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How did we get the ancient Holy texts we read today?

The Bible and the Tripitaka, or the Three Baskets, share much in common.  They are both sacred ancient texts. They were also written in languages that are not common today so they usually need to be translated.  The books of the Bible were written in Greek and Hebrew. However, the Buddhist scriptures were originally set down in Pali and Sanskrit.  Also, since they were written so long ago, the discipline of Textual Criticism must be applied on them to determine their textual reliability. Here we look at these issues that have shaped both the Bible and the Tripitaka (including the buddhavacana)

Textual Criticism

Textual Criticism is the academic discipline determining whether an ancient text has changed from its original composition until today.  Because it is an academic discipline it applies to any ancient writing from any language. 

The Time Interval

An example timeline illustrating how ancient writings come to us today

This diagram shows an example of a hypothetical document written 500 BCE. The original text did not last long. So before it decays, is lost, or destroyed, a manuscript (MSS) copy of it must be made (1st copy). A professional class of people called scribes did the copying. As the years advance, scribes make copies (2nd & 3rd copy) of the 1st copy. At some point a copy is preserved so that it exists today (the 3rd copy).

In our example diagram scribes produced this extant copy in 500 CE. This means that the earliest that we can know of the state of the text is only after 500 CE. Therefore the time from 500 BCE to 500 CE (labeled x in the diagram) forms the period of textual uncertainty. Even though the original was written long before, all manuscripts before 500 CE have vanished. Therefore we cannot evaluate copies from this period.

For example, if scribes made changes to the text when they copied the 2nd copy from the 1st copy, we would not know since neither of these documents are available today to compare against each other. This time period before the existing copies (the period x) thus forms the interval of textual uncertainty.  Therefore, the first principle used in textual criticism is to measure this time interval.  The shorter this interval x the more confidence we can place in the correct preservation of the document to our time, since the period of uncertainty is reduced.

The Number of Existing Manuscripts

The second principle used in Textual criticism is to count the number of existing manuscripts today.  Our example illustration above showed only one manuscript available (the 3rd copy).  But usually more than one manuscript copy exists today.  The more manuscripts in existence in the present day then the better the manuscript data. Then historians can compare copies against other copies to see if and how much these copies deviate from each other.  So the number of manuscript copies available becomes the second indicator determining the textual reliability of ancient writings.

Textual Criticism of Bible and Tripitaka

Now we use this background information to understand and assess the text of both the Bible and the Tripitaka.

Original Authors and Writings

Major writers and characters of the Bible

This timeline shows the major writers and prophets of the Bible (though not all since that would clutter the timeline).  Each of the Old Testament writers wrote books in their lifetimes. Since they lived a very long time ago their writings are among the earliest writings ever. In fact, evidence suggests that all alphabet writing systems used today come from the one developed by the Hebrews.

Gautama Buddha included in the Timeline

We now include the Buddha on the lower part of the timeline.  He lived at the same time as many of the later Old Testament writers. But his disciples preserved his teachings orally, not in writing.

New Testament books included in the Timeline

We now add the New Testament writings.  Jesus did not write any book in the New Testament. Instead his disciples and apostles wrote all 27 books of the New Testament.  Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection occurred in 33 CE. His apostles wrote the New Testament books approximately in the 50 year period from 40 – 90 CE. We show this time period as a blue rectangle just after Jesus.

First written sutras added to Timeline

Likewise Buddha Gautama did not write any of the sutras or other writings of the Tripitaka.  Buddhist tradition and scholars suggests that the after oral transmission of the Tripitaka, monks first wrote down the sutras in the first century BCE. We show this by another blue rectangle on the underside of the timeline.

Bible Texts to Today

Existing manuscript copies

Now we include manuscript copies preserved today since none of the original writings exist any longer.  Scholars date the oldest copies existing today of the books of the Old Testament, known as the Dead Sea Scrolls, from 250 – 100 BCE.  This article contains more information about the Dead Sea Scrolls. Thus scribes copied these Hebrew manuscripts only a few hundred years after the authors (Jeremiah, Zechariah etc.) wrote the originals. We show these Dead Sea Scrolls in the timeline as a small green rectangle.

