Has the Bible Been Preserved Accurately?
Good News Magazine
December 1980
Volume: VOL. XXVII, NO. 10
Issue: ISSN 0432-0816
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Has the Bible Been Preserved Accurately?
Neil Earle  

   Is the Bible, as some far-out critics contend, a hodgepodge of scribal errors, spurious manuscripts and copyists' forgeries? You need to know the encouraging truth!
   Could a collection of writings scattered over 1,500 years of composition, spanning 60 generations and authored by 40-plus writers in three languages survive such a journey intact?
   Jesus Christ said yes. "Heaven and earth shall pass away," He pronounced, "but my words shall not pass away" (Matt. 24:35).
   The skeptics disagree. Accusations of linguistic errors, slips of the pen, unwarranted interpolations and pious forgeries have been trumpeted far and wide. Even to the average person it somehow seems unreasonable for manuscripts and documents to survive unblemished after 3 1/2 millennia of copying and recopying.
   And yet, the existence of the 66 books encompassing Genesis to Revelation is a fact, an observable, demonstrable reality. The Bible exists. Where did it come from?
   Scientific literary analysis demands that the benefit of the doubt be given to the documents! Shakespeare's plays exist. Every year someone attempts to prove that someone other than Shakespeare wrote them or that counterfeit material was later inserted into his original writings. Yet until hard, unshakable evidence appears to the contrary, most all scholars assume Shakespeare's authorship.
   It is the same with the Bible. Critical doubts and scholarly questions do not constitute refutation; skeptical research beggars authoritative conclusions.
   The document gets the benefit of any doubt. The burden of proof lies with the skeptic!

A nation of priests

   The evidence for the integrity, authenticity and accuracy of the documents underlying the biblical text makes a fascinating story.
   It begins with the Eternal God's selection of an entire nation as a "kingdom of priests" (Ex. 19:6). The care and preservation of Israel's lively oracles was a solemn duty of professionals called scribes.
   In these conditions, how easy was it to palm off forgeries on the specially chosen teachers of the tribe of Levi (Deut. 33:l0)? How did educated Jews feel about the authenticity of the documents they venerated as the "holy scriptures" (II Tim. 3:15)?
   Let Josephus, a Jewish historian of the first century, answer:
   "From Artaxerxes [Malachi's time] until our time everything has been recorded but has not been deemed worthy of like credit with what has -preceded, because the exact succession of prophets ceased. But what faith we have placed in our own writings is evident by our conduct; for though so long a time has now passed, no one has dared to add anything to them, or alter anything in them" (Contra Apion. Whiston's Josephus, p. 609).
   Often overlooked is that the law, prophets and writings, which were accepted by Christ (Luke 24:44), formed the constitutional and legal basis of the Jewish nation. The Old Testament writings had national impact equal to Britain's Magna Carta, Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and Petition of Right, or America's Plymouth Rock Covenant and Declaration of Independence. Every Sabbath (Acts 15:21) for three millennia the Old Testament has been read, discussed, expounded by Jews. Genesis to Malachi underlined the Jewish people's unique position in the world and their claim to the land of Israel. As one rabbi observed, "More than Israel has kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept Israel."
   Even the many sects and divisions within Judaism acted as unwitting guarantors of the purity of the Old Testament text, the vital record of their ancestors' deeds (John 8:33-59).
   Animosity was, paradoxically, a powerful force in preserving the unimpeachability of Scripture. The appeal to the text was the common arbiter in theological debate (Matt. 19:7). The Scriptures were known at the grass-roots level as well (Luke 4:16-20). Deletions, insertions or corruptions would have triggered an outcry in a nation zealous for their law (Acts 22:3).
   Tamper with the Old Testament text? One may as well consider editing the Declaration of Independence, deleting a sentence in a new copy of the Gettysburg Address or printing the Lord's Prayer with the beginning "Our Mother." Vital literary productions of national significance are too well known to be tampered with.
   Today thousands of people have committed the Ten Commandments to memory. Imagine the protests if a new Bible translation inserted an extra commandment! Also consider the astounding memory powers of the ancients. Even in this century a Cairo, Egypt, university required entering students to memorize the entire Koran, a book as large as the New Testament.

