What Did the Original Books of the Bible Say?

What Did the Original Books of the Bible Say? March 23, 2014

BibleRemember the 2011 film Anonymous that questioned the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays? It argued that William Shakespeare was just a front man for the true author, Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford. Modern historians have proposed several candidates besides Shakespeare himself, who some have argued was illiterate.

So we don’t know who was perhaps the most famous and influential author in the English language? Shakespeare only died in 1616, we have a good understanding of the times, and he wrote in Early Modern English, and yet there remains a gulf of understanding that we can’t reliably cross.

Authorship of the books of the New Testament

And we flatter ourselves that we can cross the far more daunting gulf that separates us from the place and times of Jesus so we can accept the far more incredible claims of the gospel story.

Let’s see how reliable our modern New Testament is. We’ll follow it back in time to track its tortuous journey. This post will go back to the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE, and later posts will explore the hurdles between that point and the life of Jesus.


Our first step is to get past the translations. In English, we have dozens of versions—New International Version, American Standard Version, Revised Standard Version, and so on. Some Christians prefer the more archaic King James Version even to the point of arguing that it alone is divinely inspired. Proponents of different versions find plenty to argue about.

Translation is especially difficult with a dead language like New Testament Greek since text examples are limited and there are no living speakers to consult. Consider an English example: imagine the idiom “have your cake and eat it too” interpreted 2000 years in the future. Or “saving face” or “kick the bucket” or “throw in the towel.” If given only a handful of examples, future interpreters would have to guess at the meanings.

It’s easier for us to see examples in different languages. Consider l’esprit d’escalier in French (literally, “spirit of the stairs”). It’s better translated as “stairway wit,” the clever retort that you think of too late. Or German Ohrwurm (“ear worm”), a song that gets stuck in your head. Or Spanish ser uña y carne (“to be fingernail and flesh”), to be bosom buddies. Today, we have modern speakers who can translate these phrases authoritatively. Not so with ancient Greek or Hebrew.

Even single words can cause problems in the Bible. Consider the Hebrew word reem, translated nine times in the King James Version as “unicorn.” For example, “Rescue me from the mouth of the lions; save me from the horns of the reem.” It’s now translated as “wild ox,” so perhaps we’ve got this one resolved. But what other rarely used words and phrases have been misunderstood? With no authority, we have nothing more than our best guesses to rely on.

Paul’s use of arsenokoitai in 1 Cor. 6:9–10 is an example that has consequences today. It’s often translated as “homosexual,” but, with no record of its use before Paul, we can’t be sure.


A bigger question is: what is “the Bible”? That is, what is the canon, the set of books accepted as scripture? The Christian church is not unified on this question. For example, Protestants accept the fewest books. The Roman Catholics add two books of Maccabees and Tobit (and others), the Greek Orthodox church accepts those plus the Prayer of Manasseh and Esdras (and others), and the Ethiopian Orthodox church accepts those plus Enoch and Jubilees (and others). In other words, Christian churches themselves can’t agree on what books contain the inspired word of God.

Revelation is the only apocalypse in the New Testament, and it was accepted only around 400 CE. There were lots of plausible candidates that didn’t make it (Shepherd of Hermas, epistle of Barnabas, Didache, and so on).

Manuscript copies

Our next challenge is to find the best original-language copies. The King James version was based on the 16th-century Textus Receptus (“received text”), which was a printed version of the best Greek New Testament texts known at the time. More Greek manuscripts have come to light since then, and modern scholars rely on a broader set, so let’s discard the Textus Receptus and focus on the best copies instead.

Many apologists point proudly to the thousands of New Testament manuscript copies we have today—roughly 5000 Greek manuscripts and lectionaries (collections of scripture used during church services) and close to 20,000 manuscripts in other languages (mostly Latin, but also Ethiopic, Slavic, Syriac, and more). This compares with 2000 copies of the Iliad, our second-most well-represented ancient book.

These are impressive numbers, but too much is made of them. Many of these are incomplete fragments—especially the oldest and most important—and almost all are far removed from the early church period. Suppose scholars discovered a library with 1000 previously unknown Latin Bible manuscripts from the 12th century. This would be quite a find, but these late manuscripts wouldn’t override the content from the best and oldest handful. Today’s 25,000 copies tell us little more about the originals than would having only the most reliable and complete 25 copies. (I’ve written about the late date of the vast majority of them here.)

While there are fragments of gospels going back to the second century, for complete copies we go to manuscripts such as the Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus. These are our oldest complete copies of the New Testament, and each was written in roughly 350 CE, perhaps as part of the newly approved canon from the Council of Nicaea.

We’ve still got a long way to go before the events in the life of Jesus. It’s like we’re looking the wrong way through a telescope.

Continue with Part 2.

We see through a glass, darkly
(That is: we dimly see in a mirror)
— 1 Corinthians 13:12 (KJV)

(This is an update of a post that originally appeared 4/17/12.)

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  • RichardSRussell

    One way to illustrate for oneself the perils inherent in translation — even if you yourself are monolingual — is to use any of the many free services available on the internet to translate some English phrase into a foreign language, and then use that very same service to translate the result back into English. You might expect to get the exact same thing, but that doesn’t take into account the subtle shadings of meaning that invariably occur in going from one language to another. And if they end up compounding instead of canceling each other, the results can be, let us say (following the old Chinese proverb), interesting.

    A famous example was an automated translation to Russian and back of the phrase “The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.” Upon return, it read “Ghost is whore and meat is rotten.”

    • The best multiple-translate example that I’ve seen is this video.


    • KarlUdy

      I’m pretty sure the Russian-English reverse translation story is apocryphal, but funny nonetheless.

    • guest

      First paragraph English-Hebrew-English:
      One way to illustrate the dangers to himself with – even if you yourself tongue – is to use all the many free services available online to translate some English into a foreign language expression, and then use the same service to translate the result back to English. You may expect to receive the exact same thing, but it does not take into account the subtle shades of meaning that always occur in men who from one language to another. And if they end assembly instead canceling each other, the results can be, let us say (following the ancient Chinese proverb), interesting ..

      Second Paragraph English-Greek-English:
      One famous example was an automatic translation into Russian and back by “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” When returning, please read the “Ghost prostitute and the meat is rotten.”. “

  • MNb

    The Dutch “Willibrord” Translation, the official RCC translation in Dutch, does contain The Prayer of Menasse.


    This translation in English does not:



  • MNb

    “Many apologists point proudly to the thousands”
    Yeah, that’s something I don’t get. It’s what you would expect with christianity gaining popularity in the 2nd Century. Those christians who could read and write must have thought it very important to copy their Holy Books on a regular base to avoid destruction and loss. Papyrus is vulnerable.
    2000 Copies of the Ilias, now that is remarkable.

    “Today’s 25,000 copies tell us little more about the originals than would having only the most reliable and complete 25 copies.”
    That’s not really correct.


    Pay special attention to the last sentence: “modern evolutionism is inspired by textual criticism”.
    Science is wonderful.

    • That similarity between textual criticism and evolution is interesting, but I don’t see your concern about the sentence that you quote.

      • MNb

        Just like more fossils say more more copies tell more as well – there is more to research.

        • I’m still not on the same page. The first trilobite (say) in a reliably datable layer is pretty amazing–here is a new genus (or family or order) that we can add to the puzzle.

          Now we find another trilobite in another datable layer that confirms the first find. No new information, but still, it’s nice to have that confirmation.

          Now suppose we find a bazillion fossils from one layer. They’re the same species as the two we’ve found already. What is there to learn? Maybe we get a better idea of the size range (the two earlier finds might’ve been juveniles, say). But that’s about it.

          In the same way, ten thousand new manuscripts from the 9th century tell us very little new information, even though they greatly increase the total number of manuscripts.

          Like the trilobite find, this is great for museum display cases. Not so much for biologists or historians.

        • Greg G.

          I think it refers to when you find examples from different times you can see the changes accruing. Karl Udy has discussed, if memory serves, different families of bibles by certain iconic errors that get passed down with each copy getting more errors that get past down to its descendants.

        • All the copies that are “children” of copy X don’t add anything to our knowledge (except perhaps how errors accrue), if we have copy X. Right?

        • Greg G.

          The location of where it was found is information. When you find copy Y, its child, it might give some information about the migratory patterns of Bible texts.

        • Sure, something. But when there are thousands of copy Y’s, 1200 years after the autograph, I don’t think those additional copies give us much.

          Remember, the point I’m arguing isn’t that a new 13th century copy will tell us absolutely nothing, just that it will tell us very little.

        • Greg G.

          Yet another copy would say more about the copyist than the original autograph. It’s like index fossils that can be used to date other fossils. The more there are, the easier they are to find but you don’t need a hundred for that purpose.

  • Virtually all scholars have rejected the alternate candidates proposed as the “real” author of Shakespeare’s plays, so this isn’t a very good analogy with the books of the Bible, many of whose authorship is admitted to be unknown.

    • You’re saying that the consensus is that Wm. Shakespeare really did write all of Shakespeare?

      I am not well read in this field.

      • Yes, it’s definitely the consensus. The alternate hypothesis that he did not is deemed a fringe idea at best, and does not stand up to the available evidence.

        • Kodie

          Next thing you’re going to say is, in 1969, the US sent astronauts to the actual moon.

        • Well, it may be stating the obvious, but like we see, not everyone seems aware of the fact.

        • KarlUdy

          Pretty good analogy then.

        • No, because, as I said, most scholars admit that many books of the Bible have unknown authors, or in the case of Paul, have been attributed by (apparently) contemporary writers other than him who put his name on their work (entirely the opposite from the alternate Shakespeare authors idea).

        • avalpert

          In that they were all writing fiction – right, that’s the good analogy you meant?

      • Jason Wexler

        Part of the problem here is that Shakespeares works fell into obscurity between the mid 17th century and the early 19th century, so nobody was thinking about or significantly reading Shakespeare for 150 years. We mostly talk about Shakespeare because English teachers are infatuated with him, not because his works have any real measurable merit, because literary merit is a subjective abstraction. So I am curious and hopefully Michael sees this, how do scholars make a determination about something like the authorship question? Especially given how the works of Shakespeare come to us, published in folios compiled by people not Shakespeare, often after his death.

    • Greg G.

      Game Show Host (John Cleese) : Good evening and welcome to Stake Your Claim. First this evening we have Mr Norman Voles of Gravesend who claims he wrote all Shakespeare’s works. Mr Voles, I understand you claim that you wrote all those plays normally attributed to Shakespeare?

      Voles (Michael Palin) : That is correct. I wrote all his plays and my wife and I wrote his sonnets.

      Host: Mr Voles, these plays are known to have been performed in the early 17th century. How old are you, Mr Voles?

      Voles: 43.

      Host: Well, how is it possible for you to have written plays performed over 300 years before you were born?

      Voles: Ah well. This is where my claim falls to the ground.

      Host: Ah!

      Voles: There’s no possible way of answering that argument, I’m afraid. I was only hoping you would not make that particular point, but I can see you’re more than a match for me!

      Host: Mr Voles, thank you very much for coming along.

      Voles: My pleasure.

      • LMAO.

      • Norm Donnan

        But…do you get wafers with it?

        • Greg G.

          Just a wafer-thin mint, monsieur.

  • Greg G.

    The knowledge we have of Koine Greek has been passed down through the centuries from scholars who learned the language in the Bible. AIUI, their textbooks were often a Bible with Greek on one page and Latin on opposite page.

    Could some of our understanding be skewed by theological interpretations of scripture? If the true meaning of the word was theologically uncomfortable, successive generations might substitute synonyms like “bullshit” becomes “manure” becomes “fertilizer” until it becomes “promotes spiritual growth”.

    Just asking. Most of the Greek I know comes from prefixes to terms in science and math

    • Castilliano

      But bullshit DOES promote spiritual growth, so you’re supporting that the interpretations remain true to the original. /s

    • Sophia Sadek

      Theological misinterpretation plays a significant role. One of the biggest areas of theological corruption can be seen in the way that Christian theologians define words such as λόγος and οὐσία in ways that differ significantly from the definitions that were common at the time they were originally used.

      • Logos and oysia? I’m not familiar with the second word.

        • Sophia Sadek

          It played a big role in the establishment of the Trinity. Modern apologists for trinitarian dogma insist on a “theological” definition rather than the definition that was extant at the time the doctrine was established.

        • Interesting.

          To me, the thought experiment that best undermines the idea of the Trinity is to imagine going back in time to talk with Paul. You’d ask him to give you his understanding of the Trinity, and he’d wonder what the heck you were talking about. And if Paul has no idea of the Trinity as understood by the church today, what else could it be but invented by later theologians?

        • Sophia Sadek

          That thought experiment does not just apply to Paul, it could be done with every ante-Nicene Church intellect. When the Nicene faction came up with the dogma of homoousios, few accepted it. The concept was rejected by those who favored a literal textual interpretation on the basis of the absence of the word in the traditional texts. It was rejected by those who favored an allegorical textual interpretation on the basis that it was full of hooey.

          It is neither literal nor allegorical. It is an edict of the Roman state.

  • Rick

    Translations are made from manuscripts in the original languages, and are not like a game of telephone as you like to portray it. And the manuscripts coming through whatever chains of custody they did to form a complete and coherent picture of the originals is pretty strong. That the manuscripts we have are in very close agreement testifies to a common source—better evidence than any imaginary contrivance you provided in this post.

    Did you find out if your view is the consensus view among ancient language experts, or did you derive them from thought experiments? I know you like consensus. These experts might actually have more to contribute than a video from the Fresh Prince. Just sayin’.

    • Pofarmer

      Whats clear is that there were changes to early manuscripts. The ending added to Mark, or the story of the Woman caught in Adultry that were added later. Apart from the unintentional changes and interpolations we know there were and might have been, we don’t now what other intentional changes were made, because we don’t have the originals. Read some Ehrman.

      • Rick

        I have “read some Ehrman.” He largely documents passages that are widely agreed have challenges. The truth of the Gospels rests not on those passages, but on the 98% of the NT that is not widely questioned. Erman offers no new evidence not in widespread agreement before he made headlines with it. No one has used the passage in Mark to prove the validity of the Gospels for a long time.

        • Pofarmer

          What do you mean by “prove the validity” of the Gospels?

        • Scholars are in agreement on the resolution of the two problems brought up by Pofarmer. With each, we have two traditions and can wrestle with the clues to figure out which one is likelier to be more authentic.

          What’s just a wee bit trickier is problems of that sort where we don’t have a second manuscript tradition. How many of these problems do we have with our best copies? We’ll never know.

        • wtfwjtd

          But that’s one of the most important points of Bob’s post–tacked-on passages like the Mark 16:9-20 ARE a huge deal, whether Christians want to admit it or not. Since the other anonymous gospel writers plagiarized much of their narratives from Mark, if they didn’t have that extended ending they just had to make up their own ending out of thin air. And Mark’s gospel ends at verse 8 with an empty tomb and NO Jesus appearance, in fact he’s DIS- appeared at that point in the story. A far, far different ending to the Jesus story, don’t you agree? BTW, the gospel of John also has an extended ending tacked on at a later date, which gives us many of the same problems we have with Mark.

          I am also wondering, what do you use to “prove the validity” of the gospels? How is that done?

    • Machintelligence

      Translations are made from manuscripts in the original languages, and are not like a game of telephone as you like to portray it.

      This is true as far as it goes, but what happened in the first 50 to 80 years after the death of Jesus? That was oral history and translation from the original Aramaic into Greek, leaving plenty of time for the “game of telephone.”

      • Castilliano

        To expand on your point, MI, for Rick & Norm, et al:
        Events, witnessed, yet somehow missed by regional historians.
        Version A: Oral (less subject to correction than modern rumors)
        Version B: Written, the originals (missing)
        Version C: Written, (few copies)
        Version D: Written, (several copies, but altered from version C)
        So we do have C & D, and changes have been made, adding whole new passages & anecdotes. That’s a large amount of change for a presumed “Holy Book”, especially if written by Yahweh or inerrant, and this is after the works have been circulated.
        We don’t have access to A (obviously) or B (though many Christians act like we do), so who knows how many more passages or anecdotes were added/subtracted, especially given the lethal conflicts between the various Christianities.

        Sure the core message gets through, just like the essence of “Carrie”, “Frankenstein”, or “Sherlock Holmes” gets through all the remakes. That doesn’t make them true, nor does it make them particularly accurate when one’s talking about quotes or specific instances.
        Which, with the Bible, Christians do all the time.
        They don’t see it as humanity’s flawed attempt to capture the ineffable or the divine life of their sacred redeemer. Most see the Bible as “inspired” or “without flaw” or even “written by God himself”. It’s quite obvious it’s none of those things, yet most Christians don’t see it as a story written later, but as “THE STORY” as it literally happened.
        (Unrecorded) zombie hordes & stopped suns & all.
        It’s ridiculous.

        Anyway, I’m at least glad you, Rick, acknowledge the evidence there have been alterations. I just hope you understand those alterations give reason to suspect that more have occurred without us being able to verify either way.

      • Greg G.

        That we are able to identify the sources that Mark used and that the chiastic structure can be identified shows that the gospel is pretty much like the original. That so much of it attributed words and deeds to Jesus that were attributed to others in his sources shows us that there isn’t much in it that comes from oral history. Mark appears to have been written as an allegory.

        One of the sources seems to be the Gospel of Thomas so the case could be made that some of it comes from oral tradition. However, none of the epistle writers were aware of it. Thomas has sayings that appear to be derived from Romans, 1 Corinthians, and Galatians but no other Pauline epistles.

        New Testament Narrative as Old Testament Midrash

        Mark’s Use of the Gospel of Thomas – Misericordia University

        Chiastic Structure of Mark

    • Huh? I didn’t refer to the game of telephone (though I will in future posts on this subject!). Telephone is a poor analogy when things are written.

      Show me how I point to parallels of this kind.

      That the manuscripts we have are in very close agreement testifies to a common source

      First, I will write more on this subject about the time period before this one—the Wild West period where things could’ve been pretty messy.

      But to your point: imagine that, from the original, three main categories of manuscript evolved. The evolution might’ve been driven by agenda (like Marcion’s, for example) or simply the drift in the tradition within a church community.

      But now imagine that we’ve lost any manuscripts from two of the traditions and only have the third. How do we recreate the two missing traditions, and how do we figure out what the original was? We are seeing in a glass darkly. The manuscripts that we have are impressive, but let’s not imagine that we can know with certainty what the originals said.

      better evidence than any imaginary contrivance you provided in this post.

      I don’t know what you’re talking about. What contrivance?

      I know you like consensus.

      I always accept the scientific consensus. This isn’t one of them (why accept Christian scholars’ consensus about Jesus over Muslim scholars’, for example?).

      As usual, I invite correction to specific errors. Handwavy suggestions that this doesn’t meet your standards don’t help me see the problem.

  • guest

    I’m not sure the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays is a good example for skeptics to use. It seems to be mainly cranks and snobs that don’t believe he wrote them. There’s good consensus among most historians that it was him. Just because they make a movie about a theory, doesn’t mean it’s a good theory. Stargate was based on the ancient alien hypothesis, for example.

    …I stopped reading after that.

    • hector

      I agree that the Shakespeare example is worthless and should be discarded. You should have kept reading. It got better after that.

  • hector

    An important aspect of canonicity that you left out is other gospels and christian writings that not only were left out of the canon but which have entirely or almost entirely disappeared and were not merely consigned to the Apocrypha. The book to read on this subject is Ehrman’s Lost Christianities.

    I really don’t know how anyone can cling to the ‘word of God’ idea in light of what we know about the history of the bible and how it was cobbled together.

    • Sophia Sadek

      The “word of God” idea is an excellent tool for deceiving people, leading them astray, and fleecing them for donations. It is one of the most effective marks of the wild canine masquerading as a tame ruminant. Victims of this ploy pay little or no attention to biblical scholarship.

  • Kenneth Polit

    Christianity was a purely political religion invented by Constantine in order to unify a crumbling Roman empire.

    • hector

      This is absolute nonsense. Christianity predates Constantine’s birth by 2 centuries.

      • Steve BG

        Constantine had a key role in installing Xty into the Roman empire, and his successor Theodosius I made paganism illegal AND dictated that Nicaeanism was the official creed. Yes, Xty predated Constantine but if it had not been for him and Theo, Xty would probably not exist or be very different.

        • MNb

          Well, yes, but hadn’t it been for a gazillion other people christianity would probably have been very different as well. So that’s saying exactly zilch.

          “Xty would probably not exist”
          That’s absolute nonsense too. Constantine precisely installed christianity into the Roman Empire because 1) the majority of the army was christian and the army was the decisive source of power in this time and 2) because he thought it the only world view that had a chance to keep the Empire united. He was wrong on the second part, but didn’t really have any other option.
          Moreover Theodosius might have made paganism illegal, he didn’t have the means let alone the time to enforce it. His successors had other worries – like fighting off invading barbarians.
          Well after Theodosius’ death a pagan philosopher could become a bishop:

          This guy btw also shows that the scientific knowledge of the ancient greeks (ao Archimedes of course) was not lost yet at the beginning of the 5th Century.

        • hector_jones

          Well, yes, but hadn’t it been for a gazillion other people christianity would probably have been very different as well. So that’s saying exactly zilch.

          Agreed. Yes he played a key role but that’s hardly the same thing as saying he ‘invented’ christianity ‘in order to unify a crumbling Roman empire’ which wasn’t crumbling but was in the middle of a civil war. The way he kept it together was by defeating his enemies in the field, not by converting to a new religion.

          We don’t really know why Constantine converted to christianity. What we have is accounts of his own ‘road to Damascus’ story in which he saw the sign of the cross in the sky or the sun or something just before the Battle at the Milvian Bridge, had the symbol affixed to his soldiers shields and uniforms, won the battle, and so decided to become a christian. There is disagreement even about whether the story says that he knew the cross was a christian symbol when he allegedly saw it in the sun, or whether he only found out later that it was a christian symbol and so decided to convert when he found out.

          Scholars basically dismiss the story as a true account of what happened, and instead posit what they consider to be more rational explanations for why he converted, generally to the effect that Constantine saw some political benefit to adopting the new religion. They look to his conduct after his conversion for the evidence of why he converted. Some argue that a monotheistic religion may have appealed to him because it would help bolster his position as a monarchical emperor at a time when sharing the throne had become the norm. But the reality is we simply don’t know what these reasons were and are just speculating.

  • Sophia Sadek

    Good posting. It is too bad that some people have been sidetracked by Shakespeare. One of the ways to figure out which things Jesus probably actually said are the things that Christians ignore. For example, it is said that he taught his students to avoid public prayer. Given that Christians are really into public prayer, Jesus probably actually advocated against it. I also appreciate the lessons that can be found in Pagan literature such as refraining from violent reactions. The stuff about raising Lazarus from the dead and walking on water can be left for the kiddies and other poorly educated people.

    • Yes, I’ve made a note to revisit the Shakespeare thing if I write about this in the future. It’s a good illustration, but it’s not effective if it’s not a widely shared view. I’m sure there are other ones in the recent past.

      The command to sell all and give to the poor also doesn’t go down well with modern Western Christians.

  • Retro

    Let’s see… Everyone agrees that:

    PEOPLE, (often anonymously), physically wrote things down, and then other PEOPLE, (usually anonymously), physically copied and dispersed these writings, and later still another group of PEOPLE decided which of the writings were going to be canon…

    And after all of these steps that don’t require a god, ask yourself: “Who is making the claim that a god had anything to do with writing the Bible?”

    If there is a god, then it could author it’s own book without the aid of PEOPLE.

    One could also ask: Since reading and writing were the cutting edge technology of the day, shouldn’t we be expecting god to author some new material using the latest technologies? Someone have god text me when he’s done with his website…