At the beginning of the fifth century, Jerome completed his magnum opus, the Vulgate. This work was the official Bible of the Middle Ages for roughly a thousand years. Jerome’s translation of the Hebrew Old Testament and the Greek New Testament into the ‘vulgar’ (hence the name Vulgate), in Latin, was commissioned by Pope Damasus, ca. AD 382 (Demarest 2013, 162). The medieval Vulgate was not without its problems, which is why, in part, during the Renaissance, a humanist, Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536) got permission from Pope Leo X to revise Jerome’s Vulgate.
Using only a handful of Greek manuscripts, the first edition was published in 1516, a year before Martin Luther would nail his 95 Theses to the doors of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. Erasmus’ new version of the New Testament was the first Greek New Testament to be printed in history, not handwritten (Alvarez 2016). Erasmus’ translation had various errors, hence his many editions. The biggest problem for Erasmus were the Greek manuscripts; he did not have access to the full New Testament (missing were the last six verses of Revelation which he translated from Jerome’s Vulgate back into the Greek [Carson 1979, 33]). There are a variety of issues surrounding the abundance of manuscripts used when translators ‘translate’ the Bible into a modern or current translation. Yet, we can be assured that God has overseen the entire process and preserved His Word from the moment of revelation and inspiration right down to our present age.
The Manuscripts of the Old Testament and New Testament: Are They Reliable?
Historians are still not quite sure when, as well as where, the Enlightenment began. Some scholars believe it was in the mid-seventeenth century, while others hold to it beginning in the eighteenth. When and where, is not really what matters, what does is that everything was under suspicion, guilty till proven innocent. The golden age of the Enlightenment, however, was in the late eighteenth century, mostly in France with the two different, yet similar, philosophical schools: the materialists and the philosophs. Basically, both parties saw miracles as suspect, and anything found in the Bible that smacked of supernaturalism was suspect to superstition and therefore not historical. In Prussia (northern area of Germany, Lithuania, Poland, and most of modern-day Germany), a philosopher, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing stated that there was no way of knowing the Christ of Faith from the historical Jesus, which has become known as Lessing’s Ditch. Basically, for the Enlightenment philosophers, as well as their children and grandchildren, there is no way of knowing the actual historical events of the Bible.
Through the Enlightenment, most of the Old Testament was laid waste to the new tool of historical-methodology, which gave rise to what is known as higher criticism. Scholars began to dissect the Old Testament, the Torah was written not by Moses but by an editor, or actually, editors, at various points in time. The J, E, EP, P (the theory that a different author, writing at different time periods, edited the Torah, therefore there was the Jahwists, Elohimists, the Priests, and the combination of the Elohim and Preist schools), theory became the norm. Isaiah was not thought to be written by Isaiah, at least not the whole, therefore two versions were put together into one. All of this has led some modern scholars to question the validity of the documents behind the Old Testament.
Today, some of the Old Testament scholars, as well as a small handful of New Testament ones, believe and teach that the manuscripts of the Old Testament have been corrupted, which they argue makes the Bible itself invalid (Wegner 2011, 119-138).
If this is true, then as Paul Wegner (2011, 119) stated in his essay on the corruption of the Old Testament, which will also be the same for the New Testament, that if these manuscripts are hopelessly corrupted, then we are not to be held to any of the commands given by God, which therefore would mean that God failed at revealing Himself since scripture is to be the revelation of the One Living God. Basically, the Bible would be pointless and should be thrown out or burned. How do we know if there are corruptions in the Old and New Testament manuscripts? Easy, we look at them ourselves, we learn about the methods of preservation done through the scribes, and how the text critics come to their decisions of what the originals may have said.
What are the Manuscripts Behind the Old and New Testaments?
