The Texts of the Bible


     In "How the Bible came to be," we considered the original writers and writing of the sacred canon, the scriptures (click on to read). In "The Text of the Bible" we shall briefly consider the restoration of the Hebrew and Greek text of the sixty-six books comprising the book we call the Bible. There are three major languages involved originally in the translation of the text of the Bible, Hebrew, Aramaic (very similar to Hebrew), and Greek. Hence, the books of the Bible had to be translated into English and the other languages of the world.

     The text of the Hebrew scriptures ("Old Testament"). The translation of the original Hebrew text (first 39 books of the Bible) in many ways has not posed the challenge that translating the Greek text has (New Testament). One reason for the absence of comparative difficulty is the fact that the Jewish scribes carefully and fastidiously guarded their copies of the Hebrew text. In fact, when a copy became old or worn, they would, out of respect for the manuscript, ceremonially bury it. Alas, this practice resulted in later scholars not having access to the older texts. The earliest Hebrew manuscripts are known as the Cairo Codex and the Leningrad Codex of the Prophets. The Cairo Codex dates back to 895 AD and the Leningrad Codex of the Prophets to 916 AD. Still another old Hebrew manuscript that has been important in restoring the original Hebrew text is the British Museum Codex of the Pentateuch (tenth or eleventh century). The oldest known manuscript that contains the entire 39 books is the Leningrad Codex which was finished in 1008 AD. There are many other manuscripts, but the foregoing are the primary witnesses to the Hebrew text.

     One cannot study the text of the Hebrew books without considering the Massoretes. Until the age of printing, the Hebrews scriptures were laboriously handed down to us by copying. To guard the letter of the law with an almost fanaticism, there developed at an early age various groups of Jewish scholars who were dedicated to the purity and preservation of the Hebrew text. Leaders among these Jewish scholars became generally known as the Massoretes. Their contribution to the accuracy and preservation of the Hebrew text was so large that the Hebrew text today is sometimes called the "Massoretic text."

     There are other works that are involved in the Hebrew text. The Samaritan Pentateuch (ca. 400 BC), the Aramaic Targums, Syriac Peshitta (ca. 50 AD), the Latin Versions (ca. 150 AD), and the Talmud. In about 250 BC it was decided that there was a need to translate the Hebrew text into Greek. Hence, the Septuagint became a reality. It is believed that 70 scholars took part in the translation of the Pentateuch (first five books of the Bible). We do not know the circumstances of the translation of the remainder of the 34 books.

     The Dead Sea Scrolls. A great discovery was made March of 1948. What was found was called the Dead Sea Scrolls, in all about 350 rolls, most of them fragmentary. They contained portions of almost all the 39 Hebrew books. The matter of great importance is some of the material dated back to around 100 BC. Some who rejected the Bible believed the scrolls would disprove the Bible as the inspired word of God. I shall now quote Professor F. F. Bruce and with this quotation, conclude our consideration of the Hebrew text:

     "The new evidence confirms what we had already good reason to believe - that the Jewish scribes of the early Christian centuries copied and recopied the text of the Hebrew Bible with the utmost fidelity" (Second Thoughts on the Dead Sea Scrolls, 1956, pg. 61, 62).

     The text of the New Testament. Scholars generally agree that although the spoken language of Jesus was Aramaic, the 27 books which comprise the New Testament were written in Koine Greek (some maintain Matthew may have originally been written in Aramaic). Since the gospel is God's power unto salvation, the message of the gospel had to be preserved for all men until the return of Jesus in judgment (Rom. 1: 16, Jn. 12: 48). The Greek in the first century, as is English today, was a "universal" language. Also, in many ways, the Koine Greek is a frozen language; hence, having even more preserving ability.

     The original 27 letters were written and introduced during the latter half of the first century. They appear to have been originally on papyrus sheets. The New Testament manuscripts are of two primary types, uncial and cursives. Uncials were written in all capital letters, no punctuation, and are the oldest. There are about 300 manuscripts that are classified as uncials. As a rule, uncials date from the fourth to the ninth century. These are, of course, copies of the original letters (there are no extant originals). Cursive manuscripts are in lower case and are usually dated from the ninth century. In all, there are about 4, 500 manuscripts of the New Testament.

     Among the uncials there are the Vatican, the Sinaitic, and the Alexandrian manuscripts. They date from 300-450 AD. Some scholars consider the Vatican manuscript to be the most important single manuscript in restoring the text of the New Testament. These uncials have only become accessible since the translation of the King James Version.

     There are many other significant sources in the restoration of the Greek text. All of them combined should be considered in any translation and restoration efforts. Some are the Manuscript of Ephraem, the Codex of Ephraem, the Codex Bezae, and the Syriac Versions. The writings of the so called church fathers are also a valuable source. Some of these men lived near the time of the actual apostles. Their writings are compared to the ancient manuscripts for critical analysis.

     It is claimed that there are 200,000 scribal errors in the manuscripts of the New Testament. However, such a charge and claim is highly misleading. To address and explain this claim, allow me to quote Neil R. Lightfoot:

     "From one point of view it may be said that there are 200, 000 scribal errors in the manuscripts, but it is wholly misleading and untrue to say that there are 200, 000 errors in the text of the New Testament. The large number is gained by counting all the variations in all of the manuscripts (about 4, 500). This means that if, for example, one word is misspelled in 4, 000 different manuscripts, it amounts to 4, 000 'errors.' Actually in a case of this kind only one slight error has been made and it has been copied 4, 000 times. But this is the procedure which is followed in arriving at the large number of 200, 000 'errors.' A person is either unlearned or of a skeptical mind who tries to take this large number of variations and use it in such a way as to undermine one's faith in the word of God" (How we got the Bible, pg. 53, 54).

     As noticed, just about all of these so called errors are trivial, nothing pertaining to how to be saved or live a godly life. Westcott and Hort (their contribution is discussed in "The Translation of the Bible into Various Languages, click on to visit) wrote thus regarding the reliability of the text of the Bible:

     "The proportion of words virtually accepted on all hands as raised above doubt is very great, not less, on a rough computation, than seven-eights of the whole. The remaining eighth therefore, formed in great part by changes or order and other comparative trivialities, constitutes the whole area of criticism….The amount of what can in any sense be called substantial variation is but a small fraction of the whole residuary variation, and can hardly form more than a thousandth part of the entire text. Since there is reason to suspect that an exaggerated impression prevails as to the extent of possible textual corruption in the New Testament…we desire to make it clearly understood beforehand how much of the New Testament stands in no need of a textual critic's labours" (B. F. Westcott and F. J. A. Hort, The new Testament in the Original Greek, Introduction and Appendix, pg. 2-3).

     In closing, there is no doubt that of all the ancient books, the Bible is in a class to itself, as far as vindication and validation of the text is concerned. There are more manuscripts and external proofs for the books of the Bible than any other book extant. No other book has been rightly subjected to such a rigorous and exacting test for authenticity and, yet, the Bible time and again has not only survived all the tests, but has triumphantly prevailed. Almost two thousand years ago Jesus said, "Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away" (Matt. 24: 35). Again, "Wherefore, Sirs, be of good cheer: for I believe God, that it shall be even as it was told me" (Acts 27: 25).   (Related material is, "How the Bible Came to be" and "The Translation of the Bible."  Also of interest is, "Greek, How Should a Knowledge of it be Viewed?")