A page from an ancient manuscript

How We Got the Bible

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In my efforts to better understand how the text of the Bible came to be as it is today, I’m currently reading a book entitled ‘How We Got the Bible’ by Neil R. Lightfoot. A passage I was reading today stood out, and I would like to share it, as I think it highlights a flaw in the thought of many Christians concerning God’s relationship with human beings.

In the ninth chapter of the book (p95), Lightfoot writes the following:

It is a fact that the New Testament text has been transmitted to us through the hands of copyists. It is also a fact that, since these hands were human, they were susceptible to the slips and faults of all human hands. It is not true, therefore, that God has guided the many different scribes in their tasks of copying the Sacred Scriptures. The Scriptures, although divine, have been handed down through the centuries by means of copies, just like any other ancient book. [emphasis added]

I find this reasoning to be problematic. If God was not involved in the process of scribes copying manuscripts, it is illogical to say that it is by God’s providence that we have the Bible in the form(s) it takes today. To take God out of the lives of the scribes is to remove God from the history of human activity and deny His ability to unfold the events of history in the way He chooses.

It would make much more sense to say that God is in sovereign control of His creation, and that He was in control of the copying process embarked upon by the scribes. That way, we can say with full confidence that when we are reading the Bible the words on the page are as God intended them to be.Β The fact that there are errors and contested readings is a part of God’s plan, as He doesn’t like humans to be perfect in every way all the time.

Theologians have a clear choice to consider. Either God is sovereign over creation and we can read the Bible knowing that we are reading the words God intended for us to read, or if we maintain that God was not guiding the scribes, as Lightfoot suggests, our confidence in reading evaporates and chance and circumstance necessarily come into the equation, depriving God of His sovereignty and depriving our modern Bibles of their authority.

Related post: God’s Grand Game
Related essay: An Almighty Predicament

41 comments

  1. Thank you for a straightforward statement of a truth we are more comfortable forgetting. One of the most pivotal questions Christians face today is whether, and to what extent, the Bible has authority. Odd, isn’t it, that those who draw their salaries from the teaching of the book are frequently the first and the loudest in denouncing its role among us? We walk by faith. Weaken the faith, weaken the walk.

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  2. Steven, you truly have a talent in provoking thought! I truly agree with the sovereignty of God over His word – there are even scathing judgments to those who would add, subtract or change it. In a world so rebellious to God, the Bible is scrutinized like no other book…yet stands with authority. I would recommend anyone to read books like those by Lee Strobel. Highly educated, he sought to examine and discredit the Bible yet had to surrender to its divine inerrancy.
    Thank you for provoking my mind! “For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any two edged sword…” Wow, no other book compares!

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  3. I agree 100% with your argument. Men like Bart Ehrman go around stating half facts, like there are 400,000 errors in the Bible made by the different scribes (this is very true), but then he leaves it there. What Ehrman does not state is that only 1% of those errors have any theological impact on the the Bible. The other 99% are grammatical and spelling errors. We have sure confidence that throughout the whole process God has been in control.

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    1. Thank you Bearded Scholar. I’ve been thinking about reading one or two books by Bart Ehrman as seeing him in YouTube debates has piqued my interest. It’s likely I would have little agreement with him but am keen to understand his arguments nonetheless. God bless!

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      1. Regarding Bart Ehrman – I once unknowingly purchased a New testament “study” of his, only to discover that he totally rejects much of the historicity of the New Testament based on his own subjective brand of textual criticism. His theories about Jesus and the gospels rely heavily on his own biased presuppositions, and this becomes glaringly obvious when you read or listen to his work. His conclusions are rarely if ever based on any actual evidence that he can present or refer to, but rather they reat on his beliefs or feelings that the New Testament authors must have had many ulterior motives, or that quite a bit of the NT “must” have been simply made up to further a religious agenda. The sad thing is that any baby Christian could be seriously led away from faith by listening to him, due to his status as a “scholar” and the fact that he sounds very convincing in the absence of any knowledge to the contrary.

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        1. Hi Don,

          That’s interesting, thank you. I appreciate the note of caution. I may read one or two of his books to get a better understanding of his arguments, but at the same time will continue to read scholarly writings arguing in support of the reliability of our Bibles.

          Best wishes,

          Steven

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  4. I don’t believe there’s a problem here, though I’m with you in your thinking, Steven. In other words, why would God not see to it that no clerical errors made it into His Word. Having said that, however, it has been shown that though there are definitely clerical errors in both testaments, none has affected theology and doctrine. We can speculate as to why God would allow human error into His Word, but knowing that none of these errors affects God’s message is reassuring to me. I have complete confidence in the Bible as we have it today.

