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“Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will by no means pass away” (Mt 24:35).  Can you imagine the audacity of a mere mortal saying such a thing?  We utter thousands of words every day that will never be recalled by our contemporaries, much less generations to come.  Yet everything spoken by the Lord, at least what He wanted recorded and preserved, is contained in Scripture – and this against the strenuous efforts of unbelievers to suppress, sequester or exterminate it.  Yet the Bible remains the most copied, printed, purchased, gifted and read book(s) in all human history.  In fact, with the current state of information transmission, nearly every human being on the planet has access in one form or another to the word of God if they desire to possess it.

However, ignorance abounds on the present form of the Bible.  Conventional “wisdom” asserts that we can’t be sure that we have all the inspired books that were written; that the Bible is “full of errors”; that the wording of Scripture has been changed and corrupted so much that we have no idea what was originally written by Paul, Peter, John or, even worse, Moses or David or other OT prophets.  Such assumptions are baseless yet keep circulating like urban legends.  As is often said, lies can circle the globe before truth gets to first base.

Copies of copies.  It is shocking to even some believers to learn that there are no extant autograph manuscripts of any Bible books.  None of the originals exist, either of the OT or NT.  This often generates knee-jerk alarm:  “How, then, can we possibly know what Paul or Luke or Matthew actually said?”

A few things about ancient book-making:  First, it was an expensive process, both from the standpoint of the materials used and the time and effort to hand-copy.  Scrolls were an inefficient way to publish writing:  “A roll of thirty-two to thirty-five feet would be needed for a more lengthy book such as Matthew or Luke or Acts.  (That rolls rarely exceeded this length might account for Luke and Acts being written as separate volumes.)  It follows, then, that so long as the roll remained in use, each of the Gospels and Acts, and perhaps some of the longer letters, would have to circulate individually” (Lightfoot, How We Got the Bible 22).

Further, because of both the expense and time – not to mention the devotion to excellence and accuracy in copying divine writ – scribes were generally meticulous in their copying of text.  This is especially true of the Masoretic text of the OT, produced by Jewish scholars and copied for generations.  However, the proliferation of copies of NT books allowed for more variation due to vast and rapid circulation throughout the world.  This resulted in a small degree of manuscript irregularities, the study of which is included in the academic field called lower criticism.   Further …

Copying Scripture was not a miraculous process.  The only thing inspired or flawlessly executed was the original revelation and recording of what the Holy Spirit guided the apostle or prophet to write (in the case of the NT, to which we will confine our remaining observations).  It should not shake us to acknowledge that there are variations in manuscripts (copies of the original Greek NT documents) depending on the times, places and circumstances in which they were composed.  This is easily demonstrated by comparing manuscripts.  In fact, variations can be traced to specific times, places and copyists simply by comparing the vast number of extant manuscripts (well over 5,000 presently). 

“In this connection one fact especially needs to be emphasized.  This large number of variations exists in exact proportion to the number of manuscripts that we possess.  There are far more copies of the New Testament than of any other book from the ancient world.  Because we have more … manuscripts, we have more variations … If the large number of manuscripts increases the total of variations, at the same time it supplies the means of checking them” (ibid 96).  Again the critic may ask, “So how do you know for certain what was originally written in the Bible?”

Manuscript variations never involve crucial doctrinal teaching or substantive contradictions.  In other words, skeptics overstate their case about trivial differences.  A variant might be “Christ Jesus” in one manuscript and “Jesus Christ” in another.  Further, as in modern English, word spellings change over time, and a later scribe might update such in his manuscript.  Also, proper names sometimes vary (Bethany or Bethabara?  Apollos or Apelles?  Gergesenes or Gerasenes?).  This is often due to local knowledge and naturally occurring variations (i.e., Washington; Washington, D.C.; the District; D.C.; the District of Columbia; inside the Beltway; etc. all refer to the same place).  Lightfoot further notes:  “In all these cases we have an abundance of information that enables us, even in trivial matters, to make a concrete decision as to the likely reading of the original text” (ibid 98).  However …

Some significant variations do occur.  Many are aware of the question of authenticity regarding John 7:53-8:11 – the episode of the adulterous woman.  Some Bible versions bracket this section and footnote it with a question about its manuscript origin.  Others place it at the end of John’s Gospel, and still others after Luke 21:38.  The lack of inclusion in the oldest manuscripts cast significant doubt on the originality of this passage.  In fact, “the one early manuscript which contains the story is the very one (Codex Bezae) that is known for its peculiar readings … Otherwise, it is necessary to come down to manuscripts of the eighth century and later before the story is found again” (ibid 99). 

Another notable example is 1 John 5:7.  Lightfoot comments:  “The first person to publish an edition of the printed Greek text was a Dutch scholar [named] Erasmus.  His first edition came out in … 1516.  But the first and second editions … did not include 1 John 5:7 … Erasmus … was so sure of himself that he rashly promised to include the verse in his text if one single Greek copy could be found in support of it.  At length a copy turned up, and Erasmus, true to his word, included the verse in the third edition … William Tyndale [used] Erasmus’ third edition … in making his translation [into English].  So from Tyndale down to the King James Bible, 1 John 5:7 has been a part of English Scripture” (ibid 100).  

What does all of this mean?  It means that we have a reliable rendering of what God revealed in His Holy Scriptures.  For those who believe that God graced us with His thoughts in the first place, there is no crisis of trust in God’s ability to accurately preserve those thoughts over eons of time.