Evolution of the Bible?

Friday morning I woke up, turned on my computer, looked at the news headlines and got a shock. One of the headlines read, “In Jerusalem, scholars trace Bible’s evolution.” The first two paragraphs were most unsettling:

JERUSALEM (AP) — A dull-looking chart projected on the wall of a university office in Jerusalem displayed a revelation that would startle many readers of the Old Testament: the sacred text that people revered in the past was not the same one we study today.
An ancient version of one book has an extra phrase. Another appears to have been revised to retroactively insert a prophecy after the events happened. (MATTI FRIEDMAN Associated Press The Associated Press Friday, August 12, 2011 5:38 AM EDT)

The article went on to say that this is a little-publicized project that has been going on for over 50 years at Hebrew University by orthodox Jewish scholars. At first I thought, “just more higher criticism of the Bible, same old stuff I’ve seen before.” On reading the article more carefully though, it appears that this is much more serious than I first thought. Are those scholars going to rewrite the Old Testament according to what their expertise has determined to be better ancient manuscripts?

Theologians for years have known about scribal errors which usually deal with a single letter within a word. They also have found more serious errors that are truly anomalous,which happen rarely. But when scholars add entire sections of text and replace a number of words that completely change the meaning of a text, it raises warning signals.

I think Peter must have been thinking of times like this when he wrote, “And so we have the prophetic word confirmed, which you do well to heed as a light that shines in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts” (2 Peter 1:19 NKJV). So, looking back at the many prophesies which ones would give me faith at a time like this?

There are three that I can think of:


19 And Babylon, the glory of kingdoms,
The beauty of the Chaldeans’ pride,
Will be as when God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah.
20 It will never be inhabited,
Nor will it be settled from generation to generation;
Nor will the Arabian pitch tents there,
Nor will the shepherds make their sheepfolds there.
21 But wild beasts of the desert will lie there,
And their houses will be full of owls;
Ostriches will dwell there,
And wild goats will caper there. (Isa 13:19-21 NKJV).

What is significant about this prophecy is the fact that what it says about Babylon is an accurate description of what the ancient ruins are today. It is a national historical park. No one lives there, and no one raises sheep there.


Whereas you saw the feet and toes, partly of potter’s clay and partly of iron, the kingdom shall be divided; yet the strength of the iron shall be in it, just as you saw the iron mixed with ceramic clay.  And as the toes of the feet were partly of iron and partly of clay, so the kingdom shall be partly strong and partly fragile.  As you saw iron mixed with ceramic clay, they will mingle with the seed of men; but they will not adhere to one another, just as iron does not mix with clay.” (Dan 2:41-43 NKJV).

How did Daniel know that an extremely strong empire would emerge after Greece and that in the latter part of its life it would fragment in such a way that it would never come back together again? There have been numerous attempts to unite Europe, which is that fragmented empire. and all of them have completely failed. Even though they have united in some ways, France is still France, and Germany is still Germany. Neither are they being called a united something of Europe. Each still remains fully autonomous.


Know therefore and understand,
That from the going forth of the command
To restore and build Jerusalem
Until Messiah the Prince,
There shall be seven weeks and sixty-two weeks;
The street shall be built again, and the wall,
Even in troublesome times.
26 “ And after the sixty-two weeks
Messiah shall be cut off, but not for Himself;
And the people of the prince who is to come
Shall destroy the city and the sanctuary.
The end of it shall be with a flood,
And till the end of the war desolations are determined. (Dan 9:25-26 NKJV)

Luke in his Gospel pinpoints the anointing of Jesus to within one year of this prophecy (Luke 3:1-2). Furthermore, the prophecy foretells Christ’s sacrifice three and a half years later and then, finally, the destruction of Jerusalem.

What is significant about these prophesies is that all of them are found in the Dead Sea Scrolls which date Isaiah to at least 100 BC and Daniel to at least 150 BC. Besides that, they are, for all intents and purposes, the same that we have in our Bibles today. Even if one wishes to conclude a late authorship some time before the second century BC, the fact that these prophecies have been fulfilled and are still holding to this day is undeniable.

To illustrate the incredibly low probability of this happening by chance, consider the compound pendulum. Anyone who has seen a clock that has an object swinging back and forth in it knows what a pendulum is. It is that swinging object. Now, if you attached another pendulum to the bottom of that pendulum you would have a compound pendulum. The thing about compound pendulums is that no matter how consistent you are in starting it swinging, by about the second swing its motion is different than the previous times you started it. The instruction is clear, a little tiny change in the beginning means a great big change at the end. This theme has been exploited in many movies that dealt with time travel and usually ends up with a paradox. If you change something that prevents you from being born, then how can you be alive to go back in time?

