Free Online Bible Library | Transmission of the Text

Transmission of the Text

Course: Why I Trust My Bible
Lecture: Transmission of the Text through the Centuries


Transmission of the Writings

Let’s move on from canonization on to the issue of transmission. These manuscripts are being copied from century to century and they were copied for the sake of churches. Individuals probably wanted them. These copies are called manuscripts. You may see along in the footnotes in your Bible something like “other ms” or “other mss say.” “Ms” means manuscript and “mss” means manuscripts. There were many manuscripts that were being copied.

As I said, when you look at these manuscripts, there are differences. This is not some liberal concoction to destroy our faith. You can physically look at these if you get in to a library that has them and you can read Greek. You can see that they are different. Some manuscripts of Romans 5 say, “we have peace with God” (echomen with an omicron). Other manuscripts say, “Let us have peace with God” (echomen with an omega). These are real differences among the Greek manuscripts. I don’t want to go into too much detail, since this is a highly technical field. But just to give you a feel for it, one of the things you will find when you compare the manuscripts is the whole issue of omissions or deletions. Some manuscripts have whole verses that other manuscripts don’t have. For example, in the best Greek manuscripts that we have, in Mark 16:8, the women have seen the empty tomb and they leave and they were afraid, period. You will normally see some sort of designation in your Bible: “Other manuscripts add…”and you see verses 9 to 20. So you get this rather large (this is the biggest) chunk in Scripture, and it appears to either have been added at a later date or left out at another date. But some manuscripts stop at Mark 16:8 and others at Mark 16:20.

I like to tell the story from the sociology class that you probably were all in. Did you see the stories of the Appalachian snake people in Gravelswitch Kentucky? I like to tell people those are my cousins. Mounces are from Gravelswitch Kentucky. I think our last year that we lived in Kentucky, we visited to Gravelswitch. It was a nice little town—it was strange there everyone was named Mounce. I still remember that. Mounce’s bakery, Mounce’s garage, I went in to the bank and it was Mounce, Mounce, Mounce, Johnson, she was the outsider. Anyway, these are my cousins that you see in the sociology movies, because in the expression of their Christianity, they do two really strange things! They drink poison and they handle snakes, and they don’t get bit by the rattlers. Now why are they doing that? Because in Mark 16:18, these are the signs of the Christians who go out: “They will pick up serpents and if they drink any deadly things it won’t hurt them.” See my cousins are real Christians and we all are wimps because we won’t drink poison and pick up snakes. Well its right there, it’s in the Bible, don’t you believe the Bible? I don’t think there is much question among anyone (hardly anyone) that Mark 16:8 ended at verse 8, or that we’ve lost the full ending and this was added several hundred years later. It’s not part of the Bible.

The other largest section is John 8—the woman caught in adultery. You will see markers in your Bible around it: “The better manuscripts omit these verses.” You won’t see that in the King James or the New King James, but you’ll see it in all the other translations. The woman caught in adultery most certainly is a later addition. People tend to argue that it was true. John never wrote it and it got stuck into John’s gospel 100 years later or so. But there are also smaller sections. You know the Lord’s prayer? If you read it in the ESV or the NIV, it ways “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. Period.” This is another one of these things were when you look at the manuscripts, you can see that, “For Thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever,” only appears in the later manuscripts it doesn’t appear in the earlier and best manuscripts. We know that it was the habit of the church to add to the Bible, especially with flowery language, so it fits that pattern. Anyway, these differences have to do with omissions and/or deletions.

There are also just differences sometimes. Some manuscripts will have a really difficult word, but then in another manuscript they’ve used a synonym that a younger kid could understand. And you can see what the scribe did, that he was copying along and thinks, “What does this word mean? No one understands that word anymore, I better use a word they can understand.” It wasn’t necessarily a bad idea, but sometimes it turned out to be. Much of the time, you will see changes where they want to make one gospel read exactly like the other. For example, Matthew says blessed are the poor in spirit, and Luke says blessed are the poor. There are a few manuscripts of Luke that say, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” They are trying to get the gospels agree to avoid problems. Anyway, when along the bottom of your Bible it says “other manuscripts read,” that’s what it is talking about. There are differences in among the Greek manuscripts and we have to deal with it.

