Around 1930, a Seventh-Day Adventist named Benjamin G. Wilkinson wrote Our Authorized Bible Vindicated. David Otis Fuller, a Regular Baptist minister, got a hold of the book and in 1970 wrote Which Bible? Using Wilkinson as a primary source and concealing the fact that Wilkinson was a Seventh-Day Adventist.1 Fuller coined the question that has plagued those in the now known King James Only (KJVO) movement – “Which Bible?” Some KJVO advocates ask the question in derision, as if one shouldn’t have to ask it and just accept the KJV as God’s one and only inspired, inerrant, preserved Word of God. Others ask it in sincerity, not settling for the unfounded conspiracy theories that have permeated the KJVO movement.
In answering this question, there are at least three sub-questions that must be dealt with: (1) Which manuscripts are the most complete and accurate? (2) Which translation of these manuscripts is the most accurate? (3) How is a layperson to know how to make the right choice? I will address these three in two separate posts. (Question 3 will be answered as we address question 2.)
-Note: Before we begin, I would like to state that even with all the variations in all the different manuscripts we have, NONE of them change the teaching of Scripture on major doctrines when the manuscripts are taken as a whole. So the purposes of these posts are not to have you question the truthfulness of the Bible in doctrinal matters. It is in discussing how we attempt to reproduce the originals and select the translations we use.-
So, which manuscripts (MSS) are the most accurate and complete? For some KJVO advocates this is a moot point, as they refuse to go back to the original languages. They claim the KJV is inspired and perfect and one need not know what the original languages said seeing as God has preserved it completely in the English translation of the KJV. If anyone thinks about that for long, they will realize that the KJVO advocate claiming this is saying that the translators made no errors in translation and always knew exactly how to translate each word. This infallibility in translation and the final authority being in the KJV are things the translators denied.2 This is not an article on the KJV only movement, but one must understand a bit of what is making the questions we are seeking to answer so prominent. In short, a simple refutation of KJV only-ism can be had by merely reading the preface to the reader of the translators of the KJV 1611 bible.
So back to our original question of the reliability of MSS. The question is necessary for anyone who is not willing to sacrifice truth for false security. We could arbitrarily elect a text and claim it is the text by which to judge all others, which is what the KJV only group does with either the Textus Receptus (TR) or the KJV itself. Our desire is to know what God has said originally, not just say we know. This is where textual criticism comes into play.
The Old Testament Scriptures aren’t that much of a question as the OT canon was established before the time of Christ, as well as the major texts used, so we will be dealing primarily with the text of the New Testament. Daniel B. Wallace notes that “we have more than 5,300 manuscripts” of the New Testament available to us today.3 Most of these have been discovered since the translating of the KJV 1611, so we now have material previous translators didn’t have. It is these texts that have re-ignited bible translation efforts.
There are some who deny the oldest is best idea in translating, and they advocate that its where the MSS was discovered and the people group it tied to that makes it reliable. This is not necessarily so. For example: The TR people claim that they use the Byzantine text and the other MSS are of the Alexandrian text type. They claim that Christianity thrived in the Byzantine region and Alexandria, Egypt was the breeding grounds for heresy. Thus, MSS found in Alexandria cannot be trusted. This is a logical fallacy more than anything. There was a man named Athanasius who stood for the Deity of Jesus Christ when all around him were becoming Arians. Athanasius lived and ministered in Alexandria, Egypt. It is not as if all the heretics resided in Alexandria and the Byzantine part of the world were free from poor doctrine. Another fallacy with this line of thinking is that the Jews were beyond prone to forsake God and turn to idols. Their entire history is colored with it. They are the source from whence we receive our Old Testament. To employ the logic of the TR only people, we must discredit the Old Testament also.
A hypothetical, simplistic example to illustrate the thought process would go something like this: We have 2 variant readings – X and Y. If variant X is found in more copies than variant Y, then how old are MSS that contain reading X? As printing capabilities increased, more copies could be made faster, thus tilting the scales. So if variant X is contained in MSS that are newer then the majority reading isn’t necessarily an asset for variant X. But if the older copies are boasting of a consistent reading of variant Y then that is helpful; for the closer a reading is to the original autographs the less likely there are scribal or translational errors. The further we get from the originals the more possibility that errors have crept in and been reproduced thus making the wrong reading the majority reading.
As textual critics examine the MSS (in a far more complicated and detailed way that described above), texts are compiled in attempts to reconstruct the originals. It is choosing from among these that we get our answer to which MSS is best. Due to the recent explosion of MSS at our disposal it is evident, as Daniel B. Wallace notes that the TR “has several readings that have “never been found in any known Greek manuscript,” and scores, perhaps hundreds, of readings that depend on only a handful of very late manuscripts.”4 The Nestle-Aland 27th Edition of the Greek text of the New Testament is the internationally accepted standard text based off of the most recent scholarship and new discoveries in MSS and linguistics.
This topic is far deeper than this post can cover. There are people who dedicate their entire career to examining the biblical MSS, but I have tried to provide a window to let some light in on the topic of how we know which manuscript is the most reliable. In the next post, we will look at methods of translation and which English translations are better than others.
2Dr. Robert Joyner Were the King James Translators KJV Only? http://kjvonly.org/robert/joyner_were_the_kjv.htm and The Preface to the Reader by the KJV translation committee http://www.bible-researcher.com/kjvpref.html
3Daniel B. Wallace The Number of Textual Variants: An Evangelical Miscalculation http://bible.org/article/number-textual-variants-evangelical-miscalculation
4Daniel B Wallace The Majority Text and The Original Text: Are They Identical? http://bible.org/article/majority-text-and-original-text-are-they-identical, Bruce M. Metzger, The Text of the New Testament, 2d ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1968), p. 100.