Is the Bible Reliable?

The Bible has been copied and translated so many times that no one can know what Jesus really said.

You can’t possibly believe the Bible is a reliable source of God’s truth! You don’t have the original documents, and no two copies of any manuscript are the same.

If statements like these worry you, infuriate you, or befuddle you, maybe this brief post will help. None of these reactions are necessary, and Christians can be comfortably secure in the tenacious reliability of the Bible. There are many ways one might argue for the reliability of the Bible, but the angle I am going to take here will address something called textual variants.

A textual variant is any difference in spelling, wording, or word order when comparing one manuscript to another (see Dr. Wallace’s article HERE). When we compare each manuscript of the New Testament with the others, we notice textual variants. Copyists differed from one another… often.

The number of textual variants among the New Testament manuscripts currently total about 400,000. This may be staggering (especially if you are new to the idea of textual variants and manuscript comparison), but you can take a deep breath. I’d like to argue that the Bible is tenaciously reliable, and I’ll try to do that through a closer look at textual variants.

First, textual variants are additions, not subtractions. I do not mean that no manuscript copy leaves anything out. I do mean to say that no textual variant removes any information from our treasury of data.

Quite simply, the textual variants in the New Testament manuscript tradition provide 1,074 pieces (not a technically precise number) to a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle. We do not have to wonder if we have all the words of the original authors; we are merely left with the task of fitting the pieces together appropriately and leaving the extras on the side.

Second, textual variants are numerous because we have so many manuscript copies of the New Testament. 400,000 is a lot! Yes, that is true, and it is also to be expected. We currently have nearly 6,000 Greek manuscript copies of the New Testament. That is about 10 times as many as copies Homer’s Iliad and 600 times as many as copies as Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars.

In addition to the Greek manuscript copies, we also have Latin, Slavic, Syriac, Armenian, and others, totaling nearly 20,000. That’s over 25,000 manuscript copies! And, while most copies are not complete New Testament manuscripts, the average length of the content for each one is about 450 pages of written text. The sheer volume of text makes the number of variants (even 400,000 of them) much less surprising for any honest observer.

More manuscript copies (not less) is a very good thing, and these numerous manuscripts are going to contain variants. However, variants do not have to mean uncertainty or confusion. Allow me to illustrate with a very simplistic exercise.

Consider the following copies of an original sentence, and see if you can deduce the original text from the copies I have provided below.

Tha dog ran.

The dag ran.

The dag run.

Tho dod ran.

What is the original sentence? Do you know it? If so, how can you be sure? Not one of these copies is without error, and there are five textual variants in all. That’s five textual variants compared to only three words! How could you possibly know the original statement?

Well, the original is “The dog ran,” of course. You knew that already because the textual variants were understandable errors which did nothing to meaningfully change the text. You also benefit from having more than one or two copies of the original. In fact, more copies would only give you greater certainty as to the original statement – even if every one of those copies added more variants.

This crude and simple illustration helps us to begin to understand the treasure we have in the numerous New Testament manuscript copies. Yes, there are many more variants than we would like; but these variants do not have to obscure the original text, and the greater amount of information only benefits the inquirer.

Third, less than 0.5% of the total number of textual variants in the New Testament manuscript copies are viable. The viability of a variant is measured by the reasonable possibility that the variant could be the original. In other words, the textual critical scholars are not particularly sure if the standard word is original or if the variant word is actually the original (and, therefore, should be the standard). It could be either one, but there is usually a greater possibility of one rendering over another.

Furthermore, only a small number of the viable variants are also meaningful. If a viable variant is meaningful it would change the meaning of the passage or verse, depending on which rendering is original. For example, if my copies listed above would have included “runs” and “ran” an equal number of times and each variation had come from a broad spectrum of sources (date and location), then the variant would be both viable and meaningful. One transmission would be present-tense, singular, indicative and the other would be past-tense, singular, indicative. This would, at least slightly, change the meaning of the text.

Consequently, we can be highly confident that 99.5% of the words in our New Testament are exactly what the original authors wrote. This is incredible accuracy and confidence!

Fourth, all viable textual variants are documented. It is bothersome that there are any viable textual variants, much more frustrating is the idea that some of those are meaningful. However, most modern translations include their textual critical notes as footnotes on each page of Scripture. This means that the reader can know the possible renderings and interpret the passage accordingly.

As was mentioned above, we have too many pieces of the puzzle, not too few. We have 100% of the original New Testament text, plus a handful of potentially authentic alternate renderings in the footnotes. This is a treasury beyond compare!

