One of my best friends from my days in college is here with his family today, and I hope you get a chance to meet them. This May will mark 20 years since I graduated from college, and things have changed so much for students not only on those two decades, but also in the 10 years since I taught in college. I remember the frustration of typing papers on my portable typewriter, and thought I had reached the big time when I got a Commodore 64 computer (which had far less firepower than my cell phone!).
But even with modern word processing programs, there are still plenty of mistakes in my articles and sermons. Spellchecker doesn’t recognize when I meant to write “form” instead of “from,” or “there” instead of “their,” and hundreds of other similar errors.
Wherever human beings are involved there are going to be mistakes, no matter how advanced the technology is.
When the printing press was invented it sparked a revolution in education and the progress of civilization, especially in the printing of the Bible. But the printing press was only as perfect as the printers using it, and sometimes they made hilarious mistakes, which have been given nicknames:
“Wicked Bible” – 1631
Omitted the word “not” from Exodus 20:14, making the seventh commandment read “Thou shalt commit adultery.”
“Sin On Bible” - 1716
In John 8:11 Has Jesus telling the woman caught in adultery to “Go and sin on more”
“Vinegar Bible” - 1717
The chapter heading for Luke 20 reads “The Parable of the Vinegar” instead of “The Parable of the Vineyard.”
“The Fools Bible” – 1763
In this edition Psalm 14:1 reads “the fool hath said in his heart there is a God.” The printers were fined three thousand pounds and all copies ordered destroyed.
“Ears To Ear Bible” - 1810
The letter H was left out in this edition of Matthew 13:43: “Who has ears to ear, let him hear.”
“Owl Bible” – 1944
A glitch with the letter N made 1 Peter 3:5 read, “For after this manner in the old time the holy women also, who trusted God, adorned themselves, being in subjection to their owl husbands.”
These mistakes make you sympathize with the “Printers Bible” – 1702
Psalm 119:161 reads “Printers have persecuted me without cause.”
But what if there were serious changes in the Bible, made very early in the history of the copying of the text of Scripture, not made accidentally but intentionally?
This is one of the central allegations of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. As one of his characters says: “The Bible is a product of man, my dear. Not of God. The Bible did not fall magically from the clouds. Man created it as a historical record of tumultuous times, and it has evolved through countless translations, additions, and revisions. History has never had a definitive version of the book.”
It is one thing for a novelist to make these kinds of claims. But when an expert in the field of the history of the manuscript copies of the NT makes a similar claim, it is time to take notice. In 2006, just such a scholar, Dr. Bart Erhman of UNC, published a book called Misquoting Jesus, and the basic thesis of the book is this: some of the words of the NT were intentionally changed by scribes to suit their particular theologicial view point. And his book was a surprise best seller for several weeks. In a nutshell, what Erhman believes is this:
In some instances, the very meaning of the text is at stake, depending on how one resolves a textual problem: Was Jesus an angry man [Mark 1.41]? Was he completely distraught in the face of death [Heb 2.8–9]? Did he tell his disciples that they could drink poison without being harmed [Mark 16.9–20]? Did he let an adulteress off the hook with nothing but a mild warning [John 7.53–8.11]? Is the doctrine of the Trinity explicitly taught in the New Testament [1 John 5.7–8]? Is Jesus actually called “the unique God” there [John 1.18]? Does the New Testament indicate that even the Son of God himself does not know when the end will come [Matt 24.36]? The questions go on and on, and all of them are related to how one resolves difficulties in the manuscript tradition as it has come down to us.
Two weeks ago I spoke with you about the historical reliability of the gospels, and showed that the gospels read like ancient history. In last week’s lesson we refuted to foolish belief that the gospel writers borrowed from pagan mythology. They wrote what they genuinely believed took place. But what if Dan Brown and Bart Erhman correct? What if what they wrote has been altered down through history.
To deal with this question, we are going to establish four basic facts:
-We do not have the original books of the NT.
-We do have thousands of copies of the NT.
-There are variations among these copies, but only 1% are significant.
-None of these variations affect vital faith or practice.
FACT #1 We Do Not Have the Original Books of the NT
We do not possess the actual handwritten original manuscript of Romans, or Matthew, or any other NT book. Sometimes these original manuscripts are called autographs, and they have long since disappeared.