    Good post, Steven, and certainly thought-provoking.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. @dettinger47, I couldn’t pass up an opportunity provided by your comment that, “there are definitely clerical errors in both testaments,”. Because you also go on to explain that none has affected theology. That makes a point of mine I repeatedly have to defend with my believing brothers and sisters. I reject a statement of “inerrancy” that relies on “original manuscripts”. In my mind, it’s ridiculous. If the One inspiring Scripture had thought them important, we’d have them We don’t. He must not consider them necessary. It’s not rocket surgery. I see no need to accommodate the desire of 21st Century human reason and its definition of “error”. Because it seems to me, my Master doesn’t feel the need. If it’s not a problem for Him, why should it be a problem for us? The message and intent of my Master comes through. What He wants us to know about Himself is there. I believe focus on “errors”, as defined by the limited intellects that can’t even escape the limits of the gravity well of a single planet is comical, bordering on the imbecilic. People may want to cling to their definition of “perfection”, but, as we seem to discover all the time, we have no idea what defines the imperfections of this universe. How could we possibly understand, and, therefore judge, perfection? Silly people. Scripture is inspired, and infallible. Study it to know your Creator and Savior. Why is getting to know the Creator and Savior of the universe less of a challenge than “discovering” supposed errors? Who made that rule? Someone should point out that the “emperor has no clothes”. There has to be an honest child around here somewhere.

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  5. I have a copy of the Lightfoot book but haven’t referred to it much in a while. (I have two other, more recent works on scripture, inspiration, and canon that are more go-to books for me.) I’ll have to look this quotation up in its context, but I too see Lightfoot’s emphasized statement as overstated.

    I feel compelled to add here that the notion that the words themselves are inspired is but one theory. It is quite possible to view God as in control of scripture ((even more than I find Him to have been) without seeing the specific words as the crux. Although I devote a great deal of energy to exegesis of scripture, I am not of the opinion that scribal errors have much if anything to do with God, His intent, or His sovereignty. Dettinger well calls attention to the lack of real ipmact of the discrepancies that exist. I would state it a little differently, off the cuff here: God’s word is sure and reliable, but the scriptures manifest human influence in stylistic ways and also contain human errors, none of which are really consequential in the big picture.

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    1. Steven, I have a 2nd ed. of the Lightfoot book which must be different from your edition. Try as I might, I cannot locate the quotation you provided. Could you provide chapter title and a couple of nearby headings? I’ll be interested to see whether/how this statement might have changed from edition to edition. Thanks.

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      1. Hi Brian! It’s at the beginning of Chapter 9 which is entitled “Significance of Textual Variations”. I’m reading it on my Kindle, but the quotation begins at the bottom of p95 in this edition. Just checked and mine is the third edition.

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        1. I have finally found the comparable section in the 2nd edition of Lightfoot. (It’s interesting that our interchange here amounts to a text-critical study of Lightfoot on top of the very topic of your post!) I had looked in my chapter 6, titled the same as your chapter 9, and beyond that, but neglected to look immediately before, at the end of chapter 5, “The Text of the New Testament.” Here is the statement from the earlier edition, pp. 65-66:

          “The New Testament books have been handed down to us by means of thousands of copies. Although God inspired the New Testament writers, he did not miraculously guide the hands of copyists. Textual or Lower Criticism seeks to counteract inevitable scribal errors and recover the true form of the text. Many mistakes in the manuscripts crept into the text unintentionally, and are difficult to detect. Other textual modifications were made intentionally, usually by a well-meaning scribe, and these do not stand out so clearly. . . .”

          I’ll leave it to you and your readers to draw any conclusions based on the revisions Dr. Lightfoot made in his 3rd edition. It seems to me that the later edition is more emphatic, using the term “fact’ and the expression “it is not true.” I quite like “susceptible to the slips and faults” in your edition, but I can imagine that that would have lodged negatively in your mind.

          The crux of the matter as you presented it, I suppose, rests in a view of the divine will opposite human will. It seems to me that one who subscribes to your general view will be required to think, since the scribal errors obviously exist, that God specifically wanted them to be th ere. Then one would logically ask why God would legislate that there be such errors instead of miraculously preserving ancient papyri and leather texts, etc. I am more comfortable suggesting that God simply created a human environment in which such *minor* errors would naturally occur as believers sought to transmit faith through scripting.

          Here, I would like to interject the thesis of Dr. Gary D. Collier in his book Scripture Canon & Inspiration (available on Amazon): “The Bible is an act of faith, by people of faith, in pursuit of a conversation with God.”

          I feel compelled to add here, for a couple of your readers who might see this, that an anti-academic bent will not well serve those who are intellectually honest. Sure, some authors have sensationalized or exaggerated things to sell books. Some do not hold to any sort of biblical faith, even while they teach in schools of theology or the like, and I find that more sad for those individuals than for the rest of us. If we are honest and ethical, though, we will not trash all scholarship because of the missteps of some.

          At the end of my Lightfoot edition’s chapter 5, about 15 lines down from the statements above, Lightfoot affirms, “Text Criticism is a sound science.” What I know of TC tells me his affirmation is on target. That doesn’t mean Lightfoot’s wording can’t be off base at times, and it doesn’t mean that text critics won’t have jumped to a false conclusion here or there through the years. (Incidentally, I started to quote “sound science” from memory, and I had “solid science” in my head instead of “sound science.” That would have been a copyist error, but it would not have altered the meaning.) What we have is impressively well-attested texts, but we can still learn from the likes of new discoveries of ancient fragments, continuing research into text “families,” and new insights that connect things.

