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A Primer on Bible Transmission

 Ben Rast

  Contender Ministries

In order to fully understand any discussion on Bible translations, it’s important to understand the transmission process.  In other words, how did the words of Moses, Isaiah, Mark, John, and Paul get into the Bible you read today?  Once you understand the process in general, you can gain better insight into the debates on Bible translations.


Obviously, the first step in this whole process is when the authors initially wrote down the words the Holy Spirit moved them to write.  Keep in mind that while these men were imperfect, their words were inspired by God.  2 Timothy 3:16 says that all Scripture is “God-breathed” (NIV) or “given by inspiration of God” (KJV).  The Greek word here is theopneustos, which is a compound word made of theos (God) and a derivative of pneo (pertaining to 'breath' or 'wind' -- from where we get our words pneumatic and pneumonia).  So while these were imperfect men, the words they recorded were not their own.  The original manuscripts upon which they wrote, mostly papyrus, no longer exist (or at least, have not yet been discovered).  These are called the “autographs.”  Autograph comes from the Latin autographum, which comes from the Greek autographos, which means “something written with one’s own hand.”  It’s easy to remember, because we use that term when getting a celebrity’s signature, or autograph, written by their own hand. 


The autographs were written before the printing press or the photocopier.  Therefore, copies of these texts were made by hand.  The Old Testament books were written mostly in Hebrew, with the exception of a portion of Daniel, which was written in Aramaic.  The New Testament was written in Koine Greek, or the common Greek language of the day.  Copying Greek to Greek or Hebrew to Hebrew posed little difficulties.  I say “little” difficulties, not “no” difficulties.  Imperfect marks on the manuscripts at times caused confusion for copyists, which could have introduced subtle word variations.  These variations were minor and infrequent though.  Let me use an analogy from my own background here. 

When I was in the Air Force, I studied Arabic language and culture for a year and a half at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California.  If our instructor handed us an Arabic text, and told us to copy that text (keeping it in Arabic), the fifteen or so students would all have produced copies that were the same as the original.  Oh, penmanship would differ, certainly, but at most we could expect one or two small mistakes from someone who copied too fast.  As a whole though, our results would be almost identical to the original.  If each of us then handed our copy to someone else, and had them copy it (in Arabic), they would still be likely to produce a copy essentially the same as the original.  Copying produces very little variation. That’s why biblical scholars like to go to the earliest Greek or Hebrew manuscripts available.  These are copies of copies of the original autographs, and since no translation had yet taken place, they are more than likely essentially the same as the autographs. 


In the first couple of centuries A.D., copies began to be made and distributed.  Once again, these were hand copies.  It took a great deal of time to make hand copies, and very few people had copies of the entire New Testament.  The prevalent style of Greek text at the time was in the form of all capital letters that ran together with no breaks.  This was known as “uncial” text.  The “Alexandrian” text type (the oldest New Testament Greek text type) was primarily uncial.  If we were to look at the first few sentences of this paragraph in an uncial style, it would look something like this:







As the centuries passed, a new form of Greek text developed that was analogous to our cursive writing.  This style was known as “miniscule.”  As this style grew in popularity out of Byzantium, it became known as the “Byzantine” text type.  Copying this style was faster and easier, and more copies could be produced.  If you could make a graphic representation of the copying process, it would look like a tree.  The trunk would be the autographs, and each generation of copies would branch off from the one before.  Therefore, it’s no wonder that of the tens of thousands of Greek manuscripts and papyrus fragments we have today, there are more from the eighth, ninth, and tenth centuries than from the first, second, and third.  Since most of the manuscripts are of the Byzantine text-type, these are commonly referred to as the “majority texts,” and are represented in short form by a fanciful m: M.


The Old Testament manuscripts rarely come up in KJO discussions and debates, so we’ll only touch on it briefly.  For quite some time, the primary Old Testament text used was a Greek translation of the Old Testament known as the Septuagint (in text discussion shorthand: LXX).  LXX was hotly debated among some in the early church, but it soon gained acceptance.  The Hebrew manuscript evidence supported the integrity of the LXX translation, especially with the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in the 1940’s. 


The King James Version New Testament was translated primarily from a Greek New Testament known as the Textus Receptus, or TR.  A Roman Catholic Priest named Desiderius Erasmus compiled the TR, and subsequent editions were published by Robert Stephanus and Theodore Beza.  Erasmus was in a hurry to get his New Testament published before others, and only had a relative handful of manuscripts to work from.  These manuscripts were largely later Byzantine texts from around the tenth century and later. Where there were holes in the text due to an inadequate manuscript basis, they were filled with translations from the Latin Vulgate, the Roman Catholic Bible.  An example of this is the highly controversial passage in 1 John 5:7-8, also known as the Johannine Comma


7. For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one.

8. And there are three that bear witness in earth, the Spirit, and the water, and the blood: and these three agree in one.


Modern translations do not have the bold text listed in the KJV above.  Because this passage is a strong support for the Trinity, KJO-ists will accuse modern translations of attacking the doctrine of the Trinity for excluding the Johannine Comma.  However, the Comma is absent from the oldest Greek manuscripts, and even from the Majority Texts.  The basis of the Comma is from Roman Catholic tradition, and is not found in any Greek text before A.D. 1400.    Consequently, Erasmus deduced that this was likely a later addition, and did not include it in the first edition of his TR.  This raised the ire of the Catholic Church, and to quiet the furor, Erasmus included it in later editions. 


