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It's accepted by most Christians nowadays that only the original documents are inerrant, therefore the modern Bibles are bounded to have contradictions because of copyist errors and translation errors. And we can see that in numerous verses with at least numerical discrepancies. So we can never compare them with the original.

So, I have two main questions:

  • Why did God allow that? We do not have the original texts anymore, so we can never see this supposed inerrancy, and that can put heavy discredit on the Bibles we have today, one can wonder what else there is wrong without us being able to know, isn't that counter-productive to Christianity? He supposedly intervened on the writing and canonization, but didn't on the copies and translations, He could at least make someone lock up the original documents in secure vaults (even an angel), but chose not to, and as a result we ended up with only the fallible texts at the end, why? That goes against God's nature of being the most responsible being who is deeply concerned with having his message understood.

  • How can this be reconciled with Matthew 24:35? My reasoning goes like this, since we don't have the autographs, we don't have the inerrant words of Jesus written down to us, so they don't exist anymore, they "passed away" at least barely. Or, we can accept that in regard to Jesus' words, at the bare minimum, are written down to us without error (this requires a strong dose of faith, but that's what religion is supposed to look like either way).

God simply wanted His infallible words to be lost forever, and I want to know why.

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    That goes a touch beyond the normal level of misinformation, but one common point of confusion is the idea that we have translations of translations of translations, through this that and the other language. No, it goes: John wrote his book in Greek -> I have a modern English translation of it. Not just a translation, but one poured over and analyzed to correct the few discrepancies between very old copies and translated by experts who know all about the common usage of words and ways of living of the time. We have God’s words. And more importantly, His Word, the Logos of Christ.. The Truth.
    – Al Brown
    Sep 3 at 8:59
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    By "verses with at least numerical discrepancies" do you mean the chapter and verse numbering? Those divisions were added much later, for convenience, and are not considered part of the canonical text itself. Sep 3 at 12:42
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    The number of broken assumptions embedded in this question, to include the "why" construction of the title question, require a lot of attention. As written it comes off as a polemic, not a question. (But there is a good question in there somewhere, vis a vis the Matthew reference). Suggest that you refine the scope of this question, with the passage in Matthew as your central pivot point. Sep 3 at 16:41
  • @KorvinStarmast No, I always assumed that most Christians see only the original manuscripts as inerrant:en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biblical_inerrancy . I'm not trying to be polemical by "already assuming that the modern Bibles have errors", I always thought this was a major consensus already, I'm stating nothing new. Sep 3 at 17:10
  • @RayButterworth No, I'm talking about the number of soldiers in an army for example, that kind of thing. Sep 3 at 17:14
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"the modern Bibles are bounded (sic) to have contradictions because of copyist errors and translation errors."

The premise of the question is insubstantial.

I am assuming the question speaks of the Greek scripture only and that the OP accepts the veracity of the Hebrew scripture due to the meticulous way in which the Hebrew scribes kept the documentation of Moses and the prophets with such zeal, such accuracy that there can be no doubt of the provenance of those scriptures.

Therefore I assume the question deals with the Greek scripture.

Had only one copy (the original copy) of a particular book (choose any book) of the Greek scripture been found that single copy would be open to doubt.

No provenance would be provable from the point of view of looking back two thousand years and proving, beyond a peradventure, that this single piece of parchment had come from a particular pen at a particular date.

In the very nature of the Christian religion we are subject to falsity, deliberate attempts to destroy scripture, and - more often - to falsify scripture so hated are these truths received though chosen vessels, moved of the Holy Spirit.

But rather have we thousands of testimonies to the truth. Thousands of fragments, many larger copies, hundreds of uncials, hundreds of miniscules and sometimes entire books from different points of time.

Then we have the versions, the original Greek copied into Syriac, Old Latin, and other languages. Copied diligently, reverently, piously.

Then we have the lectionaries, thousands of references to the original scripture when quoted in the equivalent of the book of Common prayer, orders of service containing scripture references quoted in full.

Then we have the Patristic Citations, quotations of scripture by such as Polycarp, who probably, almost certainly, had personal knowledge of John the Apostle. Dean John Burgon collected, during his lifetime over 96,000 such references from the first, second and third centuries.

What an abundance of evidence !

Diligently collated by pious men, these records have been meticulously and scientifically weighed copy against copy, by men who devoted their lifetime to the science of Textual Criticism, discarding that which is faulty : copyist errors of all the common kind which stand out as being slips of the pen.

And what we have, what I have now on my desk, beside my bed and in my briefcase, the Stephens text of 1550, is the Greek text which is very, very close to that which a Christian would have had in the second century.

In fact I would go so far as to say that my copy is even closer to the original apostolic autographs for my copy has been diligently compared, weighed and corrected across hundreds of thousands of references, whereas my brother's copy in the second century might have been one which was subject to a local recension later corrected in the following century.

God has 'allowed' me to have this gift of inestimable value, on my desk, in my briefcase and beside my bed and I am immensely - truly immensely - grateful to him for such a gift.


