Is Today’s Bible the Same as the Original?
Tom: Thanks, Gary. You are listening to Search the Scriptures Daily, a program in which we encourage everyone who desires to know God’s truth to look to God’s Word for all that is essential for salvation and living one’s life in a way that is pleasing to Him.
Our topic today is, and has been for the last few weeks, “The Reliability of the Bible,” and one important aspect of the Bible’s trustworthiness has to do with the reliability of the copies that have come down to us from the original autographs. In other words, if the copiers didn’t do a good job, we could have a misleading or mistake-filled Holy Scriptures.
And that’s the concern of our first question, which is taken from Dave’s book, In Defense of the Faith. This person writes, “It is my understanding that the Bible we have comes from a handful of ancient manuscripts which are copies of copies of the originals that have long been lost. These originals, especially the Old Testament, could have been several thousand years older than the oldest manuscripts. How do we know that what we have today is even close to the originals?”
It’s an important question.
Dave: Yeah, we’ve been talking about the Bible being God’s Word—you could say, well, originally it was, when it was first written down by the prophets and so forth, but it got miscopied and so forth. So, what we have today, maybe it isn’t, maybe it is.
There are a lot of ways that we can verify. We have talked about it in the past, Tom. Forgetting the manuscripts for the moment, I mean, we have so many internal checks on the scriptures, this has to be God’s Word, and so we won’t go into that again.
But now, there is an attack on the manuscripts and that was what this person was asking. Well, talking about the Old Testament manuscripts first, the Masoretes, who copied these pages and . . . why would they have to be copied? Well, because they wore out, more people wanted them. In fact, there were more copies available than we imagine today. For example, in Deuteronomy, God tells his people that they are to meditate on his Word. Every Jew has the scriptures on his doorpost. God said you are to talk about them with your children, recite them when you get up, when you go to bed, when you’re walking, whatever you’re doing.
Psalm 1 talks about “In his law doth he meditate day and night . . .” —this is just an ordinary man. In Deuteronomy 8, “Man shall not live by bread alone but by every word . . .” So these words must have been available. So they copied them because people wanted copies. On the other hand, there were huge manuscripts, and the Jews had ceremonies carrying them around and into the synagogue and so forth.
But another reason for making copies is that people read them; they really studied them, and they wore out! So you had to have more copies. And that’s why the originals aren’t around anymore. Because they wore out, they got tattered and torn, and so they had new copies. I guess they were discarded, but nobody at that time was thinking, oh, a couple thousand years from now this will really be valuable. They should have stashed it away somewhere, but they didn’t. They discarded it. It was just a copy, and they had new copies. So now, how do we prevent errors entering in? Well, the Masoretes were so highly trained, and they believed that this was God’s Word. They counted every letter on every page!
Well, Tom, I think you’ve got some information there.
Tom: Yeah! Dave, this is a book I used dealing with the Bible when I taught middle school Bible class. It was great for the kids—this is an Abeka book. But let me quote some things with regard to the history of, again, as you said, the exactness, the detail, the approach, the Jews used with regard to God’s Word, which is clearly what it was to them. It says, “Extraordinary care was taken to secure perfect accuracy in the transcription of the sacred books. Especially was this the case with the synagogue roles, or copies of the Pentateuch, that is, the first five books of the Bible, intended for use in the synagogues. These were written on skins fastened together so as to form a roll—never in modern book form. Minute regulations were laid down in the Talmud for their preparation. A synagogue roll must be written on the skins of clean animals prepared for the particular use of the synagogue by a Jew.”
Now, as I am going through this, I want our listeners to think about any other book of antiquity and think, Oh yeah, well, the same applied to the works of . . . who?
