Preservation of the Bible, textual criticism, and some KJV history
If there is a subject which most pastors take for granted, it is the preservation of the Bible.
We don’t talk about it because we either assume people already believe God preserved Scripture—never mind whether they understand how—or don’t know enough to explain it to them. Regardless, shame on us. How can one defend his confidence in the Bible without knowing whether he should trust the Bible in the first place?
Last year, I met a man who carried the burden of a KJV-Only upbringing. We had a lot in common because I grew up under the same tradition. This man approached me with his heart devastated by a critic of Christianity. The scoffer was well-equipped with a knowledge of Bible history and attacked the KJV by showing its supposed flaws. His information was accurate, but his conclusion was misleading at best. My new friend was left shaken to his core, once believing every word of the KJV was perfect and had always been perfect. The critic had successfully undermined his confidence in the Bible.
This kind of situation would happen less if pastors understood and taught the basics of Bible history, textual criticism, and translation methods. The church doesn’t need hours upon hours of scholarly lectures. We’re not training believers for a Pd.D in advanced Greek or New Testament textual studies. If only Christians learn to better trust Scripture and perhaps how to defend it, then our job is done. We have equipped the saints in this vital aspect of our faith.
When one of my favorite churches in the country, Eureka Primitive Baptist Church in Chula, Georgia, asked me to speak, Bible preservation was on my mind. The following are two messages that I delivered on September 2-3, 2017.
This evening, I want to talk about a somewhat difficult subject. It’s difficult because, first of all, the Bible itself doesn’t address it. Even so, it’s an important topic for the church. You may wonder how a subject can be important for the church if the Bible doesn’t even talk about it, but you’ll understand why in just a moment.
Second, this subject is difficult because there are so many myths and misconceptions surrounding it.
The subject is the preservation of the Bible.
What does the Bible say?
As I said, the Bible itself doesn’t tell us how God intended to preserve his Word. In fact, it doesn’t even tell us that he would preserve his Word, not explicitly anyhow. There are some passages which we commonly use to defend the doctrine of preservation, but we often stretch those passages beyond their intended meaning.
For example, Jesus said, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away” (Mt 24:35). Was Jesus teaching the doctrine of Bible preservation? I don’t think so. In context, he seems to be telling his disciples that every prediction he’s made about the future will come to pass. It’s very similar to what God said through Isaiah: “So shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (Isa 55:11).
Psalm 12 contains another favorite verse for teaching the doctrine of preservation. According to the KJV, David writes, “The words of the Lord are pure words: as silver tried in a furnace of earth, purified seven times. Thou shalt keep them, O Lord, thou shalt preserve them from this generation for ever” (Ps 12:6-7). Psalm 12 reads as though God intends to preserve his words until the end of time.
You may be surprised to learn that the King James translators considered a slightly different wording of Psalm 12:7. They believed the verse could be translated, “Thou shalt keep him, O Lord, thou shalt preserve every one of them from this generation for ever.” They made this point in their original margin notes. The significance of the pronoun change is that it cuts through the ambiguity. David was not teaching that God would preserve his words, but that he would keep his promise to preserve or guard his poor and oppressed people. If you read Psalm 12 in full, then you’ll understand what I mean.
Perhaps you can see the challenge we face when addressing the preservation of the Bible.
Even Scripture shows there have been times when God’s Word was hidden from his people. In 2 Kings 22, for instance, we’re told, “Hilkiah the high priest said to Shaphan the secretary, ‘I have found the Book of the Law in the house of the Lord.’ … When the king [i.e., King Josiah] heard the words of the Book of the Law, he tore his clothes” (2Ki 22:8; 11). During the 55-year reign of King Manasseh, the people of Israel were deprived of God’s Word. Manasseh was a wicked man who rejected God’s law. In turn, the law was tucked away in the temple where no one could read it for decades.
Does that mean the Bible has nothing to say about its preservation? It does, but it’s never as emphatic as we’d prefer. Perhaps the best reference is found in Isaiah 40 where the prophet says, “The grass withers, the flower fades when the breath of the Lord blows on it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever” (Isa 40:7-8). Peter quotes this same passage in 1 Peter 1 before adding, “And this word is the good news that was preached to you” (1Pe 1:25).
All things considered, I believe we can safely assume that God has preserved his Word, but that doesn’t mean he’s preserved it quite as uniformly as some might think. The message, of course, will always exist. His truth will always be spoken. The Scriptures will endure in one form or another. The question is, has God preserved the precise wording of the original inspired writings to be accessed by all people in all places throughout all times? The evidence says no.
Copying the Bible by hand
Let’s begin with an illustration. Let’s say that I have an original copy of John’s Gospel, but it’s not like the one printed in your Bible. It’s handwritten not on crisp, white paper, but on parchment made from animal skin. There are no chapter breaks or verse divisions. In fact, you won’t even find a single punctuation mark in the text. There are not even spaces between words. The book appears to be one long word on a single scroll.
Your task is to copy the entire book by hand. Cheating is not allowed. You are not permitted to scan or even type it. It must be handwritten on a scroll made of animal skin. I wish you the best of luck.
Once you’re finished, you’re going to pass your copy of John’s Gospel to the next person. They will copy your copy before passing it to the next person and the next. Eventually, every person here will have made a copy. Unfortunately, the original gets lost along the way. By the end of the experiment, we no longer possess the original. Perhaps we even lose a few of the copies. Brother So-and-So spilled coffee all over his, so he had to throw it away.
We no longer have the original text which God inspired John to write. How will we know what John’s Gospel says? We collect and compare the copies.
Here’s the problem: Chances are, every copy will contain mistakes. Inevitably, there will be variations between them. You will have miscopied a word, misspelled a word, overlooked an entire phrase, and perhaps even added a few words.
Weighing the evidence
Let’s say we were copying 1 Thessalonians where Paul writes, “We were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children” (1Th 2:7). The word gentle in Greek is epioi. Some of you, however, wrote the word nepioi, meaning “little children.” One of you even wrote hippoi, meaning “horses.” How do we know what Paul originally said?
