A Relic or Reliable Revelation?
(This is the sixth part of The Bible: A Relic or Reliable Revelation? I've broken the whole talk up into smaller sections, the rest of which can be found through the links on the Bible Section page. For online reading I recommend reading the shorter sections successively. To view the document with the whole talk in it Click Here. To view the rest of the parts of the talk Click Here. It does not contain numbered endnotes but you can find a list of references used at the end.)
There is another test that historians use called the Bibliographic Test. The Bibliographic Test determines the accuracy of the copies. Obviously, the more accurate the copies, the closer they reflect the reality of what actually happened. To do this we must know two things: (1) how much time elapsed between the original and the oldest copies, and (2) how many copies there are. Common sense tells us that the closer the copies are in time to the originals the more reliable they are likely to be; and the more copies there are the easier it is to catch any changes made.
First, let's deal with the difference in time between the originals and the oldest copies that we possess. To put the original Gospel documents and their copies in perspective let's compare them to other important ancient documents and their copies. If we took a representative sample of ancient literature, it would include some familiar names like Plato, Aristotle, Tacitus, Herodotus, Sophocles, Homer and others. On average, the oldest copies that we possess of these ancient writers were made around a thousand years after the originals were written. There were copies made during that thousand years, but either they didn't survive or have not been discovered yet. So the oldest ones we have were made around a thousand years after the originals.
So, for example, Plato lived and wrote around 400 BC. The oldest copy anyone possesses is from around 900 AD. That is a difference of about 1,300 years. Tacitus who was one of the most important historians of Rome wrote in around 100 AD. But the oldest copy we have of his writings is from around 1100 AD. That is a time span of a thousand years. Now Homer is a little better. There was only a time span of about 500 years between his writings and the oldest copies. But this is a major exception, and 500 years is still a long time. In big, bold, bright, beautiful contrast, the oldest copies we have of the NT documents. The original NT documents were written between around 60 and 100 AD. We have manuscript copies that date from around 120 AD to the early 300's. Let's do the math. The maximum time difference between the oldest originals in around 50 AD to the copies in the early 300's is only around 250 years. Many of the copies are earlier than that. So this is not much time. Why is this significant? Schoars have determined this is not enough time for major changes to occur during the copy process. As a modern day example, we still have the original Declaration of Independence and Constitution to compare copies to.
The second issue in helping to establish the accuracy of the copies is the number of copies. Let's contrast the number of copies with other ancient historical literature. Let's return to our representative sample of ancient writers. Again, Homer is better. There are 643 copies of Homer's Iliad. He was no doubt the most widely read author back then. But, again, he is by far a major exception. Did you know we only have 7 copies of Plato's works? We only have 20 copies of the works of Tacitus. We only have 5 copies of Aristotle's writings. I could go on but the numbers are very similar. Now what about the NT copies? How many do we have? We have approximately 5,000 Greek copies, about 8,000 Latin copies and more than 350 Syriac copies all done by the early 400's AD. Now that is impressive!
The third issue is how do we know if they were accurate copies and not full of intentional or unintentional errors? Well, there are many principles and techniques that historians use to validate the accuracy of copies. This is both an art and a science that is used on other ancient literary works as well. We apply the same principles and techniques in forensic investigations today. I will spare you all the detail and just give you the bottom line. If you really are interested in learning more about this or anything I've talked about today I will be more than happy to help you explore it further.
The bottom line is this: scholars have concluded the Greek manuscripts from which we translate our English Bibles are 98% genuine. That is, only about 2 percent varies from the original manuscripts. These variations are minor as they are mostly things like different spellings of names of people and places. None of the variations make a difference in the meaning of the passage or the theological doctrines that make up Christianity. That is amazing! Did God superintend this process or not?
The final step in the process of transmitting God's revelation to us is the translation of those accurate copies into our own language. I believe it is a waste of time and emotional energy to try to argue that one translation is the only "right" translation. The issue in translation is how "wooden" you want it to be.
And this variation occurs in a continuum. On one extreme, you can translate the Greek word by word to preserve the original word order but it won't be very easy to read in English. You can loosen the translation a little bit to rearrange the English words in the order in which we are used to reading them. It would still be an accurate translation. You can loosen it still more to emphasize more of the flow of thoughts and ideas rather than the individual words. Finally, on the other extreme is a paraphrase like the Living Bible.
The question is not which translation is the right translation? The question is which is the best translation for your purposes right now? If you are doing an in depth, analytical study of a passage but can't study it in the Greek then a more wooden translation like the New King James or the New International Version is the best. If you are having a Quiet Time and just want to catch the major ideas then a paraphrase like the Living Bible might serve you better. But the bottom line is that anyone can get most of the meaning of the original text by studying any of the English translations.
OK. So we have a large number of copies made within a short period of time after the originals were penned. These copies are 98% genuine. The English translations we study today are accurate. What does all this mean? Well, this is the key point I want to make as clear as I can. This is why I'm up here today. What all this shows is that our modern Bibles are accurate translations of accurate copies of the original manuscripts written by authors like Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. When we read what Jesus taught and when we read the accounts of Jesus healing people, and when we read how Jesus was crucified, buried and then seen alive again we can be certain that these things really did happen. It's all true. If we apply the same tests to the rest of the New Testament and to the Old Testament, we come up with the same results there, as well. No one who learns the facts can still say with intellectual honesty that the Bible we have today is not an accurate representation of what really happened. It is not full of myths and legends and contradictions. It is what really happened in the land of Palestine involving real people just like you and me.
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