Textual Criticism

Into this arena comes what we call textual criticism. Textual criticism is the name of the science that comes along and looks at the two forms of echomen or any other difference and asks, “Which one is more likely to be original? Which one did Paul most likely write?” It is a highly highly technical field, but let me give you a peak into the way textual critics work. One of their premises is that it is more likely that information was added rather than omitted. That’s one of those fundamental assertions. Here is what I mean by that. In John 5, Jesus goes to the pool of Bethesda, and there was a man who was lying there for 38 years, and Jesus says, “What are you here for?” Did you notice what I skipped? I skipped John 5:4. “For an angel of the lord would come down periodically and stir up the water, and the first one into the pool would be healed. John 5:4. The better Greek manuscripts don’t have verse 4. The later ones have verse 4. Now is it more likely that that verse about the angel was added or subtracted? You can’t think of any reason why it would be subtracted. I mean, why have you been lying by this water for 38 years? If John in the gospel had told us why, you would certainly expect it to be included. But you could see a situation where a scribe is copying it and Jesus meets this man he’s been lying by the pool for 38 years. “You know what? I think I know why he was there, and its a hole in the story I better add it in.” So one of the starting points that text critics use is that it is more likely that material was added rather than taken away. It’s really hard to take away from the word of God.

The second thing they evaluate is how old is the manuscript. Siniaticus, which is the primary Greek manuscript that our Bibles are based on is fourth century. The King James is based on 3 manuscripts that came from the eleventh century. Now if there was nothing else to decide, which one would you trust? A copy that was 400 years after the fact, or something that was over 1000 years after the fact? So they tend to look at the older manuscripts because they are closer to the event and can be trusted more. It’s a very complicated field, and I just wanted to give you a snippet of it.

Current Situation

What is our current situation when it comes to all of this? Let me give you three things. (1) We have a little over 5000 Greek manuscript of the New Testament, none of the autographs, but over 5000. That’s an amazing number of manuscripts. We also have thousands of translations in other languages. For a lot of the ancient works of history, like Caesars Gallic Wars, there are only three copies of it extant. And so you have three Latin manuscripts to try to figure out what Caesar wrote. But with the Bible you have over 5000. That’s really quite remarkable. We have a lot of data to draw from.

(2) 99% of the text is sure. I don’t want you to think that with these differences, that there are huge chunks of the Bible that we are not sure about. 99% of the text is set. (3) That final 1% where we’re just not absolutely sure, contains no important biblical teaching. A lot of the things that we don’t know for sure are how you spell things. There are seven spellings for the pool of Bethesda, there are five spellings for the Gadarene demoniac. You just can’t tell. There is a lot of. But the atonement the cross, salvation—none of these things are brought into question at all by differences among the Greek manuscripts.

Textual problems and inspiration

Finally, here is one note on inspiration: If you notice in our statement of faith, it says that our doctrine of inspiration only applies to the autographs—you can’t apply the doctrine of inspiration to the copies because they are so different. I have been told that there are 150,000 places where they are different. I suspect that that number is too high, but that’s the number that is passed around a lot and I have better things to do with my life than count. We know that there are differences, so the doctrine of inspiration is applied to the autographs. Now you may meet some that people say, “If we don’t have these autographs its not even worth while to talk about the doctrine of inspiration. If all that we have are copies, then inspiration is passé. We don’t even need to talk about it.” I think the response is that text critics have done their work really well. And while there is that 1% we just aren’t sure of, the 99% is absolutely set, and there’s no (at least in the academic community) question that 99% of the text is accurate and it is trustworthy. Are there any comments or questions on that?


Student Question: “When they found the Dead Sea Scrolls, were those just copies that they found?”

Response: “Yes, the Dead Sea Scrolls were all Jewish, so they are copies of Old Testament books, none of the New Testament. The neat thing with the Dead Sea Scrolls is that the other Hebrew manuscripts that we have go back to about 800 AD or so, and there was always a lingering doubt as to how well the Jewish scribes copied the Old Testament. Here we dug up a scroll of Isaiah that was 800 years earlier, and compared it to the Hebrew texts of Isaiah that we use and they are almost identical. And so we have a lot of assurance that the copying process of the Old Testament was done reliably. (That doesn’t affect the New Testament though).

Student Question: In translating the Bible into other languages, like a Swedish Bible or a French Bible, do they use the Greek copies the same as we do in English?”

Response: “Yes, I am sure that all of those go back to the Greek and Hebrew. There is a standard Greek text called Nestle and Aland United Bible Societies—they have come to an agreement. It was done by a group by about five unbelievable scholars, the people its scary to be around, I mean these guys are really smart.

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