To Err Is Human

Typesetting (photo by Willi Heidelbach)

As I prepare for a trip to Honduras this week, I just wanted to leave y’all with something to think about when you hear skeptics criticize the accuracy of the transmission and translation of the Bible. I was reading a blog from Sean McDowell recently where he was pointing out some of the more comical errors introduced into Bible translations over the centuries, and why these still didn’t hurt the reliability of the Bible. In the article he points out something I’d like to highlight here: while the printing press could eliminate the manuscript variations attributed to scribal copying errors,  it didn’t eliminate errors entirely. Rather, it changed the scope of them. An error could now be mass-produced so that the printed output was extremely consistent compared to the hand-copied manuscripts, but consistently wrong. This reminded me of something I’m familiar with from engineering: errata.

An errata is simply a list of errors and their corrections on a separate sheet of paper (or electronic file) that is published to correct errors discovered in books already published. Most publishers make their errata freely available as it is the result of their original mistake. As building codes and standards have grown in size and complexity, and there has been the drive to publish new versions on a regular basis (whether needed or not, and whether ready to publish or not), the significance of errata has grown. These standards often go through a long process of drafts, rewrites, public comment periods, and sometimes a roller coaster ride of last-minute changes before publication. Mistakes creep in, and leaving out the word “not” in a paragraph, or leaving out an exponent in a formula that runs the full width of the page can be difficult mistakes to find in proofreading. Nevertheless, they can also have serious consequences for designs based on those simple typos, so I’ve learned the importance of always checking for the latest errata on each publisher’s website. Some of my reference books need an errata published for each print run of each edition because more errors are found, or because new errors were introduced. And then there was the time I bought AISC’s first printing of the first edition of their seismic design manual back in 2005. Finding a definite error in a particular formula, I went looking for the errata at their site, but there wasn’t one. When I asked them about it, they informed me that that printing had so many errors, that they had recalled the book rather than essentially republish it as a huge errata! Somehow I’d missed the notification of the recall. But engineering is focused first and foremost on public safety, so mistakes in the formulas we use or the rules we apply can be deadly if not detected. Hence the importance of errata in engineering books.

It’s true that hand-copied manuscripts might have a lot of variations from one copy to the next, where they necessarily differ from the “autograph” (the original text) at one point or another. But while it’s easy to think of our advanced printing technology now and look down on those ancient scribes with their old tired eyes and shaky hands and dim lighting, it’s good to remember that each generation is susceptible to their own types of errors that are often not as obvious to them as the mistakes of past generations. This is what C.S. Lewis meant when he warned about developing “chronological snobbery”. Ironically though, the manuscript variants may be less of an issue than our current printing practices that ensure that every single copy of a printing has the exact same error. There’s no way to compare copies in a run and reconstruct what the original text was because they all have the same errors. We start to regain some of that comparative reconstructability with multiple printings of a text, but most of my engineering books are doing good if they see a third or fourth printing. We’re not exactly gunning for the New York Times bestseller list… ever. That means that out of the tens of thousands of copies of that book, there might only be 3 or 4 different texts to compare. Even though we don’t have the original text of any of the books of the Bible, we have such a rich store of manuscripts – far exceeding the number of copies we have from any secular author from that time – that we can compare and isolate errors and have a high degree of confidence that our Bible is translated from the original languages using text approaching the original. And that is only improving as we continue to accumulate more and more manuscripts and papyri to compare against. So I’d like to submit to you that the extensive hand-copying of the biblical manuscripts, even as error-prone as hand-copying may be,  was actually part of God’s long-term plan for preserving His words to us.

Sean’s blog –

Leave a Reply