Manuscript Errors

An erasure in the Codex Sinaiticus manuscript

In preparing to write about Nicolas Copernicus recently, I bought a 2-volume set of his complete works, translated into English (a big help since I am only beginning my study of Latin). However, I wasn’t expecting a translation of a Christian astronomer’s theories in the 1500’s to help me better understand how we can be confident in the integrity of biblical manuscripts from a thousand years earlier. How so? Let’s “sharpen our pencils,” as we say in engineering, and work through this problem.

The translator’s notes on the Commentariolus, Copernicus’ first draft of his geokinetic theory[1],  caught my eye for several reasons. First, we don’t have any surviving copies of the original treatise that Copernicus had dispatched to a few close friends. Second, Copernicus never put any title or claim of authorship on it. We owe that to Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe years later. These are such common objections from skeptics regarding surviving Gospel manuscripts and their lack of direct claim of authorship, and yet in other historical investigations, those circumstances aren’t deal-breakers.  But third, and most significant to me, was how the original content could be rebuilt from copies with errors.

We have 2 surviving copies made from one of the originals by professional scribes hired by Brahe. These are known as the “S” and “V” manuscripts for Stockholm and Vienna, where they eventually came to reside, respectively. A third manuscript, known as “A” for Aberdeen, was made by a student copying the text of Commentariolus into the margins of his copy of Copernicus’ Revolutions in an abbreviated fashion. One scribe, it seems, was copying the original text by sight, and got off a line. He saw the same word (“orbis”) he’d just written used 6 words later, and proceeded from that point, skipping those intervening words, and garbling the sentence. The other scribe did not make the same mistake there, so that portion could be reconstructed from his copy. He did make his share of mistakes in other places, though. One in particular, was the writing of the words “ac si” for the word “axi”, a mistake that only made sense if he were taking dictation. The two sound similar, so he wrote what he thought he heard. Even if he were to read it back to the one dictating, it would sound correct. Since the first scribe was seeing the original words, he was not liable to that type of auditory error, but he was susceptible to visual errors like skipping a line. Now with only two formal copies of a text, we are able to be quite comfortable that we have the message of the autograph (the original manuscript) intact. Even the “A” manuscript, not attempting to be a word-for-word formal copy,  has still proven useful for corroborating some differences between the 2 formal copies, which were made by copyists likely not trained in astronomy. That’s because the “A” copy was made by another scholar who was  able to spot some of the copying errors in the manuscript he was reading (based on a non-surviving sister copy of the “S” manuscript) and correct them, thus bringing his copy into agreement with manuscript “V” which he never saw. The point, is the more copies we have of a manuscript, even partial copies, the more confidently we can reconstruct the original message.[2]

This is the same tactic used in data backup with RAID storage. RAID is an acronym for Redundant Array of Independent Drives. There are different levels of redundancy with RAID 0, RAID 1, all the way up to RAID 6 (currently). But the basic idea is that different hard drives will not all crash at the same time, and will not all get corrupted at the same data location. This means that if one drive crashes, the data on it can be reconstructed from the remaining drives in the array. Or if a particular file goes “bad” and won’t open anymore, the system can rebuild that file from the information in the other drives.

Now, consider how we have reconstructed an original amount of data from 2 copies of a manuscript, or from several computer drives. Do you see why objections that we don’t have any original biblical manuscripts fall flat? Or why the comparisons of the Bible to the “telephone game” don’t really pose a problem? We have thousands of manuscripts, and we keep finding more and more of them. Are they all complete? No, many are only fragments, but they overlap with other copies to provide better redundancy than any other ancient manuscript. Do some have copying errors? Sure. Do some have additions? Yes. But witness the genius of God, in that He basically set up a geographically-distributed redundant array of data stores for His Word from which we can reasonably reconstruct the original. Just as some of Copernicus’ manuscripts that only had one surviving copy were destroyed in different wars throughout Europe, one original manuscript of the Bible would be a very fragile thing. But a worldwide network of copies could never be taken out by floods, or earthquakes, or wars, or vandalism. The absence of an original manuscript isn’t a liability, it’s actually evidence of brilliant planning. But that’s the kind of God we serve.

[1] Commonly called the “heliocentric” theory, Copernicus technically theorized that the sun was near the center of the known universe of the time, not necessarily at the center. His primary postulate was that the earth moved, so “geokinetic” is more technically correct.
[2] Nicholas Copernicus – Complete Works, Volume 2: Minor Works, translation & commentary by Edward Rosen & Erna Hilfstein (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Paperbacks, 1992), pp. 75-80.