Purity of the Bible Text Threatened
“I HAVE written letters at the request of the brethren. But the apostles of the Devil have filled them with tares, removing many things and adding others. Woe is reserved for them. Since certain people have dared to tamper even with the sacred writings of the Lord it is not surprising that they have made attacks on less important writings.” So Dionysius of Corinth, a professed Christian overseer in the second century, bemoaned what had been done to his own writings.
His words show that some in his day “dared to tamper even with the sacred writings,” the Scriptures. In fact, Marcion of that same period is said by Tertullian to have “openly used the knife, not the pen, since he made such an excision of the Scriptures as suited his own subject matter.” “He has erased everything that was contrary to his own opinion.”
You might be surprised that attempts were made to meddle with the text of the Bible. Can we be sure that such tampering was not eventually successful, changing the meaning of the Bible message? Also, the Bible had to be copied by hand for centuries. Could copyists’ mistakes have ruined its purity? The answer to these questions will help us to see how easily the Bible’s living message could have been irreversibly corrupted. However, because of some highly exceptional circumstances, it was preserved.
No Book Copied with Such Care
Centuries before the Common Era, the Hebrew Scriptures were meticulously copied by devoted scribes. These were called Sopherim, a term apparently derived from the Hebrew verb “to count.” Why? ‘The early scholars were called Sofʹrim,’ according to the Talmud, ‘because they counted all the letters of the Law.’
The letters in each new manuscript were carefully counted and the number had to be identical with the original. What care! Just consider the toil to count every letter. It is reported that they counted 815,140 Hebrew letters in the Scriptures. Every care was taken to prevent corruption of the text.
Yet, to have no mistakes in copying would have required God to perform a miracle every time a scribe picked up a pen. This simply did not happen. Mistakes were made. Were these serious enough to ruin the meaning of the Bible? Or is there evidence to show that, despite thousands of years of recopying, the Hebrew text is virtually the same? For many years such questions went unanswered, because the oldest Hebrew manuscripts went back to only around 900 C.E.
“An Absolutely Incredible Find!”
Near the beginning of 1947, in a small cave overlooking the Dead Sea in Palestine, a 15-year-old boy stood in the dim light and stared bewilderedly at a mass of leather wrapped in a linen cloth. The unsightly bundle was stored in a large, two-foot-high clay pot. How disappointing! He was anticipating hidden treasure in the jar.
However, this lad held in his hands what has since been termed “the greatest manuscript discovery of modern times . . . an absolutely incredible find!” Here were parts of the Bible that date back into the second century B.C.E., 1,000 years earlier than the oldest copies available up to that time. How would they compare with the more recent copies? Millar Burrows, who worked with the scrolls for years, analyzing carefully their contents, stated this conclusion:
“Many of the differences between the St. Mark’s Isaiah scroll and the Masoretic text [the Bible manuscripts in the ninth century] can be explained as mistakes in copying. Apart from these, there is a remarkable agreement, on the whole, with the text found in medieval manuscripts. Such agreement in a manuscript so much older gives reassuring testimony to the general accuracy of the traditional text.
“It is a matter for wonder that through something like a thousand years the text underwent so little alteration.”—The Dead Sea Scrolls, pp. 109, 303, 304.
One scroll contained almost the complete book of Isaiah. Out of the 1,292 verses of Isaiah in the English Bible, only 13 were adjusted by the translators of the Revised Standard Version because of the text of this scroll. This did not mean that there were no more variations than this, but the vast majority of others were mere changes in spelling and grammar. Remember, these Hebrew scrolls were penned 1,000 years apart.
What About the Christian Greek Scriptures?
Especially is the matter of accurate transmission a blazing issue in connection with the Christian Greek Scriptures. For, as mentioned earlier, tampering was attempted. Doubt on the purity of the text loomed for many centuries like a dark cloud, because even up into the 17th century, the oldest authoritative copies of the “New Testament” in the original Greek language went back only to the 10th century—over 900 years after the originals were penned. No one could prove that tampering or the pen of careless scribes had not destroyed the Christian message.
A “Pearl” Hidden in Secluded Monastery
In 1844, Konstantin von Tischendorf, in search of ancient copies of the Bible, entered the library of the monastery at the foot of Mt. Sinai south of Palestine. His eyes were attracted by a large basket of book pages. A closer look left him stunned!
Here were pages from a copy of the Bible in Greek far older than any he had ever seen. Hardly containing himself, he inquired about these pages. His heart sank. They were used to start fires! Two heaps had already been burned! The monks gave him 43 pages, but they refused to cooperate further.