For the Old Testament, the sources are fewer than what we have for the New Testament, which still does not posit a significant problem. Text critics look at various Hebrew, as well as, the Masoretic Text (the majority text for the Old Testament), Targums (Aramaic paraphrasing of the whole of the Old Testament), the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Old Testament) as well as other Greek versions (like Philo), the Samaritan Pentateuch, the Dead Sea Scrolls (found in the area of the Dead Sea in 1946), and finally, some of the early Church Fathers’ illusions to and quotes of the Old Testament in their writings (Norton 2001, 156-173). We have, for the New Testament, over 5,600 Greek, 10,000 Latin, and somewhere between 5,000-10,000 Armenian, Coptic, Ethiopic, Georgian, Gothic, Syriac, and various other translated copies (Wallace 2011, 146; 2013, 27; Bruce 1981, 10; Ehrman 2005, 88-89). As Daniel Wallace (2011, 146; 2013, 28) likes to state, if we never found any of these copies of the New Testament, then we would still be able to compile most of it through the various quotes of the Patristic Fathers in their various commentaries and homilies. Amazingly, with all of this information on the New Testament, we can safely say we have around 20,000 copies of the New Testament (Wallace 2011, 146; 2013, 27-28).
The Old Testament Texts
The manuscripts of the Old Testament have a rougher time than the ones for the New Testament. This is due, mostly, to the dating. As we have mentioned before, the Old Testament was written over a period of about 1,500 years. For the longest time, the earliest Hebrew text for the Old Testament could only be dated to the Middle Ages, with the oldest portion of the Bible being dated to the twelveth-century BC (Norton 2001, 156). For a text critic, this is not unusual, though, for a valid argument for the validity of the Old Testament, it doesn’t bode well. However, with the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1946, a better source of attestation to the Masoretic Texts, ie., the earliest Hebrew source (Ibid.) has been made. What this means is that the Dead Sea Scrolls, which have both Hebrew copies, as well as some in Aramaic, is that a closer date to the autographs can be made, roughly 600-800 years (Ibid.). This find has also shown that the Masoretic Text has been well preserved, since most of the Hebrew versions found at the Qumran site match, almost completely, with the Masoretic manuscripts (Ibid., 160-166). This also means, which we will discuss a bit later, is that the scribal process of hand copying the manuscripts was very thorough (Ibid.).
The New Testament Texts
When looking at the New Testament, one has to take into account the classical world and their various manuscript evidence. So, for example, Caesar’s Gallic War. Caesar wrote this, supposedly, around 58-50 BC, to which we only have about ten good copies with the oldest dating to about 900 years later (Bruce 1981, 11). For a better example, let’s look at a couple of the more important Roman historians from the first-century, Livy and Tacitus. Most of our understanding of the Roman Empire leading up to the first-century comes from these two. Livy (59 BC-AD 17) wrote some 142 works on the history of Rome, yet we only have, roughly, 25% of his texts (Wallace 2011, 151). With Livy, though, we do not actually have his full collection, which is why Wallace (2011, 151) and F. F. Bruce (1981, 11) state that we only have about a quarter to a third of his works, which are found mostly in one copy of books iii-vi and are only fragments, which the oldest dates to about the fourth century. Tacitus’ (ca. AD 100) Histories were just fourteen books, we only have four and half of them (Bruce 1981, 11). Tacitus’ Annals were sixteen books long, which we only have ten full copies and two partials (Ibid.). Both of these works by Tacitus have their best manuscripts from the ninth and eleventh-centuries (Ibid.). More could be said, but I feel this is enough. Secular text critics wish they had the plethora of evidence that the New Testament scholars have.
Are Both the Old and New Testament Manuscripts Full of Errors and Corruptions?
To answer this question, we first need to understand what the scribal process was, define what an error is and what types of errors there are, and see if they actually matter for anything. The first thing we should do is read what the skeptics are saying about this. Basically, Bart Erhman (2005, 47-51), again the leading skeptic in New Testament textual criticism, states that the early Christian scribes were not professionals, ie., not trained, yet were literate and educated. What Ehrman (Ibid.) is saying is that the earlier manuscripts were very sloppy compared to those in the secular realm who were trained to do this as a profession, which to the Christians this was not a profession, it was necessary. Ehrman (Ibid. 47-55) proclaims that some errors were made by early scribes on purpose, to alter the text for theological purposes, while some were simply accidents (left out words, misspelled words, incorrect grammar, etc.). Ehrman (Ibid., 72) believes that the early Christian scribes lived in a vacuum apart from the other communities in the Roman Empire (eg., the community at Rome would still house the same errors in their various manuscripts because they would never have gotten a copy of any other manuscripts). Finally, for Ehrman (Ibid., 72-73) the rise of professional scribes in the Christian communities began to happen in the early to mid-fourth century with the conversion of Constantine, of which, according to Ehrman, requested 50 copies of the Bible be made for several of his new churches that were in the midst of being built (ironically, Ehrman gives no evidence for this, Eusebius, Life of Constantine VI.37). However, now that we know that for skeptics, all the mistakes in the copies, which has led to the so-called contradictions, of the Bible were made by educated unprofessional Christian scribes. Now, we need to know what the skeptics believe an error is.
