Truth That Matters

"What will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul?" - Jesus Christ

THE PRESERVATION OF THE BIBLE

Whenever we read an old book, an obvious concern is: Are the copies of the book available today the same as the original book? If there is no reasonable assurance that the book has been preserved, its merit is questionable. This is all the more true for the Bible, which claims to be divine revelation that God will preserve. This article will examine the evidence for the preservation of both parts of the Bible, namely, the Old and New Testaments.

The Preservation of the Old Testament

The Hebrew Old Testament was copied and guarded by the Sopherim, Talmudists, and Masoretes (Jewish scribes - see image). The following are some of the guidelines followed by the Hebrew scribes in copying Old Testament manuscripts:-
  • The scroll must be written on the skin of a clean animal, prepared by a Jew.
  • Each skin must contain a specified number of columns, equal throughout the entire book.
  • The length of each column must extend no less than forty eight lines or more than sixty lines.
  • The whole copy must be first-lined.
  • The column breadth must consist of exactly thirty letters.
  • The space of a thread must appear between every consonant and the space of a consonant between each word.
  • The breadth of nine consonants had to be inserted between each section
  • A space of three lines had to appear between each book.
  • The fifth book of Moses (Deuteronomy) had to conclude exactly with a full line.
  • Nothing - not even the shortest word or vowel pointing - could be copied from memory; it had to be copied letter by letter.
  • The number of letters, words and verses of each book had to be noted and compared with the original.
  • The scribe must count the number of times each letter of the alphabet occurred, the middle verse, the middle word, the middle letter, the number of verses containing a specified number of letters of the alphabet, etc in each book and compare it to the original.
  • If a manuscript was found to contain even one mistake, it was discarded.
[This is taken from Josh McDowell, New Evidence that demands a verdict (Nashville: Nelson, 1999), 74 and from Sir Frederic Kenyon, Our Bible and the Ancient Manuscripts, New York, Harper Brothers, 1941]
 
With rules like the above, there is no need to worry about errors. The Hebrew text of these manuscripts became known as the Masoretic Text.
 
Until 1947, the oldest OT manuscript was dated 950 AD. However in 1947, the Dead Sea scrolls were discovered in Qumran, Israel. The Dead Sea Scrolls have been called the greatest manuscript find of all time. Discovered between 1947 and 1956, the Scrolls comprise some 800 documents but in many tens of thousands of fragments. The Scrolls date from about 350 B.C. to 68 A.D. and were written in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek; they contain Biblical and apocryphal works, prayers and legal texts and sectarian documents. They included a copy of Isaiah dating 100 BC, which was virtually identical to the 950 AD copy, indicating that the Jewish scribes had done a remarkable job of copying the Old Testament without errors. The image shows the location of Cave 1, Qumran.
 
In 1524, Daniel Bomberg from Venice printed the Masoretic Text prepared by Yaakov ben Chayyim, a Jewish Christian. This Hebrew Old Testament was translated to English and other modern languages.

The Preservation of the New Testament

The following witnesses exist for the New Testament:-

Ancient Greek Manuscript Fragments: The earliest known manuscript of the New Testament is the John Rylands Papyrus fragment of John's Gospel, also known as P52, containing John 18:31-33, 37-38, dated to ~AD 125 (image at right). Some fragments of Greek Uncial Manuscripts go back to about AD 175-200. The Chester Beatty Papyrii which contain almost all the NT books, were copied about AD 220-230.

Early Christian (and non-Christian) authors: Eusebius (270-340), Ireneaus (130-202 AD), Ignatius (~60-115 AD), Theophilus (~100-193 AD), Dorotheus (~240-300 AD), Tertullian (160-220 AD), Cyprian (195-258 AD), John Chyrostom (347-407 AD) etc have quoted extensively from the Bible. Since their quotations agree with our Bibles today, we know that our Bibles are the same as the ones they used.

Late Greek Manuscripts (7th to 15th century): There are about 5000 of them. Although all of them do not contain the whole New Testament (manuscripts are much bulkier than printed paper), there is abundant witness for each book of the New Testament among these 5000 manuscripts.

