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As a word, "bible" may refer to any number of reference books considered to be comprehensive but, for the purposes of this category, the Bible refers to the central religious text of Christianity, often referred to as the Holy Bible, in its various translations, inclusions and exclusions. Christians tend to think of the Bible as a single book, but it is actually a collection of books written over a period of time, roughly 1,100 years. By custom, the Bible is divided into the Old Testament and the New Testament, with the former emerging from the oral traditions of the Jewish people, which were later copied onto scrolls, while the New Testament came from the stories of Jesus that were told by His followers after His death, resurrection and ascension to heaven. There are slight differences between the canons of Judaism, Roman Catholicism, and Protestantism. The Jewish canon includes twenty-four books containing the same texts as the thirty-nine books of the Protestant Old Testament, as the Jewish canon divides the books based on the amount of text that could fit on a scroll. The Roman Catholic canon consists of the thirty-nine books of the Protestant Old Testament, plus seven books from the Apocrypha, which are writings not found in the Hebrew Scriptures, but which are considered part of the Catholic Old Testament, yielding forty-six books in the Catholic Old Testament. Protestants recognize only the thirty-nine books of the Old Testament found in the Hebrew Scriptures, and the twenty-seven books of the New Testament. Jerome's Vulgate was the official Bible of the Church for nearly a thousand years, even after classical Latin ceased to be a spoken language. Only the educated clergy could read it. John Wycliffe is responsible for the first full translation of the Bible into English. Now there are hundreds of translations from the Biblical languages of Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek into English and other languages.


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Feature Article

Neither a Jot nor a Tittle

The sixty-six books of the Christian Bible, and particularly the twenty-seven books of the New Testament, are the means by which Christians are supposed to know God, and to know what God expects of them. Actually, the Catholic Bible contains seventy-three books, as it includes the apocrypha and the pseudepigrapha, as well, but the point that I will be making in this article will hold true regardless of the number, as the book that I'll be talking about is one that is contained in both the Protestant and Catholic Bibles.

Most every denomination and sect in Christianity claims that its beliefs and practices stem from the written "Word of God," yet we know that God didn't physically write any of it. Nor did Jesus and, with very few exceptions, neither did the Apostles, at least not the original Twelve. The bulk of the New Testament is attributed to Paul, who, although he is generally accepted as an Apostle, was not one of the original Twelve, chosen by Jesus during his earthly ministry. In fact, the authorship of many of the books of the Old and New testaments of the Bible is in doubt. However, it is not my purpose here to cast doubts on the authenticity of the Bible. As a Christian, I accept that God's hand was in it, and that the identities of the human authors isn't all that important.

Did you know that none of the original versions of any of the sixty-six (or seventy-three) Books of the Bible have survived? Regardless of which version of the Bible we use, it has been translated from copies of copies, several times over.

Until the printing press was developed in the mid-15th century, the only way to copy a book was by hand, letter by letter, one word at a time. It was painstakingly slow, but there were no alternatives. Today, when a book goes to press, we assume that one copy of the books will be the same as another. This wasn't the case in the ancient world. Since books had to by copied by hand, they were not mass produced and, in the rare cases when multiple copies of a book was produced, they were not alike.

The scribes who were charged with copying texts invariably made errors, and some changes were made intentionally. When a book was read in antiquity, the reader could not be absolutely certain that he was reading what the author had written, and he probably wasn't. Scribes, in that day, took their responsibilities seriously so it is doubtful that drastic changes were made on a regular basis, but errors certainly crept in. For one thing, ancient Greek texts were written without punctuation, there was no such thing as upper- and lower-case letters, and spaces were not even used to separate words.

However, early Christian texts weren't being copied by professional scribes, but by educated members of the Christian church who were able and willing to do the job. Early church leaders are known to have complained about errors in transcription and, even today, we can see that there are differences between some of the early manuscripts, so we know that there were errors.

More often than not, copies were made from copies, so changes made by one scribe were copied into the text by another scribe, who believed that to have been an accurate transcription, along with mistakes of his own. As earlier manuscripts are discovered and translated, we can see that sometimes these errors were multiplied. These errors may be many but they are are minor, for the most part, and seldom serve to change the meaning of the text.

More alarming is when changes were introduced into the text deliberately. From time to time, charges were leveled against adherents of various early Christian sects claiming that they deliberately modified the texts they copied in order to make them fit more closely with their own viewpoints. Often, they were condemned as heretics, which could have dire consequences.

