Since January 1, 2004, I’ve maintained a practice of reading through the Bible, cover to cover.
Granted, I use the word “maintained” loosely. When I started, I read the Bible in one year. Since then, every time I’ve done so, it’s taken me much longer, with the longest time taking over three years. I think I’m on my seventh time reading through.
Each time I read through the Bible, I read a different translation, and I try to alternate between a more literal translation and a more readable translation. This helps keep it fresh. Although, 1 Chronicles 1-9 is rough no matter which translation you read.
Each time I’ve journeyed through the Bible in this way, I’ve noticed that the way I read it has changed since the last time. For example, when I had finished seminary, I read the Bible very differently in those first years of ministry than when I had been in seminary. Questions and tools for interpretation that seemed to challenge my understanding of the Bible while I was in seminary were more approachable after I was finished. For the first time, I struggled with reading the descriptions of the Canaanite conquest or why King Saul had so much going against him while King David was always in God’s favor.
Additionally, I’ve noticed that while reading different translations, certain passages strike me when I’ve glossed over them in all my other readings. This recently happened to me while eating breakfast one morning.
I was reading through John 7 with my current translation, a newer one called the Common English Bible. This is a passage that I have given very little thought to. Jesus is being questioned by his brothers. They are basically saying to him, “Why don’t you go to this festival so that people can really see all these miracles you’re doing? Then people will really believe you.” John then adds his own commentary, saying that even his own brothers didn’t believe him.
Reading through verses 6 through 10, I stopped eating my cereal mid-bite as I read what Jesus said an did. Jesus’ response to his brothers in verse 8 is this:
You go to the festival. I am not going up to this festival, because my time has not yet fully come.
Ok, fair enough. But then notice what verse 10 says:
However, after his brothers had left for the festival, he went also, not publicly, but in secret.
Did you catch it? Jesus says to his brothers, “No, I’m not going to this festival.” And then he goes to the festival later in… in secret!
Did Jesus just lie to his brothers? Maybe not an egregious lie, but it could at least be considered a white lie, or a slight of hand. How had I never seen this before? How has nobody ever mentioned this?
I did a little bit of digging and it didn’t take long to discover why I probably hadn’t noticed this before. The 1984 NIV, which I often read quotes Jesus as saying, “I’m not yet going up to this festival.” So that when he does go to the festival later on, he wasn’t actually lying. I looked through many of the translations I have, and there’s a significant split. Older versions of the New International Version say “not yet,” the KJV and NKJV say “not yet” while other versions like the new 2011 NIV, NRSV, NASB, ESV, and CEB say “not.”
I also noticed that most of these versions have a footnote saying “some manuscripts say ‘not’” or “not yet,” depending on which version you read. I’ve been on a Greek kick lately, so I busted out the only two print Greek New Testaments I have, and also checked out my Bible software, Accordance.
Indeed, Greek manuscripts are varied. Some Greek New Testaments use the word “ouk” which means “not,” while other versions have the word “oupo,” which means “not yet.”
Now we’re getting somewhere. So some ancient versions of this verse say “ouk” while other ancient versions say “ouko.” As it turns out, this is one case of literally hundreds within the Bible where there are differences between the ancient manuscripts. Since the earliest copies we have of the New Testament were written by hand, literally every single one of them is unique. No two manuscripts of the New Testament are identical. Some of these copies have simple “typos” if you will, while other copies have more significant, editorial errors.
Consider a scribe writing the entire book of John on one piece of paper, in pen, copying another hand-written copy. No matter how good and careful the scribe was, there’s an incredible potential for error. Most of the time, New Testament scholars can easily identify the error and determine what the author meant.
Other times, the change was likely an editorial one. For example, the scribe could read the original, see something troubling, and think “there’s no way the author meant that!” The scribe would then change it to what they though the text should be. Again, this can often be detected and NT scholars can easily determine which manuscript was the original.
This type of New Testament work is called Text Criticism. It’s where NT scholars study the original manuscripts and try to determine what the original text most likely said, using the roughly 5300 varying NT manuscripts we currently have. Text critics have developed a matrix of criteria that help them determine which version of a text is more likely to be the original. For example, they frequently, but not always expect the older of two manuscripts to be authentic. Additionally, they claim that the more difficult, problematic manuscript is likely the authentic one.
That principle is most striking to me. Essentially, the argument goes something like this. If you have two versions of a text, and one makes more sense, seems to fit better with the rest of the Bible than another manuscript, the harder text is likely the original. Think again about the scribe, copying John’s gospel. Is a copying scribe who’s spending all this time, money, and energy to copy the writing going to be more likely to deliberately edit the text to be more obtuse and difficult or more cohesive and clear? Even with typographical errors, the copying scribe is going to be inclined to fix that and make their version clearer. A copying scribe is not going to purposely obscure the text, making it cohere less with the rest of Scripture. Thus, the more difficult, more wooden, or even seemingly contradictory manuscript of a Bible passage is often preferred as the more authentic, original version.
Most of the time, these manuscript differences are inconsequential. But take our passage in John 7:8. The minor difference between “ouk” and “oupo” creates two vastly different narratives of Jesus’ actions. And you can easily see how a scribe might mix up these two, similar words. Following the text critical principle above, “ouk” or “not” would be more likely to be the authentic reading. This is the more difficult, troubling rendering.
Does this mean Jesus was a liar? I thought Jesus knew no sin as Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5? Does this tear down the authority of the Bible?
These are all good questions. And I’m not going answer any of them (as if I could…).
I merely point this out because there was a time when this really would have bothered me. I would have gotten defensive, and said that these “text critics” are seeking to tear down the authority of God’s word, that they obviously don’t believe in Jesus. More recently, however, I’ve become more ok with these kinds of questions. I’m more interested in asking them and learning from them than ever before.
What would it mean if the Gospel writer, John, was ok with Jesus telling a white lie while Paul say that Jesus knew no sin? What do we learn about the importance of the Bible if we believe that it took a few hundred years for it to get to its most put-together, coherent state? What’s at stake if we assert that this part of the Bible was simply wrong? Do we prioritize the oldest, most “authentic” manuscripts, or do we willingly say, “I choose this manuscript because it’s more aligned with orthodox Christian teaching?” And who makes these decisions?
What do you think?