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Archive for September, 2015

I’ve from a few people heard something along the lines that the NIV can’t be trusted because it takes verses out of the Bible. Just letting you know that that’s rubbish :) It’s true that the NIV, along with other modern translations such as the ESV and NLT, does not publish some verses. But this is a necessary consequence of good biblical scholarship. You can be sure that while all modern Bible translations will have their respective problems, these problems are typically minor. There are hours of prayer, hard work, and critical discussion which go into modern translations. If you only ever had access to one then you would still be set.

First, on versification, the original manuscripts did not have chapter or verse numbers, let alone punctuation or spacing (the original Hebrew didn’t even contain vowels, which makes it even more difficult to read in some places). Jews and Christians went without these for centuries until different versification traditions developed and eventually enjoyed widespread adoption in the 16th (!) Century. I say this because some people might find it off-putting when they read verse 42 and it goes straight to 44. No worry, a verse that was thought to be authentic in the 16th Century is no longer thought to be so, which leads me to the next point.

Second, as new manuscripts are discovered, as new technologies for reading manuscripts are developed, and as biblical scholars hone their highly critical methods, we learn more about the original oral and written sources from which we derive our modern day Bible. We have access to no original manuscripts. Every one we do have is a copy, and often an incomplete copy. We need to consult hundreds (thousands, I think but not sure) of manuscripts to get a still incomplete picture of the biblical text. As these texts were copied, variations were introduced. There are many possible reasons for this. I will name a few. Sometimes scribes made errors like omitting letters, words, or sentences, accidentally altering words by recording the wrong letter, or even inserting words through, for example, seeing a word written earlier in a sentence and accidentally reproducing it again later in a sentence, or just trying to hold too much in their head at a time and then recording a slightly altered sentence, etc.

Sometimes scribes intentionally changed the manuscript. This happens a lot with manuscripts of the first three Gospels. Scribes see Matthew using one word in a parallel passage where Luke uses another word and choose one over the other in order to harmonise. This extends to “correcting” details in the accounts so that Matthew, Mark, and Luke all witness to a particular event or detail in exactly the same way. Another common intentional change is editing the manuscript to accord with a particular theological position. The doctrine of the Trinity proper arose in the 4th Century and there is no direct “proof” for it in the New Testament (though there are good reasons to develop such a doctrine on the basis of New Testament theology). Nonetheless, in the King James Version can be found the “comma johanneum,” 1 John 5:7-8. This blatant affirmation of the Trinity appears in no Greek manuscript, and no church father makes reference to it, which makes no sense if the verses are original. It would have been unquestionable proof of the biblical basis for the doctrine of the Trinity. It is found in some Latin manuscripts, where it was likely added to derive biblical support for the doctrine of the Trinity. Two other examples of intentional changes are the two endings of Mark (16:8b and 16:9-20) and the beloved “pericope adulterae” (John 7:53-8:11). Manuscript variations (with Mark) and obvious language and theological differences between these passages and their respective Gospels indicate that they are not original. What is interesting with John’s, however, is that it would fit well in Luke’s Gospel, and some have said that it was an independent oral (or otherwise) tradition that was preserved and added into John at a later date. The basic point is that we have access to a lot of manuscripts and as we learn more about their original contexts then some verses will be removed from the Bible (or referred to in footnotes), and the translation of other verses or passages will change in subtle or major ways. This is to be celebrated.

Finally, a short theological reflection. I think the fearmongering around this (even some conspiracy speak of people “altering the Bible” – no, scholars will always have different opinions and we are better off for it) stems from an unhealthy understanding of the Bible’s role in the church. Jesus told his disciples, “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt 28:20). Nonetheless, “now we see in a mirror, dimly” (1 Cor 13:12). Faith is not based on some flawless set of manuscripts but on the Christ to whom these point. The Bible is not an end in itself nor can it be. Throughout history it has been used and still is used not to point to Christ but to legitimate whatever ungodly thing the wielder has in mind, intentional or not. Strive to ask what it reveals about the person of Christ and how the person of Christ leads his church to read Scripture, ever fragmented and ever being made new.

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