The Bible — Can We Trust It?
Moving Past the Translation Controversy and Defending the Bible in an Ever-increasing Secular Society
By Richard L. Dresselhaus
Hold your fire. Don’t shoot. Give me opportunity to explain.
Here’s the deal. I have good friends who are loyal defenders of the King James Version. I also have good friends who argue the case for modern translations.
And I’m with my friends. Intentionally. Deliberately. Thoughtfully. Reverently.
Several years ago I read two papers about modern translations. One was a summary of a doctoral dissertation; the other was an article by a professor. They represented the same seminary. Both had carefully researched the subject, and both had written with scholarly passion. Nevertheless, they represented opposing sides of this controversy. I will give each paper a solid A.
This controversy has a long history and will not soon disappear, if ever.
Sharpening the Focus
Beyond this controversy is a pressing need to reaffirm the complete reliability and unquestioning authority of the Bible — regardless of which translation we choose. This is especially true today because in many quarters the Bible is under sharp attack.
These questions are familiar: “Since all you have are copies of copies, how can you have any confidence that the text now in use is anything close to the original writings?” “You claim inerrancy and infallibility for the original writings; but, since these writings are likely lost forever, is it logical to claim reliability and inspiration for the text now in use?” “Since there are so many translations of Scripture, and no two are in complete agreement, doesn’t that fact discredit the Bible and undermine its claim to reliability and authenticity?”
I present this article as a response to such questions and with complete assurance that the Bible now in use is fully trustworthy — both in its entirety as well as in its parts.
Miraculously and yet observably, the Holy Spirit has preserved His Word through each generation so, in our day, we can handle the Bible with complete confidence. The Bible remains essentially the same Word that “men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21).
Following is historical, documentary, and manuscript support for this bold claim. This evidence demonstrates in observable ways the mystery and marvel of the incredible means and methods the Holy Spirit employed to preserve and give us His Word.
Exploring the Boundaries
Scripture is the final and only authority for all we preach and believe. Not only do we hold that God inspired all Scripture, but we also claim inerrancy for the autographs. We must continually declare the total reliability and unquestionable authority of Scripture; it is God’s unchanging Word.
We owe incalculable gratitude to all who have gone before us. Their dedicated efforts have preserved for us a text that is unprecedented among ancient writings concerning its accuracy and purity of transmission. You cannot miss God’s hand in this.
Preserving the biblical text must be a priority of the church. The church’s finest minds must relentlessly pursue the identity of a biblical text that is ever closer to the original writings.
For example, scholars have been diligent in the discovery and preservation of biblical manuscripts. Concerning the New Testament, they have arranged texts of common origin and content into families — thus facilitating the analysis of alternative readings. They have also provided a textual apparatus that allows even a casual reader to make a preliminary determination on particular readings of choice. We need to be ever grateful for the efforts of those who have handled the sacred text long before our day.
Allow me to give a practical review of this subject. In a Sunday morning message I enumerated the sins of the flesh found in Galatians 5:19–21 (NIV). That afternoon I received a call from a listener: “Pastor, why did you leave out ‘murderers’ (KJV)?” He deserved an answer. His question raised the very issues before us. Let me provide another illustration. Have you ever wondered what happened to the end of the Lord’s Prayer in the NIV? “For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen” (Matthew 6:13, KJV).
Furthermore, what about the inferences that we might draw from statements given concerning Mark 16:9–20 and John 7:53 through 8:11 (NIV): “The most reliable early manuscripts and other ancient witnesses do not have. … ” What do we say when our people observe that key words from Scripture — blood, fasting, and others (KJV) — have been omitted? The people to whom we preach need to know what this means. Before jumping to conclusions, let me remind you that adding to is as much a transgression as leaving out. These questions are more complex and demanding than they might seem at first glance. But the real questions are not as much about translations as they are about the underlying Greek text and its accuracy.
Finally, my focus is primarily on the New Testament text because this is the center of most of the controversy. Much that is of significance in dealing with the New Testament text has a corresponding significance in the Old.
Let me illustrate. I will not forget looking into the showcase at the Shrine of the Book in Jerusalem that contained the Book of Isaiah, a part of the Dead Sea Scrolls collection. This copy, dated 100 B.C. — within 500 years of the original manuscript — was nearly 1,000 years older than any previously discovered manuscript and brought us much closer to the day of Isaiah’s original writing. Before my eyes lay a manuscript so near to the Isaiah text the church had been using for centuries that any discrepancies were deemed insignificant. (See sidebar Isaiah and the Dead Sea Scrolls.) You cannot miss God’s sovereign hand in this.
