Lesson 5 – Preservation


Survey Studies in Reformed Theology

Genevan Institute for Reformed Studies
by Bob Burridge ©1996, 2006, 2010, 2016


The Preservation of Scripture

Truth begins in the mind of God.

God reveals Truth to his people by the process of Revelation. This revealed truth was written by Divine Inspiration to form a “Canon”, a standard of truth. The inspired books were preserved for us down through the ages so they could be translated and interpreted to teach and warn God’s people.

The Problem is: we don’t have any of the original documents of the books of the Bible. We refer to these original writings as the autographs. We have many copies which we call apographs. Copies sometimes have errors in them. A flaw in one document is passed on in all its copies, unless someone makes a correction.

The editions of the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures which Pastors and scholars use usually include footnotes. They show the variant readings in manuscripts and groups of manuscripts.

In the Old Testament texts copyist errors are extremely rare.

The Hebrew scribes were very meticulous in making copies of what they believed were the holy words of God. They would check their work not only by careful proofreading, but also by counting the individual letters and comparing the result with carefully maintained records.

Most copyist errors are simple spelling variations. Most of them have to do with copying the Hebrew “vav” (ו) and “yodh” (י). Later European influence made some academics erroneously call them “wow” and “jot” because of the way the letters are brought over into the Germanic alphabets.

These letters are written as little hooks at the top of a verticle line. The vav (ו) extends down to the base line. It is similar in sound to our letter “v”. The yodh (י) only extends part way down. It is similar in sound to our letter “y”. Both are sometimes silent when used with certain vowels. Because of their similar appearance they are easily confused when written by hand.

Other spelling differences in the apographs occur because spelling was not as universally standardized as it is now. There are some suggested corrections to the Hebrew text made by Bible critics, but they’re merely conjectural. They are usually suggested to make the text fit with their theories about the Bible, but without any manuscript evidence.

When the existing copies are compared and historic testimony is considered there’s an amazing lack of doubt. What we have is essentially identical with the autographs.

Kennicott’s Hebrew Bible (1776) included readings from over 600 surviving Old Testament manuscripts. Of the 284 million letters in those manuscripts – there are about 900 thousand variants. But about 750 thousand of them are trivial variations between the vav and yodh. The remaining variants only occur in one or a few manuscripts of the 600 or so manuscripts he compared. Westminster Seminary’s Dr. John Skilton in “The Transmission of the Scriptures” summarized Princeton’s Dr. Robert Dick Wilson’s analysis of the Kennicott Hebrew Bible. He said, “there are hardly any variant readings in these manuscripts with the support of more than one out of the 200 to 400 manuscripts in which each book is found.” The Qumran fragments and scrolls, the Nash Papyri, and others show the same low level of variation.

Where there are divergences in just 1 or 2 copies, it’s evident that they do not reflect what was in the original text. For example, some of the Hebrew copies appear to be translations back into Hebrew from another language.

One of our best confirmations of the accepted Hebrew text is the Isaiah scroll. It’s date was calibrated by repeated carbon-14 tests, and by paleographic studies. It was copied in about100 to 200 BC. It’s well preserved, and contains the entire book of Isaiah.

The Septuagint was the commonly used translation of the Hebrew text into Greek in the 1st Century. The variation in styles of translation show differing degrees of scholarly care. Most differences in the Septuagint are the result of careless translators.

Jesus, the Apostles, and the early church were confident in the text of the Old Testament they possessed at that time. Jesus spoke of it as accurate, and having full divine authority. The writers of the New Testament were infallible as they referenced the texts they had of the Old Testament.

Today we have many good ancient copies
of the text of the New Testament Scriptures.

There are over 5,000 major apographs of New Testament texts available and many more minor ones. Of those containing entire books or groups of books, no two are exactly the same in every part. But again, most variations are trivial having to do only with spelling. Most significant deviations are isolated to single copies or groups of copies. These are easily corrected when compared. There are a few more disputed passages which we will examine toward the end of this article.