Tom: Yeah. “These must be fastened together with strings taken from clean animals. Every skin must contain a certain number of columns, equal throughout the entire codex or manuscript. The length of each column must not extend over less than 48 or more than 60 lines, and the breadth must consist of 30 letters. The whole copy must be first lined, and if three words be written in it without a line, it is worthless. The ink should be black, neither red, green, nor any other color, and be prepared according to a definite recipe. An authentic copy must be the exemplar from which the transcriber ought not in the least to deviate. No word or letter, not even a yodh, must be written from memory, described, not having looked at the codex beforehand.”
Now Dave, it goes on and on. “The copyist must sit in full Jewish dress; wash his whole body; not to begin to write the name of God with a pen newly dipped in ink, and should a king address him while writing that name, he must take no notice of him.”
Dave, this was serious, serious business!
Dave: Absolutely. You couldn’t have more care; you couldn’t be more meticulous than the copying of the Scriptures.
Dave: You would have to be, or you would have errors introduced.
Tom: You were mentioning the Masoretes. Now, this was prior to the Masoretes. But the Masoretes—Sir Frederick Kenyon, who probably knows more about the Bible with regard to its history and how it came about than probably any man that’s ever lived, I think: “The Masoretes were indeed anxious that not one jot or tittle, not one smallest letter, nor one tiny part of a letter of the law should pass away or be lost.”
Now, okay, that’s a lot of words, that’s a lot of history, but how is that supported?
Dave: Well, there’s no book that had that care in its transcription. Of course, we try to write even our newsletter or what our last broadcast—we had a really embarrassing error! I said “three witnesses” in Jerusalem and there were two, and nobody caught it. So, you can imagine—and the staff read it, and I read it over several times. So you can imagine the great care they had to take with this, and they did a good job. Well, that’s proved by the fact that—remember the Isaiah Scroll, we’ve talked about that before—the Dead Sea copy of the Isaiah Scroll.
Tom: Which were found in 1947, I believe.
Dave: Right, it turned out to be about a thousand years older than the oldest copy we had of Isaiah! So, people naturally said, oh well, you will find a great many differences, copy errors. In fact, there were none! There may have been a slight variation in a word or two because of—it didn’t change the word—but because of usage had slightly changed and so they had to change it to make up for that. But that, again, was a tremendous demonstration of the accuracy. I believe God watched over His Word. He took care that we would have His Word.
Tom: Dave, just some other details about the Dead Sea Scrolls—they dated them around between 150 BC and 100 BC. So, these were the manuscripts that were available for Jesus during His time, and, it’s interesting, when He read from the scroll of Isaiah, He didn’t have any problems with it. He didn’t say, “Well, here’s where there were some mistakes, and I’m going to qualify this, or qualify that.” So, it’s really exciting! The Dead Sea Scrolls actually encourage us that, as you said, a thousand years from the. . . from one . . .
Dave: . . . oldest manuscript . . .
Tom: Yeah, from our oldest manuscript . . .
Dave: . . . is about 900 AD dated.
Tom: Right. Well, let me quote Gleason Archer, Bible scholar. He said, “The copies proved to be word-for-word identical with our standard Hebrew Bible in more than 95 percent of the text. The 5 percent of variation consisted chiefly of slips of the pen and variations in spelling.”
That’s great! I mean, it ought to be a great encouragement.
Dave: And it didn’t change the meaning of anything at all.
Tom: No. Dave, how does that compare with—as long as we’re on a comparative thought pattern here—what about other books of antiquity?
Dave: We talked about the Qur’an last week, I think—written on leaves and bits of bark and so forth, and they weren’t really sure, and they argued about which was authentic, and then they redid it and threw out everything else, and so forth. So, you have no comparable record with the Qur’an for sure. You do not have these ancient manuscripts. You don’t have anything like that for the Book of Mormon, for example. Oh, Joseph Smith claimed that he transcribed it or translated it from gold plates. But we don’t have the gold plates; we have to take his word for it, and some of his witnesses went back on their word, they said no, it wasn’t true and so forth. “We never really saw anything. We just, our hands touched it.”
I don’t know of any writings that would go back to the Bible dates that you would have comparable quality control or assurance. It just isn’t there.
