Has the Bible Been Translated Accurately?

When it comes to the Word of God, one of the most common questions that comes up is about whether or not the Bible we have today is an accurate representation of what was originally written 2,000 years ago. This challenge tends to be less about whether or not the Bible is the inspired Word of God (we'll get to that in another post) but whether or not it was handed down through the centuries without major alterations and corruptions along the way.

One common analogy people make is to compare the transmission of the events of Jesus' life to the Telephone Game. You remember that game. You sit in a big circle with a couple dozen people. The first person whispers something to the second. The second person whispers the message to the third. This continues until the last person gets the message. Of course, when the last person says the message out loud, it is hilariously different from what the first person said.



Another accusation I have heard is that what we have in our Bibles today is based on copies of copies of copies of translations of translations of copies of translations of....well, you get the idea. Here, the main contention is similar to that of the telephone game. Supposedly, each copy of lower quality than the version it was copied from. If you're old enough to remember the VCR, you may remember that when you copied one video tape to another, the copy didn't have the same quality as the original. If you then copied the copy, and then copied that copy, it didn't take long to get to a point where the movie was un-watchable.

Along with that, there is the idea of multiple translations. After all, we all know that when you translate any large body of text from one language to another, things do not always translate well. Certain figures of speech, writing styles, word choices, etc. do not translate directly into other languages. Also, many languages simply do not have words or phrases which capture a particular thought or idea of another language. A lot can be lost in translation, sometimes.

One thing that may seem to lend credibility to the telephone game or "lost in translation" issue is the fact that there are so many "variants" among all the manuscripts, fragments and documents we have of the biblical texts. Some people view this as a bad thing and see it as something that brings biblical reliability into question. Others view this as a good thing and actually helps us to be more certain that we can very accurately re-produce the content of the original writings of the apostles.

In order to keep this from getting too lengthy, I'll address these issues in parts. This post will deal with the last issue...that of the many variants between the manuscripts. To do that, we'll have to give you some basics to start with.

To understand this better, one needs to know something about the practice of "textual criticism." This is a field of study used to help to sift through copies of ancient documents in order to determine the content of the original documents (also known as the autographs). Textual critics are experts at studying all extant manuscripts of a given ancient writing in light of the historical, social, literary and other critical contexts in play at the time of the original writing and using that knowledge, along with comparing the discovered manuscript texts with one another, to identify the original content.

I mentioned something about "variants" a couple of times. A variant is just any difference that exists between one manuscript and another. So, if one text were to say "Father, forgive them for they don't know what they're doing," and another said "Forgive them, Father, for the don't know what they're doing," That would be a "variant" because the two sentences are not identical.

As with virtually any field of academia  there are some experts in the area of textual criticism who view these variants as indicating an unreliability of the Bible. They might claim that these variants (some are more weighty than my example) indicate that we are unable to determine what the original documents might have said, or that they are forged, corrupted or generally untrustworthy. One such scholar is Bart Ehrman, of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Ehrman will often loudly proclaim such things as "there are more variants in the biblical manuscripts than there are words in the entire New Testament." He will shout from the rooftops (figuratively speaking) that there are over 400,000 variants! Does that seem like a lot? It sure does to me!

What he tends to say far more quietly, however, is the fact that most of these variants are things like a different spelling of a word (e.g. color and colour) or different word order (Jesus Christ or Christ Jesus). So, while he will make a grandiose claim about the number of variants, he tries to quietly slip in the fact that most of them are basically insignificant. In fact, even of these variants, he admits (under his breath, behind closed doors) that the number of variants that could even potentially affect any major doctrine of Christianity could be counted on one hand... and you'd still have fingers left over (assuming you actually have all five fingers).

While I certainly won't attempt to steer you away from reading Ehrman's works, I just want to caution you that you make sure that you are careful not to pay such close attention to his right hand, that you miss what he's doing with his left. There is a lot of this kind of sleight of hand going on.

Also, if you're going to read people such as Ehrman, you should also read Bruce Metzger or Daniel B. Wallace (Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts) for the other side of the story. They are both masters of this field of study (in fact, Ehrman studied under Metzger and even co-authored a book with him).

I've barely scratched the surface here. This can be some really heady stuff, but there are some popular works out there for the average Joe who doesn't routinely use words that have more syllables than Tom Brady has Super Bowl rings.

Another excellent resource to help uncover whether or not the New Testament was accurately handed down to us is J. Warner Wallace's recent book, Cold Case Christianity. Wallace is a retired cold-case homicide detective and details what he refers to as the "chain of custody" to show that the early Church Fathers carefully handed down what they had learned from those under whom they trained.

For more resources on the historical reliability of the Bible:

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