This is why meteorologists have an immensely difficult time accurately predicting weather beyond a few days. So, if the Bible is only a literary work that has been manipulated through history, how could these prophets predict precisely what was going to happen over 2000 years in the future? (Or even 200 years in the future, for that matter.)



Evolution of the Bible? — 17 Comments

  1. Should we be surprised? Should we be alarmed?

    If we believed that God inspired every word in the Bible, the answer would be Yes to both questions. But Adventists understand that God inspired the persons who wrote the text of the Bible, and those persons used their words, as well as sources they deemed suitable.

    So how do we harmonize the fact that there were various versions of manuscripts, only some of which were eventually included in the Bible, with our understanding of inspiration?

    Did God inspire only the original writers, or did He also inspire the editors?


    (If you have access to Handbook of the Bible, be Lee J. Gugliotto, Review and Herald Pub Assn, 1995, you can find a couple fascinating chapters that bear on the topic: Chapter 9 - "Informed Sources" and Chapter 13 - "Is the King James the Most Accurate Version of the New Testament?" The latter examines the history of the Old Testament canon, among other things. Following chapters deal with the New Testament text.)

    • I don't have access to the book, but I'd be curious to know, does Mr. Gugliotto believes the KJV is the most accurate version of the New Testament ... or the Old Testament, for that matter, or does he confirm my research that it, indeed, is not? Thanks.

      • Carolyn, The last paragraph of the section titled, "The Development of Text Types" I think sums up his conclusion.
        "A host of independent Bible translations have come about as a result of the textual revolution, yet they all have one thing in common. In departing from the Textus Receptus and turning to texts that are closer to the originals, text-critical versions of the Bible have dramatically improved on the accuracy of the King James Version of the New Testament." (Gugliotto, Lee J. Handbook for Bible Study : A Guide to Understanding, Teaching, and Preaching the Word of God. electronic ed. Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 2001, c2000, 1995.)

      • You have the right to your opinion, Dale, but have you really considered its implications? For me, at least, this one really doesn't work. Here's why:

        When I come to prayerful Bible study, it's vitally important to me that I be able to distinguish between what has authority and what doesn't. I think you can see how intolerable it would be if I were to bind myself to accepting every detail of a particular Bible translation, without allowing myself to compare translations. This would greatly hinder my quest for truth. Therefore it is essential for me to recognise that the Bible translators were not inspired in the same sense as the Bible writers themselves.

        Before carrying out this line of reasoning any further, I need a higher standard than my own opinion in order to determine where the Bible's authority actually lies. II Peter 1:20-21 answers this for me. The Holy Spirit moved upon holy men of God to write the Holy Scriptures. This is the only positive guidance I have, so now I know where to draw the line -- once certain questions of fact have been answered, such as, Did the Bible writers include the punctuation that we see in modern editions of the Greek New Testament? (The answer to that one is No.)

        The original writings are where the authority lies. Yes, we only have copies of copies, and there are bound to be copying errors. Thankfully, God has preserved the Scriptures to the point where no such errors are going to seriously affect the sincere and obedient seeker for truth.

        So, no particular translation has any authority beyond the original-language text upon which it is based. No original-language edition has any authority beyond the manuscripts upon which it is based. If we have the interest to go back and look at the Greek New Testament (which I personally have found very helpful, thanks to interlinear translations, lexicons, etc.), paragraphs, punctuation, capitalization, etc. have no authority at all -- only the actual words. Knowing this is immensely helpful, for instance, in interpreting the words of Christ to the thief on the cross.

        I hope that my pointing out these facts will not unduly unsettle anyone. God watches over His word, and He will lend aid to the sincere seeker who desires it. He has no intention of leaving us in doubt and uncertainty. Nevertheless, I find that Bible study works a lot better if I know where the authority actually lies, and where it doesn't.

        P.S. It occurs to me that someone might ask the Question: Why didn't God just preserve the "autographs" for us, so we could have an error-free original source? My understanding is that it wouldn't have worked. The inspired thoughts of the Bible writers were perfect, but the writers themselves, and the human languages which they were obliged to use, were not. So, even the Bible, as it came from the pens of the inspired writers, was not absolutely perfect, as far as the human element is concerned. So we purists (you know who you are) are just going to have to be happy with what we have. Remember, it's the voice of God to your soul. What more could you ask?

