20 March 2020

Why Don't Our Bibles All Say the Same Thing?

It is a common belief among Christians that the Bible is a singular ancient text. It's Old Testament was originally written in Hebrew and predates Christianity, having all been written before 100 BC. It's New Testament was written in Greek and its books were written between 50 AD and 400 AD. That is the picture Sunday School paints for us; pretty simple right? Except that the textual history of the scripture is nowhere near that simple, and this is largely why our Bibles differ.

The New Testament was originally written in Greek. It's earliest books are thought to be written between 50-70 AD, with some being written as late as 300 AD. During this period (pre-450 AD), most of the copying of these books was being done by uneducated Christians, whoever happened to be able to write. In that time, literacy was rare, and often part of job training. You learned to read and/or write in much the same way one might learn to work a cash register today. If you learned both to read and write (not just one or the other), you were probably very well-educated.

The problem that comes with this is that early copies of New Testament book were riddled with errors. Scribes also had no problem with changing an author's words for the sake of clarity, redacting, revising, or even just adding in their own opinion. Some letters were even forged, written in the name of apostles long dead, 1 Peter being the most notorious example which still exists in our Bible today.

Today, there are more differences between the words of the New Testament than there are words in the New Testament.

A similar problem exists with the Old Testament. In 70 AD, Rome burned the Temple in Jerusalem, destroying the most ancient copies of the Old Testament that existed up to that time. If there was ever a definitive copy of the scripture, it would have been there. However, when we look at ancient texts from that time, preserved from all across the Near East, it shows that the Old Testament existed in several languages at the same time. Readings in synagogues could have been in Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, or whatever other language was spoken in that area. Readings may have been from any of up to seven languages.

In the New Testament, all of the Old Testament quotes are taken from the Septuagint, a version of the Old Testament in Greek that was written somewhere between 300-100 BC. This is thought to be the most commonly available version of scripture at the time of the New Testament's writing. Often, this will lead to the quotes in the New Testament differing from what is in the Old Testament because the translators used a different text for the Old Testament. Most likely, translation would have been done from the Masoretic Text, a version of the Old Testament in Hebrew dating back to around 1000 AD, and still in use today in Jewish synagogue services.

It is a common belief that there are singular sources for books of the Bible. However, at the time of Christ, one could compare any two different copies of the Old Testament and they would not say exactly the same thing. In 300 AD, when the New Testament was largely finished, the same situation existed, no two copies of any book were identical, even in the same language. This problem is compounded with extant copies of the Old Testament in 70-300 AD existing in several languages, in Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic, Syriac, and others, each with their own differences between copies.

How do we know what the real, original, word of God is if we cannot determine what its original words were? We study it. We analyze its themes, its history, and just like the Bereans of the Acts 17, we compare the texts. When something looks off, we pray. We hold to what we know is true, that God is love, is just, is faithful, and that God is there in our times of need. This is how we judge the truth of Scripture, and in those cases where it does not seem right, we accept that we will understand it all in good time.

Peace be with you.

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