In his popular series Jack Reacher, Lee Child introduces an interesting dialogue between the main character and an Anglican priest. Discussing his views on the book of Revelation the priest says:
Most of the original is lost, of course. It was written in ancient Hebrew or Aramaic, and copied by hand many times, and then translated into Koine Greek, and copied by hand many times, and then translated into Latin, and copied by hand many times, and then translated into Elizabethan English and printed, with opportunities for error and confusion at every single stage. Now it reads like a bad acid trip. I suspect it always did.1Lee Child
Has the Bible been modified and changed by the Church, scribes, and translations over the centuries? To answer this question, we must clarify some of the history and definitions related to the preservation or modification of the Bible.
Was There An Original Bible And Where Is It?
The Old Testament was written primarily in Hebrew. The New Testament was originally written in Koine Greek. The New Testament books were not written in Hebrew and then translated into Greek. They were copied by hand and then copied again, and again. Like all ancient literature, the texts of the Bible have been preserved by the handwritten copying of scribes.
The original autograph copies of the New Testament decomposed long ago, though they possibly survived late into the second century. Writing around AD 180, Tertullian wrote, “You who are ready to exercise your curiosity, run over to the apostolic churches where their own authentic writings are read.’ As Timothy Paul Jones explains, “Authentic writings’ may refer to the original documents sent by apostles especially since Tertullian follows this statement by listing the specific cities where the first-century apostles sent their epistles.”2
While the Greek New Testament is well preserved with over 5,000 portions of manuscripts, it would be wrong to say they are without copyist errors (textual variants). It would also be wrong to assume variants in the copies make them unreliable. “While there are some clear examples of corruption, the practice is easily exaggerated when it comes to actually demonstrating instances of corruption.”3 Even the skeptical Bart Ehrman acknowledges the reliability of the Greek text available today.
Despite the imponderable difficulties—we do have manuscripts of every book of the New Testament; all of these manuscripts were copied from other, earlier manuscripts, which were themselves copied from earlier manuscripts; and the chain of transmission has to end somewhere, ultimately at a manuscript produced either by an author or by a secretarial scribe who was producing the ‘autograph’—the first in the long line of manuscripts that were copied for nearly fifteen centuries until the invention of printing. So at least it is not ‘non’-sense to talk about an original text.4Bart Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus
There are two facts that cannot be denied. (1) There are many variants that exist in the Greek New Testament manuscripts. (2) The majority of the textual variants found in the Greek texts have little to no effect on our ability to accurately understand and interpret the original reading of scripture. Additionally, there are no major doctrines of the Bible that are affected by any textual variant or error.
How Have Translations Changed the Bible?
From around the fourth century until the fourteenth, the Bible was only accessible to those who could read it in the original languages or in the Latin translation of the Bible, known as the Latin Vulgate. John Wycliffe, a Roman Catholic priest and graduate of Oxford University became burdened that everyone should be taught the Bible in their common language. Wycliffe had the Bible translated and in 1382 the first English Wycliffe Bible began to circulate. Each Bible had to be hand-copied and cost about 6 months’ wages.5
One church leader said, “Christ gave his Gospel to the clergy and the learned doctors of the Church so that they might give it to the laypeople…by thus translating the Bible, made it…common to all, even to women!”6 Thirty years after Wycliff’s death, the Archbishop of Canterbury had his bones dug up, burned, and thrown in a river. Jan Hus, a fellow minister of the Gospel who continued teaching from the English Bible was also burned at the stake–though unlike Wycliffe, Hus was burned alive.7
By 1521, undoubtedly inspired after reading a book containing the sermons of Jan Hus, Martin Luther began translating the Bible German. Luther’s German translation had a major advantage over Wycliffe’s English Bible. The weakness of Wycliffe’s English Bible was that it relied on the Latin Vulgate, making it less accurate as a translation of a translation. Luther’s German Bible was translated from Desiderius Erasmus’s newly published Greek text, Novum Instrumentum Omne, 1516.8 Ten years later in 1526, William Tyndale published a superior English Bible, based on his translation of Erasmus’s Greek Text.9
Though Wycliffe’s English Bible was not on the level of Tyndale’s his passion to make the Bible accessible to everyone was revolutionary. Wycliffe declared, “Forasmuch as the Bible contains Christ, that is all that is necessary for salvation, it is necessary for all men, nor for priests alone. It alone is the supreme law that is to rule Church, State, and Christian life, without human traditions and statutes.”10
The goal of any New Testament translation should be to accurately communicate the original message of the Greek New Testament into the new language, faithfully capturing the meaning of the text. Rather than changing the Bible and distorting its message, the majority of Bible translations have made its message accessible to more people.
To claim the text and translations of the Bible are unreliable, misrepresents and distorts the evidence concerning the historical preservation and textual reliability of the Bible. Consider the willingness of men like Wycliffe, Hus, Luther, and Tyndale to burn at the stake if necessary, so that every man, woman, and child, could read and know the Word of God. Attempts to discourage people’s confidence in the reliability and integrity of the Bible is tragically foolish, especially considering the unparalleled positive influence the Bible has had on the formation and foundations of Western Civilization.
Unfortunately, if you want to discourage people from reading the Bible in our day, you do not have to threaten to burn them at the stake. To discourage people from reading the Bible one can just make up fictional stories, with fictional characters, to cast fictional doubts. After all, who would want a reliable source for understanding the meaning of life, death, who God is, and how to know Him?
-Written by David Anglin | September 1, 2021
1 Elijah Hixson and Peter Gurry, Myths and Mistakes in New Testament Textual Criticism. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2019) 2-3.
2 Timothy Paul Jones, How We Got the Bible. (Torrance: Rose, 2015) 74.
3 Elijah Hixson and Peter Gurry, Myths and Mistakes in New Testament Textual Criticism. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2019) 222.
4 Bart D. Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why, (New York: Harper Collins, 2005), 210.
5 Timothy Paul Jones, How We Got the Bible. (Torrance: Rose, 2015) 128-129.
6 Timothy Paul Jones, How We Got the Bible. 130.
7 Timothy Paul Jones, How We Got the Bible. 128, 131.
8 Timothy Paul Jones, How We Got the Bible. 133.
9 Timothy Paul Jones, How We Got the Bible. 133, 135.
10 Timothy Paul Jones, How We Got the Bible. 132.