Here’s what we have in the available manuscripts. Paul might have said, “We were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children.” He might have said, “We were little children among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children.” As strange as it may sound, he also might have said, “We were horses among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children.” Which sounds correct to you? Most of you would probably say gentle. “Little children” sounds redundant and “horses” makes no sense at all.
There’s a twist. Let’s say the first five of you who copied the book wrote, “Little children.” It isn’t until we reach the sixth copy in line that we see the word gentle. From there, they all say gentle except for one manuscript which says horses. I think we can safely eliminate “horses” as a reasonable possibility. What’s left? The earliest manuscripts say little children while the majority of manuscripts say gentle. Which is correct?
We’ll have to use some logical deduction here. The external evidence suggests little children is the original text because that’s what the earliest copies say. It would seem the mistake wasn’t made until the sixth copy, which everyone else then duplicated from that point forward. The fact that the majority of manuscripts say gentle is practically irrelevant because the majority of manuscripts were written after the change was made.
What about the internal evidence? Why would Paul use such a sloppy metaphor? “We were little children among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children”? Would Paul really mix his metaphors like that?
As a matter of fact, he would. He did something similar in Galatians 4:19 where he said, “My little children, for whom I am again in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you!” Paul refers to the Galatians as his children whom he is giving birth to a second time. Even in 1 Thessalonians 2, he describes himself as both a mother and a father to the believers in that place. First, he says, “Like a nursing mother taking care of her own children” (1Th 2:7). Then, he says, “Like a father with his children” (1Th 2:11).
Believe it or not, the harder reading is often the correct reading. You can imagine the bewilderment of that sixth person who sat down to copy Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians. This verse doesn’t make sense, he thinks. Someone before me must have copied it wrong. Obviously, Paul meant gentle. So he changes it. No one would knowingly make the text harder to read. If anything, he’ll make it easier to read.
The merits of the harder reading
I’ll give you another example from John’s Gospel. In John 7, Jesus tells his brothers, “I am not going up to this feast, for my time has not yet fully come” (Jn 7:8). Uh oh, one of you thinks as you’re copying the book. Two verses later, the text says, “After his brothers had gone up to the feast, then he also went up, not publicly but in private” (Jn 7:10). It appears you’ve found a contradiction which makes Jesus sound like a liar. First, he says he will not go to the feast. Then, he goes to the feast.
We’re at the end of our experiment. We’ve laid all our copies of John’s Gospel on the table. The earliest manuscripts quote Jesus as saying, “I am not going up to this feast.” The later manuscripts, on the other hand, quote Jesus as saying, “I am not yet going up to this feast.” Which do you suppose is the original reading of John’s Gospel?
It’s probably the harder, earlier reading. Chances are, the person who changed it saw the apparent contradiction in the text and attempted to eliminate it. It’s less likely that someone would do the reverse. Why would anyone make the text harder to read, seemingly contradicting itself?
Copying a scribe’s margin notes
I’ll give you one more example. As we’re comparing our copies of John’s Gospel, we come across a strange anomaly in John 5. The earliest manuscripts say:
Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, in Aramaic called Bethesda, which has five roofed colonnades. In these lay a multitude of invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed. One man was there who had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had already been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be healed?”
The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up, and while I am going another steps down before me.”
Jesus said to him, “Get up, take up your bed, and walk.” (John 5:2-8)
As you’re copying this chapter of John, the man’s reply to Jesus strikes you as strange. Why does he want to get into the pool? What does that have to do with being healed? You’re extremely curious, so you take a break to do some research. Soon enough, you discover an interesting myth about Bethesda that was popular during the first century. As it turns out, many people believed an angel would occasionally stir up the waters of the pool and whoever got in first would be healed of their infirmities.
It’s such an interesting tidbit that you make a note about it in your copy of John’s Gospel. Of course, there’s not a lot of room on the scroll, so you write it in small print wherever you find a space. Can you guess what happens when the next person copies your manuscript? God forbid anyone leaves words out of the Bible. When he sees your margin note about the angel stirring the pool, he feels compelled to copy it. It’s better to be safe than sorry.
Here’s what his manuscript says:
Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, in Aramaic called Bethesda, which has five roofed colonnades. In these lay a multitude of invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed—for an angel of the Lord went down at certain seasons into the pool, and stirred the water: whoever stepped in first after the stirring of the water was healed of whatever disease he had. One man was there who had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had already been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be healed?”
The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up, and while I am going another steps down before me.”
Jesus said to him, “Get up, take up your bed, and walk.” (John 5:2-8)
The additional note fits like a glove. It sounds as though it’s supposed to be there, but our earlier manuscripts don’t include it. We can reasonably conclude that someone added it along the way.
The common preservation myth
Would you be surprised to learn the examples I’ve given are real-life examples of textual problems in the Bible? Bible scholars and translators have had to wrestle with these very issues among the manuscripts, which brings us to the prevailing myth concerning Bible preservation.
Many Christians believe scribes hand-copied the Bible year after year without making a single mistake. God preserved every last word through a long line of manuscripts from day one until they were finally translated word-for-word into English.
There are a couple of problems with this view.
1) There are more than 400,000 textual variants in the New Testament manuscripts alone.
Today, we have access to approximately 5,700 manuscripts of the New Testament. The oldest dates back to the second century. Keep in mind that when we talk about Bible manuscripts, we’re talking about handwritten copies of the Bible primarily in the original languages. The total number goes much higher when we include Latin translations and so on.
Four-hundred-thousand textual variants may sound like a lot, but not all variants are equal in weight. For instance, the obvious misspelling of a word is not a serious issue. I once took a proofreading test for a freelance writing position. They gave me a messy paragraph with all kinds of errors to see whether I was capable of identifying and fixing them. Many of the words were misspelled, but I could still read the paragraph fluently.
