Matthew 5:17-18 “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. 18 For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished.” (NASB)
Matthew 5:17-18 “Μὴ νομίσητε ὅτι ἦλθον καταλῦσαι τὸν νόμον ἢ τοὺς προφήτας· οὐκ ἦλθον καταλῦσαι ἀλλὰ πληρῶσαι· 18 ἀμὴν γὰρ λέγω ὑμῖν, ἕως ἂν παρέλθῃ ὁ οὐρανὸς καὶ ἡ γῆ, ἰῶτα ἓν ἢ μία κεραία οὐ μὴ παρέλθῃ ἀπὸ τοῦ νόμου, ἕως ἂν πάντα γένηται.”
Introduction: The words that are my life Hostile critics of virtually every age have attempted to discredit the Hebrew/Aramaic and Greek manuscripts, translations and versions as having little or no connection to the original autographs or manuscripts that left the hands of the apostles and prophets. As a pastor, I am constantly pouring over the text repeatedly, prayerfully and studiously asking the following questions: What is it saying? What does it mean? Where is Christ in this text? And how do I apply it to my life? Whether exercising in the discipline of textual criticism, or consulting commentaries – the words of the Bible are my life, because they connect me to the life, voice and Person of Jesus Christ. Spiritual and physical life hang upon whether the words before me are words of God or words of men. For those readers to whom it may be important, I have included in the end notes of today’s post a brief summary of my experience and academic credentials in these areas – the credit going to God alone.(1)
With the above introduction, I offer eight reasons as to why you can believe and trust that the English version or translation you are studying, reading or applying is the words of God, in as much as they faithfully represent the words penned by the prophets and the apostles under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
1. Jesus says so. In the text above, Jesus is asserting that not one “jot” or “tittle” or “smallest letter” or “least stroke of the men” shall pass away. Those statements refer to the characteristics of the Hebrew manuscripts of the Old Testament. Let the reader note just how small of differences there are between the letters in Jesus’ illustration:
a. The jot or “smallest” Hebrew letter being the “yod” (י)
b. The “smallest stroke” being the little tale distinguishing the “daleth” (ד) (the ‘d’ sound in the Hebrew) and the caph (ך) (the ‘k’ sound in Hebrew).
Jesus’ statement is fascinating due to the fact that He and the apostles would had been utilizing the Greek translation of the Old Testament (The Septuagint) rather than the Hebrew. The Hebrew manuscripts of the Old Testament were used mainly by the Scribes and Pharisees in the first century. Jesus’ comments referred to those copies (and of course the Greek translation, the Septuagint). Thus according to Jesus, there was no essential loss of God’s words or message from the original autographs of the original Hebrew/Aramaic texts to the Greek translations. Differences in the manuscripts – yes. Loss of God’s words and meaning no. As we carry forward in this post, the reader will get a chance to see more specifically what I mean by such statements. Clearly Jesus taught that the words in the manuscripts He had access to were reliable and faithful to what would had been the wording of the original text.
2. Dead Sea Scrolls. For the Hebrew Bible, the oldest manuscripts that had been known up until 1947 were documents such as the Aleppo Codex and Leningrad Codex of the early Medieval period. In 1947 the world of scholarship was historically altered when a shepherd boy hunting for some goats through a rock into a cave and heard a shattering of pottery. To the shock of the scholarly community, that cave, located in the vicinity of the Dead Sea, contained well preserved documents of the ancient Qumran Jewish community. For the next several years, 11 such caves would yield a treasure trove of manuscripts and copies of every Old Testament book (except Esther). Chief among them is the famous “Isaiah Scroll”, which upon close inspection was discovered to be within 95% agreement with manuscripts such as the Leningrad Codex, despite the fact that both are separated by some ten centuries! A specific example is comparing Isaiah 53 between the Dead Sea Scroll manuscript (1QIsaa) and the Masoretic Texts of the early Medieval period.(2) Clearly the preservation of God’s words made it through a thousand years of time.