        • While I agree with you in principle, I can't help but believe that there would be no point in God inspiring the original writers if then the ensuing scribes, translators, editors, etc. down through the ages were not also under God's scrutiny and guidance. Unless, of course, we want to believe that God intended the message to only go to the audience within the authors' immediate time and place. And no Christian is going to accept that belief! So, therefore, since God knew we would be reading many-times-removed-copied material, my point is that if we believe that God inspired the original authors, we must also believe that he, even if you don't want to call it "inspiration", must at least believe that he diligently protected the writings so that their original intent ... salvation of mankind ... was preserved intact. Period. Now our part is to not get hung up on the gnats (i.e. human limitations of language, likelihood of copy error or phrases added or deleted in certain manuscripts, etc.) while high-stepping over the camels (i.e. the KJV is the only correct version, all other Bible translations are inferior, even to the point of assigning ulterior motives to certain translators, etc.).

          • Carolyn, kindly reread my post. "God watches over His word, and He will lend aid to the sincere seeker who desires it." As for why it makes a difference what one calls "inspiration," well, it's a matter of authority, without which the Bible would be just another book.

      • If you mean editors in the sense of giving us the copy of the Bible we have - Ezra being an obvious example - I would agree. If you mean modern editors and translators, I am not sure I would be able to agree with that.

        The further back you go, the more variation there is in the manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible. It obviously didn't bother them then any more than the variety of modern versions bothers most of us now. They all say basically the same thing. But starting a little before the time of Jesus there seems to have been a movement within (parts of??) Judaism to establish an authoritative text. The result, eventually, was our Massoretic text. Apart from a *very* few places where the text is obviously not what was originally written (because it doesn't make sense) there are no examples where pre-Massoretic texts would lead to any different doctrines than we have now. I think that is what we can rely on: the message of the Bibles we have to day is essentially the same as that of the original manuscripts. Given the time involved, surely God must have been at work throughout the process.

        • Well said, Kevin. As for the Greek text of the New Testament, we certainly know that the (Textus Receptus) edition of Elzevir corrected many errors in the text, so that Tyndale was able to give us an English translation significantly superior to what Wyclif had been able to do. Had the earlier editors been inspired, in the fullest sense, then there should have been no errors for Elzevir to correct.

          God undoubtedly has had His hand in preserving the Bible for us, to where we have a very good idea of what was originally written. Nevertheless, if we are to make the best use of what we have, we need to know what is sacred -- the actual text as best it can be determined -- and what we may feel free to disregard, as necessary -- the often differing decisions of modern editors and translators. We do this instinctively when we compare different translations and choose which one we think best gives the true meaning of a particular passage. Guided by the Holy Spirit, comparing Scripture with Scripture, and consulting one another, we may safely do this, IMHO.

          • I'm no authority on the superiority of one biblical text over another. But I do know that the "textus receptus" has no particular claim of superiority. As I understand it the Elzevir text, being mainly a re-publication of Erasmus's text (dedicated to Pope Leo X, the pope who later condemned Luther and the Reformation) does not differ greatly from the the original Erasmus manuscript. And we know that Erasmus translated from the Latin to the Greek when he lacked Greek manuscripts, in order to come up with a complete Greek manuscript.

            Since then much earlier manuscripts were discovered. And the remarkable thing about all this is that the later manuscripts, while they differ from the older ones, do not differ in ways that substantially change the meaning of the older ones.

            I'm uneasy with language such as "original autographs," because we know that there were many versions of biblical manuscripts extant before the canon of the Old Testament was decided. Same seems to be true of the New Testament.

            What that means, in essence, is that any argument over specific words, prepositions, phrases, etc. is an exercise in futility. God did not inspire the words, phrases or sentences. He inspired the writers who wrote things in their own words. And I believe He guarded this written testimony in such a way that those who would honestly seek Him would not be led astray. We can have confidence in His leading, because the Holy Spirit who inspired the Scriptures is the very same Holy Spirit who interprets these Scriptures to the individual believer.

            Those who quibble over wording and single texts are missing the big picture and may, indeed, miss the message God intends to communicate through His Word.

  2. Inge, your last paragraph ("Those who quibble over wording and single texts are missing the big picture and may, indeed, miss the message God intends to communicate through His Word.") sums it up very well. A hearty AMEN!

