How Do We Know the Text of Our Bibles is Right?

When I spent time serving as a camp counselor, I remember getting several versions of this question: how do we know that the text of our Bibles are right? And it’s a sensible question. After all, we’re talking about writings that were written thousands and thousands of years ago in ancient languages. How could we possibly be sure that the Bibles we hold in our hand, whether ESV, NIV, or something else, are accurate and trustworthy?

The Original Greek and Hebrew

Most Christians (hopefully) know that the writings gathered together into the Bible were not originally composed in English. Instead, the writings in the New Testament were composed in Greek, and the writings in the Old Testament were for the most part composed in Hebrew (with some small sections in Aramaic as well, a language closely related to Hebrew).

It can certainly be frustrating that writings as important to us as the scriptures are not composed in a language that most of us can actually read and understand.

While I’ve written elsewhere on the importance of reading the Bible in the original languages, I want to say that most of our English translations generally do a pretty good job. They do make decisions for us, but they are generally not obscuring something that is hidden to the mere mortals who are unable to read Greek and Hebrew.

Of course, the Greek and Hebrew still matter. For example, it’s helpful to remember that sometimes a passage is challenging in English because it’s just as if not more challenging in the Greek or Hebrew. This is why many pastors are trained at least to some degree with Greek and Hebrew. Some are better with their languages than others, and that’s okay. But this is part of a pastor’s job (among a billion other things): to be the resident Bible-guy for your congregation. Not only that, but this is why we also have biblical scholars whose job it is to study the scriptures in depth in their original languages.

The point of all this is to say that the meaning of the original Greek and Hebrew are not at all lost to us. If you’re not acquainted with studying ancient languages, it may seem strange that we are actually able to understand texts written by people from thousands and thousands of years ago. But this is exactly what many people do for a living and they are a blessing to the church. In fact, generally speaking, we probably now have more knowledge about how the biblical forms of the languages of the scriptures worked than any time in history. That’s pretty cool.

The Wonderful World of Textual Criticism

At this point you may be saying, well okay, so we can understand the original Greek and Hebrew texts, but aren’t there multiple manuscripts that don’t always agree with each other? How do we know which manuscripts are right?

Well, I’m glad you asked.

This is a question about what’s called “textual criticism.” Now, textual criticism is not criticizing texts, like saying they’re bad or something like that. Textual criticism is a discipline that seeks to reconstruct what the original text of a particular document most likely said. This is something that has to be done with nearly all old texts.

This is because we often do not have the original writings (aka the “autographs”). We only have copies of copies of the original writings made by hand. And of course when human beings are doing something as detailed as this by hand, mistakes (and other things) happen.

So, since all the copies don’t match, we have to carefully compare all of the copies that we do have and then make decisions about what we think the original text said. In this way we can begin to reconstruct what the original copies (the autographs) of the various writings that make up the Bible said.

Now, before we (briefly) explore the amazing world of biblical textual criticism, I should say that this is a field that gets extremely deep extremely fast. This is going to be an extremely bare bones explanation of textual criticism. I’ll provide references for further reading below, if you’re into that sort of thing.

So, if you wanted to know something about what the original text of the NT or OT says and what some of the variants are, you would go to what is called a critical edition. This is an edition of a text that has been put together by experts who have made decisions about what they think the best readings are. They also provide extensive footnotes that explain what the major variants are and which manuscripts contain which variants.

Let’s look at an example from the end of the Gospel according to Luke:

52And aafter worshipping hima, they returned to Jerusalem with greatb joy 53and they were continuously cin the templec blessingd Gode.”

So these two verses have five variants noted in the major critical edition of the NT: Nestle-Aland’s Novum Testamentum Graece ed. 28 (NA28). This will also give us a sense of what kinds of variants we’re normally talking about.

aa In several manuscripts the words translated “after worshipping him” are omitted.

b      In one manuscript the word translated here as “great” is omitted.

cc In one manuscript the words translated “in the temple” are omitted.

d     In some manuscripts this reads “praising” instead of “blessing.” In other manuscripts this reads “praising and blessing.”

e     In some manuscripts the word “amen” is added.

Exciting stuff, right?

In my opinion, this is a fairly representative sample of the overwhelming majority of textual variants in the OT and NT. Most variants are extremely minor. In fact, the vast majority of variants in manuscripts are accidental scribal errors or variations, i.e. misspellings, obvious additions or deletions, etc. Even the majority of notable variants that are included in a critical edition are fairly inconsequential. Here I picked a section of text that has a few more variants than normal. (Most verses have only one or no variants at all.) But even here, while there are 48 different ways you could read these verses based on what decisions you make about the variants, each reading is saying the same thing. Now, there are in fact some variants that are quite meaningful, but these variants are rather few and far between. In any case, there is no variant in the NT or OT that affects an article of faith.

Of course, there are variants that affect how we read individual writings, but this is not the kind of thing that should cause any Christian anxiety. That’s just not the state of the manuscript tradition.

A Quick Look: New Testament Textual Criticism

The state of textual criticism for the NT and the OT are very different, so it’s helpful to briefly discuss the differences. If this stuff is too detailed for you, then skip it. This is for the nerds.

The great blessing and curse of NT textual criticism is that there are so many manuscripts available. Depending on how you count them, there are tens of thousands of manuscripts. This is great because NT textual critics have so much data available to them, much of it very early. However, it also means that there is a giant mountain of data that has to be analyzed before any headway can be made.

