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The Evolution of the Bible

The Bible has not remained the same since the writing of each of the original manuscripts.

We do not have the original manuscripts from any of the books of the Bible. We do not have a first generation copy of any of the books. We do not have a second or third generation copy. We have some fragments of manuscripts that are quite old, but many of these do not even contain one whole sentence. When we get to the point where there are whole copies of a particular book of the Bible, there are numerous copies and they do not agree as to the exact wording of the text. This is the situation that presents itself to the Biblical scholar.

The books of the Bible that we have today are not the same as the original manuscripts of any of the books. Have they degraded as time passed? Must we recover the originals in order to save truth from extinction? Have the truths of Scripture been distorted and obscured with the passage of time? No, no, no.

Instead, God's Providence and Grace guides and protects Sacred Scripture. Just as God guides the transmission of Tradition from one generation to the next, so also does He guide the transmission of Scripture from one generation to the next. Just as the truths of Tradition and the Magisterium become clearer as time passes, so also do the truths of Scripture become clearer. They become more clearly expressed through the process of editing and translating and comparing different versions in different languages. And they become more clearly understood as the faithful live according to those truths.

In fact, both the clear expression and the understanding of the truths of Scripture continually improve in a process analogous to evolution. The truths themselves do not change or evolve. It is their expression in human language and their subsequent understanding which evolves as Scripture is transmitted from one edition to another. For the understanding of Scripture is based upon the written word. As the written Word of God is expressed in various ways, in various languages, versions, and editions, the understanding of that Word becomes clearer and more accessible to the faithful.

The process of the evolution of the Bible occurs in a number of ways.

The Living Scriptures

The Scriptural life of the Church influences editors and translators. As the faithful, through the centuries, prayerfully read, understand, and live Scripture, the understanding of the text increases and this results in translations and editions that more clearly express the truths of Scripture than prior editions and translations. The faithful then benefit from this clearer expression of the truths of the Word of God in their lives. Each successive version of Scripture is then influenced by the lives of the faithful, and by other versions, in the same and other languages. Later versions of Scripture more clearly express truths of Scripture, which may have been obscure in prior editions. These later versions have the advantage of being influenced by more versions of Scripture and by the continuing process of the entire Church on earth praying and living Scripture through the centuries.

As a result, having the original manuscript of a book of the Bible would not be better than having numerous differing editions of that book in various languages. These versions that have gone through the long process of being influenced by the Scriptural life of the Church, so that the truths of the original manuscripts are more clearly expressed. Interestingly, even though the original manuscripts are without error, and any subsequent particular edition may have errors particular to that edition, the subsequent editions as a group contain a better expression of the truth than the original manuscripts.

Copying and Editing

In any particular language, even in the language in which the book was originally written (a matter of some dispute, in my view), as the text is copied again and again, the copyists sometimes functioned like an editor, not merely a copyist. Sometimes they may have done this deliberately, making a change to the wording of the text to make the meaning clearer. They had to do this because they generally worked from only one (or only a few) copies in order to make their copy. And old manuscripts of the Bible have frequent copyist errors. So a copyist would intelligently decide if a spelling or wording was the error of a previous copyist and correct that error. Sometimes the correction resulted in a phrasing of a truth which expressed that truth more clearly than the original phrasing. Sometimes a copyist/editor would be correcting a real copyist error. Sometimes the assumed error was not a copyist error, but an awkward phrasing that could be improved. Over centuries of such corrections, and, in later years, similar types of corrections were made by editors of printed versions, so that the truths of Scripture, by Providence and Grace, have become more clearly expressed in their various languages.

As this process of copying and editing continued over the centuries, the better expressions of truth were more likely to be retained, and to make their way into more copies, and the less apt wordings of the text were more likely to be corrected, or to be replaced by a better wording. This continual improvement in the wording of the text is analogous to evolution, wherein small changes are tested, in some manner, as to which is more fit, and the more fit adaptations are kept. These small improvements accumulate over time, making for a significant improvement in the overall text.

Providential Errors

Some improvements to the wording and phrasing of the truths of Scripture may have been non-deliberate random errors, a few of which happen to improve the text and so were more likely to be maintained in subsequent editions. This third way that the expression of the truths of Scripture has changed is analogous to evolution.

This providential improvement in the way that the truths of Scripture are expressed is analogous to evolution. In the theory of evolution, random changes or mistakes in the genetic code occasionally result in improvements. These improvements are more likely to continue to subsequent generations. These improvements build up to result in a significantly better and different organism. Of course, the Christian view of evolution sees any such improvement as part of the Providence of God.

Similarly, the words and phrases used to express the truths of Scripture have been subject to many generations of copyist 'typographical' errors. Letters are dropped or added, accidentally. One word is substituted for a similar word because the text was misread. The order or words might be changed accidentally by the copyist. Such errors are more likely to occur if the result is a phrasing that more clearly expresses the truths of Scripture than the original text. And they are more likely to be adopted by subsequent copyists/editors. Most such errors are not improvements and are corrected in subsequent copies. But some small percentage of these 'errors' accidentally result in a better expression of truth. So God's Providence and Grace guides the expression of the unchanging truths of Scripture into greater clarity.

In Summary

The truths of Scripture do not evolve, they are unchanging.

The expression of the truths of Scripture in human language is what evolves and changes, under God's Providence and Grace. Such is also the case with Tradition and Magisterium.

The later versions of the Bible, especially taken as a set (not so much in individual versions by themsleves), contain a clearer and more comprehensive expression of the truths of Scripture than the original manuscripts did.

The truths of Sacred Scripture are not completely contained within any one version or edition of the Bible. Any individual version will contain the vast majority of these truths. But, in their entirety, these truths are located across all the versions and editions of the Bible that exist in their various languages.

by Ronald L. Conte Jr.
March 5, 2006

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