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Oral Transmissions of Religious Accounts Have Safeguards to Ensure Accuracy

I have heard people say they are suspicious about the accuracy of traditions that are passed down by word-of-mouth. Anyone familiar with the “telephone” game knows that in any given crowd if one person passes a sentence to another person and so forth, that the resulting sentence by the 10th or 20th person sometimes bears no resemblance to the original.  By this reasoning a lot of people have discounted ancient oral traditions as being unreliable.

The passing of oral tradition, in reality however, usually came with stringent safeguards. Nicholas Wade, in his book, The Faith Instinct, says,

“there are two reasons why some hunter gatherer religions may still reflect the ancient forms.

One is that many preliterate or primitive peoples place great importance on carrying out rites exactly as their forebears did. The justification of their rituals is that this is how they have always been performed. So religious practice is handed on with as much fidelity as possible. Among the Klamath and Modoc Indians of the northwest coast of America, certain myths may be recited only in the presence of three people who know the story, and can check the rendition for accuracy, and the myths may not be told by children less they garble them. These rules are reported to keep the myths intact over many generations.”[i]

(It is important to note the word myth as used here means “traditional story, account, or history” as opposed to the other meaning of myth which is “a false belief”.)

This is very insightful.  Kids aren’t even allowed to recite the traditional accounts.  When the accounts are recited by adults a number of others have to be present to ensure the accuracy the recital.  This looks like pretty good security.  This practice is not new; it is ages old.

I find this very reassuring.  Sure, unchecked retelling of events is going to get garbled as it passes from person to person, but I always thought it was foolish to think that people didn’t realize this and put safeguards in place to ensure accuracy.

Wades insights about how modern tribes ensure accuracy shows that oral traditions can be reliably transmitted.

[i] The Faith Instinct, Nicholas Wade, The Penguin Press, London, p. 99

October 2nd, 2014 Posted by | Biblical Translation And Interpretation | no comments

Codex Sinaiticus, World’s Oldest Bible, Available Online

Would it surprise you to know that the bible read in the fourth century was not the same as the modern bible?  Most of it is the same, but there are some surprising differences. Codex Sinaiticus is called the world’s oldest bible (earlier manuscripts were probably burned by persecuting Romans, or simply didn’t survive the ages.)   As such it gives us an amazing insight into what the bible was and how it has changed since then.  And it is available online at http://www.codexsinaiticus.org/en/manuscript.aspx.

But first a definition is in order. What is a codex?  A codex is a stack of pages bound together in a manner similar to the modern book form.  This is, of course, different from the roll form of document used in Hebrew worship.  Christians were among the first to use this style of document making.[i]

Codex Sinaiticus dates back to the 4th century. It is thought to be one of the 50 copies of the Bible commissioned to Eusebius by Constantine about 332 A.D.[ii] (Similarly, codex Vaticanus is thought to be another of the copies although it is not as complete.)[iii]

One of the first things you notice about this “bible” is that books are not exactly the same as modern versions, and the order is not the same.  The Pauline Epistles with Hebrews are between the Gospels and Acts.[iv] The Shepard of Hermas and The Gospel of Barnabas are listed after Revelation.[v] Glancing through the whole book you will find that the order of the books differs dramatically from the current order standard throughout both the Old and New Testaments.

The Shepard of Hermas was used as scripture by Iranaeus, Tertullain, Clement of Alexandria, and Origen.  The Gospel of Barnabas was called “catholic” by Origen, and Clement of Alexandria wrote a commentary on it.[vi]

The differences between Codex Sinaiticus and modern Greek texts are not just in the New Testament.  Sinaiticus includes 2 Esdras, Tobit, Judith, 1 & 4 Maccabees, Wisdom and Sirach, which now are part of what is now called the Apochrypha, but that distinction did not exist then.  In Old Testament times there is no evidence that there was any concept of a bible as a complete set of collection of authorized books, rather there were individual “books”, which in the Greek is “biblion”.  These were individually recognized as part of the Law and the prophets.  In ancient times this collection of books was called “ta biblia” (“the books”) which Latin speaking Christians shortened to the singular, the book or Bible.[vii]

Codex Sinaiticus is recognized as part of the Alexandrian family of texts.  It does not have some of the errors of the Received Text.  For example, compare these readings from Codex Sinaiticus with the forgeries talked about in Examples of Scribal Forgeries in the Bible:

and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one. (Matthew 6:13)[viii]

And he said to them: This kind can come out by nothing but by prayer. (Mark 9:29)

[no verse] (Matthew 17:21)

[no verse] (Mark 16:9-20)

In these lay a multitude of sick persons, blind, lame, withered. (John 5:3, verse 4 is missing)

John 7:53 to 8:11 is missing

It is amazing to me that it took centuries for scholars to get the accepted text back to a form closer to Codex Sinaiticus.  In fairness, it wasn’t available to Erasmus and his successors when they first tried reconstructing a reliable Greek New Testament.  It was found in the late 18th century at the monastery of St Catherine in Sinai, hence the name “Sinaiticus”.

As far as Matthew 28:19, the reading is the full Trinitarian formula:

Go, make disciples of all nations, baptizing them into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. (Matthew 28:19)

Codex Sinaiticus is a fascinating bible.  I believe the above examples show that it is a better text than those used for the Received Text.  The order that the books are presented suggests loudly, to me at least, that the order of the books has been an arbitrary decision all along.  And likewise the additional books in both the Old and New Testaments, I think,  are a protest to the divine status given to the creation of the canon, as opposed to the divine “thus spake the Lord” terminology much more easily seen in and/or concerning the individual books of the Law and the Prophets.

[i] THE MAKING OF THE NEW TESTAMENT, Origin, Collection, Text & Canon, Arthur G. Patzia, InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, Illinois, 1995, p. 118-119
[ii] THE CANON OF THE NEW TESTAMENT, Bruce M. Metzger, Clarendon Paperbacks, Oxford, 1997, ISBN 0-19-826954-4, p. 207
[iii] ibid.
[iv] THE CANON OF THE NEW TESTAMENT, p. 295
[v] THE CANON OF THE NEW TESTAMENT, Bruce M. Metzger, Clarendon Paperbacks, Oxford, 1997, ISBN 0-19-826954-4, p. 65
[vi] THE CANON OF THE NEW TESTAMENT, p. 188
[vii] THE BOOKS AND THE PARCHMENTS, F F Bruce, Fleming H Revell Company, 1962, p. 11
[viii] This and all the readings are found on the website at http://www.codexsinaiticus.org/en/manuscript.aspx

© copyright 2011 Mark W Smith, All rights reserved.

April 17th, 2011 Posted by | Biblical Translation And Interpretation | no comments

More Manuscript Basics; Who, What, Where, and How Variant Readings are Evaluated and Rated

In More Manuscript Basics; Using a Textual Commentary, I discussed how the bible was transmitted up to the point where Greek New Testament editions were created, starting with Erasmus up until recent editions by the United Bible Society.  We finished by looking at an example of a textual variant in a textual commentary.

Next we will look the criteria that are used to determine which manuscript readings are preferable over others.

The most basic rule if we just had one simple series of copies would be that the oldest is the most reliable.  But that is not what actually pans out as scholars have discovered that sometimes a somewhat younger copy is actually a better choice if it is a reliable copy of an older copy than the oldest copy we have.  And as we saw in the last article, we have to account for the different families of texts, and how they have different tendencies that affect accuracy.  The Alexandrian is considered the most accurate, and the Byzantine is probably considered the least accurate family of text.  A younger Alexandrian text may be more reliable than an older Byzantine text because of the Byzantine family’s tendency to allow more scribal insertions.

Then there is the issue of early church father’s writings.  Sometimes they seem to be considered, and others, not.

So how are variant readings evaluated to get back to the original writing of the text?

The first thing you have to know is that is not an exact science. It is really based upon probabilities.  For example, since the Alexandrian family of texts have the least scribal additions, then it’s probable that an Alexandrian manuscript will be more accurate than a Byzantine text.  But it’s not guaranteed.  In the end, there is a certain amount of educated guessing on some variants.

Bruce Metzger includes the following observations about considering variants:

  • Every variant reading has to be considered by itself. In other words, just because other variants in the manuscript seem to be best served by using the Alexandrian reading does not mean that the one you are currently looking at does.
  • Manuscripts, in general, have less errors the older they are
    • besides the age of the document, the degree of care by this particular scribe, as well as the general condition of the type of text must be considered
    • Newer manuscripts can be more reliable than older ones if they are very good copies of even older manuscripts.
  • The more widespread the variant is in the different families of manuscripts, the greater the probability that it is accurate
    • The exception is that sometimes manuscripts in diverse geographical areas are really dependent on a common influence, for example, Tatian’s Diatesseron.
  • The total number of manuscripts supporting a variant does not count that much as it is possible that a great number of manuscripts may be copies of one single earlier manuscript.
  • Rather than use a count system, manuscripts are weighted in comparison.  For example, manuscripts that give a clearer reading should be weighted higher manuscripts with ambiguous or uncertain readings.
  • Generally more difficult to read variants are considered more accurate than variants with a smoother style as a known error made by scribes was to change the text to make it more readable. Obviously this would have exceptions, a single or relatively small number of difficult variants might be the result of a single scribal error in an earlier manuscript.
  • Shorter readings are probably more accurate than longer ones, except where homoeoarcton and homoeoteleution may have occurred or where the scribe may have deliberately omitted material that he considered objectionable. A scribe might object to something that looked to him that it had been added, changed, or was an obvious theological error in his mind.
  • Since it is a known, widespread scribal error to try to harmonize parallel passages, a variant in that situation that is the least harmonious should at least be considered as the most accurate.
  • The variant that is most consistent with the context of the text and the style of the author is likely to be given more weight.
  • The Gospels have a unique set of factors that must be considered:
    • the Aramaic background of Jesus’s teaching
    • the priority of the gospel of Mark
    • “the influence of the Christian community upon the formulation and transmission of the passage in question”[i]

Again, Metzger’s textual commentary, A TEXTUAL COMMENTARY ON THE GREEK NEW TESTAMENT, goes into more detail on these factors in the Introduction and I highly recommend getting the book to get a better understanding.  This article just gives an overview of this tedious and complex process.


[i] A TEXTUAL COMMENTARY ON THE GREEK NEW TESTAMENT, Bruce M Metzger, United Bible Societies, London New York, 1975 , p. xxviii

© copyright 2011 Mark W Smith, All rights reserved.

April 1st, 2011 Posted by | Biblical Translation And Interpretation | no comments