Tired of seeing ads while studying? Now you can enjoy an "Ads Free" version of the site for as little as 10¢ a day and support a great cause!
Click here to learn more!

Bible Dictionaries

Holman Bible Dictionary

Bible, Texts and Versions

The preservation and transmission of the Bible from the time that it was written until the present involves two areas of study. The study of the process by which the documents (66 in all) were written, used, collected into groups, and elevated to the authoritative place that they occupy today is called the study of the canon. The other is the process of preserving in writing and translations the text of the documents. This is the study of text and versions.

There are two periods in the history of the text of the Bible. The first is from the time the documents were written until the time of printing (A.D. 1453). The second is from that date until the present. The invention of printing was very important for the transmission of the text of the Bible. Before that date, the only way that a person could have a copy of any written work was to make a copy (or have it made) by hand, letter by letter. This was slow and often expensive. Some have calculated that the cost of one complete Bible made by a professional scribe in the fourth century would equal the salary of a member of the Roman legion for forty years. Certainly not every church, let alone every Christian, could afford to have a copy of the Scriptures.

The Period of the Handwritten Text The story of the Bible is really the story of two Testaments, the Old and the New. The story came together for Christians in the second century A.D., when the Christian writings began to be equated with the Hebrew Scriptures and thus published side by side as the Christian Scriptures. Even then, however, the history of the text used by Christians differed some from the text used and preserved by Jews.

1. Old Testament Text and Versions. The difficulty of tracing the history of the Old Testament text is the scarcity of manuscripts that go back beyond the ninth and tenth century. One reason for this scarcity is the practice by Jewish scribes of burying old manuscripts in a storehouse called a genizah and then destroying these manuscripts. The text from that period is called the Masoretic Text because it derives from the work of a group of Hebrew scribes known as Masoretes, whose work spans the time from A.D. 500 to 1000. The manuscripts used most frequently in editing the Old Testament today are of this variety.

Textual scholars use several tools to trace the text behind the Masoretic Text. One is the Samaritan Pentateuch . This refers to the text of the first five books of the Old Testament as it was preserved among the Samaritans after their separation from Judah about 400 B.C. until the present. This text is preserved in Israel today by a few hundred Samaritans who still live at Nablus (near Mt. Gerazim where their ancient temple stood, John 4:20 ) and just south of Tel Aviv. The importance of this text is that it was preserved independently of the Masoretic text even though the oldest copies in existence were not made until the eleventh century. Only in a few instances do scholars think that the Samaritan Pentateuch preserves readings superior to the Masoretic text.

Another tool to trace the history behind the Masoretic text is the Aramaic paraphrases of the Old Testament known as the Targums . They originated because the Jews in the synagogues in the Middle East could not understand the Hebrew Scripture. Someone stood alongside the reader of the text (read in Hebrew) and recited Aramaic paraphrases, which in time became stereotyped. The earliest of these to be written down came before the time of Christ (a fragment of a Targum on Job was discovered among the Dead Sea Scrolls in the eleventh cave from Qumran). Most of the manuscripts of the Targums originated 500 to 1000 A.D. Because they are paraphrases and not strict translations, the Targums are more of interest for determining Jewish doctrine in the time of their origin than for determining the early stages of the text of the Old Testament.

A much more important source for textual history is the Septuagint . This is a Greek translation of the Old Testament made from about 250 to 100 B.C. or shortly thereafter. It was made in Alexandria, Egypt, to meet the needs of Jews and others who wanted to read the Old Testament but lacked the facility to read Hebrew. The Septuagint represents an official translation which likely replaced a variety of earlier unofficial translations. Basic problems in using a translation to seek to study the earlier wording of the Hebrew text are: the difficulty of determining the exact readings of the Hebrew text(s) used by the original translators because of the innate differences in all languages, the difficulties in establishing the original readings of the Greek translation by studying the many manuscripts of it, and uncertainty concerning the quality of the translation itself. Nevertheless, the Septuagint does preserve some readings (especially in Exodus, Samuel, and Jeremiah) that appear to be superior to the Masoretic text. Some of them are supported by copies of the Hebrew texts found at Qumran. There are other Greek translations of the Old Testament made by Jews to replace the Septuagint. The two most famous were made in the second century A.D. by Aquila and Theodotion.

