History of the Bible, II: Transmission of the Text

Previously we examined the history of the “canonization” of the text which we call the New Testament. We determined that the New Testament canon was basically complete from its inception in the second century CE, and that by the end of the fourth century little doubt was left as to what should and should not be a part of it.

An equally important activity that existed at this time and afterward was the transmission of this text: it is good that we agree on what the New Testament should contain, now, let us go and retain this text for prosperity! Let us examine how we have received this text, with its difficulties and some errors.

First, it must be noted that the process of transmitting a book, or, in other words, copying it, was much more difficult then than it is now. Ever since 1450 CE, the printing press has allowed a level of replication and accuracy beyond comparison; a copy of the New Testament printed by Gutenberg could be replicated exactly today. Before 1450, however, copying was a much more difficult endeavor, especially around the inception of the New Testament text.

The use of paper only came to the Western world after the Crusaders in the twelfth century CE. Before then, if you wanted to write something, you would use either papyrus or vellum (also known as parchment). 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 was a little tougher, but more difficult to write on and find, being the skin of an animal. Scribes would have to often “re-write” the text on the same piece of vellum, and we have many examples of vellum re-used for different texts (discernible by using ultraviolet light).

The paucity and difficulty of locating vellum and papyrus was further complicated by the method of copying: the human hand. Scribes would sit for hours at a time in a small, cramped, and dimly-lit portion of a monastery, copying the New Testament text from a master copy onto another copy. The process was exhausting, and extremely difficult.

Despite all of these hardships, the transmission of the New Testament text is outstanding, and God’s providence can be seen within it. We currently have over 4,000 copies of at least portions of the New Testament text dating between 170-1450 CE; the “runner-up” is Homer’s Iliad, of which we have about 300 copies dating from the same period. Furthermore, these 4,000+ copies are not limited to one geographic area; they come from all over the European, Mediterranean, and even the Mideastern world. The great number of texts spread out over such a great area and time span allow us, the modern readers, to ascertain any discrepancies and inconsistencies in these copies, and allow us to determine the correct reading for all but three (3) words in the whole New Testament. There is no inconsistency or discrepancy in any copy relating to doctrine; the kinds of errors can be summed up in some general categories:

  • Harmonization: Sometimes, when copying a text, a scribe would see the beginning of a familiar verse and complete it from memory, not necessarily taking into account what the text says. Many times, the scribe was correct. However, there are some verses in the New Testament which are somewhat similar but do have some difference, and it is in these which the errors developed, like in the Lord’s Prayer seen in Matthew 6:9-13 and Luke 11:2-4:

    “Pray, then, in this way: ‘Our Father who art in heaven, Hallowed be Thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, On earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”

    And He said to them, “When you pray, say: ‘Father, hallowed be Thy name. Thy kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves also forgive everyone who is indebted to us. And lead us not into temptation.'”

    In many copies, and as seen in the KJV, the scribes “harmonized” these two by inserting the Matthew prayer as the Lukan prayer. This is also seen in other occasions.

  • Expansions of piety. Many times, the scribes, expressing their piety, would add titles to the name of Christ. If the text said “Jesus,” they would write, “the Lord Jesus,” for example. This is seen often, and represents the majority of differences between the KJV and the modern versions.
  • Word confusions. The scribes also had to deal with the Greek language, which can sometimes be much more complicated than modern languages. In English, we place spaces between words. The Greek does not have that. Therefore, asentencewouldbewrittenlikethis. In many cases, this is no problem. However, what about a combination like “whoserenownnomore,” which could be taken to be different things? Furthermore, in the Greek language, many words both look and mean similar things; therefore, it is in this category that the three discrepancies lay: they consist of a passage which has two different words in different copies that not only look similar, but are so close in meaning that context cannot determine which is correct.
  • Additions. Occasionally, a scribe will add an adjective or a characteristic to the text. Normally this was done because two copies had different terms used in the same place. For example, one text may have called Jesus “pure,” and another would call Him “good.” Thus, the scribe would write that Jesus is “pure and good.”

These categories are where most of the discrepancies lay. However, thanks to our great number and spread of manuscripts, we are able to determine which text is the best to use, based on antiquity and also on the number of manuscripts in agreement.

The hand of God can truly be seen in the transmission of the New Testament text. Despite 1,500 years of manual copying done by uninspired scribes, we are able to reconstruct the text down to three discrepancies, all of which just boil down to a different adjective. We can be sure that the text we use is accurate, being that which those inspired men wrote down 1,900 years ago.


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