Engage! The Reliability of the Bible and the witness of manuscripts

Moving from showing the need for a  revelational epistemology as given through the Bible to trusting biblical revelation because Jesus did (our last 2 posts), we now look at another reason we can trust the Bible.  Namely, the extensive manuscript witness.

If we accept the principle of biblical authority based on the necessity for revelation to speak to us regarding the truths beyond our sense experience and based on Jesus’ modeling of trust in the Bible, the question then becomes can we be sure we now have the words as originally penned?  While it is true that the original autographs of the Bible as penned by people like Moses, David, Solomon, Paul and John do not exist, the importance of trusting that we have accurate copies and translations is a huge issue.

Regarding the copies (aka manuscripts) of biblical text, the sheer number of confirming witnesses to the words of scripture is nothing short of amazing.  There are 2000 portions of the Greek New Testament on papyri (the oldest manuscripts), some as early as 150 AD (most notably a papyrus named P46 which was discovered in 1930 and part of which is stored at the University of Michigan). This 1930 discovery of essentially the oldest known biblical manuscript did not change but actually confirmed the accuracy of Pauline manuscripts already in use prior to 1930.  Papyri 117-127 discovered in 2012 confirmed the accuracy of portions of the book of Matthew already in use.  Another 3000 manuscripts called uncials and miniscules bear consistent witness to the text of the New Testament.  Additionally, a full copy of the New Testament in Greek (called Codex Sinaiticus) was discovered in a monastery near ancient Mount Sinai in 1900 and is arguably the most important comprehensive witness to the full text of the Greek New Testament in use prior to that time.  These manuscripts also came from different geographical locations (North Africa, Middle East and Asia Minor aka Western) and continued to bear consistent witness.  Thus from words, grammar and syntax to geographical locale, the witness was maintained.

Additionally the Old Testament is no exception to the consistent witness rule.  Up until the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls (Hebrew manuscripts dating from 250 BC, discovered in the 1940-50’s), the text of the Old Testament was best supported by the Masoretic Text (MT) which was only as old as 500 AD.  When the Dead Sea Scrolls confirmed the accuracy of the MT in the 1940’s, again God’s sovereign protection of the accuracy of biblical revelation was maintained.

As we move from the historical witness of the original language manuscripts as noted above, what then of their English translations?  As the editors of our current English translations remain true to the compiled collections of original manuscripts (for Greek these are best presented as either the UBS edition, the Nestle Aland edition or the more recent editions of the traditional Textus Receptus and for Hebrew the MT of the OT in edited forms) we can trust the English Bible also.  The English translations vary from literal to dynamic equivalence to paraphrased approaches based on translation philosophy.  The English New Testament also varies based on which Greek language edition is chosen (UBS and NA are scholarly compilations of “best manuscripts” while the Textus Receptus preserves the best witness from the geopraphical area of the origins of Christianity namely the “western” family of texts).  Thus in this author’s opinion the NASB (based on NA) and the NKJV (based on TR) form a complimentary English witness to both the scholarly and the geographical working of the Holy Spirit in preserving his witness from original author to English translation.

We review all of this in order to demonstrate “phenomenologically” to those who may be seeking (the supporting argument for biblical authority based on evidence from its successful practical use) that Scripture can be trusted in the areas in which it speaks.  Why is it that writings from over 2 millenia ago can still speak with up to the minute insight into our heart’s longings and desires?  Because our faithful God protects and does not leave Himself without His witness.

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