Evidence of Divine Preservation
THE inspired Word of God has been transmitted to us accurately, and for such marvelous preservation we must thank primarily the Bible’s Author. There are perhaps 6,000 manuscripts of the entire Hebrew Scriptures or portions of it and some 5,000 of the Christian Greek Scriptures.
“The saying of Jehovah endures forever.” (1 Peter 1:25) But what has modern-day research brought to light concerning the preservation of his Sacred Word?
How Reliable a Text?
Just how reliable is the text of the Christian Greek Scriptures? Very reliable indeed, incomparably so when we consider other writings that have survived from antiquity. This fact was highlighted in the book Auf den Spuren Jesu (In Jesus’ Footsteps), by Gerhard Kroll. The author showed, for example, that only six papyri are preserved of the writings of the Greek philosopher Aristotle (fourth century B.C.E.), mostly dating from the tenth century C.E. or thereafter. The works of Plato (fourth century B.C.E.) fared a little better. There are ten manuscripts of his works that date from before the 13th century. In the case of Herodotus (fifth century B.C.E.), there are about 20 papyrus fragments dating from the first century C.E. and later. The first complete manuscripts of his work date from the tenth century. And the earliest manuscripts of Josephus’ works date back only to the 11th century.
In contrast with this, the text of the Christian Greek Scriptures (completed in the first century C.E.) is attested to by fragments from the second century and by complete copies from the fourth century. According to Kroll, there are 81 papyri from the 2nd to the 7th century, 266 uncial manuscripts from the 4th to the 10th century, and 2,754 cursive manuscripts from the 9th to the 15th century, as well as 2,135 lectionaries. All of these help us to establish the text of the Christian Greek Scriptures. So, yes, it is very well attested to indeed.
A Vital Fragment of John’s Gospel
Who would expect to find part of a valuable Bible manuscript in a heap of rubbish? Yet, that is where a treasured fragment of chapter 18 of John’s Gospel was found. Now known as the John Rylands Papyrus 457 (P52), it is preserved in Manchester, England. How was it discovered, and why is it so important?
At the turn of the century, archaeologists dug up a mass of papyrus fragments, including letters, receipts, petitions, and census documents, along with many other texts, outside the town of Oxyrhynchus in the district of El Faiyûm, Egypt. Most written in Greek, they had all been preserved for centuries in the dry sand.
In the year 1920, a collection of these papyri was acquired by the John Rylands Library of Manchester. Fourteen years later, scholar C. H. Roberts, in sorting through some of the pieces, came across a few words that seemed familiar to him. Imagine his excitement when he realized that they were from John chapter 18, parts of Joh 18 verses 31 to 33 being on one side of the fragment and parts of Joh 18 verses 37 and 38 on the other side (the verso). This papyrus fragment proved to be the earliest known portion of any Christian Greek Scripture manuscript yet discovered. Written in Greek capital letters called uncials, it originated in the first half of the second century of our Common Era.
This fragment measures only 3.5 by 2.5 inches [8.9 by 6.4 cm]. How is it possible to date this piece of papyrus so accurately? Mainly by examining the style of writing, a study known as paleography. All handwriting changes gradually over the years, and it is these changes that indicate the age of a manuscript, with a margin of error of some years either way. The complete manuscript of which the fragment is such a small part was therefore copied very close to the time of writing of the original Gospel account penned by John himself. Likely, the gap was as little as 30 or 40 years. We can also be sure that John’s account was not significantly altered by later scribes, for the text of the fragment agrees almost exactly with that found in much later manuscripts.
Prior to this find, critics had argued that John’s Gospel was not a genuine writing of Jesus’ apostle but had been penned sometime later, toward the end of the second century. On the contrary, it is now clear from this fragment that John’s Gospel existed in Egypt in the first half of the second century C.E., not as a scroll, but in book form as a codex. How astonishing that such a seemingly insignificant papyrus fragment could silence the critics so effectively!
[Box on page 31]
PAPYRUS is a plant that thrives in shallow, stagnant waters or marshes and along the banks of slow-moving rivers, such as the Nile. (Job 8:11) Papyrus paper may have been used as a writing material as early as the time of Abraham. Later, its manufacture was one of the main industries of the ancient Egyptians. In making it, they followed a rather simple process. Lengths of the inner pith were sliced into thin strips and laid side by side, with another layer glued on crosswise. This was then pressed and rolled into a sheet, dried in the sun, and subsequently polished with pumice, shells, or ivory. Sheets could be joined to form a scroll, the average length being between 14 and 20 feet [4 to 6 m], although one has been preserved that is 133 feet [41 m] long. Alternatively, the leaves could be folded to make a booklike codex, the form of manuscript so popular among the early Christians.
[Box on page 31]
PARCHMENT and VELLUM
THE fifth-century Alexandrine Codex, one that originally contained the whole Bible, is written on vellum. What is this material, and how does it differ from parchment?
From early times, parchment was made from sheepskin, goatskin, or calfskin. It was prepared by scraping the hair from washed skins, which were then stretched upon frames to dry. (Compare 2 Timothy 4:13.) By the third and fourth centuries of our Common Era, a distinction between grades of the material was accepted, the coarser continuing to be known as parchment, the finer as vellum. For vellum, only the delicate skins of calf or kid or of stillborn calves or lambs were used. They produced a thin, smooth, almost white writing material that was used for important books until the invention of printing, for which the use of paper was cheaper and better.