So the word on the street is that the Bible has been translated so many times that it can no longer be trusted. People often refer to the game of telephone in order to prove this point, as if the game of telephone is a scholarly method of research.
I can only hypothesize that the underlying assumption is that someone took the original Greek manuscript, translated it into Latin, and then into some other language, and from that language into another, year after year until finally in the last century it was translated into English. And for some unknown reason there was no way to look at any other copies except the one being used. I hear this misperception a lot and I want to point out that we do live in the information age and it doesn’t take long to research how the Bible is translated.
Now, it is very true that the Bible has been translated many times in many different languages. The goal is to translate it into every single language on earth. In fact, because the Bible has been translated into so many different languages it has preserved many languages that would have long been dead. Of course, that is a very interesting story for another post.
So how exactly is the Bible translated? Um, the Bible is translated by many amazingly smart people who have taken it upon themselves to learn Hebrew, Aramaic, and ancient Greek. They then translate the Bible by looking at some very, very, very old manuscripts written in the original languages of the Bible into English or Swahili.
What do I mean by very old manuscripts? Lets start with a vocabulary lesson. The first vocabulary word is autograph; this is the original document that Moses, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, and others wrote in person. Next is extant, this means it still exists. Manuscript means a document made by the laborious process of copying a text by hand because the printing press had not been invented yet. Textual Criticism is the science of comparing all the ancient manuscript copies, determining how much they agree, and how many variant readings there are, and from there determining what the original autograph said.
The more copies and the earlier the copies are, the easier it is to determine what was in the original autograph. Variant Reading means differences in the copies. These differences are scribal errors. For example, a variant reading could be because a scribe forgot a comma or misspelled a word. In some instances scribes have purposefully changed the text.
Now, of all ancient manuscripts the Bible and specifically the New Testament stand alone from all other ancient documents in the amount of ancient manuscript copies, earliest copies, and the degree of certainty of how close the copies are to the original.
This is miraculous, considering how many leaders in the ancient world destroyed any biblical manuscript they could lay their hands on. The autographs of both the Old and New Testament are no longer extant because they fell apart. Old things tend to do that. However, the New Testament has 25,000 ancient manuscripts. Of those 5,686 are partial or complete Greek manuscripts dating from the second to the fifteenth century. Some disputed New Testament manuscripts found amongst the Dead Sea Scrolls have been dated to within a few decades of the autographs. However, the earliest agreed-upon portion of the New Testament found has been dated around A.D. 117-138. Around 10,000 manuscripts are early translations into Syriac, Coptic, Arabic, Latin, and other languages. This is not all.
From the 2nd through the 4th century there are 36,289 quotes from the early church fathers which can reconstruct the entire New Testament, minus 11 verses. The only other ancient manuscript that can compare is Homer’s Iliad, with 643 manuscript copies. Most of the variant readings amongst the copies are grammatical errors and none of the variant readings affect doctrine. We can be confident that the Bible we have today is what was originally written.
If you had any doubts before, I hope that you can sleep easy now. I wish I had room to discuss the accuracy of the Old Testament, but don’t worry, we can be confident with it too.
Erin Herbst gave her life to Jesus Christ around the age of eight and has been joyfully serving the Lord since that time. Erin is happily married and has two young children with another on the way. She has been ministering to college students since 2004, with Master Plan Ministries. As well as being a wife, mother, and minister to college students she is also working toward a Master’s degree at Liberty University.
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 Norman L. Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999) s.v. “New Testament Manuscripts.”