Fifth, no doctrine or historical fact of Christianity is at risk in any of the viable and meaningful variants. Even today’s best-known textual critical scholar in opposition to biblical Christianity cannot find any significant evidence of doctrine at risk. Dr. Bart Ehrman is certainly not the first textual critical scholar to express antipathy towards orthodox and historic Christianity, but he has proven himself uniquely capable of popularizing such antagonism.

In a brilliantly-worded article (see it HERE), Dr. Ehrman argues that there are significant and meaningful variants. However, the evidence he provides is utterly laughable, especially when it comes from someone of such a sharp intellect. Dr. Ehrman is quite capable of spinning a tale, but he is not able to demonstrate that anything faithful Christians have learned from diligent Bible study is untrue or even at slight risk.

In conclusion, the manuscript copies we have are an “embarrassment of riches” not a problematic heap of chaotic errors (see Dr. Wallace’s argument HERE). Christians can celebrate manuscript discoveries and the clarity we continue to gain from them. Christians can also trust that the Bible they have in their hands is an accurate and faithful transmission of the God-breathed original text of the prophets and Apostles.

Of course, there are good, bad, and better translations, but that is a topic deserving its own treatment…

 

Should that story be in my Bible?

Asking American Evangelicals to read their Bible at all may be asking a lot, so inviting you to read the fine print might sound ridiculous. And yet, this is exactly what I am inviting you to do. Why do some scholars and translators of the Bible believe that John 7:52-8:11 should not be in the Bible? To answer this question, we need to do a little investigative work and a lot of honest critical thinking.

It seems that most Christians simply read right over the translator’s notes in their Bibles. For the average Evangelical, thinking about how the words contained in the Bible got to be “in the Bible” is out of bounds or something only liberals do. However, your Bible (whatever translation you have) was compiled by someone (probably a group) who made analytical decisions about what would be included and what would not.

Some Christians are inclined to investigate these things further, and many non-Christians are all-too-happy to use the discipline of textual criticism against the Bible. My goal in this essay is provide an introductory discourse for the average Bible-reader, and maybe it will benefit the two groups mentioned above as well. Please open your Bible, and let’s consider John 7:53-8:11 (technically known as the pericope adulterae).

First, this story is recorded and well-attested outside of Scripture. In fact, this story is uniquely validated in ancient writings. Whether it is authentic to John’s Gospel, it is almost certainly an accurate record of an event that really took place. Kyle Hughes has done some great study on this matter, and he says,

“We can affirm the essential historicity of the event recorded in PA (or pericope adulterae) to the extent that it is preserved in the Didascalia (a first-through-fourth century compilation of various Christian traditions), since identifying the account with the L source (the source documents from which Luke formed his Gospel) places it into the middle of the first century.”[1]

Here we have a genuine story of Jesus’ interaction with a sinful woman. The grace shown toward her is  incredible, and Jesus is the picture of wisdom. His thoughtful dealing with both the sinner and her accusers is astonishing, and we may all marvel fittingly.

Second, everything in this passage is supported by other Bible verses and passages. This means that we learn nothing new in this story about Jesus, humanity, first-century Pharisees, adultery, Mosaic Law, forgiveness, walking in holiness, grace, obedience, Jesus’ teaching role, prideful rebellion, or humiliating shame.

  • Jesus teaches in the temple (8:2), and He does the same in John 7:28 and numerous times elsewhere.
  • Scribes and Pharisees oppose Jesus and abuse others (8:3-4), and this is nearly the same interaction recorded in John 5:10-16.
  • Jewish leaders try to pit Jesus against Mosaic Law (8:5-6), and they did the same (judging Jesus guilty of blasphemy) in John 10:31-33. There they even tried to stone Jesus to death.
  • Jesus gives grace to the humble and justice to the proud (8:7), and He tells a parable about this very thing (the tax collector and the Pharisee) in Luke 18:9-14.
  • The angry crowd loses interest when Jesus holds His ground (8:9), and this same thing occurred a few times in the previous chapter (Jn. 7:25, 30, 44).
  • Jesus graciously forgives and authoritatively commands obedience from those who believe (8:10-11), and He does the same in John 8:31-32. He also used the same language of “Go, and sin no more” on another occasion, talking to the crippled man (seemingly an unbeliever) in John 5:14.

In short, the passage is a potent story, exemplifying in vivid form what we already know from the Bible’s teaching elsewhere. This means that the story is not essential to the teaching of John’s Gospel or the Bible as a whole. Now that does not necessarily mean the passage does not belong; it merely reminds us that we may conclude the passage is inauthentic without also jettisoning critical biblical teaching.

Third, there is nothing crucial to Christian doctrine or history in this passage. As stated above, nothing in this story is unique or critical to the biblical record. We learn nothing new here, and no essential (or even peripheral) Christian doctrine hinges on the inclusion or exclusion of this passage.

Fourth (this is the more controversial stuff), we must take note of the textual variant. In my ESV translation there is a brief statement included in the biblical text: “Some manuscripts do not include 7:53–8:11;” and the footnote below also says, “other [manuscripts] add the passage here or after 7:36 or after 21:25 or after Luke 21:38…”[2]

If you are like most Christians, this is enough to make you want to stop reading immediately. This kind of thing is scary, and only those people who hate the Bible want to emphasize things like this, right? On the contrary, I love the Bible, and I believe the Bible is tenaciously reliable. But, I believe we must start from a posture of open-eyed honesty.

Furthermore, we all must make a decision that will inevitably reject the testimony of at least some biblical manuscript copies. Yes, that’s right… your decision to accept John 7:53-8:11 as authentic to John’s Gospel will necessarily be a rejection of those manuscript copies that do not include this story. Or, your decision to reject John 7:53-8:11 and inauthentic to John’s Gospel will also be a rejection of those manuscripts that do include the story.

Either way, you are rejecting at least some manuscripts of the biblical text and accepting others. There is no decision that doesn’t require a critical assessment of the biblical text we have received from those who copied what they believed to be the original text of the New Testament.

Fifth, scholars and theologians are mixed on their assessment of this passage. Some say it is authentic and others say it is not.

For example,

A.W. Pink said, “The one who is led and taught by the Spirit of God need not waste valuable time examining ancient manuscripts for the purpose of discovering whether or not this portion of the Bible is really a part of God’s own Word… The internal evidence…and the spiritual indications…are far more weighty than external considerations.”[3]

On the other side,

D.A. Carson said, “The diversity of placement [of this story in various manuscripts] confirms the inauthenticity of the verses.” And, he said, “even if someone should decide that the material is authentic, it would be very difficult to justify the view that the material is authentically Johannine (or written by John).”[4]

While some pastoral theologians are inclined to label the passage as authentic, I am unaware of any textual critical scholar who wants to make a case for it. In fact, some textual critical scholars are so convinced it is unauthentic that they are calling translators to stop including this passage among the biblical text.

Daniel B. Wallace said, “I am calling for translators to remove this text from the Gospel of John and relegate it to the footnotes. Although this will be painful and will cause initial confusion, it is far better that laypeople hear the truth about scripture from their friends than from their enemies. They need to know that Christ-honoring, Bible-believing scholars also do not think that this text is authentic, and that such a stance has not shaken their faith one iota.”[5]

So, what is the technical case that motivates such a strong statement from Dr. Wallace?

Here are five points to argue against the authenticity of John 7:53-8:11.

  1. It is absent from the earliest and best manuscripts (copies of NT text). It does not show up in the manuscripts of John’s Gospel until the fourth or fifth century.
  2. It is sporadically introduced in the manuscript copies. When it does come into the manuscript tradition of John’s Gospel it is placed here, after Jn. 7:44, 7:36, or 21:25; some place it after Luke 21:38.[6] Daniel Wallace says it is “a story looking for a home.”
  3. None of the earliest church fathers (those who followed immediately behind the Apostles) commented on this passage in their biblical commentaries – they go straight from 7:52 to 8:12.
  4. The internal structure of the storyline John 7:52 to 8:12 is clearer and more sensible without the addition of an interval of a day (8:1-11). Jesus’ statement in 8:12 is particularly potent because it coincides with the activities of the “great day” of the feast (7:37).
  5. It contains several phrases and sentence constructions which more resemble Luke’s writings than John’s. In fact, at least one textual scholar thinks the story may well have been part of Luke’s source material from which he wrote his own Gospel (see Kyle Hughes’ note above).

For a more detailed treatment, see the NET Bible’s Textual Critical note.[7] In short, the editors conclude that the passage is unoriginal and unauthentic.[8]

No doubt, there are good and faithful Christians (even some much more scholarly and thoughtful than myself) who accept this story as authentic to John’s Gospel. This issue is not something that must divide Christians, but it is also not something unimportant to Christians. On the contrary, the matter is of great importance to anyone who believes God has spoken. Since God has spoken, we must be very careful to pay attention to what He has said, and we must also be very careful to guard our mouths against claiming divine authority for only those words that have actually come from God.