Archeologists and scholars have discovered over 24000 manuscript copies of portions of the New Testament. Museums and institutions around the world store these numerous copies.  Of these about 5000 are in Greek, the language that the New Testament authors wrote in.  Scholars date the earliest New Testament copy at 125 CE, about 50 years after the original. Then over the next 1100 years scribes copied the remaining 24000 manuscripts.  The long green rectangle shows the extensive period when scribes made these copies.

Buddhist Sutras to Today

The earliest sutra copies in existence today, about 150 manuscripts and written in Ganhari, were found in Northern Pakistan. Scholars date these between the first century BCE to 3rd century CE as shown in the yellow rectangle below the timeline.

Since the Pali and Chinese writings are the most important Buddhist texts the timeline also includes these.  The earliest existing Chinese copy of the Tripataka, called the Zhaocheng Jin Tripitaka (趙城金藏), dates to Kublai Khan of the Yuan dynasty at 1150 CE.  The earliest Pali tripataka, recognized by the Theravada school, date to late in the 15th Century CE. We include both of these in the timeline as yellow rectangles.

Finally, at the 6th Buddhist council from 1954-1956, leaders met to consider final deliberations and modifications for the Pali text. We include this also in the timeline.  Since Pali and Sanskrit are not in regular use today, linguists must translate these texts into English, Thai, Burmese, Khmer, Sinhala or other living languages in order to read these texts.

Translation or Transliteration

The Bible’s authors originally wrote in Hebrew (for the Old Testament) and in Greek (for the New Testament).  They authored the New Testament in Greek because, like English today, back then Greek was the international language.  Understanding the influence of the Greek language on both the Old and New Testaments is important to understand modern Bible translations. 

We need to first understand some basics of translation. Translators sometimes choose to translate by similar sound rather than by meaning, especially when it comes to names or titles. This is known as transliteration.  The figure below illustrates the difference between translation and transliteration. From Sinhala you can choose two ways to bring the word for ‘Three Baskets’ into English. You can translate by meaning which gives ‘Three Baskets’ or you can transliterate by sound to get ‘Tipiṭakaya’.

This uses the Sinhalese term ‘තිපිටකය’ to illustrate how we can translate or transliterate from one language to another

There is no absolute ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ in the choice of translation or transliteration for titles and key words. The choice depends on how well people understand or accept the term in the receiver language.

The Septuagint

The first translation of the Bible occurred with the Hebrew Old Testament translation into Greek about 250 BCE. This translation is known as the Septuagint (or LXX) and it was very influential.  To avoid cluttering our timeline we did not include the Septuagint in it. But basically about the same time that the Hebrew Dead Sea Scrolls were copied Hebrew rabbis also translated the Septuagint.  Therefore the Old Testament was available in both Hebrew and Greek after 250 BCE.  Since the New Testament was in Greek, the many quotations of the Old Testament in it came from the Greek Septuagint.

Translation & Transliteration in the Septuagint

The figure below shows how this impacts all modern-day Bibles with translation stages shown in quadrants.

This shows the translation process of the Bible to modern language

The original Hebrew Old Testament is in quadrant #1. Because the Septuagint was a Hebrew to Greek translation (in 250 BCE) we show an arrow going from quadrant #1 to #2.  The New Testament authors wrote the New Testament in Greek, so this means #2 contains both Old and New Testaments. In the bottom half (#3) is a modern language translation of the Bible (eg English).  To get this translation linguists translate the Old Testament from the original Hebrew (1 -> 3) and the New Testament from the Greek (2 -> 3). The translators must decide on transliteration or translation of names and titles as explained above.

Knowing translation/transliteration and the Septuagint provides the background to understand where the title ‘Christ’ comes from.  The Prophets wrote down the prophecies of the coming Christ starting a thousand years before Jesus Christ walked the earth. These prophecies give evidence that the incarnation of Jesus the Christ was indeed the plan of the Creator God.  We look at where the title ‘Christ’ comes from here.

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