Foundations – The Bible (pt.2) ~ 20200330 ~ Pastor Rodney Zedicher ~ Ephraim Church of the Bible ~

03/30 Foundations – The Bible (pt.2); Audio available at:

Foundations, a study on the basics of Christian belief

The Bible (part 2); Transmission

Welcome to Foundations, a study on the basics of Christian belief

We started by looking at the Bible, because we are using the Bible as God’s Word, our source book for what God wants us to know about himself, who he is, who Jesus is, who we are, what our problem is, and how we can be rescued.

So far, we looked at what the Bible claims for itself, what Jesus taught about the Scripture, and what the Apostles said about their own and each other’s writings. We talked a little about the Canon, or which books are recognized as authoritative Scripture.

The center of God’s revelation is Jesus. And he is called the Word of God incarnate. ...the Word of God validates the word of God written. The Word of God incarnate validated the word of God written in the Old Testament and then he commissioned apostles to speak his word as the foundation of the church. And he promised, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth” (John 16:13). So Jesus stands at the center as the Word of God incarnate, and looking back, he validates the word of God written, and looking forward, he validates the word of God written. [John Piper; ]

Tonight I want to look at how the bible came to us, how we know we can trust it, and how we ought to use it.

Statement of Faith

Here is a typical line from an evangelical statement of faith on the Bible: The Holy Scripture is without error in the original MSS (manuscripts) in all it affirms.

Without error, or words like inerrancy, infallibility point to the absolute truthfulness of God’s words. If God is true and trustworthy, then his words must be true. But why the line about “in the original MSS (autographs) in all they affirm” We don’t have any original manuscript, any autograph of any biblical book, so is this a meaningless statement?

Keep in mind every manuscript, up until Johannes Gutenburg in 1452 ran his printing press, was hand copied. That’s what manu-script means. People make mistakes. It is estimated that in the manuscripts of the New Testament, there are 400,000 textual variants. There are about 138,000 words in the New Testament, so that works out on average to about 3 variants per word. Now hold that thought, we will come back to look at the kinds of variants and why we would still trust our bibles in a little bit.

Transmission; Telephone?

I’ve heard people who want to discredit the Bible compare it to the telephone game; one person whispers a sentence in the ear of the person next to them, and by the time it goes down the line, what comes out at the other end is nothing like what the original sentence was.

A (author) > X > X > X > X > X > X > X > X > X > ?

There are two problems with using this illustration; it is verbal, and it is linear.

Written vs. Oral; no Autographs

We are talking about a written text. If that first person, instead of whispering in the next person’s ear, writes their message down on paper, that changes everything! Now what many wish had happened was that the first person took his written message, signed with his name (that’s called an Autograph) and folded it up and passed it to the next person, who passed it to the next person, who passed it on to us, so that we have the very handwriting of the Apostles. But that’s not what happened, and that’s not realistic. Papyrus, an early form of paper, was very durable. But papyrus, especially papyrus that is used, doesn’t last forever. It wears out. We are talking about a collection of documents that would now be close to 2,000 years old. Ink gets worn or fades or flakes off the page. The edges of the pages get tattered and torn through use. There can be water damage, fire. The New Testament documents literally wore out through constant use.

Linear vs. Exponential

So let’s say that the Author in the telephone game wrote his message, and showed it to the next person in the line, who copied it down word for word, and then turns with his copy to the next person and so on down the line. How do you think what you get at the end of that textual transmission line would compare with the Autograph? Of course there is still room for human error, and the longer that line of transmission is, the more potential there is for things getting messed up. But remember, not only is the transmission of the text not verbal, it is not linear.

Decentralized Transmission

We are talking about transmission, how the text has come to us. Where the Old Testament was centralized; there was one central worship location, the tabernacle and then the temple; copies were kept by the priests, by the king who was to make his own personal copy, then in the synagogues by the scribes who were responsible to care for the text. There was strict oversight of copying process.

But in the New Testament everything changes; Christianity is decentralized; the temple was destroyed; believers were scattered by persecution, many informal copies made. Imagine you are a believer and a working class tradesman. Your work brings you from Ephesus over to Corinth. Talking to the believers there, you find out that they have letters from the Apostle Paul. You ask permission and stay up late into the night copying them down so that you can bring them back to your church in Ephesus. Some migrants from the province of Galatia visit the church in Ephesus, and they make copies of Paul’s letter to Ephesus, as well as the Corinthian correspondence, and Mark’s gospel, and bring it back with them to Galatia. The text quickly scatters across the known world.

We have to completely re-arrange the telephone game. And we need a whole lot more players. The transmission is not linear. The autograph would not be copied only one time and then be destroyed or disappear so that no one else could ever see it. you write out a message on paper. And instead of linear; one person passing the message on to one person, it would be more of a pyramid, where one person allows two or three people to copy the text, and each of those in turn allows two or three more people to copy their text. To simplify the illustration, let’s say the Author let two people copy his Autograph, and each of those copies was copied twice. I ran out of room, but the 10th generation will make 1,024 copies.