Enter the nineteenth century, and two Anglican scholars named Westcott and Hort.  They published a new Greek New Testament, based largely on older Alexandrian manuscripts that had been discovered in the time since the KJV went to press.  Count Konstantin von Tischendorf had discovered nearly 350 pages of an early Greek text containing all the New Testament works.  He discovered this volume in St. Catherine’s monastery on Mt. Sinai, and it became known as the Codex Sinaiticus.  This Greek New Testament was dated to the mid 4th century AD.  Another discovery, the Codex Vaticanus, is a volume of 757 vellum sheets containing most of the works of the Bible, and it dates to the early 4th century AD.  Other papyri fragments have been discovered that date to the early 2nd century AD!  In fact, literally thousands of pieces of the Bible have been discovered dating earlier than the Byzantine texts that were the foundation of the Textus Receptus.  Codex Sinaiticus is often represented in shorthand by the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, א (aleph).  Shorthand for Vaticanus is simply the letter ‘B’.  Papyrus fragments are represented by P and a numerical identifier, so papyrus fragment number 75 would be given as P75


In the 20th century, Nestle-Aland (NA) and the United Bible Societies (UBS) followed the lead of Westcott and Hort by producing Greek New Testaments based largely on the earlier texts such as א, B, and others.  NA and UBS scholars did not agree with all of Westcott and Hort’s conclusions, and they put the texts through rigorous textual criticism to be confident that they were including what was written in the autographs. 


In their zeal, many KJO advocates take a “majority rules” approach to the Greek texts.  While the KJV has some renderings that differ from M, such as in the Johannine Comma discussed previously, the TR largely follows the Majority.  UBS and NA, as well as those on the translation boards of some modern translations believe that the older manuscripts must be given greater weight, due to their having experienced fewer generations of copying since the autographs.  Older manuscripts are given greater weight, but it would be inaccurate to say that age is the sole determining factor.  Some old texts have words and phrases that the NA and UBS have decided simply don’t belong, and they side with M in some cases. 


Among the Greek manuscripts that are copies of previous Greek manuscripts, there are very few textual variations.  The variations that exist are usually caused by one of three problems.  The first is copyist error.  Papyrus and vellum isn’t as clear as white copier paper, and little imperfections can sometimes be mistaken for part of a letter.  The second cause is called “expansion of piety.”  This concept caused some scribes to puff up the names or titles of God or the Apostles.  An example would be where a copyist notes a verse he’s copying refers to our Lord simply as Jesus.  He might be tempted to write, “Jesus Christ,” or “Lord Jesus Christ” to pay high honor to our Lord.  This causes a textual variation, without necessarily changing the meaning of the text.  A third cause is due to “parallel influence.”  If a scribe is copying Paul’s epistles, he might see a sentence in Colossians that looks just like one in Ephesians.  However, if the passage in Colossians doesn’t read exactly the same as the one in Ephesians, he might be tempted to harmonize the two passages by making them read the same.  An example of this might be were some Greek texts tried to make Colossians 1:14 read the same as Ephesians 1:7.  The TR has redemption “through his blood” in both verses, whereas the earlier texts only have that phrase in Ephesians 1:7.  KJO-ists sometimes point to the difference in Colossians 1:14 to allege that the NIV and NASB reject that redemption is through the blood of Jesus.  This is patently silly.  If the NIV and NASB were colluding to hide this doctrinal truth, they would have scrubbed it from Ephesians 1:7.  In reality, parallel influence likely resulted in the addition of “through his blood” in Colossians.  Still, I must stress that these variations are very few and minor. 


While the act of copying from Greek to Greek is not likely to result in many variations, translating from Greek or Hebrew to English is more difficult.  Returning to my analogy of my Arabic class, if our instructors had asked us to translate a passage from Arabic into English (and they did, believe me), it’s not likely that any two translations would be identical, even if we were all allowed to refer to our Arabic-English dictionaries.  The reason is that sentence structure and grammar follow different rules in different languages.  There are also cases in which finding an exact translational match is difficult, especially for cultural-centric words and phrases.  If you look at an English dictionary, most words have more than one possible meaning.  In Greek, this is even more true.  Therefore, the KJV translators translated some words differently than modern translators, even when no textual variations exist in the Greek.  Since the KJV was translated by different committees, each committee being responsible for a section of Scripture, you’ll often find the same Greek word translated several different ways.  Some words have been translated more than three dozen different ways in the KJV! 


In spite of the fact that textual variations in the original languages exist, and in spite of the translational differences, less than seven-tenths of one percent of the Bible is really in dispute!  And these differences affect no key doctrines!  KJO advocates often claim that key doctrines are “lost” in the modern translations, but when I press them to show me which key doctrines are lost, they are unable to do so.  So it is unfortunate (to say the least) that there is this controversy in the church.  Among those who are fond of the King James Version, there is a range of beliefs.  On one end are those who like the KJV, and may even prefer it over modern translations, but bear no ill feelings toward modern translations nor those who use them.  On the other end are the King James Only-ists who insist that the KJV is the only infallible, authorized English language translation, and the modern translations are satanic “perversions.”  Some people in this camp go so far as to believe the KJV translators were divinely inspired, and where the KJV differs from the Greek or Hebrew, those original languages should be corrected to align with the KJV.  Sadly, those in the KJO fold have hurt the faith by splitting churches and intimidating those who are new in the faith, all on the basis of a circular argument with no basis in fact or reality.  That is why we must get the truth out about this divisive and destructive movement.  We must defend the faith.



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