The thread of conveyance

   Scripture itself speaks of a systematic, organized preservation of the law, prophets and writings.
   Moses entrusted the law to the Levites guarding the ark, centerpiece of Israel's religion (Deut. 31:24-26). Joshua 1:8 comments upon "this book of the law" that Moses' successor read to the entire nation (Josh. 8:32-35).
   Literate, proficient scholars functioned even through the chaotic Judges period (Judg. 5:14, I Sam. 1:3, 9). Under Samuel and David and Solomon, during Israel's Golden Age, inspired writers laid the basis for the historical narratives in Samuel, Kings and Chronicles. David revered the sacred writings (Ps. 119:97), and he and Solomon contributed and collected many psalms and proverbs.
   These writings formed the basis for successive national revivals and reforms (II Chron. 17:7-9, II Kings 22:8). Later on Isaiah and Hezekiah updated the text (Prov. 25:1, Isa. 8:16). In this way "holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost" (II Pet. 1:21). The writings of the prophets were accepted because of God's evident approval and inspiration, shown through dramatic fulfillments (Isa. 38:4-7).
   Even during the Babylonian captivity Daniel had access to the Scriptures (Dan. 9:2), and the return to Jerusalem was greatly influenced by Ezra, a "ready scribe" and guardian of the text (Ezra 7:6, 10). According to Jewish tradition, Ezra actually updated and clarified the text in �certain places (e.g., Deut. 34:5). Shortly after his time, Malachi, the last Old Testament book, was written.

Ancient computers

   How scientific was the transmission of the text? We can get a good insight by surveying two periods of transcription: from the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 to about A.D. 500, and from A.D. 500 to A.D. 916.
   In the first five centuries a group known as the Talmudists guarded and copied the text. A supreme effort to safeguard the Old Testament accompanied the scattering of the Jewish people after A.D. 70.
   "A great rabbi — Yochanan ben Zakkia by name — [reconstituted] the Sanhedrin at Jannia, between Joppa and Azotus. They considered whether canonical recognition should be accorded to Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, the Song of Songs and Esther... the upshot was the firm acknowledgment of all these books as Holy Scripture" (Bruce, The Books and the Parchments. p. 97).
   Why wasn't canonical recognition granted to the controversial "apocryphal" books such as Maccabees. Judith and Bel and the Dragon? Because they abounded, in varying degree, in historical and geographical inaccuracies, displayed an artificial and sometimes vulgar style and taught doctrines and practices inconsistent with true Scripture.
   In Bel and the Dragon, for example, Cyrus brags to Daniel about the superiority of the god Bel since the god actually ate food offered every night on his altar. Daniel secretly scatters ashes on the temple floor and afterwards shows Cyrus the unmistakable footprints of the priests who ate the food offered to Bel.
   No self-respecting rabbi would dare equate this polite Jewish fiction with the biblical Daniel. It would be like equating the majesty of Winston Churchill's best speeches with the poem "Casey at the Bat." Professionalism purged this spurious literature from serious consideration.
   Notice some of the demanding discipline of the transcribers who worked from A.D. 70 to A.D. 500:
   "A synagogue roll must be written on the skins of clean animals, the length of each column must not extend less than 48 or more than 80 lines; the breadth must consist of 30 letters. No word or letter, not even a yod, must be written from memory .... Between every consonant the space of a hair or thread must intervene, between every book three lines. Besides this the copyist must sit in full Jewish dress, wash his whole body" (Davidson, Hebrew Text of the Old Testament, p. 89).
   Transcription was letter by letter, not word for word or phrase for phrase! Diligence. Veneration. Professionalism The hallmarks of the Talmudist tradition!
   The Masoretes (Hebrew Masorah, meaning "to deliver something into the hands of another") safeguarded the text from about A.D. 500 to A.D. 916. These dedicated scholars based in Tiberias produced the Masoretic Text used today; it is the basis for our English Old Testament of 1611. "The Massorah is called 'a fence to the scriptures' because it locked all words and letters in their places. It records the number of times the several letters occur in the Bible; the number of words and the middle word; the number of verses and the middle verses, etc., for the set purpose of preventing the loss or misplacement of a single letter or word" (Bullinger, Companion Bible, Appendix 30).
   Designating the middle letter of the Pentateuch and the middle letter and verse of each book as well as of the entire Old Testament was not enough for these technicians. Phrases were counted, enumerated, distinguished. "House of Israel" was computed separately from "sons of Israel" and the number of times each occurred was well noted. The expression "sins of Jeroboam" is noted separately from the phrase "the sins of Jeroboam, the son of Nebat." Thus the Jewish zeal for God was turned to good use (Rom. 10:2).
   So confident were the Talmudists and Masoretes that older documents were discarded: In the words of Sir Frederick Kenyon, late curator of the British Museum, "Age gave no advantage to a manuscript." Understanding the precision and skill of the Jewish scribes explains why. Who has ever counted the letters of Shakespeare, the words of Herodotus, the phrases of Homer?

