Can we be sure that the Bibles we hold in our hands today have accurately preserved the original thoughts and words that the writers wrote across the hundreds and thousands of years that have intervened since they were written? And how could we confirm this to be the case? As it turns out, there is overwhelming evidence that the New Testament is the most well-preserved and attested ancient work of literature - bar none! And the Old Testament, though much older, has a pretty incredible track record too
When you pick up a Bible today, you’re reading a document that was written between 2000 and 4000 years ago! That’s long before the advent of electronic backups and even printing presses. How can you be sure that you’re reading the words that the original writers intended? Or could it be that all kinds of errors, omissions and additions have crept in and spoiled what was originally written?
For a believer, part of the answer is ‘faith’. If you believe that the Bible is the word of God, then it would be fairly logical to assume that He would have seen fit to preserve it accurately through history so that people could read it down the ages. It would seem unlikely that He would bother to communicate with men and women ‘in writing’, but then allow that message to deteriorate beyond recognition over time.
But such faith is not blind faith. There is, in fact, considerable evidence that this is exactly what has happened. There is more evidence for the transmission accuracy of the Bible through time than there is for any other ancient work of literature.
What scholars can do to evaluate the accuracy of ancient texts is to collect and examine the ancient manuscripts that we have – tiny fragments as well as complete copies – and examine how ancient and how consistent this textual witness is. Do the ancient texts look anything like the work we have in our hands today, and how much confidence can we have in those ancient copies? We can then compare this track record amongst a number of ancient books that have been handed down through the ages to see how the Bible stacks up.
New Testament Manuscripts
Let’s start with the New Testament, where a particularly impressive picture emerges.
Here are just a few of many statistics to give a flavour. As a yardstick, let’s start with another very significant ancient work: Homer’s Iliad, which we can then compare with the Bible. How many ancient copies of the Iliad do we have? Around 650, and the oldest full manuscript dates from about 1400 years after the supposed time of original composition. Now the Iliad is considered a relatively well preserved work, but that’s quite a length of time that passed – 1400 years – between its orginal composition and our oldest complete copy. Who knows what happened in between?
What about when we compare this to the New Testament? Instead of the Iliad’s 650 copies, we have around 24,000 manuscripts, the earliest fragments of which date from within a century or two of original writing! In fact, even if we had no manuscripts, we could actually recreate virtually the entire New Testament from quotations that other writers made from it hundreds of years ago! But in fact we have 24000 manuscripts, so we don’t need to go through that laborious exercise (except by way of further verification and confirmation). There is no other book from ancient times which has been preserved with such accuracy. Co-incidence? Perhaps not. There is more uncertainty about the text of Shakesheare, 250 years ago, than there is about the New Testament!
This is not to say that all the manuscripts and fragments are identical. Not at all. There are small variations of spelling, and some mistakes and inconsistencies between the various copies. Occasionally there are genuine differences where scholars have to make judgments about what the original text probably said, with several options being possible. But the vast majority of these differences are easily detectable as mistakes and do not cast serious doubt on the meaning of the passage in question. Occasionally, skeptics will refer to the ‘thousands’ of differences in the manuscript evidence, but if we were to exclude all those differences which were immaterial (obvious spelling errors, two words being collapsed into one or syllables being repeated accidentally, and so forth), and those differences which make no meaningful difference to the overall sense of the passage, then we would have a number which is astonishingly small by ancient standards.
For this reason, people who believe in the full inspiration of the Bible will sometimes qualify that they believe in the verbal inspiration of the original manuscripts. Of course we don’t have any absolutely original documents (in the sense of ‘the very piece of parchment on which Paul or Isaiah wrote’) – we only have very ancient copies, so this is something of a construct. Another way to express this view would be to say that the Scriptures are fully inspired down to the verbal level, but to add the rider ‘except in so far as there may be errors of translation, transcription, copying, and so forth’.
Again, if we look at the relative track record here, there is no ancient book like it, both in terms of the amount of textual witness, and its consistency.
(Note: there is one important NT textual question, concerning the difference between the ‘Received’ text and the so-called Westcott-Hort text which you might want to be aware of. A page will be added about this in due course.)
The Old Testament
Things are a little different with the Old Testament – we do not have the same number of manuscripts as we have for the New, and they do not date back quite so close to the date of original composition. But if that sounds less impressive, it is more than made up for by the fact that the Old Testament documents are another 500-2000 years older again than the documents in the New Testament! And once more, we not only have ancient Hebrew manuscript evidence to consider (which is still impressive, even if not to the level of the New Testament), but also the many ancient translations of the Old Testament into other languages, and the records of the many times it is quoted, both in the New Testament and elsewhere.
The story of our knowledge of the Old Testament manuscripts is a particularly interesting one. Up until only 60 or so years ago, the oldest complete manuscript of the Old Testament dated from about 1000AD, whereas the documents it contained were composed 1500 to 3000 years earlier. Although a good textual witness, there seemed to be a big time gap which caused uncertainty.
This all changed, however, with the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in the Judean desert in 1947. In a stroke, we had manuscripts of complete Old Testament books which bridged that gap by 1000 years! And the conclusion? Our 1000AD text seems to have been preserved with notable accuracy and consistency.