Further Argument regarding the provenance of scripture compared to various Greek documents :

The fact is, the New Testament enjoys far more historical documentation than any other volume ever known. Compared to the 5,366 Greek manuscripts "backing" the New Testament, there are only 643 copies of Homer's Iliad, which is undeniably the most famous book of ancient Greece.

No one doubts the text of Julius Caesar's Gallic Wars, but we only have 10 copies of it, the earliest of which was made 1,000 years after it was written. We have only two manuscripts of Tacitus' Histories and Annals, one from the ninth century and one from the eleventh.

The History of Thucydides, another well-known ancient work, is dependent upon only eight manuscripts, the oldest of these being dated about A.D. 900 (along with a few papyrus scraps dated at the beginning of the Christian era). And The History of Herodotus finds itself in a similar situation.

"Yet no classical scholar would listen to an argument that the authenticity of Herodotus or Thucydides is in doubt because the earliest MSS of their works which are of any use to us are over 1,300 years later than the originals" (Bruce, pp. 20-21).

Bruce thus declared: "It is a curious fact that historians have often been much readier to trust the New Testament records than have many theologians" (p. 19).

In 1968, Bruce Metzger, a longtime professor of New Testament language and literature at Princeton, stated: "The amount of evidence for the text of the New Testament…is so much greater than that available for any ancient classical author that the necessity of resorting to emendation is reduced to the smallest dimensions" (1968, p. 86). Truly, to have such abundance of copies for the New Testament from within seventy years of their writing is nothing short of amazing (Geisler and Brooks, 1990, pp. 159-160).

Textual Criticism and the Reality of Copyist Errors

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. I think you guys have seen all the comments, if you want to continue, there's a chatroom!
    – Peter Turner
    Sep 3 at 20:26
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It is unarguable that no autographs of either the Hebrew, or the Greek scriptures have been discovered. Those, however, contain only written words, but this question invokes Matthew 24:35, which covers all the spoken words of Jesus, not just the few words written down by some of those who spent years with him. As the apostle John pointed out in his gospel account, Jesus did many things not recorded anywhere. "But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name" (John 20:30-31). I'll return to this point later.

You also say that "modern Bibles are bounded [sic] to have contradictions because of copyist errors and translation errors." Millions of Christians today will heartily agree with you! They are aware that since the mid-1800s a new trend developed amongst Bible translators to move away from what has been called "The Received Text" to a collection of texts that began to include scraps of manuscript copies not used over the previous 1,700 years or so. This has now resulted in a load of new translations with many variations and liberties taken by those who think they can give 'dynamic-equivalence' translations to give what they claim is the real 'sense' of the text, using modern phraseology. They claim this will help modern readers understand the idea behind the text in a way that 'formal-equivalence' [i.e. old translations like the Authorised Version] does not do.

Well, those who believe in the divine inspiration of the original text would point out that Jesus himself said that when he returned to heaven after his resurrection, the Holy Spirit would come to teach his disciples and remind them of what he had said (John 14:26). But not everything Jesus ever said was written down. Yet why would God allow for corruption to some of those words over the centuries? The Bible itself explains that the way people treat the words of God will expose what's really in their hearts, so that the written words of God judge those who read them even as they attempt to judge them (Hebrews 4:12-13 & 2 Samuel 22:26).

Translators give themselves away by choosing to tamper with the ancient texts; that is what slowly became exposed with the modern selection of texts that deviated from the Received Text. Some scholars held to, or sympathized with, unbiblical doctrines, and worked on introducing questionable manuscript fragments that could allow for slight (or not so slight) changes to what had come down to us. God allowed this knowing that everything hidden will be revealed on the Day of Judgment and that those who truly love and trust him will retain faith despite all the deviations that those who do not tremble at God's word present in their modern translations.

It's all allowed as part of God's process of revealing the true state of our response to him and his Son, Jesus Christ, who is the Word of God. Those who "tremble at my word" (Isaiah 66:2) believe in the power of God to not only inspire the autographs but to ensure what comes down through the centuries is preserved by those who tremble at his word: “The Old Testament in Hebrew… and the New Testament in Greek… being immediately inspired by God, and by his singular care and providence kept pure in all ages, are therefore authentical” (The Westminster Confession of Faith (1646,1.8). Equivalent, if not identical, statements are also in the Savoy Declaration (1658), Helvetic Consensus Formula (1675) and the London Baptist Confession (1689). God has not allowed the text he ordained to disintegrate into a poor text or an ambiguous one. Those who tremble at God's word also believe in the doctrine of the divine preservation of Scripture. Those who do not, feel at liberty to take increasing liberties with that inspired word. When comparison is made with the ancient text that has come down to us and the modern text accepted by the many today, a few copyist mistakes can be seen, but many more by translators.

If God had, as you claim, allowed the original Bible to be lost to history, we would not have Bibles today that are astoundingly the same as the oldest available manuscripts. God has allowed the text to come down through the centuries, somewhat affected by human error in scribal copies, and increasingly changed by many modern translators, but we still have the Received Text. Although it's not perfect, many are dismissing it in preference for modern variations. But what we have is absolutely what John said achieves this divine purpose, to believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing we may have life in his name. The Hebrew scriptures are also part of that revelation that brings life.

