A Question I Was Asked:

Are the 'Older' Bible Texts Necessarily Better?

The Question:

Some newer translations of the Bible will occasionally state such things as "these verses are not found in the oldest manuscripts," but can we assume that those older manuscripts are more reliable?

UK Apologetics Reply:

In a single word, no.

Some newer translations - in the interests of 'arming' the reader with as much knowledge as possible, will indeed make such comments but those comments are not necessarily always helpful. For example, the inference might be taken that if certain verses do not appear in "the oldest manuscripts" they (those verses) must be considered suspect - but such is not always the case.

So we are primarily discussing the New Testaments texts here.

Sinaiticus and Vaticanus are considered by most Bible scholars to be among the oldest New Testament manuscripts available. They date back to the 4th century. Since they are considered to be the oldest manuscripts known, many scholars (though not all) automatically consider them to be the best and most reliable manuscripts. For example, in the NIV (1978 ed.) just after Mark 16:8 we find this text, "The two most reliable early manuscripts do not have Mark 16:9-20." And what are these two most reliable manuscripts that they are talking about? Very likely the Sinaiticus and Vaticanus. These are pretty substantial texts, but there are earlier ones, though they are much smaller and incomplete. They are:

  1. The Chester Beatty Papyrus II, possibly the single earliest piece of the New Testament known to exist. This contains most of Paul's letters copied circa AD 100.
  2. The John Rylands Manuscript containing part of the Gospel of John and copied circa AD130. It can be found in the John Rylands Library of Manchester, England.

Of the larger texts,

Of course, there are still further texts:

The Bodmer Papyri and Bodmer Papyri II are manuscripts thought to date from AD150 to 200. These comprise various parts of the New Testament, and were discovered in Egypt. Other significant collections include the Codex Alexandrinus which is an Egyptian text circa AD 450, the Codex Ephraemi, and the Oxyrhynchus Papyri.

There are also, of course, notable Latin versions of Scripture which include the Itala Version completed around AD 200 in the North Africa region, the Wurzburg Palimpsest Codex circa AD 450, and the Lyons Codex from about AD 650. Of course, the most famous and most substantial of these is Jerome's Latin Vulgate Bible from AD390-406.

So there are numerous reference points for the New Testament.

However, it is fair to point out that "the ancient Bible manuscripts" (usually a reference to the Vaticanus and Sinaiticus) are not necessarily always more accurate and they do tend to disagree among themselves at times, although it should be understood that we are only discussing very, very minor variations here. In contrast, the great majority of Bible manuscripts are in much more general agreement. Therefore, although I remain generally supportive of the NIV, I do tend to agree that the 1978 NIV version did not need to make this note on the reliability of the latter part of Mark.

In short, with Bible translations we can trust that our God has allowed the main truth to be preserved and presented very clearly.

And now, a closely related question:

The Question:

I was appalled that some say that the first part of Luke 23:34 - 'Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do' - should not be included in the Scriptures. Even a well-known very conservative Bible website teaches this. What do you have to say?

UK Apologetics Reply:

Okay, let us look at this

Jesus said, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing." And they divided up his clothes by casting lots. (Luke 23:34, NIV).

The NIV certainly includes this but also states in the margin, "some early manuscripts do not have this sentence." This refers to the first part of Luke 23:34, of course, not the second part.

I am an admirer of the NIV (as is well-known) but sometimes, in my opinion, the NIV translators erred in adding such comments.

The expression "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing" appears - in some manner or other - in all 19 New Testament versions which I checked today, so obviously no Bible translator panel thought it a problem which was sufficient to actually affect the eventual Bible text. I also checked about seven of the major Bible commentators, JFB, Gill, Wesley, Henry, Clarke etc., and none of them even mention the problem. Therefore, even though certain ancient manuscripts may omit this part of Luke 34:23 (the NIV does not state which one, but possibly either the Sinaticus or Vaticanus), this text - in my opinion - should certainly be included. I note that it is in the Latin Vulgate too and in the five main Greek texts including the 1550 Textus Receptus.

My conclusion? The first part of Luke 23:34 ('Jesus said, Father forgive them for they know not what they do'), has full authority and certainly should be included in all Bibles.

Robin A. Brace. November 10th-12th, 2012.