  3. Thank you, Inge. It was my mistake. I was referring to The Great Controversy, but I misquoted it. I did not mean to refer to Elzevir, but rather Erasmus. His substantial improvements to the text enabled a much better English translation, in the days of Tyndale, than what had PREVIOUSLY been available. Nor did I intend to imply that either Erasmus or the Textus Receptus necessarily enjoys any particular superiority over later editions. My point had only to do with the historical fact that Erasmus had made a huge improvement, at the time, by correcting "many errors" in the text. Therefore, modern editors of the text cannot be considered "inspired," in the fullest sense. Otherwise, those "many errors" should not have existed. I had no intention of making an argument in favour of one currently available edition over another. I certainly DID mean to say that we are not necessarily obliged to follow any particular edition or translation, nor even all of them -- if together we can establish that they are all making the same mistake. (The thief on the cross comes to mind here.)

    As you have pointed out, even the original words of the prophets and apostles, being human, were not absolutely perfect. Just the same, I certainly would never dare to suggest that there could have been actual errors on the part of the Bible writers.

    I am slightly puzzled to understand your intended meaning, when you speak of quibbling over wording. I agree that there is always the danger of not seeing the forest for the trees, if we miss the big picture that can be obtained by comparing Scripture with Scripture. On the other hand, there is an opposite potential pitfall if we fail to give every word its proper weight, thus not living by "every word." God has made some of us more "detail oriented" than others. I believe that this is an example of why the body of Christ has more than one member. I don't see how we can fulfill God's purpose for us, as a people, by putting down one another's personality.

    We are promised the wisdom of the Spirit, in every situation, provided that we sincerely desire to please God, render obedience to His word, and benefit our fellow man -- especially each other.

  4. "What that means, in essence, is that any argument over specific words, prepositions, phrases, etc. is an exercise in futility."

    Not to be too tedious, Inge, I see your point -- but only to a point. I have not personally found the Bible so messed up, through copying and recopying, as to make it useless to attempt to go into any detail. Moreover, if the writer had an idea straight from God, I am very interested to know exactly what he or she had to say. Of course, any argument concerning specific words, phrases, etc. must be backed up by (or at least highly consistent with) other Scriptures. It also helps if it is consistent in a variety of translations, or at least well supported in the original tongue. However, I (regretfully) cannot concur that this is necessarily always an exercise in futility. I find the mere mental recognition of the imperfections of human language and logic, as well as the probability of copying errors, to be a sufficient caveat to allow me to go on LARGELY as if I were reading an (English language) autograph, provided that I am using one of the more serious translations. I feel that God has preserved His word that well, although I'd probably be hard pressed to account for that sense, much less defend it. Nevertheless, this is my personal testimony. Come to think of it, how else could I take the Bible as the voice of God to my soul?

  5. Der R.G., I think I may have not made myself clear, so I will try again:

    The Holy Spirit inspired the original writers who wrote in their own words. These messages were transmitted by human agents in various forms, all bearing the message, but in different words. (Even before Christ there were various versions, as there are Bible versions today.)

    The Holy Spirit who inspired the writers has protected the transmission of the message, so the message remains essentially the same. The same Holy Spirit speaks to us through these words so we receive the message He intends. So, yes, indeed, the Bible is reliable as the Word of God to all who submit themselves to the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

    And not all Bible reading is profitable. It is possible to read/study the Bible, without submission to the Holy Spirit, in order to win an argument. Such study is of no benefit and may even lead to error. Arguing over the "original autograph" or words or phrases, without submitting to the Spirit, may also be dangerous and lead to unbelief or false beliefs. I've seen it happen.

  6. We should not confuse two things: 1) the accuracy of transmission of the words of the Bible; and 2) the accuracy of transmission of the message. I have read a couple of sceptics who claim that with all the copying of various versions we cannot be sure what the Bible actually says. It is hard to find a reputable theologian or historian who agrees with them.

    None of the variation changes a single Christan doctrine. I don't believe any Jewish belief is under question either. What is affected is a few numbers, some names, and a few details. In some cases the argument over Hebrew words or verb forms will not even show up in translation. Even the rare case where words have been lost and then restored has added nothing at all to our knowledge. The main benefit is that Hebrew students now find the verse/s easier to translate.

    To check the accuracy of transmission of the words is simple: you compare the copies to the autographs. If you have no autographs, you cannot claim any word is exactly what was written by the author. But, until we find a copy of the Bible that differs substantially from the rest, I believe we can claim the message is authentic and accurately trransmitted. Do we really need anything more?


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