You can imagine the outcry such action would cause. But no need to panic – that is not about to happen. The original biblical manuscripts have already been destroyed … now panic!
We have many translations of the Bible. Some people maintain that any apparent errors in the text are due to translation – that the originals are flawless. You must have heard ministers refer to the original Greek or Hebrew while correcting what they suspect is an error in translation. The problem with such statements is that it gives the impression that we have the original Greek and Hebrew texts.
We have a great variety of different versions of copies of copies of copies. And there are more differences between these source documents than what there are words in the New Testament!(1) Some differences are insignificant mistakes like a misspelled word, but other differences completely change the meaning of a passage having deliberately been adjusted by the scribes.
Even Origen, a third century church father, had this to say about the documents at his disposal:
The differences among the manuscripts have become great, either through the negligence of some copyists or through the perverse audacity of others; they either neglect to check over what they have transcribed, or, in the process of checking, they make additions or deletions as they please.(2)
So what manuscripts do we have? Broadly categorized these are the main collections:
The Masoretic text is a collection of Hebrew manuscripts. The version we have today was only completed around the 9th century. For a long time it was thought that these represented the most accurate version of the Hebrew scriptures … because it just had to be … it was all we had.
The Septuagint is a greek translation of the Hebrew text that was produced in Alexandria between 300 and 130 BC. It is older than most Hebrew source documents we have and as such made use of more ancient (and therefore more original) Hebrew documents.
What is significant is that it differs from the Masoretic text in many instances. At first it was thought that the Greek translators were to blame, but then the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered at Qumran in 1948.
The Qumran text or DDS.
The Hebrew fragments that were part of this discovery were older (between 150 BC and 70 AD) than any other. What was surprising was that they differed from the Masoretic text, yet had a greater alignment to the Septuagint translation. Rather important portions were changed in the Masoretic text to support later theological developments. For instance the emergence of monotheism meant that many polytheistic (the belief in many gods) portions had to be changed. The way in which these source documents were altered tells a story of itself. I devoted a chapter to this subject in the book ‘Desire Found Me’.
Despite hundreds of years of debates between scholars no one knows what the original text is and it is unlikely that we ever will. So whatever the “inspiration of scripture” means, it does not mean that every one of the original words were inspired and preserved by God … because we simply don’t have the original words.
What we discussed so far mainly concerned the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament. Let’s consider some facts about the New Testament manuscripts as a whole and just for fun, a few interesting facts about the gospels specifically.
The texts of the New Testament were written a few decades after Christ. There were a great abundance of Christian texts written during this time which could be rather puzzling if one considers the fact that many were illiterate. In addition, the religions of those days were not based on text; they were based on ritual. To be considered a faithful practitioner of religion had little to do with what you believed, rather, it had to do with your participation in religious rites. Temples, priests and sacrificial rituals were the ingredients of religion.
What made early Christianity radically different was the absence of all these. They had no temples, no priests and no sacrificial rituals! The absence of these made the texts that much more important to these newly formed communities.
These early letters were not written to be read … they were written to be orated by a messenger. A superabundance of stories about Jesus, the acts of the Apostles were written, copied and shared around these believing communities. This in itself became a problem as many of the stories contradicted one another. The problem eventually became unbearable and a selection process slowly but surely began. What we know today as the 27 books of the new testament is not mentioned in full until 367 AD by Athanasius.
The oldest surviving fragments of New Testament manuscripts we have today are from the second century. There are some disputed claims about a few fragments from the first century. Again, differences between manuscripts abound.
Interesting facts about the gospels.
The names of the Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – give the impression that the disciple Matthew wrote the gospel of Matthew; Mark, the gospel of Mark, etc. In the case of Luke, yes he was the author, but he was not a disciple nor an eyewitness. Matthew, Mark and John never claim authorship of these books. Not one is written in the first person. You won’t find a passage that says: “One day Jesus and I walked down to the beach…” These gospels were named later, and named specifically to give the impression that they were written by eye-witnesses thereby giving them greater authority. It was during the time of Irenaeus, 180 AD, that the naming finally happened. Of the many versions of the gospel some explicitly claimed to have been written by eye-witnesses. We still have copies of some of those gospels. Their content, however, was considered heretical by some church fathers. What we know as the gospels today were anonymous at that stage and they made no claim regarding authorship (except Luke). In order to finally exclude objectionable ‘gospels’ and give weight to the chosen gospels, the decision was made to attribute authorship to these anonymous gospels.
The reason for choosing these four were not purely theological. There were some other compelling reasons as well. In his book ‘Against Heresies’, Irenaeus makes the following argument:
…it is not possible that the Gospels can be either more or fewer in number than they are. For, since there are four zones of the world in which we live, and four principal winds, while the Church is scattered throughout the world, and the pillar and ground of the Church is the Gospel… it is fitting that she should have four pillars… (Against Heresies 3.11.7)
So there you have it. Irrefutable logic. Four winds, four pillars for the four zones of the earth and therefore four gospels. Who can argue with that.
The reality is that none of the gospels were written by eye-witnesses and many scholars conclude that all of them were written decades later by unknown Christians who collected, combined and edited stories that became popular among the early Christian communities.
And so we have an answer to our ultimate question of why these Gospels are so different from one another. They were not written by Jesus’ companions or by companions of his companions. They were written decades later by people who didn’t know Jesus, who lived in a different country or different countries from Jesus, and who spoke a different language from Jesus. They are different from each other in part because they also didn’t know each other, to some extent they had different sources of information (although Matthew and Luke drew on Mark), and they modified their stories on the basis of their own understandings of who Jesus was. (3)
Luke tells us that many have written narratives about Jesus. He read them, then consulted with eyewitnesses and consequently decided to write his own ‘accurate’ account of what happened. (Luke 1:1-4)
Let’s pause and remember what we are busy with – a process of deconstructing the doctrine of inerrancy. Let me make it clear, I believe the scriptures are inspired and contain a message that is nothing less than our salvation but to grasp its message we need to first do away with the religious layers of dribble that obscure it.
The aim of this article was to highlight a point so obvious that we often miss it. To claim that the Bible is the inerrant word of God, one needs to know what words we are talking about. And this might have come as a surprise to some: we don’t have the original words. Is this a challenge to your faith? Is text supposed to be the basis of faith … or does faith have an altogether different author?
I can obviously only give a summation of this subject in an article – please see references and recommended books if you desire to study this further.
The next article is particularly exciting as we start delving into the actual content – the text itself.
1. (Ehrman, Bart D. (2009-01-23). Misquoting Jesus (Kindle Location 196). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.)
2. Commentary on Matthew 15.14, as quoted in Bruce M. Metzger, “Explicit References in the Works of Origen to Variant Readings in New Testament Manuscripts,” in Biblical and Patristic Studies in Memory of Robert Pierce Casey, ed. J. Neville Birdsall and Robert W. Thomson (Freiburg: Herder, 1968), 78– 79.)
3. Ehrman, Bart D. (2009-02-20). Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (And Why We Don’t Know About Them) (p. 112). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
Recommended books regarding the origins of the Bible: