Has the Bible Been Preserved Accurately?

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Has the Bible Been Preserved Accurately?

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Has the Bible been preserved accurately? Are the Scriptures that we read today the same as the ones originally written so long ago? Has the Bible been changed, or does it constitute the same inspired words written by the prophets and the apostles?

Of course, there are language differences because the Bible was not originally written in English. The Old Testament was written primarily in Hebrew, with a few parts in Aramaic, and the New Testament was penned in Greek.

The Bible wasn't translated into English until the 14th century. But did it change over the many centuries until then?

These are important questions because if it can be shown that the Bible we have today is different from the one God originally inspired, why should we pay attention to it? If we can't trust that it has been accurately translated and preserved, there is little reason to trust that it is indeed God's Word. So it's very important that we see what the historical record shows. How can we know?

Has the Old Testament been accurately preserved?

The Hebrew Bible, what today is called the Old Testament, is far older than the New Testament—having been written between approximately 1446 and 400 B.C., some 25 to 35 centuries ago. Is the version we have today a faithful and accurate rendition of the original?

Let's take a look at how it was preserved for us.

The apostle Paul wrote that the oracles of God were committed to the Jewish people (Romans 3:2). For centuries they carefully and meticulously preserved their sacred writings. The manuscripts of the Bible that we have today were written by hand long ago, well before the invention of the printing press. The Jewish scribes who made the copies of the Old Testament Scriptures from generation to generation were scrupulously cautious about their copying procedures.

This meticulous care was perpetuated by the Masoretes, a special group of Jewish scribes who were entrusted with making copies of the Hebrew Bible from about A.D. 500 to 900. Their version of the Old Testament, widely considered the most authoritative, came to be known as the Masoretic Text.

Before and during this time, trained copyists followed various meticulous and stringent requirements for making scrolls of their holy books. The Masoretes required that all manuscripts have various word numbering systems. As an example of one test they used, when a new copy was made, they counted the number of words in it. If the copy didn't have the proper count, the manuscript was unusable and buried.

Such steps ensured that not a single word could be added to or left out of the Holy Scriptures. Through such steps the scrolls that formed the Hebrew Bible were copied meticulously, carefully and accurately, century after century.

What about the books of the Old Testament?

About A.D. 90 Jewish elders meeting in the Council at Jamnia, in Judea near the Mediterranean coast, affirmed that the canon —the set of writings acknowledged as being divinely inspired—of the Jewish Bible was complete and authoritative.

While there are some differences in organization—the Jewish Bible combines the text into 22 books while our modern Bibles divide the Old Testament into 39—the content is nonetheless the same. The differences are due to the fact that books like Joshua and Judges were written on one scroll, thus making them one book by Jewish count while they appear as separate books in our modern Bibles. Similarly, 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings all made up one book in Jewish reckoning, as did 1 and 2 Chronicles, though all these were divided into multiple books in our English translations.

The Jewish Council at Jamnia rejected other questionable books, known as the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha, as inspired or authoritative. So they are not part of this count or the accepted Hebrew canon. Thus these books are left out of most modern Bibles.

Through the centuries the Jewish people were very careful to preserve the Old Testament as we have it today. The majority of the manuscripts that we have today of the Old Testament are virtually identical to the copies made by the Masoretes, with very little difference between them.

What do we know from the field of textual criticism?

"Textual criticism" is the field of study in which experts compare the various manuscripts in existence to one another, seeking to come as close as possible to what the original author wrote. The original manuscripts are called "autographs," literally "self writings." Today, with the passage of so much time, no autographs—original copies—exist of any of the Old or New Testament books.

Over the centuries minor differences (called variants) often make their way into successive copies of handwritten documents, even with the greatest of care of the scribes involved. Thus, the field of study called textual criticism exists to try to identify these variations and determine what the original texts said.

After 1455 and Johannes Gutenberg's invention of the first movable metal type printing press, the Bible could be printed over and over again with predictable accuracy, so variants no longer were a concern. However, before that time manuscripts still had variants. Thus the period before 1455 is where textual criticism comes into play.

Because of the strict requirements and few locations where the Old Testament was copied, few variants or versions of the Old Testament ever came into existence. When the Dead Sea Scrolls (primarily portions of the Old Testament dating mostly from the first century B.C.) were discovered in 1947, many people were initially concerned that they would show marked differences with the Masoretic Text of the Old Testament.

Because the Dead Sea Scrolls were a thousand years older than the oldest and most reliable Masoretic Text we have today (the Leningrad Codex, dating to A.D. 1008), scholars thought they might find drastic differences over that long passage of time. But did they?

After years of study, they found that the Dead Sea Scrolls they examined have only a relatively few minor, insignificant differences from today's Masoretic Text of the Old Testament.

