Copies of Copies of Copies?
When I was in high school and college, I took a few foreign language courses. My favorite by far was Spanish, and though this won’t sound impressive to you real scholars out there, by the end of it all I had spent four whole academic years studying that language. Fifteen years or so removed from those classes now, I’m not very good at Spanish anymore—reading it, speaking it, hearing it, anything. In the days when I was really working hard on it, though, I got pretty good at doing Spanish translations, both from and to English.
Part of that was because my Spanish professor gave us translation homework every single night. Do you remember how most college classes were scheduled to meet every other day—either Monday-Wednesday-Friday or Tuesday-Thursday? Not Spanish. It was every day, Monday through Friday, which meant that every night I had a particular passage of either English or Spanish text that I had to translate into the other language and be ready to discuss in class the next day.
I was good at it too. By my senior year in college I could bang out a translation of several hundred words in just a couple of hours and be ready at a moment’s notice to explain the syntax of each and every sentence. Once or twice, though, I learned a rough, painful lesson when I arrived at class: no matter how good my translations were, it didn’t matter if I had looked at the wrong page and translated the wrong passage!
Sometimes people will make a similar charge about the Bible—that even if we are able to say confidently that we’re translating accurately, there’s no way we can be confident that we’re translating the right thing, so it’s all useless anyway. The charge is not so much that we have the wrong documents. It’s that because we don’t have the original documents written by the authors’ own hands, the copies we do have must be hopelessly corrupt, and therefore we can’t possibly know what the authors originally wrote. And if that’s true, the argument goes, then it’s meaningless to carry on the discussion any further.
One American magazine made this very point sharply:
No television preacher has ever read the Bible. Neither has any evangelical politician. Neither has the pope. Neither have I. And neither have you. At best, we’ve all read a bad translation—a translation of translations of translations of hand-copied copies of copies of copies of copies, and on and on, hundreds of times.1
It's not true that we’re dealing with “a translation of translations of translations,” as if the original Greek first went into Chinese, which went into German, which went into Polish, and finally we got around to putting it into English. No, we’re able to translate directly from the original Greek and Hebrew into English and other languages, so at worst we’re dealing with a translation, full stop. But what should we say about that last idea, the charge that all we have available to us are “handcopied copies of copies of copies of copies?”
Copypock. Er, I mean, poppycock. That’s what we should say.
We Don’t Have the Originals—So What Now?
Let’s think about the question of transmission—that is, can we be confident that the original text of the Bible was transmitted accurately to us through the centuries? As we consider this question, right off the bat we should acknowledge the gigantic glittering elephant standing in the room: we don’t have the originals.2
Whatever pieces of paper Luke, John, and Paul used to write the Gospel of Luke, the Gospel of John, and the epistle to the Romans have been lost to history, and it’s highly unlikely that we will ever find a biblical manuscript about which we can say, “We are 100 percent certain that this is the original piece of paper on which the author wrote.”3 But before we throw our hands up and drop into despair, let’s think about that point for a minute. How important is it, really, that we have the original piece of paper? I mean, it would definitely be neat. When I visited London a few years ago, I attended the exhibition Treasures of the British Library, which displayed some of the most valuable cultural and historical artifacts in the world, the most treasured and sacred relics that the curators could dig out of the hallowed archives of the British Library. It was an amazing collection. Right there displayed before me were Magna Carta; Gutenberg’s Bible of 1455; Handel’s Messiah written in his own hand; Codex Sinaiticus, the earliest known complete copy of the New Testament; Leonardo da Vinci’s notebook; and (silence please) the original lyrics to the Beatles song “Help!” as John Lennon scratched them onto a piece of scrap paper.
Ladies and gentlemen, I’m very pleased to announce that we know, beyond a shadow of doubt, the original lyrics to “Help!” as the Beatles wrote them. We can see them on the napkin. And in its way, I admit that’s very cool. I’m not sure it reaches the Treasures of the British Library level of cool, but it’s cool nonetheless.
