I have discovered that when a Christian person discovers the following facts, they tend to become shocked and dismayed – maybe even a little scared.
- We do not possess the original copy of a single book of the Bible (these would be called “Autographs”)
- The manuscripts that we do have are copies of these originals – in fact most are copies of copies of copies
- These copies do not always agree with one another – there were no Xerox machines in Bible times, each text had to be copied by hand and errors inevitably crept in
- The places where these copies differ with one another are called “textual variants”, and there are multiplied thousands of them in existence
Does any of this mean we have an untrustworthy Bible? Not at all! God has preserved His word with a degree of accuracy unmatched by any other ancient writings. We can be absolutely confident that the scriptures we possess are virtually identical to what was originally penned – and this goes especially for the New Testament. The science of textual criticism allows us to compare manuscripts in a way that allows us to arrive at a 99.5% certainty about our New Testament texts – that they say what the Apostles wrote – and the 0.5% that we’re still unsure of is shrinking all the time as more manuscripts are found and more work is done.
See, I discovered how dismayed a person can become with the above facts because I went through it myself. Resolving to get to the bottom of things was the best decision I could have made, and the Lord has richly blessed my study of the issues. (for anyone who wants to get an entry-level understanding into this fascinating subject, I recommend “Searching for the Original Bible” by Dr. Randall Price)
But without getting into the nitty-gritty of how all of that works (it would make this post substantially longer than it needs to be), I want to address the question that crosses everyone’s mind at one point or another:
Why would God allow errors and differences to creep into the text in the first place? Why do we have manuscripts that differ when God could have just zapped the copyists into human-Xerox machines?
Great question with an even greater answer. But before I tell you that story, I have to tell you this story.
Uthman and the Qur’an
Before the prophet of Islam, Muhammad, died, the scriptures of Islam were not written down. Instead, Muhammad taught his followers the Qur’an (Muslim scriptures) verbally, and they memorized it diligently. A problem arose after Muhammad’s passing, however, when the disciples who had the largest portions memorized began to be killed in battle with the religion’s enemies. Thus, the decision was made to lay out the Qur’an in writing to preserve it for posterity. Sounds simple, but it wasn’t. It turns out that different disciples had memorized certain things differently, and this led to conflict over time.
Years and years after the death of the prophet it became clear that if something was not done, Islam would cannibalize itself. That is, each of the different disciples had their own school of recitation and set of written suras (Qur’an chapters) – but if the students of another disciple recited the suras differently, heated debates were the inevitable outcome as one school called the other heretics and insisted that they were improperly reciting the Qur’an, and vice versa. Multiple copies of the written Qur’an, many to most of which differed from one another with respect to the number of suras contained therein or in the actual wording of those suras, meant that consensus was difficult to arrive at as to what was proper and taught by the prophet Muhammad.
It was in this climate of escalating tensions that a man named Uthman, the 3rd caliph (leader of the Muslim empire), made a controversial decision. In order to preserve unity amongst Muslims, Uthman ordered that copies of the existing Qur’ans be brought together and that one single, authoritative text be created from these. Once this text – a compilation of texts from the existing Qur’ans overseen by men appointed by Uthman himself – was complete, Uthman ordered all Qur’ans apart from his new, authoritative version, be burned. Of course, this decision was not popular with everyone, but it appears to have been carried out with success regardless. From that point forward, Uthman’s text was to be maintained as the inspired Qur’an, and all that differed from it were worthy of the fire.
Why am I telling you this?
I want you to imagine for a moment that the Bible had a period of history where some leader – political or religious – exerted such influence and control over the text that they could create their own “Authoritative Version” however they wished; then, following that, they silenced all other voices by burning all manuscripts that attested to a reading different than this leader’s version. No really, imagine it. Because that’s what some popular novelists would have you believe, and many many people have bought into the bunk.
What if, say, Emperor Constantine had his way with the Biblical text and after he was done got rid of all the previous manuscripts, making his Bible version the authoritative and, indeed, only version in existence? What questions would this raise in your mind?
I imagine most of you would take this scenario and ask the following:
- What if Constantine took something important out? Something we need to know?
- Worse, what if he put something in; such as, say, the Deity of Christ and the Doctrine of the Trinity?
- How can we trust Constantine’s text when for all we know he was politically motivated and changed some doctrines to suit his machinations?
And the answer is we could never know since he would have destroyed all of the previous manuscripts. Thousands of textual variants would be removed by such a method, and maybe even enough to make textual criticism a pointless exercise. But at what cost?
Now, it is important for you to recognize this fact: there has never been a Christian Uthman. Dan Brown’s fiction notwithstanding, Constantine never had the power or the means to accomplish this. We can prove it never happened; not with Constantine, not with anyone else. And you know what? The textual variants are vital to us in demonstrating this.
