Thursday, January 18, 2007

The Preservation of God's Word in English

I have long been familiar with the fact that copies of extant Greek Biblical manuscripts far exceed those of secular Greek works from comparable time periods. So, for example, while we have over 5000 manuscripts from the Greek New Testament, we only have 643 for Homer’s Iliad and far fewer for other important works ( It turns out that this same phenomenon occurs with copies of handwritten English Bibles as well.

Consider the number of extant copies of the Wycliffe Bible. These handwritten Bibles, translated from the Latin Vulgate in the 1380’s, were systematically destroyed beginning in the early 1400’s. Nevertheless, over 250 manuscripts still exist, in whole or in part. This number is remarkable when compared to other important medieval works. Nobody was trying to eradicate all of Chaucer’s works and yet the famous Canterbury Tales exists in only 64 remaining copies.

The inescapable conclusion is that God has providentially preserved His word in both Greek and English, but that is not the full story.

It turns out that there is not just one version of the Wycliffe Bible. Like all hand-copied texts, differences exist between the extant manuscripts. But not all of these variations are due to copyist mistakes. When these manuscripts are studied, it becomes apparent that some retranslation and revision has occurred. In fact, scholars have been able to identify at least two distinct “families” of Wycliffe Bible texts. According to David Daniell, one version is more literal, while the other more idiomatic – perhaps similar in some ways to the difference between the KJV and the NIV.

This is fascinating to me because this means that even back in the 1380’s, you had various versions of the English Bible available. Professor Daniell even claims, based on the number of surviving copies, that one version must have been more popular than the other. The point, though, is that the providential preservation of God’s Word in English never meant perfect preservation. Even at the very beginning, there was never one definitive English translation.

Source: David Daniell. The Bible in English. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003.

Image: First page of John's Gospel in the Wycliffe Bible


At 3:02 PM, Blogger Andy Rupert said...

Just from your post, I can sense that must have been an interesting study. Thanks for the info.


Post a Comment

<< Home