The most important source for textual information beyond the Masoretic Text is the Dead Sea Scrolls . Most of these were discovered in the caves by the wadi Qumran on the shores of the Dead Sea beginning in 1947. Others were found further south in the wilderness of Judea and at Masada. The oldest copies of Old Testament Scriptures found in these discoveries are manuscripts written in the second century before Christ. They are over a thousand years older than the basic manuscripts of the Masoretic texts. They represent the remains of a library of a group of separatist Jews who lived in the caves in the area and worked in a type of monastery. Along with Old Testament manuscripts, the caves preserved documents written by the participants in the community and their founders. Biblical manuscripts have been found containing fragments or complete copies from every book of the Old Testament except Esther. The scrolls from Qumran do differ from the Masoretic text in some places (1375 places in Isaiah), but most are insignificant.

Other versions of the Old Testament such as the Syriac, Old Latin, the Latin Vulgate, etc. can be used, but none of these yield many significant variants from the Masoretic texts. The copies of the Hebrew Bible available today are the work of very careful Hebrew scribes. Though there are variations, the text of the Hebrew Bible is essentially as it existed in the time before Christ. The early Christians had access to either the Hebrew text or to the Septuagint. When the Septuagint was no longer used by the Jews (about A.D. 90), it was preserved by the Christians and used by them. About half of the Old Testament quotes in Paul are from the Septuagint as are almost all of the quotes in 1Peter, James, and Hebrews. The famous Latin Vulgate of Jerome contained the books in the Septuagint not found in the Hebrew Bible plus 2Esdras. These are called the Apocrypha. They were relegated to an appendix by Martin Luther and most Protestants today.

2. New Testament Text and Versions. From near the middle of the second century on most Christians equated many Christian writings with the Scriptures of the Jews. The term “Old Testament,” implying a “New Testament,” was first used by Christians in A.D. 187. These writings were preserved at first mostly on papyrus, a form of paper made from the papyrus plant which grew in the Nile Delta. It was perishable, and very few copies survived. In 1976, only 88 separate fragments of papyrus New Testament manuscripts were known. Few of them contain in their present state more than a part of a single page of text. The original papyrus manuscripts contained only portions of the New Testament, such as the Gospels and Acts or Paul's letters or the Revelation or some or all of the General Epistles. The earliest of these date from the second and third centuries. During that period the New Testament did not circulate as a single volume. Apparently all New Testament manuscripts so far discovered were made in the leaf form of books, not on rolls.

The New Testament circulated as a single volume in the time of the great parchment manuscripts. Parchment was made from the skins of animals. The earliest of these to contain the New Testament also contain the Old Testament (in the form of the Septuagint with the outside books) and other Christian writings such as 1,2Clement or The Shepherd of Hermas and the Letter of Barnabas. The earliest of these were written in the middle of the fourth century.

Not only manuscripts written in Greek, the language of the New Testament, but also Christian writings which quote from the Greek New Testament furnish evidence for the text of the New Testament. However, some of the Christian “fathers” were very loose in their quotes or quoted from faulty memories. Another factor is that not all the writings were preserved carefully.

Another major source of information about the text of the New Testament is the versions. From the very beginning of the Christian story, translation has been an essential part of the process. We have less than a dozen words of Jesus preserved in Aramaic, the language which He spoke. Hence, almost all that he said was translated into Greek before it was written down. The accusation written over the cross was written in the three languages used in Palestine: Latin, Hebrew (probably Aramaic), and Greek. When the Christians, fleeing from the persecution in which Stephen died, arrived in Antioch, they needed to use Syriac to evangelize the surrounding areas. By the middle of the second century, extensive efforts had been made to translate all the Scriptures into the Old Latin and Syriac. From the third century on followed translations into the various dialects of the Egyptian languages, the languages of Armenia, Georgia, Ethiopia, Arabia, Nubia, and the areas of Europe.

