Have the words of the Bible been changed over time?


Copies of Copies...

How do we know what the original Biblical texts actually said if they no longer exist??

Some years ago, famous fundamentalist-turned-agnostic UNC Chapel Hill religion professor Bart Ehrman's book "Misquoting Jesus" topped the bestseller list and introduced many people to the world of Biblical textual criticism.  Ehrman's explanation of the process of text-critical scholarship was fantastic. 

However, his conclusions--which seemed to be more of a reaction against his former fundamentalist view of Scripture than an accurate appraisal of the text-critical evidence--were simply unwarranted.  Ehrman's basic premise was that we cannot determine the original wording of the Biblical texts, therefore we cannot trust their message overall. 

I was disappointed that a scholar of Ehrman's ability, who studied under the greatest textual critic of the 20th century, the late Bruce Metzger, could not see the inherent flaws in his own position.

We don’t need the autographs (that is, the original text from the hand of the author) in order to be able to read their original message. We can, through the discipline of text-criticism, determine with a remarkable degree of accuracy what they originally said. This is why text criticism has a vital, Spirit-led role to play within the Body of Christ. 

Let me give an example illustration that I use in Bible For the Rest of Us.

Suppose God inspired me, as one of His Prophets, to speak the following utterance and write it down and send it to other believers—in this case, my four friends, Olatunde, Mark, Lem and Jeremy:

Big Trouble in Little China is the greatest movie of all time!

Naturally, they all are excited by this deep revelation from the Lord (as they should be...because well, it is!) and want other believers to hear this authoritative revelation from God through the Prophet JM. 

But now let's pretend that the invention of the typewriter and word processor are 2,000+ years away in the future. They must write it out by hand and send copies to everyone they want to hear the message of Big Trouble's cinematic awesomeness. (Yes, I am fully aware that we are stretching imaginative credibility by positing a world in which major motion pictures can get made without the invention of moveable type...but bear with me!)

So Olatunde writes the message down and then writes a copy to send to his mother as well.  Mark, Lem and Jeremy do likewise and send copies to other believers in their circles of friends and family. This goes on for a couple of centuries.

Hundreds of years later, after many generations of copying and recopying the message by hand, we eventually we end up with 4 “families” of manuscripts (handwritten copies of a text) which we can group based upon their similarities and geographical distribution—the Olatundian Texts (OT), the Markan Texts (MT), the Lemuelian Texts (LT) and the Jeremian Texts (JT).  Upon comparison they basically line up in the following manner:

OT: “Big trouble in Little China is the best movie of all time!

 MT: “Big Trouble in little China is gretest movie of all time!

 LT: “big trouble in china is the greatest movie of our times!

 JT: “Big Treble in Little China is the greatest movie ever!

Centuries later, the original texts that I the Prophet wrote down and sent to Olatunde, Lem, Mark and Jeremy have disintegrated, worn out entirely, or been destroyed somehow. All that remains are the many copies of the 4 texts above. 

The question then raised by skeptics (including those awful heretics who think Big Trouble is a terrible movie and Highlander 2 is actually the greatest movie of all time!) is simply this, "After so much copying and recopying over the years, how can we even know what the original message delivered by the Prophet JM actually stated??"

Now we should note that every manuscript family in our little analogy contains differences from the others. In fact, there are a total of 12 variant readings among them.  That’s more variants than there are words in the text

OT: “Big trouble in Little China is the best movie of all time!

MT: “Big Trouble in little China is gretest movie of all time!

LT: “big trouble in _ China is the greatest move of our times!

JT: “Big Treble in Little china is the greatest movie ever!

So, many believers, not wanting to do the hard work of text critical study end up only using the Markan Text because it has become over the years the most popular due to its wide geographic distribution (this would be analogous to the modern "King James Version Only" mindset among some Fundamentalist groups).  However, the Olatundian Text manuscripts that remain are much older and better preserved, so some scholars argue that they represent the true message from God through the Prophet JM. 

There ensue many debates, with both sides saying that the other’s translations are attempts by Satan to confuse and lead believer away from the truth of the awesomeness that is Big Trouble in Little China, as rightly decreed by God! 

So, how do we find out what the actual Prophetic word originally said?

What do we do?

We do text-criticism! 

You see, there are believers all over the world whom God has gifted with the desire to study and decipher ancient texts and scribal techniques as their entire career...because they believe it is crucial to know the truth regarding Big Trouble in Little China's proclaimed awesomeness! These spend their lives comparing all the known manuscripts of the 4 families in order to produce a faithful edition of the original Prophetic text of JM. 

As they do this, they reason as follows:

•    The first word is “Big”, and the Lemuelian scribes simply made a capitalization error.

•    The 2nd word is “Trouble”, though there is some question as to whether or not it should be capitalized. The Jeremian text contains a spelling error where apparently the scribe mistook one word for another similar sounding word. But we can see that this is the case because all the other manuscripts read the same at that point.”

•    The 3rd word is “in”, all manuscripts agree.

•    The 4th word is “Little”, though it is not found in the Lemuelian Text for some reason and is uncapitalized in the Markan.

