The Bible’s All-Too Human Origins

The Bible’s All-Too Human Origins October 14, 2018

The Bible is neither mysterious nor straightforward in how we have come to read it. Human hands have both copied, miscopied, rewrote, preserved and reconstructed its many pages of ancient inspiration to the present day.

For many practicing Christians around the world, the Bible’s origins are an unanswered, let alone unasked question. Without realizing it, many simply have come to assume certain ideas about their sacred text based on nothing but their own speculation. They imagine images of Paul, Wycliffe and Luther, creating a seamless thread linking the original inspired author to the printed pages held in their hands.

The truth is though, that the Bible was not dropped out of the sky as if by magic. It was copied, edited and changed by the human hands that read and re-wrote it. Moreover, the plethora of modern translations available today are the result of careful reconstruction on the part of trained scholars.

Someone need only turn to examine one of the Christian faith’s most prolific writers, Paul of Tarsus, to see an example of this. When the apostle first wrote his letter to the small community of house churches in Corinth, it could only be sent to one of them. The only way another church could read that said letter was if someone in the community had the ability to write and could make a copy of it to give to them.

Unfortunately, as Eldon Jay Epp, a prominent textual critic points out, literacy rates at this time were exceptionally low. This was especially true for the Christian community who attracted converts from the three most illiterate and uneducated groups of the Roman Empire: women, children and slaves. Such handwritten copies were, as to be expected, of variable quality and could often be expected to contain many mistakes.[i]

This was also due to the fact that Christians did not view Paul’s letters initially as scripture.[ii] It wasn’t until the second century that Christians began to see within these works what they perceived to be the handprint of the Holy Spirit.

Even then though, the copies they made were sometimes sloppy because these early Christian scribes were more interested in quantity than quality, as they held to a belief that the world would end within their lifetimes.[iii]

Another famous textual critic, Bart Ehrman, points out that there were three types of mistakes or changes that these scribes might make while creating a new copy. These would include:

  1. misspelling both names and common words
  2. adding something to the text either intentionally or unintentionally
  3. and or to remove something from the text either intentionally or unintentionally.

 

There existed a number of reasons why scribes might have chosen to alter or change the text from what they originally received. Sometimes they had simple miss-sights of the eye that allowed them to skip sentences or verses by accident while at other times these changes were due to theological motives, such as a disagreement with the text being copied. If a scribe did not believe that Jesus was a carpenter, then that said scribe might choose to remove such a reference from the text he was copying.[iv]

As a result, modern translations of the Bible are created not simply for the purpose of improvements in the English used to convey the meaning of ancient Greek words, but to decide what passages even belong in the New Testament and whether any need to be added or removed.[v] This can be clearly witnessed by the fact that some Bible translations do not include verses that other translations do.

For instance, many passages that are included as part of the King James Bible are no longer included in new translations, such as 1 John 5:7-8. Other passages, such as the last few verses of the Gospel of Mark and John’s story of the woman caught in adultery may also eventually be removed from future translations or added as appendixes due to the work of textual scholars.[vi]

In conclusion, the Bible has had a complicated path to journey, from the archaic poetry of Ancient Israel to the Hebrew scroll of Chronicles, and from the pen of Paul in Greek to the leather book at home in English. It is neither mysterious nor straightforward in how we have come to read it. Human hands have both copied, miscopied, rewrote, preserved and reconstructed its many pages of ancient inspiration to the present day.

It is, like all books, a story in its own right.


[i] Epp, Eldon Jay. “Textual Criticism: New Testament.” Edited by David Noel Freedman. The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary. New York: Doubleday, 1992.
[ii] Alexander, T. Desmond, and Brian S. Rosner, eds. New Dictionary of Biblical Theology. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000.
[iii] Achtemeier, Paul J., Harper & Row and Society of Biblical Literature. Harper’s Bible Dictionary. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1985.
[iv] Ehrman, Bart D. “Text of the New Testament.” Edited by David Noel Freedman, Allen C. Myers, and Astrid B. Beck. Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 2000.
[v] Cross, F. L., and Elizabeth A. Livingstone, eds. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. Oxford;  New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.
[vi] Hahn, Scott, ed. Catholic Bible Dictionary. New York; London; Toronto; Sydney; Auckland: Doubleday, 2009.

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  • The Mouse Avenger

    Don’t forget all the centuries of oral history about the Genesis events, the Patriarchs, the Exodus, the settlement into the Promised Land, & all that other stuff. 😉 Oral tradition was also a very important part of preserving history & whatnot in those days.

  • John Gills

    You’re probably already aware of Lucy Peppiatt, but If not – in your copious spare time – I fervently recommend you read an 88 page monograph by Dr. Peppiatt titled Unveiling Paul’s Women in which she argues powerfully and convincingly that the misogynistic verses of 1 Corinthians 1:2-16 are neither Paul’s thoughts nor his words, but are an interpolation of the words of the elders of the church in Corinth which Paul then refutes.
    Dr. Peppiatt’s last sentence is, “It means that Paul begins and ends his section on public worship by addressing oppression, suppression and silencing of women and coming out as strongly as possible against it.”
    What a marvelous reinterpretation!
    John Gills

  • Stefan Stackhouse

    As far as the New Testament is concerned, those practicing textual criticism have been fortunate to have a huge amount of material to work with, and they have been at it for quite a while now. I believe that we can be pretty confident at this point that the modern critical text we have of the New Testament is a reasonably accurate representation of what the original documents must have been. It is correct that the translations of earlier centuries were based on sometimes flawed texts.

    The Hebrew Scriptures are, unfortunately, another story, especially with the earlier books. They are so very old, and we simply don’t have any manuscripts that go back nearly far enough for the tools of textual criticism to be fully and reliably applied. There is, in fact, good reason to suspect that many of the books had undergone editing at least once, and sometimes several times. The notion that these texts have been preserved intact and handed down to us without change is just not credible. That does not mean that the faithful must simply pitch them out of the window. The fact is that significant parts of the Old Testament are repeated or alluded to in the New Testament. Any faithful disciple of Jesus who looks to the New Testament scriptures as authoritative for their faith and practice must therefore also approach their reading of the Old Testament with these marker stones in place. Beyond those, however, critical inquiry is indeed possible and necessary.

  • David

    When I hear Christians speak about the Bible as if it comes directly from God it makes me think that their understanding of the Bible is very similar to the way Muslims understand the Quran which they believe to have been directly revealed by God to Muhammad. There is evidence of a development of the canon of the Quran, but the core belief of Islam is that the Quran was directly revealed to Muhammad, which is the way many Christians view the Bible. However I am thinking that many Christians who approach the Bible in this way would be horrified to be compared to our Muslim cousins.