Transmission Errors? -- No porbelm!
The following has been floating around the web for a while, and you've probably seen it elsewhere:
I cdnuolt blveiee taht I cluod aulaclty uesdnatnrd waht I was rdgnieg. The phaonmneal pweor of the hmuan mnid Aoccdrnig to rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn't mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoatnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be in the rghit pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit a porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe.
Undoubtedly this is a joke. I doubt this refers to an actual researcher at Cambridge.
However, unlike most jokes I hear (unless Lizzy tells them, for it's all in the telling!) I think this is a really good joke, for it makes me laugh every time I encounter it. But when a friend sent it to me yesterday, first I laughed again, and then it occurred to me that this joke could help in sorting out a fairly common misunderstanding that keeps popping up.
See if this helps:
Sometimes when talking about faith with a friend, we run into the oft repeated objection that "Scripture has been copied so many times... and errors creep in... it's like the telephone game, you know. After centuries of copying and recopying, we don't really know what the orginal Scriptures really said." These copying errors are called, in the field of textual criticism, "errors of transmission."
Of course errors of transmission occurred in the copying of Scriptures. It just isn't true that the Holy Spirit protected the copying of Scriptures from error. However, the problem is enormously overstated. The truth is that the difficulties that this presents are laughingly insignificant.
To put this into perspective, consider the countless alleged church bulletin bloopers that are passed around. Take for example this one: "Ushers will eat latecomers during the first hymn." What makes the joke is the obvious juxtaposition of what was intended to what was written. But don't miss the obvious: Nobody was fooled; The intention was obvious. There is no possibility that anybody, anywhere at anytime would imagine that the ushers were actually cannibals. Everyone would know immediately that the "s" was dropped from "seat" resulting in "eat." The alleged error in typing does not result in an error in understanding.
The fact of the matter is that the vast majority of errors in transmission are just like that: What was intended was obvious. Nobody is fooled.
Years ago, in a library in Dallas, I read a doctoral disseration that took just one verse of Scripture as a test case, and examined every known ancient manuscript of that verse. (We're talking about an enormous undertaking, as there are thousands of manuscripts collected and preserved in museums and collections around the world, many in the Vatican.) In the many hundreds of existing manuscripts, there were hundreds of transmission errors. But before long, as I looked at error after error after error, one reality became glaringly obvious: the utter insignificance of these errors.
To illustrate, suppose I render this sentence this way: "Too ilustraight, supose I render this very sentance this way." How many errors do you see? There are four misspelled words and one added word in the copy.
When I first read, in the introduction to that dissertation, that the researcher had discovered hundreds of transmissions of errors in just one verse of the New Testament, I began to realize the vast number of transmission errors that must be scattered throughout the entire Bible. I wondered whether we could trust anything we read. But as I worked my way through the hundreds of errors in just the one verse, I was forced to the same conclusion as the researcher: The vast majority of errors are utterly insignificant. It was immediately and indisputably obvious to any reader, in the vast majority of errors, exactly what the error was, and exactly what was intended: that "supose" is merely a mispelling for "suppose."
Let me underscore this reality: In the vast majority of transmission errors, there were no possibilities for error in understanding, because the error was an obvious error of spelling. In the tiny minority of errors where a mispelled word actually changed the meaning, there was no serious likelihood for confusion. The great majority of errors were obvious errors, either because we know how words are supposed to be spelled and this was a mispelling, or because we know what reality is like: It is obvious to any objective reader that ushers do not eat latecomers, they seat them.
There was another reality that became very obvious as one looked at these manuscripts: Although there were hundreds of errors among thousands of manuscripts, there were vastly more cases of correctly copied manuscripts than there were of copies with an error. This too made it obvious to the objective observer which was the corrrect rendering, and which was the mistake. I understood why my professor of textual criticism in grad school had said, "When you examine the manuscripts, you'll understand that the so-called problem of transmission error is grossly overstated. We are completely certain about 99% of the text, and very certain about the most of the other 1%."
The Good News we encounter in Scripture is not dependent on any one word, sentence, paragraph, passage or even on any one of the many books of Scripture. Our common faith comes to us through the many stories, parables, songs, riddles, proverbs, poems, and letters that continually reiterate the same themes. ("If I've told you once, I've told you a thousand times...")
I can think of no Christian belief that hangs on one word, sentence, or even book. Although I am not willing to give up any of the books of Scripture, I can think of no Christian belief that we would lose if one of those books were missing. Our understanding of the Good News, of God's passionate love for us, of the astonding nature of Jesus and what he did -- none of it depends on .01% of the text, but on the whole. "Errors of transmission," are quite frankly and finally, utterly and laughably insignificant.
goesI cdnuolt blveiee taht I cluod aulaclty uesdnatanrd waht I was rdanieg. ... yaeh and I awlyas thought slpeling was ipmorantt!!
Which means, in the final analysis, that we have every reason to read the Scriptures with confidence.