Thursday, June 23, 2011

Haven't errors creeped into the New Testament as it's been copied and recopied?

How do we know that our New Testament is accurate?  We have none of the original documents (like the actual letter Paul penned to the Romans or the actual document that Matthew labored over).

Here's how the transmission of the New Testament took place.

First there were the original documents (called "autographs").  They were perfect, inerrant.

Copies were made of the autographs.  They were accurate, but not always perfect, because they weren't perfectly copied.

The autographs disappeared.

More copies were made (copies of the copies, then copies of the copies of the copies, and so on).

The oldest copies disappeared.

As copies were made, variations appeared. 
--For example, in one verse one copy might say "Jesus" while another says "the Lord Jesus." 
--Another example: in some copies the Lord's prayer in Luke 11 looks exactly like the Lord's prayer in Matthew 6, while in other copies Luke's rendition is shorter.
These variations appear for a variety of reasons.

Fast forward to the early 1600s.  The King James Version was translated, and it was based on a large body of copies that agreed with one another.

More copies were discovered, copies that were older than the copies on which the KJV is based.  These older copies agreed with one another as well as some more recent copies.  For a variety of reasons, they are believed to be more reliable than the copies the KJV is based on (the Byzantine, or Syrian, family of texts).

Most modern translations are based on this more ancient family of copies (the Alexandrian family of texts).

That's a brief history.  With all these copies at their disposal, scholars have applied certain rules in comparing the various texts with one another in order to produce what they believe to be a New Testament that is virtually identical to the original 27 documents (Matthew-Revelation).

The first thing to note about the thousands of ancient copies in existence today is that, despite all the variations, there is a predominant unity and overlap.

The second thing to note is that of the thousands of variations, they are all relatively minor.  When scholar J. A. Bengel devoted his life to the study of the variations, his conclusion was "that the thousands of textual variants did not bring into question any article of evangelical doctrine" (George Eldon Ladd, The New Testament and Criticism 78).  In other words, the variants were all minor (like "the Father" vs. "God the Father").

"It is a seldom disputed fact that critical science has to all intents and purposes recovered the original text of the New Testament" (Ladd 80).

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