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          1. Hi Brian,

            The crux of the matter as you presented it, I suppose, rests in a view of the divine will opposite human will. It seems to me that one who subscribes to your general view will be required to think, since the scribal errors obviously exist, that God specifically wanted them to be there. Then one would logically ask why God would legislate that there be such errors instead of miraculously preserving ancient papyri and leather texts, etc. I am more comfortable suggesting that God simply created a human environment in which such *minor* errors would naturally occur as believers sought to transmit faith through scripting.

            I believe God is unfolding a plan for humanity over thousands of years, and that human error is a part of God’s plan. The reason I included the link to my ‘God’s Grand Game’ post at the end of the article is so people can take a more in depth look at this perspective, if they are interested. If, as you suggest, God merely created an ‘environment’ where errors may or may not occur, this seems to me to totally deprive the text of authority – it makes the text of human creation, rather than divine creation.

            Many thanks!

            Steven

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      1. Thank you Steven! Doing some better but still going through a few more procedure’s. A month or so going to try a sever a nerve in my neck which will give me pain relief for about a year. But I will take that any day. God Bless you☺

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  6. Hi Steven. I think it’s good that you are willing to read things that might challenge your faith. In some cases, I have even slightly shifted my perspective when reading challenges to my beliefs. I read your testimony page, and found that we humans are much more alike than we realize. While I didn’t lose any of my parents, I had similar experiences growing up as you did, and I’m a generation ahead of you (in a different country, too). My parents divorced after I grew up and married, so I saw a lot of discord in the home. I also went on my own spiritual quests. What I found, is that like you, seeking enlightenment whilst struggling with emotional issues is like trying to get a camel through the eye of a needle (I’m sure you get the reference). Once I got therapy and started to clear away the emotional muck, I was able to retain more philosophical and spiritual understanding. It also helps, that as a teenager, I had a profound spiritual experience that I can always remember to help get me back on track when I slide off.

    Thank you for coming over and liking my post today.

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    1. Hi Lori! That’s amazing how we have had such similar experiences. Thank you for reading my testimony! And thank you for reading this post and leaving a comment. I’ve subscribed to your blog so will look forward to future posts πŸ™‚ Peace and blessings, Steven

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      1. Thank you, Steven. My blog isn’t so much faith based, although I’ve touched on that on occasion. But, I do like to write about philosophy, introspection and self-awareness.
        Have a great weekend.

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  7. This is a really bizarre notion to me. Why did God decide only to guide the hands of those writing the manuscripts, but not those copying them? So strange. Why would only the manuscripts themselves be given by some miraculous act of preservation, but not the copies? Again, very strange.

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    1. Hi Joe! Yes it does seem strange, I agree. My understanding is that God doesn’t dip in and out of creation, but is in sovereign control of all events. But Lightfoot, who I quoted, and many Christians, would seemingly disagree.

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  8. Hi Steven, in studying this subject myself I found that even secular authorities agree that Jewish scribes were very meticulous when copying sacred manuscripts, and that the ancient Israelites were just as careful when transmitting oral history. We have a plethora of ancient manuscripts with which to compare modern translations, so there seems to be very little reason to seriously question the veracity of the biblical text. And as you say, with God overseeing the process, any human errors are bound to be minimal and of little significance, and usually easy to identify with a little work. The Bible is the most well-documented piece of ancient literature, and we can be more certain of it’s origins than we can of Shakespeare’s plays.

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    1. Hi Don!

      I’ve been really enjoying your blog, you’re an excellent writer with an obvious passion for the Gospel and I respect and appreciate that. Thanks for stopping by and reading my post.

      A big focus of mine is the relationship between God’s sovereignty and free will, and that was again my central point when composing this post. If you can ever spare a bit of time, I invite you to check out my essay entitled ‘An Almighty Predicament’ (on my Essays page) in which I describe my struggle with Christianity based on the free will problem.

      Alternatively, feel free to check out a couple of my other posts, and you’ll probably get the general idea.

      Comments, or email exchanges, are always valued and appreciated.

      God bless!

      Steven

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      1. I’ll definitely check them out. I once wrote a thirty-page essay of my own views on God’s sovereignty vs. free will, and we may have some differences of thought there, but that’s okay! I’ll know more once I read your recommendations. Really enjoying your blog as well! ~Peace

        Don

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  9. Hey Steven, I read your essay, An Almighty Predicament, lot’s of good stuff to discuss! One question: Are you able to open Word documents if I email them to you? Just so you will recognize it, my email starts with my name – don

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  10. Once you say that the faults of man are simply those that God has allowed for then the next step is to say God engineered those same faults.
    It is a door from which there is no return and and infallible proof that the Bible is perfect . It must follow that the translations are all perfect and the debate of Christians and others is merely God smiling on our imperfections.
    It reminds me of the Catholic churches doctrine of infallibility of the Pope on matters of faith it simply puts an end to all debate, but then Faith its self means an end to debate.

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