Wherever you land in this discussion, may God help us all to give effort and consideration to His holy word.

 


For the interested reader, I have also written an article in defense of the reliability of the Bible. You may see it HERE. Thanks for reading.


 

[1] See Hughes’ full article here: https://danielbwallace.com/2013/06/26/where-is-the-story-of-the-woman-caught-in-adultery-really-from/

[2] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.

[3] Pink, A. W. (1923–1945). Exposition of the Gospel of John (p. 417). Swengel, PA: Bible Truth Depot.

[4] Carson, D. A. (1991). The Gospel according to John (p. 333). Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press; W.B. Eerdmans.

[5] See Wallace’s full article here: https://bible.org/article/my-favorite-passage-thats-not-bible

[6] “Although most of the manuscripts that include the story place it here (i.e. at 7:53–8:11), some place it instead after Luke 21:38, and other witnesses variously place it after John 7:44, John 7:36 or John 21:25.” He concludes, “The diversity of placement confirms the inauthenticity of the verses.” Carson, D. A. (1991). The Gospel according to John (p. 333). Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press; W.B. Eerdmans.

[7] “This entire section, 7:53–8:11, traditionally known as the pericope adulterae, is not contained in the earliest and best MSS and was almost certainly not an original part of the Gospel of John. Among modern commentators and textual critics, it is a foregone conclusion that the section is not original but represents a later addition to the text of the Gospel. B. M. Metzger summarizes: “the evidence for the non-Johannine origin of the pericope of the adulteress is overwhelming” (TCGNT 187). External evidence is as follows. For the omission of 7:53–8:11: 𝔓66, 75 א B L N T W Δ Θ Ψ 0141 0211 33 565 1241 1424* 2768 al. In addition, codices A and C are defective in this part of John, but it appears that neither contained the pericope because careful measurement shows that there would not have been enough space on the missing pages to include the pericope 7:53–8:11 along with the rest of the text. Among the MSS that include 7:53–8:11 are D 𝔐 lat. In addition E S Λ 1424mg al include part or all of the passage with asterisks or obeli, 225 places the pericope after John 7:36, f1 places it after John 21:25, {115} after John 8:12, f13 after Luke 21:38, and the corrector of 1333 includes it after Luke 24:53. (For a more complete discussion of the locations where this “floating” text has ended up, as well as a minority opinion on the authenticity of the passage, see M. A. Robinson, “Preliminary Observations regarding the Pericope Adulterae Based upon Fresh Collations of nearly All Continuous-Text Manuscripts and All Lectionary Manuscripts containing the Passage,” Filologia Neotestamentaria 13 [2000]: 35–59, especially 41–42.)… But before one can conclude that the passage was not originally part of the Gospel of John, internal evidence needs to be considered as well… Internal evidence against the inclusion of 8:1–11 (7:53–8:11): (1) In reply to the claim that the introduction to the pericope, 7:53, fits the context, it should also be noted that the narrative reads well without the pericope, so that Jesus’ reply in 8:12 is directed against the charge of the Pharisees in 7:52 that no prophet comes from Galilee. (2) The assumption that the author “must” somehow work Isa 9:1–2 into the narrative is simply that—an assumption. The statement by the Pharisees in 7:52 about Jesus’ Galilean origins is allowed to stand without correction by the author, although one might have expected him to mention that Jesus was really born in Bethlehem. And 8:12 does directly mention Jesus’ claim to be the Light of the world. The author may well have presumed familiarity with Isa 9:1–2 on the part of his readers because of its widespread association with Jesus among early Christians. (3) The fact that the pericope deals with the light/darkness motif does not inherently strengthen its claim to authenticity, because the motif is so prominent in the Fourth Gospel that it may well have been the reason why someone felt that the pericope, circulating as an independent tradition, fit so well here. (4) In general the style of the pericope is not Johannine either in vocabulary or grammar (see D. B. Wallace, “Reconsidering ‘The Story of the Woman Taken in Adultery Reconsidered’,” NTS 39 [1993]: 290–96). According to R. E. Brown it is closer stylistically to Lukan material (John [AB], 1:336). Interestingly one important family of MSS (f13) places the pericope after Luke 21:38. Conclusion: In the final analysis, the weight of evidence in this case must go with the external evidence. The earliest and best MSS do not contain the pericope. It is true with regard to internal evidence that an attractive case can be made for inclusion, but this is by nature subjective (as evidenced by the fact that strong arguments can be given against such as well). In terms of internal factors like vocabulary and style, the pericope does not stand up very well. The question may be asked whether this incident, although not an original part of the Gospel of John, should be regarded as an authentic tradition about Jesus. It could well be that it is ancient and may indeed represent an unusual instance where such a tradition survived outside of the bounds of the canonical literature. However, even that needs to be nuanced (see B. D. Ehrman, “Jesus and the Adulteress,” NTS 34 [1988]: 24–44).”

