Over and over again I hear people screaming at the top of their lungs that God’s word is eternal and so on. What exactly is God’s word? The Bible, of course. Well, that is an easy answer, but what exactly is the Bible? I discussed this a bit at the end of my last post (which conveniently enough Mark at Chesterstreet did not address in his reply (Wednesday, February 27, 2008)). So I thought I would go into a bit more detail about this and actually show you what a critical apparatus is and what it tells us about ‘God’s Word.’ First of all, there ‘approximately 5,000 Greek manuscripts which contain all or part of the New Testament’ (B. M Metzger, The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration, 3rd enlarged edition, p. 36). These manuscripts are usually broken up into families (usually by geography–i.e, where the manuscripts were probably written). To put together the Bible we have today, scholars had to look at not only these manuscripts, but also translations (from the original Greek into many other languages) and at early Christians who were writing. And if you think these early scholars agreed, you are wrong. There have been many, many versions of the Bible printed, at least since the creation of the Gutenburg press. Why? Because it is extremely rare that these manuscripts agree with each other. Some have different words, some have different passages and still others have different paragraphs. Some of them are copies of copies, and some of these were corrected by scribes over time and some weren’t. And having an earlier text doesn’t necessarily mean that it is the correct version. Nor does a later text necessarily mean that it is an incorrect version. Part of the problem is that so many problems can happen when a text is copied out by hand. The eye can wander and whole words or even lines can disappear from some manuscripts. Occasionally it has been guessed that some of the copiers were even illiterate–meaning they were copying texts that they could not read themselves (and you can just imagine the errors that happen with that!).
And it was the work of scholars to try and figure out what the original said. And when I say original I mean the actual letters of Paul or the other men who wrote what we now call the New Testament. There aren’t any originals. The earliest scrap of papyrus from the Bible comes from the beginning/middle of the second century (around 125 or thereabouts). And when I say scrap I mean it: it has the text of John 18:31-33 on the front and John 18:37-38 on the back. And the rest of the manuscripts and scraps are quite a bit older than this. So we don’t know exactly what the originals looked like. Therefore we don’t know what God’s Word really said–and we won’t know until we find the originals.
Here is an excellent example of these problems (discussed by Metzger on pg. 236). Paul’s letter to the Colossians, 2:2 has a wide variety of readings. Mark’s preferred version of the Bible (NABS–see his comments on Feb. 12) states:
that their hearts may be encouraged, having been knit together in love, and attaining to all the wealth that comes from the full assurance of understanding, resulting in a true knowledge of God’s mystery, that is, Christ Himself…
The problem is that there are 15 different conclusions for 2:2 in the manuscripts for the ending part of the phrase "to the knowledge of the mystery of" (and I am going to "Englishize" the Greek–LiveWriter doesn’t have a Greek font
1. tou theou Xristou
2. tou theou
2. tou Xristou
4. tou theou ho estin Xristos
5. tou theou ho estin peri Xristos
6. tou theou tou en Xristu
7. tou theou tou en Xristu Iasu
8. tou theou kai Xristou
9. tou theou patros Xristou
10. tou theou patros tou Xristou
11. tou theou kai patros tou Xristou
12 tou theou patros kai tou Xristou
13. tou Theou patros kai tou Xristou Iasu
14 tou Theou patros kai tou kurion hmun Xristou Iasu
15. tou Theo kai patros kai tou Xristou
So you can now see the problem. What is God’s word? Meztger thinks #1 is the earliest, but he states that others do not believe that it is (see p. 237 and 238). Again, what is God’s word? We just don’t know. We make guesses. And here is the critical apparatus of this particular passage:
The passage in question is found on the second line and starts with "tou Theou." Now look at the bottom of the text (the smaller writing). This is the critical apparatus. It gives you the passage where there are multiple versions and it lists where these versions are found (and this is not an exhaustive list). And so all of those notes you see at the bottom usually show differences in texts and the text we have at the top is a scholar’s choice text–meaning that someone has gone through all of the manuscripts and they came to the decision that the text they are giving is the more correct version. And let me tell you now–these more correct versions change over time. And that explains why there are multiple versions of the New Testament in English–not counting all of the differences just purely based on translation choice. People pick and choose their English versions just like they pick and choose what type of Christianity they want to be affiliated with–they pick the translation that best fits their beliefs.
And to add to this, there are multiple translations of the New Testament and with each language it is translated into, you find multiple manuscripts that differ from one another (I could show you the critical apparatus of the Hebrew Bible and the Latin, but I won’t).
So when someone says ‘This is God’s word" think about the 5,000 Greek manuscripts and the centuries of scholarship it has taken to create this "God’s word."