But we do accept them. We accept, for example, the Writings of Sophocles and various histories, Herodotus, Euripides, and so forth—these are around 400 to 500 BC, and they are 1400 to 1300 to 1500 years beyond that time before we have the oldest manuscript. And we have, like—well, in the case of Sophocles we have about 100 copies, but the others, eight or ten copies compared with the thousands of copies that we have of Scripture.
Tom: Dave, what about the New Testament?
Dave: Well, the New Testament, of course, is a later book, and we have nearly 25,000 copies or fragments of copies of the New Testament. And, of course, the benefit of that is, you compare—it’s a whole science. One of my dear friends, many years ago, was a Greek scholar who had handled these ancient copies. In fact, he had worked on a copy of John’s gospel—I don’t think it was an entire copy but a fragment—I think it was dated very, very close, like in the nineties, I think, or eighties—this was an old, old copy. But it was a whole science of comparing manuscript with manuscript with manuscript, so that you could, even though there had been a copyist error introduced, you would be able to recognize it, and you would be able to get back—from all of these copies—you would be able to get back to the original (although we didn’t have the original). And although, as I said, they were destroyed, they were just thrown out—when they wore out, they were thrown out.
But there is absolutely no comparison, because of course, as you said, they believed this is God’s Word. They were so meticulous, so careful, they were afraid—you wouldn’t want to change God’s Word—there was a penalty for that! And therefore, the manuscripts have been preserved, and we have very solid evidence—confidence and evidence—that the Bible that we have today is God’s Word.
Tom: I want to give another quote from Kenyon, again, Bible scholar par excellence. “No fundamental doctrine of the Christian faith rests on a disputed reading. It cannot be too strongly asserted that in substance the text of the Bible is certain, especially is this the case with the New Testament. The number of manuscripts of the New Testament of early translations from it, and the quotations from it in the oldest writers of the church is so large that it is practically certain that the true reading of every doubtful passage is preserved in someone or other of these ancient authorities. This can be said of no other ancient book in the world. It is reassuring at the end to find that the general result of all of these discoveries of manuscripts and all of this study is to strengthen the proof of the authenticity of the scriptures and our conviction that we have in our hands in substantial integrity, the veritable Word of God.”
Dave: Tom, it’s rather interesting that nobody attacks the authenticity or the accuracy of other ancient writings, and they were not as well preserved. Well, and they accept them, but they attack the Bible because the Bible is God’s Word, and if the skeptics can prove that there are some errors, then they pull the rug out from under us, but they cannot prove that.
Now, on the other hand, Tom, again, we’ve talked about how all these things are interwoven. To some people it doesn’t matter. To the so-called Jesus Seminar scholars, it doesn’t matter. That, again, astounds me that people will claim, “Well, the Bible isn’t true. It isn’t really God’s Word. It wasn’t really inspired . . . there are problems with the manuscripts”—and then they will spend a lifetime teaching from it in seminary, studying it, as though—if it’s not true, if it’s mythology, or if there are a lot of errors, what’s the point?
Tom: Well, more than that, it’s a fraud!
Dave: It is!
Tom: It’s going against . . . or, the evidence so called is against the very claims that it makes, so what have you got?
Dave: And yet, they work on it, and study it, and become scholars! The Jesus Seminar—“biblical scholars,” and they don’t believe the Bible is God’s Word and they don’t believe it’s accurate.
Now, one of my favorites—you mentioned Kenyon—is Robert D. Wilson. And, I think we’ve read some of what he said, or quoted from him, but I give a lengthy quote in the book. And, he says: “For forty-five years continuously, I have devoted myself to the one great study of the Old Testament, in all its languages, in all its archaeology, in all its translations.”