Early Translations: The important ancient translations of the Greek New Testament are: the Syrian Peshitta (150 AD), the Old Latin Bible (160 AD), and the Gothic Bible of Ulfilas (330 AD). We also have the Sahidic, Bohairic, Coptic and Armenian Bibles. There are about 20,000 manuscripts in these languages.

Early Quotations: The New Testament is quoted extensively in The Unknown Gospel (AD 150), The Gospel of Truth, written by the heretic Valentinus, and various "church fathers". The Biblical text is also preserved in "lectionaries", i.e. early church service manuals, which quote many New Testament passages. These quotations show that the New Testament we have today is the same as that of the first few centuries AD. Sir David Dalrymple was once asked the question, “Suppose that they had been destroyed, and every copy of it lost by the end of the third century, could it have been collected together again from the writings of the Fathers of the second and third centuries?” Owning all the works of the Fathers of the second and third centuries, he searched and found the entire New Testament except for eleven verses.

The following table shows the level of preservation of the works of some secular historians versus that of the Bible. The columns show the author, the date written, the number of manuscripts surviving, and the number of years after the date written for the earliest manuscript.

 Sophocles 496-406 BC 100 1400
 Herodotus 480-425 BC 8 1300
 Euripedes 480-406 BC 9 1500
 Thucydides 460-400 BC 8 1300
 Plato 427-327 BC 7 1200
 Aristotle 384-322 BC 5 1400
 Demosthenes 383-322 BC 200 1300
 Lucretius 60 BC 2 1600
 Julius Caesar (Gallic Wars)
 50 BC
 10 900
 Tacitus 100 AD 20 1000
 Pliny 61-113 AD 7 750
 Suetonius 75-160 AD ? 800
 Aristophanes 450-385 BC ?1200
 Livy 59 BC- 17 AD
 20 ?
 Homer (Iliad) 900 BC 643 500
 New Testament 50-100 AD 25700 250

[This information is available in F. W. Hall, Manuscript Authorities for the Text of the Chief Classical Writers].
"We have [as of 2007] 5700 Greek copies of the New Testament. When I started seminary, there were about 4800, but more and more have been discovered. There are another 10000 copies in Latin. There are versions in other languages – Coptic, Syriac, Armenian, Georgian and so on. These are estimated to number between 10,000 and 15,000. So right there we've got 25,000 to 30,000 handwritten copies of the New Testament…a great majority of these manuscripts are complete for the purposes the scribes intended. For example, some manuscripts were intended to include just the gospels, others just Paul's letters. Only sixty Greek manuscripts have the complete New Testament" – Daniel Wallace, in Lee Strobel, The case for the Real Jesus, Zondervan, p83
There is also a catalog of New Testament manuscripts. Thus, the New Testament has a large number of manuscripts, and manuscripts dating from close to the time of writing. Thus, the New Testament is well preserved. In 1516 AD, the Dutch scholar Erasmus published the first printed edition of the Greek New Testament from the manuscripts that he had access to. He was followed a few years later by others – these editions became known as the Received Text. It was translated to modern languages such as English, German, etc.

Conclusion

As you can see, more evidence exists for the preservation of the Bible than that of any ancient book. If you cannot believe that the Bible you have today is the same as the Bible that was originally written, you shouldn't believe in most world history either, since world history relies on the writings of ancient historians - writings that are not as well preserved as the Bible.
 
The following are some milestones for the English Bible:-
  1. The first English Bible was due to John Wycliffe, around 1382 AD.
  2. The King James Version was the seventh English Bible, and was produced in 1611.
  3. The spellings in the King James Bible were standardized in the 1769 edition.
  4. The New King James Version was produced in 1982.
Also see:

Further reading:

  • Bruce, F. F. The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1960
  • Geisler, Norman, and William Nix. From God to Us: How we got our Bible, Chicago: Moody, 1980.
  • Komoszewski, J. Ed, M James Sawyer, and Daniel B. Wallace. Reinventing Jesus. Grand Rapids, Mich: Kregel, 2006
  • Wegner, Paul D. The Journey from Texts to Translations. Grand Rapids, Mich.:Baker, 1999