The text and the Dead Sea Scrolls

   What external evidence exists for checking the Masoretic Text of A.D. 916? A.D. 916 is 1,300 years from the last Old Testament writing, Malachi, in the fifth century B.C. Should this gap alarm us?
   "It is nothing to that which parts most of the great classical authors from their earliest manuscripts. We believe that we have the seven plays of Sophocles; yet the earliest substantial manuscript upon which it is based was written more than 1,400 years after the poet's death" (Kenyon, Handbook to the Textual Criticism of the New Testament, p. 4). In other words, our Old Testament text is closer to its time of original composition than the major classical works of antiquity.
   TraditionaIiy, the major sources for cross-checking the Masoretic Text were the fifth century B.C. Samaritan Pentateuch (" variations from the Masoretic quite insignificant" — F.F. Bruce), the Targums — oral paraphrases from the sixth century B.C., the Mishnah — scriptural quotes and commentary from A.D. 200 and the Midrash (l00 B.C.-A.D. 300) — rabbinical studies on doctrine. The net result of these literary cross-references was the strengthening of the authenticity of the Masoretic Text.
   Then came 1947. One of the famous Dead Sea Scrolls found was a complete Isaiah manuscript. Its date? Approximately 125 B.C. This is a thousand years earlier than the Masoretic Text. How did it compare? Norman L. Geisler and William E. Nix report:
   "In one chapter of 166 words (Isa. 53) 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" (General Introduction to the Bible. p. 263).
   Minor stylistic and spelling variations pale before the fact that the Isaiah scroll "proved to be word for word identical with our standard Hebrew Bible in more than 95 percent of the text" (Archer, A Survey of the Old Testament. p. 19).
   In the words of Mr. Geisler and Mr. Nix, "the King James Bible is 98.33 percent pure" when compared with the Dead Sea Scrolls. Yet, as the accuracy of the Talmudists and Masoretes should demonstrate, the sectarians' Dead Sea Scrolls need to be evaluated by the Masoretic text, not vice versa.
   Sound external evidence attests the accuracy of the transmitters of the Old Testament. It is also consistent in its doctrinal harmony and texture. Josephus put the case very well:
   "It becomes natural to all Jews to esteem those books to contain divine doctrines and, if occasion be, willingly to die for them [rather than] to say one word against our laws and the records that contain them... whereas there are none at all among the Greeks who would undergo the least harm on that account."
   How true! The lives of Abraham, Moses and David have the force and weight of reality; the traditions and fictions of Homer and Virgil — while valuable as support material — lack that ring of truth.

