Do We Really Need the Originals?
SOME 3,500 years ago, an elderly man in the Middle East compiled a history of the world up to his time. That work, which came to make up five lengthy books, must have been a huge effort. The man was more than 80 years old when he began his account. Neither he nor his nation had a settled home but wandered from place to place in the Sinai Desert. Eventually, however, what that elderly man wrote became a part of the most important literary production the world has ever known.
That man was Moses, who was privileged by God to lead the ancient nation of Israel out of bondage in the land of Egypt. The five books he wrote are known today as the Pentateuch, the first part of the Holy Bible. Moses was guided by God’s holy spirit, or active force. Hence, even today we can read his writings with great personal benefit. But sometimes people ask: ‘Can we really have confidence in the words of Moses and the other Bible writers? Do we have their original manuscripts? If not, what happened to them? And how can we be sure that what is in the Bible is really what its writers originally wrote?’
There are many reasons to be confident that the Bible has not changed in substance since it was first written. True, we do not have the Bible writers’ original manuscripts. But we really should not expect to have those manuscripts. Why? Because of the materials on which they were written, a certain ancient Jewish custom, and the history of the times since the writing.
First, please consider the materials. Some things still exist that were written when the Bible was being compiled. But most of these were written on stone or clay, which can survive for long periods. However, it seems that the Bible was originally written on something more perishable. For example, some writings of the Bible writer Jeremiah were burned by King Jehoiakim. (Jeremiah 36:21-31) Stone or clay tablets would not readily have been destroyed in that way.
So, what writing material was used by Bible writers? Well, “Moses was instructed in all the wisdom of the Egyptians,” and the most common writing material in Egypt was papyrus. (Acts 7:22) Possibly, therefore, Moses wrote on this perishable material. Another common writing material in the Middle East was animal skin—leather or vellum. Perhaps Jeremiah wrote on leather. Either leather or papyrus would have burned when King Jehoiakim threw Jeremiah’s roll into the fire.
True, in the hot, dry climate of Egypt, many papyrus manuscripts have survived for thousands of years. But that is exceptional. Usually, both papyrus and leather deteriorate easily. Says scholar Oscar Paret: “Both of these writing mediums 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.”
In ancient Israel, where most of the books of the Bible were produced, the climate was not favorable for preserving manuscripts. Hence, most of the original manuscripts of the Bible probably disintegrated long ago. Even if they did not, there is an ancient Jewish custom that makes it unlikely that they would have survived to our day. What is that custom?
In 1896 a scholar rummaging through a genizah in Cairo discovered 90,000 ancient manuscripts that revolutionized the study of Middle Eastern history. What is a genizah? And what does this have to do with the original manuscripts of the Bible?
A genizah is a room where Jews of earlier times placed manuscripts worn out from use. Writes scholar Paul E. Kahle: “The Jews used to deposit all sorts of written and printed material in such rooms which were provided in or near their synagogues; they were not intended to be kept as in archives, but were to remain there undisturbed for a certain time. The Jews were afraid lest such writings which might contain the name of God should be profaned by misuse. So such written—and in later times also printed—matter was taken from time to time to consecrated ground and buried; thus it perished. It was by mere chance that the Cairo Geniza was forgotten and its contents so escaped the fate of other Genizas.”—The Cairo Geniza, page 4.
What if an original Bible manuscript had survived until the time when this custom developed? Doubtless, the manuscript would have been worn out from use and would have been given a burial.
In considering what may have happened to original Bible manuscripts, a final factor that should be remembered is the tumultuous history of Bible lands. For example, consider what happened to those books written by the aging man Moses. We are told: “It came about that as soon as Moses had finished writing the words of this law in a book until their completion, Moses began to command the Levites, the carriers of the ark of Jehovah’s covenant, saying: ‘Taking this book of the law, you must place it at the side of the ark of the covenant of Jehovah your God.’”—Deuteronomy 31:24-26.
The ark of the covenant was a sacred chest symbolic of God’s presence among the Israelites. It was carried into the Promised Land (along with Moses’ manuscripts), where it was kept at various locations. For a time, it was seized by the Philistines. Later, Israel’s king David brought the Ark into Jerusalem, and eventually it was placed in the temple that King Solomon built there. But King Ahaz built a pagan altar in the temple and eventually closed it. King Manasseh filled it with pagan worship.