"These oldest-known Biblical texts have one absolutely crucial feature," explains historian Ian Wilson. "Although ... a thousand years older than the texts previously available in Hebrew, they show just how faithful the texts of our present Bibles are to those from two thousand years ago and how little they have changed over the centuries. Two Isaiah scrolls, for instance, contain the Isaiah text almost exactly as it is in our present-day Bibles ...

"Although there are, as we might expect, some minor differences, these are mostly the interchange of a word or the addition or absence of a particular phrase. For example, whereas in present-day Bibles Isaiah 1:15 ends, 'Your hands are covered in blood', one of the Dead Sea pair adds, 'and your fingers with crime'. Where Isaiah 2:3 of our present-day Bibles reads, 'Come, let us go up to the mountain of [the LORD]', to the house of the God of Jacob', the Dead Sea Scroll version omits, 'to the mountain of [the LORD]'.

"Such discrepancies are trifling, and there can be no doubt that the Biblical books someone stored away so carefully at Qumran two thousand years ago were as close to those we know in our present Hebrew and Old Testament Bibles as makes no difference" (The Bible Is History, 1999, p. 205).

Where there are differences, however, this does not mean the Dead Sea Scrolls were correct and the Masoretic Text incorrect. We should keep in mind that the Dead Sea Scrolls were not necessarily transcribed with the same meticulous preservation practices as those used by the main scribes of the time. Nonetheless, the remarkable discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls is astounding confirmation that the Old Testament has indeed been accurately preserved for us today.

What about the New Testament?

Compared to the scarcity of ancient Old Testament manuscripts, the New Testament is a different story. Today literally thousands of Greek manuscripts of the New Testament exist, each of varying antiquity and from various locations. But, like the Old Testament, no autographs of the New Testament books exist today either.

How reliable are these manuscripts, and how do they compare to other works from this general time period?

"... The New Testament documents have more manuscripts, earlier manuscripts, and more abundantly supported manuscripts than the best ten pieces of classical literature combined ... At last count, there are nearly 5,700 hand-written Greek manuscripts of the New Testament. In addition, there are more than 9,000 manuscripts in other languages (e.g., Syriac, Coptic, Latin, Arabic). Some of these nearly 15,000 manuscripts are complete Bibles, others are books or pages, and a few are just fragments ...

"The next closest work is the Iliad by Homer, with 643 manuscripts. Most other ancient works survive on fewer than a dozen manuscripts, yet few historians question the historicity of the events those works describe ...

"Not only does the New Testament enjoy abundant manuscript support, but it also has manuscripts that were written soon after the originals ... The time gap between the original and the first surviving copy is still vastly shorter than anything else from the ancient world. The Iliad has the next shortest gap at about 500 years; most other ancient works are 1,000 years or more from the original. The New Testament gap is about 25 years and maybe less.

"... The early church fathers—men of the second and third centuries such as Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Tertullian, and others—quoted the New Testament so much (36,289 times, to be exact) that all but eleven verses of the New Testament can be reconstructed just from their quotations ... So we not only have thousands of manuscripts but thousands of quotations from those manuscripts" (Norman Geisler and Frank Turek, I Don't Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist, 2004, pp. 225-228).

Sir Frederic Kenyon, authority on ancient manuscripts, sums up the status of the New Testament this way: "It cannot be too strongly asserted that in substance the text of the Bible is certain: Especially is this the case with the New Testament. The number of manuscripts of the New Testament, of early translations from it, and of quotations from it in the oldest writers of the Church, is so large that it is practically certain that the true reading of every doubtful passage is preserved in some one or other of these ancient authorities. This can be said of no other ancient book in the world" (Our Bible and the Ancient Manuscripts, revised by A.W. Adams, 1958, p. 23).

Dealing with different translations

Critics may use textual differences and claims of errors to discredit the Bible. But the fact remains that God is ultimately responsible for His Word, and its accurate preservation and transmission over so many centuries is nothing short of miraculous.

However, God did choose to record and preserve His Word in the Hebrew and Greek languages. When the Hebrew and Greek are translated into English, no one English translation preserves the complete essence of God's inspired thoughts. Regrettably, in moving from any language to another, something is always lost because not all words and concepts translate precisely.

Most people have found that they benefit from using several translations rather than relying on only one. And God has seen to it that we have several excellent English translations with which to obtain understanding, each with their own different strengths. We have found that the New King James Version usually best serves our publishing efforts in putting across the gospel message as clearly as possible.

God promises to guide, through His Holy Spirit, the true believer into understanding the essence of His Word (John 16:13). He also provides an educated, trained ministry to explain His Word clearly and accurately for the edification and instruction of those He has called (Ephesians 4:11-16; 2 Timothy 4:1-4). To this end The Good News magazine serves as a tool to help you better understand the Bible. We can be sure that the Word of God has been preserved accurately for us today. We must make sure to read it, study it, treasure it and put it into practice in our lives. GN