How Did the Book Survive?
Ancient writings had natural enemies—fire, moisture, mold. The Bible was not immune to such hazards. The record of how it has survived the ravages of time to become the world’s most accessible book is outstanding among ancient writings. That history deserves more than passing interest.
THE Bible writers did not engrave their words on stone; neither did they inscribe them on durable clay tablets. They evidently recorded their words on perishable materials—papyrus (made from the Egyptian plant of the same name) and parchment (made from the skins of animals).
What happened to the original writings? They probably disintegrated long ago, most of them in ancient Israel. Scholar Oscar Paret explains: “Both of these writing mediums [papyrus and leather] are in the same strong measure endangered by humidity, by mold, and by various maggots. We know from daily experience how easily paper, and even strong leather, deteriorates in the open air or in a damp room.”1
If the originals no longer exist, then how did the words of the Bible writers survive to our day?
Preserved by Meticulous Copyists
Soon after the originals were written, handwritten copies began to be produced. Copying the Scriptures actually became a profession in ancient Israel. (Ezra 7:6; Psalm 45:1) The copies, though, were also recorded on perishable materials. Eventually these had to be replaced by other handwritten copies. When the originals passed off the scene, these copies became the basis for future manuscripts. Copying the copies was a process that went on for many centuries. Did copyists’ mistakes over the centuries drastically change the text of the Bible? The evidence says no.
The professional copyists were very devoted. They had a profound reverence for the words they copied. They were also meticulous. The Hebrew word rendered “copyist” is so·pherʹ, which has reference to counting and recording. To illustrate the accuracy of the copyists, consider the Masoretes.a Regarding them, scholar Thomas Hartwell Horne explains: “They . . . reckoned which is the middle letter of the Pentateuch [the first five books of the Bible], which is the middle clause of each book, and how many times each letter of the [Hebrew] alphabet occurs in all the Hebrew Scriptures.”3
Thus, skilled copyists utilized a number of cross-checking tools. To avoid omitting even a single letter from the Bible text, they went so far as to count not just the words copied but the letters as well. Consider the painstaking care this involved: They reportedly kept track of 815,140 individual letters in the Hebrew Scriptures!4 Such diligent effort ensured a high degree of accuracy.
Nevertheless, the copyists were not infallible. Is there any evidence that, despite centuries of recopying, the Bible text has survived in reliable form?
A Solid Basis for Confidence
There is good reason to believe that the Bible has been accurately transmitted down to our day. The evidence consists of existing handwritten manuscripts—an estimated 6,000 of all or portions of the Hebrew Scriptures and some 5,000 of the Christian Scriptures in Greek. Among these is a Hebrew Scripture manuscript discovered in 1947 that exemplifies just how accurate the copying of the Scriptures was. It has since been termed “the greatest manuscript discovery of modern times.”5
While tending his flocks early that year, a young Bedouin shepherd discovered a cave near the Dead Sea. In it he found a number of earthenware jars, most of them empty. However, in one of the jars, which was sealed tight, he found a leather scroll that was carefully wrapped in linen and contained the complete Bible book of Isaiah. This well-preserved but worn scroll showed signs of having been repaired. Little did the young shepherd realize that the ancient scroll he held in his hands would eventually be given worldwide attention.
What was so significant about this particular manuscript? In 1947 the oldest available complete Hebrew manuscripts dated from about the tenth century C.E. But this scroll was dated to the second century B.C.E.b—more than a thousand years earlier.c Scholars were very interested to find out how this scroll compared with manuscripts produced much later.
In one study, scholars compared the 53rd chapter of Isaiah in the Dead Sea Scroll with the Masoretic text produced a thousand years later. The book A General Introduction to the Bible, explains the results of the study: “Of the 166 words in Isaiah 53, there are only seventeen letters in question. Ten of these letters are simply a matter of spelling, which does not affect the sense. Four more letters are minor stylistic changes, such as conjunctions. The remaining three letters comprise the word ‘light,’ which is added in Isa 53 verse 11, and does not affect the meaning greatly. . . . Thus, in one chapter of 166 words, there is only one word (three letters) in question after a thousand years of transmission—and this word does not significantly change the meaning of the passage.”7
Professor Millar Burrows, who worked with the scrolls for years, analyzing their contents, came to a similar conclusion: “Many of the differences between the . . . 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.”8
“Reassuring testimony” can also be given about the copying of the Christian Greek Scriptures. For example, the 19th-century discovery of the Codex Sinaiticus, a vellum manuscript dated to the fourth century C.E., helped confirm the accuracy of manuscripts of the Christian Greek Scriptures produced centuries later. A papyrus fragment of the Gospel of John, discovered in the district of Faiyūm, Egypt, is dated to the first half of the second century C.E., less than 50 years after the original was written. It had been preserved for centuries in the dry sand. The text agrees with that found in much later manuscripts.9
The evidence thus confirms that the copyists were, in fact, very accurate. Nevertheless, they did make mistakes. No individual manuscript is flawless—the Dead Sea Scroll of Isaiah notwithstanding. Even so, scholars have been able to detect and correct such departures from the original.
Correcting Copyists’ Errors
Suppose 100 persons were asked to make a handwritten copy of a lengthy document. Undoubtedly at least some of the copyists would make mistakes. However, they would not all make the same mistakes. If you were to take all 100 copies and compare them very carefully, you would be able to isolate the errors and determine the exact text of the original document, even if you never saw it.
Similarly, the Bible copyists did not all make the same mistakes. With literally thousands of Bible manuscripts now available for comparative analysis, textual scholars have been able to isolate mistakes, determine the original reading, and make note of needed corrections. As a result of such careful study, textual scholars have produced master texts in the original languages. These refined editions of the Hebrew and of the Greek texts adopt the words most generally agreed upon as being the original, often listing in footnotes variations or alternative readings that may exist in certain manuscripts. The refined editions by the textual scholars are what Bible translators use to translate the Bible into modern languages.
So when you pick up a modern translation of the Bible, there is every reason for confidence that the Hebrew and the Greek texts on which it is based represent with remarkable fidelity the words of the original Bible writers.d The record of how the Bible survived thousands of years of recopying by hand is truly extraordinary. Sir Frederic Kenyon, longtime curator of the British Museum, could therefore state: “It cannot be too strongly asserted that in substance the text of the Bible is certain . . . This can be said of no other ancient book in the world.”10
a Masoretes (meaning “the Masters of Tradition”) were copyists of the Hebrew Scriptures who lived between the sixth and the tenth centuries C.E. The manuscript copies they produced are referred to as Masoretic texts.2
b B.C.E. means “Before the Common Era.” C.E. denotes “Common Era,” often called A.D., for Anno Domini, meaning “in the year of the Lord.”
c Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible, by Emanuel Tov, states: “With the aid of the carbon 14 test, 1QIsaa [the Dead Sea Isaiah Scroll] is now dated between 202 and 107 BCE (paleographical date: 125-100 BCE) . . . The mentioned paleographical method, which has been improved in recent years, and which allows for absolute dating on the basis of a comparison of the shape and stance of the letters with external sources such as dated coins and inscriptions, has established itself as a relatively reliable method.”6
d Of course, individual translators may be stringent or loose in their adherence to the original Hebrew and Greek texts.
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The Bible was preserved by skilled copyists
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The Dead Sea Scroll of Isaiah (facsimile shown) is practically identical with the Masoretic text produced a thousand years later