Thoughts about Textual criticism and manuscript reliability


Thoughts about Textual criticism and the issue of manuscript reliability of the Greek text.

Recently someone had asked me about the issue of manuscript reliability and whether I could shed some light upon the topic.  I am not an authority on the topic but I might be able to offer some insights into the topic that could help us understand the problem with textual criticism and the reliability of the Greek manuscripts.  There are a few websites that argue whether the story in the Gospel of John 7:53-8-11 should be in the Bible? 1 John 5:7 KJV and John 5:4 are other texts that are being disputed.  There seems to be more people saying today that these passages were not a part of the original manuscripts.  Why were some verses not in the original manuscripts and were they added later?  Who decides whether a verse is supposed to be kept or discarded?  This is what the doubters and enemies of the Bible ask, and what need to be explained.

These are very good questions. I have also asked these questions of myself in the past.  I want to begin by letting you know that I was raised in a Christian family reading from the New International Version (NIV) translation of the Bible.  As I grew and read more of the bible, I noticed certain inconsistencies about the verses of the bible.  I noticed that some verses are completely missing from the text such as in Matthew 17:21, 23:14, and John 5:7-8.  After seeing the verses are “completely missing,” and by completely missing I mean that these verses are literally skipped in the text, I decided to look at comparing the NIV to the KJV Translation. I discovered that the NIV omits a good number of things from its translation. For example, there are half verses in Romans 8:1 and Matthew 6:13.  Important words are missing such as “without a cause” in Matthew 5:22 and Mark 3:5 which essentially cause Jesus (Yeshua) to sin by being angry. The NIV leaves out the “blood” in Colossians 1:14 and omits “one that is good is God” in Matthew 19:17. There definitely appear to be a lot of issues in the text when compairing the two translations (NIV and KJV). The variations that we find while comparing the texts are actually variations in manuscripts.  The manuscripts contain textual differences (textual variations on morphology, missing words, etc) which leads to differences in translation.  An example of this can be found in the Marginal Masorah of Ginsburg’s Masoretic Text. The Ginsburg’s Masorah contains textual variants within the various copies of the Hebrew manuscripts.  Similarily, we find these issues within the Greek manuscripts.

I always recommend for English readers to utilize multiple translations rather than only one particular English translation. This is also important for Greek readers since there are a few significant differences in the various Greek manuscripts. Recently a friend of mine back in 2005-2006 put together an edition of the Greek New Testament that contains two revisions of the Textus Receptus and two other recessions of the text. I recommend checking out the first limited edition (Reference: The New Covenant : The Greek New Testament Stephanus 1550 received text / introd. T. Aivazian. – London :, 2005. – 576 p. – ISBN 966-8424-33-6). The Greek New Testament has introduced no variations that were strongly supported by the Greek manuscripts and printed editions but relegated the textual variations to footnotes in a similar format like that of Ginsburg’s Masoretic text.

Now, the NIV is translated from a 5th century manuscript called the Codex Alexandrinus. Codex Alexandrinus is one of the most extant Greek manuscripts containing the majority of the Septuagint (Greek OT) and the New testament. Other codices that are available are Codex Sinaiticus Petropolitanus, Codex Ephraemi Rescriptus, Codex Vaticanus, Codex Bezae Cantabrigiensis, and copies made such as Tischendorf, Lindisfarne, Panin edition, and Scrivener-Stephanus of 1550, etc. I have a hard copy of Textus Receptus which was used to translate the English Authorized Version of the Bible first published in 1611 (the KJV). Above, I copied a page from the Codex Alexandrinus from Colossians 1:1-16.  The important verse is 1:14.  I also scanned from the Textus Receptus, Colossians 1:14. I have the verse highlighted in yellow the important word.

Now, if you compare the two texts, you will notice that the greek “aimatos” (“his blood”) is missing from the Codex Alexandrinus but present in the Textus Receptus. This causes the NIV translation to say “in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” whereas in KJV translates from the Greek as “In whom we have redemption through his blood, even the forgiveness of sins.” Both translations are correct based upon the textual variation that we find.  On the one hand, we have forgiveness in His blood and on the other the text doesn’t explicitly say by the blood. I guess the real question is what do we do about these variants?

Concerning interpretation of the Bible texts requires one to be led by God’s Holy Spirit.  Does the Greek translation make sense without the word “aimatos” or does it detract from the meaning? Obviously according to the Torah Sefer Vayikra / Leviticus 17:11 we have the forgiveness of sins because of the blood and thus we have redemption through the blood of Jesus (Yeshua). The book of Hebrews goes at length on this and more. I believe it is better to err on the side of allowing both renditions of the Greek to be read and understood as authentic scripture rather than to say that the word aimatos was added at a later time which actually takes away from the authority and authenticity of the Word of God.

Believe it or not, a lot of biblical scholars are not born again and they believe that most of the Scriptural texts are not authentic but later additions. (i.e. The scholars that are involved in the Jesus seminar.) The point of showing you this is that when someone says “these verses are not reliable” you needs to ask the question “according to which manuscript?” Also understand that scholars believe the Codex Alexandrinus predates the Textus Receptus.  As a result, scholars say that the earlier manuscript takes precedence over the later which leads to the source of our question on reliability. A similar comparison can be done on the verses you mentioned (John 5:4, 7:53-8:11) and I would come back with the same conclusions.  Textual variants should be something we need to work with, not to be used for doubting the reliability of the New Testament verses.

Essentially, the question of reliability is based upon the scientific critical editions that weigh the differences within the text based upon the age of the manuscript and then claim one manuscripts merits of textual witness establishes the validity of the other texts.  The Holy Spirit led mindset we need to have should not be concerned with “the textual witness” because this has a tendency to cause doubt in the scriptures. I believe what we should do with the various textual differences is to ponder (think upon) them in prayer and supplication of God’sHoly Spirit that He may guide us into God’s truth by pathways of wisdom into the light of understanding. Basically we shouldn’t doubt because of the differences but rather we should meditate on the word and allow the Holy Spirit to lead us into God’s truth.

The primary reason we struggle with this is because of the way we think today.  Today we think Linearly and logically, for example: X follows Y and then Z that is the order of things and nothing should diverge from that order. The Hebraic way of doing things was that it is more important on the telling of the story to teach a particular spiritual truth than to adhere stricly to all of the facts in the story.  The scientific age we are in sometimes can cause doubt on our faith but when it comes to the validity of the scriptures we should have no doubt. The truth of the fullfillment of the promises of God in His son Jesus Christ (Yeshua the Messiah) are unrefutable becasue it is written in God’s word.  I can say without a doubt that all of scripture is the inspired Word of God.  Trust in God’s word and take multiple translations to study and learn by power of God’s Holy Spirit.