If we take all of the textual variants and remove the insignificant ones, then we’re left with a much smaller number than 400,000. If we then factor in the total number of words in the manuscripts, then we discover that the significant differences between the manuscripts amount to less than three percent of the text. Think about that. The Bible was hand-copied for 1,500 years, yet less than three percent of the New Testament’s 140,000 words contain potential errors. That’s remarkable consistency.
The fact is, 400,000 textual variants is not the most relevant number to us. The number that is far more important is 5,700 (the total number of manuscripts). Why?
Think back to my previous illustration where we all copied John’s Gospel by hand. If we no longer have the original, what’s the next best thing? It’s to have as many copies as possible. The more copies we have, the better our ability will be to determine what the original said despite the errors in our copies. By comparing the manuscripts, we’re able to reasonably determine what John originally wrote even though we don’t have the original.
Let’s say, on the other hand, we have only one copy. We have no choice but to accept what it says. We know that scribes likely made mistakes, but we don’t have any other manuscripts for comparison. If our one copy of 1 Thessalonians 2 claims Paul wrote, “We were horses among you,” then we’ll have to believe that that’s what he said. Imagine the sermons one could preach from that text.
My point is, textual variants (differences from one Bible manuscript to the next) are only a problem when we don’t have multiple copies to compare. The more copies we have, the more accurate our Bibles can be.
It would be incredibly convenient if God had preserved a flawless line of manuscripts, but the evidence doesn’t support that notion. He allowed human scribes to make mistakes. If we don’t understand and acknowledge that fact, then it would be very easy for a Bible critic to come along and do serious damage to our faith. They could readily undermine our trust in Scripture by pointing out all of the mistakes in the manuscripts from which our English Bibles were translated.
It doesn’t help us to live in a fairy-tale world where we deny the facts of history. Peter tells us, “Always [be] prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” (1Pe 3:15). Our faith is reasonable, so we should be able to defend it when critics attempt to tear it apart.
Before I explain how God preserved his Word even through the many errors made by scribes, let me address the second problem with believing there is a flawless line of manuscripts resulting in a flawless English translation of the Bible.
2) There can be no such thing as a literal word-for-word translation of the Bible into English.
You’ve probably heard it said that the King James Bible is a literal translation, but such a translation doesn’t exist. Perhaps the most literal translation of the Bible into English is the Wycliffe Bible which came along 200 years before the KJV. You wouldn’t want to read it, however, because it was hardly English.
The Greek New Testament has somewhere between 138,000-140,000 words. Every English translation surpasses that number by no less than 30,000 words. I believe the KJV New Testament has a little over 180,000 words. Literal word-for-word translations simply do not exist. They can’t because of the dynamic nature of languages.
Have you ever used Google’s Translate tool? If you type a sentence into Google Translate, convert it to another language and back again, it will come out different than the original. Something always gets lost in translation.
Two weeks ago, I was preaching on humility from Ephesians 4 and discovered neither the Greeks nor the Romans had a word for humility. It was such a foreign concept to their proud culture that they had no word for it, so Paul had to string together two words to convey humility: lowliness and mind. Humility means to have a lowliness of mind.
On the flip side, there were times when the English language didn’t have a suitable equivalent of a Greek word. Deacon, for instance, is not a translation; it’s a transliteration. There was no word for it in English, so translators simply created a new English word.
Let me give you an example from the Bible of what translation can do to a text. In Romans 9—I’m reading from the KJV—Paul quotes the book of Isaiah, saying:
Though the number of the children of Israel be as the sand of the sea, a remnant shall be saved: For he will finish the work, and cut it short in righteousness: because a short work will the Lord make upon the earth. (Romans 9:27-28)
Let me read the original text from Isaiah 10. Notice the differences:
For though thy people Israel be as the sand of the sea,
yet a remnant of them shall return:
the consumption decreed shall overflow with righteousness.
For the Lord God of hosts shall make a consumption, even determined,
in the midst of all the land. (Isaiah 10:22-23)
People became children. Shall return became shall be saved. Consumption decreed became finish the work. Shall overflow became cut it short. A consumption, even determined became a short work. In the midst of all the land became upon the earth. What’s going on here?
The New Testament of the King James Bible was translated from Greek. The Old Testament was translated from Hebrew. Translating from two very different languages produces different results. For instance, perhaps you’ve noticed that names are different in the New Testament compared to the Old Testament. Isaiah becomes Esaias, Jeremiah becomes Jeremy, and so on. Translating from Greek is different than translating from Hebrew.
In case you’re not confused yet, there is one more layer of translation in the quote I read from Romans 9. By the first century, Hebrew was no longer the most popular language of the Old Testament. The apostles, for instance, primarily used a Greek translation of the Old Testament. In other words, Isaiah in the KJV was translated from Hebrew into English while Paul’s quote of Isaiah was translated from Hebrew into Greek before it was translated into English for the King James Bible. The quote from Romans 9 went through an additional translation leading to a seemingly drastic change in the wording.
Now would be a good time to point out that words can change without altering the meaning or substance of a text. If Romans 9 doesn’t prove that, then consider the four Gospels. Focus on the letters in red, assuming your Bible has red print. Have you ever noticed that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John don’t always quote Jesus as using the exact same words? Personally, that’s why I don’t care for red-letter editions of the Bible. First, it gives us the impression that the words of Jesus are more important than the rest of Scripture when all of Scripture is his words. Second, it gives us the impression we’re reading the very words of Jesus rather than the very voice of Jesus.
What’s the difference between words and voice? It’s the difference between verbatim quotes and capturing the substance of what a person said. Obviously, the Gospel writers were not quoting Jesus verbatim. Otherwise, their quotes would be identical. Instead, they captured the essential thought. It would be a terrible mistake to rewrite the Gospels just to create a precise harmony of the words. It may give Bible readers additional comfort to think all potential contradictions have been removed, but that’s not what the Spirit of God intended when he inspired the books to be written.
