Aw yeah, we’re getting into some stuff now! This is one of the most familiar, read, misinterpreted, and debated collections of literature in the world. Everyone thinks they’re an expert, and most think their particular religion is correct. But we’re not here to talk about religion, we’re here to talk about dick jokes. And history. And language. Hence, I’m not discussing a holy book, but a collection of ancient works, written 2000 years ago in Ancient Greek, during the heyday of the Roman Empire, in the Hellenized East, by a bunch of Jews. Needless to say, there are a lot of quirks in the Bible worthy of discussion. This one’s about Bible manuscripts.
Throw a stone or do a Google search and you can find someone talking about Bible manuscripts. Some say it’s the best attested or most accurate text in ancient history. It’s a common line and claim among Christians and apologists. Likewise, it’s commonly dismissed outright, denied, or harshly criticized by non-Christians (including believers in other religions). Bias is rampant, but there are ways through the weeds. As usual, a dispassionate, objective analysis reveals the truth as somewhere in the middle.
Let’s start with the good things to make us stand up erect and proudly bask in the impressive girth of our wisdom. There are some 20,000 manuscripts for the Bible. That is undeniably the largest for an ancient work (or collection of works). The Bible is the biggest. Some, like the Codex Sinaiticus are quite complete, and offer a great resource. Others are merely fragments, little snippets of text sometimes only offering a few words, like P52, the earliest New Testament manuscript. Fortunately, we have a boatload of these, so they are pretty helpful too, once scholars put the jigsaw back together. Unlike some other works, we have the Bible in its complete form, with plenty of pieces to support our readings. By comparison, we’re missing entire books from Tacitus’ works.
Now for the bad news. Most of those 20,000 manuscripts (mss. for short) are crap. It’s not the size of the manuscripts that counts, it’s how you use them. Here’s a handy dandy chart showing the distribution, by century, of all 5,742 Greek manuscripts.
If you look, most are from the middle ages. Almost none are from the century in which the Gospels and other NT books were written, and there are relatively few from the immediate following centuries. Similarly, Bible mss are categorized into 5 rankings, 1 being the best, 5 being the worst, the majority of which are ranked 3-5. This creates an issue for reconstructing the “first edition”. Even worse, those later mss tend to be the ones filled with mistakes. Our manuscripts are impressive in their volume, but there’s a weird odor coming from them. Turns out, copying an error 1000 times doesn’t make the error go away. There’s been a good amount of work in just trying to figure out where the interpolations—unintended additions not written by the author—have snuck into the texts. With volume also comes an additional problem due to the nature of the manuscripts being handwritten; namely, there are some 400,000 textual differences! That’s a number you know is false, because who the fuck is going to count that high? While the actual number is unknown, there are a massive number of differences, making Bible mss one of the worst games of telephone ever. No two manuscripts are exactly the same. Which one’s the “real” one? Which one’s the “correct” one? There are enough problems to make even the most pompous person’s mighty ego shrivel up like a politician being asked about ethics.
Hey, look at that! Another article where I point out how little we know. Sounds like we’re up the creek without even a damn boat, but we’re actually in decent condition on the Bible, so don’t break out the little blue pills and attack me for being a heretic quite yet. Most of those 400K variants—or however many there really are and feel free to count them up yourself if you’ve got a few decades of free time—are things like spelling differences and word order changes (word order in Greek being less about grammar and more about emphasis). There are relatively few critical issues that seriously alter the text, but they do exist. Feel free to look up the ending of Mark, the Comma Johanneum, and the Pericope Adulterae for three examples of Bible oopsies. Even Isaac Newton got in on the action. Scholars will forever argue about which manuscripts are the best, which words (and word order) are most accurate, and which readings are most correct, but for the most part, this is the stuff of high level academics, and not the concern of the common man.
That said, everyone should be aware of what manuscripts are being used as the basis for a given translation. They are not all equal, and some “critical editions” are better than others. So yes, this is sort of a mess. Not only do we have different translations with different focuses and methodologies, but we even have different source material for the basis of those translations. The nice thing is Wikipedia has listed the source material for most of the translations when you search for them (the Bibles themselves should also do the same somewhere).
Research on Bible manuscripts is an ongoing process, as it is with all ancient texts. Scholars have been very effective at correcting the text, but it is not perfect. For the serious student, it is good practice to remember a given passage is only one translation of one version of the text; there may be multiple variations that alter what gets translated, and of course multiple ways to translate. If your study bible has a critical apparatus, it will list all the textual variants for a passage, as well as the manuscript evidence for each difference. So they’re at least trying to make it a little easier for you.