In other words, if we had a manuscript tradition for the New Testament in which every manuscript read exactly like the other, would it not be fair to question how this came to be? At the moment, the liberals pick on us because our manuscripts have variants – but if our manuscripts were all 100% identical, every conspiracy theorist on the planet would have a basis for their suspicions. After all, we know that human beings aren’t infallible, and if we had zero textual variants at all there would be only 2 alternatives: A) God did it (that’s what Muslims try to pull), or B) someone got ahold of all the manuscripts at some point and standardized them to make them read identically.
“A” wouldn’t get us very far, because if we claimed that we would be just going with blind faith – which is what the Muslims have to do (and which Christianity doesn’t, despite what you may have been taught).
“B” would be the automatic assumption. A perfect textual witness with no variants would make it impossible for Christians to be sure our Bibles had not been corrupted at some point along the way (apart from blind faith), and even more impossible to convince skeptics.
Bottom line: a little textual variation is a healthy thing.
But maybe this still doesn’t make sense to some of you who have little or no experience with this subject. Let’s try an example to illustrate:
Imagine that you have thousands of photographs of the Great Sphinx in Egypt. The pictures have their imperfections, and not every one is identical. But the fact that you have a great many pictures, all subtly different from one another, guarantees that you can be assured that you know what the actual Sphinx looks like. In fact, the numerous pictures, thanks to their minor differences, together testify to the great confidence you can have that you know what the Sphinx actually looks like. It’s all about variety, and this variety improves the degree of confidence you can have that you are seeing the real thing, does it not?
Below are some pictures of the sphinx. Sure, some have been tampered with, but those are easily picked out. Why? Because they stand out against the majority, which have not been modified.
Now imagine a different scenario where you still have thousands of pictures, but this time every single picture is identical. You will find your single picture below.
Now, tell me, if this is your only witness to what the sphinx looks like, what would be the most obvious thing to conclude? You either have to take it on blind faith that the 1000 identical photos aren’t telling you the exact same lie or you get skeptical and conclude, that’s right, IT’S A FAKE!! But now you have no way of checking it out to even make sure it’s a fake, much less find out the real deal regarding how the sphinx actually appears. Mix it in with the others above, however, and it quickly becomes apparent what the truth is and where the fake lies.
So again, this is why textual variants are not only okay, but vital, because they allow us to cross-check and triangulate the correct text. If we want to have any chance of knowing what the original autographs said, we need variants. The alternative is being at the mercy of a system where we only have one single text type, and yeah, some people would really like not having any confusing variants to haggle with – but the downside is you can never be sure if someone at some unrecorded point in the past substituted the real deal for a fake, because you have no variants to check it against.
In other words, if God had just “zapped” the scribes so that they copied everything perfectly, we would lose our ability to be sure that our text has never had an Uthman-style revision. Mercifully, He allowed textual variants to give us a 3D view of textual transmission so we can see how it has come down to us and be assured of no tampering.
But, but, but…
Now, one final point that might reasonably be raised is: “well how come God didn’t just preserve the autographs so we’d have in our hands exactly what the Apostles wrote with no need for all this gibberish about textual criticism? We could just refer to the original documents!”
Sounds good on the surface, right? But I for one am soooooooooo thankful that God did not allow the Church to remain in possession of the original Apostolic autographs. Why?
Have you ever heard of relic worship? Throughout most of the Church’s history there have been those who claimed to be in possession of one artifact or another from Christ’s life or that of the Apostles or church fathers. In the time of the Reformation it was not uncommon for a person who the Roman Church deemed required special penance for some sin to take a pilgrimage to a shrine with relics from the early days of the Church (real or exaggerated). Pieces of bone supposed to be from Paul, a lock of hair shorn from the head of Timothy, a bone fragment from the grave of Peter, on and on and on. These items became virtual idols for many in the Church, turning their focus from Christ crucified to pieces of dried flesh which might have just as well been from a pig’s ear as from the Apostle James. (see the wikipedia article on relics in Christianity for more on all of this) Even today the shroud of Turin is an object of veneration, as directly opposed to the one who supposedly wore it!
If we had the original autographs penned by the New Testament writers themselves, they would no doubt be the singularly most seductive items for relic veneration (read: idol worship) in the history of the Church. Their absence does not leave us uncertain as to what they said, but it does remove an incredible temptation from our paths. Thank God for that.
If you take nothing more than the following away from this post, I will have accomplished what I set out to do:
Do not sweat the variants. They are a tremendous boon to Biblical studies (in even more ways than I have been able to elaborate on in this short time), and we literally should be thanking God for providing us the Bible in the way that He has done. Because of how the texts have come to us, we can be absolutely confident that no Uthman has ever changed our texts, least of all in a way we could not discover and correct. It is truly impossible to conceive a more perfect system of preservation than the one that was employed by our Lord to give us His word accurately these many many years after He spoke them on earth.
But you don’t have to take my word for it…