The Bible Truths Online Greek Course

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Lesson Two - The Bible, the Text, and Translation

(Study text then scroll down to questions.   Allow yourself extra time for Lesson Two)


     The origin of the Bible.  How the Bible came to be is a fascinating story, albeit complicated. I shall herein attempt to present the facts of the origin and development of the Greatest Book of all as simply and briefly as possible.

     The Bible did not just simply happen nor has it been preserved by accident or without effort. A complete study of our topic would necessitate a consideration of the making and writing of ancient books. Some of the earliest preserved examples of writings we are told were found in Egypt, consisting of inscriptions which appear to date back as far as 4000-5000 B.C. Research has now revealed that writing existed many centuries before Moses (some have argued that writing did not even exist in Moses' day; therefore, the Bible is false). Ancient writing materials consisted of many things before our modern type book evolved. Stone (cp. Ten Commandments, Ex. 20), clay, wood, pottery, leather, and papyrus were commonly used at different periods as material upon which to write. Leather (animal skins) was the primary material used by the Hebrews ("Old Testament") and papyrus (plant material) appears to have been the material mainly used for the first writings of the New Testament. Papyrus rolls, as they were called, were often used. Such "rolls" were widespread by 500 B. C. Papyrus sheets were sometimes joined together (top and bottom), thus, the papyrus roll (average length appears to have been about 30 feet long and nine to ten inches wide, the writing was usually on one side, cp. an exception, Rev. 5: 1). This was often the "book" during this time period (see Rev. 5: 1). The Papyrus roll (so called because when not in use, it was rolled up) was simply laid down, usually on the floor or ground, and rolled out to be read. About 600 years later (ca. first or second century A.D.), the papyrus roll began to be replaced by what is known as the papyrus codex. The codex manuscript is what we know today as a book, papyrus sheets placed together in the form of a book, instead of a roll). Parchment (improved animal skins) was also used. Vellum (parchment) became popular in about 199 B. C. For about 1, 000 years parchment was commonly used in the making of some of the first copies of the original writings of the New Testament.

     The birth of the Bible. We cannot assign an exact date or circumstance to the origin of the Bible. For a considerable time, God orally communicated with man (Patriarchal Age, Gen. 2-Ex. 20, about 2, 500 years). The first person mentioned in the Bible as writing down God's communiqué was Moses, who lived about 1500 B. C. The Bible itself contributes six distinct writings to Moses (Ex. 17: 14; 24: 4; 34: 27, 28; Num. 33: 2; Deut. 31: 9, 24; 32: 1-43, cp. 31: 22). According to strict Jewish tradition, Moses is the author of the first five books of the Bible (Genesis through Deuteronomy). Some have scoffed at the idea that Moses who lived 1500 B. C. could have written about creation, seeing how creation was antecedent to Moses' time. Herein, the Bible is set apart from all other writings - the Bible is inspired or God breathed (2 Tim. 3: 16, 17). The very words were supplied to the men who wrote; hence, plenary inspiration (I Cor. 2: 13, I Pet. 1: 11, 2 Pet. 1: 21). The Bible also mentions writings by Joshua, Samuel, Jeremiah, and others (Josh. 24: 26; I Sam. 10: 25; Jere. 36: 2). The books of law came first, then the prophets, until it grew into the collection we now know as the Hebrew scriptures ("Old Testament"). Josephus, Jewish secular historian of the first century, indicated that the sacred Hebrew text was completed with Malachi (Against Apion 1. 8).

     The New Testament also gradually came into being. The twenty-seven books of the New Testament were written during a span of about 50 years (50-100 A.D.). These books are letters penned by inspired men that were initially addressed to different churches (ex. Ephesians) and individuals (ex. 3 John). At the time of writing, these books were viewed as authoritative (I Thes. 5: 27, I Pet. 4: 11, I Cor. 4: 6, 14: 37).

     The texts of 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 Hebrew 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."

     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 Koiné 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 Koiné 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 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).

    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.

     The Translation of the Bible.  In view of the importance of the Bible, how about all the translations of the Bible? There are about 75 recognized translations today of the Bible into English. How should translations be viewed and how did they come to exist?

     For several centuries after the cessation of the age of inspiration (ending with the book of Revelation, ca. 96 AD, Jude 3), the scriptures were not available to the people in translation (all the various languages of earth). Latin was the language of the learned and as a result, the early Bibles in England were not in English but Latin. To view the inception and emergence of the English Bible, we must travel back to the middle of the seventh century. The first work, not truly a translation, was performed by Caedmon when he arranged portions of the Bible in the native Anglo-Saxon. The next century experienced the first true documented translation of any part of the Bible into English (work of Aldhelm in 709 AD). Subsequent to 709, portions of the Bible were translated into English in 735 (by Bede), King Alfred (901), and Abbot Aelfric (tenth century AD). It was not until the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries that significant portions were again translated into English (Middle English).

