Introduction

Fingers on a backlit old manuscript
Extant Manuscript
A Story About Our Bible

This story begins in 375BC, or there about. Plato, the world’s foremost philosopher, is at the pinnacle of his career having just published his most notable work – The Republic1. He and his colleagues were sitting around the Areopagus, (Mars Hill) celebrating and doing what they do – attempting to best each other in some new theory.

Of course, I am being a little facetious, but there is truth in what I said. The Apostle Paul, 425 years later stood on that very spot and preached a sermon to a bunch of philosophers. Being disappointed about the outcome, he mused later and the historian, Luke, took note, “For all the Athenians and strangers which were there spent their time in nothing else, but either to tell, or to hear some new thing.” (Acts 17:21 KJV)

While I certainly simplified the situation this much can be said: Philosophy has been defined as the study of the theoretical basis of knowledge or experience2. A philosopher will make an observation and theorize about what was seen from every angle. Not a bad way to approach a subject, unless the philosophical musings lead the observer to conclusions lacking support of a reasonable standard. We call that, “pulling something out of thin air”. So, we get what we’ve got – philosophical ideas that toss back and forth like ships on a stormy sea and carried about by every wind of shifting speculation. (Ephesians 4:14 paraphrased)

Alexander the Great conquered the larger part of the known world with military might and Plato’s philosophy was being spread into all those conquered lands. It found it’s way into the cultural system of the Greeks and Hellenism, which became the religion of Rome3.

There was a convergence of several distinct cultures in the region where Jesus and the Apostles ministered. Consider the languages spoken. Hebrew would have been the scholarly language of the Jewish temple and religious leaders – the priests, scribes, Pharisees, Sadducees, historians, etc. It was the Aramaic language that was spoken among the Jewish common people – tradesmen, merchants, fishermen, farmers and such4. One of the official languages of the Roman Empire was Greek, a common language of Roman citizens and the language of the philosophers, historians and other scholars. The official language of the Roman state (administration, legislation and the military), however, was Latin5.

Languages always represent cultural traditions, symbols, norms, values and beliefs. While there are clear lines that define different cultures there are also areas where they merge and often accommodate each other. However, those intersections of cultures are just as apt to erupt in political upheaval, further defining each of them.

These political and cultural differences define the time and place of the birth of Christianity and create the setting in which the New Testament was written. Greek is the language, for the most part, in which the Apostles wrote and the church possessed the New Testament, in its entirety, as the first century came to a close. We call this the Apostolic Age – the period during which the original Apostles were still alive (AD 30- AD 100).

The next 225 years is referred to as the Ante-Nicene period, the span of time beginning after the death of the Apostles and before the Council of Nicaea (AD 325). This is a time in church history marked by the formulation of Christian doctrine. By the end of this era, the church scholars and writers were conversing and writing in Latin.

In AD 382, Pope Damascus commissioned St Jerome to compile and translate the proliferation of Old Latin versions of the Bible which were in circulation into one work. The Latin Vulgate became the standard version of the Bible for the Western Latin-speaking Church.

The Latin Vulgate

From the end of the 4th century until the end of the 14th, no relevant translations of the Bible were written even though Latin fell out of usage around the beginning of the 10th century. Latin being replaced by the Romance languages (French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and Romanian) and the spread of Christianity to the North where the Germanic languages (German, English, Dutch and Scottish) were spoken, the church should have had reason enough to undertake a translation project.

However, for more than 500 years the Bible was not available in the language of the common people, only in the Latin which the clergy and few others could read. By law, even the mass could only be given in Latin, so there was limited opportunity for a commoner to receive instruction from the scriptures.  It was not until AD 1380 that the first English translation was completed and named for John Wycliffe, an English theologian, philosopher and reformer, who promoted the project. After that, several relevant English translation projects were completed culminating in AD 1611 with the King James Version, the most popular English Bible ever translated.

The availability of English and German translations coupled with the invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg, ignited interest in the scriptures among the laity and the church was set on fire, catapulting it into the Reformation.

The New Testament is twenty-one letters to fledgling churches, four biographies of Jesus Christ, a history of the birth of Christianity and a book of prophetic visions. Written mostly by the apostles and inspired by God, they became the basis for doctrine, reproof, correction and instruction in righteousness (1 Timothy 3:16). These writings were copied and distributed to churches throughout the Roman Empire.

After the apostles were gone, the letters, biographies, history, and prophecies continued to be copied over and over and distributed, some to the farthest regions of the known world, wherever Christians could be found. Even after the originals were lost, copies of copies continued to be made.

The New Testament has been preserved in more manuscripts than any other ancient work of literature. Nearly 6,000 complete or fragmented Greek manuscripts have been cataloged, along with 10,000 Latin manuscripts and 9,300 manuscripts written in various other languages. The dates of these manuscripts range from AD 125 to the 16th century. Many of these extant copies were discovered after AD 1611 when the KJV was completed.6

Whereas, the first English translations of the Bible were based on previously written versions, translations and ancient extant manuscripts available at the time, later versions and translations have been based almost exclusively on a wealth of extant manuscripts not yet discovered when the earlier English translations were published. (See image below)

Biblical inerrancy is the belief that the Bible is without error. . . . actually, that the original manuscripts (autographs) written by the Apostles, are without error. Biblical infallibility has to do with possibilities, and it means that the Word of God is incapable of erring.

We do not have the (inerrant and infallible) original autographs, those written by the Apostles. What we have today are versions and translations that are based on previous versions and translations and on ancient copies of the originals.

