The Bibles that we rely on today and often take for granted are the products of centuries of effort by scholars and pseudo-scholars whose work has sometimes helped and at other times hindered the preservation of the original text of the New Testament.
The books and letters that make up the New Testament were written over a period of about 50 years beginning with Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians (though some scholars disagree) around 48-49 AD, and the evidence suggests that most were recognized by the church as authoritative soon after they began to circulate. Most of the documents were directed at particular groups of Christians with the intention of addressing a particular issue or issues that were confronting them. Once the texts were read to the intended audience, they were often passed on to other churches (cf. Colossians 4:16) or groups of believers so that they could benefit from them. Many made hand copies of the books and letters in order to allow continued access to the apostolic testimony and wisdom, and then others made copies of those copies which were then copied. This process of hand-copying continued for centuries until the invention of the printing press in 1455.
Sometimes professional scribes made the copies and sometimes well-meaning amateurs, but whether copyists were skilled or unskilled, human error was unavoidable. Scribes inadvertently left out words or even whole lines when they looked away and then looked back to the manuscript only to pick up with a line farther down the page than the one they had just copied (a phenomenon known as parablepsis). At other times, messy handwriting resulted in a copyist misreading a word and writing something different. In most cases, the copying errors are easy to identify, but in a few instances, multiple versions of the text make sense, and scholars, are unable to definitively determine which reading is the original.
Other “errors” were intentional. Scribes might insert details from a story in the Gospel of Matthew into the same story in the Gospel of Luke to harmonize the two accounts. At other times, scribes added explanatory notes to the text or filled out an incident that they thought lacked sufficient detail. There were times when unscrupulous scribes changed a word or two because they were uncomfortable with a verse that offended their personal theological sensibilities (cf. John 1:18) while some even inserted verses to make a point or serve a selfish purpose (cf. 1 John 5:7, Mark 16:9-20; John 7:53 – 8:11).
The end result of more than a millennium of this practice of copying by fallible human beings in relatively primitive conditions was a few 1000 copies of New Testament books that were overwhelmingly similar but not identical. In some instances there are three or more variations of a verse (variants) due to a copying error that a later scribe compounded by an imprudent attempt to rectify it. Beginning around 1500, scholars developed principles and procedures designed to determine the original reading when copies of the same book differed from one another in places. This science of “textual criticism” is quite complicated, but it has enabled recovery of the original reading with relative certainty in almost all cases of variation. Christians can thereby be assured that the message and details of the books in our Bibles are what the authors originally wrote. In no place does a variant affect any foundational or cardinal doctrine of the Christian faith. Every copy of the Gospel of Mark tells the same story of Jesus!
However, textual critics are kept in business by those few passages where the original reading remains elusive, where there are “variants.” One of those texts is 1 Corinthians 14:34 – 35 where the epistle reads,
“Women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.”
All of the extant (surviving) manuscripts of 1 Corinthians include these verses, but in a number of copies, the verses appear after verse 40 rather than after verse 33. New Testament scholar Gordon Fee sees three possible explanations for this.
- Paul originally wrote these verses after verse 33, and someone moved them to a position after verse 40.
- Paul originally wrote these verses after verse 40, and a scribe was compelled to move them and insert them after verse 33.
- Paul did not write these verses in his original letter (which has been lost), and someone else inserted them into the text. A later scribe, suspecting that the verses were not authentic but uncertain, moved them to a place where they were not such an awkward interruption to Paul’s argument.
One of the principles of textual criticism is that you adopt the explanation that makes the best sense of the other explanations. In this case, Gordon Fee believes that option (3.) best explains why one finds the verses in different places in the text. In his estimation, no plausible explanation has been proposed to explain why someone would choose to move Paul’s original words while leaving them in the passage. This sort of manuscript evidence is known as “external evidence.”
Textual scholars also consider “internal evidence” when making a determination as to whether a variant of a Bible text is the original form. “Internal evidence” is derived from questions like these: Is the variant consistent with the style and vocabulary of the rest of the book? Does the variant fit the content of the book? Is the variant consistent with the theology of the author in other places? Does it make logical sense in the passage?
Gordon Fee suggests that the internal evidence strengthens his theory that the disputed verses were not part of the original epistle. First, the style of the declaration is inconsistent with Paul’s style of citation of the law elsewhere. Every time Paul makes an appeal to the Law, he cites the text, but here the author simply adds, “The law also says.” More importantly, there is no place in the law where women are forbidden to speak. Second, he points out that the prohibition against women speaking in church abruptly interrupts the apostle’s discussion of the proper use of prophecy and tongues in the worship service. When the disputed verses are removed, verse 33 flows seamlessly into verse 36. Finally, earlier in the epistle, Paul assumes that women are praying and prophesying in the worship when he instructs them to do so with their heads covered (11:5). The command that women are to remain silent would seem to forbid them from prophesying or praying audibly and introduce a contradiction in Paul’s thinking.
Fee’s proposal that the verses are not the words of Paul and, therefore, not the word of God is an intriguing possibility but in no way definitive. Others have offered equally reasonable explanations for the authenticity of the command and how it should be understood, so it continues to engender spirited discussions within the church, especially as the roles of women are debated. And this is the very reason why such discussion is important. It is vital that the church exercise vigilance and care so as not to impose restrictions where God has given liberty! To do so would unnecessarily deprive the Body of Christ of the spiritual gifts and edification God has provided the church through his daughters.
Though the science of textual criticism is more involved and nuanced than the example permitted in this short article, the brief overview of this passage serves as an example of how textual critics reach their conclusions and why it is vital to the growth of the kingdom of God.