That Bible you carry

What’s behind the Bible you use every Sunday? You know that others in your congregation, maybe in your own family, use Bibles with different wording in many verses. Are those Bibles all equally reliable? The path between the pens of Moses or Luke and the Bible you use most often is complex. While I say at the beginning and at the end that your Bible (assuming you’re using a mainstream version) is reliable, it’s worth understanding some of what has gone into making that statement true.

First, the raw material behind your own version of the Bible is voluminous and intimidating. The work of textual criticism (criticism here meaning “evaluation”) is to work through the biblical and even extra-biblical material so that we have the text of Scripture in a reliable form, as close to the original writings of God’s messengers as possible. Textual critics are theologians, archeologists, experts in ancient languages and history, and tedious analysts. They further utilize such tools as carbon dating and chemical analysis of ink and writing media.

Old Testament translations are primarily based on a text from about 1000 AD called the Masoretic Text. This was the Old Testament in Hebrew. Some other materials were available?a significant additional resource was the Greek translation of the Old Testament called the Septuagint. The Septuagint (seventy), often abbreviated “LXX,” is named for the 72 scholars who, in about 200 BC, translated the Hebrew Bible into Greek over the course of 72 days in Alexandria, or so the story goes. This Greek translation is the Bible the apostles and Jesus used most often, it is the Bible Paul quoted when he quoted an OT passage. One significant feature of the Septuagint is that it was translated earlier than our existing Hebrew text. This difference in age brings us closer to the original authors and thus gives us greater confidence that copy errors or other factors have not changed the text. This older text also bears strong witness to the reliability of the Masoretic Hebrew Bible of later centuries.

The way we understood Old Testament translation changed in 1948 when a shepherd boy found clay tablets containing biblical material in a cave near the Dead Sea. By the time several area caves had been excavated we had copies or portions of every OT book except Esther. These copies were more than a thousand years older than the Masoretic Text. One of the most amazing things we discovered was how little the language had changed during that long period. Another was how few differences there were between the older copies and the later ones. It was a great testimony to the reliability of the Hebrew text upon which modern versions were based. Bible versions translated or revised in the past 50 years have worked with an awareness of these Dead Sea scrolls and the insights we gained from their discovery.

For the New Testament we have thousands of manuscripts and fragments, one dating to within 20 or 30 years from the original. The examination of these resources allow biblical scholars to make informed decisions on the authenticity of a book, the most reliable manuscripts, and ultimately the best reading of the text. The work of these scholars is an art based on a great number of facts. They factor in archeological evidence that helps them understand the locales and language of the Bible. The type of ink used to write, as well as the material written upon, allows scholars to determine the era in which biblical material was penned. Even the style of writing?is it capital or lower case, are there breaks between words or not, is it uncial (a kind of cursive style) or printed?testifies to the era and authenticity of a Scripture portion. Their analysis of the vocabulary, writing style, historical references and so forth, in a book that claims to be written by one of the apostles or during that time often allows us to know if such material is what it claims. That kind of criticism has ruled out many of the so called “hidden” or “suppressed” books of the early church?a fact Da Vinci Code conspiracy theorists find inconvenient.

Less so than in the examination of Old Testament materials, New Testament scholars must also sort through well-meant (or agenda-driven) efforts to “fix” the grammar or theology of the biblical books. They therefore have to be versed in church history so that they can know when a controversy arose so that they can distinguish between verses written by first-century apostles and third-century debaters. I suppose it’s similar to those who would change biblical words to better fit the sensibilities of our time related to gender-specific references to God the Father or Jesus the Son. Scribes that handled the Old Testament reverenced the text to such a degree that far less of that kind of editing took place.

As rules of thumb, our Scripture CSI team developed some principles that allow them to spot the best reading of biblical material. First, older material is generally preferred over later material. This makes sense because every generation that passes from the original results in untold numbers of copies and with those, the possibility of errors or edits in the copy process. Second, readings more difficult (for the scribe) and/or shorter are preferred over easier or lengthier writing. Again, an edit would likely be intended to smooth out a tough passage and may also require greater length to clarify. Third, readings that are most broadly (geographically) accepted are preferred over those that could more easily derive from one source. I include this description to give you an insight as to how deliberate and serious these researchers are. They are trying to get us as close as possible to the source?the originals.

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