From Pen to Pew Tracing the Origin, Collection, Transmission and Translation of the Bible
by Alan S. Bandy, Ph.D.
This is the introduction to a series of articles that will trace the origin, collection, transmission and translation of the Bible. Each respective article will examine one of the four questions pertaining to the inspiration, canonization, textual transmission and translation of the Bible.
The Bible is like no other book. No other book has been so influential in society and in the lives of individuals. From the earliest days of Christianity, it has been regarded as the word of God given through inspiration and written down by holy men. Countless generations of men and women have been transformed as a result of reading the Bible. Others have willingly dedicated and risked their lives to ensure the publication and distribution of the Bible. It has captured the imagination of artists, poets, politicians and scholars. The Bible has often been at the center of controversy as people have sought to grapple with this book and its message. Not surprisingly, it has often been the object of critical scrutiny.
The most recent trend in popular culture has been to question the origins and reliability of the manuscripts of Bible. This trend was largely fueled by the publication of bestselling books like The DaVinici Code by Dan Brown and Misquoting Jesus by Bart Ehrman. On one hand, The DaVinci Code, a popular fictional novel, suggested that the Christian Bible we have today was the product of a 3rd Century political power maneuver to prevent other gospels that told an alternate story of Jesus. On the other hand, Bart Ehrman, a New Testament professor at the University of North Carolina, argues that the text of the New Testament was corrupted by orthodox additions and revisions. In other words, both these books maintain that the New Testament we have today is not trustworthy or does not accurately represent the original documents penned by the authors.
The question before us is “does the Bible that we have today represent what was originally written?” To answer this question, however, we must consider four additional questions: (1) How did God speak through the writers of the Bible? This is an issue of inspiration. (2) Does the Bible contain all the books that should be included? This is an issue of canonization. (3) Are the available manuscripts of the Bible accurate representations of the original manuscripts of the respective books of the Bible (the autographs of Scripture)? This is an issue of textual transmission (4) Are the available English translations faithful renderings of the Bible in the original languages? This is an issue of translation.
Textual Transmission: Are the available manuscripts of the Bible accurate representations of the original manuscripts of the respective books of the Bible?
No original autographs exist of any biblical text; instead we only have access to manuscript copies. The word manuscript is used to denote anything written by hand, rather than copies produced from the printing press. Textual evidence constitutes anything written on clay tablets, stone, bone, wood, various metals, potsherds (ostraca), but most notably papyrus and parchment (vellum). Originally ancient books were complied and then rolled into a scroll. Since a papyrus roll rarely exceeded 35 feet in length, ancient authors divided a long literary work into several “books” (e.g., the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles consisted of a two-volume (scroll) set composed by Luke).
Later, sometime during the 1st or 2nd Century A.D., the “codex” came into use. The codex was bound sheets of papyrus and represents the prototype for the modern book format. Thus early Christians began to collect and collate individual books into what is now the canonical New Testament. The term “Bible” derives from the Greek word biblia (books), and the earliest use of ta biblia (the books) in the sense of “Bible” is found in 2 Clement 2:14 (c. A.D. 150). Although the originals are lost forever, enough manuscript evidence remains to assert a high degree of confidence in the text of the Bible.
Both the Old and New Testaments enjoy a large amount of manuscript evidence in a variety of forms, and that spans centuries. The primary witnesses to the Old Testament come from the Masoretic texts including the Cairo Geniza (A.D. 895), Leningrad Codex (A.D. 916), Codex Babylonicus Petropalitanus (A.D. 1008), Aleppo Codex (c. A.D. 900+), British Museum Codex (A.D. 950), and the Reuchlin Codex (A.D. 1105). The Leningrad Codex remains the oldest complete manuscript of the Hebrew Bible and serves as the main source the Hebrew text.
However, all of these manuscripts are from the 8th and 9th Century, which constitutes a substantial time lapse between the original autographs and these manuscripts. Other witnesses include the Talmud (Aramaic translations and commentaries), the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the OT), the Samaritan Pentateuch, and recently the Dead Sea Scrolls. Discovered during the 1940s and 50s, the Dead Sea Scrolls provide scholars with witnesses to the Old Testament text that may be dated between 250–100 B.C. Cave four (4Q) has yielded about 40,000 fragments of 400 different manuscripts, 100 of which are biblical and represent every book of the Old Testament except Esther. Interestingly, a comparison of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Masoretic Text reveal that only a few very minor discrepancies of spelling and grammar may be detected. Therefore, the manuscript evidence for the Old Testament firmly demonstrates that the original Old Testament texts were carefully preserved and are accurately represented in our modern Bible.
The New Testament remains the most textually attested document in the ancient world. The witnesses of the New Testament text fall into three classes; the Greek manuscripts, ancient translations (versions) into other languages and quotations from the NT found in early ecclesiastical writers (Church Fathers). The Greek manuscripts, more than 6,000 in number, include papyrus fragments, uncials (written in all capitals without spaces and punctuation), and minuscules (small cursive-like script). The papyri manuscripts form the most significant group due to fact their early date implies they are chronologically the closest to the original autographs.
For example, both P52 (containing a few verses of John 18) and P46 (containing all of Paul’s epistles, except the Pastorals) are arguably dated within 30 years of the original writings. The uncials follow the papyri in chronological importance. Codex Sinaticus, an uncial written about A.D. 350, is the earliest extant copy of the entire New Testament. Other uncials, like Codex Vaticanus, Alexandrinus, Ephraemi, and Bezae, also serve as significant witnesses. The minuscules compose the largest group of Greek manuscripts, but they are dated very late. The versions and Church Fathers provide helpful early attestation in reconstructing the most plausible original readings. If you add up the 6,000+ Greek manuscripts, the 10,000+ Latin Vulgate, and the 9,300+ early versions it results in more than 25,000 witnesses to the text of the New Testament.
This sheer multiplicity of manuscripts does not, however, result in absolute uniformity of the texts. To be sure, virtually thousands of variant readings exist between the manuscripts. On one hand, scribal copyists exhibited great concern with the details to reproduce an exact copy.
On the other hand, scribes were not immune from human error. Scribal errors fall into categories of unintentional and intentional. Unintentional errors represent the causes underlying the majority of the variants. In short, these typically include errors of the eyes (e.g., skipping words, or losing one’s place), hands (slip of the pen, or writing notes in the margins), and ears (similar sounding words, or misunderstanding the word). Intentional errors resulted when scribes attempted to correct a perceived error in the text, or altered the text in the interest of doctrine and harmonization. These errors often became standardized through the subsequent copies made from the defective copy.
Interestingly, all Greek manuscripts exhibit traits that enable scholars to classifying them into families of text-types (Alexandrian, Western, Byzantine) based on geographic origin, style of Greek and date. As such, through comparative analysis called textual criticism, scholars shift through all the manuscripts to reproduce the most plausible reading of the original autographs. Textual critics adjudicate between readings through exacting criteria such as dating, text-type, attested readings (i.e., how many manuscripts have a certain reading) and possible reasons for variants (e.g., smoothing out a theologically difficult reading).
In addition to examining the Greek manuscripts, textual critics also consider all other relevant witnesses (i.e., versions and the Church Fathers). Although textual criticism is a very complex and often controverted science, it has provided us with at least two assured results. First, out of all the variant readings (including omissions) none of them change the message or theological content of the scriptures. Second, one may confidently assert that the text of the Bible today is an accurate and faithful representation of the original autographs.
Alan S. Bandy, Ph.D., serves as the Rowena R. Strickland ssistant professor of New Testament & Greek at Oklahoma Baptist University