How Can We Explain Bible Difficulties and the Existence of Hundreds of Thousands of Scribal Errors in Our Manuscripts?

The Reading Culture of Early Christianity From Spoken Words to Sacred Texts 400,000 Textual Variants 02
Edward D. Andrews
EDWARD D. ANDREWS (AS in Criminal Justice, BS in Religion, MA in Biblical Studies, and MDiv in Theology) is CEO and President of Christian Publishing House. He has authored over 120 books. Andrews is the Chief Translator of the Updated American Standard Version (UASV).

Defining Bible Difficulties

Bible critics, be they atheists, agnostics, Muslims, and so on, want to tell us that there are mistakes, errors, and contradictions in the Bible. In fact, they would like us to believe that the Bible is filled with such things. They make this claim because they view the 40+ Bible authors as mere ‘men writing the Bible’ However, we can reply, ‘It is true. About 40+ imperfect men wrote the Bible. But what you call mistakes, errors, or contradictions are actually Bible difficulties. What are Bible difficulties? They are difficulties that arise because the Old Testament 39 Bible books were written 3,500 years ago to 2,500 years ago in ancient Hebrew and Aramaic languages, within dozens of different ancient cultures. The New Testament 27 Bible books were written 2,000 years ago over a fifty-year period in the Koine Greek language, within many different ancient cultures. Thus, difficulties arise because we are from modern-day culture thousands of years removed translating and interpreting ancient languages.

Infallible-Inerrant-Inspired-Circular Reasoning

Yes, the human authors (Jeremiah, Moses, Paul, Peter, John, etc.) and their scribes (Baruch, Tertius, Silvanus) that helped them were imperfect humans like us. But it was God who inspired these men, for they were moved along by the Holy Spirit. What does that mean? It means that the Holy Spirit directed the authors in their dictation to their scribes. In some cases, the Bible authors never used a scribe and authored the books personally. When 2 Timothy 3:16 says, “inspired by God” translates the compound Greek word θεόπνευστος (theopneustos), literally meaning “God-breathed” or “breathed out by God.” 2 Peter 1:21 tells us the process, “… men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit …” The Greek word φερόμενοι (pheromenoi) literally means “being borne along” and is rightly rendered “they [Bible authors] were carried along” or “move along” by the Holy Spirit. So, the Bible books that would be published, copied repeatedly for many centuries, in some cases thousands of years were perfect in that first exemplar (copy). However, this is not the case with the copyists that were to follow. The copyists were not θεόπνευστος (theopneustos), literally meaning “God-breathed” or “breathed out by God.” Nor were they φερόμενοι (pheromenoi) l“being borne along” by the Holy Spirit.

Inspiration and Inerrancy in the Writing Process

In both cases, with the copying of the Hebrew Old Testament and the copying of the Greek New Testament manuscripts, we have periods where scribes took liberties with the text they were copying. The vast majority of our scribal errors were unintentional mistakes by imperfect humans trying to copy tens of thousands of words without making an error. In other cases of intentional errors, the scribes thought they were correcting or enhancing the text. However, most of the period of copying the Hebrew text was done by professional scribes.

The men who copied the Hebrew Scriptures from the days of Ezra and down unto the time of Jesus were called Sopherim, scribes. These men took liberties with the text, making intentional changes, believing that they were improving the text. However, between the 6th and 10th centuries C.E., the Masoretes who saw the text as sacred made no changes to the text itself but chose to record notes within the margins of the text. Unlike the Sopherim before them, they did not take any textual liberties. Moreover, they drew attention to any textual issues, correcting them within the margins.

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The Masoretes were very much concerned with the accurate transmission of each word, even each letter, of the text they were copying. Accuracy was of supreme importance; therefore, the Masoretes use the side margins of each page to inform others of deliberate or inadvertent changes in the text by past copyists. The Masoretes also use these marginal notes for other reasons as well, such as unusual word forms and combinations. They even marked how frequent they occurred within a book or even the whole Hebrew Old Testament. Of course, marginal spaces were very limited, so they used abbreviated code. They formed a cross-checking tool as well, where they would mark the middle word and letter of certain books. As was said above, their push for accuracy moved them to go so far as to count every letter of the Hebrew Old Testament.

Christian copyists were often professional, having immense respect and high regard for the value of the inspired New Testament writings; therefore, they copied them carefully. Many of the early papyri provide evidence that a semi-professional hand-copied them, while most of these early papyri give evidence of being made by a copyist who was literate and experienced at making documents. Therefore, either literate or semi-professional copyists produced the vast majority of our early papyri, with some being made by professionals.

