One American tabloid recently said this about the Bible:
No television preacher has ever read the Bible. Neither has any evangelical politician. Neither has the pope. Neither have I. And neither have you. At best, we’ve all read a bad translation—a translation of translations of translations of hand-copied copies of copies of copies of copies, and on and on, hundreds of times.
First of all, it’s not true we’re dealing with “a translation of translations of translations,” as if the original Greek first went into Chinese which went into German which went into Polish and finally we got around to putting it into English. No, we’re able to translate directly from the original Greek and Hebrew, so at worst we’re dealing with a translation, full stop. But what should we say about that that idea, the charge that all we have available to us are “hand-copied copies of copies of copies of copies”?
Copypock. Er, I mean, poppycock. That’s what we should say.
The Elephant in the Room
Let’s think for a moment about the question of transmission—that is, can we be confident the original text of Scripture was transmitted accurately to us through the centuries? As we begin to consider that question, we should just right off the bat acknowledge the gigantic elephant in the room: We don’t have the originals.
Whatever pieces of paper Luke, John, or Paul used to write Luke, John, or Romans have been lost to history, and it’s unlikely we’ll ever find a biblical manuscript about which we can say, “We are 100 percent certain this is the original piece of paper on which the author wrote.”
But here’s the thing. Is having The Original Piece of Paper really the only way we can have confidence that what we do have is in fact what was written? Are we forever doomed to saying we don’t really have any idea what Homer or Plato wrote since we don’t have the pieces of paper on which they wrote The Odyssey or The Republic? Certainly not, and to say so would be ridiculously pedantic. So what about the documents of the Bible? Are we left simply to give up and admit that all we have are a bunch of useless copies of copies of copies of copies, and that we’ll never have confidence what we have is what the authors actually wrote?
Well, no. In fact, even though we don’t have the Bible’s Original Pieces of Paper, we can be highly confident we know what those original pieces of paper said. Now how can that be?
The key to answering that question lies in the fact that even though we don’t have the originals, we do have thousands of other pieces of paper that contain original-language text from each book of the Bible — about 5,400 when it comes to the New Testament. These go back to the third, or second, or even (perhaps?) to the first century. Some of those pieces of paper contain whole copies of biblical books; others have been destroyed to varying degrees so all they contain now are just portions of books. Still others are literally just fragments of what were once much larger manuscripts.
Now what makes all these manuscripts and fragments interesting, or problematic depending on how you look at it, is that at certain places they differ from each other, even when they’re supposed to be copies of the same portion of the Bible.
“No way,” some respond. “There’s no way we can know what the originals said.” That conclusion, though, goes way too far. For one thing, the problems often cited as arising from all this—that the manuscripts we have are too far removed in time from the originals; that they’re absolutely riddled with variations—aren’t nearly so bad as some make them out to be. And for another thing, it turns out it’s precisely the existence of those thousands of copies, from all over the Roman Empire and with all their variations, that allows us to reconstruct with a huge degree of confidence what the originals said.