3. The overall agreement between the copies and translations of the Old Testament. Whenever one studies the Septuagint (LXX), the Hebrew Masoretic text, the Samaritan Pentateuch and Aramaic Targums, the discovery is made that in cross comparison situations there is virtually over 95% agreement. In Old Testament textual criticism, the bulk of issues surround solving differences of harmonization. Having studies Hebrew for some twenty years, I can tell the reader first hand that when one studies the literature, the texts themselves and compares with English translations sold in today’s bookstores, there are no worries.
4. The overall agreement between the copies and translations of the New Testament. In the world of New Testament textual criticism, one finds even stronger agreement. In typical comparative studies of ancient documents, if one can attain even 90% agreement between manuscripts and find dozens of such documents for a given writing, there is a general good feeling about the reliability and preservation of the writing of that philosopher or sage. In the case of the Old Testament we have roughly over 3,000 manuscripts examples of the Hebrew text alone, and somewhere in the neighborhood of 95% agreement. In the case of the Greek New Testament and its ancient versional witnesses, we have roughly 15-20,000 examples (with nearly 5700 Greek manuscripts stretching from the 2nd century all the way into the post-reformation period). Furthermore, even between a manuscript such as Codex Siniaticus (325 A.D), which is considered part of the older Alexandrian textual tradition, versus, say Erasmus’ Greek New Testament, based upon available Byzantine Greek manuscripts of the middle ages, there is only 2% difference.
The differences and variations between the thousands of Greek manuscripts (5688 as of this writings) are expected for hand-copied texts. However through the science of textual criticism, we can determine well within 99% certainty what the original text looked like. Furthermore, not one doctrine of Christianity is compromised or altered. Hence we can say with conviction that the Bibles we have today carry the authority of infallibility and inerrancy that would had been the original autographs.
5. God cannot lie, which is why we state that the original manuscripts were without error. This point is important, being that whenever we say a document is God’s word, we are saying every word, and every part of that document is always true and trustworthy (stating of inerrancy and infallibility in positive senses). (Titus 1:2) You cannot derive reliable, trustworthy copies from error laden originals. Too often hostile critics point out the variants in manuscript copies as proof that the original texts had to had been error filled themselves. However their hasty generalization lies in the fact that those differences derive not from the original sources, but the process of copying itself. Furthermore, variants of spelling and word order do not equal factual and reporting error on matters of history, personages or general scientific facts. Would not the textual stream of both Old and New Testament reflect far less stability if that were the case? The remarkable stability of the textual streams of Old and New Testaments in comparison to other documents of antiquity demonstrate that the source documents were indeed reliable and without error. Again I point the reader back to point one and in how Jesus Himself treated the copies of the scripture in His day.
6. The early church fathers deemed the Bible’s of their day to be the words of God, and were keenly aware of the variants in the manuscripts.
Here is a demonstration of how the historic Christian Church from the very beginning has held to the flawless character of the scriptures (i.e inerrancy) as rooted in the flawless character of God who cannot lie:
1. Clement of Rome: “The utterances of the Holy Ghost” (95 A.D)
2. Clement of Alexandria “Receive from God through the scriptures” (150-211 A.D)
3. Origien notes that the authorship of the Holy Spirit precludes mistakes of the human authors (185-250)
4. Irenaeus “Scripture is the perfection of God’s words” (200 A.D)
5. Polycarp “Scripture is the voice of the most high God” (65-155 A.D)
6. Tertullian “writings and words of God” (160-225 A.D)
7. Samuel Rutherford “Bible is surer than a direct oracle from heaven” (1600-1661)
8. Luther notes that the “scriptures are the throne upon which Christ presides over His church” (16th century)
9. Richard Baxter (1615-1691); Calvin (1483-1546); Knox (1509-1564); Wesley (1714-1770) all affirm this doctrine.
Many of the above church fathers have notes in their commentaries where they cite knowledge of different readings and the process they undertook to determine which words were most likely the original. Having personally read many of their writings, it is very interesting that these men arrive at the conclusion that not one word of God has been lost in the 1500 year hand-copied transmission history of the New Testament (or the even longer transmission history of the Old Testament).