•    The 5th word is “China”; the Jeremian text contains a variant capitalization.  

•    The 6th word is “is”, all manuscripts agree.

•    The 7th word is “the”; though the Markan text for some reason does not have it.

•    The 8th word is “greatest”, though the Markan text contains a spelling variant.  The reading from the Olatundian text is incorrect, but does not change the overall meaning and is easy to account for, especially if the scribe was working from dictation or copying quickly.  The translators decide to note it as a variant reading in a footnote.

•    The 9th word is “movie”; which the Lemuelian scribe misspelled or misread.

•    The 10th-12th words are “of all time!.”  However, the Jeremian scribe left out the genitive particle (“of”). The Lemuelian text has the variant “our” which the translators note in a footnote. The Lemuelian text also pluralizes the final word for some reason.  Finally, the Jeremian text has a variant reading—“ever!” The meaning is the same, but the wording likely got changed by mishearing or misreading in that family of texts as they were copied and recopied over the centuries.

Thus the scholars produce the following Text Critical edition of the words of the Prophet JM with appropriate footnotes:

Big Trouble in Little China is the greatest(1) movie of all(2) time!(3)


1.   Some ancient manuscripts (MSS) read “best”
2.    A few ancient MSS read “our”
3.    or “…movie ever!” in a few ancient MSS

This edition then becomes the edition that translators use…though many people who grew up with only the Markan or Olatundian Text’s translations see thsee “differences” and, in their zeal without knowledge, erroneously reject the Text Critical edition and translations based upon it as "confusing, divisive and ultimately a tool of satan sent to lead believers astray!" Yet the majority of new translations that appear as time goes by rely upon the text-critical work of these scholars and continue to compare whenever any new manuscript is discovered around the world.

Okay. So what? You may wonder what this hypothetical bit of foolishness you've read so far has to do with the Bible.

Quite simply put, all of the above, though using a silly sentence and only 4 manuscript variants of it, depicts the overall process of text critical studies--albeit in a vastly simplified manner. 

In fact, we would need to multiply the above example's number of manuscripts by over a thousand, add the notion of early manuscripts being translated into various languages, and factor in the actual physical conditions and/or decipherability of the manuscripts themselves, and then we get a decent idea of what Biblical Text Criticism actually looks like. 

In fact, if we rely on just one family of manuscripts—like, say, the Textus Receptus (i.e. "Received Text"; the family of manuscripts upon which the KJV translators relied in 1611)—and translations based on that one manuscript family, we are actually misreading the original message given by God through His Prophets and Apostles. This is the irony of the "KJV Only" crowd's insistence on their translation as containing the supremacy of God's Word.

However, if we use multiple translations and carefully take note of the variations and footnotes contained therein, we are able to be read and study and apply God's Word with a far greater degree of accuracy. 

This is not only more accurate, but it is also, I would argue, more pleasing to the God who called us to study and “meditate on His word day and night”, to quote King David. To ignore the text-critical process, while often well-intentioned, results in either ironic arrogance, intellectual laziness, or spiritual naïveté—none of which God desires for His people!

Not everyone has access to the original languages and not everyone is called or skilled enough to be a Text Critical scholar. However, Jesus Himself called some to be teachers, as we read in Ephesians 4, in order to help bring His Body of believers to maturity and sound faith. Thus, everyone can benefit from the work of these servants of God and seek the truth of Scripture for themselves by using every means God has provided to His people through their text-critical efforts. 

This, I maintain, is how God has chosen to preserve His word; not through a particular manuscript family or direct angelic dictation. 

Does it make some people uncomfortable?  Yes. 

Does it demand a higher standard of study than many Christians have become used to?  Yes. 

Is it a tool of satan?  No. 

Rather, Text-Criticism is a tool of the Spirit that God has given the Body of Christ in order to keep us in community with one another and humility regarding our own individual knowledge and abilities. It is a crucial discipline, and is what lay beneath the surface of pretty much every modern English Bible translation of the last few centuries. It is also why you can know with near-certainty that what you are reading is a translation into English of what was originally written in Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic by the Biblical authors themselves.

As for which translation is the "best"...that will be the subject of a future post here in the Dojo! So be sure to subscribe or bookmark us and stay tuned!

Keep sharpening,



For more on text criticism I recommend the following: 
"A Student's Guide to Textual Criticism of the Bible: Its History, Methods and Results" by Paul Wegner
"The Text of the New Testament: 4th Edition" by Bruce Metzger and Bart Ehrman
"Introduction to New Testament Textual Criticism" by J. Harold Greenlee
"New Testament Exegesis: 3rd Edition" by Gordon Fee

For specific critiques of Ehrman's "Misquoting Jesus":
"Lost in Transmission: What We Can and Cannot Know About the Words of Jesus" by Nicolas Perrin
"Misquoting Truth: A Guide to the Fallacies of Bart Ehrman's Misquoting Jesus" by Timothy Paul Jones

Recommended resources that require basic knowledge of New Testament Greek language:
"Text of the New Testament" by Kurt Aland and Barbara Aland
"A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament" by Bruce Metzger