God has spoken and made known His will and purposes through His servants the prophets and ultimately through His Son Jesus Christ (Hebrews 1:1). The prophets, the Apostles, and their associates preserved those messages from God in the pages of Scripture (2 Timothy 3:15-17). The Scriptures are of the greatest importance and value for those who wish to know what God would have them think, feel, and do. Can we have confidence in the validity of the Biblical text as it has been handed down? We do well to explore the history of the Bible. We previously discussed the movement toward canonization of the text, and we can have great confidence that the books which currently comprise the Old and New Testaments are inspired of God and profitable for instruction and exhortation. Let us now consider how those texts have come down to us so many years later.
The printing press, which allowed for mass and exact copying of a text, was only invented around 1450 CE: beforehand all texts were preserved by creating handwritten copies. A scribe or monk might have a copy of a text (generally called a manuscript) and transcribe it; often a scribe or monk would read aloud a text while other scribes or monks would write down what they heard. The use of paper only came to the Western world after the Crusaders in the twelfth century CE. Before then papyrus or vellum (also known as parchment) were used. Papyrus was used in the east more extensively and also earlier; unfortunately, it was not very strong, and the text would wear out quickly. Vellum, as prepared animal skins, lasted longer, but were harder to develop and more expensive. It often proved easier for scribes or monks to scrape off an old parchment and reuse it for another text; today we have many such examples, called palimpsests, and through technological advancements we can discern many of the previous, scraped off texts.
The transmission process proved very exacting and difficult for many years. Despite all of the hardships, the transmission of the Bible proves outstanding in its quality, and God’s providence can be seen within it. The Masoretic scribes responsible for the transmission of the Old Testament in Hebrew used exacting standards to judge how effective a new copy proved at replicating its predecessor; any deviations would mean they would restart the process. On account of this the Masoretic Text of the Hebrew Bible remained consistent from the days of Jesus until now. The Masoretes also recorded many of the variants or changes which they believed the text required; we also have copies of the Hebrew Bible in other languages which record variants most likely derived from the Hebrew texts from which they were copied (called the Vorlage). From all those variants we more often than not can make sense of the text as originally written; certain details that are left unresolved do not significantly impact the way we understand the Old Testament. The New Testament has been preserved in over 4,000 copies of at least portions of the text in Greek dating between 170-1450 CE; for comparison, the “runner-up” is Homer’s Iliad, of which we have about 300 copies dating from the same period. These 4,000+ copies are not limited to one geographic area: they come from all over the European, Mediterranean, and even the Middle Eastern world. The great number of texts spread out over such a great area and time span allow us as modern readers to ascertain any discrepancies and inconsistencies in these copies, and allow us to determine the most accurate reading for all but three words in the whole New Testament. Furthermore, all of the variants are well-attested, and many of the challenges and difficulties have been known and discussed since antiquity.
Most variants follow specific patterns which prove understandable in light of the challenges inherent in manual copying of manuscripts. The copyist’s eye might skip a couple of lines, see an ending very much like the one he had just written, and continue copying from there, and inadvertently leave some of the text out (a process called homoioteleuton; if the beginning of terms looks the same, it is homoioarchton). A copyist might just omit a word or a line (called haplography), or repeat a word or a line for a similar reason (called dittography). Copyists also might see the beginning of a familiar verse and complete it from memory, not necessarily taking into account what the text says. He might be correct; at other times, however, the text may have read a little differently in one passage rather than another, and in this way two different passages are made to sound the same (called harmonization; cf. Matthew 6:9-13, Luke 11:2-4). At times the copyist might confuse similar looking letters or even words; sometimes the words are so similar in meaning or can work contextually so that we cannot precisely determine which is most likely the original.
Some of the variants involve expansions of the text to enhance piety or descriptions. For instance, if the text said “Jesus,” some might write, “the Lord Jesus” (an expansion of piety). At other times a copyist might notice two different terms used in the same place in a text, and as opposed to choosing one or the other, included both (called conflation).
We can know about these variants and their heritage because of the existence of so many copies of manuscripts in the original languages and in translation. The work of seeking to ascertain the original text on the basis of all the manuscript evidence is called textual criticism. Textual critics assess the manuscript evidence based on likely relationships among the manuscripts, their age and provenance, along with other factors. The fruit of the labor of textual critics can be seen in the information provided in the authoritative editions of the Old and New Testaments, Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia (BHS) and Novum Testamentae Graecum, Nestle-Aland 28th edition (NA28). They feature the masora parva and critical apparatus, respectively, listing not only variants but also the manuscript evidence for those variants. In this way anyone who can develop a basic handle on Biblical languages and the principles of textual criticism can evaluate the textual evidence for themselves: these endeavors are not done in a corner, as if a conspiracy, but open for many to see and explore.
The hand of God can truly be seen in the transmission of the Biblical text. Despite 1,500 years or more of manual copying done by uninspired scribes and monks, we remain able to come to an understanding of what God has made known through the prophets, Jesus, and the Apostles. May we put our trust in God in Christ and be saved!
Ethan R. Longhenry