Sometimes we get the question as teachers and speakers, “I heard the Bible is going to change. Is that really true?”
TLDR (“too long; didn’t read”), short answer? Probably not.
Uderstanding the “how” and “why” of that short answer takes us into understanding threee key terms: manuscript, translation, and edition.
Think of these three terms as the pathway through which most of us actually have a Bible in our hands (or on our screen) to read as modern-day people who don’t speak or read the languages of the 1st century (or earlier!).
The first “step” of how we actually have a Bible in our hands, in English, in the US are the ancient manuscripts. These are the copies of the text, preserved from the ancient world. Manuscript literally means written (script) by hand (manu). There are enough of them to be convincing/reliable (over 5000!) but it’s not like archaeologists are finding lots of new ones all the time. So, this is why the Bible isn’t “changing”–because we would need to suddenly have new manuscripts.
And, it’s not that one specific manuscript is “the best” for every single book of the Bible. Scholars look at as many as exist and form their best conclusion on which is the most accurate for each word…i.e. if a rip or smudge is causing a part to be missing from one, vs. another; if there’s a different spelling that gives different meaning in 30% vs. 70% of copies, which scribe seems really good vs. more prone to errors, etc. Looking at all of the manuscripts, scholars assess what the most likely original word, spelling, or verb tense was.
Sometimes you’ll even see a footnote in your Bible that the “manuscript evidence” is mixed and there’s not a solid conclusion on the exact word. One common example of this is Luke 10:1, notice how the NABRE copy of the USCCB has a note that explains the inconclusive and differing manuscript evidence on if it’s “72” or “70” –> https://bible.usccb.org/bible/luke/10?1=#50010001
What’s great about being Catholic (in contrast to our “fundamentalist” brothers and sisters in Christ) is that we do not believe that the literal words themselves are inerrant in a merely historical sense (in which case 72 vs 70 would “matter”). Instead, we believe that the Sacred Scriptures are without error for the sake of our salvation, and are written through real, inspired human authors in the genres/context of their actual time period. As the Church explained in the Second Vatican Council, the Scriptures:
teach solidly, faithfully and without error that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings for the sake of salvationConstitution on Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum), para. 11
So, I rest easy trusting that if God had a plan that knowledge of if it was 72 or 70 apostles that Jesus sent out at that particular moment was important for His Church to know, the Holy Spirit would let us know…and vagueness of that particular number is okay,
This is why it’s hard to imagine what could be discovered that that mere one additional manuscript copy would cause a sudden, significant shift. It’s like a democracy of manuscripts in a way. If a new manuscript was discovered in an archaeological dig, and it had an additional sentence or something, that would be looked at in light of all of the other manuscript copies too–thousands of manuscripts (!) depending on the particular book of the Bible in question. There would have to be a lot of new manuscripts with something different to lead to any kind of substantive change.
Okay, so what’s a translation and which Bible translation should I use?
The ancient manuscripts are then what are translated (think “step 2”) into various languages.
Translating is a lot of work, usually done in team or committee, translators look at many manuscripts, using the manscripts to cross-check and compare.
This is why there are some very popular translations into English like RSV, NABRE, and NIV…but not thousands of them–because it’s a significant amount of time and effort. Single-translator works (like N.T. Wright’s The Kingdom New Testament) also exist and can be done more quickly.
Check out this Prezi presentation (from 2014) which I used to unpack the idea of translation more. It shows many popular English translations along the spectrum of “dynamic” [which means, translated in the style of “idea for idea”] to most “formal” [which means, translated more in a “word for word” style].
Next, comes the “edition” of a Bible
Publishers (think Ave Maria Press, Zondervan, etc.) buy the rights to a translation and make it into an edition (aka all the introductions, sidebar material, footnotes, snazzy maps/covers, etc.). There are a lot of editions–way more editions than translations, since it’s a lot more time and effort to translate the Bible from those manuscripts than it is to take an existing translation and “package it” (for lack of a better term) into a new edition.
Publishers design editions for specific audiences and needs, for example:
- children or teens
- personal reflection/prayer vs. scholarly research
- as a single column (aka “normal book”) layout to promote more relaxed reading
- with notetaking areas for journalling
- with colors to show periods of Biblical history
- with footnotes and side-essays featuring Church fathers’ writings
- the list goes on and on, the sky’s the limit!
Is the Catholic Bible changing?
With that behind-the-scenes understanding of manuscripts, translations, and editions, we can better understand that editions change and there are often new editions; sometimes revisions to translations or new translations; and only very rarely significant substantive additions to the body of manuscripts translators use.
Thus, as a Catholic, nobody needs to lose sleep at night worrying about the Bible suddenly changing in substantive ways. And, as Catholics we believe that the Word of God is bigger and more powerful than any “words of God” that are specific words in any language, so God has provided what we need!