Preservation of the Bible
As you can see, Bible history and its preservation are a bit messier and perhaps more complicated than what you realized. God hasn’t preserved his Word through a perfect line of manuscripts. He hasn’t preserved his Word through a perfect translation into English. He hasn’t even necessarily preserved every last word which he originally inspired to be written.
Where does that leave the doctrine of preservation? As I said before, the Bible itself doesn’t explicitly teach the doctrine of preservation, not as we often define preservation. It does, however, indicate that we should expect the good news of his Word to remain forever.
Let’s pause for a moment to think about a seemingly unrelated subject. Do you believe God has preserved his church? Have you ever thought about how he preserved his church?
A quick perusal of the New Testament will show that almost every church in the first century had problems. Some had serious theological errors. Others had deep sin and morality issues. Even so, these churches were churches of Jesus Christ confirmed by the apostles.
Today, we all know that a perfect church can’t be found. Charles Spurgeon once said, “If I had never joined a church till I had found one that was perfect, I should never have joined one at all.” He’s right. A perfect church doesn’t exist, yet the church remains.
In the earliest days of the church, God scattered his people across the known world. Why? Wouldn’t the church have been stronger if they had stayed together in Jerusalem? No, God preserved his church by scattering them. If everyone had remained in Jerusalem, their persecutors could have destroyed them all at once. Instead, the persecutors found it impossible to eliminate the church because the saints were everywhere. By the time they could stop the church in Jerusalem, lo and behold, there’s a church in Antioch. By the time they reach Antioch, there are four more in Galatia.
God similarly preserved the Bible. He didn’t providentially oversee the creation of a handful of perfect copies. Rather, he prompted men to make as many copies as possible. Even though they contained mistakes, his Word would remain safe because there were too many copies to destroy. The church’s enemies tried. They gathered up every manuscript they could find to burn, but they could never find them all. There were too many copies in too many places.
The best-preserved ancient literature
Does the thought of textual variants bother you? Does it trouble you to think that God’s Word was not kept perfectly preserved in every manuscript? If so, let me give you something to think about.
How many times have you heard or seen quotes from notable Greek philosophers such as Plato or Aristotle? Have you ever read Homer’s books? I suspect you have. Have you ever questioned the legitimacy or accuracy of those writings?
Let me put things into perspective for you. The oldest manuscript of Plato is from approximately A.D. 900 (1,200 years after the original). We have seven copies. The oldest manuscript of Aristotle is from roughly A.D. 1100 (1400 years after the original). We have 49 copies. The oldest manuscript of Homer is from A.D. 400 (500 years after the original). We have a whopping 643 copies. The oldest manuscript of the New Testament is from approximately A.D. 130 (less than 100 years after it was written). We have a grand total of approximately 5,700 copies.
By a wide margin, the Bible is the best-preserved work of all ancient literature. While some may question the Bible’s legitimacy because they’ve learned about the textual variants in the manuscripts, the historical evidence says otherwise. Not only do 5,700 copies still exist, dating as far back as the second century, but the textual variants of any significance also represent less than three percent of the overall text. That’s an accuracy rate of more than 97 percent. Do you think we’d come close to that if we tried hand-copying the Bible?
As far as I’m concerned, that doesn’t happen without the providential oversight of God. He may have allowed errors along the way, but he most certainly preserved his Word nonetheless.
As I said last night, the doctrine of Bible preservation is not as simple as what we might think. The most common misconception is that God kept a perfect line of Bible manuscripts from the first century until it could be translated, again, perfectly into English. Perhaps the truth is a little less romantic, but it’s still the truth.
Rather than preserve his Word through a series of flawless manuscripts, God preserved the Bible through the mass production of thousands upon thousands of manuscripts which were scattered across the known world. By doing so, he ensured that persecutors could never ultimately destroy the Scriptures. There were too many copies in too many places.
What about the errors which scribes made when copying the Bible? Don’t those mistakes undermine the Bible’s preservation? No.
First of all, the significant mistakes represent a surprisingly small percentage of the text. Of the 5,700 manuscripts still available today, less than three percent of the text contains notable textual variants. Those variants are reduced to practically nothing when we compare and evaluate the various manuscripts. Through a process known as textual criticism, Bible scholars and translators are able to pinpoint the mistakes and better understand what the original text of the Bible actually said.
Before I go any further, let me define a few terms for you. By Bible manuscripts, I’m talking about handwritten copies of the Bible prior to printed Bibles. The printing press didn’t come along until the 1440s, so Christians relied on handwritten copies of the Bible for most of church history. Textual variants are the differences from one Bible manuscript to another. Textual criticism is the process of studying the variants to determine what the original inspired writings once said.
Today, I want to move a little deeper into this subject. It’s important that we understand the progression of the Bible throughout history. It’s also important that we understand where our English Bibles came from and how they were translated.
Two primary manuscript families
If you were to research this topic on your own, you would likely come across several mentions of text-types or text families. The two most relevant text-types are Alexandrian and Byzantine. In the 18th century, scholars became interested in classifying manuscripts by their unique styles and potential origins, so the concept of text-types was created.
For our purpose now, here’s what you need to know about them. The Alexandrian manuscripts are older, fewer, and shorter. The Byzantine manuscripts are later, greater in number, and longer.
Negative things are often said about one of these text-types or the other, so let me briefly comment on that.
Some people reject the Alexandrian manuscripts because they supposedly come from Egypt where well-known heretics once lived. Frankly, that’s a straw man argument. First, not all Alexandrian manuscripts are necessarily from Egypt. Second, heretics have come from all over the world. Third, Egypt has produced sound theologians. Regardless, the geographic origin of these manuscripts has little to do with their reliability.
I don’t know that anyone rejects the Byzantine manuscripts, but some do have a tendency to devalue them. Since they come much later in history, people assume they are of less value. Let’s not forget that they also represent the majority of manuscripts. In regards to textual criticism, every additional manuscript has value in determining what the original autographs of the Bible said.
Again, here’s what you need to know about them. (My goal is to keep things as simple as possible.) The Alexandrian manuscripts are older, fewer, and shorter. The Byzantine manuscripts are later, greater in number, and longer.