Some of the earliest manuscripts that we have are from the early part of the 100s A.D., only a few decades after the writing of the NT documents. However, these manuscripts are fragmentary and complete manuscripts come a bit later. There are then various kinds of Greek manuscripts that come from various centuries and places. Of course, there are other witnesses of varying levels of importance. First of all there are manuscripts of ancient translations (e.g. Coptic, Latin, Armenian, Syriac). Many of these translations may be based on Greek texts that we no longer have, so they may provide us with helpful information. Other sources include the writings of the church fathers who quoted the NT extensively and ancient inscriptions of texts from the NT found in jewelry and the like.

A Quick Look: Old Testament Textual Criticism

OT textual criticism is more simple in some ways since there is less data to sift through, however this makes things harder and in some places more uncertain, since there is not nearly as much data as the NT. Secondly, the writings of the OT are much older and the gaps between the manuscripts we do have and the original writings are rather large in contrast to the NT.

The most important witness to the OT text is the Masoretic texts (MT). In fact, the text of a particular manuscript, the Leningrad Codex (c.1008 A.D.) forms the basis of the major modern critical edition of the OT, Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia (BHS). The Masoretes were a group of medieval Jews who meticulously preserved the text of the OT and even added the vowel markings that can be found in modern editions. (The way the Hebrew language works, vowels are very predictable, so traditionally only the consonants are written. Modern Hebrew still doesn’t write the vowels outside of special contexts.)

However, one of the main problems with this is that there is a gap of several thousand years between the compositions of these manuscripts and the original writings. Thankfully we also have other sources. Two of the most important sources are the Septuagint (LXX) and the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS) the second of these two was only discovered in the twentieth century.

The LXX is an ancient Greek translation of the OT that was produced between the 200s and 100s B.C. This text shows several differences from the MT, some of which may be caused from the process of translation (some sections of the LXX seem to have been translated rather freely), others may be the result of the LXX being based on a different Hebrew text than the MT.

The Dead Sea Scrolls (also referred to as the Qumran writings) are a set of Hebrew manuscripts discovered in the early twentieth century in caves near the Dead Sea. There is a wide variety of manuscripts among the Dead Sea Scrolls, but a good portion of these are OT manuscripts. They date anywhere between 250 B.C. and 100 A.D. These are very important witnesses to the OT text and in some ways demonstrate that the MT is fairly reliable and in other ways lends credence to the variant readings found in the LXX.

Other minor sources include the Samaritan Pentateuch (Hebrew), the Targums (Aramaic), and other ancient translations (Latin, Syriac, Coptic, etc.).

Even though there is far less data available for the OT, we are in a position now where we have more data available to us than ever before. And if further discoveries like the Dead Sea Scrolls are made in the future, then it is possible that we will have even more data to work with in the future.

How Do You Know Which Variant is Right?

So all of this leads to the question of how we actually make decisions about all of this data. In individual cases this is often not hard, but in difficult cases it gets extremely complicated. In fact, currently there is a lot of debate about what the best methodology is for answering these questions. The advent of digitization and computer technology is allowing textual critics to do more with the data available to them than ever before.

But this is all way outside the scope of the initial question.

To keep it simple, the basic principle of textual criticism is to identify the reading that likely gave rise to the other readings. Of course, this is easier said than done.

Textual critics do a lot of studying the habits of scribes so that they can understand what kinds of things to expect.

For example, if the same word or phrase occurs twice relatively close together with some words in between them in a text that a scribe is copying, it’s not uncommon for scribes to accidentally skip over the words in between the two occurrences of the word or phrase. This is because when they look back up from writing, their eye goes back to the word they stopped at. If it’s repeated, they may go with the later occurrence and thereby skip over a small section of the text.

Suffice it to say that while this is an extremely complicated task, there are good principles that textual critics follow to make decisions about these sorts of things. Additionally, the vast majority of textual variants are fairly easy to solve.


So, can you trust what’s in your Bible?

Yes. Yes, you can.

This is really the main point to take away from all this. This is a complicated area of biblical research that is unfortunately impenetrable to most Christians, even many/most pastors. It’s not uncommon to see doofuses and yahoos on the “History” Channel or the Atheist meme squads who will peddle all kinds of idiotic drivel, taking advantage of half-truths and half-baked theories. This is something that’s good to at least know something about so you can be able to make a defense for the reliability of the scriptures.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that everything is settled. Far from it. There are still open questions and debated issues. Some of these are quite important. However, instead of becoming anxious because we can’t be 100% certain of every single word in the scriptures, we can take comfort in the fact that while the scriptures are divine, they are also very human documents. They are written and preserved by human beings. This means that not everything is perfectly preserved, clear, or certain.

Of course, I don’t think that this should bother us at all. After all, God does not seem to think that this is an issue, otherwise he wouldn’t have decided to work in this way. We have a God who delights in using fallible and imperfect human beings to do his work. And in its own way, that’s an amazing thing.

See also: What Do We Really Mean by “Inerrancy”?
Mormonism, Islam, and Christianity: One of These Things is Not Like the Other
How NOT to Read the Bible Part 5: In English (Or at Least Be Careful)
The Ten-Book Bible Challenge


Image: Free-Photos CC0

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