2 Timothy 3:15 "and that from childhood you have known the sacred writings which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus."
So when we read the words above, are we reading the same words that Paul wrote in the first century? For that matter, did Paul even write those words, or was 2 Timothy the product of another author writing at a later time? Such questions, believe it or not, are hotly contested in the world of New Testament studies. Not much time will be spent in addressing the second question, since authorship issues (called in Biblical studies "higher criticism", which is concerned with authorship and development of the document itself) is not the focus of today's post. 1
The particular matter of which we are concerned about has to do with the very words of the Bible itself. Establishing whether or not the text of our English Bibles, other translations and ancient copies of the Hebrew and Greek originals are the same as those originals is of huge importance for the Christian. Why? If the Bible from whence I preach and teach and from whence Christians do daily devotions and memorize is not the wording and message that the original documents composed by the Prophets and Apostles, then the whole discussion over the Bible being God's word is a moot point. However, the aim of today's post is to demonstrate that the words originally given by God and in turn written by the prophets and apostles have been preserved in all the copies and translations. This matter deals in the area of the trustworthiness of the Biblical text or the specific area of lower or textual criticism.
A quick tour of how we got our Bibles from original writing to modern day translations
To avoid getting too bogged down in technical details and to make this post as useable as possible to a wider audience, I will divide the history of how we got our Bibles into three stages.
Stage One: Revelation and inspiration
The Old Testament books were written in whole or in part by different authors originally in Hebrew and a few chapters in Aramaic over a period of 1,000 years. Moses wrote the Pentateuch (first five books) in 1446-1406 b.c with Malachi penning the last Old Testament book in 396 b.c. Dr. Robert Jeffress, Pastor at First Baptist Church of Dallas, mentions the following verses that proclaim the divine revelation and writing down or inspiration of the Bible: Exodus 20:1; Isaiah 1:2; Jeremiah 1:1-2; Psalm 95:7b-8; Hebrews 3:7; 2 Timothy 3:16; 2 Peter 1:21; Matthew 19:4-5; Matthew 24:39; Matthew 22:31-32).2
Stage Two: Transmission (copying)
The ancient Hebrew in which those documents would had been written may had looked something like the below figure:
Hebrew is a language that reads right to left and as seen in the above example, the text would had been continuous with no breaks in between the words. After the Jews went into exile in Babylon in 586 b.c, they adopted the Babylonian language of Aramaic and its lettering style, which in turn took the ancient Hebrew lettering (called paleo-Hebrew) and made it look more like the below figure with what is called "Aramaic Square Script".
A fragment from the famous Dead Sea Scrolls, written between the close of the Old Testament Canon (396 b.c) and the coming of Jesus. israelseen.com
Despite the change in font, the Old Testament retained the same wording as it was copied down through the ages. As the Jews kept copying the Hebrew scriptures from the time between the Old and New Testament to what is called the Middle ages (400b.c-1,000 A.D), little "dots" or vowel points were inserted to aid in knowing how to pronounce and read the text. The next picture depicts a portion of Joshua 1:1 from the famous Aleppo Codex, dated in the tenth century A.D or 1,000 years after the Dead Sea Scrolls:
People of course wonder how much the text and wording of the Hebrew Bible had changed during all those transitions and events (there is far more, but for our purposes here we'll just stick to this skeletal outline).
The Hebrew Bibles we have today, like a page of one pictured below, contain 419, 687 words.
For a manuscript (which is a hand-copied document) of the Hebrew Bible, like Isaiah, produced in 1,000 A.D compared to the overall Old Testament books found at the caves of the Dead Sea at Qumran (the famous "Dead Sea Scrolls), there was found to be only 5% difference, and that being mostly spelling differences or words like "and". The Old Testament as a collection of books displays this overall figure of over 95% continuity between the older manuscripts and newer ones and translations. The point? The Old Testament text is remarkable in its preservation or transmission of the original words.
The New Testament books demonstrate an even more remarkable accurate rate of copying when it comes to comparing the manuscripts. The 27 books of the New Testament were composed 45 A.D (book of James) to 95 A.D (Book of Revelation). All of them would had been originally written on an ancient form of paper called "papyrus" and in rolls or "scrolls". Since the chief language of the New Testament era was Greek, every New Testament book would had been composed in that language, particularly the common or "Koine" Greek of the day. Below is an photograph of the famous Bodmer Papyri from the second century A.D. This aids the reader in seeing what the text of the New Testament may had looked like when it was first written.