[8] The NET Bible editors concluding Scriptural Note: “Double brackets have been placed around this passage to indicate that most likely it was not part of the original text of the Gospel of John. In spite of this, the passage has an important role in the history of the transmission of the text, so it has been included in the translation.”

God’s Reliable Word

“The law (rule and instruction) of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul; the testimony (witness) of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple…” (Psalm 19:7).

One very popular Evangelical preacher in America recently said, “Christianity does not exist because of the Bible.” He then offered what he called a ‘grown up’ version of Christianity to those who feel less-than-confident about the Bible. Outside of the Christian community, scholars and critics are loudly casting doubt upon the Bible. The barrage of skepticism and ridicule has left many Christians and non-Christians alike with little (if any) trust in the reliability of the Bible.

Amid all of this, many faithful Christians are simply naïve in their own understanding about the reliability and credibility of the Bible. Many try to hold and defend unwarranted views, and this can cause even more fear and frustration.

The faithful translations of the Bible we have today are indeed trustworthy.

Even the most skeptical researchers admit that 99.5% of the original New Testament text is clearly recorded in our Bibles. Furthermore, the tiny number of lingering uncertainties are all documented in any modern English translation, and they have no impact whatsoever on any doctrine or historical fact of Christianity.

The vital point we must remember is that 100% of the original New Testament text is in our Bible, but a very tiny portion of it is either in the main text or in the footnotes. Since we are not sure which variation is original, each possible rendering is included, and the most likely rendering is placed in the main text.

Simply put, we have 100% of the original New Testament, we have honest and trustworthy renderings of the original Scriptures in our Bibles today, and there is no uncertainty about what the Bible intends to teach.

Still More Simple A’s for Common Bible Translation Q’s

This is the third installment of my series “Simple A’s for Common Bible Translation Q’s.” Pastorally, these kinds of questions arise frequently, but I think Christians are often a bit embarrassed to ask them. So you know, you are not the only one who wonders about these things… There are many others who do too.

Anyway, here is a couple more Bible translation Q’s and a couple more simple A’s.

1) What is the best Bible translation today?

This is a hard question to answer… for a few reasons. First, assuming you are interested in an English translation, there are several good ones to choose from. Each has distinctive features that contribute to the overall value of the translation. It is hard to say that one is ‘better’ than another, simply because they each aim at different targets. While every faithful translation is the most valuable book you could own, they are not all the same, nor do they seek to be.

Second, your own personal perspective is going to have an impact on the Bible translation that suits you best. If you grew up with the King James Version (KJV), and you memorized passages and familiarized yourself with your Bible, then you may find it a bit frustrating to move away from that translation. On the other hand, if you are new to Christianity, and you are not familiar with the Old English dialect, then the KJV could be a barrier to growth in understanding. Your life experience, your education level, your willingness to learn, and your spiritual maturity may all factor into the answer I might pastorally give for which Bible translation is best for you.

Third, new material, better scholarship, and even higher levels of technological advance are major reasons for the explosion of Bible translation in the 20th and 21st centuries. This means that there are advances in Bible translation being made at warp speed (comparatively speaking). Many pastors, theologians, and average Christians are finding that multiple translations and digital forms of textual comparison and critical analysis are a great way to dive deeply into the biblical text.

I like the English Standard Version (ESV) for personal reading, memorization, and preaching. I find it to be a faithful and accessible translation. I think the New American Standard Bible (NASB) is a great translation for study, but it can sometimes be not-so-smooth in its readability. A newer Bible on the scene is the NET Bible. I like this one for higher levels of study and sermon preparation because it includes a plethora of translator’s notes beneath the Scripture. This way, the reader can not only see what the translators believe is an accurate translation, the reader can also get a quick defense of the rationale behind the text.[1]

2) What is a Study Bible? And, aren’t they all the same?

In short, a Study Bible is a book containing both the biblical text and some interpretive commentary, definitions, and even articles. The best Study Bibles include book introductions that answer basic questions of authorship, dating, audience, purpose, genre, structure, and specific theological features. Additionally, Study Bibles will sometimes insert a brief article on an especially foundational or complex or lofty idea. All of this can be a great help to the reader.