There are several causes for copying variations: Some are accidental errors which occur when a copyist …

  • mistakes one letter or word for a similar one
  • substitutes a synonym without realizing it
  • skips a letter, word, or portion
  • wrote the skipped portion in the margin (later mistaken as a mere comment)
  • copies the same letter, word or portion twice
  • gets letters, words or sections out of order
  • copies with illegible writing
  • wrongly interprets a smudge, or illegible word or letter.

Marginal notes and corrections to the text are often hard to distinguish from one another.

Some variations are made intentionally. A copyist might …

  • insert a marginal note thinking it belongs in the text
  • leaves out a portion he believes should not be there
  • or tries to harmonize differing manuscripts.

Attempts have been made to group the New Testament apographs into “text-types,” or “families of texts”. More recently computers have sorted through data bases to find patterns for simplifying the problem. Scholars take different approaches, so there is still no simple formula for classifying them.

The classic classifications still widely used provide some help.
Alexandrian Manuscripts are very old copies from or based on copies from early Alexandria in Africa. Attempts have been made to divide that text type into sub-groups to account for differences among them.

Byzantine Manuscripts are much later copies but were made from ancient texts. They are more uniform. They make up the majority of existing Greek apographs. This group has also been divided by computer analysis into hard to manage sub-groups.

Western & Caesarean Manuscripts are a class now not recognized as a group by some scholars, but they show what was being used in more broad locations by the churches.

Some presume that God supernaturally preserved the text used by the majority of the churches. They argue that the majority readings must be the perfect text. But this ignores the facts. This is where the King James Only and the Textus Receptus movements got started. They consider these to be the divinely preserved perfect text. However they were based upon only a few manuscripts known at that time, and are not as uniform as their supporters imply. They represent the majority of copies in one geographic area, but are not the majority of texts used when churches in all geographic areas are considered. Some parts of these texts were back-translated into Greek from Latin with no Greek manuscript support.

It helps to consider some of those more complete manuscripts
to see how they influenced later versions.

Dr. Fenton John Anthony Hort and Bishop Brooke Foss Wescott published several textual canons – rules for anylizing manuscripts to reconstruct the original text. Many of their canons have been modified, and some are now completely discounted. But their work stands as a helpful foundation for the continuing work of analysis of the variant readings.

Hort and Wescot put undue weight upon 2 Alexandrian texts (Sinaiticus and Vaticanus). They called them the “Heavenly Twins”. At times they just accepted any reading found in both. However they have many marginal corrections and notations making them far from a divine standard.

Not all the texts in one place are of the same type. They agree more with copies found in other places. They may have been brought there from another place, or were copied from the same early manuscript as those usually found in another location from later times. An example is Codex Alexandrinus, a 5th Century Manuscript of the entire Bible (Old and New Testaments).

Early printed copies of the Bible were based on only a few existing manuscripts. From 1450 to 1456 the Gutenberg Bible was produced, It was a printing of Jerome’s Latin Vulgate translation made from a few existing texts. In 1488 the Lombardy Hebrew text of the Old Testament was published by the Socino press. In 1514 Ximenes produce his Complutensian Polyglot with a text in Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, and Latin.

In 1516 Erasmus produced his first complete Greek New Testament (1000 pages). It was primarily put together by comparing 2 inferior manuscripts, one of Acts from the 12th century, and one incomplete text of the Book of the Revelation. He back translated confusing, obscure, or missing passages by using the questinable Latin Vulgate translation. His 2nd Edition in 1519 was the basis of Luther’s German translation. His 3rd Edition in 1522 added 1 John 5:7-8 with a note that he believed the Greek manuscript submitted to him was a fraud. His 4th Edition in 1527 included ideas based on the Polyglot (for example: he altered Revelation about 90 times). In his 5th Edition of 1535) not much changed but he eliminated his Latin column. His text was based upon only a few Greek copies.