The Bible got longer
It stands to reason that the older manuscripts would be fewer in number. There’s been more time for them to get lost or destroyed. Perhaps you’ve heard of the so-called Majority Text. That’s a reference to these later Byzantine manuscripts. They, of course, represent a majority of the manuscripts. That’s not to say they are all identical, but they do outnumber the earlier Alexandrian manuscripts.
You may find it curious, though, that the later manuscripts are longer than the earlier manuscripts. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the Bible actually got longer over time, not shorter. I gave you one example yesterday from John 5. Apparently, a scribe added a brief explanatory note about the crippled man waiting to be healed at the pool of Bethesda, and another scribe eventually copied his note as though it were part of the original text.
Another common addition relates to the titles of Jesus. His titles got longer over time. Where the older manuscripts say Jesus, the later manuscripts might say Jesus Christ. Where the older manuscripts say Jesus Christ, the later manuscripts might say Lord Jesus Christ. You’ve probably heard it said that modern translations of the Bible remove words, but that’s very misleading. Most modern translations simply use older manuscripts which don’t contain those words. Intentionally or unintentionally, well-meaning scribes added those words over time.
The Bible’s longest additions
Most instances of textual variants between the manuscripts are small and minor. I don’t know of any that affect the fundamental doctrines of the church. Even the most significant variants are usually just a few words or less, but there are two notable exceptions. In both cases, we have what appears to be rather lengthy additions to the text.
The first is the story of the adulterous woman in John 8. That’s where Jesus famously said, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her” (Jn 8:7). As we move through the manuscripts, this story is nowhere to be found in the earliest copies. It’s not found in some of the later copies. In a few of the manuscripts which do have it, there’s an asterisk indicating it may or may not belong. One manuscript places the story in the middle of John 7. Another manuscript places it in John 21. Two manuscripts place it in Luke’s Gospel. The story doesn’t exist then appears out of nowhere before moving around to several places, finally settling in John 8.
We have twelves verses that were probably not in the original text of John’s Gospel. Where did they come from? This story could be a rare instance of an event in the life of Jesus that survived outside of inspired Scripture. In other words, it could be a true story which the church kept alive by repeating it through the years. Eventually, someone wrote it down and it made its way into the Bible.
The other questionable passage of any real length is found at the end of Mark’s Gospel. You’ll thank me for this one because Jesus makes some challenging statements. You’ve probably never heard a pastor preach on this text, and you probably never will. For instance, Jesus says:
“Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. And these signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up serpents with their hands; and if they drink any deadly poison, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.” (Mark 16:16-18)
What part of that passage stands out to you? The statement, “If they drink any deadly poison, it will not hurt them,” leaps off the page at me. Nowhere do we read of the apostles or anyone else drinking poison.
As it turns out, Mark 16:9-20 raises some questions when we study the manuscripts. In some manuscripts, these verses don’t exist. In some manuscripts, these verses are replaced with an alternate ending that says, “But they reported briefly to Peter and those with him all that they had been told. And after this, Jesus himself sent out by means of them, from east to west, the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation.” Some manuscripts include both the shorter ending and the longer ending. Most manuscripts contain only the longer ending.
What’s going on with this text? For the sake of time, I’ll simplify what Bible scholars have considered when examining this passage. First, early church writings say nothing about either the shorter or longer ending of Mark. Second, the vocabulary and grammatical style change from verse 8 to verse 9. Third, two of the best and most respected manuscripts end with verse 8. All things considered, it would certainly appear as though someone added text to the end of Mark’s Gospel.
If you stop reading Mark 16 at verse 8, you can understand why a scribe might feel the book is incomplete. Mark ends by saying, “And they [the disciples] went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” The end.
What about seeing the resurrected Christ? What about the Great Commission? What about the Lord’s ascension into heaven? After reading the other Gospels, it would be easy to think that Mark ended on a cliffhanger. He failed to tell the rest of the story. Then again, maybe Mark intended to leave his Gospel open-ended. It forces us to ask ourselves, “What now?” Isn’t that how Luke ended the book of Acts?
Regardless, the text of the Bible got longer over time, not shorter. The older Alexandrian manuscripts are shorter than the later Byzantine manuscripts.
From completion to Erasmus
Now that we’ve talked about the Alexandrian and Byzantine manuscripts as well as the Majority text let’s focus on the Textus Receptus (or the “received text”) which is the underlying text of the King James Bible. Hang on because I’m going to take you through hundreds of years of Bible history in a matter of minutes.
By A.D. 90, all 66 books of the Bible have been written. In A.D. 315, we have the first record of all 66 books being recognized as part of God’s inspired Word. In A.D. 382, a priest by the name of Jerome produces the Latin Vulgate, a Latin translation of the Bible which would become the most popular version of the Bible for more than a thousand years.
By A.D. 500, the Bible has been translated into more than 500 languages. Even so, the Catholic Church declares Latin to be the only acceptable language for the Bible in A.D. 600. That doesn’t stop people from translating the Bible into other languages, but it does give you a sense of the Latin Vulgate’s past significance.
By the way, the first English translation was produced in A.D. 995. Technically, it was an Anglo-Saxon translation, so it wasn’t quite the English we know today. The Wycliffe Bible of A.D. 1384 came a little closer to English we’d actually recognize.
Jumping ahead to the 16th century (roughly A.D. 1516), a Catholic priest by the name of Erasmus decides to do the unthinkable. He plans to create a new and better Latin version of the Bible. His mantra was “to the source.” In other words, he wanted to retranslate the Greek manuscripts into Latin.
Like all manuscripts, the Latin Vulgate was hand-copied for years. Gutenberg didn’t invent the printing press for more than a thousand years after Jerome first produced the Latin Vulgate. As a result, it contained all of the inevitable mistakes you would expect. Erasmus believed it was time to start over with a new translation.