Comparison of Early Copies

But here’s another difference from the linear telephone model. We are not just left with what comes out at the end of the line. Many other older copies would survive. If the Autograph was destroyed but all the copies survived, we would now have 2,046 copies.

Let’s look at how this works with some other ancient documents. (These counts may not be the latest as the numbers constantly change with new discoveries.)

Caesar’s Gallic Wars, written around 100-44 BC we have 251 manuscripts (copies), the earliest dating to the 9th century; most around the 15th century. That is a gap between the autograph and the first copy of 950 years.

Pliny the Elder wrote his Natural History somewhere between 23 and 79AD; we have about 200 manuscripts, mostly from the 14th and 15th centuries. One manuscript fragment dates from the end of the 5th century, a gap of only 400 years.

Tacitus wrote his Annals around 100 AD (similar time to the completion of the New Testament). One manuscript dating to around 850 contains books 1-6; another dating mid 11th century contains books 11-16. from these two manuscripts descend the remaining 31 15th century manuscripts. That is a 750 – 950 year gap between the writing and the first surviving manuscript copy.

Plato wrote his Tetralogies somewhere between 427 and 347 BC. We have 210 manuscript. The oldest surviving was copied in 895 AD, leaving a 1,300 year gap.

Homer’s Iliad, written in the 9th or 8th century BC is much better preserved. We have around 200 medieval manuscripts and some 1,569 papyri, the earliest dating to around 400 BC, leaving only a 400 year gap between the autograph and the earliest copy.

Let’s compare that to the New Testament (and again, these numbers change as new discoveries are made; many manuscripts have been discovered that are waiting to be cataloged). We have 322 majuscule (capital-letter) manuscripts, also called uncials. We have 2,926 minuscules (lowercase). There are 2,462 lectionary portions and 128 papyri. These manuscripts date between the early 2nd through the 16th century.

The earliest fragment, known as P52 or the John Rylands Papyrus, a small fragment from John’s gospel, dates between 125-130. It is estimated that John wrote his gospel around 80-85, so that is a gap of less than 50 years!

Ancient Versions and Quotations

But this is not all. We have two other early witnesses to the text of the New Testament.

Translations: NT also translated into Latin, Coptic, Syriac, Armenian, Georgian, Gothic, and Arabic. There are between 20,000 and 25,000 handwritten copies of the New Testament in various languages.

Citations: The NT was also quoted extensively in sermons, tracts, and commentaries written

by the early church leaders (Patristic writers, fathers); to date, over a million quotations from the NT by the church fathers have been cataloged; so that almost the entire NT could be reconstructed relying on these quotations alone. (source: ESV Study Bible article – Reliability of Bible Manuscripts p.830)

Variant Readings

Back to our telephone game. Remember, we are not stuck taking what comes out at the end of the chain of transmission and hope it is correct. We can take all the copies that have survived and compare them with each other. So, for instance, we can take a 6th century manuscript and compare it with a 2nd or 3rd century fragment and see if the puzzle pieces line up.

This is where we need to talk about variants. Remember, the 400,000 variants; an average of 3 variant readings for each word of the New Testament?

Keep in mind, all hand copying subject to human error. I dare you to hand copy one of Paul’s letters out of your Bible and see how many mistakes you make. But because of the sheer volume and spread of the manuscript evidence, the errors are self-correcting. You have manuscripts spread both across time and geographically. So we can compare manuscripts in North Africa with manuscripts in Egypt or Turkey. We can compare the many late manuscripts from the 11th to 15th centuries with earlier witnesses from the 3rd to 5th centuries. We can identify typical mistakes that people made in copying and understand how they got there.

Copyist Errors: (in descending order of frequency)

75% Spelling errors (moveable 'nu') (like a vs. an in English) does Ioanne (John) have one ‘n’ or two? Lots of early names had different spellings. In 2 Peter 1, is it Simon Peter or Simeon Peter?

19% Untranslatable. minor changes; synonyms, alterations that do not affect translation (eg. definite article; word order) Is it Jesus Christ or Christ Jesus? Is it ‘the’ Jesus said?

5% meaningful changes that are not viable (the variant has some plausibility of reflecting the wording of the original) (variant is a nonsense reading)

changes that are both meaningful and viable (changes the meaning to some degree; less than 1% of the variants; affects no major doctrine. (number of the beast in Revelation – 666 or 616?).

Example: Look up Matthew 23:14 in your Bible. It isn’t there in mine! But there is a footnote that reads “Some manuscripts add here (or after verse 12) verse 14: Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you devour widows’ houses and for a pretense you make long prayers; therefore you will receive the greater condemnation” [ESV]; (see Mark 12:40; Lk.20:47). This is what is called a longer reading, and it was common for a later scribe who was familiar with another gospel to harmonize. He remembers wording from Mark or Luke, and inserts it here. But it’s obviously a later insertion, because our earliest manuscripts don’t include this verse, and some of the later manuscripts put it in different places (after 13 or after verse 12; remember verse and chapter numbers were added much later.) That is a change that is both meaningful and viable; another common scribal error is leaving out a line when there is a similar word ending (homoteleuton). But think about this. If you have a King James or New King James Bible that has this verse included, are you being misled? Did Jesus actually say those words? Yes, Mark 12:40 and Luke 20:47 record them. Did Matthew record them here? Probably not. That’s the kind of decisions editors have to make when printing the text.