The New Testament books came to be used and copied, first in Greek, and then in other languages. From the first century until the invention of the printing press by Gutenberg in the 1450's, over 6,000 hand-copied Greek manuscripts were produced, with an additional 20,000 ancient translations from those copies. Below is an example of a beautifully produced Greek manuscript from the fourth century, the Codex Siniaticus:
As the New Testament was being copied, the papyrus roll gave away to what was called the "codex" (as seen in the above picture), the forerunner to modern day books. According to Greek Scholar Dr. William Mounce, The New Testament as a collection of books contains 138,162 words. As inevitable differences can occur in scribes copying the New Testament documents, the consistent testimony of conservative and liberal critics alike maintain that there is 99.5% agreement between all of those manuscripts.
In general, much like the Old Testament text, the overwhelming majority of those differences (or variants as they are called) are minute spelling differences, use or absence of the words "the", "and" and "an". Moreover, whether talking about the Old or New Testament text, consistently and without controversy it has been shown that not one major doctrine, historical recording or scientific fact in our translations and ancient copies differs in any fashion from the production of the original manuscripts.
Stage Three: Translation and our English Bibles
The translation of the Bible books from Hebrew/Aramaic/Greek into other languages is about as old as the transmission and copying of those texts itself. We have established that the original documents were conceived and composed by the Biblical authors as the Holy Spirit revealed and inspired their writing of them. We next established in broadbrush fashion the reliability of the copying of those manuscripts (i.e hand-written documents). But now what about translation? Is anything lost in translation? When Paul wrote to Timothy in 2 Timothy 3:15, he was writing to a man who would had heard the Old Testament taught to him from the Greek translation of the Old Testament called the Septuagint, translated in stages from 250 b.c - right before the coming of Jesus. Moreover, Jesus and the Apostles, who would had spoken in Aramaic, undoubtedly would had used either the Aramaic translation of the Hebrew scriptures (Targums) and would had been very familiar with the Greek translation. None of the Apostles nor Jesus had issue with referring to the translations and copies of their day as "God's Holy, inerrant, infallible Word".
According to Bible scholar Dr. Donald Brake in his book: "A Visual History of the English Bible", page 16, there have been nearly 40 major English translations produced from the first (Wycliffe's 1384) to the latest (NET Bible 2005).3 This of course does not include the numerous versions and lesser known English translations and versions of the Bible not listed by him. In having studied the original languages of the Bible for 20 years and having been a regular user of English translations for an even longer period of time, this blogger can say with confidence that nothing is lost in translation. The Bible from whence I preach, read and that hopefully every Christian memorizes and lives out is the same Word of God as those inerrant words originally given by the Spirit to the Prophets and Apostles.
Today's post was all about introducing the reader to the subject of the trustworthiness of the words in the Biblical text. We considered this issue in three parts or stages: 1). The revelation and inspiration of the Bible. 2). The transmission or copying of the Bible 3). Translation and our English Bible. Clearly this is an enormous subject which can be either covered in too much detail or not enough. My prayer is that this particular post has proven useful to the reader. To God be the glory.
1. To be brief, there are some clues that would indicate that Paul is undoubtedly the author of 2 Timothy (clues which may seem obvious to the readers of this blog, including this blogger, but for technical reasons proposed by critics, are not obvious). First of all, Paul identifies himself as the author of 2 Timothy in 2 Timothy 1:1 "Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ", just as he does in his other letters that are not question by the critics. Secondly, Paul makes reference to people that we see appear in his other letters, such as Timothy (2 Tim 1:2), Onesiphus (2 Timothy 1:6, who is the same one in his letter to Philemon and in Colossians 4:9) and the Ephesian Christians and church itself. Thirdly, the testimony of the first three centuries of church history ascribe Pauline authorship to this letter. Thus issues such as these establish in brief the authorship of 2 Timothy.
Why be concerned over who wrote 2 Timothy? Moreover, why be concerned over the matter of words period? Because authorship is important when discussing the issue of Biblical authority, since in all cases, the book in question needed to be demonstrated as having been written by an apostle or an associate of one (as with Mark and Luke).
2. Dr. Robert Jeffress is pastor at First Baptist Church of Dallas and preached a series entitled "How can I know". The specific message consulted here can be found on the church's website: www.firstdallas.com. The reader can find the series and then the message in the website's search engine. Its well worth the listen!
3. Donald L. Brake. "A Visual History of the Bible". Baker Books. 2008. Page 16