Monday, March 31, 2014

3. How can we trust the Bible after all that copying & translating over the years?

The short answer on translations is new translations are based on the oldest greek & hebrew text. They are not translations of translations of translations. A difference in wording between modern translations like the Lord's Prayer in Mt. 6:12 (...forgive us our debts vs. trespasses or sins), means translators disagree on what phrase best expresses the original idea.  The short answer on copying is that we can compare copies & see where they differ.  There are no variations that affect the basic story of Jesus' life, death & resurrection.

It turns out people were very, very good at copying, because there are more copies of the greek New Testament (NT) than any other ancient document.  Last number I saw was around 5800 early copies or partial copies of the greek NT.  If we include the early copies in other languages, the number climbs to 25,000 copies total.  In contrast Homer's Iliad is the book that has the 2nd highest number with only 643 copies of it surviving the centuries.

Comparisons between all these copies show very few significant differences.  The most common variation is the greek equivalent of confusing a vs. an in english.  Is it a hospital or an hospital? And oregano is an herb in your garden, but your family may have a Herb in it as well.  In greek this difference is expressed as an extra n at the end of word like english uses an extra s to indicate a plural word.  Well, let's get out the whips & flog those scribes for making these huge mistakes.  I ain't never used bad grammar in my life & I'm not going to let them get away with it. Oh, they're already dead, uh, never mind.  As far as grammar goes, the Bible is definitely not free of mistakes, but that does not affect the meaning of the text.

The 2nd most common variation is a difference in word order.  This isn't in the Bible, but it illustrates the point.  'Jesus and the disciples ate the Last Supper together on Thursday night.' is a different word order than 'On Thursday night the disciples and Jesus ate the Last Supper together.'  The two sentences are not identical in word order, but the meaning is identical in both cases.  When the jews memorized sections of the Torah & recited them from memory, variations like this were considered acceptable and definitely not errors, because the facts were still correct.  It's not surprising to find examples of this in the early manuscripts.

In the New Testament, there are only 2 passages that are questionable, John 8:1-11 & Mark 16:9-20.  The first is the story of the adulterous woman.  The crowd is about to stone her when Jesus tells them to let he who is without sin cast the first stone.  It's makes the point that we should not be too quick to judge & love can be more important than punishment. These points are also made elsewhere. If you leave it out of the NT entirely, it still doesn't affect the basic underlying story of the crucifixion & resurrection. In my New International Version (NIV) Study Bible this section is clearly marked with this comment: "The earliest and most reliable manuscripts and other ancient witnesses do not have Jn 7:53-8:11."

Mark 16:9-20 has a very similar comment before it. Chapter 16 is the last chapter in Mark & in the shorter version it describes the events of Easter morning. The women find the empty tomb & they are told by a young man that Jesus is not there, because he has risen.  The questionable longer ending in verses 9-20 is a discussion of his appearances after the resurrection. It could be left out and not harm the conclusion that Mark reported the resurrection of Jesus.  There are also resurrections details in the other gospels & in 1 Corinthians 15.

I've mostly focused on the NT here, because that is where Jesus' resurrection is discussed. I would also point out, though, that the Old Testament scribes were very picky when they copied scrolls. They couldn't whip out their bottle of Wite-out and fix things up when there was a mistake.  They did compare the old scroll to the new one.  If there was a single error when they copied the scroll, they killed the scribe, so he wouldn't do it again.  No, no, that's just the little devil on my shoulder talking.  It wasn't like that at all.  They just destroyed the scroll. That could be months of the scribe's best handwritten work. I'd guess they didn't break out little party hats & noisemakers to celebrate. After the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in the late 1940's, those scrolls were compared with that Hebrew text that was already in use by modern translators after 2000-3000 years of copying. Generally the agreement was quite good there too.

So what's the bottom line to all this?  Copying & translation have not significantly altered the text of the Bible. Okay, so they were copied accurately, but how do we know the resurrection stories weren't just legends built around the crucifixion?  How do we know we can trust them?  Tell you next time.

No comments:

Post a Comment