Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Has The Text Of The Bible Been Accurately Transmitted?

Have the Hebrew and Greek documents we now have, which form the basis of our English translations, been faithfully transmitted from the time when they were first written or have they been significantly changed and edited since that time?

The Christian faith is dependent on the Bible being a faithful witness to the inspired writings of the prophets and apostles.  Even if we concede that these prophets and apostles were inspired to write original documents can a reasonable person believe that these documents have been faithfully transmitted thousands of years?  Until 1439 with the invention of the printing press the transmission of the text relied upon hand written copies and at times oral tradition, then how sure can we be that the revelation, once given to God’s people through prophets and apostles has been preserved? 

This is a critical question, since without a text largely transmitted effectively then we could not depend on our current text to be an accurate representation of this revelation.   This would undermine our ability to speak with confidence about what God has revealed about HIS purpose and plan through the Bible.

What are the texts we have today?

Hebrew Bible

The Masoretic Text – Hebrew Text of the entire Hebrew Canon from the 10th Century AD

The Dead Sea Scrolls – The book of Isaiah and fragments from most of the books of the Hebrew Canon from 100 BC.

The Septuagint – Greek translation from the Hebrew from 200 BC

Greek Bible

There are over 5000 Greek manuscripts.[1] 

1.  Oldest Fragments – date back to 100 AD with one fragment of Mark now thought to come from the first century.[2]

2. Older Papyrii – These range from 100 AD to 200 AD and about 45% of the entire New Testament can be reconstructed from these manuscripts.

3.  Codex Vaticanus and Codex Siniaticus – Complete Greek New Testaments dated around 350 and 400 BC

4.  Translations – in Syria , Coptic, Armenian, Gothic, and Ethiopic, as well as the Latin Vulgate, with some translations as early as the late 2nd to fourth century A.D.

5.  The Church fathers quote the Greek bible often.  They write from 100 A.D. to 450 A.D.   The entire New Testament could be reconstructed out the writings of the Church fathers.

The science of Textual Criticism – Restoring the Original Work

It is the job of the scholar of textual criticism to take these manuscripts and use them to reconstruct as much as possible the original text.  This is explained by Dr. Metzger:

“The method of textual criticism which has been generally practised by editors of classical Greek and Latin texts involves two main processes, recension and emendation. Recension is the selection, after examination of all available material, of the most trustworthy evidence on which to base a text. Emendation is the attempt to eliminate the errors which are found even in the best manuscripts.

The application of critical methods in the editing of classical texts was developed principally by three German scholars, Friedrich Wolf (1759-1824), one of the founders of classical philology, Immanuel Bekker (1785-1871), and Karl Lachmann (1793-1851). Bekker devoted his long life to the preparation of critical editions of Greek texts. Bekker collated some 400 manuscripts, grouped existing manuscripts of an author into families where one was derived from another, and published sixty volumes of improved editions of Greek authors. Lachmann went further than Bekker, showing how, by comparison of manuscripts, it is possible to draw inferences as to their lost ancestors or archetypes, their condition, and even their pagination.

The basic principle which underlies the process of constructing a stemma, or family tree, of manuscripts is that, apart from accident, identity of reading implies identity of origin. Often, however, difficulties hinder the construction of a stemma of manuscripts. A disturbing element enters when mixture has occurred, that is, when a copyist has had two or more manuscripts before him and has followed sometimes one, sometimes the other; or, as sometimes happened, when a scribe copied a manuscript from one exemplar and corrected it against another. To the extent that manuscripts have a "mixed" ancestry, the genealogical relations among them become progressively more complex and obscure to the investigator.”[3]
Metzger, The Text of the New Testament, pp. 156-159.

Due to this science of reconstructing ancient manuscripts the church today can be more sure that the Hebrew and Greek texts have been examined and studied in such a way that they represent the original writing as much as is humanly possible to reconstruct.  There is good reason to believe that based on this study of these documents that we have before us a very accurate version of what was originally written. 

This same method has been used on other ancient documents.  However, the Bible and especially the New Testament gives us copies of the original that are earlier and in greater number than any other ancient writings.  If we cannot trust the New Testament to represent the originals accurately then we would have to lose all the manuscripts that tell us about the ancient world.   Only intellectual prejudice would make us use a higher standard for Biblical documents than we use for other ancient writings.   

The following chart can give us an idea of how strong the evidence is for the New Testament.