Of particular interest to many Study Bible readers is the commentary on the bottom of each page. Numerous scholars have contributed to or personally compiled notes for use in a Study Bible. With ease, the reader can find the footnote number beside a difficult-to-understand word or passage and match it with the interpretive note below. It is like having a Bible scholar beside you as you read the Bible, except you don’t have to feed him or listen to him ramble on and on and on… about the stuff you are less interested in learning about at the moment.

Study Bibles are not all the same, and this is my first of two cautions regarding Study Bibles. Only the word of God is inerrant and completely trustworthy, so you must place your trust in Bible teachers carefully. Furthermore, keep in mind that even the best Bible teachers have areas of greater and lesser familiarity. Not only should you be thoughtful about the teachers you trust, you should also know that whoever you trust (even if he or she is awesome) is not going to get everything perfect. Most of the recently published Study Bibles, aware of this reality, have included notes from many contributors – each an expert in a different field of study. I like the ESV Study Bible, the Reformation Study Bible, and the Gospel Transformation Bible (each having different strengths).

My second caution to those who treasure Study Bibles (as I do) is to always remember that Scripture stops when the notes begin. I have met and talked with many Christians who have diligently read their Study Bibles and greatly benefitted from the interpretive notes. However, some of those have proved themselves unable to accept any counter-interpretation to the one they read on the bottom of their Study Bible page.

It may well be that the contributor to your Study Bible is a wonderful exegete, and he or she may have marvelous insight, and the interpretation you see there may sound quite convincing to you, but it is (at best) an educated interpretation of holy Scripture. Faithful Bible students will do well to humbly submit themselves to quality Bible teaching, and they will do better still to humbly submit themselves to the word of God itself. Only Scripture, God’s holy word, is capable of perfection on every count.

I hope that these brief answers have been a help to you. As I mentioned above, this is the third post in a series. Be sure to check out “Simple A’s for Common Bible Translation Q’s” and “More Simple A’s for Common Bible Translation Q’s.”

Also, let me know about your Bible Translation Q in the comments below. I’d be glad to try and help.

Thanks for reading.

 

[1] I once was a fan of the New International Version (NIV – 1984 edition), but I no longer recommend using the NIV. Here is another post I made to briefly explain why: “Is the NIV Good or Bad?

More Simple A’s for Common Bible Translation Q’s

I recently posted a couple of answers to some common questions regarding Bible translation, but I realized that there are several questions along this line of thinking that I’d like to address. Neither my first post nor this one (nor any further post in this series) is designed as an exhaustive address. Instead, I am trying to offer simple answers for common and basic questions.

For more thorough information on this subject, I have compiled a handful of resources, which I recommend to the interested reader. See my list of books and articles, titled, “Pastoral Counsel on Bible Translation Questions.”

If you are looking for a simpler and shorter answer to some basic questions, then here are a couple more for you.

1) Is the Bible in my hand the word of God?

When someone begins to think about the possible or actual errors a translation might have, it is likely that they will wonder if the translation is trustworthy at all. While this does seem to be the logical progression, it is not where the analytical progress should end. A multitude of questions will further impact one’s answer to the main question here.

Just how many textual variants are there in my translation? If one word out of every 1,000 is questionable as to whether it is original, then the reader may be quite content that the message is getting through loud and clear. It is quite encouraging to note that the textual variants among the biblical manuscripts and the resulting translation issues are minuscule.

Do any of these variants impact the message of the biblical text, or are they dealing with lesser content? The reality of variants does not necessarily mean that there is any variation in the message and/or content. In fact, it is often noted that the textual variants we do see among biblical manuscripts and translations are almost all inconsequential. This means that even those words or verses that translators still question almost never have anything to do with the actual message of Scripture.

Does my Bible have anything missing? This is the assumption that often causes the most grief among Christians. People assume that a textual variant means that they do not have the complete word of God. However, this is simply not the case. If we were putting a 100-piece jigsaw puzzle together with 3 or 4 pieces missing, we would have a big problem. But, if we had 107 pieces, then we would still have work to do, but the situation is not dire at all. This is the case with the biblical text. We are not missing anything, but we do find extra pieces sometimes.

These are just a few of the questions we should ask before we dismiss a translation of Scripture. When some translation errors are known, it is cause for further investigation, but we need not fear that God’s word is no longer available to us. In fact, we may have great confidence that the word of God is exactly what we have in our hands – if we have a faithful and accurate translation of the Bible.