An early church father named Tertullian wrote in the year AD 180 that Paul’s original letters to some churches still existed, but that is no longer the case. We do not have the first copies of these books either.
Since the books were written on scrolls made out of papyrus, an early form of paper, most of which simply suffered from the ravages of time (if you were like me this week searching for receipts to do your taxes at the last minute, you know how much damage even a few months can do to receipts!). And of course in some eras of early church history the Roman government banned these books and ordered them destroyed.
So we do not have the original 27 hand written copies of the NT. This is not a major newsflash; we all understand that what we have are copies of copies of copies. The only people who would disagree with this are people like the lady Walter told me about who heard him read a passage from the American Standard Version and rebuked him, saying that “if the KJV was good enough for the apostle Paul it was good enough for her.”
However we are blessed with …
#2 We Do Have Thousands of Copies of the NT
We have three different kinds of copies of the NT.
First of all, we have thousands of Greek manuscripts. While papyrus is fragile and easily destroyed, we nevertheless have 118 papyrus manuscripts of the NT. On the slide I have a picture of one of the earliest, a fragment of the gospel of John (John 18:31-33). At the time this was discovered, many liberal theologians believed that the fourth gospel was written much later in history, toward the end of the second century. When this fragment was found containing portions of Joh on the front and back that tiny slip of primitive paper destroyed a generation of liberal theories about John.
There are also 317 copies written on animal hide, in all capital letters, called uncials. And there are 2,877 copies written in a kind of cursive style, called minuscules.
On top of this, there are 2,433 copies of the Greek NT collected in what are called lectionaries. These were anthologies of various different verses put together for reading in public worship.
All together, currently there are 5,745 manuscript copies of the Greek NT.
Now that kind of number doesn’t mean much without some frame of reference. So to put those numbers in perspective, let me show you what we have in terms of copies of other ancient historical works. After all, we don’t have any original autographs of ancient works. We only have copies of copies. So pay attention to two things as we look at this list: how much time is elapsed between when the document was written versus when we have the first known copy; and how many copies do we have.
The Greek historian Heroditus lived and wrote about the year 450 BC. The earliest copies we have of his writings are dated 400 yrs from his lifetime, and there are only 75 copies.
The Roman historian Livy lived and wrote at the start of the first century (AD 17), and yet it isn’t until 400 yrs later that we have an existing copy of his work, and there are only 27 copies of it.
Tacitus and Suetonius were late first century / early second century historians, around the same time as the NT was written, and yet 650-700 years elapse between when they wrote the originals and the first copy we can find. There are only 3 copies of the work of Tacitus; Suetonius fared much better, over 200 copies, yet pales in comparison to the NT, which was written by the end of the first century, and as I said, we have one partial copy dated within 50 years, and a total of 5,745 copies.
There is a second line of manuscript evidence we have. At the same time as the NT was copied and circulated around the world it was translated into other languages. So there are early versions of the NT in Egypt, Syria, Rome, written in Coptic, Syriac, and Latin. There are between 15 and 20 thousand of these ancient versions (no one knows for sure because so many are yet to be cataloged).
And a third line of manuscript evidence we have comes from early Christian writers who quoted the NT in their sermons, commentaries and other writings. There are over a million of these quotations, and if every one of the 5700 Greek manuscripts had been destroyed, if none of the thousands of ancient versions had ever been written, you could reproduce the entire NT (with the exception of about a dozen verses) just from the writings of these early believers.
There is no ancient document that comes close to the preservation of the NT. Not in the sheer number of copies; not in the early date of the copies. This is not a blind leap of faith; this is a simple historical fact.
However, with this embarrassment of riches of so many copies of the NT, there is a problem. And that is there are differences among these copies, and the more copies means the more variants. So that leads me to point 3.
#3 There Are Variations Among These Copies, But Only 1% Are Significant
The vast majority of these variants are unintentional differences. What do I mean by this?
Well, in the first place, most involve alternate spelling. Sometimes John’s name is spelled with one N (the Greek letter nu), sometimes two. Just as in English we wouldn't say “a apple” but “an apple,” in Greek sometimes the letter N was added to the end of a word of the next began with a vowel. These kinds of spelling differences account for the vast a majority of NT variants.
Many variants were just good old fashioned typos. A scribe might skip a word or line of text he was copying, or double a word or line. Or misread one letter. Let me show you some examples.