This documented evidence points to the total reliability of the text of Scripture that we read today. The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls has silenced many critics because they show the accurate transmission of the scriptural text down through the centuries.
Surveying the Centuries
Most scholars believe the 27 books of the New Testament were written between A.D. 48 and A.D. 100. But how did the Early Church reach a consensus that these 27 books bore the mark of divine inspiration and authority? As early as A.D. 130, the church had likely accepted all four Gospels and 13 of Paul’s epistles as canonical (passing the test of authenticity). Marcion, a doctrinal heretic, published his truncated (abbreviated) canonical list in A.D. 140. This motivated the church to pursue with greater diligence its own formulation of the New Testament canon.
In A.D. 180, Irenaeus mentioned the four Gospels in their current order. In 325, Eusebius of Caesarea published a nearly complete list of New Testament books. In 367, Athanasius of Alexandria issued a list that matches ours.
For nearly 1,500 years, faithful scribes copied these precious writings from century to century not only in Greek, but also in the other languages of their day. By A.D. 200, people could read the New Testament in Syriac, Coptic, and Latin; and, in a short time, in Gothic, Armenian, Georgian, Ethiopic, Slavonic, and Arabic as well.
Admittedly, the autographs — the handwork of the New Testament writers — have been lost to us, likely forever. Some have argued that with this admission the claim for a reliable and fully authoritative text is pointless. However, the opposite is true. Through textual criticism (the science of working with copies of available manuscripts to determine as nearly as possible what would have been the original reading), scholars have examined available manuscript readings and with confidence have established a text so near to the original as to refute this objection.
Some believe that as many as 1,000 people sought to produce editions (recensions) of the New Testament prior to the advent of the printing press in the 15th century. Since all copy work was done by hand, any reliable duplication of an editor’s work would be virtually impossible.
Following is a brief description — along with the number of copies and the date – of the approximately 24,000 manuscripts an editor (redactor) might have available to him (using Bruce Metzger’s numbers).1
Papyri — 99: From A.D. 200 to the fifth century. Papyri are identified with a “P” with superscript numbers to indicate individual manuscripts. Papyri are writing materials made from a reed-like plant that grows along the banks of the Nile. The Chester Beatty papyri contain much of the Gospels and Acts, the Pauline epistles and the Relevation.
Uncials (capitals) — 306: From the 2nd to the 10th centuries. Identified by alphabetization and Arabic numerations, that is, “B” or “03.” Uncial manuscripts were written on vellum, a writing material made from animal skins. The Vaticanus and the Sinaiticus contain nearly all of the New Testament.
Minuscules (cursives) — 2,856: From the 10th to the 15th centuries. Identified by Arabic numeration without the “0.” Here also, vellum was the writing material.
Lectionaries: (special readings used in the worship life of the church) — 2,403: Identified by an “l” with superscript numbers to indicate individual manuscripts.
Versions (translations): — approximately 2,400 in all of the languages noted above, identified by abbreviation and superscript numbering to indicate individual manuscripts: Latin = Lat.; Syriac = Syr.; Ethiopic = Eth., etc.
Church Fathers: Their quotations from the New Testament comprise the balance of the material used by the editor. They, too, are identified by abbreviation: Ambrose = Am.; Augustine = Aug.; Eusebius = Eub., etc.
Combined with symbols and signs, these identifying designations form the textual apparatus, providing the reader with possible alternative readings.
One might ask why the Holy Spirit did not miraculously preserve the original autographs. What if He had? Imagine the veneration? The inordinate preoccupation? The idolatry? The message of the words themselves might well have been lost.
Instead, the Holy Spirit has given us a voluminous amount of collaborative writings. Sincere people can examine these extant (available) texts and determine those closest to the original. Even so, an exact duplication is impossible.
Let me catch the heartbeat of this miraculous preservation of these manuscripts by citing the following: Tacitus wrote the Annals of Imperial Rome in A.D. 160. There is only one copy from the 11th century, a gap of nine centuries. There are only nine copies from the 10th, 11th, and 12th centuries of Josephus’ The Jewish Wars, written in the first century. That, too, is a gap of 9 centuries. Homer wrote the Iliad (the bible of the ancient Greeks) in 800 B.C. There are 600 copies from the 2nd century available today, a 10-century gap. The New Testament was written between A.D. 48 and A.D. 100. In contrast, we have a small fragment of papyri from John 18 (the dialogue between Jesus and Pilate on the subject of truth) that scholars agree could be as early as A.D. 120, a 20-year gap. The conclusion is clear: Of all ancient writings, none is so well-attested as the New Testament. This is clear evidence of God’s providential care for His Word. (See sidebar Manuscript Evidence for Ancient Writings.)