Meanwhile, what happened to the ark of the covenant and to Moses’ writings? We do not know, but at least some of them were lost. In the time of King Josiah, temple workmen unexpectedly found “the very book of the law,” perhaps the actual document written by Moses. (2 Kings 22:8) Much of what it contained was previously unknown to the king, and the reading of it spurred a great spiritual revival.—2 Kings 22:11–23:3.
After Josiah’s death, the people of Judah became unfaithful once again and eventually were deported to Babylon. The temple was destroyed, and everything of value in it was carried off to Babylon. There is no record of what then happened to the Ark or the valuable document discovered in Josiah’s time. Years later, however, when many Jews who had returned to their homeland were being encouraged to rebuild Jerusalem and restore clean worship, the priest Ezra and others read to them publicly from “the book of the law of Moses.” (Nehemiah 8:1-8) Hence, there were copies of the original writings. Where did they originate?
Copying God’s Word
Moses foretold the time when Israel would be ruled by a king and recorded this special command: “When he takes his seat on the throne of his kingdom, he must write in a book for himself a copy of this law from that which is in the charge of the priests, the Levites.” (Deuteronomy 17:18) Hence, some copies of the Scriptures were to be made.
Copying the Scriptures eventually became a profession in Israel. Indeed, Psalm 45:1 says: “May my tongue be the stylus of a skilled copyist.” Such copyists as Shaphan and Zadok were mentioned by name. But the best-known copyist of ancient times was Ezra, who also contributed original writings to the Bible. (Ezra 7:6; Nehemiah 13:13; Jeremiah 36:10) Even while later portions of the Bible were being written, those books already completed were being copied and distributed.
When Jesus Christ was on earth, copies of the Hebrew Scriptures (Genesis to Malachi) were available not only in Jerusalem but also apparently in synagogues of Galilee. (Luke 4:16, 17) Why, at distant Beroea in Macedonia, noble-minded Jews were able to ‘examine the Scriptures daily’! (Acts 17:11) Extant today are some 1,700 manuscript copies of Bible books written before Jesus’ birth, as well as some 4,600 of those compiled by his disciples (Matthew to Revelation).
Were the copies accurate? Yes, extremely so. Professional copyists of the Hebrew Scriptures (called Sopherim) were very concerned about avoiding any mistakes. To check their work, they counted the words and even the letters of each manuscript they copied. Therefore, Jesus, the apostle Paul, and others who often quoted the ancient Bible writers had no doubt about the accuracy of the copies they used.—Luke 4:16-21; Acts 17:1-3.
True, Jewish copyists and the later Christian copyists were not infallible. Errors crept in, but the many copies that still exist help us to trace these errors. How? Well, different copyists made different errors. Hence, by comparing the work of different copyists, we can identify many of their mistakes.
Why We Can Be Confident
In 1947 there was an unexpected discovery of some ancient scrolls in caves near the Dead Sea. These scrolls showed just how accurate the copying of the Scriptures had been. Among the scrolls was a copy of the Bible book of Isaiah that was about a thousand years older than any manuscript previously available. Yet, a comparison showed that the only differences between the Dead Sea manuscript and later copies were in such things as word order and grammar. The meaning of the text was unchanged after a thousand years of copying! Concerning the text of the Hebrew Scriptures, scholar William Henry Green could therefore say: “It may be safely said that no other work of antiquity has been so accurately transmitted.” Similar comments have been made about the accuracy of transmission of the Christian Greek Scriptures.
True, it would be exciting to find the actual document that Moses or Isaiah wrote. But we really do not need the originals. The important thing is not the document but its contents. And miraculously, despite the passing of many turbulent centuries and much copying and recopying, we can be confident that the Bible still contains the information found in those ancient original manuscripts. Hence, this Scriptural statement has proved true: “All flesh is like grass, and all its glory is like a blossom of grass; the grass becomes withered, and the flower falls off, but the saying of Jehovah endures forever.”—1 Peter 1:24, 25.