Putting Pen to Papyrus

Gospel of John Fragment, often called P52. It is from the 2nd Century.

Gospel of John Fragment, often called P52. It is from the 2nd Century.

There have always been people who didn’t accept the Bible. Perhaps they wanted to live their life their own way, without God’s commandments interfering. Perhaps they didn’t buy the Biblical Worldview. Perhaps they even rejected the existence of God.

For one reason or another the Bible has been under assault for a long time. Come to think of it, the Word of God was first assaulted by Satan in the Garden, when our adversary started with the words, “Did God really say…?”

 Today, an increasingly popular attack on Scripture is to say, “We don’t even know what the Bible says in the first place.” These critics are pointing out that there are variations between the many ancient manuscripts of biblical books.

Scholars have long known about this. Seminary students (even in Bible-believing seminaries) are taught about it. What’s new is that this has entered into popular awareness. For instance, a double issue of “Newsweek” in January of this year had an article, “The Bible: So Misunderstood It’s a Sin.” In that article, Dr. Bart Ehrman says, “There are more variations among our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament.”

Can that be? How is this so? For the next couple issues of “The Journal” we’ll look at this.

Before Bill Gates, before copying machines, before Johannes Gutenberg, books were hand-written. Copies were made by taking an exemplar, setting it down next to a blank sheet of paper, and then copying word by word what you were reading.

A later innovation was the Scriptorium, in which one person stood at the front of a room reading aloud the text, while several scribes sat copying what they heard. This is the ancient world’s version of Xerox.

The work of the scribes was not simple. In some ancient manuscripts the scribes write complaints into the margins of their books, such as, “The lighting in here is poor.” Or, “It’s cold today.” One ancient scribe tells us, “Writing bows one’s back, thrusts the ribs into one’s stomach, and fosters the general debility of the body.”

Still, it’s what they had, so off to copying books by hand they went.

Unsurprisingly, this method of work was not flawless. Words were misspelled (no spell-checker yet). Sometimes a word was omitted. At times an entire phrase could be omitted.

Because the possibility of errors existed, there were other times when a scribe was copying a text, that upon finding a tough passage he might assume that there was an error which he needed “to fix.” With the best of intentions, this scribe was adding to the textual variations.

Given all of that, then one thing we need to know: We don’t have the original text of any biblical book.

One afternoon Paul sat down to write a letter to the Church in Corinth. When he put pen to papyrus, that original version is called the “autograph.” (Finally, scholars came up with a word that regular people can grasp.) Again: no autograph of any biblical book exists.

 We know that the letters of Paul were circulated from one church to the church in the next town. How? By paying a scribe and having the letter copied.

Over the following years more and more copies were made. With this wrinkle: most of the copies were not taken from the original but from a copy. So we really have copies of copies.

If that seems confusing, here’s some good news: there are more than 5,000 manuscripts (either the whole NT, or in many cases just fragments) of the Greek New Testament around the world today. Each manuscript is given a catalogue number, and any pastor with the Greek New Testament has a list of them. Scholars make reasonably accurate guesses about when each manuscript was written. And when anyone cites a variant one part of that job is to talk about which manuscripts support one reading versus another reading.

So how extensive are the variants? What kind of impact do they have? More on that next week.

God Bless,

Pastor Walt