Even before all of the books of the New Testament had been written, we have warnings against changing the text of Scripture. The author of the Book of Revelation, thought to be the Apostle John, warns:

I testify to everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues which are written in this book; and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his part from the tree of life and from the holy city, which are written in this book. -- Revelation 22:18-19

Not all of the changes that were made to Scripture were done maliciously, however. It appears that some of the changes that were introduced were made by scribes to clarify the text, or to correct what seemed to them to be an error. Whatever their motivation, changes were made, and the original words of the author may have been altered and eventually lost. Again, mostly these changes are likely to have been minor but, since we do not have a copy of the original manuscript to compare, we cannot know that.

In some cases, entire sections were either added or removed from the text, depending on which version is thought to be the most accurate. One example of this can be found in the Gospel of Mark. Readers of the King James Version, and others translating from the same manuscript, will find that the last chapter of Mark has twenty verses.

In this account, we learn of the crucifixion of Jesus, and that his body had been placed in a tomb on the day before the Sabbath. The day after the Sabbath, Mary Magdalene and two other women come to anoint the body of Jesus, but find that the stone had been rolled away. They enter the tomb to find a young man there, in a white robe, who tells them not to be startled. The man, said to be an angel in Matthew's account, tells them that Jesus had been raised from the dead. He then instructs them to tell the disciples that Jesus is going ahead of them to Galilee, and that they will see him there. Then, verse eight tells us that the women fled from the tomb, and that they said nothing to anyone because they were afraid.

That is where Mark's account ends in Bible translations using what are thought to have been the earliest, and thus what we might expect to be the more reliable manuscripts. However, other versions continue on to verse twenty. In these translations, verse nine introduces Mary Magdalene again, as if she hadn't been introduced only a few verses earlier, going on to say that she told the disciples what had taken place, but that they did not believe her. He then appears to two others, and finally to the eleven remaining Apostles, since Judas was no longer among them.

Jesus chastises them for their unbelief, and goes on to tell them to go forth and proclaim the gospel, in a verse that was made familiar to most Christians through a beloved hymn: "Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature." -- Mark 16:15

The verses that follow have helped to form the beliefs and practices of many Christians.

He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved: but he who has disbelieved shall be condemned. These signs will accompany those who have believed in My name they will cast out demons, they will speak with new tongues; they will pick up serpents, and if they drink any deadly poison, it will not hurt them; they will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover. -- Mark 16:16-18

Jesus is then taken up into heaven (verse 19), and the disciples go forth into the world to proclaim the gospel (verse 20), their words being confirmed by the signs that accompany them.

These are among the passages that are used by Pentecostals to show that the followers of Christ will be able to speak in unknown tongues, as is practiced in their services. This is also the chief passage cited by snake-handlers, mostly in the Appalachian mountain area, who take up poisonous snakes in order to demonstrate their faith in God. Here's the problem. This passage was seemingly not originally a part of the Gospel of Mark, but was added later by a scribe.

Without verses nine through twenty, Mark's gospel is difficult to understand, as it ends abruptly. Mary of Magdalene never tells anyone about the man in white whom she encountered, nor does she relate the message that he had for the Apostles. Instead, they say nothing, for they were afraid. That's how the gospel ends.

We know from the account in the Gospel of Matthew that they did convey the message to the Apostles, and Matthew even identifies the man in white clothing as an angel, but Mark's account, if we were to accept that it ended at verse eight, would tell a different story.

Apparently, a scribe, or scribes, also believed that the gospel's ending was unsatisfying, and took it upon themselves to complete the story. Earlier manuscripts end the gospel at verse eight, while later manuscripts continue on to verse twenty.

Modern scholars agree that Mark 16:8 was too abrupt to have been the original ending, but they believe that the last page of Mark's gospel had become separated from the rest of the document, and lost. But many do not agree that the verses nine through twenty were in the original text. For one thing, as I mentioned earlier, Mary Magdalene is introduced in verse nine as if she were first appearing in the story, yet she had been discussed in the preceding verses. There are also words and phrases in the latter part of the gospel that are not found anywhere else in the gospel.

While it is certainly possible that Mark intended to end the gospel with verse eight, it is more likely that the ending had been lost and some scribe decided to write a more appropriate ending, using other accounts for information.

However, the other gospels do not include information about snake handling being a sign of those who believe in Christ. The only other basis for that in Scripture is Luke 10:19, which states, "Behold, I have given you authority to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing will injure you." Acts 28:1-6 tells us that Paul had been bitten by a viper but suffered no harm, but the passage in Mark is the one most commonly cited to uphold the practice of snake handling among Christians; without it, there isn't much upon which to base such a dangerous practice.

Perhaps this is the reason why, although the use of translations that include these verses is widespread among Christians, only a tiny minority of Christians have taken up snake handling.

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