There was just one overwhelming problem with Erasmus’s plan. For many people, the Latin Vulgate was not just a Bible; it was the Bible. It was the only Bible. You know as well as I do what happens when you mess with a person’s traditions, especially traditions related to the Bible. People were not happy with him. They found every reason to criticize him and his efforts.
Erasmus, however, proceeded anyhow. He studied a handful of Greek manuscripts at home before traveling to Switzerland to study a few more. Unfortunately, he found only six or seven manuscripts of the later Byzantine family. He didn’t have any of the earlier Alexandrian manuscripts. In fact, he did not even have a complete New Testament. As convoluted as it sounds, he was forced to take parts of the Latin Vulgate and translate them back to Greek before compiling all the manuscripts into a complete New Testament.
Keep in mind that Erasmus’s goal was not create a new Greek Bible. His aim was to improve the Latin Vulgate. Basically, he was comparing the Vulgate with a few Greek manuscripts and correcting the Vulgate when he found differences. Not having a complete New Testament in Greek wasn’t the end of the world. He just trusted the Vulgate in those places where the Greek lacked which is why his text was 60 percent identical to the Latin Vulgate.
Erasmus finished his first edition rather quickly. He later admitted that it was “hurried out headlong” and “precipitated rather than edited.” In other words, it was rough. Surprisingly, though, the Catholic Church approved it upon the condition he revise it, which he did five times.
Changes to Erasmus’ third edition
As I said before, Erasmus was sharply criticized for his work. In those places where his Bible differed from the Latin Vulgate, people got upset and questioned him. Perhaps the most famous example is 1 John 5:7-8. Let me read those verses from Erasmas’s first and second editions (an English translation anyhow): “For there are three that testify: the Spirit and the water and the blood; and these three agree.”
I’ll now read the same verses from his third edition:
For there are three that testify in heaven: the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit, and these three are one. And there are three that testify on earth: the Spirit and the water and the blood; and these three agree. (1 John 5:7-8)
In his first two editions, Erasmus was missing that seemingly vital clause: “the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit.” When people attacked him for it, he responded, “If a single manuscript had come into my hands, in which stood what we read [in the Latin Vulgate] then I would certainly have used it.” In other words, that phrase was not found in even the later Byzantine manuscripts.
Where does that phrase come from? We know that it appears in the Latin Vulgate. We know that it appears in the margin notes of a few later manuscripts. It does not appear, however, in any Greek text of 1 John until the 14th century. Most manuscripts which include it are from after the time of Erasmus.
My best guess is that it originated in the Catholic Church during the 4th century, made its way into the Latin Vulgate, and eventually embedded itself in Christian culture. Regardless, Erasmus must have felt pressure to include it, so he added it to his third edition with the annotation, “I have restored the text … so as not to give anyone an occasion for slander.”
From Erasmus to the Textus Receptus
I’ve spent all this time talking about Erasmus because the third edition of his work became an important part of the King James Bible. In A.D. 1559, a Catholic turned Protestant best known as Stephanus made several revisions to Erasmus’s third edition and published it. In A.D. 1605, Theodore Beza, a student of John Calvin, did the same. He took Stephanus’s work, made additional changes, and published it. By the way, they were both working with Greek, not Latin.
Before we go any further, let me put it all together for you in a nutshell. First, Erasmus combined a handful of later Byzantine manuscripts with the Latin Vulgate. Second, he revised and changed the text twice. Third, Stephanus revised the text again. Fourth and final, Beza also revised the text multiple times.
About the time Stephanus is working on his revisions, The Bishops’ Bible is published by the Church of England. The goal was to create an English translation of the Bible that could potentially replace the so-called “Calvinistic” Geneva Bible, which had come out a decade before. Suffice it to say that Queen Elizabeth had several objections to the Geneva Bible.
The Bishops’ Bible is relevant because it became the framework of the King James Version. King James himself told the translators, “The ordinary Bible, commonly called the Bishops’ Bible, is to be followed and as little altered as the original will permit.” The King James translators took the Bishops’ Bible in one hand, and Beza’s text in the other, and they created the King James Bible of 1611.
What about the Textus Receptus? Textus Receptus (or the “received text”) is a slightly misleading title for the Greek text underlying the KJV’s New Testament. In fact, it wasn’t branded “the received text” until A.D. 1633, more than twenty years after the KJV was published. The name was basically a marketing ploy by the publisher.
It’s also a misleading title because it gives people the impression that the text is superior or perhaps the closest text we have to the original autographs of the Bible. As important as the TR is, it actually represents a relatively small sample of later manuscripts which underwent numerous revisions. It contains readings that cannot be found in any other Greek manuscript. Unless God was essentially re-inspiring the Bible during the TR’s evolution, we simply cannot claim that it’s the de facto version of the New Testament.
Critics of the King James Bible
Throughout most of church history, people have fallen into the trap of human traditions. Richard Baxter once aptly stated, “Men think God’s laws too many and too strict, and yet make more of their own.” When Erasmus decided to create a new Latin Bible, people vehemently protested. How dare you think you can improve upon the Bible! Believe it or not, people had the same reaction when the King James translators went to work on a new English Bible.
I wish modern printings of the KJV still included the translators’ original preface. They defended themselves against their many critics. The primary argument against them was this: Why make another English translation when we already have a good one? The translators answered by writing, “Nothing is begun and perfected at the same time.” In other words, the previous versions of the Bible were great, but perhaps they could build upon the work of others to make an even better one.
At one point in the preface, the translators say, “We affirm and avow that the very meanest [or poor] translation of the Bible in English, set forth by men of our profession, containeth the word of God, nay, is the word of God.” As an example, they go on to talk about translations of the king’s speeches in various languages. Some translations are better than others, but the king’s speech is still the king’s speech. Even if the words aren’t exact, chances are, the substance of the speech is still in tact.
The King James translators did not believe they had created a 100-percent perfect translation of the Bible. Their governing philosophy was to make (hopefully) a more accurate translation with even greater readability than previous translations. In fact, they had already revised the text before the first edition was even published. Technically, the first edition never saw the light of day. The first printing was a combination of the first and second editions.
