‘I will give a lolly,’ said Graeme, our lecturer, ‘to the person who copies out the most verses in three minutes.’
For the next 180 seconds, I frantically wrote out most of 1 Peter 1 by hand. Some of my classmates copied out more, so I did not get the lollipop.
Then we took the two longest copies and copied them out. (I didn’t win the lolly in that round either.)
Finally, we checked the printed Bible and marked all the mistakes.
‘If your handwritten copies were our only copies of 1 Peter 1,’ said Graeme, ‘How could we decide which variations were correct?’
It was pretty clear. We would prioritise older copies. We would think of what mistakes were likely to happen while the copies were being made (like writing a wrong word that looks similar to the right one, or repeating a word accidentally). It would help that we had several copies to check against each other. We also noticed that, in any place where there were two equally convincing alternatives for what the original said, it hardly mattered. The differences were extremely trivial, and made no difference to doctrine.
This was the process of working out what the original said – an area of study called textual criticism (criticism in the sense of evaluation, not just objections).
Textual criticism is not only for the Bible, but for many other books, including Shakespeare’s plays. Textual criticism can achieve more with some books than with others. It depends on what copies can be found.
The original text of the Old Testament is remarkably well represented by the translations we have today. Perhaps the most spectacular event to confirm this was the discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls. Among these scrolls were copies of most of the Old Testament close to 1,000 years older than the copies that had been available so far. These older manuscripts and the later ones agreed with stunning accuracy, bearing witness to the famous carefulness of the scribes who made copies.
The New Testament is even better off when it comes to textual criticism. For most books from the New Testament times, if they have survived at all, the earliest manuscripts available a good several centuries (sometimes over a millennium) after the time of writing, and we are lucky if they number over a dozen. Yet copying by hand is not such a transmission nightmare as some people imagine; textual critics and historians generally accept that what these authors said has successfully reached us.
But the New Testament is represented by literally thousands of manuscripts. The most important ones come from the fourth to sixth centuries A. D., very close to the time of original writing in the first century. Such a wealth of manuscripts really helps the process of checking variations to deduce the original words. The reasonable confidence of past Christians that the New Testament is being passed on intact through copies has been bolstered by a mountain of evidence – all we need and many times over!
And what we found with our copying activity in our class is also true for the Bible: when copies give us two equally convincing alternatives for what the original said, the differences are trivial, and make no difference to doctrine. God has truly provided us with exceptional clarity in the Bible.
Besides Graeme Fleming’s lecture at Lake Learning (a Christian training camp), I have drawn on F. F. Bruce’s classic The Books and the Parchments for this post.