APOSTOLIC FATHERS Lightfoot APOSTOLIC FATHERS

Evidence of Written Deviations from the Original Text

  • Evidence that the early scribe was a professional scribe. It means little if a 6th-9th century scribe was a professional if he is simply professionally copying the scribal errors from his exemplar that had already crept into the text. This is true unless on the rarest occasions if the 9th-century scribe has an exemplar that just so happens to be only six copies removed from the original.
  • Each time a document is copied, mistakes and intentional errors can creep into the text. The number of scribal errors will be dependent on whether the scribe is a meticulous professional, or a semi-professional, or simply one who works with documents. The general rule is, if each time a document is copied, we at least get some imperfect human mistakes at best; then, each subsequent copy will contain most of the errors from the exemplar and new ones. We say some because some scribes have two exemplars and they at times can correct a previous error. Or, they may correct something they perceived to be an error, which was not, and now is an error. Therefore, generally, the further removed a manuscript is from the original, the more ascribal errors it will have than one that is within a few copies of the original.
  • Evidence that the scribe writes with the intention of being careful and accurate
  •  The oldest found to be more accurate because the general principle is: the later the manuscript, the more time for variants to enter the text.
  • Evidence that the scribe had little or no intention of being faithful, in that he changed, added or omitted words, phrases, entire sentences.
  • Then, we must consider the Scriptural quotations from the Apostolic Fathers of the late first and early second centuries C.E., as well as the churchmen who were called Apologists and other early Church Fathers near the middle of the second century C.E. through its end, and the Church Fathers of the third to the fourth centuries C.E., whose readings are found in the text.
  • The readings more often best explain the origin of all the variant readings found in other text-types.
  • There are conciseness and simplicity, meaning that it is shorter than other readings from other texts or families, having little efforts that the scribe tried to improve, refine, or add to his copy.
  • Evidence that the scribe made grammatical and stylistic changes.
  • Evidence that the scribe intentionally made changes to clarify or complete something (combining divergent readings, that is conflation), or harmonize parallel passages.
9781949586121 BIBLE DIFFICULTIES THE NEW TESTAMENT DOCUMENTS

P66 P75 א B

  • P66 Papyrus 66 [150 C.E.] is of the Alexandrian text-type (more trusted). P66 comes to us by way of a professional scribe (practiced calligraphic hand, pagination numbers), a major corrector and a minor corrector. Although, a professional scribe, he took some liberties because he was a Christian and knew the Scriptures well, such as harmonizing John 6:66 to Matt. 16:16 and John 21:6 to Luke 5:5. Another indication of his being a Christian is that he made several singular readings (occurs in only in P66) that reveal that he was reding and interpreting the text. His numerous scribal errors would seem to suggest that he was inattentive at his task of copying but, in fact, he was absorbed with reading and interpreting that, at times, he forgot the word that he was supposed to be copying. Another indication that he was a professional scribe was his pausing to fix his own errors. The diorthōtēs, the person largely concerned with correcting copies according to a different exemplar. The diorthōtēsfixed his singular readings. Some of the singular readings were designed to help the reader, as P66 was made to be read in a church. The scribe of P66 has several omissions as well, some accidental from carelessness or being tired and some being on purpose. Lastly, the scribe of P66 also had a tendency to trim things out of the text where he felt they were unnecessary. See also THE SCRIBE AND CORRECTORS OF P66 (PAPYRUS 66) & PAPYRUS 66 (P66): ONE OF THE EARLIEST AVAILABLE PAPYRI
  • P75 Papyrus 75 [175-225 C.E.] is of the Alexandrian text-type (more trusted). P75 was copied by a professional scribe (tight calligraphy and controlled copying), a Christian, who was very meticulous. Like P66, P75 was written to be read aloud in church. Comfort tells us, “The scribe even added a system of sectional divisions to aid any would-be lector..” P75 is extremely accurate and it is in 85% agreement with Codex Vaticanus. A manuscript like P75 was used to make Codex Vaticanus. Mind you, P75 is only 120 years removed from Luke’s Gospel and a mere 75 years removed from John’s Gospel. Less time for corruption to slip into the text. Of course, P75 is not perfect, as he had to correct himself 116 times. Comfort writes, “The scribe of P75 shows a clear tendency to make grammatical and stylistic improvements in keeping with the Alexandrian scriptorial tradition, and the scribe had a tendency to shorten his text, particularly by dropping pronouns. However, his omissions of text hardly ever extend beyond a word or two, probably because he copied letter by letter and syllable by syllable.” See also TEXTUAL CHARACTER AND THE SCRIBE OF P75 (PAPYRUS 75) & PAPYRUS 75 (P75): THE MANUSCRIPT THAT CHANGED THE THINKING OF TEXTUAL SCHOLARS
  • א Codex Sinaiticus [330-360 C.E.] is of the Alexandrian text-type (more trusted). Scribe A who did almost all of the New Testament had made some strangely serious mistakes. The scribe was not too careful but he intended to be accurate. Scribe A was a professional scribe who made an effort to correct his mistakes. It is true that the scribe A of Sinaiticus was not as careful as the scribe of the Vaticanus. Not only was he more inclined to errors, but to creative corrections. However, scribe D was the best of all the scribes, as he corrects his own work and that of scribe A. Sinaicticus was an early text, meaning less time for corruption. Scribe A had every intention of being faithful to his exemplar. There was no effort made to add to his exmplar. Textual scholars have considered the Codex Sinaiticus to be one of the best Greek texts of the New Testament. See also CODEX SINAITICUS: ONE OF THE MOST RELIABLE WITNESSES TO THE GREEK NEW TESTAMENT TEXT
4th ed. MISREPRESENTING JESUS The Complete Guide to Bible Translation-2
  • B Codex Vaticanus [300-325 C.E.] is of the Alexandrian text-type (more trusted). It is an early manuscript, less time for corruption and its exemplar was early like P75. The scribe was a professional scribe. “Even some of the early manuscripts show compelling evidence of being copies of a much earlier source. Consider again Codex Vaticanus, whose text is very much like that of P75 (B and P75 are much closer to each other than B is to [Codex Sinaiticus]). Yet the papyrus is at least a century older than Vaticanus.” (Komoszewski, M. Sawyer and Wallace 2006, 78) T. C. Skeat, who had an opportunity to do a more extensive examination of the codex, contested the position of a third scribe (C) and argued that there were only two scribes, both working on the Old Testament (A and B), and one of them copying the entire New Testament (B). Other paleographers agree with Skeat. Scribe (A) wrote Genesis through 1 Kings (pp 41–334) and Psalms through Tobias (pages 625–944). Scribe (B) wrote 1 Kings through 2 Esdra (pp 335–624), Hosea through Daniel (pp 945–1234), and the entire New Testament.[13] One corrector worked on Vaticanus soon after its writing, and another corrector from the 10th or 11th century worked on the manuscript. The latter corrector traced over the faded letters with fresh ink. However, he also omitted words and letters he judged to be wrong, as well as adding accent and breathing marks. See also CODEX VATICANUS: WHY A TREASURE?