The New Testament documents

   How reliable are the New Testament books we possess, and can we cross-check them for accuracy?
   Here again we possess no original writings. Here we must depend on the total manuscript material available.
   "Perhaps we can appreciate how wealthy the New Testament is in manuscript attestation if we compare the textual material for other ancient historical works. For Caesar's Gallic Wars (composed between 58 and 50 B.C.) only nine or 10 [manuscripts] are good, and the oldest is some 900 years later than Caesar's day. Of the 142 books of Livy (59 B.C.-A.D. 17) only 35 survive known to us from no more than 20 manuscripts.... only one of which is as old as the fourth century. Of the 14 books of Tacitus (c. A.D. 100)... the text of these historical works depends entirely on two manuscripts, one of the ninth century and one of the 11th. The History of Thucydides (c. 460-400 B.C.) is known to us from eight manuscripts, the earliest belonging to A.D. 900.... The same is true of the history of Herodotus (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 manuscripts of their works of any use to us are over 1,000 years later than the originals" (Bruce, The New Testament Documents. pp. 16- 17).
The accuracy of Scripture, its-infallible transmission through the centuries, is verifiable by its internal thrust alone. The great truths of the human potential — the purpose of human life, that the Bible shouts from its pages — bespeaks inspiration!
   How much manuscript evidence is there to support and verify the 27 New Testament books?
   "There are some 8,000 manuscripts of the Latin Vulgate and at least 1,000 for other early versions. Add over 4,000 Greek manuscripts (some say 5,000), and we have 13,000 manuscript copies of portions of the New Testament" (Robertson, Introduction to the Textual Criticism of the New Testament. p. 29).
   Thirteen thousand New Testament manuscripts compared to 10 good copies for Caesar's Gallic Wars! The verification of the 27 New Testament books is easier than for any other piece of classical writing. The overwhelming manuscript data makes it much simpler to reconstruct the original reading for disputed or unclear passages.
   How close are these manuscripts to the time when the New Testament writings were completed? Near-contemporary support material is a crucial test of authenticity.
   John Rylands Library in Manchester, England, owns a papyrus fragment of John 18:31-33, which they date to about A.D. 130. This is within 40 years of John's autograph. The Chester Beatty Museum in Dublin, Ireland, holds papyrus copies of the gospels, Acts, Paul's epistles. The date? Around A.D. 200. The Bodmer Papyrus (A.D. 150-200) contains most of John's gospel.
   No other ancient writing has such sterling verification from near-contemporary sources.
   The great codices such as Codex Sinaiticus (composed about A.D. 350 and discovered in the Mt. Sinai Monastery in 1844 — containing the entire New Testament except Mark 16:9-20, John 7:53-8:11) — and Codex Alexandrinus (composed about A.D. 325-350) — containing virtually the whole Bible in Greek — are other valuable sources of documentary evidence for the 27 New Testament books.
   These large rolls of Greek writing held by the British Museum, with the Codex Vaticanus (A.D. 325-350) in the Vatican Library, aid in verifying the integrity of our New Testament.
   Indeed, no other body of literature can be so well attested by such a wealth of documentary evidence. None has been so scrutinized and cross-checked by almost coexistent manuscripts as the New Testament.

