For the last few bulletin articles we’ve looked at the importance of reading Christian books to help us understand the Bible. This week I want to look at how we need help because our Bibles are based on a constructed text.
When people claim that you only need to read Bible, the question is which Bible? We’ve already looked at how there are different translations of the Bible, but what we haven’t looked at is how translations are usually based on a collection of original manuscripts – not one copy of the Bible alone. We have to do this because we do not possess the original documents upon which the books of the Bible were first written. In other words, we don’t have the original copy of Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus.
So what do we have? We have a vast number of copies of the original writings. But because these aren’t photocopies, they have discrepancies in them from the scribes that copied them. Therefore whenever anyone wants to translate the Bible, they must first decide which texts they will translate from. And usually instead of sticking to one copy alone, translations are based on a reconstruction of the text by including different copies at different points using carefully defined rules. (Now none of this is to suggest that important points of doctrine are disputed between copies of the Bible. The differences are few and no major doctrine is disputed through variations in the copies).
So how do you know if there are differences in copies in a verse of the Bible? Usually good translations note major differences in the margins. But often you will have to do some reading about that variation in a good book on the subject or in a commentary. An example of a variation is the end of Mark’s gospel. Between Mark 16:8 and Mark 16:9 we read in the NIV translation ‘The most reliable early manuscripts and other ancient witnesses do not have Mark 16:9-20.’ Now you have a decision to make. Do you accept Mark 16:9-20 as authoritative about Jesus’ life on earth or not? In my opinion, there appear to be good reasons to say that Mark 16:9-20 was probably not part of the original gospel. Therefore I don’t read it in my devotions and I wouldn’t preach from it. But I’m only able to make this decision because I’m willing to read other books as well as my translated copy of the Bible.
Do you read other books because you know your Bible is based on a constructed text?