I grew up believing the Bible we have today was translated from the original manuscripts. I believed not a jot nor tittle were added or omitted; I believed God’s sovereignty ensured this.
It wasn’t until I became an adult that I learned none of the original manuscripts exist and that over the centuries scribes who copied scripture sometimes changed words and often added words or phrases. Textual variants in the New Testament involve 10% of the whole text of the New Testament, and because there are many less surviving complete manuscripts of the Old Testament and the copying process was probably done more carefully, textual variants involve only 6% of the whole text of the Old Testament.
Here are some examples:
In some Bibles, Matthew 27:7 reads “Jesus, Barabbas, or Jesus…”; however, the oldest manuscripts do not repeat the name “Jesus.”
In some Bibles, 1 Chronicles 3:4 says the width of the porch was 120 cubits (180 feet); however, the discovery of older manuscripts lets us know that it was actually 20 cubits (30 feet).
1 Kings 4:26 says Solomon had 40,000 stalls of horses. In 2 Chronicles 9:25 (a parallel passage) we are told that he had 4,000.
2 Chronicles 22:2 says “42 years,” but the parallel passage in 2 Kings 8:26 says “22 years.”
In 1 Samuel 13:1 some manuscripts say Saul was 30 while others omit his age.
Ephesians 5:9 says “fruit of the light” in the oldest manuscripts, but later textual variants contained “fruit of the Spirit.”
The two words “of sins” appeared in later manuscripts at the end of Hebrews 9:22, so it shows up in some translations (like ESV) but is absent from others.
In John 5 after the 3rd verse, some manuscripts insert “…waiting for the moving of the water, because an angel would go down into the pool from time to time and stir up the water. Then the first one who got in after the water was stirred up recovered from whatever ailment he had”; however, most Bible scholars are in agreement that this was added later and therefore some translations omit it and others bracket it to show that it was likely not included in the original.
John 7:53-8:11 doesn’t show up in the oldest and best Greek manuscripts and when it does show up in later manuscripts it is sometimes placed at the end of Luke’s 21st chapter or at the end of Luke’s letter. Furthermore, none of the early church fathers mentioned it.
In 2 Corinthians 8:7 some Bibles say “in our love for you” and others say “in your love for us,” which makes much more sense in this context.
There are many more including 1 John 5:7-8, which made its first appearance in a Greek manuscript in the 15th century and the last 12 verses in the book of Mark, which differ significantly from the rest of that book.
Why didn’t my youth group leaders address this when I was a teen?
I suspect most laypeople are either ignorant of these facts or they are afraid to talk about them for fear of being labeled a “progressive” or “liberal” by Christians fundamentalists. (People say this is especially true in the south where Southern Baptists have a bit of a reputation for going after those who don’t tow the party line, but I’m certain this kind of intimidation happens everywhere.)
But why didn’t the pastors of the churches I attended address these matters? Were they also afraid? Afraid their flock might not be able to handle the truth? Afraid of offending and maybe losing members whose support made their salaries possible? Afraid of being run out of the church as heretics?
When I was a kid, it was popular for churches to teach that the Bible was inerrant. Then sometime in the 80’s, churches started modifying their Statements of Faith by tacking the words “in the original manuscripts” to the statement on inerrancy. This kind of intellectual honesty was long overdue, but it still wasn’t taught from the pulpit. And 30 years later I still don’t hear it being taught!
Why does this matter?
It matters because churches are dying as the youth stop attending after having their faith shipwrecked when they learn that what they were taught in church isn’t all true.
It matters because laypeople are unable to answer the questions raised by Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code” or Bart Ehrman’s New York Times bestseller “Misquoting Jesus.”
As we move toward a post-church culture, I believe pastors and youth leaders have an even greater obligation to prepare those under their influence. Address the truth head on: Yes, there are some mistakes in the manuscripts we have and these mistakes do show up in the Bibles we use, but so what?
Why should the width of a porch, the number of horse stalls, a repeated name, or the insertion of a few words on the part of scribes who were trying to make the text more readable shake a Christian’s faith?
We don’t believe in the Bible, we believe in the one the Bible points us to. But we can believe the Bible is trustworthy when it comes to the basic doctrines of the Christian faith. We can believe Jesus’ teachings because we have copies of every book in the New Testament that date back to either the first or second century. We can believe Jesus’ teaching because we have some 5,700 Greek manuscripts (plus another 10,000 manuscripts of the early Latin versions of the NT). We also have the writing of the early church fathers which contain thousands of quoted verses.
Remember what the apostle Paul said, “If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith…If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile, you are still in your sins” (1 Cor. 15:14, 17).
Our faith must be based on the resurrection of Christ, not on whether or not trivial errors have crept into the text of the Bible.
For more on this topic, see “From God To Us Revised and Expanded: How We Got Our Bible” by Norman Geisler & William Nix: http://www.amazon.com/From-God-To-Revised-Expanded/dp/0802428827