The Bible’s Fight to Live
There are many strands of evidence proving that the Bible really is God’s Word. Each strand is strong, but when all are taken together, they are unbreakable. In this chapter and the one following, we will discuss just one strand of evidence: the history of the Bible as a book. The truth is, it is nothing short of a miracle that this remarkable book has survived until today. Consider the facts for yourself.
1. What are some details about the Bible?
THE Bible is more than just a book. It is a rich library of 66 books, some short and some quite long, containing law, prophecy, history, poetry, counsel, and much more. Centuries before the birth of Christ, the first 39 of these books were written—mostly in the Hebrew language—by faithful Jews, or Israelites. This part is often called the Old Testament. The last 27 books were written in Greek by Christians and are widely known as the New Testament. According to internal evidence and the most ancient traditions, these 66 books were written over a period of about 1,600 years, beginning when Egypt was a dominant power and ending when Rome was mistress of the world.
Only the Bible Survived
2. (a) What was the situation of Israel when the Bible started to be written? (b) What were some other written works that were produced during the same time period?
2 More than 3,000 years ago, when the writing of the Bible got started, Israel was just one small nation among many in the Middle East. Jehovah was their God, while the surrounding nations had a bewildering variety of gods and goddesses. During that period of time, the Israelites were not the only ones to produce religious literature. Other nations too produced written works that reflected their religion and their national values. For example, the Akkadian legend of Gilgamesh from Mesopotamia and the Ras Shamra epics, written in Ugaritic (a language spoken in what is now northern Syria), were doubtless very popular. The vast literature of that era also included works such as The Admonitions of Ipu-wer and The Prophecy of Nefer-rohu in the Egyptian language, hymns to different divinities in Sumerian, and prophetic works in Akkadian.1
3. What marks the Bible as different from other religious literature produced in the Middle East during the same period?
3 All these Middle Eastern works, however, met a common fate. They were forgotten, and even the languages they were written in became extinct. It was only in recent years that archaeologists and philologists learned of their existence and discovered how to read them. On the other hand, the first written books of the Hebrew Bible have survived right up to our own time and are still widely read. Sometimes scholars claim that the Hebrew books in the Bible were derived in some way from those ancient literary works. But the fact that so much of that literature was forgotten while the Hebrew Bible survived marks the Bible as significantly different.
The Guardians of the Word
4. What grave problems of the Israelites may have seemed to put the Bible’s survival in doubt?
4 Make no mistake, from a human standpoint the survival of the Bible was not a foregone conclusion. The communities that produced it suffered such difficult trials and bitter oppression that its survival to our day is truly remarkable. In the years before Christ, the Jews who produced the Hebrew Scriptures (the “Old Testament”) were a relatively small nation. They dwelt precariously amid powerful political states that were jostling with one another for supremacy. Israel had to fight for its life against a succession of nations, such as the Philistines, the Moabites, the Ammonites, and the Edomites. During a period when the Hebrews were divided into two kingdoms, the cruel Assyrian Empire virtually wiped out the northern kingdom, while the Babylonians destroyed the southern kingdom, taking the people into an exile from which only a remnant returned 70 years later.
5, 6. What attempts were made that endangered the very existence of the Hebrews as a distinct people?
5 There are even reports of attempted genocide against the Israelites. Back in the days of Moses, Pharaoh ordered the murder of all their newborn baby boys. If his order had been observed, the Hebrew people would have been annihilated. (Exodus 1:15-22) Much later, when the Jews came under Persian rule, their enemies plotted to get a law passed intended to exterminate them. (Esther 3:1-15) The failure of this scheme is still celebrated in the Jewish Festival of Purim.
6 Later still, when the Jews were subject to Syria, King Antiochus IV tried very hard to Hellenize the nation, forcing it to follow Greek customs and worship Greek gods. He too failed. Instead of being wiped out or assimilated, the Jews survived while, one after the other, most of the national groups around them disappeared from the world scene. And the Hebrew Scriptures of the Bible survived with them.
7, 8. How was the survival of the Bible threatened by the tribulations of the Christians?
7 The Christians, who produced the second part of the Bible (the “New Testament”), were also an oppressed group. Their leader, Jesus, was killed like a common criminal. In the early days after his death, Jewish authorities in Palestine tried to suppress them. When Christianity spread to other lands, the Jews hounded them, trying to hinder their missionary work.—Acts 5:27, 28; 7:58-60; 11:19-21; 13:45; 14:19; 18:5, 6.
8 In the time of Nero, the initially tolerant attitude of the Roman authorities changed. Tacitus boasted of the “exquisite tortures” inflicted on Christians by that vicious emperor, and from his time on, being a Christian was a capital offense.2 In 303 C.E., Emperor Diocletian acted directly against the Bible.* In an effort to stamp out Christianity, he ordered that all Christian Bibles should be burned.3
9. What would have happened if campaigns of extermination against the Jews and the Christians had succeeded?
9 These campaigns of oppression and genocide were a real threat to the Bible’s survival. If the Jews had gone the way of the Philistines and the Moabites or if the efforts of first the Jewish and then the Roman authorities to stamp out Christianity had succeeded, who would have written and preserved the Bible? Happily, the guardians of the Bible—first the Jews and then the Christians—were not wiped out, and the Bible survived. There was, however, another serious threat if not to the survival at least to the integrity of the Bible.
