Listen to this devotional:
Listen while you read: "Seeking The Lost"1 (Lyrics)
2 Timothy 3:16-17 – All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, so that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work. (NKJV)
I host a weekly ecumenical lectionary Bible study. The people who attend are Christians of all stripes, and so are the versions of the holy Bible that they bring with them. We may have four or five versions in use at one time, and we sometimes marvel at the differences in nuance.
The gospels and epistles of the New Testament that we have today have their origins in Greek manuscripts. These manuscripts have been laboriously copied from each other down the ages from the first century A.D. to the invention of the printing press, by fallible men. The original manuscript for each book of the New Testament, termed an autograph, has in every case been lost. Therefore, manuscript has been copied from manuscript, until today, there are some 5,800 extant for the New Testament alone.
The process of analyzing these manuscripts for authenticity is termed textual criticism. Textual criticism is part art, part science. The methodology involved behind textual criticism is explained in detail in a slim little volume entitled Behind the Bible, by Jeffrey D. Johnson. Johnson uses beautiful, precise English, as you would expect of a biblical scholar and a professional textual critic, to explain how he goes about his analyses.
The upshot is that in the 5,800 or so extant manuscripts, there are over 400,000 variants. These variants may arise accidentally, for example, from carelessness or amateurishness in some of the scribes or tiredness from copying in poor light. Or it may be deliberate, introducing an adjustment to make one manuscript harmonize with another; or, somewhat more perniciously, to introduce an iota of doctrine which a scribe might, in his own or his superior's mind, find to be lacking. Nevertheless, it's amazing that about 75 percent of the 400,000 variations are not much more than spelling or grammatical errors, or errors in word transposition. Only about 400, or a tenth of one percent, are variants of any importance, and of these, only about 50 are of major importance, yet without doctrinal compromise.
Now, isn't it marvellous that all the doctrines that we profess in The Apostles' Creed (including the virgin birth, the crucifixion, and the resurrection) still stand firm in light of the foregoing? The agreement, the harmony between the manuscripts and textual families — despite 2,000 years of human foibles — is nothing short of miraculous. Johnson calls it supernatural providence in the closing paragraphs of his book. "God-inspired" might be a better description.
There is good reason that so many thousands of patient scribes have laboured to copy and transmit the Bible. As Dwight Moody said a century ago, "The Bible was not given to increase our knowledge but to change our lives." It is God's gift to us for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness. Therefore, we must pay attention to it, read it, study it, memorize it, and let it change us.
Prayer: Father, we thank You that Your Word has been faithfully preserved for us down the centuries through the efforts of Your fallible servants. Grant that we will read, absorb, inwardly digest, and faithfully and joyfully live out Your Word in our lives. In Jesus' name, we pray. Amen.