Which text is the authoritative text?

A good starting point for our discussions on the text of the Bible is to remind ourselves that most of the biblical writers were unaware that they were writing sacred Scripture. An example of this comes from the Qumran community near the Dead Sea. Long after the Law had been recognized as being sacred scripture, they continued to alter the texts. The same goes for the texts we have of the New Testament.

For some two centuries, there was no concept of an approved text of the Bible. In one of the most famous texts that we have, the Oxyrhynchus papyri of the late third to fourth century provides us with the biblical texts alongside a range of other religious writings. It includes the Shepherd of Hermes, the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Mary, Acts of Peter, Acts of John, Acts of Paul, the Didache, the Sophia of Jesus Christ, the Gospel of Peter, the Apocalypse of Peter and the Acts of Paul and Thecla. These were all second century writings and at one time or another were possibly candidates for inclusion in the final authorized New Testament.

Transmission of the ancient texts:

Texts are collected together into families of texts and it is broadly agreed that no single family has perfectly preserved texts or even the best texts.

Both accidental and deliberate changes were made to the texts of the New Testament....the texts of these books were by no means inviolable; to the contrary, they were altered with relative ease and alarming frequency. Most of the changes were accidental, the result of scribal ineptitude, carelessness or fatigue. Others were intentional, and reflect the controversial milieu within which they were produced (Bart Ehrman).

However most contemporary scholars have begun to see that the LXX is more likely to have the older texts. It was the LXX that was the Bible of early Christianity and some 94% of Old Testament quotations in the NT are from the LXX.

Importantly all of the ancient manuscripts, regardless of changes made to them, functioned as Scripture in the ancient churches that preserved and transmitted them and read them in their worship and catechetical instruction. They were seen as being authoritative texts.

What does this tell us about biblical texts?

The Western Texts are among the earliest of the manuscript traditions but they are known for their poor transmission practices. One commentator has observed the chief characteristic of Western readings is fondness of paraphrase. Words, clauses and even whole sentences are freely changed, omitted or inserted. Sometimes the motive appears to have been harmonization, while at other times it was the enrichment of the narrative by inclusion of traditional or apocryphal material (Metzger).

Traditionally, Protestant Christians have not had a fond regard for the Septuagint (LXX), preferring instead the Hebrew (Masoretic text MT).

He goes on to note: The earliest copyists would not have been trained professionals who made copies for a living but simply literate members of a congregation who had the time and ability to do the job. Since most, if not all, of them would have been amateurs in the art of copying, a relatively large number of mistakes no doubt crept into their texts as they reproduced them. It is possible that after the original was placed in circulation it soon became lost or was destroyed, so all surviving copes conceivably have derived from one single, error-­‐ prone copy made in the early stages of the book's circulation.

Using written texts:

It did not take the Church long to come to understand the importance of having written texts for distribution around the Church. They proved to be important for both mission and for worship. Because they told the story of Jesus, who was most certainly the most important canon in the Church, the Gospels quickly took on an authority of their own. They were circulated around the Churches, even though it was not until the end of the second century that they were understood to be scripture. It took somewhere between 150 and 180 years before we find a fixed list of the texts of the New Testament - and even then it was not a universally accepted list.

Which text is authoritative?

One of the difficulties that we have with this question is that at one time or another most (if not all) of the texts were used as authoritative texts in various faith communities. They were, for the people using them, the Word of God, even if they were not all the same. Erasmus of Rotterdam produced a Greek text of the NT in 1516 and used relatively late manuscripts as his source material (none dating before the 10th century and some dating even later). Also, he based his work on just five or six manuscripts. His first edition was revised numerous times with the final revision being carried out by Theodore Beza whose work provided the source text for the King James English translation. Generations of biblical scholars based their writings on this text and while there are no major theological difficulties posed by that version, it is of inferior quality and it does not reflect the earliest writings and reflections of the Church.

Mistakes were easy to make!

The cost of producing both the Old and New Testaments by professional scribes in the fourth century was approximately 30,000 denarii, which was about four years worth of the salary of a legionary of the third century. Texts were professionally copied in scriptoria but this task was later handed over to the monks in the monasteries who produced individual copies of the Bible. Errors continued to appear, and given the nature of the task, this comes as no surprise. It was exhausting work carried out in conditions that were far from ideal and not designed for comfort. They were written in ink and every four to six letters the quill had to be put back into the ink. All this taking place in cramped conditions by weary humans - mistakes were inevitable.

But which text is the Word of God? 

In 1994 at the official registry of biblical manuscripts, the Institute for the New Testament Textual Research in Munster (Germany), there were some: 

  • 5,664 Greek manuscripts of the NT some of which include parts of the OT. 
  • Add to this the 117 papyrus manuscripts 
  • And the 306 unical manuscripts (texts using capital letters without spaces between words and written on parchment) 
  • Along with the 2,812 miniscule manuscripts (lowercase-­‐lettered texts) 
  • And the 2,281 Greek lectionaries (portions of the scriptures that were set down for use in the sacred liturgy 
  • And so we end up with 11,180 differing source texts for our modern translations! 


Hence the question of authority becomes an important one. 

Some of these copiers of the NT made not only inadvertent mistakes, but also deliberate changes in the texts in which they tried to clarify the meaning or make it more relevant to their own communities. These changes were passed on for centuries in subsequent copies. Most of the changes were undoubtedly intentional, even though there were plenty of unintentional variants in most manuscripts of the ancient world. 

One important textual scholar (Helmut Koester) reminds us that the most significant corruptions of the text took place during the first and second centuries, when there was no clear canonical status for any of the works. Most of the textual variants occurred within the first two hundred years. They were not yet cemented in as "scripture". 

Most scholars today are reluctant to ascribe sacred authority to any particular text of the Bible, though it would be fair to say that we are just about as close as we are likely to having the best and oldest text of the Bible. 

No reputable scholar today would argue that any particular translation of the Bible should be the authoritative text for the Church. The most widely acceptable Greek texts (Nestle-­‐Aland and UBS texts) form the basis of most of our modern translations and they are possibly as good as we are going to get. Most of these translations are reliable accounts of the story of Jesus and all call us to a life of obedience to God. 

By the year there were 6,809 known living languages in the world and the whole of the Bible had been translated into just 371 of them. Parts of the Bible had been translated into a further 1,862 other languages and dialects. It does make us ask once again: wherein does the authority of the Bible rest? 


Where does this leave us? 

A reading of the reflections of the early Church show us that the earliest canon of faith for the Church was Jesus Christ. 

All Scriptures then are of derived authority. Jesus himself taught that all authority was given to him (Matt 28:12) and Christians know from experience that the Word of God remarkably comes to us in a variety of translations, not all of which are of equal value and technical quality. 

Jesus and the gospel he proclaimed are at the heart of the Christian message, and we would do well not to place a written text with numerous variable in his place. 

The Scriptures are always a derived authority, but the final authority for the Church remains Jesus Christ. 

The best thing to do is to adopt at least two translations, one for reading/reflection and one for study. In doing this we will find that one translation helps to interpret the other. The more versions we have, the better. It is equally true that given the quality of the mainline translations today, it is not necessarily better or worse to have the "original" language text before us, as like our English translations, they still need to be interpreted and put into a contemporary language. 

Fortunately, most of the major teachings of the Church are not seriously challenged by the variables in the biblical text and, indeed, in most of the translations used in churches today. God comes to us through the texts, inferior and variable as they may be.