He made a second trip to the monastery—no success. A third trip—again all appeared lost. He made arrangements to leave, considering it a hopeless search. Three days before departing, he was talking to the steward, or caretaker, of the monastery who invited him into his small room. The steward remarked that he had read an old copy of the Bible and abruptly pulled down a heap of loose leaves wrapped in a red cloth.
As he opened this bundle, ah! here was the “pearl” Tischendorf had been searching 15 years to find. This Bible manuscript, now called the Codex Sinaiticus, contained all the “New Testament.” Believed to have been written around 350 C.E., it was over six centuries older than authoritative manuscripts at the time. Did it reveal any tampering with the text?
Tampering Discovered and Corrected
It was obvious from the start that the text of Tischendorf’s discovery was basically identical with that which was the foundation for today’s Bibles. Yet it revealed evidence of tampering.
An example is the familiar account at John 8:1-11 (Authorized Version) about an adulterous woman about to be stoned, and that reports Jesus as saying, ‘Let him that is without sin cast the first stone.’ It was not in this early manuscript. So later editions of the Bible have removed it or put it in a footnote to refine the Bible text. Other additions were also found and deleted.—Matt. 17:21; 18:11; Acts 8:37.
In more serious cases, tampering had been done with the text to support a false teaching, such as at 1 Timothy 3:16. The Authorized Version states, “God was manifest in the flesh,” as opposed to “He who was manifested in the flesh.” (American Standard) Quite a difference! Which is correct? If the first is, it would appear that Jesus is God, contrary to passages that say he is God’s Son.—Mark 13:32.
In older manuscripts the words for “God” and “who” (masculine) were similar (Greek letters—who, masculine) (Greek letters—God). Recent manuscripts usually had Greek letters or the equivalent. But in the manuscript found by Tischendorf it is Greek letters, or “who,” referring to Jesus, not God. A scribe had changed the term so it read “God.” The Alexandrian manuscript of the fifth century makes us wonder if it was an innocent mistake. At first glance, it appeared to be Greek letters, but by examination with a microscope it was found to have been originally Greek letters, and ‘a much later hand’ added the lines to change it. Recent versions have refined the text by reading properly, “He who was manifested in the flesh.” (See interlinear word-for-word reading, Interlinear Greek English New Testament, Nestle; also Emphatic Diaglott.)
A blatant example of tampering was also found at 1 John 5:7 where the phrase: “in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one,” (Authorized Version) was added. Not only were the words not in the Sinaiticus, but they could not be found in any Greek manuscript before the 16th century. The evidence indicates that a manuscript now found at Trinity College, Dublin, was purposely written about 1520 to insert that spurious verse! Basically, all modern versions have omitted this glaring tampering.
A Host of Witnesses
Even earlier manuscripts than those dated as of the fourth century were forthcoming. In Egypt were found copies of the Bible written on papyrus, some even wrapped around mummies! These were carefully restored and they dated back to the third century C.E. One small fragment of the book of John was even dated back to 125 C.E.! How did these compare with those manuscripts of the fourth century and, hence, with our Bibles today? It is not letter-for-letter exactness, but the message is the same. Any tampering is easily exposed. The message rings clear.
Over 5,000 Greek manuscripts provide ample means virtually to reconstruct the original text. Frederic Kenyon, who has spent nearly a lifetime studying these ancient manuscripts, concluded:
“It is indeed a striking proof of the essential soundness of the tradition that with all these thousands of copies, tracing their ancestry back to so many different parts of the earth and to conditions of such diverse kinds, the variations of text are so entirely questions of details, not of essential substance.
“And it is reassuring at the end to find that the general result of all these discoveries and all this study is to strengthen the proof of the authenticity of the Scriptures, and our conviction that we have in our hands, in substantial integrity, the veritable Word of God.”—The Story of the Bible, pp. 136, 144.
The Bible comes off a double winner! It survives as a book and with a pure text. However, does it seem reasonable that its survival with a refined text happened merely by accident? Is it just by chance that a book completed nearly two millenniums ago, and subjected to intense assaults, would still exist along with thousands of ancient copies, some dating back to perhaps within 25 years of the originals? Is this not abundant evidence of the power of the One of whom it is said: “The word of our God shall stand forever”?—Isa. 40:8, An American Translation.
Still in our account of the Bible’s fight to live, there is a final chapter. How did this book, which was “born” in the East, manage to be distributed in living tongues to the far corners of the earth? Also, what is the all-important reason why God has seen that his Word may be available to people everywhere?
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Very ancient Dead Sea Scrolls have confirmed the basic accuracy of texts being used for Bible translation
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Where copyists had tampered with the text, this was exposed through discoveries made by men such as Tischendorf, who found the Sinaitic manuscript at St. Catherine’s Monastery