There were stark differences in cultural traditions, symbols, norms, values and beliefs among those who translated the manuscripts from Greek and Aramaic to Latin and from Latin to English. These differences, as well as the various political climates that existed in the regions from which these versions, translations and copies come, act in concert to create an environment that had an impact on the version or translation produced. There are words that do not translate well from one language to another, ideas and concepts that are familiar to one but foreign to another culture. Words change meaning over time, there are words that do not exist in some languages and words become archaic and fall from use.

In reading the KJV of the New Testament for instance, we must contend, not only with peculiarities in the Greek, Latin and English languages (they do not always line up nicely), but with how a 17th century English translator interpreted a 4th century Latin translation of 1st century Greek manuscripts so that a 21st century American Christian can read the 17th century King’s English which her 21st century countrymen can no longer understand.

 Do we believe that the entire Bible is interpreted the same way today as it was in AD 1611? Of course not. Has there been no new light shed on truth over the course of the last 410 years? Certainly there has. That is what the Reformation was all about and since then we have received new understandings regarding baptism, the person of Christ, the origin of the universe, justification by faith, holy living and a whole lot more.

Consider, also, what happened in 1952.

Of the 941 Dead Sea Scrolls discovered in the Qumran caves, only 240 were biblical scrolls, 701 were nonbiblical scrolls. These nonbiblical scrolls were Apocryphal, Sectarian (such as the Rule of the Community) and Pseudepigraphic in nature (spurious Jewish writings ascribed to various biblical patriarchs and prophets but composed centuries after they lived). These nonbiblical scrolls, though not considered inspired, have contributed a wealth of what we might call background information about customs and traditions of the day, a more complete history of the politics, ideas and attitudes of the people then and all sorts of other information that shed light on the biblical narrative. Discovered completely by 1952, none of this was available when the KJV was translated

In 1947 a Bedouin shepherd unearthed the first of nearly 900 texts that would come to be known as the Dead Sea Scrolls. They were found in a series of 11 caves near Qumran, Israel (shown here).
Image by Dejan Gileski, shutterstock.com

For us to believe that the inerrancy of every version and translation has somehow been preserved is naïve on our part. These Bibles differ one from another, some of them significantly.

So, what does that mean for us today?

First, with the state of textual criticism being what it is, we can and have recovered the original wording of the manuscripts with a high level of confidence.7

Not only that, the sheer number of ancient extant copies works in our favor. While there are minor differences between the documents we have found, 90% of the New Testament text is unanimously supported by all the ancient manuscripts. In those passages where the proper reading is disputed, there is no major doctrinal change, and we can rest assured that we have the accurate, revealed words of God passed down to us.8

The very existence of these manuscripts shows us that God has done a preserving work with His Word through the ages. Homer’s Iliad exists today in just over 1,000 extant manuscripts (copies of the originals), far more than any other author in antiquity. Historians view the authenticity of Homer with a high level of confidence. How much more can Bible historians, theologians and scholars have confidence in the transmissional reliability of the New Testament given we have more than 25,000 extant copies, many dating back to within 50 years of the originals, We can, should and do hold our Bibles to be the revealed Word of God.9

We have hundreds of excellent versions of the Bible, based on the earliest manuscript copies and translated into many languages. We have excellent concordances, commentaries, dictionaries, lexicons, and Bibles written from every imaginable vantage point. We have books about the customs of ancient peoples, histories of the lands and an understanding of their daily life. There are challenges presented by early English translations, but all that means is that it will take a little study to sort it out and that is what we are doing in this work.

Some of what the church has come to believe and teach has been influenced by Greek philosophy. I am not saying that the doctrine critical to the Christian faith has been compromised but there are teachings peripheral to it that have been.

So, this webbook is for every Christian. We need to speak truth when we minister, witness and testify and we cannot do that if what we believe to be true has come to us from anywhere but the heart of God.

This webbook is also for everyone that does not claim to be a Christian because of a few of the teachings of the church that seem to be incompatible with a loving God. Please, stay with me here. You may just be surprised.

As we move forward, I will be using the King James Version as the default Bible for the purposes of this study.

Endnotes

1Brickhouse, Thomas and Smith, Nicholas D. Plato (c. 427–347 BC), The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, University of Tennessee, cf. Dating Plato’s Dialogues.

2Oxford Languages and Google Dictionary, treatment of “Philosophy Definition” (accessed 5/2/2021) philosophy definition – Google Search

3Yenne, Bill (2010). Alexander the Great: Lessons From History’s Undefeated General. Palgrave MacMillan. ISBN 978-0-230-61915-9. P. viii

4Macfarlane, Roger T. “Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, and Latin: Languages of New Testament Judea.” Brigham Young University Studies, vol. 36, no. 3, 1996, pp. 228–238. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/43044128. Accessed 3 May 2021.

5Bruno Rochette, Language Policies in the Roman Republic and Empire, translated by James Clackson, in A Companion to the Latin Language (Blackwell, 2011), p. 560.

6McDowell, Josh., The New Evidence That Demands a Verdict, (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers) ©1999. p. 33-34

7For a treatment of this subject, see Josh McDowell and Clay Jones, The Bibliographical Test, Bibliographical-Test-Update-08.13.14.pdf (josh.org), accessed 5/1/2021 or McDowell, Josh., The New Evidence That Demands a Verdict, (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers)©1999. p. 33-34

8Website: Got Questions, What are Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus?, (accessed 5/3/2021), https://www.gotquestions.org/Codex-Sinaiticus-Vaticanus.html

9Erickson, John S. Rev, session sermon, The Divinely Inspired, Inerrant, and Infallible Original Autographs – But Can We Say More?, Lutheran Biblical Inerrancy Conference Indianapolis, IN, August 10 and 11, 1994

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