As you probably know, the KJV continued to be revised time and time again for more than 150 years. I’m not entirely sure which version was the last truly authorized revision, but most people today are reading the Oxford edition of 1769. You could be reading the Cambridge edition of 1762. My personal favorite is the New Cambridge Paragraph Bible. The text of that edition comes the closest to the 1611 KJV minus its archaic spellings. It also has the advantage of updated punctuation and formatting.
The flaws of KJV-Onlyism
With some hesitation, I feel that I should address the potential elephant in the room: King James Onlyism. Much like the Latin Vulgate or The Bishops’ Bible did at one time, the King James Version has a tendency to stir strong emotions in people. If anyone dares suggest there is a better translation of the Bible or even a translation of equal merit, there’s a chance someone will take offense. I know because I used to be that guy.
By now, you may understand why King James Onlyism has some flaws. In case you don’t, I’ll give you two things to think about.
1) The KJV of 1769 is not the KJV of 1611.
Occasionally, I’ll come across an Articles of Faith or church statement that says, “We believe that the scriptures comprising the Old and New Testaments, as given in the 1611 King James Version of the Bible, are of divine authority.” The problem is, these churches are not using the 1611 KJV. They are most likely using the Oxford edition of 1769.
There are more than 100,000 differences between the 1611 and 1769. While the vast majority of changes are merely updates to the spellings of words, there are meaningful changes to the text. For instance, where Ezekiel 24:7 of the 1611 says, “She poured it upon the ground,” the 1769 says, “She poured it not upon the ground.” Though that example may not have any serious theological ramifications, it is still a direct contradiction between the two versions.
King James Onlyism is based on the premise that the KJV is the one and only accurate translation of the Bible. The question is, which version of the King James Bible are we talking about? They can’t both be 100-percent accurate if there is even one contradiction.
2) The KJV is not the inspired Word of God.
The KJV is a translation of copies of the inspired Word of God. I make this point because King James Onlyism tends to ignore all of Bible history before 1611. I’ve never heard anyone explicitly say it, but the KJV is often treated as though God re-inspired Scripture through its creation. God originally inspired people to write his word; then he re-inspired the King James translators.
How else could we solve the dilemma of textual variants in the manuscripts? How else could we explain the perfection of the King James Bible in light of the numerous changes to the text before and after it was translated? We’d have to assume that God essentially started over by inspiring a fresh version of his Word.
The truth is, and I mean no disrespect to anyone, King James Onlyism has more to do with the comforts of tradition than the facts of history. It puts our minds at ease to think we’re reading a perfect representation of God’s inspired Word.
Please don’t misunderstand me. The KJV is a fantastic translation of the Bible. There should be a copy in every Christian home, and we should read it. I don’t know of any Bible that is better for memorizing Scripture than the KJV. Even so, it’s not the only good translation into English. Just ask the translators themselves. They believed in accuracy and—let’s not forget—readability.
The importance of readability
In the midst of the King James Only controversy years ago, George Ladd, a Baptist minister, remarked:
The Holy Spirit chose as the language of the New Testament revelation the colloquial [or ordinary] language of everyday people, not an ancient classical idea. The modern insistence upon the supremacy of the King James Version of 1611 represents a reversal of the action of the Holy Spirit by insisting that for us the best idiom for the word of God is not the modern colloquial idiom, but the ancient classical language of Shakespeare.
He makes an excellent point. The apostle Paul said, “Consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards … God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise” (1Co 1:26-27). The Spirit of God did not inspire the Bible to be written in lofty, sophisticated prose. It was written so that even the uneducated person could read and understand.
The KJV translators understood the importance of making the Bible easy to read. In large part, the KJV was revised so many times for that very reason. I cannot exaggerate how crucial it is for English-speakers to have a Bible they can read and readily understand without needing a dictionary from the 18th century.
What in the world is an armhole? (It’s an armpit.) What’s an oblation? (It’s an offering.) The KJV uses more than 400 obsolete words. It also uses many antiquated styles of formatting, sentence structure, and punctuation. To be clear, I’m not suggesting you throw away your King James Bible, but most Christians would greatly benefit from reading modern translations in addition to the KJV.
My wife grew up using the New International Version (NIV). I always found it amusing when I would preach from the KJV, explain what a word or phrase means, and she’d tell me after the sermon, “Your explanation is precisely what my Bible says.” It occurred to me that someone reading the NIV may very well have a better grasp on the substance of the text than someone reading the KJV. Why? They’re not fumbling through the obscurity of a passage written in archaic English. Modern translations remove that unnecessary layer of difficulty, making the text much clearer to the average reader.
Modern translations compared
Briefly, let’s talk about modern translations.
In A.D. 1782, the first KJV was printed in America. In A.D. 1833, Noah Webster published a revision of the KJV. In A.D. 1863, Robert Young produced a new translation intended to be more literal than the KJV. Of course, it was also more difficult to read. In A.D. 1901, the American Standard Version becomes the first major revision of the KJV in the United States. In A.D. 1952, the Revised Standard Version becomes the second.
Things get a little more interesting in the Sixties and Seventies. In A.D. 1971, the New American Standard Bible is published, fundamentally changing Bible scholars’ approach to translating the Bible from that day forward. Rather than exclusively use the Hebrew Masoretic text for the Old Testament and the Greek Textus Receptus for the New Testament as the KJV did, the NASB translators also used the Greek Septuagint for the Old Testament and a much wider pool of Greek manuscripts for the New Testament. Remember that the Textus Receptus represents only six or seven of the later Byzantine manuscripts. The NASB uses both Byzantine and the older Alexandrian manuscripts.
How are they different? In many cases, they’re not, but there are some verses where the NASB translates the older manuscripts while the KJV translates the newer manuscripts. For instance, here’s an example from Matthew 17:20. The Textus Receptus and the KJV say, “Because of your unbelief.” The Alexandrian manuscripts and the NASB say, “Because of the littleness of your faith.” The words are very similar but distinct.