Confidence without Original Manuscripts
But here’s the thing. Is possessing the original piece of paper the only way we can have any confidence that what we do have is in fact what the authors themselves wrote? I mean, are we forever doomed to say that we don’t really have any idea what Homer or Plato wrote because we don’t have the pieces of paper on which they wrote The Odyssey or The Republic? Is “Help!” the only Beatles song we’ll ever really know the lyrics to? Certainly not! And to say so would be ridiculously pedantic. So what about the documents of the Bible? Are we really left simply to give up and admit that we only possess a bunch of useless copies of copies of copies of copies and that we’ll never have any confidence that the remaining copies accurately reflect what the authors actually wrote?
Well, no, we’re not left to that despairing conclusion. In fact, even though we don’t have the Bible’s original pieces of paper, we can in fact be highly confident that we know what those original pieces of paper said. Now how can that be?
The key to answering that question lies in the fact that even though we don’t have the originals, we do have thousands of other pieces of paper (that is, papyrus, vellum, and parchment) that contain original-language text from each book of the Bible—about 5,400 distinct pieces when it comes to the New Testament. We’re not even talking here about pieces of paper from modern printing presses; we’re talking about ancient manuscripts from before the invention of the printing press, many of which go back to the third, second, and even (perhaps?) first centuries.
Some of those manuscripts contain whole copies of biblical books; others have been partially destroyed so that only portions of books remain. Still others are literally mere fragments of what were once much larger manuscripts. Again, none of these documents are the originals of the Bible; they’re all copies of something older. But we’ve found them scattered all over what used to be the Roman Empire, hidden in caves, buried in ancient ruins, or even—believe it or not—deposited in the ancient trash heaps of an abandoned Egyptian city! Moreover, once experts dated these fragments of text, we discovered that they hail from the first three or four centuries of Christian history.4
Now what makes all these manuscripts and fragments interesting—or problematic, depending on how you look at it— is that at certain places they differ from each other, even when they’re supposed to be copies of the same exact portion of the Bible. So, for example, one manuscript of Matthew’s Gospel quotes Pontius Pilate as saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood” (Matt. 27:24), while a fragment of the same book from another place or from a later century quotes Pilate as saying, “I am innocent of this righteous blood,” while still another quotes him as saying, “I am innocent of this righteous man’s blood.”5 So what gives? Obviously, at least once and perhaps more than once, someone inaccurately copied the original words that Matthew wrote.
Some people look at all this—the 5,400 manuscripts or fragments with all their variations—and say, “No way. There’s no way we can know what the originals said. The surviving copies are too far removed and too corrupted for us to have any confidence at all that we know what the authors originally wrote.” That conclusion, though, just goes way too far. Here’s why. For one thing, the problems that skeptics often cite as arising from all this—that the manuscripts we have are too far removed in time from the originals and that they’re absolutely riddled with variations—are not nearly so bad as some people make them out to be. And for another thing, it turns out that it’s precisely the existence of those thousands of copies, from all over the empire and with all their variations, that allows us to reconstruct with a huge degree of confidence what the originals said.
Let me try to explain all that, one step at a time.
Mind the Gap!
First of all, the charge is often made that the documents we have are so hopelessly removed in time from the originals that we might as well give up trying to figure out what the originals said. After all, the New Testament originals were all written in the mid-to-late first century, and the earliest copies of them that we have are from about AD 125, 150, and 200. That means a gap of some forty-five to seventy-five years separates the earliest copies we have from the originals. Now that sounds fairly problematic to most of us because, for some reason, we imagine that seventy-five years is a lot of time—enough time in fact for copies of copies of copies to be made and subsequently lost so that we have no idea what the originals actually looked like. But that’s not a fair assumption at all, especially when you realize that books in general were far more valuable to ancient people than they are to us today and that they, therefore, probably kept better care of them than we do. Even now, when we’re able to print books every year by the millions, you can walk into just about any used bookstore and find books that are one or two or even three hundred years old. People make their books last! And that was even more the case in ancient times, when literally weeks of labor would go into copying a book. Scholars have learned from looking in old libraries that people regularly used books for 100–150 years before making a new copy and discarding the old.
