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When We Don’t Know Exactly What the Bible Says

This bible is missing verses! Differences between translations reduce our confidence in the Bible!

Some peradventure would have no variety of senses to be set in the margin, lest the authority of the Scriptures for deciding of controversies by that show of uncertainty should somewhat be shaken.

Preface to the KJV

Copies of the Bible Differ.

Some believers find this troubling. Some unbelievers think it shows the Bible is untrustworthy. In this study, you will look at various examples of where we don’t know exactly what the Bible says and reflect on the implications. At the end I will give you the KJV preface response to the idea that bibles shouldn’t have footnotes.

Different Differences

Single word changes can make a big difference. One early edition of the KJV infamously read:

Thou shalt commit adultery.

Exodus 20:14
  1. Is this a troubling error?
  2. Is it difficult to determine the true reading of the passage?

What about the following discrepancy? This exists between copies of the KJV and also between various modern translations.

he measured six measures of barley, and laid it on her: and she went into the city.

he measured six measures of barley, and laid it on her: and he went into the city.

Ruth 3:15-16

Scholars are unsure which reading is original. The NIV reads “he” but gives this footnote “Most Hebrew manuscripts; many Hebrew manuscripts, Vulgate and Syriac she.” The NKJV reads “she” but gives this footnote “Many Heb. mss., Syr., Vg. she; MT, LXX, Tg. he.”

  1. Does the variant change the meaning of the passage?
  2. Does it trouble you?

Here is an example showcasing a rare textual footnote in the 1611 KJV.

And when he had taried among them more then ten dayes, hee went downe vnto Cesarea,

And when he had taried among them no more then eight or ten dayes, hee went downe vnto Cesarea,

Acts 25:6 KJV and KJV margin.

The note to the 1611 KJV reads “Or as some copies reade, no more then eight or ten dayes.”

  1. True or False(defend your answer): “If the KJV translators would have chosen the reading mentioned in the margin, that would prove that they did not believe the Word of God, and the translation they produced would be a perversion of the word of God.”

A Maybe more Scary Difference

The previous examples may seem trivial, an easily recognizable typo or minor differences in the details of stories. But the last two are examples of differences in the handwritten copies of scripture (manuscripts) that have come down to us. How you answered the questions above affects how you deal with bigger discrepancies. So let’s jump to one of the biggest.

Some copies of the gospel of Mark end at 16:8 while most include another section known as 16:9-20. Since most copies include this ending section, we might conclude that the copies missing it simply did not get finished. But matters are not quite this simple. For one thing, the manuscripts lacking it are quite early and generally important witnesses to the original text, second there does a exist an alternative ending for the gospel of Mark. Somebody wrote another short passage to write up the gospel of Mark. Third, the ending passage (9-20) is clearly a different section. There is an abrupt stylistic shift from the first part of chapter 16.

Several opinions exist regarding the ending of Mark.

  • Mark originally ended abruptly at 16-8 and two different endings were attached later.
  • The original ending for Mark, was lost and two different endings were attached later (neither of which was original)
  • 9-20 is the original ending of Mark.

Among those who do not think verses 9-20 are part of the original text of Mark, there are two approaches. Some would say that verses 9-20 are not part of scripture because Mark did not write them. Others argue that they were accepted early enough and widely enough that we should treat them as part of scripture, even if they were not part of the original book of Mark.

  1. How does the uncertainty surrounding this passage affect your view of scripture?
  2. How important is figuring out the exact text of scripture in places where there are variants?
    1. Doesn’t matter unless you are a Bible translator.
    2. Of minor importance.
    3. We should do our best, but not be too worried if we are wrong.
    4. Potentially a big deal.
    5. Very important! We must know the exact text everywhere!
  3. What should we teach new believers and children about textual variations? How important is it for everyone to understand the basics of how biblical texts were transmitted?

Wisdom from the KJV Preface

Here is more of the opening quote (abridged). It comes from ยง16 of the preface to the KJV

Some peradventure would have no variety of senses to be set in the margin, lest the authority of the Scriptures for deciding of controversies by that show of uncertainty should somewhat be shaken.
But we hold their judgement not to be so sound in this point.
For though whatsoever things are necessary are manifest, yet for all that it cannot be dissembled ((disguised)), that partly to exercise and whet our wits, partly to wean the curious from loathing of them for their everywhere plainness, partly also to stir up our devotion to crave the assistance of God’s Spirit by prayer, and lastly, that we might be forward to seek aid of our brethren by conference, it hath pleased God in His divine providence here and there to scatter words and sentences of that difficulty and doubtfulness…
Now in such a case, doth not a margin do well to admonish the reader to seek further, and not to conclude or dogmatize upon this or that peremptorily?

KJV Preface (excerpted, emphasis mine)

Suggested Reading

Vince Beiler on the Hebrew Bible. https://anabaptistperspectives.org/series/adventures-hebrew-bible

The Translator to the Reader (KJV Preface) https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Bible_(King_James)/Preface

Dan Wallace’s comments on “Aren’t the Copies of the Bible Hopelessly Corrupt?” https://danielbwallace.com/2014/03/24/can-we-still-believe-the-bible/