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October 15, 2013 / BTM

Unravelling the Real Message of the Bible

You may have heard it said that the Bible has been translated and retranslated so many times that we can’t possibly know what the original version said.  The assumption is that error has crept into the text over time, changing the original message.

How can we know that this hasn’t happened?  How can we pass on to our children the confidence that what they read in the Bible is actually what the New Testament eyewitnesses wrote down for us?

First of all, when scholars create a new translation of the New Testament documents, they do not solely consult previous translations to create their edition.  They also consult the oldest surviving manuscripts and work from there.  This is a check to make sure original text and meanings are accurately preserved.

Second, we have a lot of supporting evidence from which to verify the original text of the New Testament documents.  The more copies that we have of an ancient manuscript, and the older those copies are (the closer to the original), the more reliably we can confirm the message contained in the original document.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, we have over 24,000 fragments of very old manuscripts of the New Testament.  This is unheard of in ancient literature.  Not all the copies of the original manuscripts of the New Testament documents are error free.  These errors do not affect doctrine in any way – they are mostly typos and misspellings that can easily be recognized as such.  By comparison of these manuscripts, we have been able to reconstruct what the original texts said with a very high degree of confidence.

Here’s an example of how this works.  If you had a class of 20 students copy Page 1 from the same Magic Treehouse novel,  some students would copy the text perfectly and some would make errors.  However, you would not find that all 20 students would make identical errors in their work.  If you then collected up all 20 papers, you would be able to easily reconstruct what the original page said just by comparing the text.

Concept being taught:

We can know that the message of the New Testament was accurately handed down over time.  This can give us great confidence that we have the actual testimonies of the eyewitnesses to Jesus life.


Select a passage of text – either a passage of scripture that is unfamiliar to your children, or something else (it could even be a personal message such as: Hi cutie, you are so smart and I think you’re awesome!).  Examples of what I used for this activity are at the end of this post.

Copy this passage out ten times, deliberately making mistakes to each copy (misspell a word, omit a word, add a word, change a word, etc.).  I put each passage on to a different slip of paper to emphasize that they were different copies of the same passage.

Tell your kids that you are trying to figure out what the original message said, but that each of the papers has a slightly different version of the message.  Tell them that they need to compare the sentences (work word by word) to figure out what the real message is.   Provide them with a blank piece of paper to write what they think the original message was, reconstructed from the copies provided.

Your child should be able to quickly determine which words are most common between the slips of paper and conclude what the original message was.  If the word appears on all of the slips of paper (all copies of the text), then it was in the original.   If the word is in none of the sentences, then it wasn’t in the original.  If it is in most of the sentences, it was mostly likely in the original.  If you use a passage from the Bible, have them confirm their work by looking it up in the Bible.

Biblical Application:

Explain to kids that the process they went through to figure out their message is very similar to how scientists figure out if we have the original words of the disciples and Jesus in our Bible, or if the message of the Bible has changed over time.  But instead of having ten copies of the message, we have thousands of copies to compare with each other.  We know with a lot of confidence that the Bible we have in our hands has the same message as the documents and letters that the first churches received from the apostles.

Copied below is the text we used for our kids when we did this activity.  In retrospect, we found that we could have used longer verses.

Passage for a 5 year old:

God is God of all the earth

God is Kind of end the end

God us King of ot the earth

God us King of all the up

God God is of all the earth

Good God is God of all the earth

God is Lord of the world

The Lord is God of all the earth

The Lord is King of all the earth

Lord God you are God of all the world

(note: none of these are the complete correct verse, which would not happen in real life, but makes this exercise more fun for kids to figure out)

Actual verse: God is king of all the earth (Ps 47: 7)

Passage for a 7 year old:

Lord went much out like mighty man

The Lord will march over loud mighty man

The Lord will arch out like a man of might

God is marching out like a mighty man

God is mar [the end of this one was deliberately ripped off]

The Lord will mar out like a mighty man

The Lord did march into a mighty man

God will march out like a mighty

The Lord will mmmmm out llll a mighty mmmm (the three errant words here were actually smudged on the page, so indecipherable)

The Lord went out like a mighty God

Actual verse: The Lord will march out like a mighty man (Is 42:13)


One Comment

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  1. Carrie / Oct 22 2013 12:02 pm

    I love this idea, I only wonder if my kids will be able to unravel the puzzle! 🙂 It will be a fun challenge we’ll have to try! Thanks!

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