In 1516, nearly 75 years after Johannes Gutenberg printed his 42-line Bible (in Latin) in Mainz, Germany, Erasmus of Rotterdam printed the first Greek New Testament (with Latin translation). Pope Leo X, an enemy of Martin Luther, commissioned this work. This marked a new day in the quest to determine and preserve the integrity of the New Testament.
While other editors were quick to follow, Erasmus’ text-type was the basis for the Greek New Testament used by the Reformers: Luther’s Bible, Tyndale’s Bible, the Geneva Bible, the Bishop Bible, and the Cloverdale Bible.
Interestingly, Elzevir, one of these early editors, included in the preface to his second edition these words: “The text which is received by all, in which nothing is changed or corrupted”; hence, the phrase Textus Receptus or the Received text. This is the text-type for the King James Version.
Another factor plays into this unfolding drama. In about A.D. 400, the Roman Empire split into two parts: The West, with its primary academic center in Alexandria, and the East, with its primary academic center in Antioch of Syria. In the West, monks copied New Testament manuscripts in Latin. In the East, monks copied New Testament manuscripts in Greek. For some, the work was tedious and done carelessly. Others performed their work as a sacred charge.
I mention this only to show the complexity of the matter. No two manuscripts are identical. The scribes’ eyes and hands were sometimes not that sure and predictable. This is why editorial work on the text of Scripture is complex and challenging. In some cases, scribes would puzzle over different manuscript readings. Rather than choose one of several, they would include each of the different readings and combine them into one reading.
Let me illustrate: One manuscript may use the name Jesus, another the name Lord, and yet another the name Christ. A scribe might decide to use the full designation, Lord Jesus Christ. The original author, however, may have used only one name for Jesus. Textual critics call this practice conflation. In some cases, this practice leads to an expanded and elongated text. This illustrates how complex the editor’s task was.
Ample evidence shows that in the few passages where there appears to be a serious challenge in a given text of Scripture (Mark 16:9–20, for example), no Bible doctrine is threatened or incomplete. The rarity of these significant challenges to the text of Scripture is further evidence of God’s watchful eye over His Word.
Identifying the Streams
While other editors figure in the more modern period (since mid-19th century), none had a more profound impact on New Testament textual study than B.F. Westcott and F.J.A. Hort, dons (teachers) at the School of Divinity at Cambridge. Their work produced both a Greek edition of the New Testament as well as a delineation of methodology that they used in their editorial work. To this day, many people hold their work in high esteem.
Fundamental to their work was the identification of a text-type strikingly different from that initiated by Erasmus and those who followed in his steps. Westcott and Hort gave credence to two fourth-century uncials: the Sinaiticus and the Vaticanus. They believed the text in these two manuscripts was closer to the original autographs. Though briefer, and in some cases more crude, they remained convinced that this text-type was more reliable and authentic than the Erasmus text-type. They also argued that the early papyri fragments and the testimony of Early Church fathers served as collaborative evidence to the superior quality of the text-type in these two ancient documents.
Thus, a second stream of text emerged. This new stream is usually referred to as the neutral or Alexandrian text, while the earlier text-type is identified by one of the following descriptions: Byzantine text, Received text, Traditional text, Majority text, Antiochian text, and Syrian text (Hort).
Finally, we get to the essence of the controversy over Bible translations. (Again, our focus is primarily on the New Testament text.) The key question is not: What translation do I prefer? but, On which text-type is my choice of translation based? Again, variations in translations (assuming an acceptable level of expertise) are primarily stylistic and a matter of preference.
Following the Arguments
Since the controversy is irresolvable, at least in my opinion, wisdom dictates that we need to sharpen our rationale for the choices we make concerning our perspective on Bible translations. There are good — although not often articulated — reasons to pick one text-type over another.
It is folly to place English translations side by side and argue based on omissions or additions. The real question concerns the integrity of the underlying Greek text. I will come back to that later.
The King James Version
If you are an advocate of the King James Version (or one of its variations), you will probably base your case on the following considerations.
First, can anyone be confident of the reliability and trustworthiness of these two ancient manuscripts (Sinaiticus and Vaticanus) so honored by Westcott and Hort, the fathers of the modern translation movement? It seems the NIV translators had these two manuscripts in mind when they referred to “the two most reliable early manuscripts” (Mark 16:9–20), and “the earliest and most reliable manuscripts” (John 7:53 through 8:11). John Burgon, a contemporary and sharp critic of Westcott and Hort, challenged the confidence these Cambridge professors placed in these uncials. Burgon cites, in his opinion, numerous contradictions between these two manuscripts. He saw convincing evidence of what he felt indicated scribal tamperings throughout. While modern scholars usually dismiss him as reactionary, we do not need to quickly dismiss his work.