We see one fascinating example of this practice in what we call the Codex Vaticanus, a copy of the New Testament that was originally made in the fourth century but that scribes re-inked in the tenth century so it could continue to be used. Do you see what that means? Codex Vaticanus was still in use six hundred years after it was originally made! Here’s the point: when books were regularly kept in use for literally hundreds of years, a gap of forty-five to seventy-five years between the original New Testament documents and our earliest extant (extant means surviving or existent) copies is just not that long. In fact, it’s more than a little likely that the originals, penned by the authors themselves, would have been preserved and used to make countless new copies over decades or even centuries before they were lost. Therefore the claim that all we have are “copies of copies of copies of copies” of the originals is far overwrought. Indeed, it’s very well within the realm of possibility that we have in our own museums today copies of the originals, full stop.
Also, when you consider the gap that exists between the originals and the earliest extant copies of other ancient works, you can see very quickly just how small the “gap” for the New Testament really is. For example, for Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War, we have exactly eight extant manuscripts, the earliest of which is thirteen hundred years removed from the original! For Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars, we have a total of nine or ten readable copies (depending on your sense of what’s “readable”), the earliest of which dates nine hundred years later than the original. For Tacitus’s Histories and Annals, written in the first century, two manuscripts survive, one dating from the ninth century and the other from the eleventh—eight hundred and one thousand years, respectively, later than the extant copies. You can easily see the point here: No one screams, “Mind the gap!” when it comes to other ancient literature. Only the New Testament receives that kind of treatment.
Scholars can reach highly confident conclusions about what the original documents actually said.
On to the second charge, that the manuscripts we do have are so riddled with differences, or variants, that it’s hopeless to think we can ever have any confidence at all about what the originals said. One scholar has asserted that the New Testament manuscripts available to us contain, astonishingly, up to four hundred thousand variants! (The reason we have to say “up to,” of course, is because nobody has sat down to count. So even this particular scholar resorts to saying that “some say there are 200,000 variants known, some say 300,000, some say 400,000 or more!”)6 At any rate, we should note several things about this charge:
The manuscripts are not in fact riddled with variants, and that four hundred thousand number is not nearly as scary as it seems at first, if it’s even accurate. That’s because the scholar who used that number looked not just at the five thousand extant original-Greek manuscripts that predate the printing press but also at ten thousand other manuscripts in other languages, and then on top of that, at another ten thousand or so instances where people quoted the New Testament during the first six hundred years of church history! Put all that together, and you’re really talking about four hundred thousand variants (perhaps, or maybe it’s three hundred thousand or two hundred thousand . . .) spread out over some twenty-five thousand manuscripts and quotations covering six hundred years, which at the far upper end comes out to only about sixteen variants per manuscript. To put it nicely, that’s really not very many.
Keep in mind that “four hundred thousand variants” here doesn’t mean four hundred thousand unique readings. What it means is that if one manuscript says, “I am innocent of this man’s blood” and ten others say, “I am innocent of this righteous blood,” then you get to count all eleven as “variants.” Factor that in, and that scary four hundred thousand number becomes near meaningless.
Finally, it’s not as if the variants in all those twenty-five thousand manuscripts just show up randomly everywhere; rather, they tend to cluster around the same few places in the text over and over again, which means that the number of actual places in the New Testament text that are really at issue is surprisingly small.7
The point is that when you think about it beyond the sound bites, you don’t get a picture of a mountain of copies with so many variants that we can’t make heads or tails of it. Not even close. On the contrary, you get a picture of a remarkably stable transmission (that is, copy-making) history for the vast majority of the New Testament and a few isolated places where some genuine doubt about the original text has given rise to a relatively large number of variations.
In short, the scribes did a remarkably good job.