But Matthew 24:35 does not need to be reconciled with your points because all the words of Jesus remain intact in the person of the risen, resurrected Jesus Christ who is in heaven. And he is the Judge before whom all the resurrected dead will stand; he is the living Word of God wherein is contained every word of God. As the angel telling the world the eternal gospel said, "Fear God and give him glory, for the hour of his judgment has come" (Rev. 14:7). Those who have no fear of God despite having the eternal gospel, will continue to despise his word, and the Word of God - until that awful Day.

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There are a number of practical reasons why the original texts - the very first copies that were written down by the original bible writers - would not have survived, as well as some scriptural reasons why they perhaps didn't need to.

Hebrews 4:12 says that "the word of God is alive and active", so God's word is not confined to the page. Your cited scripture at Matthew 24:35 is not contradicted as it is not speaking exclusively about the written word. It shouldn't be surprising that God can preserve his word in any way he chooses.

  1. The originals would likely not have survived anyway. Moses completed the book of Genesis around 3500 years ago. Scrolls would not lasted that long under normal circumstances. Some old scrolls that we do have, such as the 'Dead Sea Scrolls', survived as long as they did because of specific preservation techniques. In most cases, making copies was the preservation technique!

  2. The copies that are available are accurate and trustworthy. The bible itself speaks of 'copyists' - a skilled position that involved making accurate reproductions of scripture by hand. They used a technique called 'underwriting' (a term still used today in law to mean that something has an extra layer of approval) whereby each line was written under the original to ensure that each line was visibly the same as the original. In some cases, we have copies of the same parts of scripture which are around 1000 years different in age yet do not differ, except for a few minor changes in word construction - not surprising in 1000 years when you consider it only took a couple of hundred years for Americans to spell English words differently to the English. So with accurate copies, there is no need for the originals - God's word is preserved.

  3. Remember that God hates idols. He only ever used physical symbols for a limited purpose - for example, the Ark of the Covenant was a reminder of his covenant. God didn't allow that item to be preserved to be venerated, nor any of the temple artefacts. History has shown that some have become focused on the acquisition of artefacts and there are claims to own things such as Jesus' burial shroud, fragments of the cross etc. Can you imagine how some would treat the original texts by Moses etc if they were available? They might have become objects of worship.

  4. Parts of the 'original' bible texts were in themselves copies! For example, the book of Genesis, written by Moses, refers to "The Book of Adam's History" (Genesis 5:1) which scholars believe can only refer to a real, written record that predates Genesis. The books of 1st Kings and 2nd Kings are also 'compilations' of histories from other texts, which both books refer to. The gospel of Luke is also a 'compiling' of other eyewitness accounts which were already available, possibly in written form (Luke 1:1,2). Certainly, Luke's research of Jesus' genealogy found in chapter 3 of his gospel would have been copied from temple records. And of course, after God wrote the Ten Commandments with his own hand, he allowed the stones to be smashed, and we only have the 'copy' that Moses wrote down. So really, if the bible itself was copied from other texts - even if that process was under divine inspiration - it shows that God has no problem with copies.

  5. When you consider that God spoke directly to Adam, but then later inspired Moses to compile that dialogue in the book of Genesis, what really is 'God's Word' - was it his spoken word, the original record of his history, or Moses' writing? God's 'word' survives copying.

  6. The fact that the writers of the Christian scriptures were inspired to write in the more widespread language of Greek gives evidence that it is more important to God that people hear and understand the word than the manner in which it is written. Today, the bible is read by people in their own language. Good translations are created by language scholars from the earliest copies of the original available. The message itself is what is important, not the possession of the original text.

  7. Many would say today that the printed word is dead! More people read from a screen than a printed page. The bible is available online in various forms. This is further evidence that his word is 'alive' and that the original copies are less important.

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    Why is it downvoted?
    – obfuscated
    Sep 3 at 13:00
  • Clarifications needed, you said that copies preserve God's word, do I take that as "fallible texts can infallibly preserve the Word of God in some sense"? You said that the "originals" were themselves copies, but that's irrelevant to the question, the point is that some infallible text was written somewhere along the way, am I right? Then you said that God's dialogues were merely transcribed, but that suggests that you're challenging the inerrancy even on the original texts. Clarify what you think about which is infallible, the copies AND the originals or none of them. Sep 3 at 14:47
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    If you want to argue, @BlackWatch , a forum is a great place for that. Sep 3 at 16:40
  • Okay then, sorry, I'll take your points 3 and 6 as the answers to my first question. Thanks for the contribution. My criticism to your answer is because the other points (mainly points 2, 4 and 6) seem to be redefining already established beliefs of the Protestant Church about Biblical inerrancy, which is a bit weird and pedantic (sorry, no better words). Sep 3 at 17:44
  • @BlackWatch I don't think I used the word 'fallible' or 'infallible' anywhere in my answer. Those words are not heard quite so much in Christian denominations other than Catholicism, where certain humans are granted the same 'infallibility' as God himself. Hopefully the message in my answer is that the written page is not 'infallible' - God uses imperfect humans to record his word, and that the survival of the message rather than the pages themselves are what is important. Sep 4 at 11:39

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