Second, since 95 percent of all extant (known) manuscripts are of the Byzantine text-type (on which the KJV is based), does that not speak volumes as to the witness of the church through the centuries? Is it reasonable to assume that the church was without the most reliable text-type until Constantin Von Tischendorf almost accidentally discovered the Sinaiticus at St. Catherine’s Monastery in the mid-19th century, and that the Vaticanus gathered dust on a library shelf in the Vatican until modern scholars resurrected it to significance? Has the church been without the best witness until the last 200 years?
Third, the claim of most modern scholars that the early Papyri and the post-Nicene Fathers all reflect the Byzantine text-type is also yours to challenge. If so, the Byzantine text-type may, indeed, have a history that antedates the later date scholars usually assign to it (circa A.D. 400).
Fourth, the Byzantine text-type is more complete; it does not exclude verses, words, and phrases that translators sometimes omit in modern translations. Generally, this text-type is smoother and more easily read.
Finally, is it reasonable to set aside a text-type that has served the church of every century until the 19th? For many, to do so is asking too much.
Conversely, if you are an advocate of a modern translation (ASV, RSV, NEB, NIV, UNIV, NASV, NKJ with footnotes, etc.), or the neutral, Alexandrian text-type, then consider the following:
First, Erasmus, and those who immediately followed in his steps, used only a limited number of late manuscripts (none prior to the 11th century) for their editorial work. Scholars hold that Erasmus, lacking Greek manuscripts for a part of the Book of Revelation, translated into Greek from a Latin manuscript. Scholars view this as a radical departure from acceptable editorial work. Also, much of the manuscript evidence referenced earlier was not available to these 16th-century editors.
Second, some think that the Byzantine text-type is reflective of what scholars call conflation. That is, over the centuries scribes in the East (who copied Greek manuscripts) were prone to harmonization — making the text more readable and understandable. If, for example, one manuscript spoke of fasting and another spoke of prayer, the scribe would use both fasting and prayer. For this reason, modern translations that follow a neutral or Alexandrian text-type do not have the words and phrases that many scholars believe to be scribal additions that were not in the original text. This accounts for many of the deletions found in modern translations.
Third, some argue no early papyri or a post-Nicene Father (prior to A.D. 400) reflects anything other than a neutral, Alexandrian text-type. Thus, the weight of history falls on the side of the text-type on which modern translations are based.
Fourth, scholarship in the field of textual criticism over the past 150 years has generally supported both the theory and text-type first popularized by Westcott and Hort. Greek students in seminaries across America usually use this Greek text and are taught this theory.
Touching the Heart
I share these thoughts out of deep concern. Others might treat this subject with greater accuracy and scholarship, but none will care more deeply than I about the integrity, authority, inspiration, and inerrancy of Scripture. While my study has perhaps been elementary, it has given me a deeper appreciation for the supernatural ways in which God has preserved for us His eternal Word.
Pastors need to explain to their people how the providential hand of God is clearly demonstrated by the miraculous means with which the Holy Spirit directed men in the preservation of a fully reliable and authoritative Scripture. The story is engaging and reassuring. With more information comes deeper assurance.
A second concern is this: The modern church must not make the controversy over translations its greatest concern but must focus on the biblical illiteracy that is permeating the church. The prophet Amos warned both his hearers and the church today about a famine, not of water and food, but “a famine of hearing the words of the Lord” (Amos 8:11). Unfortunately, the proliferation of translations has brought a corresponding loss of the familiar ring of Scripture. This is regrettable. Every spiritual leader needs to standardize the use of a given translation to gain back some of what has been tragically lost. We dare not lose the familiar ring of Scripture in our ears and in our hearts.
The controversy, if it leads to anything other than serious study and reflection, will be counterproductive and harmful to the unity of the church. It will also adversely affect our witness to the inspiration and infallibility of Scripture to those outside the church. It is time to accept what is inevitable (the advent of a variety of translations), recognize that some questions will remain unanswered, and then understand that hostility and judgmentalism are detrimental to the clear witness of God’s people.
It is time to bury the hatchet. If you shoot, I trust the shot will fall harmlessly beyond the scope of those who could be harmed.
His Word will endure both now and forever. Blessed be His Name.
1. See Lee Strobel’s interview with Bruce Metzger in Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998).