Best of Daily Reflections: Can You Trust the Words You Read in Your Bible?
Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, To God’s holy people in Ephesus, the faithful in Christ Jesus.
The Daily Reflections are based on a commitment to the Bible as the truthful Word of God. But, sometimes you may wonder about the reliability of the Bible you use. Can you trust the words you read in your Bible? How can you have confidence that what you read in your Bible is an authentic representation of what was originally written?
In the last few years, questions like these have been asked, not just in seminary classrooms, but in popular forums as well. Certain biblical scholars have received considerable attention in the secular media because they have sought to undermine confidence in the text of the Bible. This can be worrisome to those of us who consider Scripture to be a trustworthy foundation for faith and life.
You might have full confidence in the text of Scripture when you come upon a verse like Ephesians 1:1, "Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, To God’s holy people in Ephesus, the faithful in Christ Jesus." It looks just fine in translation. But then you notice that your Bible has a note attached to the verse that reads something like "Some early manuscripts do not have in Ephesus" (NIV) or "Some manuscripts saints who are also faithful (omitting in Ephesus) (ESV)." What? Some early manuscripts of the letter we call "Ephesians" don't have the words "in Ephesus"? Does this mean this letter might not even have been written to the Ephesians? How can we have confidence in the words of this letter if we can't know whether "in Ephesus" is authentic or not?
Obviously, I can't deal with the larger issues of the reliability of the biblical text in this short reflection. A whole chapter of my book on the Gospels deals with these issues in depth. You can find this chapter on my blog. For now, let me make a couple of observations.
First, scholars don't know for sure why "in Ephesus" doesn't appear in some ancient manuscripts of the letter. It may be that Paul intended this letter for many churches, leaving a space for the names of different cities to be inserted. Thus, our ancient manuscripts reflect the original letter (without "in Ephesus") as well as the version for Ephesus (with "in Ephesus"). Or, it may be that the early church, sensing the value of the letter, turned it into a letter for all churches by removing the phrase "in Ephesus" from copies that went to other cities. In either case, the early church rightly saw that Paul's letter we know as Ephesians had broad application to all of God's people.
Second, what's most important for our purposes is the fact that we have extremely strong manuscript support for the text of Ephesians, as well as the rest of the New Testament. The uncertainties in the text are uncommon and theologically insignificant. Indeed, no major doctrine of Christianity is at risk from variations among the thousands of manuscripts of the New Testament.
In short, can you trust the words you read in your Bible? Yes, you can. In fact, we can have greater confidence in the text of Scripture than in any other ancient document, by far. God has given us in the Bible all we need to know him, to serve him, and to love him.
QUESTIONS FOR FURTHER REFLECTION: Have you ever wondered if the Bible was trustworthy? What did you do with your questions? Why do you think God allowed there to be minor variations among the thousands of biblical manuscripts?
PRAYER: Dear Lord, thank you for the trustworthiness of Scripture. Thank you for giving us such an abundance of biblical manuscripts. Thank you for scholars who labor faithfully to determine what the first manuscripts actually said. Thank you for those who translate the Scripture so accurately and beautifully into modern languages.
Help me, Lord, to have confidence in Scripture, so that I might hear what you want to say to me. Give me a discerning mind and an open heart. Amen.