External and internal evidence

   The first centuries after Christ and the apostles abounded in religious literature.
   Numerous theologians like Iraeneus, Tertullian and Augustine argued their doctrines by quoting the extant writings and/or copies of the New Testament books. The gospels, Acts, epistles and Revelation were appealed to as the final authority.
   Sir David Dalrymple thus reconstructed our entire New Testament except for 11 verses from the writings of those prolific theologians. This is an amazing corroboration and verification of our New Testament, for if every Bible were to disappear overnight, we could virtually reconstruct it from other sources!
   Even with textual errors or disputed readings in centuries of production, it is good to remember that no fundamental doctrine rests upon a questionable scripture.
   Doctrine is revealed to God's apostles (Acts 10:17-20) "here a little, and there a little" (Isa. 28:10) as they search the entire context of God's will revealed from Genesis to Revelation.
   The Bible's nobility and balance bespeaks one Author. A book that begins with a garden, a river, a tree of life and an invitation to enjoy it and man and God in intimate relationship and then ends developing the same theme possesses an obvious unity and structure (Gen. 2-3, Rev. 22). Only a prejudiced observer would fail to be struck by it!
   The New Testament, in particular, boldly claims to be the work of eyewitnesses (II Pet. 1:16). Its authoritative tone and vivid immediacy trumpet accurate transmission: "That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the Word of life" (I John 1:1).
   Literature of such dramatic force and power does not survive for millennia without the convincing weight of sincerity and authenticity! Only a simpleton could confuse the fanciful tales of "Sin bad the Sailor" with the authentic historicity of the book of Acts.
   Some stumble at the obvious supernatural thread woven throughout the fabric of Scripture. Yet biblical miracles and allegories are obviously not of the same fictional caliber and texture as Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Surely the drama of the raising of Lazarus in John 11 is not of the same literary quality as Gulliver's Travels. To claim the opposite runs the danger of willful ignorance (II Pet. 3:5).
   The apostles spoke their truths in the laboratory of experience — live audiences composed of fanatical enemies eager to refute their testimonies (Acts 2:22, 26:24). Their appeal was always to literal, demonstrable fact (Acts 4:10, 7:52), often at their peril.
   Consider this: Who in 1980 could write a biography of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and claim that the late American president rose from the I dead in 1945? Who would believe such a hoax and stick to it for a lifetime?
Add to this...the care taken by the transmitters and attestation from near-contemporary manuscripts, and we can conclude that no council of men, no synod, no committee of scholars ever conferred — upon the Bible any authority it did not already possess!
   The allegation could easily be refuted by relatives and witnesses, still living, who knew the truth. Who would die for such a fraud?
   Yet the apostles suffered and finally were martyred for their beliefs (I Cor. 15:3-8)!
   Christ's resurrection, plus the direct manifestation of God's Spirit, inspired unswerving loyalty. Events in the spring of A.D. 31 welded 12 wavering apostles into a formidable force that "turned the world upside down" (Acts 17:6).
   To believe that the New Testament Church rests on a pious fiction, a "cunningly devised fable" (II Pet. 1:16) is, in light of these considerations, more incredible than the doubts of Thomas.
   Why did no hostile author ever succeed in explaining away Christ's empty tomb? The best excuse enemies could dredge up is recorded in Matthew 28:13.
   Why was no serious attempt made to refute — point by point — the claims made in the gospels? If such attempts were made why haven't they survived?
   Why have the so-called idle tales, (Luke 24:11) been sent to the ends of the earth (Matt. 24:14), just as the Bible predicted they would be? As one scholar said, "The silence of the Jews is as significant as the speeches of the apostles."

No other conclusion

   Philosophical skepticism makes a nice intellectual game, but one cannot live by it. Doubting the strength of historical evidence means one cannot be sure that a marriage certificate documents one's own wedding!
   Would a clever editor bent on perpetrating literary fraud retain the seemingly extraneous Levitical laws, the census rolls in the book of Numbers, the stereotyped repetition of the parables? The arcane or so-called redundant parts of Scripture are only another evidence of the purity of each separate document composing the Bible.
   Do not the presence of problems, difficulties and apparent "contradictions" in the Bible demonstrate that the text was not doctored to have it turn out right? (See "Can God's Word Contain Errors?" beginning on page 13). Unsolved questions are only incentives to deeper study (Prov. 25:2).
   The accuracy of Scripture, its infallible transmission through the centuries, is verifiable by its internal thrust alone. The great truths of the human potential — the purpose of human life, that the Bible shouts from its pages — bespeaks inspiration!
   Add to this the evidence of the care taken by the transmitters and the wealth of attestation from near-contemporary manuscripts, and we can conclude that no council of men, no synod, no committee of scholars ever conferred upon the Bible any authority it did not already possess!
   "The sayings of the wise are like goads, and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings which are given by one Shepherd" (Eccl. 12:11, Revised Standard Version).

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Good News MagazineDecember 1980VOL. XXVII, NO. 10ISSN 0432-0816