Have you ever played the Telephone Game? It’s an all-time favorite ice breaker where the first player thinks up a phrase and whispers it to his immediate neighbor. And the message gets passed on quietly to the next person until it reaches the last player who in turn shouts it out loud.
In a ‘successful’ game, the final message would bear so little resemblance to the original statement that everyone breaks out in laughter.
Despite their best attempts, mistakes easily creep in somewhere down the line and distort the entire message.
If communication is such a precarious business, how can we know that the Bible we read today accurately reflect the original writings of the authors?
The original manuscripts were lost in the sands of time. All we have were copies of the original. But people make mistakes. Errors accumulate with each successive copy.
In a few hundred years, who could tell how much of the original message was left intact? Just like in the Telephone Game.
Compound that with the fact that the Bible was not written in English. Not even King James English.
Most of the Old Testament was originally written in Hebrew (a few passages were in Aramaic) while the entire New Testament was composed in Greek. That means that for most of us, the message of the Bible needs to be translated into a language we can read and understand.
But why are there so many different English versions of the Bible? How much confidence could we have in the accuracy of these translations?
Recovering Lost Lecture Notes
Unlike the telephone game, however, the biblical text was passed down to us in written form. Writings can be tested and less susceptible to distortions compared to oral whispers. In the ice breaker, communication is limited as “one-to-one” with everyone lined up in single file. But the Apostle Paul’s letters can be transmitted via multiple copies, which in turn duplicated into more numerous copies. Its transmission was non-linear.
The fact is that historians can confidently reconstruct what an ancient manuscript says from existing copies even though they may contain differences.
Here is an analogy of how it works.
During secondary school, I had an Economics teacher whose teaching style seems to have missed the invention of the photocopy machine. Mrs. Lee would write her lengthy lecture notes on the whiteboard while the students furiously copy them down before she could wipe them off.
Suppose that the entire class was hit by a flu bug on the crucial day that Mrs. Lee handed out her much-anticipated “spot questions and sample answers” before the exams. Only three students managed to attend the class and copy them down on their notepads. Pitying their sick friends, each of them lent their notes to ten of their classmates who in turn made more hand-written copies.
Since I had missed the class, the original copy on the whiteboard was lost forever. With exams only a week away, I anxiously tried to contact Mrs. Lee and the three students who made those copies. But for some mysterious reasons, they were also down with flu and quarantined for a week. In a state of panic, I rounded up all the remaining classmates and spread out thirty hand-written copies on the floor to recover the original wordings.
Immediately I can detect some differences. Ten copies have a misspelled word (“inflaxion” instead of “inflation”). Five copies had wrongly ordered phrases (“buy high, sell low” instead of “buy low, sell high”). And one copy contains an entire paragraph not found in any of the others.
Do you think I can accurately reconstruct Mrs. Lee’s original lecture notes based on these different copies?
Sure, I can. Misspellings can be easily spotted, mixed-up phrases can be corrected and it is more likely that an extra paragraph was added to one copy than for it to be omitted from twenty nine copies.
Authentic Text: How Many? How Early?
In simplified form, that is how the science of textual criticism works. Even with more numerous and complicated errors, historians can still recover an ancient document depending on two factors:
1) How many surviving copies do we have to compare and test? The more manuscripts we have, the easier it is to detect differences.
2) What is the time gap between the oldest surviving copies and the writing of the original? The closer to the original, the more confidence we have in the manuscripts.
First let us look at the statistics for non-biblical texts:
Caesar's The Gallic Wars has 10 surviving manuscripts with the earliest copy dating to 1,000 years after the original writing; Thucydides' History (8 manuscripts; 1,300 years elapsed); Herodotus' History (8 manuscripts; 1,350 years elapsed) and Tacitus' Annals (20 manuscripts; 1,000 years). The best preserved of ancient non-biblical writings is Homer’s Iliad with about 650 surviving copies (500 years elapsed).
In comparison, there are approximately 5,500 Greek existing manuscripts that contain all or part of the New Testament! The New Testament was written from about A.D. 50 to A.D. 90. Two major manuscripts, Codex Vaticanus (A.D. 325) and Codex Sinaiticus (A.D. 350) date within 250 years of the time of composition. Most fascinating of all, the earliest fragment of a small portion of John’s Gospel dates about A.D. 120 with other important fragments dating within 150-200 years from the time of composition.
On both counts, the manuscript evidence for the biblical texts overwhelmingly surpassed those of other ancient documents. If skeptics dismiss the Bible as unreliable, then they must also dismiss the reliability of virtually everything we learn from ancient documents.
Even if all of these precious biblical manuscripts were somehow lost, we could still reconstruct the entire New Testament from quotations of Scripture found in ancient catechisms, lectionaries and writings of the church fathers. As the gospel spread further by the end of the 2nd century A.D., New Testament translations were made into Latin, Coptic, Syriac, Armenian and other languages. These early versions (more than 18,000 surviving copies) provide valuable resources for scholars to cross-check the original Greek wordings.
Sir Frederic Kenyon, former director of the British Museum and foremost authority on the subject, wrote:
"The interval between the dates of the original composition (of the New Testament) and the earliest extant evidence becomes so small as to be in fact negligible, and the last foundation for any doubt that the Scriptures have come down to us substantially as they were written has now been removed. Both the authenticity and the general integrity of the books of the New Testament may be regarded as finally established."Found In Translation
Now, what about the accuracy of the English Bible translations? Even a brief visit to the nearest Christian bookstore would yield a bewildering variety of Bible versions available today.
How shall we even begin to decide on picking one for our personal use?
For almost three hundred years, the King James Version (completed in 1611) was the most widely accepted translation for English-speaking Protestants. Its lofty language had a profound influence on literature and history. However, modern readers began to find its archaic words hard to understand, thus providing impetus for the explosive growth of Bible translations.
Another important reason for fresh translations came about as archaeologists discovered more and older copies of the biblical text (i.e. the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Codex Sinaiticus). As we saw earlier, such a wealth of manuscript evidence enables us to get even closer to the original writings.
Thirdly, the proliferation of English versions resulted from different translation approaches adopted by the translators. Do they aim for an essentially literal word-for-word translation? Or is their goal a thought-for-thought translation that seeks to get the idea across instead? Or is it a free paraphrase like Eugene Peterson’s The Message? Although all translators need to balance readability and faithfulness to the original text, Bible versions differ in how each of these objectives is emphasized.
Lastly, it may be a good idea to try out a few translations before making your choice. When you come across a difficult verse, read it in several versions and observe the differences. You may also find online resources like Biblegateway.com convenient and inexpensive for this purpose.