The Text of the Bible

By Johnny Stringer

Men today do not have the original Biblical manuscripts which were written by the inspired men. We have copies of those originals, and it is from those copies that the Bible is translated into English and other current languages. Since the printing press was not invented until many centuries after the completion of the scriptures, the copies had to be made by hand. Consequently, it has been charged that these copies have been so corrupted by the errors of the copyist that it is impossible to determine God’s original message to man.

This charge is one of those rash charges made by people who feel quite free to speak authoritatively upon subjects which they have not thoroughly investigated. Those who make this charge have not investigated the subject enough to be aware that they are setting their own uninformed minds in opposition to the finest, most reputable scholars who have diligently studied the question.

Those who believe that the manuscripts of the Bible which we have today have been hopelessly corrupted so that it is impossible to learn God’s will from them do not have much faith in God and His providence. Is it reasonable to think that God would put forth all the effort of giving a revelation to man, only to let that revelation become hopelessly corrupt and useless within just a few years? It should be obvious to anyone who has faith in the omnipotent God of the Bible that if God was interested in man enough to give the revelation in the first place, then He was interested in man enough to preserve that revelation so that man could benefit from it. Those with faith in God will believe Peter’s assuring promise, “But the word of the Lord endureth for ever” (1 Pet. 1:25).

Scholars who have studied the matter agree that we have substantially the words of God as they were revealed from heaven. One of the most outstanding scholars of recent years was Dr. Edward J. Young. In his work, Thy Word Is Truth, he said, “Are these copies, however, hopelessly corrupt? For our part, we are convinced that they are not. W e believe that the Bible which we have is accurate and that it is a remarkably close approximation to the original manuscripts” (p. 57). Young further affirms, “One cannot but exclaim, after having spent much time in a study of the Hebrew text-and, of course, the same is true of the manuscripts of the New Testament-that these manuscripts have been preserved by the singular care and providence of God” (p. 58).

But what about copyists’ errors? Surely, in almost anything that is copied the possibility of error is present, and there are copyists’ errors in Biblical manuscripts. Textual critics, however, through studying and comparing the many manuscripts and ancient versions which we have, are able to arrive at what was essentially the original words. In his work, Thy Word Is Truth, Young illustrates the matter as follows:

Suppose that a schoolteacher writes a letter to the President of the United States. To her great joy she receives a personal reply. It is a treasure which she must share with her pupils and so she dictates the letter to them. They are in the early days of their schooling, and spelling is not yet one of their strong points. In his copy of the letter Johnny has misspelled a few words. Mary has forgotten to cross her t’s and to dot her Is. Billy has written one or two words twice, and Peter has omitted a word now and then. Nevertheless, despite all these flaws about thirty copies of the President’s letter have been made. Unfortunately, the teacher misplaces the original and cannot find it. To her great sorrow it is gone. She does not have the copy which came directly from the President’s pen; she must be content with those that the children have made.

Will anyone deny that she has the words of the President? Does she not have his message, in lust those words In which he wrote it to her? True enough, there are some minor mistakes in the letters, but the teacher may engage in the science of textual criticism and correct them. She may correct the misspelled words, and she may write in those words which have been omitted and cross out those which are superfluous. Without any serious difficulty she may indeed restore the original (p. 57).

To those who are disturbed that we do not have the original copies of the books of the Bible, it should be noted that we do not have the original copies of Shakespeare’s writing or of most other literary works. Textual critics must study and compare early editions of Shakespeare’s works in order to arrive at what was the original text. Due to the thousands of New Testament manuscripts we have, with some of them dating back to the second and third centuries, it is possible to be very certain about the correct reading of the New Testament text.

