You’ve Got Questions: Were the Ancient Manuscripts of the Bible Transmitted Accurately?

You’ve Got Questions: Were the Ancient Manuscripts of the Bible Transmitted Accurately?

When discussing the Bible with non-Christians, one might hear the objection: “Yes, the Bible reads that way now, but everyone knows that it has been changed.” Does this objection have any substance to it? How do we know that the Bible in our hands is a faithful transmission of the words that the inspired authors originally wrote?

The Old Testament originally was written in Hebrew, with a few Aramaic portions, between 1400 and 430 B.C. The New Testament was written in Greek between A.D. 45 and 90. The original copies of the ancient biblical texts are called autographs. All autographs of biblical books have been lost or destroyed, though we have thousands of ancient copies. The process of studying and comparing these copies to reconstruct the wording of the original is called textual criticism. This area of study flourished in the 16th Century with the introduction of the printing press, the revival of learning in Europe, and the Reformation. Since then, this science has continued to develop, reaching new heights with the discovery of many ancient manuscripts in the 19th and 20th Centuries. Most scholars agree that text criticism has served to confirm the reliable transmission of the Old and New Testament manuscripts. Furthermore, no text in question even affects Christian doctrine. Most unsolved textual issues have little or no doctrinal significance.

Our culture today is very accustomed to technology and advanced methods of communication, so sometimes we have suspicion towards more ancient methods of literature production. However, it should be noted that ancient Jewish rabbis and early Christian scribes usually exercised great precision in the copying of biblical texts. Jewish scribes followed detailed systems for counting letters in manuscripts and checking for accidental variations. Likewise, Christian scribes showed great caution, often having multiple correctors read through their copies to check for errors. Inevitably, all hand-copied manuscripts have some variations, but striking accuracy is seen in most ancient copies of our Old and New Testaments.

Old Testament

Have you ever heard of the Dead Sea Scrolls? In 1947, the first part of a cache of ancient Jewish documents was discovered in caves near the Dead Sea. A young Arab goat herder investigated a cave after throwing a rock in and hearing a piece of pottery (a scroll jar) break. The documents discovered in these caves apparently belonged to a Jewish sect, the Essenes, who lived in a separatists community in the Judean desert near the Dead Sea. In addition to the various sectarian documents and other extra-biblical literature found in the caves, scholars have found portions of all Old Testament books except Esther and Nehemiah. These manuscripts, which date from roughly 250 B.C. to A.D. 50, have come to be called the Dead Sea Scrolls. We have had significant Old Testament manuscripts before the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, like the Leningrad Codex (A.D. 1008) and the Aleppo Codex (A.D. 900), but the Dead Sea Scrolls (which are nearly identical to the later manuscripts of the Old Testament) pushed the Hebrew manuscript evidence back a millennium earlier. The Dead Sea Scrolls have confirmed that the Hebrew books of the Bible were meticulously and faithfully copied.

In addition to ancient Hebrew texts, we also have ancient copies of the Old Testament translated into several other languages: Greek, Latin, Syriac, etc. Ancient translations of the Old Testament sometimes help in the deciphering of a difficult Hebrew word or phrase. More importantly, these texts sometimes can serve as helpful witnesses to variant readings in the ancient Hebrew.

New Testament

Even within the Bible itself, we find evidence of New Testament documents being hand-copied and circulated (Col. 4:16; 1 Thess. 5:27; 2 Peter 3:15-16). As of right now, we have nearly six thousand ancient manuscripts or portions of manuscripts of the New Testament. The oldest extant fragment of the New Testament, which is John 18:31-33, 37-38, comes from about A.D. 130. Here’s why is it important to note that we have this many ancient manuscripts: No other ancient text comes even close to having this amount of early textual evidence. F. F. Bruce brings out this truth and is worth quoting at length:

“Perhaps we can appreciate how wealthy the New Testament is in manuscript attestation if we compare the textual material for other ancient historical works. For Caesar’s Gallic War (composed between 58 and 50 B.C.) there are several extant MSS (manuscripts), but only nine or ten are good, and the oldest is some 900 years later than Caesar’s day. Of the 142 books of the Roman History of Live (59 B.C.-A.D. 17) only thirty-five survive; these are known to us from not more than twenty manuscripts of any consequence, only one of which, and that containing fragments of Books iii-vi, is as old as the fourth century. Of the fourteen books of the Histories of Tacitus (c. A.D. 100) only four and a half survive; of the sixteen books of his Annals, ten survive in full and two in part. The text of these extant portions of his two great historical works depends entirely on two manuscripts, one of the ninth century and one of the eleventh. The extant manuscripts of his minor works (Dialogus de Oratoribus, Agricola, Germania) all descend from a codex of the tenth century. The History of Thucydides (c. 460-400 B.C. ) is known to us from eight manuscript, the earliest belonging to c. A.D. 900, and a few papyrus scraps, belonging to about the beginning of the Christian era. The same is true of the History of Herodotus (c. 488-438 B.C.). Yet no classical scholar would listen to an argument that the authenticity of Herodotus or Thucydides is in doubt because the earliest manuscripts of their works which are of any use are over 1,300 years later than the originals.” (1)

About 95 percent of textual variants in the numerous manuscripts are accidental; the unintentional variations introduced by tired or incompetent scribes. There were errors of sight, errors of hearing, writing, and poor judgment. But the remaining 5 percent of textual variants resulted from intentional activity on the part of scribes. Such changes like revising grammar or spelling, harmonizing similar passages, or conflating the text. (2)

Of course, with so many ancient texts at our disposal, we can dismiss most of the variants listed above, and therefore there is no need to cite the majority of variants in modern English translations. The Bible has proved over the centuries to be reliable and trustworthy, and is indeed “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16b-17). Let us say with the psalmist David, “The words of the LORD are pure words, like silver refined in a furnace on the ground, purified seven times” (Psalm 12:6).


 

1. F. F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable6th ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1981), 11.
2. Robert L. Plummer, 40 Questions About Interpreting the Bible(Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2010), 52-54.
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