Robert Estienne (also called Stephanus) produced 4 editions from 1546 to 1553. His 3rd Edition showed variants in the margin taken from 14 codices, the polyglot, and the Bezae text. His 4th Edition added verse numbers for the first time. In 1553 he produced a folio of the 3rd Edition in Geneva. It was used for translating the Geneva Bible in 1557.

Beza produced 9 Editions 1564-1604, and a 10th in 1611. He also had the newly available manuscripts Codex Beza and Claromontanus. His published texts are very close to Stephanus’s 4th Edition. The King James Version of 1611 was based on Beza’s editions of the Greek text.

In 1624 Bonaventure and Abraham Elzevir produced a Greek New Testament mainly from Beza’s 1564 Edition. The preface of the 1633 Editon promoted it as “the text which is now received by all…” It came to be called the Textus Receptus, the “received text”. It was received because there weren’t many alternatives. It was a collection of editorial decisions. The textual basis for the Textus Receptus did not exist until the time of Erasmus, Stephanus, and Beza (1516-1551).

Recent finds have added some very ancient pieces of copies of the New Testament in Greek. 7Q5 was a fragment of Mark 6:52-53 dated by the style of writing and the papyrus used to no later than about 50AD. P52 is a 2nd Century papyrus fragment from John 18:31-33 and on the reverse side verses 37-38. It was found in Egypt. Finds like these help us confirm an early circulation of the same basic text we have today.

The process of reproducing the original biblical text is very reliable.

When I was a Bible teacher I had several classes totalling a little over 100 students. To explain how we discover the original Bible text I had the students take part in a demonstration. First, I wrote out a simple paragraph and gave it to a few students to make copies of it. After I hid the original in my desk, I had other studens copy the copies. A few times I had a copy read out loud by a student while a few others made copies like some ancient scribes did. The copies were copied until all the students had made a copy. I selected several copies from different generations of the copying process. When we examined them in class we noticed several places where they were not the same. But by comparing them the students were able to reconstruct the original paragraph exactly.

This is basically how we study the Bible manuscripts. The older ones were closer to the original in time, but they were not necessarily all accurate. By careful comparing and noting which may have come from bad copies the original can be reconstructed.

There’s a sound Biblical Foundation that gives us
confidence in the preserved text of the Bible.

Several New Testament verses quote from or refer to the Old Testament as God’s inspired word. But they used only existing copies of the text not the original autographs which had been lost long before then.

2 Timothy 3:15-16 “and that from childhood you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness”

The expression “the Holy Scriptures” (“ta hiera grammata” τὰ ἱερὰ γράμματα), and “all Scripture” (“pasa graphae” πᾶσα γραφὴ), were well established expressions at that time to refer to the Old Testament books. The only texts available to Timothy were copies, not the originals. Yet they were still considered as authoritative for his correction and instruction.

Therefore a quality of “inspiredness” adhered to the copies Timothy had used then. This verse shows us that what we possess is still fully authoritative, and it’s an infallible guide to God’s tuths. Our imperfect copies are so superintended by God’s providence as to give us this solid foundation.

2 Peter 1:19-21 “And so we have the prophetic word confirmed, which you do well to heed as a light that shines in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts; knowing this first, that no prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation, for prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit.”

Like Paul in writing to Timothy, Peter also uses the term “Scripture” (graphae). He applies it both to the Old Testament books, and to the New Testament writings being inspired at that time.

Peter calls these Scriptures a “word confirmed,” more sure even than his own eye witness account as a man. He could only have been referring to existing copies available at that time. The full authority of God is extended to copies then available to the churches.

In John 10:35 Jesus quoted from the Hebrew Scriptures. He called it “your Law,” “the word of God.” Yet only copies were available to him, to his followers, and to the Jewish scholars he was correcting.

