Translations, Narrative Variations, and the Manuscript Tradition


In the first place, it has to be understood that differences among various Bible translations is a separate issue from consistency between manuscript texts. If there are spelling errors or misprints in a modern Bible translation—which is actually not a common problem—all that it would demonstrate is that translation editors are not infallible. But this, of course, has nothing whatsoever to do with the Bible itself or the manuscript tradition from which translations are drawn. Just honestly consider: if a letter or book that someone wrote were to be translated into another language several decades or centuries from now, would she find it fair to be accused of inconsistencies and self-contradictions, just because a translation’s editor left some errors of his own in the publishing process? I don’t think she would. This is just one example of how we hold the Biblical authors to arbitrary standards that we’d never hold any other ancient or modern writers to.

Although contradictions throughout the Bible are a second matter worth consideration, we have to be careful to distinguish between complementary accounts, which might differ from one another, and outright contradictions. Many will bring up the Resurrection accounts, so I think it’s instructive to look at these as an example of my point.

It simply doesn’t follow to say, just because one account mentions some individuals being present where another doesn’t, that these two accounts are in “contradiction” with one another. Many will insist this very thing, but it’s logically fallacious.

It would be one thing if Matthew were to boldly say, “Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb” and Luke were to say, “Mary Magdalene and the other Mary chose to stay at the house rather than see the tomb.” Or what if one of the writers were to assert that only certain individuals witnessed the Resurrection when another author says something that’s completely the opposite?

It’s only these types of issues that can be examples of actual contradictions; exemptions of details or additions to details among several accounts are not contradictions. I will venture to say that I’ve seen hundreds of suggested contradictions (hell, I had the Skeptic’s Annotated Bible bookmarked under my Favorites for years), but I have never seen one successfully demonstrated in a way that can’t be reasonably refuted, either through logical reason or thoughtful consideration of a verse or passage’s greater context.

Are there any other verses that still cause someone to seriously question my assertion? Anyone is welcome to respond in comments below; don’t hesitate to share them with me.

Another matter is the question of manuscript reliability, which is directly relevant to the issue of the Comma Johanneum’s presence in late Latin texts. The Comma Johanneum (“For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one.” – 1 John 5:7a) is not original. Rather, it’s a late addition by scribes, very likely just a marginal note and not something intended to be seen as part of the actual New Testament text. Scholarship has proven quite thoroughly that it was not in the original manuscripts, so unless an early text shows up that has it—which would definitely prove deletion over time—there’s no reason it should be a serious concern for anyone.

Let me be very clear on this point: absolutely none of the work done in New Testament textual criticism over the years has cast doubt on the integrity of the text; in fact, it’s had the opposite effect. The continued analysis and refining of our understanding of Old and New Testament texts, specifically with regard to linguistic issues, has only made scholars more certain that those modern translations most faithful to the text of the oldest manuscripts reflect the original manuscripts’ content with complete accuracy. Not all translations have relied on the most ancient manuscripts (e.g. Tyndale’s New Testament, King James Version, Russian Synodal Bible), but most modern translations do. And besides this, because of textual scholarship, it is entirely possible for anyone to know full-well what all the variants are between manuscripts. Anyone (well, I suppose only anyone with access to a library, bookstore, or internet) can look directly at manuscripts in the various languages represented and determine for themselves how any significant variant impacts the meaning of a text. In every single case, they will find this: none of the Biblical books’ substantive meanings are changed by any of these variants. I would challenge anyone to show a single example in which one manuscript’s reading of a verse changes the meaning of a passage or an entire book.

It’s true—we don’t have the originals to examine. This doesn’t mean, however, that we don’t know what the originals would have said. This is not a legitimate argument where a substantial manuscript tradition exists, as we have with the Old and New Testaments. Unless we find something older than the extant manuscripts that we currently have, and it says something completely different, it’s very difficult to argue that the current manuscript tradition doesn’t reflect the originals accurately.

Okay, I’ll allow for a pushback. One might argue that the originals were completely different and then destroyed to make room for an alternate version. But then someone would have to explain how it’s possible for altered versions to circulate as far as the manuscripts did without any evidence of contrary, older versions. And this would have happened, mind you, while Christians (as a fringe Jewish sect) were undergoing some of the heaviest persecution of any group during the first century by way of the Romans and the Jews.

Honestly, if the same type of extreme skepticism that’s applied to the Bible (especially the New Testament) were applied to other published writing, intellectually honest scholars would be forced to discount the accuracy of virtually every other ancient and modern work in existence.

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