Like Solving a Logic Puzzle
But we need to discuss one more critically important thing here: in the places of the New Testament where we are faced with variants, believe it or not, it is precisely the existence of those variants that allows us to piece together what the original document most likely said. Let me show you what I mean.
Using variants to figure out what the original said is a lot like solving a logic puzzle. And the whole thing rests on the notion that when variants appear in the copies, we can usually identify not only that a scribe introduced a variation into his copy but also why he did so. Scribes introduced variants for all kinds of reasons. Sometimes it was purely accidental. For example, 1etters that looked similar miqht be switcheb out for each other; one word might be substituted for another won that sounded the same when read; words might skipped; words or letters might be be doubled; even whole sections might be skipped when the same word was used a few lines apart. (Go ahead, read that sentence again . . . there be Easter eggs hidden there!)
At other times, the changes introduced were very deliberate. So a scribe might decide that a word or name was misspelled and “correct” it; he might change something in one passage so that it would agree with another passage or even “fix” a word or two to clear up “problems” he perceived; or he might add something to the text in order to “clarify” what the reader should take from it.
Now here’s where the fun starts, because once you can identify why a scribe made a certain change as he copied, you can get a very good idea of what the original said before he changed it. Here’s a very simple example: Imagine that all you have is a fragment of a copy of a lost manuscript that reads, “Roses are read, violets are blue.” It’s not that hard to see what happened as the original was copied, is it? If we can give the original author the benefit of the doubt that he didn’t write the nonsense phrase “Roses are read,” then we can pretty confidently say that the scribe who made the copy simply misspelled the word red and that the original said, “Roses are red, violets are blue.”
Here’s a slightly more complicated example. Let’s say you have two fragments, both copies of a long-lost original. One of those copies (we’ll call it fragment A) reads:
Now we are engaged in a great civil war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live.
The other copy (fragment B) reads:
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives so that the nation of which we speak might live.
Alright. Go ahead and take a minute or two to figure out the variations at issue here. There are two of them. Then read on.
Okay, did you see them? Most noticeably, fragment A is significantly shorter. It leaves out the entire segment “testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war.” Also, the two fragments disagree about the last sentence. Did the original speak of those who gave their lives “so that that nation might live” or “so that the nation of which we speak might live”?
Let’s start with the first variation, the omitted phrase about meeting on “a great battle-field” of the war. Is there any good reason to think that a copyist would add all those words to an original that didn’t include them? Not really; at least I can’t think of any. So if not, is there anything that might explain why he would omit them? Yes. See how the word war shows up twice in fragment B? In fact, those two occurrences kind of bracket the words that were omitted in fragment A. If the word war occurred twice in the original as well (especially if both times it appeared, say, at the end or beginning of a line), then that would provide a natural and easy place for the copyist’s eye to “skip” accidentally from one occurrence to the other, and that would explain why he would have inadvertently omitted the words between them. Given that logic, we can pretty confidently say that the longer reading, in fragment B, more likely reflects the original.
What about the second variation? Is there any good reason why a copyist would amend an original that said “that the nation of which we speak might live” to “that that nation might live”? Probably not. After all, the phrase “that that nation” is just awkward. Therefore it’s more likely that a copyist would “correct” the “that that” phrasing to something less grating on the ear. For that reason, we should probably conclude that the harder reading in fragment A reflects the original.
Given all this, we can come to solid conclusions that fragment B probably reflects the original on the first variation (because the copyist’s eye skipped from “war” to “war”) and that fragment A reflects the original on the second variation (because a copyist wouldn’t “correct” the original to say “that that.”) Therefore, we should reconstruct the original like this:
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live.
Do you see? Just by reasoning through why copyists might make certain changes, we’re able to arrive at a confident conclusion about what the original document actually said, even though our final version is not entirely reflected in either of the fragments we actually have. Neat, huh?