     Any study of the translation of the languages of the Bible focuses on John Wycliffe and William Tyndale. Wycliffe (1330-1384 AD) opposed the shackles of Romanism and urged England to a great spiritual revival. Wycliffe believed all men should have ready access to God's word. Wycliffe undertook and finished a translation of the Bible from Latin into English in 1382. Wycliffe's work is the first complete translation of the Bible into English. John Wycliffe's work prevailed until the sixteenth century. The true father of the English Bible, though, is William Tyndale. Tyndale wanted to provide man with a translation into English from the original Hebrew and Greek, not the Latin, which was itself, a translation. It was during this same time period that Martin Luther finished a translation in German. The Catholic Church determinedly did all within its power to stop translation work and to keep the Bible from being available to all men in their languages. Tyndale was imprisoned in 1534 and in 1536, he was strangled and burned at the stake. Tyndale's efforts were not in vain, though, his New Testament was completed in 1525 and in 1535, Miles Coverdale, a scholar and friend of Tyndale, published his translation, partly based on Tyndale's work.

     A number of translations and revisions followed those of Wycliffe, Tyndale, and Coverdale. Translations such as Matthew's Bible (1537), Taverner's Bible (1539), the Great Bible, the Geneva Bible (1560), and the Bishop's Bible were rendered. The fervor for English translations pressured the Catholic Church into producing an English "translation" of their own, the Rheims-Douai (completed in 1609, 10). This work, though, was not really a translation of the original Hebrew and Greek but was based on the Latin Vulgate.

     Anterior to 1611, no translation had been produced that appeased all and was viewed as useful for both public (pulpit) and private use. Hence, the making of the Authorized Version, the King James. The King James is truly remarkable, especially considering the meager manuscript access afforded to the translators. The King James Bible is not truly a translation but a revision of the 1602 edition of the Bishop's Bible. About 48 of some of the best Hebrew and Greek scholars were appointed to work on this project and about three years later, their labor gave the world the King James Bible. The King James has undergone many revisions, all of which have continued to render a still better work. The King James with it Shakespearean classic English continued to be the choice of the masses for about 400 years.

     Some scholars have well remarked that we are needlessly inundated with too many translations today. Translations, especially revisions, from time to time, are good in view of changes in English, idiom, and syntax. Also, there is no such thing as an absolutely perfect translation or revision (the scholars are not inspired, contrary to some teaching).

     The received text versus the Westcott and Hort text. When one considers the work of translating the Hebrew and Greek text, one is inevitably faced with the Received Text versus the Westcott/Hort text controversy.

     The term Received Text (Textus Receptus) was first used in reference to the popular Greek text of the Bible, in Elzevir's second edition, Published in 1633. The following preface to that edition is the Latin words, "Textum ergo habes nunc ab ominbus receptum." The translation into English is, "the text presently possessed by all received." It soon was simply known as the "Received Text" or "the Text Received by all." For the most part, the Received Text was very limited in manuscript number and variety, compared to what would later be available.

     The Westcott/Hort text. Two scholars came to light during the 1800s by the name of Brooke Foss Westcott and Fenton John Anthony Hort. They undertook the task of arranging the greatest collection of manuscripts known to scholars. After about twenty-eight years of labor, the Westcott and Hort text was presented to the world. When one considers these two texts, one is faced with a great host of claims and accusations as to which text is better, and if better, how much better. Some believe that the Received Text should be the only recognized text used by translators; others maintain that the Westcott and Hort text is so vastly superior that the Received Text should not even be considered. These are patently extreme views. Wise translators take advantage of both texts.   The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in the 1940s only confirmed the accuracy of the ancient manuscripts. So it is, for the most part, regarding all the discoveries the Westcott and Hort text brought to light (The Interlinear Greek-English New Testament by Berry is a good example of the Received Text, while the Interlinear Greek-English New Testament by Nestle/Marshall is an example of the Received Text and the Westcott/Hort text combined).

     In closing, the origin of the Bible, the preservation and restoration of the text, and the work of translating the Hebrew and Greek texts is a remarkable undertaking. We are indebted today to some of the greatest scholarship the world has ever known. Great men have made great sacrifices, some even giving their lives. The translation and preservation of God's word also exhibits God's providence (I Pet. 1: 24, 25). How deprived and doomed man would be without the guidance and sustenance of the Bible. The Bible is the only book that reveals the Creator and his will for man.   (You are encouraged to read the full version of the foregoing material by clicking on, "How the Bible Came to be," "The Texts of the Bible," and "The Translation of the Bible.")

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Questions for Lesson Two


     Please fill in the answers referring back to the above study material.  Be sure to supply your name and e-mail in the provided form.  Remember to click on the submit button and allow a day or two, normal circumstances, for the reviewing of your answers and return of your grade.


1.  Did the Bible just suddenly appear?

2.  Did writing exist in Moses' day and when did Moses live?

3.  What were some ancient writing materials?

4.  What was a papyrus roll?

5.  Who was the first person mentioned in the Bible who wrote?

6.  What are the three original major languages of the Bible?

7.  What are the oldest Hebrew manuscripts called?

8.  Who were the Massoretes?

9.  What two features characterize the Koine?

10. What believed material was originally used for the writing of the New Testament books?

11. What are the two types of New Testament manuscripts?

12. Describe an uncial manuscript?

13. Name the three so called great uncials

14. About how many manuscripts are there for the New Testament text?

15. Do you believe the charge of 200, 000 scribal errors is misleading?

16. About how many recognized English translations of the Bible are there today?

17. Who is called the father of the English Bible and why?

18. The King James Translation of 1611 is a revision of what Bible (translation)?

19. Did the work of Westcott and Hort (their text) nullify the Received Text?

20. Should Westcott and Hort's text and the Received Text be used together in translation?

Lesson Number (type in "Lesson Two"):

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