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Are There Mistakes in Scripture?

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This excerpt taken from Greek for the Rest of Us by William D. Mounce serves as a primer for understanding why Greek manuscripts differ and how the Bible has come down to us through the centuries.

The History of the Bible and Textual Criticism

In my opening discussion, “What Would It Look Like If You Knew a Little Greek?” (pp. xi–xvii), I give two examples of different translations. The first was what the angels said to the shepherds, and I pointed out how these two are substantially different.

Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men. (KJV)

Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom he is pleased. (RSV)

 I also talked about how some translations stop at Mark 16:8 while others go on to
verse 20, including v 18, which talks about Christians handling snakes and drinking poison.

These differences are not due to different translations of the same Greek words. The differences are due to the fact that there are variations among the many Greek manuscripts we have of the New Testament; some translations follow certain selected manuscripts and other translations follow others. If you are going to know why translations are different, you need to have some awareness of this issue.

To put it another way, along the bottom of many Bibles you will see the constant mention of what “other manuscripts” say. These footnotes are talking about the differences that exist among the different Greek manuscripts. The easiest way to explain these differences is to walk through church history and see how the Bible has come down to us through the centuries. All Bible citations below are from the ESV unless otherwise stated.

 Writing of the New Testament

The New Testament authors wrote for many different reasons. The gospels were written to slightly different audiences, and while they had the same basic message, they also had their own themes the authors wanted to stress. Matthew appears to have been written more for a Jewish audience as is seen, among other things, by his frequent assertion that a certain act fulfilled prophecy. Matthew wanted his audience to understand that Jesus was the Messiah. It is generally believed that Mark was written for a Roman audience and, among other things, wanted to show that Jesus was the Son of God. Luke, we believe, was written more for Gentiles; many of the passages that occur only in Luke address this specific audience. He also tells us that he wanted people (specifically Theophilus) to understand the “certainty” of the gospel story (Luke 1:4). John was written so that his audience “may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (20:31). When these gospels were first written they were probably sent to the author’s specific audience.

The letters (or epistles) are another matter. Most of Paul’s letters were written to a church. They were written to answer specific questions (e.g., 1 Corinthians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians), deal with specific problems (e.g., Galatians), thank the church (Philippians), or to prepare the way for future ministry (Romans). He also wrote letters to an old friend (Philemon) and two of his associates (1 and 2 Timothy, Titus). Some of the letters don’t tell us much about to whom they were written (e.g., Hebrews, James, 1 and 2 Peter, 1 John). The short letters of 2 and 3 John were written to a specific church and to a friend, Gaius. Even more so than the Gospels, these letters would have been sent to a specific audience.

These original writings, or what we call the “autographs,” would have been written on papyrus (2 John 12) or possibly parchment (2 Timothy 4:13). They were then delivered to the churches/people to whom they were written, perhaps by friends traveling to the area or by people specifically sent (e.g., Eph 6:21-22; Col 4:7-9). When the New Testament was written, there were no printing presses, no photocopy machines, no Internet. They were not broadcast to the widest possible audience. They were written to specific audiences, and it was to each audience that the writing was first sent.

 Spread of the Writings

So how were the writings spread? Obviously, when Paul’s letter to a church arrived, it was read to everyone in that church (e.g., 1 Thess 5:27). We can assume that different individuals wanted copies of the letters, either for their own reading or to share with other people in the city. It is also safe to assume that as people traveled, they wanted to take copies of these writings to people and churches in other cities, as well as obtain copies of the gospels/letters that perhaps had been written to the other churches. In fact, Paul tells the Colossians to share their letter with the one he wrote the Laodiceans (Col 4:16). This type of sharing occurred throughout the ancient world.

So how were the copies made? It does not appear that the early church used professional scribes to make the copies, and the church was growing quickly and the word needed to get out. People either sat down and copied the letter/gospel, or sometimes, perhaps rarely, a person would read it aloud and a small group would write what they heard. As you might imagine, this is where a problem arose. If you were to sit down and copy the letter of Romans, or if you were to read it and have others write what they heard, you can imagine how many and what types of errors would creep into the copies. The fact of the matter is that no two manuscripts of the Greek New Testament are identical. There are differences among all of them.

This is not a made-up problem. This is not some problem created by a “liberal bias” against Scripture. These “mistakes,” these differences among the copies of the New Testament writings, are real. You can look at them and see the differences.

It was merely a matter of time before the autographs, written as they were on biodegradable materials, would deteriorate, become unusable, and be discarded. All that the church had, then, were manuscript copies, with all their differences.




Order your copy of  Greek for the Rest of Us: The Essentials of Biblical Greek by William D. Mounce today.




(Image Credit:  "Corinthian columns at Salamis of Cyprus" by George Groutas)


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