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Study Resources :: Text Commentaries :: Don Stewart :: The Words of the Bible

Don Stewart :: How Does the Practice of Textual Criticism Relate to the Idea of a Divinely Inspired Bible?

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How Does the Practice of Textual Criticism Relate to the Idea of a Divinely Inspired Bible?

The Words of the Bible – Question 12

Textual criticism is the discipline of recovering the exact wording of a text. Some people feel that the practice of textual criticism is unnecessary when it comes to Scripture because it undermines the belief in a divinely inspired Bible. Since the Bible is God’s Word to humanity, it is not for human beings to attempt to establish what the Lord said and what He did not say. However, this perspective does not take into account the facts as they exist.

There are a number of important points that should be made.

1. The Autographs Are Missing

The autographs, or originals, of each book of the Bible have long since perished. There does not seem to be much chance of the discovery of the original version of any of the biblical books.

2. No Manuscript or Printed Text Is Identical to the Original

We also know that no manuscript that we presently have, not any printed text that has been produced, is identical to the autographs. Every manuscript has errors that were made by copyists. While these errors may not change the meaning of the text, their existence shows the manuscript is not word-for-word the same as the original. This is true for both the Old and New Testament.

3. There Are Not That Many Significant Variations in the Text

We should also emphasize that the percentage of variant readings in the text of Scripture is not that high. For example, in the standard Hebrew printed text, BHS, only about 10% of the text has any variation whatsoever. This means that 90% of the text is certain. With respect to the 10% where there is some uncertainty, no doctrine of Scripture is affected by their existence. The message of Scripture would remain the same no matter which of the variant readings were chosen to put into the text.

The situation with the text is even better in the New Testament. There are only about fifty places in the entire New Testament where there is any variant reading that has any significance. No doctrine of the Christian faith or command for people to obey rests upon a questionable text.

Therefore, the issue of variants in the text should be put in some sort of overall perspective.

4. The Errors Can Be Detected

A point that needs to be stressed is that the great majority of the errors in the transmission of the text can be easily detected. For the most part, they are obvious errors of copyists.

For example, we sometimes see the same word written twice in the text. We also find that an entire line of text has been omitted because the last word on the next line had a similar ending as the line that was being copied.

Thus the scribe, seeing the ending that he had just copied, accidentally skipped an entire line of text. Fortunately, humans are able to spot errors such as these and correct them.

5. The Originals Were Error Free

Again, we stress that when originally given, the books of Scripture were error-free. The science of textual criticism is working backward from the available evidence to reconstruct a perfect document.

Therefore, the divine inspiration of Scripture, on the one hand, only refers to the originals, while on the other hand, the printed text that is made from the manuscript copies is essentially error-free.

Summary – Question 12
How Does the Practice of Textual Criticism Relate to the Idea of a Divinely Inspired Bible?

The doctrine of the divine inspiration of Scripture takes into account the fact that the autographs are missing and that textual criticism is necessary to recover the original text. It also realizes that no two Hebrew or Greek manuscripts read exactly alike. Surviving manuscripts that contain more than a few verses will have some copyist errors in them.

Yet when we consider the entire text of Scripture, the number of copyist mistakes is minimal. We have every reason to believe that the originals were without error.

Could There Have Been Additions to the Autographs of Scripture by Later Biblical Writers? ← Prior Section
Where Can We Find the Biblical Manuscripts That Still Exist? Next Section →
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