Well, that’s exactly the kind of work scholars have done for centuries on the fragments and manuscripts of the New Testament available to us. Many of the puzzles they face, of course, are far more complicated than these simple examples, but you get the idea. By comparing the surviving ancient copies and thinking carefully about why copyists might have made certain changes or errors, scholars can reach highly confident conclusions about what the original documents actually said. It’s not a matter of guesswork or magic, much less of assumption or simply “making things up,” but rather of careful deductive reasoning.
An actual example from the New Testament might help make the point. Existing manuscripts differ as to whether Matthew 5:22 originally read,
But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment.
But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother without cause will be liable to judgment.
The variation is clear, and so is the solution. What scribe would delete the words “without cause” when those words actually make this teaching of Jesus so much more palatable? Probably not many. Far more likely is that a scribe choked intellectually on the bare idea that someone who is angry with his brother would be liable to judgment and decided to “help Jesus out” by “clarifying” his teaching with the phrase “without cause.” Because it’s the harder reading, therefore, the first option most likely reflects the original. And for that reason, almost all the major translations leave out the phrase “without cause,” simply putting it in a footnote at the bottom of the page.
We Know What They Wrote
Before we conclude this issue, we should make another point or two. First, it’s worth noting that the vast majority of the textual variants in the manuscript copies we have are just utterly uninteresting and undramatic. They have to do with plural versus singular pronouns, inverted word order, subjunctive versus indicative mood, aorist versus perfect tense, and on and on and on. Booooring! The vast majority don’t actually include anything that affects how we ultimately understand the meaning of the Bible.
Second, Christian scholars have been exceedingly careful to document—in actual books that you can buy, if you’re willing to shell out the money—the most significant variants along with an analysis of each one like the kind we’ve done here in this chapter. Of course you’re free to disagree with any of their conclusions; Christians have fun arguing about this kind of thing all the time, believe it or not. But the point is that, again, there’s no conspiracy to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes. Where variants need to be reckoned with, Christians are wide open about them, precisely because we believe that those variants—and the reasons behind why they exist in the first place—can help us determine to a remarkably high degree of probability what the original documents of the New Testament actually said.
Finally, as with the issue of translation, it turns out that not a single doctrine of orthodox Christianity depends solely on a questioned portion of the biblical text. Either the questioned portions don’t involve anything truly interesting, or if they do, the very same doctrines expressed in those locations are taught elsewhere in unquestioned portions of the Bible.
Do you see the point? The charge that we cannot know what the originals said is patently and utterly false. The gap between the originals and our earliest extant copies of them is—in the grand scheme of things—not that long at all. And far from diminishing our ability to identify what the originals said, the vast number of existing copies actually allows us to reason out deductively, to a very high degree of historical confidence, what John, Luke, Paul, and the other writers of the New Testament actually wrote.
First, we can indeed be confident that our translations of the documents are accurate and correct. Second, we can also be confident that we know what the authors of those documents originally wrote.
This article is adapted from Why Trust the Bible? by Greg Gilbert.
1. Kurt Eichenwald, “The Bible: So Misunderstood It’s a Sin,” Newsweek, December 23, 2014, http://www.newsweek.com/2015/01/02/thats-not-what-bible-says-294018.html.
2. For this article, I have relied especially on Craig L. Blomberg, Can We Still Believe the Bible? An Evangelical Engagement with Contemporary Questions (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2014); Paul D. Wegner, The Journey from Texts to Translations: The Origin and Development of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1999).
3. Ancient writers didn’t actually write on paper but rather on papyrus or vellum or even, later, parchment. But as a shorthand for this book, paper will suffice.
4. For detailed information on extant New Testament manuscripts, see, for example, Wegner, Journey, 235–42.
5. See the ESV textual note on Matt. 27:24.
6. Bart D. Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2005), 89.
7. For a more detailed treatment of these points, see Blomberg, Can We Still Believe the Bible?, 13–28.
Did you know that you can read and study the Greek New Testament for free at ESV.org?
The Greek New Testament, Produced at Tyndale House, Cambridge seeks to make a distinctive contribution to biblical scholarship.
Leland Ryken clarifies some of the issues of modern Bible translation and makes a case for an essentially literal approach.