“We (echomen) have peace with God”
“Let us (echõmen) have peace with God”
1 Thessalonians 2:7
“But we were gentle (epioi) among you”
“We were little children (nepioi) among you”
But what about the claim that scribes sometimes intentionally changed the words? Well, the fact is that this is true, but not to the degree that sensationalistic books suggest. Let me show you two kinds of intentional changes that scribes would make.
In the middle of the gospel of Mark there is a huge section of text (Mark 6:31-8:26) which does not mention Jesus by name. It refers to him with pronouns of course, but not as Jesus or Christ. So to add clarity, sometimes scribes would change those pronouns to “Jesus” (I think there are about 5 cases of this). Or in Phil. 1:14 Paul says that the brethren are more encouraged to “preach the word.” Some texts add “of God,” probably an intentional addition for the sake of clarity.
Another kind of intentional change would be to make statements more parallel. In John 4 when Jesus asked the Samaritan woman to get her husband, the Bible says:
The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband.’”
In some of the manuscripts the word order in Jesus’ response is “No husband I have.” What probably happened is that scribes decided to make his statement parallel in order so it would read more smoothly.
So when you hear someone say there are hundreds of thousands of differences among the copies of the NT, don’t be alarmed. There are, of the very kinds of spelling differences, typos, changed in word order, and so on that we have seen. And the reason there are so many is because we have so many copies to begin with.
Which is of course a great blessing, because we can compare them to each other and know exactly where the differences are and what the options are. How do you determine which reading is most likely the original? Historians try to answer these three questions:
-Which reading is earlier? After all, the closer you get to the original source the better.
-Which reading is shorter? Since changes sometimes consisted of additions to clarify a text, the feeling is that the shorter the reading the more likely it is to be original.
-And, since the tendency would be to change the text to clarify it, historians ask which reading is harder? So in 1 Thess. 2:7 when Paul says either he was gentle to the Thessalonians or he was like a little child, on this basis you might prefer the reading “like little children,” since that one is harder to interpret (though not impossible).
Out of all of the various kinds of copies, and all of the variants, only about 1% are significant, meaning they are like the difference between “gentle” or “little children.” Does that variant make any difference in what you need to do to please God? No. And that is my fourth point.
#4 None of These Variations Affect Vital Faith or Practice
Just to drive home this point, let me show you three of the biggest significant variations in the NT manuscripts.
-Mark 16:9-20 The Longer Ending of Mark
When I preached through the gospel of Mark, remember that I spent some time explaining why most of our Bibles have a note that verses 9-20 are not in the earliest manuscripts. And remember that the point I made in my sermon on that passage was that there is nothing in those 12 verses (the empty tomb, Jesus’ resurrection appearances, the great commission) that isn’t also taught in other indisputable passages.
Another major example of a significant variant is
-John 7:53-8:11 The Woman Caught in Adultery
Again, this passage is not found in the earliest copies of the gospel of John. It is found in some later copies of Luke and John, but the best evidence is that it was not in the original text. It is a great story of course, but there is nothing in that story that remotely affects our faith and practice as Christians. Many other passages teach that adultery is wrong; judging with evil motives is wrong; we should be compassionate to the sinful.
Here’s a third example. The earliest and best manuscripts do not contain
-Acts 8:37 The Confession of the Eunuch
“And Philip said, If thou believest with all thine heart, thou mayest. And he answered and said, I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.”
In fact most modern translations don’t even have a verse 37; they go from verse 36 to verse 38.
Is this the only place in the Bible that says we should have faith in Jesus or confess this faith? Of course not, and that’s what I mean when I say there is simply no basic teaching or practice that is at stake even if you look at the largest, significant differences among the NT manuscripts.
Well what about Bart Erhman’s examples of tampering with the text. Let’s take a look:
-In Mark 1:41 when Jesus healed the leper was he “moved with pity” as most manuscripts say or “moved with anger”?
Erhman says that the original was unquestionably “anger,” but that this was changed to “pity” so Jesus wouldn’t look so human. And based on the principle that we should accept the more difficult reading, Erhman could be correct (as many scholars have suggested) that in this case Jesus was moved with anger. But that doesn’t mean this text was tampered with to make Jesus look less human. Two chapters later Mark 3:5 clearly says Jesus was angry, and there is no dispute about that verse. If there was a conspiracy to remove any flashes of emotion from Jesus, why was Mark 3:5 left untouched? The reason for debate in 1:41 is because there just arent’ that many texts that contain the word “anger,” not because of some conspiracy.