The Big Three Variants

Let’s talk about the three biggest deal variants that we have in our New Testament. I want you to know about them so you’re not surprised when you hear about them. We have the Comma Johanneum or Johannine Comma, the Longer ending of Mark, and the Pericope Adulterae, or the story of the woman caught in adultery.

The Johannine Comma is an addition to 1 John 5:7

[KJV] 1 John 5:7 For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one. 8 And there are three that bear witness in earth, the spirit, and the water, and the blood: and these three agree in one.

[ESV] 1 John 5:7 For there are three that testify: 8 the Spirit and the water and the blood; and these three agree.

This addition is only found in 8 Greek manuscripts, four of which it is added as a variant reading in the margin. The earliest of these is 10th century. It is quoted by none of the early church fathers, and it is in no ancient translation except later Latin. This is a great trinitarian verse, but the doctrine of the triune nature of God is all over the Bible. We don’t need this addition to support it. Likely, this was a marginal commentary, someone’s thoughts on the verse, which a later scribe included. The typical rule of a copyist was ‘preserve everything’; when in doubt, copy it! If these extra words were original, there would be no reason to omit them.

The ESV Bible has a note after Mark 16:8 that reads “Some of the earliest manuscripts do not include 16:9-20” What follows in brackets is considered the longer ending of Mark. Actually there are several different endings to Mark, the oldest cutting off at verse 8. As it stands, the gospel leaves you hanging. After the crucifixion, the women go to the tomb and find the stone rolled away, the tomb empty, and an angel telling them that Jesus is risen, and telling them to go tell his disciples. Mark 16:8 reads “And they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” Period. The End. You can’t leave it there! They’re supposed to go and tell! The resurrection is the greatest news of all time! They have to tell someone! This is what is called a motivated reading. We can’t end it there. We have to fix it. We need a resurrection appearance and the great commission. So we find at least a couple different endings. There is the longer ending that we find in the King James. There is a shorter ending. Both of these are found with notes or indications that they are not original in many MSS. Some MSS include both the shorter and longer endings. But Mark’s style is to invite the reader into the story. It’s full of action. He ends abruptly with the witnesses to the resurrection not telling anyone, and the reader cries out ‘No! But you have to tell someone!’ and then the reader is forced to ask, who have I told?

At the end of John 7, there is a note in the ESV that reads “The earliest manuscripts do not include John 7:53-8:11” This is the hardest one. This story is not in our earliest manuscripts, and it shows up with asterisks or marks indicating some question in some manuscripts. This story actually shows up in Luke in some manuscripts and in different places in John in others. It seems that this story was not originally part of John’s Gospel, but it is found quite early. It is possibly a true event that someone (possibly even John) recounted or recorded. John himself says:

John 21:25 Now there are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written. (cf. Jn.20:30-31)

This is likely a story that was recorded and began to circulate and was inserted at different places where it seemed to fit best. Probably a true story, probably not originally included in John’s gospel. It doesn’t teach anything contrary to the teaching of the Bible, but without it we don’t lose any essential doctrine either.

Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (1978)

Leaders and scholars from a broad spectrum of the global church came together in 1978 to draft a careful statement on Biblical inerrancy, a truth that has been attacked and some were liberal churches were compromising on.

ArticleX We affirm that inspiration, strictly speaking, applies only to the autographic text of Scripture, which in the providence of God can be ascertained from available manuscripts with great accuracy. We further affirm that copies and translations of Scripture are the Word of God to the extent that they faithfully represent the original. We deny that any essential element of the Christian faith is affected by the absence of the autographs. We further deny that this absence renders the assertion of Biblical inerrancy invalid or irrelevant.”

The main message of the text is clear, but we want to have the fine detail too – and evidently, much of the fine detail has been preserved. In the end, though, the main problem in understanding the New Testament is not any uncertainty about its precise wording but rather our inability to grasp and absorb the message in its full impact and complexity.”

[Dirk Jongkind, An Introduction to the Greek New Testament produced at Tyndale House, Cambridge, pp.20-23]

You see, our issue is not uncertainty about what the bible says. Our issue is our reluctance to listen to what we know it says.


Throughout this study, I want to focus on how what we believe impacts how we worship. Good theology should always lead to doxology.

God has given us mountains of evidence that speak to the accuracy of how his word was passed on to us. By de-centralizing the spread of the New Testament, he ensured that it could not be destroyed, and it could not be tampered with by any individual or organization. We can look at the text we have and praise God that he did not remain silent. He has spoken! And he gave us his word written! He has told us what we need to know to know him. Let us press on to know him better!


Pastor Rodney Zedicher ~ Ephraim Church of the Bible ~