Where did the bible come from?

January 20, 2013

If you ask a believer where their bible came from some may simply say “from god.”  There are almost as many various methods for explaining its transmission to humans as there are Christian denominations (according to the Center for the Study of Global Christianity (CSGC) at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, there are approximately 41,000 Christian denominations and organizations in the world).

Some Christians believe the bible is the inerrant (contains no errors/inconsistencies) and literal (for which the talking snake in Eden was a historical event, not an allegorical story) word of god.  Others would say it is “inspired” (according to itself at 2 Timothy 3:16), and these Christians generally believe at least some of the bible is allegorical, all of it is not necessarily inerrant (indeed there are numerous inconsistencies), and largely the work of human authors – though they still maintain it is “inspired” by god.

If you ask an atheist, you get similarly different answers.  Some say it is a work written by humans in order to enslave other humans (I disagree, it seems rather conspiracy theorist).  Others say it is simply ancient mythology and superstition stubbornly carried into the modern age (as anthropologist E. B. Tylor would call it, “a survival” from past times).  Some atheists share similar sentiments with some modern “liberal” Christians in saying that it is human literature, beautiful as poetry, wise (human wisdom) in ethics and to be esteemed as other human works of art or literature.

If you ask a Bible Scholar, you may get a long and boring answer full of technical phrases and methodological tangents.  Hopefully I can distill this particular perspective into a single (and hopefully brief) blog post.


Many Bible Scholars answer “where did the bible come from” in completely technical terms.  Some start with the manuscripts, others start with Wellhausen’s hypothesis (today known as the more robust, tried and tested,  “Documentary Hypothesis”).

I will start with the manuscripts.

We do not have original copies (called “autographs” in the field of Textual Criticism) of ANY book of the Hebrew bible or New Testament.  Textual Critics (a branch of Religious Studies, not to be confused for “Higher Criticism”) pore over the extant surviving manuscripts and use a variety of methods in order to try to determine which is the “best,” or closest to “original,” manuscript/reading of any given text.

Why do Textual Critics need to determine which is the best?  I’ve heard some well-meaning, though misinformed, Christians (most often those in the literalist/inerrant camp) repeat things like “the manuscripts are all miraculously 99.9% similar,” or “the Dead Sea Scrolls prove that ancient scribes were miraculously 95% accurate.”  This is often used as an argument as proof that the bible can be trusted because god magically maintained its transmission through generations.  Unfortunately for them this is simply not true.

Variant Readings: the Hebrew Bible

The extant manuscripts contain thousands of “variant readings” (a term scholars use to describe where words, spellings, or even entire passages are different from other manuscripts).   Speaking of the Hebrew Bible manuscripts, one textbook in the field described the situation by saying, “there is no single edition in existence that agrees in all its details with another one” (Tov 2012: 3).

Another expert on Hebrew Bible manuscripts discusses the differences between various “text families” or manuscript archetypes.  The Dead Sea Scrolls actually contain some of our earliest copies of the Hebrew Bible in Hebrew (the Greek Septuagint from the 2nd century BCE is next oldest, though it is not in Hebrew; and to the surprise of many laypeople the Masoretic text is much more recent, from the 9th-10th century CE, more on this in future articles).  The Dead Sea scrolls attest to variant readings that at times are more similar to the Samarian Pentateuch, the Greek Septuagint, or the proto-Masoretic text families – leading this expert to conclude “In the case of the Hebrew Bible, there are many texts and text families belonging to so many different religious communities at so many different periods of time, none of which can claim indisputable primacy or ‘first edition’ status” (Van Seters 2012: 21).  Further, “there was never an authorized, edited, canonical Urtext in antiquity,” (17), and “it is also clear that various methods of biblical interpretation practiced by the Essenes of Qumran, the Hellenistic Jews of Alexandria, the rabbis, and the Christians, could make just about any text say what they wanted it to say, with little concern for correct text.  If there was a particular verse of the Bible that created a problem in the course of religious controversy between sects, it could sometimes be adjusted by means of a simple scribal ’emendation'” (11).

Variant Readings: the New Testament

Regarding the New Testament a classic textbook laid out the situation thusly “there is no single manuscript and no one group of manuscripts that the external critic may follow mechanically.  All known witnesses of the New Testament are to a greater or lesser extant mixed texts, and even several of the earliest manuscripts are not free from egregious errors” (Metzger 2005: 343).

For the literalist/inerrant camp there is only limited comfort in the fact that the vast majority of the variant readings in the manuscripts are not “egregious errors,” rather they are minor.  Mistakes were easy afterall, ancient Greek did not use capital letters to mark a new sentence, punctuation to mark the end of a sentence, and there weren’t even any spaces between words!

A Few Statistics

How many manuscripts are there and how many differences (“variant readings”) exist between them all?  For now, let’s just consider the New Testament.  There are approximately 5,700-5,800 New Testament manuscripts in Greek and around 10,000 in Latin.  Just within the Greek manuscripts (not counting the Latin or other languages) there are between 200,000 and 400,000 variant readings!

Most of these manuscripts are very recent (time takes its toll on these poor old manuscripts).  Very few of these are complete compilations of the bible (“single codex/codices”) and even the ones that are, are missing pages/passages due to time/damage.  Out of the 72 continuous-text manuscripts only four (codices Sinaiticus, Vaticanus, Alexandrinus, and Ephraemi Rescriptus) date before the sixth century.  Some contained books we no longer include in our modern bibles (1 Clement, Epistle of Barnabas, the Didache, etc).  The other manuscripts usually contain one, some, or part of the four categories of the New Testament bible.  These are the Gospels; the Acts and Catholic or General Epistles (“Catholic Epistles” mean James, Jude, 1-2 Peter, 1-3 John); Paul’s epistles; and Revelation (Parker 2008).

