I’m glad you’re joining me for the series about how to choose a version of the Bible to share with your family. You can read Part 1 here.
Today, we’re going to talk about the manuscripts that scholars use for their English translations.
You may not realize this, but even in its original language, archaeologists have never found the original copies of any of the books of the Bible.
Bible scholars believe that Jesus came when he did partly because the widespread use of the Greek language throughout ancient world allowed the Gospel to spread rapidly through the Middle East, Europe, and North Africa.
One of the ways the early church accomplished this was by making copies of the accounts of Jesus’ life and the letters apostles sent to churches. These writings allowed them to continue to study the teachings of Jesus even when Paul or Peter or someone else moved on to instruct the believers in another city.
Many of these copies have survived and are what scholars use as their basis for English translations of Scripture.
For a long time, the manuscripts used for their translations remained the same. This is one of the reasons (among others) that the King James Bible was used almost exclusively by English-speaking believers for centuries.
However, some more recent archaeological finds have blessed us with even more, and in some cases, much older copies of the Scriptures.
There is a somewhat widespread conspiracy theory surrounding a couple of manuscripts discovered in the 1800s. They are notably older than a lot of the manuscripts the church had been using up to that point, but they differed slightly.
Modern scholarship takes these differences into consideration when translating the Bible into English (and other languages), and also more recent discoveries, such as the Dead Sea Scrolls, and even other non-biblical texts that help us better understand how certain words were used and what they meant.
I don’t have time to delve into all the issues here, but if you’ve ever heard someone claim that modern translations of the Bible “take out” things that were in the KJV Bible, you’ve been exposed to this controversy. The issue isn’t one of translators intentionally removing things that are in the Bible, but trying to find the most accurate basis for their translation as possible.
If you really want to dig deeper into that particular issue, a great place to start is Gail Riplinger’s New Age Bible Versions, which clearly outlines all the arguments against modern translations, and James R White’s rebuttal to her arguments.
But I think most believers just want to know that the Bible they’re reading is reliable.
So here’s what you should know about Bible manuscripts:
Bible manuscripts are incredibly reliably preserved.
There are considerably more manuscripts of the Bible than of any other ancient text, and they are nearly identical to each other. In his book, The Case for Christ, author Lee Strobel quotes Dr. Bruce Metzger as saying:
“More than five thousand [New Testament manuscripts] have been cataloged…. The quantity of New Testament material is almost embarrassing in comparison with other works of antiquity…. Next to the New Testament, the greatest amount of manuscript testimony is Homer’s Illiad, which was the Bible of the ancient Greeks. There are fewer than 650 manuscripts of it today.”
And more than any other ancient source, the words of ancient Bible manuscripts agree with one another. Most textual variations are spelling differences that aren’t even able to be reflected in English.
And that brings me to my other important point.
Check your footnotes
Any time there are significant differences in what manuscripts say, almost all versions of the Bible have a footnote that lets you know how a verse might read instead. So if you’re looking at your footnotes, I promise, you won’t be led astray.
Now, once translators have the ancient manuscripts, they still have to figure out how to best communicate in modern English what was written 2,000 year ago or more in a different language. And there are a couple different ways they approach this.
But we’ll talk about that next week.