In fact, there is much more evidence for the integrity of our New Testament text than there is for the integrity of our texts for other writings. One of the world’s foremost scholars, Dr. F. F. Bruce, in his work, The Books and the Parchments, said, “There is no body of ancient literature in the world which enjoys such a wealth of good textual attestation as the New ` Testament” (p. 178). In citing evidence for this statement, Bruce observes that the earliest useful manuscripts which we have of Herodotus and Thucydides are over 1300 years later than the originals. Additionally, he points out that, although Caesar’s Gallic Wars was written around 50 B.C., the oldest manuscript which we have of that work is around 900 years later than Caesar’s day (p. 180). After mentioning the writings of a number of ancients, such as Herodotus, Thucydides, and Homer, he affirms, “But the textual evidence for the New Testament is abundant beyond all comparison with these other works. The number of extant manuscripts of all or part of the Greek New Testament runs to about 5,000. If the very number of manuscripts increases the total of scribal corruptions, it supplies at the same time the means of checking them” (p. 181).

In concluding his discussion of the New Testament text, Bruce said,

Our century has seen no greater authority in this field of New Testament textual criticism than Sir Frederic Kenyon, who died in August, 1952, and we may take his words to heart with confidence: “It 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 con. viction that we have In our hands, in substantial integrity, the veritable Word of God.” And again: “The interval then be. tween the dates of original composition and the earliest extant evidence becomes so small as to be in fact negligible, and the last foundation for any doubt that the Scriptures have come down to us substantially as they were written has now been removed. Both the authenticity and the general integrity of the books of the New Testament may be regarded as finally established” (pp. 189-190).

There are certainly some variations among the many different manuscripts of the New Testament scriptures, but the variations are mainly insignificant. The names that stand out among all the rest in the field of textual criticism (restoring the original text) are B. F. Wescott and F. J. A. Hort. Their years of intense and dedicated work led them to conclude that “the great bulk of the words of the New Testament stand above all discriminative processes of criticism, because they are free from variation, and need only to be transcribed.” Affirming that most of the variations that exist are trivial and insignificant, and that the evidence is such that the correct reading can usually be ascertained, they say, ` f comparative trivialities such as changes or order, the insertion or omission of the article with proper names, and the like, are set aside, the words in our opinion still subject to doubt can hardly amount to more than a thousandth part of the whole New Testament” (The New Testament in the Original Greek, pp. 564-565). Similarly, B. B. Warfield declared, “The great mass of the New Testament, in ther words, has been transmitted to us with no, or next to no variations.”

Regarding the Old Testament, it should be pointed out that Jesus and the inspired writers of the New Testament quoted it as being the word of God. Although they did not possess the original manuscripts, they obviously considered the text which they had in the first century, although it was derived from copies, to constitute, in substance, the word of God as it was revealed from heaven. Thus, the text of the Old Testament had not been hopelessly corrupted by the first century. But was it corrupted during the centuries after the first century? No. Scholars agree that it was faithfully transmitted from the first century on by Jews whose reverence for the scripture led them to take great pains to safeguard the purity of the Old Testament text. Using the copies available to them, Jewish scholars produced a standard text around A. I). 100. Succeeding generations of editors, called Masoretes, copies this text and affixed to it many signs to guide readers in the proper enunciation of words. They devised a complicated system of safeguards to prevent errors in coping. These safeguards included counting the number of times each letter of the alphabet occurs in each book pointing out the middle letter of the Hebrew scriptures, and other such measures. Scholars agree that they were successful in preserving the text of the Old Testament.

It is fitting to conclude this article with some remarks o the renowned scholar, Dr. Edward J. Young:

These copies, however, do give the actual word of God. No point of doctrine has been affected. The doctrine shines before us 1n all its purity. Why God was not pleased to preserve the original copies of the Bible, we do not know. Perhaps, In His infinite wisdom, He did not wish us to bow down to these manuscripts as unto images. Perhaps their preservation would have directed towards them veneration as reties and would have deflected one’s attention from their message. One thing is clear. In His mysterious providence, God has preserved His Word. We do not have a Bible which Is unreliable and glutted with error, bat one that in most wondrous fashion presents the Word of God and the teat of the original (Thy Word Is Truth, p. 61).

Truth Magazine XXI: 30, pp. 476-478
August 4, 1977