God Didn’t Inspire Your Journible
When teaching my theology class I begin the semester with a discussion about inspiration, inerrancy, and the manuscripts that make up the New Testament. Inspiration, I tell my students, is what happened when Paul was moved by the Holy Spirit to write the book of Romans. Inspiration is not what was going on when other believers made copies of Paul’s writings.
The biblical authors were inspired to write without error. Those who made copies of their writings were capable of making errors, sometimes they were actually very proficient in making errors. They misspelled things. They sometimes skipped a line. Later scribes even, on rare occasion, added a bit to correct what they thought might be a problem with an earlier copy, or in an attempt to harmonize the passage with other portions of the gospels for example.
We Don’t Have the Originals
The original writings were inspired. The copies were not. The problem with that, skeptics will tell us, is that we don’t have the original manuscripts of the New Testament. They’re right. We don’t. But what we do have is an embarrassment of riches that allows us to get back to what was in the originals.
The way scholars try to get back to what is in an original ancient document is to work with the oldest copy they can find. The earlier the copy is in relation to the original, the more confidence they can have of their ability to access what was in the original. Additionally, the more copies there are, from various dates in relation to the original, the more they can compare any discrepancy they happen to find.
Socrates Vs. Jesus
Outside of the Bible the very best ancient document we have, in terms of how close to the original we can get, and the amount of copies available, is the work of the poet Homer. We have a little over 600 copies of Homer’s The Iliad. The earliest copy of Homer’s writings is around 500 years after he originally wrote it. To give you a point of comparison, Homer’s work has far better evidence than the philosopher Plato. We have less than ten ancient copies of Plato’s work and the earliest copy we have is from over 1,000 after it was originally written. But scholars feel comfortable with the sources available for Homer and Plato to use and teach about their writings at universities around the world.
How about the Bible? For the New Testament we have over 5,500 Greek manuscripts (compared to Homer’s 600 or Plato’s 7). Some of the fragments we have of various biblical books can be traced back to less than fifty years after the original writing (compared to Homer’s 500 years).
Are there differences between some of the copies of the same biblical passages? If we compare an early copy of Mark’s gospel with another early copy, would we find differences in the copies? Emphatically, yes. We would find a lot of differences. But the good news is that most of them are spelling and grammatical differences. There are precious few differences that scholars have to work really hard to get at which was likely originally in the text, partly because we have so many copies for comparisons.
So, did God inspire the biblical authors? Yes. Did he inspire those who made copies? No. Christians don’t believe that. We really never have. So, do differences among the copies disprove the credibility of the Bible? Nope. We have a looming stack of evidence, far superior to any other ancient document, that allows us to, with confidence, get back to what was originally written.
So, study the Bible. It’s the Word of God. The biblical authors were inspired to write what God wanted them to write without error. And as you make copies for yourself in your Journible, remember that though you are prone to make mistakes here or there, just like the ancient scribes, that has nothing to do with how God inspired the Bible.