10. How was the Bible originally preserved?
10 Many of the aforementioned ancient works that were subsequently forgotten had been engraved in stone or stamped on durable clay tablets. Not so the Bible. This was originally written on papyrus or on parchment—much more perishable materials. Thus, the manuscripts produced by the original writers disappeared long, long ago. How, then, was the Bible preserved? Countless thousands of copies were laboriously written out by hand. This was the normal way to reproduce a book before the advent of printing.
11. What inevitably happens when manuscripts are copied by hand?
11 There is, however, a danger in copying by hand. Sir Frederic Kenyon, the famous archaeologist and librarian of the British Museum, explained: “The human hand and brain have not yet been created which could copy the whole of a long work absolutely without error. . . . Mistakes were certain to creep in.”4 When a mistake crept into a manuscript, it was repeated when that manuscript became the basis for future copies. When many copies were made over a long period of time, numerous human errors crept in.
12, 13. Who assumed responsibility for preserving the text of the Hebrew Scriptures?
12 In view of the many thousands of copies of the Bible that were made, how do we know that this reproduction process did not change it beyond all recognition? Well, take the case of the Hebrew Bible, the “Old Testament.” In the second half of the sixth century B.C.E., when the Jews returned from their Babylonian exile, a group of Hebrew scholars known as Sopherim, “scribes,” became the custodians of the Hebrew Bible text, and it was their responsibility to copy those Scriptures for use in public and private worship. They were highly motivated, professional men, and their work was of the highest quality.
13 From the seventh century to the tenth century of our Common Era, the heirs of the Sopherim were the Masoretes. Their name comes from a Hebrew word meaning “tradition,” and essentially they too were scribes charged with the task of preserving the traditional Hebrew text. The Masoretes were meticulous. For example, the scribe had to use a properly authenticated copy as his master text, and he was not allowed to write anything from memory. He had to check each letter before writing it.5 Professor Norman K. Gottwald reports: “Something of the care with which they discharged their duties is indicated in the rabbinic requirement that all new manuscripts were to be proofread and defective copies discarded at once.”6
14. What discovery made it possible to confirm the transmission of the Bible text by the Sopherim and the Masoretes?
14 How accurate was the transmission of the text by the Sopherim and the Masoretes? Until 1947 it was difficult to answer that question, since the earliest available complete Hebrew manuscripts were from the tenth century of our Common Era. In 1947, however, some very ancient manuscript fragments were found in caves in the vicinity of the Dead Sea, including parts of books of the Hebrew Bible. A number of fragments dated to before the time of Christ. Scholars compared these with existing Hebrew manuscripts to confirm the accuracy of the transmission of the text. What was the result of this comparison?
15. (a) What was the result of comparing the Dead Sea scroll manuscript of Isaiah with the Masoretic text? (b) What should we conclude from the fact that some manuscripts found at the Dead Sea show a certain amount of textual variance? (See footnote.)
15 One of the oldest works discovered was the complete book of Isaiah, and the closeness of its text to that of the Masoretic Bible we have today is amazing. Professor Millar Burrows writes: “Many of the differences between the [recently discovered] St. Mark’s Isaiah scroll and the Masoretic text can be explained as mistakes in copying. Apart from these, there is a remarkable agreement, on the whole, with the text found in the medieval manuscripts. Such agreement in a manuscript so much older gives reassuring testimony to the general accuracy of the traditional text.”7 Burrows adds: “It is a matter for wonder that through something like a thousand years the text underwent so little alteration.”*
16, 17. (a) Why can we be sure that the text of the Christian Greek Scriptures is sound? (b) What did Sir Frederic Kenyon testify about the text of the Greek Scriptures?
16 In the case of the part of the Bible written in Greek by Christians, the so-called New Testament, the copyists were more like gifted amateurs than like the highly trained professional Sopherim. But working as they did under the threat of punishment by the authorities, they took their work seriously. And two things assure us that we today have a text essentially the same as that penned by the original writers. First, we have manuscripts dated much closer to the time of writing than is the case with the Hebrew part of the Bible. Indeed, one fragment of the Gospel of John is from the first half of the second century, less than 50 years from the date when John probably wrote his Gospel. Second, the sheer number of manuscripts that have survived provides a formidable demonstration of the soundness of the text.
17 On this point, Sir Frederic Kenyon testified: “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.”10
The People and Their Languages
18, 19. How was it that the Bible was not limited to the languages in which it was originally written?
18 The original languages in which the Bible was written were also, in the long run, an obstacle to its survival. The first 39 books were mostly written in Hebrew, the tongue of the Israelites. But Hebrew has never been widely known. If the Bible had stayed in that language, it would never have had any influence beyond the Jewish nation and the few foreigners who could read it. However, in the third century B.C.E., for the benefit of Hebrews living in Alexandria, Egypt, translation of the Hebrew part of the Bible into Greek began. Greek was then an international language. Thus, the Hebrew Bible became easily accessible to non-Jews.