Now, he was fluent in over forty Semitic languages! To me, that is just astonishing! I mean, I can’t even . . . well, I never studied French, or, well, I did study Russian in school—I had three years at UCLA, and I can hardly say a word—well, I could sort of get by when I am over there. But my French is horrible, my Spanish is horrible, and I have known people who—well, I remember Richard Wurmbrand, who was a very dear friend—with the Lord now. I think he was pretty well fluent in about fifteen languages. I’ve heard him preach in Russian and in German, and I can’t remember what other languages over there in Europe—and French—I know I’ve spoken to him in French. I know he was very fluent in French. I mean, mine is very poor. But forty Semitic languages, many of them dead—to know these fluently! I mean, this man worked at it.
He goes on, he says: “The critics of the Bible who go to it in order to find fault . . . claim to themselves all knowledge and all virtue and all love of the truth. One of their favorite phrases is ‘All scholars agree.’ When a man says that, I wish to know who the scholars are and why they agree. Where do they get their evidence? I defy any man to make an attack upon the Old Testament on the ground of evidence that I cannot investigate.” He says: “After I learned the necessary languages, I set about the investigation of every consonant in the Hebrew Old Testament. There are about a million and a quarter of these; and it took me many years to achieve my task.” I would think so!
“I had to observe the variations of the text—in the manuscripts, or in the notes of the Masoretes, or in the various versions, or in the parallel passages, or in the conjectural emendations of critics; and then I had to classify the results to reduce the Old Testament criticism to an absolutely objective science; something which is based on evidence, not an opinion.
“The result of those 45 years’ study which I have given to the text has been this: I can affirm that there is not a page of the Old Testament concerning which we need have any doubt.”
Now I will take his word over the Jesus Seminar people or anybody else, but we have other evidence for it, but this is a tremendous testimony.
Tom: Well, Dave, that’s what’s encouraging. Who could do that work? I mean, this man is gifted of God, called of God, dedicated his life to this sort of thing. On the other hand, if you’d say, “Well, then, it all depends on him”—no, it doesn’t depend on just him. It’s an encouragement! But we’ve got a whole slough of things, as you mentioned before, the internal evidence that it’s God’s Word.
Dave: Yeah, so, Tom, when some professor at your university, someone out there listening, or in high school, or whoever it is, or some friend you’re talking to on a bus or walking along, and they say, “Oh well, the Old Testament” (or the New Testament, which is . . . we are going back to the Old Testament at the moment) “well, it’s not reliable, you know. They made mistakes and so forth and so on.”
Well, who says so? Professor Wilson says: “I want to know who said that. I want to know why they said that. Where did they get their evidence?” And, I think that he has done more work than any of them. So if, on the basis of scholarship, and if you are going to base anything on the opinions of scholars, I think we ought to take his opinion over anyone else’s. I do not know of anyone who even comes close to the expertise that this man had.
Tom: And again, we’ve mentioned Frederick Kenyon; we’ve mentioned, certainly, Wilson, but there are others—many people who have dedicated their lives to these things. And if there was a big battle going on, and it was in a confused area, that would be one thing, but it’s not. Scholarship, whether it be archaeological, historical, whatever, supports God’s Word over and over again.
Dave: Yeah, so you hear these rumors and they are rumors, just like the saying, “Well, you can make the Bible say anything you want.” Well, if you could, it would be the most remarkable book there ever was, wouldn’t it? Because words have meaning.
No, these are just what people say, and they haven’t studied it, they haven’t checked it out, but they want to say it because they don’t want to be held accountable for what the Bible says. They don’t want it to have authority over them, so they throw these ideas out there, they’re picked up, they’re quoted. Don’t be deceived!
Tom: Dave, we’ve been taking a lot of time on the reliability of God’s Word, and we’ve got a few weeks ahead because this is all-important. How else are we going to know, with any assurance, with any confidence, that God is really speaking to us? Certainly God quickens us, we have the Holy Spirit within our heart, but . . .
Dave: He must speak to us.
Tom: Of course, but those who have not come to know Christ, look to the evidence. There are incredible evidences that at least we would hope would move you . . . well, that would move a person to come to know the Lord.
Dave: Amen. That’s what we want.