Textual Transmission in High Gear

This post was prompted by some comments a friend recently posted on Facebook. I am not sure this will address her specific concerns, but her comments were similar to objections that are often raised against the reliability of the Bible. One thing she said was that she couldn’t trust every word of the Bible because it has been translated too many times and too much is missing. While I don’t know what she thinks the number of translations have to do with the reliability of the text, it is commonly believed that the transmission of the text from the original to the present was like a game of telephone. You may know this as the game where a group of people forms a line and the first person in line whispers a message in the ear of the next, and so on down the line until the last person gets the message. When the message the last person gets is compared to the original, it bears little resemblance. Likewise, it is thought that the authors of the books of the Bible wrote their autographs, which were then translated into another language, and then another, and so on until we get our English Bibles. In fact however, the transmission of the Old and New Testaments was nothing like the telephone game.

While it is true that the original documents, called autographs, are lost to us, we have good reason to believe that what we do have is a reliable copy of what they wrote.

 

OT Hebrew Texts

The writers of the Old Testament, also known as the Hebrew Scriptures, or the Tanakh, wrote in Hebrew, except for some portions of Daniel, which were written in Aramaic. The Pentateuch, or Torah, which contained the first five books, was written around 1400 BC. The last of the OT books, 2 Chronicles, was probably written around 450 BC. While the number of available manuscripts (handwritten copies) is much fewer than that of the NT, this is because of the meticulous approach Jewish scribes took to textual transmission. When a scroll became worn out, it was copied with great care and then destroyed. This is not to say that there are not ancient copies, however. Until 1948 the oldest extant copies were Masoretic manuscripts dating to about 900 AD. With the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, copies were found dating to about 100 BC. Where complete books were found, the differences were few and inconsequential. Moreover, support for the reliability of the Masoretic text can be found in an ancient translation. As Geisler and Nix point out,

Perhaps the best line of evidence to support the integrity of the Masoretic Text comes from the Greek translation of the Old Testament known as the Septuagint (LXX). This work was performed during the third and second centuries BCE in Alexandria, Egypt. For the most part it was almost a book-by-book, chapter-by-chapter reproduction of the MT, containing common stylistic and idiomatic differences. Furthermore, the LXX was the Bible of Jesus and the apostles, and most New Testament quotations are taken from it directly.[1]

English Bibles are translated from their original languages. While the translation committees, to better see how a particular passage was understood by other cultures, use ancient translations, there is no case in which the English translation is the end of a chain of previous translations. The same can be said of the New Testament.

Koine Greek was the language of first century Roman world.

There have been some skeptics who have suggested that the New Testament documents were not written until the second or third century AD. However, the very language of the manuscripts argues against this.

The basic language of the New Testament, however, was Greek. Until the late nineteenth century, New Testament Greek was believed to be a special “Holy Ghost” language, but since that time it has come to be identified as one of the five stages in the development of Greek itself. This koine Greek was the most widely known language throughout the world of the first century.[2]
What this means is that to suggest the NT documents were written 100-200 years after the fact is like saying Shakespeare’s works were not written until the 1800’s. It implies an attempt to deliberately deceive the reader by using an archaic language style.

NT Greek Texts

            Further support for the reliability of the NT documents comes from the number of available manuscripts. These include those in Greek as well as some of the earliest translations, known as versions. “The wealth of material that is available for determining the wording of the original New Testament is staggering: more than fifty-seven hundred Greek New Testament manuscripts, as many as twenty thousand versions, and more than one million quotations by patristic writers.”[3]

As noted above, in addition to the manuscripts, the NT documents can be reconstructed from quotations from the early Church Fathers. “Not only did the early Fathers cite all twenty-seven books of the New Testament, they also quoted virtually all of the verses in all of these twenty-seven books. Five Fathers alone from Irenaeus to Eusebius possess almost 36,000 quotations from the New Testament.”[4] With such a wealth of sources, relying on a chain or translations is not only unnecessary, it would be frivolous. Moreover, if such a method had been employed, any scholar of Greek or Hebrew would have the resources to check its accuracy from the ancient sources.[5]

With respect to the “missing” parts, again I am not sure of what my friend was referring to, but there are some who think there must be missing books, or “lost books” of the Bible. I will address this by summarizing an argument put forth by Greg Koukl.[6] Views of just what the Bible is can be boiled down to two: it is either divine revelation, inspired and preserved by God, or it is a collection of literature that reflect the beliefs of the Christian Church. If some books are excluded from the canon (the authoritative list) it is either because God did not inspire or preserve their inclusion, or the Christian Church rejected them because they did not reflect their beliefs. In either case, there are no lost or missing books.

While I have offered no arguments here that the Bible is inspired or inerrant, I have shown that inspiration or inerrancy is not undermined by the textual transmission.

[1]
Norman L. Geisler and William E. Nix, From God to Us: How We Got Our Bible (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2012), 198-99.

[2] Ibid., 166

[3] J. Ed Komoszewski, Reinventing Jesus (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2006), 82, quoted in Jonathan Morrow, Questioning the Bible: 11 Major Challenges to the Bible’s Authority (Chicago: Moody, 2014), 96.

[4] Geisler, 217.

[5] For more information on New Testament manuscripts, see www.csntm.org

[6] http://www.str.org/articles/no-lost-books-of-the-bible#.VXXjklxVhBc

Author: apologeticsminion

Daniel has an MA in Christian Apologetics from Biola University. He is married and has four grown children. Professionally, Daniel is a sign language interpreter.

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