For skeptics, it is beneficial for them to make statements, like what Ehrman (Ibid., 90) says in Misquoting Jesus: “[t]here are more variations among our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament.” For the skeptics, then, the errors in the manuscripts were one of two types: accidental changes and intentional changes, of which there are several kinds (Ibid., 90-95). In other words, for the skeptics, accidents were understandable due to abbreviations, no punctuations, skipping lines due to the ending words of some lines being the same, etc. (Ibid.). In regards to the intentional changes, the skeptics view them as very serious issues and make them their smoking gun. First, these intentional changes were done to correct those earlier problems, eg., Mark’s statement of a prophecy from Malachi, yet attaching it to Isaiah, or Matthew’s recording of Jesus saying that He doesn’t know the time of the end, which upset some later scribes who dropped that saying altogether (Ibid., 94-95). Another intentional error was to circumvent a possible misunderstanding of the text (Ibid., 95). Possibly, the most important one of them all for the skeptics was the changing of the text to promote “orthodox” theology (Ibid., 95-96). Lastly, there were scribes who would alter the text to “harmonize” them, mostly found in the synoptic gospels (Ibid., 97-98). What these mean to the critic and skeptic is that the texts cannot be trusted, we can never know what the original meant, and most importantly, the modern version of the Bible was the version of Christianity that won out, which means that the originals may actually have held more heretical views. Is this true though, are we hopelessly lost and unable to get back to the original words of the Old and New Testaments? Is our version of Christianity incorrect due to changes to the texts; is our Christianity actually the heretical one? What do you think? Do some exploring for yourselves, seek out the truth. The next post will be the answer to these questions, and maybe more.
The Bearded Scholar
Alvarez, Pablo. 2016. “500 Years of Erasmus’s New Testament!” Beyond the Reading Room: Anecdotes and Other Notes from the U-M Special Collections Research Center, July 29. Accessed July 14, 2018. https://www.lib.umich.edu/blogs/beyond-reading-room/500-years-erasmuss-new-testament.
Bruce. F. F. 1981. New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable?. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
Carson, D. A. 1979. King James Version Debate: A Plea for Realism. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker.
Demarest, Bruce A. 2013. “Jerome.” In Introduction to the History of Christianity. Edited by Tim Dowley. 162-163. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.
Ehrman, Bart D. 2005. Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why. New York: Harper San Francisco.
Norton, Mark R. 2003. “Texts and Manuscripts of the Old Testament.” In Origin of the Bible. Edited by Philip Wesley Comfort. 155-183. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, INC.
Wallace, Daniel B. 2013. “Has the New Testament Text Been Hopelessly Corrupted?” In In Defense of the Bible: A Comprehensive Apologetic for the Authority of Scripture. Edited by Steven B. Cowan and Terry L. Wilder. 139-163. Nashville: Broadman and Holman Academics.
________. 2011. “Lost in Transmission: How Badly Did the Scribes Corrupt the New Testament Text?” In Revisiting the Corruption of the New Testament: Manuscript, Patristic, and Apocryphal Evidence. Edited by Daniel B. Wallace. 19-55. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications.
Wegner, Paul D. 2013. “Has the Old Testament Text Been Hopelessly Corrupted?” In In Defense of the Bible: A Comprehensive Apologetic for the Authority of Scripture. Edited by Steven B. Cowan and Terry L. Wilder. 119-138. Nashville: Broadman and Holman Academics.