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The Bottom-Line Guide to the Bible, Part 1: Has the Bible Been Copied Reliably?

Has the Bible Been Copied Reliably?

The Bottom-Line Guide to the Bible, Part 1

[Picture description: A photograph of the last page of the Gospel of Mark in the fourth-century Greek manuscript Codex Vaticanus, ending at 16:8 with the words “for they were afraid” (ephoboun-to gar). Note the words kata Markon (“according to Mark”) which were written at the end of the book.]
(Public domain)

Christians believe that the Bible is the word of God. But how do we know that the words that we read in the Bible accurately represent what the biblical writings originally said? There are three issues about the Bible that need to be kept distinct here: its transmission (the copying of its words in the original language from one generation to the next), its translation (rendering what the Bible says in other languages such as Spanish or English), and its canon (what books should be accepted as the word of God). This article will address the first question; the other two questions will be answered in the next two installments of this series.

The books of the Old Testament were originally written mainly in Hebrew (with a little Aramaic) while the books of the New Testament were originally written in Greek (with an even smaller amount of Aramaic). The Old Testament books had also been translated into Greek by the time of Jesus and the apostles. The main part of that Greek translation is known as the Septuagint.

As is well known, the books of the Bible were copied by hand until the development of the printing press in fifteenth-century Europe. The Hebrew text of the Old Testament was preserved and copied primarily by Jewish scribes, while the Greek New Testament writings were copied by Christians. Since the writing materials used were highly perishable (typically papyrus and later parchment and similar materials), the original documents as well as the oldest copies have not survived. What have survived are copies of copies—a fact that many critics claim means that we cannot be confident that what we have now is a reliable reproduction of the original texts. However, this claim misunderstands some basic facts about the biblical manuscripts.

A common misconception is that our modern translations are “translations of translations.” People imagine that the New Testament was written in Greek, then the Greek was translated into Latin, then, say, the Latin into German, and then the German into English; meanwhile, the Greek was lost. That is simply not the case. The New Testament was translated into Latin, but it also continued to be copied in Greek right along. Some earlier English translations were based on a Latin translation, but again the Greek text continued to be copied—and all contemporary English versions are translated from the Greek, not from Latin or any other language.

Another misconception is that whenever a scribe made an error in copying a biblical manuscript, that error was perpetuated in all future copies, so that the original wording was lost. Again, this is simply not factually correct. After a book of the Bible was written, it was copied several times by different copyists, and their copies were copied by multiple scribes, and so on. Suppose a copyist named Ted living in the third century made an error when copying John 3:16. The copies based on Ted’s copy might well retain his error, but not copies based on the copies produced by his contemporaries Fred and Jed. Indeed, not all of the copies that “descended” from Ted’s copy would repeat the same error, because the later copyists would often catch his error from their previous knowledge of John 3:16 or recognize it as a mistake. Thus, if Ted’s error was a misspelling of a word, the later scribe copying Ted’s manuscript might easily recognize the misspelling and correct it. To give an example in English, if you were copying a handwritten copy of John 3:16 and saw that it said “For God so loved the word,” you might catch the mistake and correct it to say “world.” So it is simply not true that the original wording got lost through the process of copying and re-copying.

By the way, misspellings are by far the most common type of variant in biblical manuscripts, especially in the New Testament. Some scribes were atrocious spellers. Steel, even iff a lot of words git mispeled, you ken easaly sea wat the hole thing sayed!

When the King James Version was published in 1611, the earliest known copies of the Bible, both Old and New Testament, were a dozen or so manuscripts dating from about a thousand years or more after the time of Jesus. As more manuscripts with numerous verbal differences began to be discovered, it seemed plausible to suppose that in the centuries of copying many passages had been substantially altered or even lost. We now know that didn’t happen.

In the late 1940s, a treasure trove of Old Testament manuscripts were discovered in caves near Qumran by the Dead Sea. These “Dead Sea scrolls” were copied by Jews in the first and second century BC, as much as 1,200 years earlier than the oldest manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible previously known. The surviving manuscripts include multiple fragments from every book of the Old Testament except one (Esther) and a complete copy of Isaiah. The differences in wording between these scrolls and the medieval manuscripts of the Hebrew Old Testament text are minute. For example, the “small” Isaiah scroll, containing most of the last third of the book of Isaiah, differs only in 22 (generally minor) words from the Leningrad Codex (dated AD 1008), one of the main Hebrew manuscripts on which modern editions of the Hebrew Old Testament had been based. Findings like these have demonstrated that our text of the Old Testament is at least 99 percent verbally identical to the Hebrew Bible of Jesus’ day.

The situation with the New Testament is in some ways even better. Archaeologists have found papyrus manuscripts of the New Testament dating from the second and third centuries, including a famous fragment of the Gospel of John copied very early in the second century, perhaps twenty to forty years after John was originally written. There are now about 5,800 existing manuscripts, each containing various parts or the whole of the New Testament in the original Greek. In all of these manuscripts, not one sentence has been found that is missing from the King James Version or other translations! In other words, no evidence whatsoever has been found of anything that was ever “lost” from the books of the New Testament. As for what was added, scholars identify some twenty or so verses that were probably added by scribes to the New Testament. Only two of the additions are longer than a sentence—the traditional ending of the Gospel of Mark (16:9-20) and the story of the woman caught in adultery (John 7:53-8:11). When we take into consideration the fact that there are 7,958 verses in the King James Version of the New Testament, twenty suspect verses is a very tiny amount—about one-quarter of one percent!

The bottom line is that the copying of the books of the Bible has not resulted in any serious loss of the message, content, or teaching of the original writings. There are debates among scholars over isolated words here and there, but nothing has been lost. As far as the text is concerned, there is no reason to mistrust the Bible or to worry that it is not reliable enough to be a sufficient authority for the doctrine and practice of the Christian faith.