There is much more that could be said as to what goes into determining the trustworthiness of a manuscript as well as a manuscript family. Just as true of all human families, not every member is representative of the whole. So, not all Alexandrian manuscripts are of the caliber of P75 and Codex Vaticanus but almost all are trustworthy and many had a professional scribe as well.

The Byzantine copyists (5th century to the 12th century) were prone to add to the Greek NT text, to elaborate, and to paraphrase. The Textus Receptus that was made from a handful of 12th-century Byzantine manuscripts, has 2,877 additions to the Codex Vaticanus (300-325 C.E.). KJVOists & TROists decry this, saying they are omissions instead of additions. The Alexandrian copyists (125 C.E. to the 9th century) do not contain these additions. The Alexandrian text-type “is generally shorter than the text of other forms, and it does not exhibit the degree of grammatical and stylistic polishing that is characteristic of the Byzantine type of text.”[1] If the Byzantine text-type (5th-12th cent.) was reflective of the original would it not have been what we found in the papyri manuscripts that date to (125-350 C.E.) that were discovered throughout the 1930s to the 1950s?

English Bible Versions King James Bible KING JAMES BIBLE II

The Textus Receptus Is Dethroned

From 1516 to 1796 New Testament textual scholars would find themselves enslaved to the Greek text of Desiderius Erasmus, which would become known as the Textus Receptus (Received Text), abbreviated as the TR. Erasmus had produced his Greek text with a handful of 12th-century Byzantine manuscripts. In time older and more accurate manuscripts came to light, wherein textual scholars[1] took note of defects in the Textus Receptus. Instead of simply correcting the Textus Receptus’ main text, they would call attention to these flaws in the introductions, margins, and footnotes. In 1734, J. A. Bengel of Tübingen, Germany, made an apology for again printing the Received Text, doing so only “because he could not publish a text of his own. Neither the publisher nor the public would have stood for it,” he complained. (Robertson 1925, 25)

The first one to break free from this enslavement to the Textus Receptus, in the text itself, was Bible scholar J. J. Griesbach (1745-1812). His principal edition comes to us in three volumes, the first in Halle in 1775-7, the second in Halle and London in 1796-1806, and the third at Leipzig in 1803-7. However, Griesbach did not fully break from the Textus Receptus. Nevertheless, Griesbach is the real starting point in the development of classifying the manuscripts into families, setting down principles and rules for establishing the original reading, and using symbols to indicate the degree of certainty as to its being the original reading. We will examine his contributions in more detail below.

