We have a confession: Nobody has the actual, original, hand-written books of the Bible. What’s more, it is possible to make a mistake when you make a copy of the Bible, the Holy Spirit doesn’t stop you. There are even parts (very small parts) of the New Testament that we aren’t sure go in there. When you read through Mark 16 or John 8, some Bible translators will put portions of the text in brackets with a note that says something like “the earliest manuscripts do not include Mark 16:9-20.” If you grew up hearing that the Bible is perfect and without error then you see those brackets, read that note, or ask about where Mark 9:44 and 46 are, it can be a moment.
But people who say the Bible is reliable (like Hope Church does) are well aware of these missing or suspect verses. These questions fit into a discipline called Text Criticism. In Text Criticism, scholars look at all the available ancient copies of the New Testament and reconstruct the original text from them. While this may seem like an impossible and highly suspect task, it helps if you look a little deeper.
In the first place, 98% of the discrepancies between the copies are obvious errors, spelling or word order problems, the error a scribe made when they heard the text read aloud and then wrote the wrong word. Only 2% of the differences are substantive. What do you do when it is substantive? Priority is given to older texts and texts that are present in several different places.
The whole process can seem complicated, and for people who work in that world it is. And yet, what they are nailing down has no effect on what the Bible teaches. Any passage, like the end of Mark or John 8, are covered in other places. The redundancy of Scripture means that any spot that is hard to discern is clarified many times over in other parts of the Bible. For example, if after reading Mark 16 you’re curious what Christ said and did after the resurrection, just read from the books of Matthew, John, Luke, or Acts.
In fact, the only doctrine or religious practice in question because of faulty texts is called “Snake Handling.” And for most of us, it’s something we can do without.
As with any question you might have, please feel free to contact us by email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or join us for Ask Anything sessions at the end of our services on Sundays at 10:00.
Below is an a brief history of English Bible Translations from G. Gabriel Powell:
John Wycliff was the first person to translate the Bible into English; he did so in the fourteenth century from the Latin Vulgate. Less than two hundred years later, William Tyndale developed a more accurate English translation using Hebrew and Greek texts. Tyndale’s work—which consisted of the entire New Testament and a portion of the Old—became the foundation of the King James Version (KJV). In fact, the New Testament of the KJV is 83% Tyndale’s translation from the early 1500s.
While the KJV is an accurate and beautiful translation, Tyndale and his contemporaries could only work with Hebrew and Greek manuscripts available at the time. In the centuries since then, archaeologists have discovered thousands of much older copies. As a result, we are able to compare these thousands of texts and produce a translation that more accurately reflects the original Scriptures.
By comparing these thousands of texts that span hundreds of years, we can see how small errors in copies were introduced over time. There are clear examples where, for example, a scribe added a phrase in Matthew’s gospel that they likely remembered from Luke, but which is absent from the much older copies of Matthew.
While the KJV and the New King James Version (NKJV) have remained largely unchanged from their seventeenth century counterparts, modern translations reflect improved accuracy by marking out words and phrases that were almost certainly not penned by the authors of Scripture. In some translations, as with the English Standard Version (ESV), such passages are removed from the flow of the text and a footnote is provided to explain why.