THE THREAT: External threats such as decay and opposition have not destroyed the Bible. Yet, some copyists and translators have attempted to alter the Bible’s message. At times, they have tried to make the Bible conform to their doctrines rather than conform their doctrines to the Bible. Consider some examples:
Place of worship: Between the fourth and second centuries B.C.E., the writers of the Samaritan Pentateuch inserted after Exodus 20:17 the words “in Aargaareezem. And there you shall build an altar.” The Samaritans thus hoped to make the Scriptures support their construction of a temple on “Aargaareezem,” or Mount Gerizim.
Trinity doctrine: Less than 300 years after the Bible was completed, a Trinitarian writer added to 1 John 5:7 the words “in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one.” That statement did not appear in the original text. “From the sixth century onwards,” notes Bible scholar Bruce Metzger, those words were “found more and more frequently in manuscripts of the Old Latin and of the [Latin] Vulgate.”
Divine name: Citing a Jewish superstition as their authority, many Bible translators decided to remove the divine name from the Scriptures. They replaced that name with titles such as “God” or “Lord,” expressions applied in the Bible not only to the Creator but also to men, objects of false worship, and even the Devil.—John 10:34, 35; 1 Corinthians 8:5, 6; 2 Corinthians 4:4.*
HOW THE BIBLE SURVIVED: First, although some Bible copyists were careless or even deceitful, many others were highly skilled and meticulous. Between the sixth and tenth centuries C.E., the Masoretes copied the Hebrew Scriptures and produced what is known as the Masoretic text. They reportedly counted the words and the letters to verify that no mistakes crept in. Where they suspected errors in the master text they were using, they noted these in the margin. The Masoretes refused to tamper with the Bible text. “Interfering with it purposely,” wrote Professor Moshe Goshen-Gottstein, “would have been for them the worst crime possible.”
Second, the sheer volume of manuscripts today actually helps Bible scholars to spot errors. For example, religious leaders taught for centuries that their Latin versions contained the authentic Bible text. Yet, at 1 John 5:7, they had inserted the spurious words referred to earlier in this article. The error even crept into the influential English King James Version! But when other manuscripts were discovered, what did they reveal? Bruce Metzger wrote: “The passage [at 1 John 5:7] is absent from the manuscripts of all ancient versions (Syriac, Coptic, Armenian, Ethiopic, Arabic, Slavonic), except the Latin.” As a result, revised editions of the King James Version and other Bibles have removed the erroneous phrase.
Do older manuscripts prove that the Bible’s message has been preserved? When the Dead Sea Scrolls were found in 1947, scholars could at last compare the Hebrew Masoretic text to what appeared in Bible scrolls that had been written more than a thousand years earlier. A member of the editorial team of the Dead Sea Scrolls concluded that one scroll “provides irrefutable proof that the transmission of the biblical text through a period of more than one thousand years by the hands of Jewish copyists has been extremely faithful and careful.”
The Chester Beatty Library in Dublin, Ireland, features a collection of papyri that represents nearly every book of the Christian Greek Scriptures, including manuscripts dating from the second century C.E.—only about 100 years after the Bible was completed. “Although the Papyri supply a wealth of new information on textual detail,” The Anchor Bible Dictionary observes, “they also demonstrate remarkable stability in the transmission history of the biblical text.”
“It may be safely said that no other work of antiquity has been so accurately transmitted”
THE RESULT: Rather than corrupting the Bible text, the age and multitude of Bible manuscripts have actually improved it. “No other ancient book has anything like such early and plentiful testimony to its text,” wrote Sir Frederic Kenyon about the Christian Greek Scriptures, “and no unbiased scholar would deny that the text that has come down to us is substantially sound.” And regarding the Hebrew Scriptures, scholar William Henry Green stated: “It may be safely said that no other work of antiquity has been so accurately transmitted.”