-Here’s another. In Matt. 24:36 when Jesus talked about the day and hour of the end of heavens and earth He said, “But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only.” Erhman points out that some copies of this verse omitted “nor the Son”, and alleges that scribes eliminated “nor the Son” so Jesus’ divinity would not be questioned (if He is God how could there be something He doesn’t know).
And yet not one time in his six discussions of this text does Erhman mention that the parallel passage in Mark 13:22 clearly says “nor the Son”. So even if it was supposedly excised from Matthew, Mark unquestionably records that Jesus said “nor the Son.” And for that matter, even if that phrase did not appear in Matthew, when Jesus says that “the Father only” knows the day and hour, it is implied that the Son does not. So if this was supposed to be sanitized by the scribes, the failed miserably. Or the better explanation is that Erhman sees a case of tampering where there is none.
-For a final example, Erhman says that 1 John 5:7, which in the KJV says that there are three who bear witness, “The Father, Word and Holy Ghost: and these three are one” was actually added by scribes to support the doctrine of the Trinity.
You know what – in this case he is exactly right. We even know the year it was added – 1522. That’s the great thing about the thousands of copies we have – we can cross check them. But this is not a newsflash. Scholars have known for centuries that this was the case, and I don’t know of any translation since the KJV in 1611 which includes the phrase “The Father, Word and Holy Ghost: and these three are one.”
Here is the crucial point. If this was the only verse which taught the Trinity this would be a big deal. But of course it is not. There are many passages which explicitly say that Jesus is God, along with the Father and Holy Spirit, and that God is one.
None of Erhman’s examples amount to the kind of earth shattering revolutionary revisions in Christian faith and practice that he contends is at stake.
So what would be the key points for you take away from this lesson?
First, we can have great confidence that we have the will of God preserved in our NT. We have in the gospels the best attested document from all of antiquity. Thanks to God’s providence we have thousands of copies we can cross-check, and there is not a single question regarding what I need to do to please God and be saved that is at stake in the variations that do exist.
Second, we must never allow emotion to trump evidence about favorite verses. Let me illustrate what I mean by this point. When I first started using the ESV, I was upset when I read its rendering of Malachi 2:16, which instead of saying that God hates divorce says that the man who divorces his wife hates her. But when I did some research on the passage, I learned that the ESV is probably correct. The reason I didn’t like it is because it took away one of my favorite proof texts about divorce. But since when is do I decide what God’s word says based on what I want to say in a sermon? That is backwards! There are plenty of other ways to make the point that God hates divorce of course, but I should never have allowed emotion to take the place of the evidence.
There are some people who are shaken to learn that most likely the story of the woman caught in adultery in John 8 was probably not in the original text. But why should that shake anyone’s faith? It contains no teaching that is critical to our faith, and besides, any good Bible will have a major footnote on the passage explaining that it isn’t in earliest manuscripts.
In fact, I want to say something that I really believe needs to be said. If someone like Bart Erhman shakes our faith, it is not his fault. It is our fault! It is our fault as preachers and teachers and elders for not doing a better job of explaining these issues, and it is our fault as Bible readers for ignoring all the notes and tools our Bibles gives us which explain these differences.
We are supposed to be interested in the pursuit of truth, of the original pattern of NT teaching, and our emotional attachment to certain words or phrases should never interfere with that pursuit.
Finally, and most importantly, we should live like people who believe the Bible is God’s word. If this book was nothing more than the patchwork product of centuries of tampered ancient documents, then it would not command much interest for me. But that is not what this book is. It is an incredibly well preserved record of eyewitness accounts of the life and death and resurrection and instructions of God’s Son. But do you live like you believe this? Do you obey the commands found in this book? Do you believe the promises made in this book? Do you fear the warnings?
I really hope that we all understand that today’s lesson was not just an academic exercise in the background of the Bible, but I will say this, all of our religion is nothing more than an academic exercise is we don’t live it.
In 2 Cor. 3:2 Paul said to the Corinthian, “You yourselves are our letter of recommendation, written on our hearts, to be known and read by all.”
We are the letter of recommendation written to the world; our lives are the text that they will read. Is it corrupted? Or does it reflect the genuine truth of Christ in us?