2) How do I know if I have a faithful and accurate translation of the Bible?

Let’s all take a deep breath… You do not have to be an expert in ancient languages, or in Church history, or in textual criticism to know if your translation of the Bible is accurate and faithful. Nor can anyone live very long as a hyper-skeptic. If you assume everyone is wrong (or, worse, malicious), then what will you eat for lunch? You have to trust at least several restaurant employees, the grocer, the transporter, the manufacturer, the harvester, the farmer/rancher, and a host of other people along the way.

If we are willing to acknowledge that credible translators are generally trustworthy, that they tell the truth about their methods and intentions (which we should be willing to do), then a helpful place to begin is the preface of your Bible translation.[1] Each translation of the Bible on my desk right now (NET, ESV, NIV, and CSB) has a section at the beginning (titled “Preface”), where the translators explain their methodology and purpose behind their particular translation. This gives the reader the opportunity to know and understand some of the basic background of the Bible in their hands.

Additionally, some research can be done on any translation of the Bible by simply surfing the web for articles and websites that will further one’s knowledge of the who, the what, and the how behind it. Scholars (and especially Bible scholars) love to speak and write about academic things, and it should not be hard to find more information than you want about the scholarship undergirding your translation.

Allow me to make one more note on this question, and this is more important than everything else I have said earlier. One cannot overestimate or overstate the importance of the local church and the combined resources of many local churches.

If you do not have a pastor, you should drop everything and find a way to attach yourself to a good one. If you do have a pastor, then you should ask him about Bible translations and his recommendations. He will likely be overjoyed that you care about this and that you desire his input.

If you cannot get in touch with your pastor, then you don’t actually have a pastor, and you need to (as I said before) drop everything and find a way to attach yourself to a good one. A pastor is responsible for the care of your soul, so if your pastor is inaccessible, then he and/or you have a wrong impression of what a pastor is.

If he doesn’t know about translation issues, then give him time to research it. It may have been a while since he studied these issues, or he may not be aware of textual critical issues just yet. A good pastor is always learning, and he and you will both benefit from his research. If he doesn’t feel capable in this area, he may point you towards quality resources, and this too will benefit you. If he doesn’t care about or avoids translation issues, then find another pastor.

Furthermore, bring this topic up with your small group or Sunday school class. You might be surprised to learn that there are others who have the same questions you do, and you might even learn that someone in your group can be a good help.

All of this is to say that faithful Bible translations come from and are maintained by faithful communities of Christians. The Church, the body of Christ, is the pillar and buttress of truth (1 Tim. 3:15), and the biblical text is that which we are to uphold and preserve and pass on, so that others may do the same.

There are still another couple of questions that I have not yet addressed, so I will post another addition to this series very soon. Look for “Still More Simple A’s for Common Bible Translation Q’s.”

Don’t forget to add your Bible translation Q in the comments below.

Thanks for reading.

 

[1] While there are numerous trustworthy English translations, there are also deep concerns regarding the fidelity of other translations. Some translations make intentional adjustments, which are unnecessary and potentially damaging (such as the “Today’s New International Version of the Bible” or TNIV). Some translations make ideologically-motivated adjustments, which are theologically erroneous and heretical (such as the “New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures” or NWT). This is why I said, “credible translators are generally trustworthy… they tell the truth about their methods and intentions…” One should seek credible sources of scholarship, and the help of a pastor and church family is greatly recommended.

Simple A’s for Common Bible Translation Q’s

One of the benefits of expositional preaching (preaching through books of the Bible) is the inevitability of stumbling upon some topic you would have otherwise neglected. Recently, at FBC Diana, I attempted to explain why there are a couple of verses missing in some translations of John chapter 5.[1] This is not a topic that I would have chosen out of the blue, but I think it is an important one nonetheless.

I also realize that discussing something like this can cause some heartburn for many Christians, so I’d like to offer a brief encouragement. When I first became exposed to textual criticism (the study of the compilation and transmission of a text), I admit that I too was quite intimidated.[2] The whole area of study felt strange to me, and I struggled with several aspects of the discipline. However, I have come to appreciate the honesty and solidarity such a discipline produces when one practices it appropriately.

If you will allow me, I would like to present my encouragement in the form of direct answers to several common questions.

1) Why do people think they can change the Bible?

Translators do not set out to change the Bible (at least not usually). Translators endeavor to make the original text in the original languages accessible to contemporary and language-specific readers. In other words, they want to make the words of the prophets and Apostles known to a particular people group.

