs.
NEXT: What early manuscripts of the Bible exist today?
The Bible and
Isn't one interpretation
just as good as the next?