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God’s Editing Process for the Bible

Was the Bible edited? It’s a good question. When I was younger, I used to think of the biblical writers almost as being zapped with words by the Holy Spirit. However, as I’ve grown in my experience with the Lord, I’ve come to understand that He often speaks directly through human beings who appear to be speaking in a natural and casual way. Often, the person speaking has no idea they are imparting revelation that is divinely inspired.

For example, your pastor or a guest speaker gets up to preach on Sunday and they mention words and details that tie directly to a major situation in your life. The kinds of details the person couldn’t possibly know on their own. They have no idea that the Holy Spirit is speaking prophetically through them, even though He is very clearly doing that.

Biblical Writers

It was probably the same for many of the biblical writers. The scribes who wrote books like Judges, 1 & 2 Kings, and 1 & 2 Chronicles seem to have approached the task as would any writer whose job it was to record significant events. In other words, they were writing historical accounts as far as they knew.

The Gospel writers seem to have taken a similar approach. Luke even tells Theophilus that he carefully investigated everything and set out to write an orderly account of what took place. He then tells Theophilus he took the same approach when recording the Acts of the Apostles. He probably sat down and wrote quite a few different drafts. He may have even reworked the various drafts for years before he finally felt that it was complete.

He probably had other people look over the books to make sure everything was accurate. Luke almost certainly sought people’s feedback to make sure everything was understandable, well-written, and presented in a way that made sense. A lot of thought, time, care, and effort probably went into writing most of the books of the Bible.

But why is that so important?

A Divine Editing Process

The reason it’s important is that much confusion can be eliminated—and false teaching refuted—if we recognize that the Bible went through an editing process.

This has been on my mind to some degree for the last several years. As God has blessed me with the opportunity to work in publishing, I’ve come to understand several very important factors:

(1) Most of God’s work is not accomplished in isolation because God loves to work through the Body of Christ. 1 Corinthians explains this very well. Some are eyes, some are hands. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you.” Modern Christian writers who believe every word is given to them directly by the Holy Spirit often have a problem. They don’t like to submit themselves or their work to anyone else. But the eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you.” It normally doesn’t work out very well for the people who have that attitude. Sometimes we see Paul really digging in his heels with conviction about what the Lord has told him. But for the most part, what we see in the New Testament are groups of believers who need correction, recognize that they aren’t perfect, and then spend time, prayer, and effort working through various issues. Even Paul, who has such strong convictions, doesn’t announce that his letters are “the word of God.” Instead, he just writes letters, sometimes with the help of another person (see Romans 16:22).

(2) There are multiple drafts and even multiple printed versions in existence for every book or article I’ve ever worked on. Writing and editing a book is something that usually takes months or years. Even when you think you’re entirely finished, you often have several hundred more changes to make. Sometimes, you get to the point of having printed copies only to find that you need to make still more changes. Sometimes you even get to the point of publishing, only to find that you need to make small corrections, additions, or deletions. That’s just how the process works, even though God is directly involved in what you’re doing. He often shows you things you need to change or rework, but He does it little by little, over a long period of time.

(3) Through this editing process, God is getting the manuscript where He wants it to be. Now our modern books are not divinely inspired the way the Bible was, and they are not without error. But I think the process gives us enough of a glimpse to help us understand how God brought about many books of the Bible. There was a divinely inspired writing, revising, and editing process that occurred. Multiple people probably had input. And months or even years later, by the time the process was totally complete, there were probably quite a few different written versions of the texts floating around.

Was the Bible Edited?

Did the Bible go through a careful editing process? I believe that it did. The type and extent of editing, and who was involved in that process, all depends on the specific book of the Bible. The book of Jeremiah gives us a little glimpse of how a divinely inspired book could change after being rewritten:

“So Jeremiah took another scroll and gave it to the scribe Baruch son of Neriah, and as Jeremiah dictated, Baruch wrote on it all the words of the scroll that Jehoiakim king of Judah had burned in the fire. And many similar words were added to them.” (Jeremiah 36:32 NIV)

God has Jeremiah write out a second version of some prophetic words he had already written down once before. But when he wrote them out the second time, things were added to them. In other words, the second version was somewhat different from the first version.

An Editing Process for the Gospels?

I believe the same was true of the Gospels. Imagine John writing out his Gospel, maybe conferring with many different people along the way. After several drafts, he gets it as good as he can get it. Then he sends it to Peter in another city and asks for his feedback: Is it all accurate? Does it all make sense? Did I leave anything out?

Now imagine Peter sending back a note, “John, this all looks correct to me. If you think it worthwhile, you might consider adding the account of the woman caught in adultery—the one the Pharisees were going to stone until Jesus told them, ‘Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone.’ That was an important event. I remember it like it was yesterday.”

John gets Peter’s input and at first, he thinks, “Yes, that was an important event, but that account might be confusing for some people. I better pray on this some more.”

Time passes, and John still isn’t sure what to do.

In the meantime, scribes in the city where Peter was living have already begun to copy the original draft that John sent to Peter. After all, it is an accurate account of Jesus’ life and ministry. And none of the Gospels purport to record literally every detail of his life and ministry—that would be impossible.

Different Drafts of the Same Book End Up in Circulation

There’s nothing wrong with John’s first draft of his book, and in fact, the Christians at the time recognize the tremendous value of it. John doesn’t have email to tell them he’s going to take Peter’s advice after all, and do some more revisions. But he does keep working on it, trying different places of inserting the account of the woman caught in adultery. However, he doesn’t settle on a final version for several more years.

So what happens? That early draft spreads like wildfire, and many copies from that time period end up surviving.

On the other hand, there are relatively few early copies of John’s final version. But somewhere along the way in early church history, church leaders communicate with each other and come to recognize that there is a more complete version of John’s gospel. So at that point, they begin using the more complete version.

I believe this explains the issue we find in Scripture footnotes where we read explanations like, “The earliest manuscripts and many other ancient witnesses do not have John 7:53—8:11. A few manuscripts include these verses, wholly or in part, after John 7:36, John 21:25, Luke 21:38 or Luke 24:53.”

By the time we get a book complete, I can guarantee you there are quite a few different drafts of it floating around in various places. That’s just the way it is, and it’s reasonable to assume this was even more true in the Apostles’ time, before the days of word processors, email, Dropbox, and other such tools.

This issue really throws a lot of people off, but it doesn’t have to. You can rest assured that every word of the Bible was ultimately placed there by God himself, whether through a single writer with a single draft, a single writer with many drafts, through multiple writers, through a divine editing process, or through all of the above. It’s His Word and you can trust that it is all true!

Chris McKinney