In A.D. 1973, the NIV takes the same approach. They don’t disregard the Textus Receptus and the KJV, but they use as many ancient manuscripts as possible when translating. The NIV, however, doesn’t follow the same word-for-word method as the KJV and NASB. Instead, they translate using a phrase-for-phrase method. Rather than translate the exact wording in every case, they attempt to translate the essential thought being conveyed in some verses.
For example, Luke 9:44 in the KJV says, “Let these sayings sink down into your ears.” That’s not an expression we commonly use anymore, so the NIV doesn’t translate the exact wording. Instead, it says, “Listen carefully to what I am about to tell you.”
By the way, don’t mistake a phrase-for-phrase translation for a paraphrased Bible. They are drastically different. A paraphrased Bible is hardly a translation at all. It’s a work of interpretation. The author is interpreting the text, not translating.
In A.D. 1982, the New King James Version is published. In my opinion, it’s a strange and perhaps unnecessary translation of the Bible. Its New Testament comes from the Textus Receptus just like the KJV, but the Old Testament comes from the Greek Septuagint rather than the Hebrew Masoretic text. That’s not a problem, but it does beg the question, why? If you’re trying to appeal to avid readers of the KJV, why depart from the King James tradition when translating the Old Testament?
If you happen to be one who believes the Hebrew text and the Textus Receptus are superior to what most modern Bibles use, but you still want a Bible in modern English, I recommend the Modern English Version (MEV). It is a perfect parallel to the KJV in modern English. In fact, you can buy a parallel Bible that has the KJV text on one side and the MEV text on the other side.
In A.D. 2002, the English Standard Version (ESV) was published. This Bible managed to bridge that important gap between accuracy and readability. The NASB was very accurate, but it wasn’t the easiest Bible to read. The NIV was much easier to read, but it wasn’t as accurate because it was a phrase-for-phrase translation rather than word-for-word. The ESV provides us with the best of both worlds.
Let’s compare a phrase from Acts 28:13. The KJV says, “And from thence we fetched a compass.” The NIV says, “From there we set sail.” The ESV says, “And from there we made a circuit.” They all say the same thing, but the ease of reading changes from one to the next.
Which version should you read?
Whenever I talk about this subject, someone will inevitably ask, “What version of the Bible should I read?” I’ll give you a few recommendations.
First, read the KJV, preferably the New Cambridge Paragraph KJV. It’s the closest you’ll come to reading the 1611. Plus, the formatting is much better.
Second, read the ESV. It’s an essentially literal translation in modern English. Even when it differs from the KJV because it uses older manuscripts, it includes footnotes to show you what other manuscripts say. In other words, even when the ESV supposedly “removes” text from the Bible, the text is still there. You’ll see a footnote that says, “Some manuscripts say—”
Third, read the NIV. According to Daniel Wallace, one of the most notable Bible scholars of our day, the NIV is perhaps the best representation of the original autographs of the Bible we have to date. While it’s not a strict word-for-word translation, it captures the essential meaning of the text better than most. Personally, I’m partial to the ESV, but I still reference the NIV quite often.
Fourth, use the NET Bible. Notice I didn’t say read the NET Bible. You can read it, of course, but the actual translation is not where the NET Bible shines. Its gold is found in the footnotes. It contains more than 60,000 footnotes explaining why our Bibles say what they say. If you want to know why the ESV doesn’t include John 5:4, go to John 5:4 in the NET Bible and read the footnote.
Using multiple versions of the Bible will be a tremendous help to you. It’s a principle we learn by reading the four Gospels. Two or more accounts of the same story aren’t necessarily identical, but comparing them is precisely what God intends for us to do. Multiple witnesses to an event give us a fuller understanding of what happened. Reading multiple translations of the Bible give us a fuller sense of what God’s Word says.
The living and abiding word of God
Please forgive me if I’ve overwhelmed you with too much information. Perhaps now you can understand why people prefer to believe the Bible has never changed in the slightest and the KJV is an absolute perfect translation. That would make things a lot simpler, but remember what I said last night. If you hold too tightly to that belief, then a critic of the Bible could easily use the facts to destroy your faith. Don’t let that happen. The preachers who advocate King James Onlyism have built a foundation which cannot stand under the weight of even the smallest scrutiny.
Don’t trust any one version of the Bible more than you trust the inspired writings of God. Don’t trust a tradition more than you trust God to maintain the power of the gospel even through “the very meanest translation,” as the KJV translators put it.
For 2,000 years, the church’s enemies have sought to destroy the Bible. The Bible has been copied and passed on under the worst of conditions. Scribes made mistakes along the way. They left out words. They added words. Today, there are nearly 7,000 languages in the world. Close to 5,000 of them have a translation of some or all of the Bible. Of course, some of those translations are better than others.
Can we even trust the Bible after all it’s been through? It’s been changed. Important manuscripts have been lost. The very best of translations have been revised.
A preacher once asked me, “Why confuse people by highlighting textual variants in the manuscripts or flaws in the King James Bible? What good does it do to call into question the accuracy of Scripture?”
I told him, “An ounce of evidence is worth more than a pound of presumption.” Believers should not be willingly ignorant of the facts. False assumptions do not glorify God, and they don’t help us.
I think we sometimes forget the most fundamental aspect of the Bible. Listen to what Peter said: “You have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God” (1Pe 1:23).
A book is just a book. Text is just text. Don’t make an idol out of your Bible. Always remember that the power of the Bible is not in the ink on the page. The power is God’s power. He makes the Bible come alive. Scribal errors and imperfect translations cannot prevent God from keeping the message of the gospel in tact and transforming lives even 2,000 years after the words were first written.
If the real history of the Bible doesn’t make you awestruck at what God has accomplished despite sinners doing our very best to compromise it, then I’m not sure you’ll ever be awestruck. The more I learn about the Bible, the more thankful I am for the providence of God.