English-speaking people cannot usually read or understand Greek, Hebrew, or Aramaic, so translators seek to do the hard work of translating the text for them. The very act of translating from one language to another will inevitably lead to some (at least minor) variation in vocabulary. Figures of speech and poetic phrases only further complicate the matter.

So, translators do not maliciously change the Bible. But, they do seek to make the best use of the resources they have by translating the words of the Bible in a way that makes them understandable and faithful to the original text. This is a task of great value, and it benefits all Christians everywhere.

2) Doesn’t Jesus warn us about taking anything away from the Bible?

Well, yes and no… The warning of Jesus, in Revelation 22:19, specifically refers to the prophecies found in the book of Revelation. I think the warning may also apply to the broader text of the Bible too, and it is never a good idea to reject any words from Christ. Therefore, yes, we ought not to take anything away from the biblical text.

However, this is not what translators are doing when they remove some portions of previous translations of the Bible. Let me explain.

In the portion of Scripture we recently covered at FBC Diana (John 5:3-4), we saw that later translations of the Bible either noted the textual variant (telling the reader that the verses were not part of the earliest biblical manuscripts) or they excluded the verses altogether. But the translators did not “take away from the Bible.” Instead, they sought to include only what the Bible originally included, and exclude what the original biblical text did not include.

Since Bible translation began, each generation of translators has had to compare translations with the best available evidence for the original content. This has always caused translators to add to and subtract from previous translations, but they do not add to or subtract from the biblical content itself. The question we should ask is not, “Why did they remove that from my Bible?” Instead, we should ask, “Was that portion removed because it was included in my translation of the Bible in error?”

Translators do sometimes remove verses or portions of them from previous translations, but this is never an attack on the biblical text itself. Translators are simply seeking to make the original text known, and keep the unoriginal text from getting in the way.

This post is already longer than I intended, so I will pick up with some more questions on a later post. Look for “More Simple A’s for Common Bible Translation Q’s.”

Please comment with your Bible Translation Q. I’d be glad to try and help.

Thanks for reading.

 

[1] For an academic address of this issue regarding the specific text, see Gordon Fee’s “On the Inauthenticity of John 5:3b-4

[2] For a very basic introduction to textual criticism, see my own brief article titled, “A Simple Introduction to Textual Criticism

Pastoral Counsel on Bible Translation Questions

On my blog, I have posted a series of Q & A’s regarding Bible translation questions (“Simple A’s for Common Bible Translation Q’s“). This series is meant to be an introduction, only simple answers to some common questions, but I thought it would be helpful to throw out some more extensive help. Since there are others who are much more capable than I in this area of study, and since I have benefitted from the work of others, I am happy to share these with you.

These are some good resources for anyone interested in more deeply investigating Bible compilation, translation, and textual critical matters.

How We Got the Bible” by Dr. Timothy Paul Jones

This author is easy to read, and his material is great. This will be a great introduction to the topics of canon, the reliability of the biblical text, and the accuracy of the Bible we have today.

Scripture Alone” by Dr. James White

This author is also easy to read, but he will also bring added technical analysis to the reader. Dr. White is a strong defender of orthodox, conservative Christianity at a high level of academia. This will be a great introduction to understanding the Bible’s authority, in addition to its accuracy and authenticity.

The Question of Canon” and “Canon Revisited” by Dr. Michael Kruger

This author is for more proficient readers, and his work is some of the best in this field. This book will also delve deeply into the issues of biblical authority, reliability, and (of course) canonicity. A fresh voice with a sharp mind grounded in historical and authentic Christianity, Dr. Kruger’s work will be a great benefit to anyone who takes the time to read it.

The King James Only Controversy: Can You Trust Modern Translations?” by Dr. James White

As noted above, Dr. White is both technical and easier to read than many scholars. While this book is particularly addressing textual issues related to the King James translation of Scripture, Dr. White engages in textual criticism at a good pace here. Textual criticism can be an intimidating and vast area of study, but this book is a great place to start.

New International Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties” by Gleason Archer

Every diligent Bible student is going to eventually come across verses and/or passages that are difficult to reconcile. This is a great book to have on hand as you arrive upon those difficulties. While wrestling with the Scriptures in community and fellowship with other believers is the best way to grow in biblical maturity, it is nice to eventually be able to look up the right answer somewhere. This is that kind of book.

I hope these will be a benefit to you.

May God grant us grace and wisdom as we seek to know and love Him better through His magnificent word.