All quotations are taken from the NKJV
We have considered the inspiration of scripture – how the Holy Spirit moved men to express with pen and ink the exact words God wanted them to write. Those first sheets of parchment on which they wrote are the original manuscripts. They were written in Hebrew (Old Testament) and Greek (New Testament). The doctrine of inspiration pertains to the original manuscripts.
Today, however, we do not possess the original manuscripts. They have all been lost, or decayed with age. What we do have are ancient copies of the scriptures based on the originals, copies of the copies, and so on. Bible translators use these early manuscripts as the basis for modern translations.
To see how the early manuscripts were copied and circulated, we will take an example from Paul’s letter to the Colossians.
‘Now when this epistle is read among you, see that it is read also in the church of the Laodiceans, and that you likewise read the epistle from Laodicea’, Col. 4. 16.
Paul generally dictated his letters to an amanuensis, in this case probably Tychicus, who was also the courier, 4. 7, 8. At the end of the letter, the apostle would sign his name, perhaps adding a personal greeting to authenticate the correspondence as his own.
When Tychicus carried this letter from Rome to Colossae, he also delivered a second letter – one to the church at Laodicea. Some scholars think this second letter has since been lost; others believe it is the Epistle we now call Ephesians.
The Colossians received the original manuscript of Colossians, and doubtless treasured it. But Paul had instructed them to see that the Laodiceans also got to read it. We are not told what the Colossians did with the original, but let us suppose that they wrote a copy and sent the copy to Laodicea. There would now be two copies of Colossians – the inspired original bearing Paul’s signature, and a first-generation copy.
It is possible that in copying Paul’s original the scribe made an error. Perhaps he made a spelling mistake, missed a word out, or got two words in the wrong order. We don’t know, but it’s possible.
If the Laodiceans decided to reproduce their copy, say for the believers in Thyatira, they might duplicate any inaccuracies it contained, and perhaps introduce new mistakes of their own. Again, this is conjecture, but we know that over the years, as multiple copies of Colossians were produced, and copies of copies, small scribal errors began to slip in.
Over time, Christians realized that there were little differences between the various copies of Colossians in circulation, but by then the original manuscript had been lost, and there was no way to check the copies against the original. By the 2nd and 3rd centuries there were hundreds of copies of Colossians in existence, many containing minor variations. Some of these copies have survived to this day, and we can compare the differences.
It is most important to understand that these differences are all very minor. Most are variations in spelling or word order. For example, in Colossians chapter 1 verse 1, some early manuscripts read, ‘Jesus Christ’, and some say, ‘Christ Jesus’.
Did Paul write ‘Jesus Christ’ or ‘Christ Jesus’? We don’t really know.
Does it matter? Yes and no!
It matters because Paul was always careful with his words. He sometimes wrote ‘Jesus Christ’ to emphasize His humanity, sometimes ‘Christ Jesus’ to emphasize His deity.
But in another sense it doesn’t matter, since Jesus Christ and Christ Jesus is the same person. The meaning is the same. Even though we are not sure of Paul’s exact word order, we are sure what he meant. There are about twenty-two discrepancies between manuscripts of Colossians chapter 1, and they are all small ones like this.
The same principle is true throughout the Bible. Though there are numerous variations in ancient manuscripts, almost all of them are tiny, and do not change the meaning, or affect doctrine.
Furthermore, because there are so many manuscripts available, we can compare them to make an educated guess at what the original said. This process is known as textual criticism.