In the West, Latin became the major language of the church. The Latin Vulgate, produced about 400 A.D. by Jerome, became the Bible of the Latin Church. Among the Eastern Orthodox, Greek remained the official language of the Scriptures. Thus during the long period from 400 to 1500, most New Testament Greek manuscripts used the official text of the Orthodox Church. Hence, today most Greek New Testament manuscripts are of the type designated as Byzantine, Ecclesiastical, Koine , Standard, or Eastern. The earlier and (for most scholars) the most reliable ones are of the Alexandrian (also called Neutral, Egyptian, and African) type. When the printers in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries looked for manuscripts from which to edit the earliest printed Greek New Testaments, all that they could find were those of the Byzantine type. Since then, the process of discovery and editing of manuscripts has brought to light over 5,300 handwritten copies of all or part of the New Testament. The process of editing and utilizing all of this material in producing the earliest possible text for readers today is the task of textual criticism. It is a painstaking job done mostly by scholars in the universities, colleges, seminaries, and Bible societies. As always, a major impetus for this work is missionary. Without textual criticism no modern Bibles in any language would be possible.

The Printed Bible The significance of the printing of the Gutenberg Bible for Bible distribution is impossible to overestimate. From that time on, producing large numbers of copies of written documents that were identical in every detail was possible. From that time on, a steady stream of Bibles has poured from presses around the world. Simply to list and give a very brief description of all of the English editions of the Bible since that time requires a book of over 500 pages.

Over twenty major editions of the English New Testament appeared before the Hampton Court Conference in which King James approved the project that produced the KJV. Most of these and also the KJV were little more than revisions of the work of William Tyndale. Estimates of the per cent of Tyndale's New Testament in the KJV New Testament run as high as nine-tenths of the actual wording. Even so, the KJV was a magnificent achievement and did much not only for Bible reading in the English world but for the stability and beauty of the English language. Much of the wording of the KJV has been preserved also in the revisions of it in the Revised Version (1881), American Standard Version (1901 and later), the Revised Standard Version (1947 and later), and the New Revised Standard Version.

There are three reasons why no translation in any language will ever be completely satisfactory for the people of succeeding generations. 1) All languages are in a constant state of change. The study of editions of English dictionaries only twenty years old will demonstrate such change. The word “prevent” in 1 Thessalonians 4:15 of the KJV did not mean to “hinder” in 1611 as it does today. It meant simply “to precede.” 2) The text of the Greek New Testament during the time of the KJV rested on less than a dozen manuscripts, the oldest of which was twelfth century. There are known today more than 5,300, the earliest of which dates from the second century—a thousand years older. 3) In a world where communication between all cultures has become not only possible but an absolute necessity, the art of translation has been greatly improved. The discovery of tens of thousands of documents from the Hellenistic Greek period has provided enormous resources for the translators. These furnish vastly improved understanding of the meanings of not only words but all sorts of expressions.

The need to speak the message of the Bible in clear and understandable modern language has never been greater. The missionary demand of Jesus requires that the process of translation go forward in all languages in which those for whom Christ died daily seek to communicate. Modern versions such as the New English Bible, the Good News Bible, and the New International Version are essential to the present missionary task. The work of trained translators, such as those who work with missionaries, is also essential. The number of languages that have received Scripture is now over 1900, but the goal must be to include eventually every dialect of the human race.

Carlton L. Winberry

Copyright Statement
These dictionary topics are from the Holman Bible Dictionary, published by Broadman & Holman, 1991. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Broadman & Holman.

Bibliography Information
Butler, Trent C. Editor. Entry for 'Bible, Texts and Versions'. Holman Bible Dictionary. 1991.

Search for…
Enter query in the box below:
Choose a letter to browse: