Firstly, before we can answer the question, we must distinguish between the Bible as written in its original language and its translation into another tongue.
Firstly, is there a perfect English translation?
Given the plethora of English translations over the years, with constant revisions and updates, no single particular version (not even the King James’ Bible) can be declared to be the “authentic, error-free” translation. In many ways this is because Hebrew and Greek thought is so different to the Anglo-Saxon world of English. Extensive judgement calls have to be made by the translators, and these tend to be made within an existing theological framework. Where no direct English equivalent exists, a substitute word has to be found, which will never have exactly the same scope nor subtleties of the original. By definition, since it is flawed human beings making the judgement call, there can be no wholly accurate translation. Which version would that be anyway?!
Secondly, we need to ask is there an original, definitive set of Hebrew OT manuscripts?
The most commonly used Hebrew Text is the Masoretic, assembled around the 10th Century. This is the version used in most of our Christian Bibles. But there exists more than one version of the Masoretic text, and these have subtle differences between them.
Then there is the Second Rabbinic Bible, a text assembled in 16th-century Venice. There is also the 1000 year old Leningrad Codex, the 10th-century Aleppo Codex, and of course multiple early translations including the [pre-Christ] Septuagint. Many other manuscripts exist which pre-date the Masoretic text and often contradict it.
“Everyone knows that no manuscript is without error” says Eugene Ulrich, professor at Notre Dame University.
Some of these were mistakes in transcription, skipping a letter, word or even paragraph, or transposing words. But some were deemed to be deliberate alterations adding clarity or emphasis, much as Bible translators do.
“The more years I’ve been involved in the study of the history of the biblical text, the less confident I am in deciding what is more original or not” says Michael Segal, a senior lecturer in the Bible at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Furthermore, the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls proved that some books of the Hebrew Bible co-existed in multiple versions.
Because the Septuagint differs from the Masoretic Text it was long thought to have been a corrupted translation. The Dead Sea Scrolls altered all that when Hebrew manuscripts were discovered that matched verbatim the Septuagint. We now know that the Septuagint was translated from a different (but genuine) biblical text. The Dead Sea Scrolls revealed many texts that were a millennium older than the medieval editions which also diverged from it.
Jewish Scholars admit that it is not possible to definitively determine which text was “the original” – if such a thing even ever existed.
So is there a definitive, authoritative, error-free set of Hebrew manuscripts? The answer is clearly “no”.
So is the Bible without error? Let us humbly admit that the answer has to be “no”. The plethora of divergent manuscripts combined with the Bible’s own testimony that the lying pen of the scribes has handled it falsely (Jeremiah 8:8) tells us this. But that is not something to be afraid of. It just means that we need the guidance of the Holy Spirit as we seek to find God’s true face in the Old Testament (and even in the New).
For further information, see…