Pastoral Perspectives

The Story Behind Our English Bible

It is not uncommon to hear preachers quoting and explaining Greek words to enhance the understanding of words, phrases or verses and most would know that it’s because the New Testament was originally written in Greek before they were translated to various languages. It might thus occur to some that the original manuscripts penned by the biblical authors are being preserved somewhere out there. The truth is that these manuscripts are believed to have been long lost. In those days where there were no printers to make copies, social media to share copies or clouds to preserve copies, faithful followers had to make copies by hand while later generations had to make copies from the copies they received by hand. NT writings were thus passed down through copying by hand until the invention of the printing press.

So what we have out there are thousands of such copies found or waiting to be found in various parts of the world. Are these copies identical? Almost but not entirely. Imagine playing this game where a participant whispers something to the ear of another and that person does the same to the next and so on and the last participant has to say out what he has heard for himself. The fun of it is to hear how the final message would turn out, especially when it contains many words that sound alike. Or imagine each participant having to copy and pass down a list of handwritten email addresses from one to another instead and participants struggling to read others’ handwriting. Errors can creep in even if all participants do their part to preserve accuracy. Therefore it should not be surprising that copies of the manuscripts were almost but not entirely identical. Scholars label these differences as textual variants. Which copy of the copies was used for the translation of English versions that we now have? None of these copies to be precise. Scholars studied the variants from copies made available to them and came up with a Greek New Testament that would be as close to the original manuscripts as possible. English versions are translated from such Greek New Testament.

You must be wondering by now why I am telling you these things this Sunday morning. That’s because verse 21 is missing for today’s text. But some of you might be surprised because your bible has verse 21. Well, that’s because you are either using the original or New King James Version. Now some of you probably know of certain churches that insist on using KJV. And some of you could have been told that it is because KJV has the purest or most accurate translation. That’s what I was told as a new believer and so the first bible that I bought for myself was thus a NKJV! I was later told that it has to do with the Greek New Testament that was used for the translation, called the Textus Receptus or Received Text that was first compiled by a 15th century theology named Erasmus. It was based on limited copies of manuscripts used by later Greek speaking churches (Latin had become the official language of the bible by then) and became the dominant Greek New Testament in its time. Some considered it to be the most reliable version and hence some churches insist on KJV.

Since ESV, along with others like NIV, NASB or NRSV, do not have verse 21 in chapter 17 of Matthew, it should be obvious that these versions were not translated using the Textus Receptus. They were translated using another Greek New Testament that was based on two major manuscripts that were dated much earlier but made available only later, like the Dead Sea Scrolls that were believed to be dated before Christ but found only in the 20th century. This Greek New Testament, also called the Critical Text based on the approach used to determine the variant closest to the original, was the work of two prominent theologians in the late 19th century (these manuscripts did not include Mark 16:9-20 as well but were added in and bracketed in this Greek NT). To put it simply, KJV and the rest of the others were translated using two different versions of the Greek New Testament. These two Greek New Testaments were in turn based on different copies of manuscripts.

That’s the simplest way for me to explain how we get the English bibles today and why there are these two camps without losing you. Some bibles explain these things in its preface and list the variants between these two Greek NT in its footnotes. I thought it would be appropriate to share these things here so that you may be informed and not be shocked when others who do not believe in God tell you about these so-called ‘discrepancies’ and twist things around to confuse and draw you away. And that’s only for the NT. The OT is another story altogether but a more straightforward one.

Let me end by saying this: God is bigger than all these manuscripts put together. His Word is not found only in one and not the other and so these things should not divide the church. I struggled initially when I first learned about these things. Then I wondered what if the church is persecuted and all copies of the bibles are destroyed or erased from the face of the earth? Is the Word of God thus lost forever? I believe faithful remnants scattered all over the world would rise one day and pen down the Word of God that has been engraved in their hearts. Their copies would probably vary and some would have more than others. But none would argue over who’s version is correct when they testify to the truth of God. Let us be counted among the faithful remnants than with ‘scribes’ who love to dispute over these things.

Rev Ronnie Ang

March 10, 2019