Finally, we get to the manuscript evidence to prove that we have the same Word of God today.
When we look at the Bible, we see something amazing. It was written over the span of about 1500 years by more than 40 authors from every walk of life–shepherds, soldiers, prophets, kings, poets, scholars, tax collectors, fishermen, tentmakers, and others. It was written in a variety of places–the wilderness, a palace, a prison, on an island, as well as other places on the continents of Asia, Africa, and Europe and in three different languages: Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. It contains many different stories, songs, and addresses many different topics. Yet with all of this variety, it has a unified, continuous theme–God’s redemption of His children and the restoration of all things back to His original design and purpose.
When the Bible was being written, it had to be written by hand with ink that would eventually fade and on material that would eventually deteriorate. So if the Word of God was to be preserved, new copies would have to be made, which would be a neverending job because the copies were written with the same kinds of ink and on the same kinds of materials. This may cause you to wonder: “Doesn’t the making of hand-copied reproductions open up the whole transmission process to error? How can we be sure that the manuscripts available to us today are an accurate transmission of the originals?”
Thankfully, God has not left us to wonder. He has miraculously supervised the transmission of His Word to ensure that it was relayed accurately from one generation to another.
The Old Testament
A class of Jewish scholars called the Sopherim (i.e., scribes) took upon themselves the task of copying the Old Testament manuscripts. They dedicated themselves to carefully preserve and reproduce the ancient manuscripts. The Sopherim were followed by the Talmudic scribes who were in turn followed by the better-known Masoretic scribes. They did everything in their power to preserve the originals and reproduce exact copies. Let’s look at their process:
1) They took it so seriously that they would begin by ceremonially washing themselves.
2) Then they would dress in full Jewish dress.
3) If they came to the Hebrew name of God (i.e., YHWH), they would not write with a newly dipped quill for fear that it would smear.
4) Once they began writing the name of God, they would not stop for anything.
5) They had to write on the skin of a clean animal.
6) Each skin would have a specified number of columns, which would remain the same
throughout the entire book.
7) They had specific guidelines for how many lines each column could have, how many letters would make up the width of the column, how much space would be in between each letter, how much space would be between lines and books, and how each book would end.
8) Nothing–not even the shortest word–could be copied from memory; it had to be copied letter by letter.
9) They counted the number of times each letter of the alphabet occured in each book and compared it to the original.
10) If a manuscript was found to contain even one mistake, it was discarded.
The earliest manuscripts that we have are dated back to 125 B.C. These are the famous Dead Sea Scrolls. The discovery of these manuscripts revealed that a thousand years of copying the Old Testament had produced only excruciatingly minor variations, none of which altered the clear meaning of the text or brought the manuscript’s fundamental integrity into question. So we can know that when we look at the Old Testament today, we can be confident that we are holding a well-preserved, fully reliable document.
The New Testament
For obvious reasons, the Jewish scribes did not take on the preservation and copying of the New Testament. So how can we know that it is reliable?
Historians evaluate the textual reliability of ancient literature according to two standards:
1) The time interval between the original and the earliest copy
2) How many manuscript copies are available
For instance, Homer’s Iliad is the most reliable classical literature text. It was written in 800 B.C and the earliest copies date back to 400 B.C., which leaves a time gap of 400 years. There are also 643 copies of it. Now on to the New Testament.
The time gaps between when the different letters of the New Testament were written and the earliest copies range from 50-400 years. So the highest number is the same as the most reliable classical literature text. Also, there are around 25,000 copies. So using the method that historians use for the reliability of ancient texts, no other book of the ancient world can even approach the reliability of the New Testament.
Hopefully, this proves that the Bible we have is what was originally given. We can be certain that we have the very Word of God.