19 When the time came for the second part of the Bible to be written, Greek was still very widely spoken, so the final 27 books of the Bible were written in that tongue. But not everybody could understand Greek. Hence, translations of both the Hebrew and the Greek parts of the Bible soon began to appear in the everyday languages of those early centuries, such as Syriac, Coptic, Armenian, Georgian, Gothic, and Ethiopic. The official language of the Roman Empire was Latin, and Latin translations were made in such numbers that an “authorized version” had to be commissioned. This was completed about 405 C.E. and came to be known as the Vulgate (meaning “popular” or “common”).
20, 21. What were the obstacles to the Bible’s survival, and why were these overcome?
20 Thus, it was in spite of many obstacles that the Bible survived down to the early centuries of our Common Era. Those who produced it were despised and persecuted minorities living a difficult existence in a hostile world. It could easily have been badly distorted in the process of copying, but it was not. Moreover, it escaped the danger of being available only to people who spoke certain languages.
21 Why was it so difficult for the Bible to survive? The Bible itself says: “The whole world is lying in the power of the wicked one.” (1 John 5:19) In view of this, we would expect the world to be hostile to published truth, and this has proved to be the case. Why, then, did the Bible survive when so many other pieces of literature that did not face the same difficulties were forgotten? The Bible answers this too. It says: “The saying of Jehovah endures forever.” (1 Peter 1:25) If the Bible really is the Word of God, no human power can destroy it. And right up into this 20th century, this has been true.
22. What change took place early in the fourth century of our Common Era?
22 However, in the fourth century of our Common Era, something happened that eventually resulted in new attacks on the Bible and profoundly affected the course of European history. Just ten years after Diocletian tried to destroy all copies of the Bible, imperial policy changed and “Christianity” was legalized. Twelve years later, in 325 C.E., a Roman emperor presided over the “Christian” Council of Nicaea. Why would such a seemingly favorable development prove to be hazardous for the Bible? We will see the answer in the following chapter.
In this publication, instead of the traditional “A.D.” and “B.C.,” the more accurate “C.E.” (Common Era) and “B.C.E.” (before the Common Era) are used.
Not all the manuscripts found at the Dead Sea agreed so exactly with the surviving Bible text. Some showed quite a lot of textual variance. However, these variations do not mean that the essential meaning of the text has been distorted. According to Patrick W. Skehan of the Catholic University of America, most represent a “reworking [of the Bible text] on the basis of its own integral logic, so that the form becomes expanded but the substance remains the same . . . The underlying attitude is one of explicit reverence for a text regarded as sacred, an attitude of explaining (as we would put it) the Bible by the Bible in the very transmission of the text itself.”8
Another commentator adds: “In spite of all uncertainties, the great fact remains that the text as we now have it does, in the main, represent fairly the actual words of the authors who lived, some of them, nearly three thousand years ago, and we need have no serious doubt on the score of textual corruption as to the validity of the message which the Old Testament has to give us.”9
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The Bible’s Well-Established Text
To appreciate how well established the text of the Bible is, we have only to compare it with another body of literature that has come to us from antiquity: the classical writings of Greece and Rome. In fact, most of this literature was written after the Hebrew Scriptures were completed. There were no recorded genocide attempts against the Greeks or the Romans, and their literature was not preserved in the face of persecution. Yet, notice the comments of Professor F. F. Bruce:
“For Cæsar’s Gallic War (composed between 58 and 50 B.C.) there are several extant MSS, but only nine or ten are good, and the oldest is some 900 years later than Cæsar’s day.
“Of the 142 books of the Roman history of Livy (59 B.C.-A.D. 17), only 35 survive; these are known to us from not more than twenty MSS of any consequence, only one of which, and that containing fragments of Books III-VI, is as old as the fourth century.
“Of the fourteen books of the Histories of Tacitus (c. A.D. 100) only four and a half survive; of the sixteen books of his Annals, ten survive in full and two in part. The text of these extant portions of his two great historical works depends entirely on two MSS, one of the ninth century and one of the eleventh. . . .
“The History of Thucydides (c. 460-400 B.C.) is known to us from eight MSS, the earliest belonging to c. A.D. 900, and a few papyrus scraps, belonging to about the beginning of the Christian era.
“The same is true of the History of Herodotus (c. 488-428 B.C.). Yet no classical scholar would listen to an argument that the authenticity of Herodotus or Thucydides is in doubt because the earliest MSS of their works which are of any use to us are over 1,300 years later than the originals.”—The Books and the Parchments, page 180.
Compare this with the fact that there are thousands of manuscripts of various parts of the Bible. And manuscripts of the Christian Greek Scriptures go back to within a hundred years of the time of the writing of the original books.
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The Hebrews were a small nation constantly threatened by stronger nations. This ancient carving pictures some Hebrews being led off captive by the Assyrians
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Before the advent of printing, the Scriptures were copied by hand
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Nero made being a Christian a capital offense
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A study of the Dead Sea scroll of Isaiah proved that this book had remained practically unchanged over a period of 1,000 years
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Emperor Diocletian failed in his efforts to destroy the Bible