A good translation should, as much as possible, attempt to represent the original wording as it left the original author’s hand. One problem, however, is that the Bible isn’t like the Declaration of Independence, where we can go back and look at the original document. No “originals” have been preserved. What we do have are thousands of handwritten copies (manuscripts).
What’s incredible is that these copies are almost completely identical with one another. Although there are differences between manuscripts, a vast majority of the time these differences are very minor alterations. For example, sometimes manuscripts will have different spellings of a name, or perhaps will contain “scribal notes” that were likely added to clarify passages that might have been confusing. These differences between manuscripts are called “variants.” In almost every case, textual variants are easily explained, and they almost never make any significant impact on the meaning of the text. The striking degree of similarity between the manuscripts gives scholars a high degree of confidence regarding the original wording of the text.
But there are some textual variants that are more difficult to solve. That’s why most translations will offer footnotes that say “Some manuscripts add…” or “Some manuscripts do not have…”. Pay attention to those footnotes. They can help you to be aware of those places where scholars aren’t as certain about the original text.
When scholars try to determine the original wording, there are a few key pieces of evidence they consider. Most scholars will tend to give more weight to older manuscripts (although sometimes this will be debated). In the Old Testament this often comes down to a choice between the Masoretic Text (primarily medieval era copies of the Hebrew text) and manuscripts of the Greek Septuagint (a Greek translation of the Old Testament that dates all the way back to 250-150 BC!). The Masoretic text is newer, yet it contains the original language. The Septuagint is older, so although it is a translation, it may be based on even older and more original Hebrew texts. So when differences occur between the Masoretic Text and the Septuagint, which is more reliable? This is sometimes a tricky question to answer and scholars love to debate this sort of thing.
Sometimes textual problems can be solved simply by using logic. Where variants exist, usually the variant that most logically explains how all the others came about is usually presumed to be original. For example, in Mark 1:2 the NKJV reads “As it is written in the prophets“, while the ESV (following different manuscripts) reads “As it is written in Isaiah the prophet.” What follows is a quotation that combines Malachi 3:1 and Isaiah 40:3. If the original text read “Isaiah the prophet”, it would be easy to explain why a later scribe would attempt to “correct” the text to simply read “the prophets”. But if the original text read “the prophets”, it would be more difficult to explain why a scribe would specify “Isaiah”. So while we may not be 100% certain which wording is original, it’s probably good guesswork to assume that Mark originally referred to Isaiah (which makes sense, since Isaiah is the more significant of the prophets he quotes). But, as with most all textual variants, it makes little to no difference as to the overall meaning of the text.
Since we want to know what the original author wrote, it is an incredible blessing to know that there are so many manuscripts standing behind our translations. Where uncertainty exists, it’s good to know why. And in all the other places, where our Bible doesn’t include those footnotes, it’s very reassuring to know that there is little to no uncertainty that we do in fact have the original words of the author.