Karl Lachmann (1793-1851) was the first scholar fully to get out from under the influence of the Textus Receptus. He was a professor of ancient classical languages at Berlin University. In 1831, he published his edition of the Greek New Testament without any regard to the Textus Receptus. As Samuel MacAuley Jackson expressed it: Lachmann “was the first to found a text wholly on ancient evidence; and his editions, to which his eminent reputation as a critic gave wide currency, especially in Germany, did much toward breaking down the superstitious reverence for the textus receptus.”  Bruce Metzger had harsh words for the era of the Textus Receptus as well:

So superstitious has been the reverence accorded the Textus Receptus that in some cases attempts to criticize it or emend it has been regarded as akin to sacrilege. Yet its textual basis is essentially a handful of late and haphazardly collected minuscule manuscripts, and in a dozen passages its reading is supported by no known Greek witnesses. (Metzger and D 1964, 1968, 1992. 2006, 106)

Subsequent to Lachmann came Friedrich Constantine von Tischendorf (1815-74), best known for his discovery of the famed fourth-century Codex Sinaiticus manuscript, the only Greek uncial manuscript containing the complete Greek New Testament. Tischendorf went further than any other textual scholar to edit and made accessible the evidence contained in leading as well as less important uncial manuscripts. Throughout the time that Tischendorf was making his valuable contributions to the field of textual criticism in Germany, another great scholar, Samuel Prideaux Tregelles (1813-75) in England made other valued contributions. Among them, he was able to establish his concept of “Comparative Criticism.” That is, the age of a text, such as Vaticanus 1209, may not necessarily be that of its manuscript (i.e. the material upon which the text was written), which was copied in 350 C.E., since the text may be a faithful copy of an earlier text, like the second-century P75. Both Tischendorf and Tregelles were determined defenders of divine inspiration of the Scriptures, which likely had much to do with the productivity of their labors. If you take an opportunity to read about the lengths to which Tischendorf went in his discovery of Codex Sinaiticus, you will be moved by his steadfastness and love for God’s Word.

The Climax of the Restored Text

The critical text of Westcott and Hort of 1881 [(FENTON JOHN ANTHONY HORT (1828 – 1892) and BROOKE FOSS WESTCOTT (1825 – 1901)] has been commended by leading textual scholars over the last one hundred and forty years, and still stands as the standard. Numerous additional critical editions of the Greek text came after Westcott and Hort: Richard F. Weymouth (1886), Bernhard Weiss (1894–1900); the British and Foreign Bible Society (1904, 1958), Alexander Souter (1910), Hermann von Soden (1911–1913); and Eberhard Nestle’s Greek text, Novum Testamentum Graece, published in 1898 by the Württemberg Bible Society, Stuttgart, Germany. The Nestle in twelve editions (1898–1923) to subsequently be taken over by his son, Erwin Nestle (13th–20th editions, 1927–1950), followed by Kurt Aland (21st–25th editions, 1952–1963), and lastly, it was coedited by Kurt Aland and Barbara Aland (26th–28th editions, 1979, 1993, 2012).

Many of the above scholars gave their entire lives to God and the Greek text. Each of these could have an entire book devoted to them and their work alone. The amount of work they accomplished before the era of computers is nothing short of astonishing. Rightly, the preceding history should serve to strengthen our faith in the authenticity and general integrity of the Greek New Testament. Unlike Bart D. Ehrman, men like Sir Frederic Kenyon have been moved to say that the books of the Greek New Testament have “come down to us substantially as they were written.” And all this is especially true of the critical scholarship of the almost two hundred years since the days of Karl Lachmann, due to which all today can feel certain that what they hold in their hands is a mirror reflection of the Word of God that was penned in twenty-seven books, some two thousand years ago.

It is true that the Jewish copyists, as well as the later Christian copyists, were not led along by the Holy Spirit and therefore their manuscripts were not inerrant, infallible. Errors (textual variants) crept into the manuscripts unintentionally and intentionally. However, the vast majority of the Hebrew Old Testament and Greek New Testament has not been infected with textual errors. For the portions impacted with textual errors, it is the many tens of thousands of copies that we have to help us to weed out the errors. How? Well, not every copyist made the same textual errors. Hence, by comparing the work of different copyists and different manuscripts, textual scholars, we can identify the textual variants (errors), remove those, which leaves us with the original content.

Yes, it would be the greatest discovery of all time if we found the actual original five books that were penned by Moses himself, Genesis through Deuteronomy. However, first, there would be no way of establishing that they were the originals. Second, truth be told, we do not need the originals. We do not need those original documents. What is so important about the documents? Nothing, it is the content on the original documents that we are after. And truly miraculously, we have more copies than needed to do just that. We do not need miraculous preservation because we have miraculous restoration. We now know beyond a reasonable doubt that the Hebrew Old Testament and the Greek New Testament critical texts are a 99% reflection of the content that was in those ancient original manuscripts.

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