7. The manuscripts of the Old and New Testaments have a paper trail to trace back which readings are most likely original vs which one’s had been possibly introduced by earlier scribes
It can be asserted by this blog author that whether looking at a Hebrew manuscript or a Greek New Testament document, that numerous notes are found in the margins whereby we can trace the previous copiers of that document. In the critical editions of the Hebrew Bible that I own, there are marginal notes called “qere” (that which should be read) and ketiv (that which should be written) that are given when the scribes were not certain of pronounciation or spelling. The scribes of the Hebrew manuscripts chose to include all variants so that future generations could do the work of textual criticism and arrive at the proper understanding of which was the most likely reading.
In the New Testament manuscripts we see much the same phenomena. In manuscripts such as Siniaticus and Vaticanus (early 4th century) and others, we have different markings, scribal notations, and a system of identifying which scribe was the first to copy, the second, the third and so on (called in the literature an “aleph scribe”, 2nd or “b” scribe and 3rd of “c” scribe and so on). In critical editions of the Greek New Testament, such as the Nestle Aland 28th edition, the reader can consult appendices where all of these minute and voluminous details are spelled out. Furthermore, with efforts being done right now to digitize every Greek manuscript and fragment by organizations such as the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts, readers all over the world can see the evidence for themselves.
Keeping all of these details in their proper perspective can enable specialists and non-specialists alike to avoid the extreme skepticism of those scholars that doubt the reliability of the Bible. Paper trails, whether in the world of banking, housing or Biblical studies gives evidence and proof of authenticity and reliability of the documentation. Even within the manuscripts themselves, as time went forward, the knowledge of variants between the manuscripts prompted scribes to preserve all of them. Why? To have a paper trail and to assert the belief that not one of God’s words had been lost in the copying process.
8. Not one of God’s words have been lost
It has been estimated that in the citations of the church father’s alone we have over a million words of New Testament text quoted. Furthermore, with the thousands upon thousands of manuscripts, copies and translations in existence (and still being discovered!), the fact of the popularly cited statistic of over 200,000 variations between the manuscripts is not seen to be as big of a deal in comparison to the total amount of combined pages and folio leaves of manuscripts with which we have to work. Whether in the Old or New Testament, we certainly are always aiming to get back and recreate as closely as possible the original autographs of the Old and New Testament.
However in reflecting upon these thoughts, it is comforting to know that in surveying the entire textual history of the Bible, the reader can rest assured that among the oceans of variants, therein lies every word of God and meaning. As scholar Dr. Wayne Grudem has noted in His Systematic Theology: “For most practical purposes, then, the current published scholarly texts of the Hebrew Old Testament and Greek New Testament are the same as the original manuscripts. Thus, when we say that the original manuscripts were inerrant, we are also implying that over 99 percent of the words in our present
manuscripts are also inerrant, for they are exact copies of the originals. Furthermore,
we know where the uncertain readings are (for where there are no textual variants we
have no reason to expect faulty copying of the original).”(3)
Conclusion: It is the hope of this blogger that the above post has proven encouraging and useful to the reader in understanding that the Bibles we have today can still be deemed the word(s) of God. Furthermore, knowing the status of the long transmission history of the Old and New Testament, this author can say with full confidence that the Bibles was have today carry with them the authority of being the inerrant and infallible word of God. They do not merely contain the words of God, but are so. With whatever variations there are among the manuscripts, such differences bow their proverbial knees to the Christ of whom the words that God has seen fit to preserve down to our generation speaks forth and clearly portrays.
(1) For readers who must know, by the grace of God I obtained a Bachelors of Science in Bible from Lancaster Bible College in 1996 and a Master of Arts in Christian Thought from Biblical Theological Seminary in 2002. I was taught two years of Greek and one formal year of Hebrew during my time at Lancaster Bible College. For over twenty years I have weekly engaged in the study of the Bible in both its original language and English translations and versions. I have attempted to read and study virtually every Greek and Hebrew Grammar that has been published in the past twenty years to maintain the competency required for working with the Hebrew and Greek Texts in sermon preparation, site reading and textual criticism.
(2) Isaiah 53 in the Hebrew text has roughly 200 words, with only 17 variations, mainly in stylistic and spelling differences, from what is scene in the Dead Sea Scroll version of Isaiah 53. The reader must remember that both manuscripts are 1,000 years apart!
(3) Dr. Wayne Grudem. Systematic Theology. Zondervan. 1994.