Why we need the behind-the-translation work of textual critics.

Beyond all question, the mystery of godliness is great: He appeared in a body, was vindicated by the Spirit, was seen by angels, was preached among the nations, was believed on in the world, was taken up in glory.

Need one ask, “Who was?” Believe it or not, the answer is not as conspicuous as it seems. We can assume that in this passage (which is recognized as an early Christian hymn) Paul was referring to Christ. But consulting the same verse in the King James Version (KJV) reveals a different answer: “And without controversy, great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifest in the flesh, justified in the Spirit …”

This verse has been neither “beyond all question” nor “without controversy” in the realm of Bible translation. Some say the first line of the hymn should read, “he appeared” (or better, “he who”), while others say, “God appeared.” Why the discrepancy in translation decisions?

The answer lies in an understanding of the biblical discipline known as textual criticism, the science that compares all known manuscripts of a given work in an effort to locate the reading that best reflects the words of the author. The original biblical autographs (probably written on papyrus) have been lost, and for the subsequent 14 centuries, every copy of the Bible was reproduced by hand.

Today there exist thousands of ancient New Testament manuscripts. The earliest fragments, papyrus uncials (an early style of Greek writing that used all capital letters), date from the second century A.D. Today 98 of these fragments are catalogued. There also exist 301 early uncial manuscripts written on vellum (sheepskin), some of which date from as early as the second century. Of these, ...

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