Revelation’s place in many manuscripts was notoriously spotty.  It was absent from many of the oldest and best manuscripts.  When we discuss the canonization process in future articles, we will discuss why some Christians rejected the book of Revelation.

What Kind of Differences are Found in the Manuscripts?

Even the most careful scribe might lose his place from reading one manuscript and his writing on the other and misspell a word, omit a word/passage (accidentally skipping a section a common mistake called or “haplography” often caused by two lines ending with similar words/phrases called “homoeoteleuton”), or accidentally copy an entire word/sentence twice (a common mistake called “dittography”).

Intentional/Doctrinal Changes

Unfortunately for the literalist/inerrant camp, other mistakes were theologically important and some variant readings weren’t mistakes at all – and many of these made it into subsequent copies.  For instance, there were changes made to “clarify” Christology.  Early Christianity was not a unified monolithic group and some believed Jesus was simply a human who was “adopted” at his baptism (or death) as “god’s son” (Ebionites, “Adoptionists,” etc).  Others, such as Gnostic Christians believed Jesus was a man who had “the Christ” temporarily reside in his body and leave (or “forsake”) his body at death.  Other early Christians had other ideas.  During these debates, the group of Christians who survived and decided on the final form of the bible made various changes to various manuscripts to define who Jesus was and his divinity (Ehrman 2011).

Other intentional changes can be seen in entire additions of stories not in the oldest/best manuscripts which have now found their way into most bibles today (such as the Comma Johanneum [1 John 5:7-8] and the Pericope Adulterae [John 7:53-8:11]).  While early “orthodox” Christians were claiming “heretics” were corrupting the scriptures for doctrinal reasons, these “heretical” Christians were claiming the “orthodox” were likewise corrupting the scriptures.  The evidence proves that everyone, including early “orthodox” Christians, were indeed corrupting the scriptures (Metzger 2005: 265-268).

The Value for Religious Studies

Translation of a new modern bible therefore, requires the careful and hard work of Textual Critics.  Often multiple manuscripts or fragments determined to be the “earliest or best” are mixed and matched to stitch together what may be the best compromise (a process called “eclecticism”).  There will be much more in future articles regarding manuscript problems and the fascinating work of Textual Critics.

In addition to “Lower Criticism” or Text Critics (who try to piece together the earliest and best translations), for Historians of Religion and Archaeologists, the differences in manuscripts (in material/ink, paleography/writing style, and in textual variants) help us see glimpses of how Christianity developed over time.  For instance, how were manuscripts modified to address heresies in the 2nd and 3rd centuries (Gnostic, Docetic, Adoptionist Christian groups, etc)?  How were they modified to dismiss later heresies (such as the anti-Trinitarian,  Arian controversy of the 4th century)?  What books were included in early manuscripts, but not later ones, and why?

How Some Atheists are Influenced by these Facts

I must say, this was not what initially led me to become an atheist, though these facts have caused some others to become atheists/agnostics.  “Certainly,” they argue, “this is the work of humans, open to manipulation, and absolutely not inerrant.”  To be sure, knowing what I know now about the manuscripts only increases my skepticism to religious claims.  Again though, the vast majority of variant readings were minor.  These texts were generally considered sacred, so intentional slip-ups were not the norm, rather they were the exception.  Scribes made a gigantic number of mistakes, but by and large they took their jobs seriously.


On the subject of manuscripts we will consider many more things in future articles such as specific manuscripts, particular intentional variant readings, who wrote various bible books, the canonization process (which books were selected, which were omitted, and why), etc.  For now it is important to see the value of manuscript studies (for both believers and non-believers).  It is also important to know how atheists might view this data.  For some believers, the manuscripts that make up their bibles have been touted as being “miraculously accurate.”  Other believers (many in the field of Religious Studies) know this is simply untrue – this fact though, does not shake their faith.  To my fellow atheists, do not be so hasty to judge, for some believers have their reasons, excuses, and apologetics when addressing these manuscript problems, which we will get around to in future articles.

These are not the conclusions of a few “fringe” scholars.  I have not even brought up anything new or controversial from within the field.  The facts I have laid out represent the consensus of the experts.  For some kinds of believers, this may require serious attention.  For other believers, this is old news.  For atheists this may be cause for doubt.  For all of us though, this is fascinating for understanding the history of Western civilization and human culture.

References Cited

Ehrman, Bart D.

   2011.   The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture: The Effect of Early Christological Controversies on the Text of the New Testament.  Oxford University Press: New York

Metzger, Bruce M.

   2005.   The Text of the New Testament, Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration, fourth edition.  Oxford University Press: New York.

Parker, David C.

   2008.   An Introduction to the New Testament Manuscripts and their Texts.  Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, UK.

Tov, Emanuel

   2012.   Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible, third edition.  Fortress Press: Minneapolis.

Van Seters, John

   2012.   The Genealogy of the Biblical Editor, in Editing the Bible, Assessing the Task Past and Present.    Kloppenborg, John S. and Judith H. Newman eds.  Society for Biblical Literature: Atlanta.