These sample testimonies of Scripture, along with many others verses like them, confirm that there remains a quality of “inspiredness” that adheres to the copies of Scripture. This means they continue to be God’s word for us.

In summary, we are very confident
of the text of the New Testament we have today.

Even arguing critics are quick to remind us that the variations effect no accepted doctrine of our Christian faith. Very little of the text is actually in question. Most of the variations are so trivial they don’t even effect the translation of the text. Those that do are mostly isolated to very few supporting groups of texts.

There are a few large portions or more serious variations, though they don’t effect any teachings of the Bible. Each needs to be considered on its own merits. We examine how well supported they are by a wide and early distribution of the existing copies. We also look at the context to see how they fit in with the author’s purpose and flow of thought.

A few Specially Problematic Texts

Detailed analysis goes beyond the scope of our study. I’ll give a quick summary of three questioned portions.

1 John 5:7-8 (Comma Johanneum) – It has no sound Greek manuscript support. It reads this way:

7 For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one.
8 And there are three that bear witness in earth, the Spirit, and the water, and the blood: and these three agree in one.

Eramus did not include these verses which were only found in the Latin translations. Stunica (an editor of the Complutensian Polyglot) criticized Erasmus for not including this Latin portion. Erasmus said he would only include it in his next edition if he could see that reading in a Greek manuscript. One was questionably produced so Erasmus reluctantly included it in his third edition (1522). But he added a notation that it was questionable, probably recently back-translated from the Latin. It’s in many Bibles because that edition was the basis for the King James Version of 1611. The inserted portion was not used as a foundation for our belief in the Trinity. It presents no necessary new information in establishing the details of that doctrine.

John 7:53-8:11 is the portion of the Bible about the woman taken in adultery. Several ancient manuscripts differ about this portion. Those that include it are in world-wide distribution which lends support that it’s an ancient reading. Some omit this section entirely. Copies that don’t include it are mostly from one region of the world, but trace back to very early apographs. Both those who reject it and those who accept it agree that no teaching of Scripture is effected either way.

Mark 16:9-20 is the longer ending of the Gospel of Mark. It’s missing from two old Alexandrian texts and a few other early apographs. It’s included in the majority of the Byzantine texts and in Alexandrinus (5th ct, Alexandrian, but Byzantine type) It’s not mentioned in early writings of the church. Shorter versions appear in a few others manuscripts.

Some have rejected this section in Mark because of its content. It depends on how it’s interpreted. It mentions speaking in tongues, casting out demons, not being harmed by deadly snakes or poisons, and miracles of healing. Some rejected this portion because the Bible doesn’t support that these supernatural abilities should continue for the whole church age. Their purpose then was to confirm the new revelation being given at that time by Jesus and the Apostles. The context indicates that it was a promise only for the apostolic age just then beginning. There’s no problem with the content of the text when it’s properly interpreted.

Acts 9:6 contains a longer portion in the King James that is not found in any ancient Greek manuscripts. It also appears to have been translated back into Greek from the Latin Vulgate version. The ESV has the version based on the Greek text: “But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” The KJV includes the part added from the Latin Version: “And he trembling and astonished said, Lord, what wilt thou have me to do? And the Lord said unto him, Arise, and go into the city, and it shall be told thee what thou must do.”

The longer portion was probably introduced here by quoting Paul’s defense in Acts 22:10. There he was recounting his conversion experience. Therefore the facts in the longer version are true, even though there’s no evidence it belongs in this verse in Acts 9.

These are just brief summaries of fascinating studies worthy of the time of good scholars. But, in these questioned portions no doctrine of the Christian Faith is effected.

God has providentially preserved the text of the Bible by providing us with thousands of copies to compare. We can be certain that our Bible’s are without error. They confidenly tell us all God wants us to know about himself and his plan of redemption.

In God’s providence we have enormously more evidence of the Bible text than we do of all the other ancient books and writings put together.

(Bible quotations are from the New American Standard Bible (1988 edition) unless otherwise noted.)

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