New Testament
40-100 A.D.
125 A.D.
900 B.C.
400 B.C.
61-113 A.D.
850 A.D.
75-160 A.D.
950 A.D.
100 A.D.
1000 A.D.
100-44 B.C.
900 A.D.
100 A.D.
1100 A.D.
53 B.C.
1153 A.D.
450-385 B.C.
900 A.D.
427-347 B.C.
1100 A.D.
383-322 B.C.
900 A.D.
460-400 B.C.
900 A.D.
480-425 B.C.
1100 A.D.
384-322 B.C.
1000 A.D
496-406 B.C.
1100 A.D.
480-406 B.C.
1100 A.D.
54 B.C.
1550 A.D.
59 B.C. – 17 A.D.
400 A.D.

The reason this is significant is pointed out by Dr. Charles L. Quarles.

"The fact that the New Testament writers were decent, moral men who penned their testimonies of Jesus only a few decades after the events to which they refer and the fact that abundant manuscript evidence has enabled modern scholars to restore the original text of these documents with a very high degree of accuracy, should demand that historians at least treat these documents with the level of credibility granted these other sources."

 (2013-07-01). In Defense of the Bible: A Comprehensive Apologetic for the Authority of Scripture (Kindle Locations 1875-1878). B&H Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.) 

Other reasons to believe the text has been preserved with integrity.

1. The Hebrew scribes went to great length to preserve the accuracy of the text. 

ü  “They could only use clean animal skins, both to write on, and even to bind manuscripts.
ü  Each column of writing could have no less than forty-eight, and no more than sixty lines.
ü  The ink must be black, and of a special recipe.
ü  They must verbalize each word aloud while they were writing.
ü  They must wipe the pen and wash their entire bodies before writing the word "Yahweh," every time they wrote it.
ü  There must be a review within thirty days, and if as many as three pages required corrections, the entire manuscript had to be redone.
ü  The letters, words, and paragraphs had to be counted, and the document became invalid if two letters touched each other. The middle paragraph, word and letter must correspond to those of the original document.
ü  The documents could be stored only in sacred places (synagogues, etc).
ü  As no document containing God's Word could be destroyed, they were stored, or buried, in a genizah - a Hebrew term meaning "hiding place." These were usually kept in a synagogue or sometimes in a Jewish cemetery.[5]

This can give us confidence that real effort was being made to preserve the text.

2.  Comparing the 10th century Hebrew Text of Isaiah and the 100 BC text of Isaiah demonstrates that this method was very effective in making accurate copies of the text.  Very few and minor variations were found.  Here is clear evidence that the text could be preserved for over 1000 years accurately.

3. The Greek Version of the Hebrew Bible was used by the early Christian Church as an accurate translation.  Here is a confirmation that the books the Hebrews accepted were set aside as sacred and that these writings that state the same thing as our Old Testaments today were known and used by Christians and Jews.  

4.  For those who hold the testimony of the Messiah Jesus of  authoritative the accepted the Hebrew Canon of HIS day and quoted from it to support HIS own teachings. 

Matthew 5:17-19 NASB - "17 "Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. 18 "For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished. 19 "Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven."

Luk 24:44 NASB - "44 Now He said to them, "These are My words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things which are written about Me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.""

There is no doubt that the Messiah Jesus accepted and taught from the writings of Moses, the Prophets, and The Psalms as God’s inspired Word.   This was a way of descripting the Hebrew Canon accepted in Palestine.  If one sees reason to accept Jesus as an authority from God then one also has good reason to accept the Hebrew Bible as God’s Word.  With the discovery of the Dead Sea Scolls there is little doubt that the Hebrew Bible we have today is substainially the same as the Hebrew and Greek translation that Messiah Jesus endorsed.  

5.  There are so many documents of the New Testament and the older can be compared with the younger that no serious change in the text could have occurred without scholars detecting it.  The differences in the text are minor.   No significant teaching of the Christian faith is in any way changed or threatened due to the variations found in the thousands of New Testament source documents. 


There was no real opportunity for some major corruption of the original texts to take place.  There was no gaps of thousands of years in which we had no texts and then had texts.  If we have reason to trust in the person and work of Messiah Jesus then we also have good reason to accept the texts of Moses and the prophets we now have as realatively accurate copies.  One can with reasonable integrity believe that God has preserved HIS Word through the people of Christ and for the people of Christ. 

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