Reliable Transmission of the Bible

In my last post, “Am I Living a Façade?”, I explained that the Bible teaches that we can absolutely know that we are saved. But that presupposes that what the Bible says is actually true, from God, and not merely a work of man.

The first thing that must be addressed, is whether or not the Bible that we have now is the same as the original autographs of the biblical writers. It is true that we do not have actual copies of the original writing, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be confident that what we have has not been corrupted over time. As with all ancient texts, they were copied by hand over and over again, copy to copy, possibly tens of thousands of times, often in poor conditions and with less-than-perfect implements. It is easy to make the assumption that over time the message would have changed.

Unlike most ancient texts, however, the Jewish scribes were meticulous for working by strict standards. It is readily accepted that transcription of the Old Testament Scripture precisely followed the following guidelines:

  1. They could only use clean animal skins, both to write on, and even to bind manuscripts.
  2. Each column of writing could have no less than forty-eight, and no more than sixty lines.
  3. The ink must be black, and of a special recipe.
  4. They must verbalize each word aloud while they were writing.
  5. They must wipe the pen and wash their entire bodies before writing the word “Jehovah,” every time they wrote it.
  6. There must be a review within thirty days, and if as many as three pages required corrections, the entire manuscript had to be redone.
  7. The letters, words, and paragraphs had to be counted, and the document became invalid if two letters touched each other. The middle paragraph, word and letter must correspond to those of the original document.
  8. The documents could be stored only in sacred places (synagogues, etc).
  9. As no document containing God’s Word could be destroyed, they were stored, or buried, in a genizah – a Hebrew term meaning “hiding place.” These were usually kept in a synagogue or sometimes in a Jewish cemetery (1)

This process, however, was essentially lost for centuries after Jerusalem was destroyed in A.D. 70. Although it was reintroduced again by scribes sometime during the 6th to 10th centuries, that left a significant amount of time for the possibility of error and discrepancy to creep into the texts. The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1948 revealed that even without the meticulous process in place, copies made after A.D. 70 did not detract from the accuracy of previous generations. Comparison of the scrolls, dated to about 600 BC, with texts that were copied from the 6th century onward attest to the accuracy of the scribes and of the process they utilized. We have very good reason, therefore, to be confident that the Old Testament has been accurately transmitted from the original authors to what we have today.

Knowing that the early Christians would have held any writing by the apostles and early church leaders in high regard allows us to be reasonably sure that comparable tenacity would have been employed by the early copyists of the New Testament. In addition, the sheer number of New Testament manuscript fragments that have been collected attest to the impact that these documents had in the early church and lend credibility to the New Testament Scripture. It is estimated that there are 24,000 manuscript fragments in existence. This, by far, exceeds the manuscript evidence of any other ancient writer’s work in existence today. Granted, many of these fragments are just that, fragments, but what we have consistently matches up with the later more complete manuscripts that have been discovered, and we have no non-speculative viable reason for rejecting the notion that the rest of the original document did not similarly match up.

“If the critics want to disregard the New Testament, then they must also disregard other ancient writings by Plato, Aristotle, and Homer.  This is because the New Testament documents are better-preserved and more numerous than any other ancient writings.  Because they are so numerous, they can be cross checked for accuracy . . . and they are very consistent.”(2)

When these fragments are discovered, they are identified, catalogued, scrutinized, and compared with previously discovered fragments for consistency. Many of the fragments have been photographed, and are available for viewing online. If there are only a couple available copies, and those copies have significant differences, it’s anyone’s guess which one is correct and which one is not. But when there are hundreds and thousands in agreement, the message can be reliably trusted. The rapid spread of Christianity following Jesus Christ’s ascension meant that there was a very large number of people hearing and reading the Scriptures and able to validate the truth of what was being taught at the time. “As a result, we can be confident in the certainty of seven-eighths of the New Testament, in which all the major manuscripts agree, and scholars satisfied that their agreement is correct.”(3) Discrepancy in the remaining one eighth does not alter any significant teaching or message, leaving us reasonably confident in understanding the intended message of the text.

William Lane Craig states it well.

“It’s true that the New Testament is the best attested book in ancient history, both in terms of the number of manuscripts and the nearness of those manuscripts to the date of the original. What that goes to prove is that the text of the New Testament that we have today is almost exactly the same as the text as it was originally written. Of the approximately 138,000 words in the New Testament only about 1,400 remain in doubt. The text of the New Testament is thus about 99% established. That means that when you pick up a (Greek) New Testament today, you can be confident that you are reading the text as it was originally written. Moreover, that 1% that remains uncertain has to do with trivial words on which nothing of importance hangs. This conclusion is important because it explodes the claims of Muslims, Mormons, and others that the text of the New Testament has been corrupted, so that we can no longer read the original text. It’s awe-inspiring to think that we can know with confidence that when we pick Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, for example, we are reading the very words he wrote almost 2,000 years ago.”(4)

While this is not absolute proof of authenticity, the argument for reliable transmission of the biblical text appears to be based on solid evidence that dates back until at least the second and third centuries A.D. From that point until now, the manuscript content can be shown to have remained consistent. Yet that does not stop skeptics from attacking biblical claims. This is only to be expected, however, given the nature of faith. As long as there remains relatively few very early manuscripts dating back to the first and second centuries, none of which being actual original autographs, and there is a verifiable gap between the original autograph and the earliest copies, there can be no absolute proof that what we have is or is not in actuality identical to what was originally written. As long as there is no absolute proof, every belief, either for or against the reliable transmission from original to current, is an act of faith.

And while the existing manuscript evidence is sufficient to justify faith in the belief that what we have today in both the Old and New Testaments matches what was originally written, it is not a guarantee. Skeptics of accurate transmission rest their faith in the belief that, between the original autographs and the earliest complete manuscripts, there were changes made that would alter the message of the original author. This, as well, is an act of faith that cannot be proven by the available evidence alone.

Since the content of Scripture is inconsequential with regard to the reliable transmission of the original autographs to our current existing documents, the belief in which each individual chooses to place his or her faith will, in large part, depend on that individual’s predisposition, presuppositions, and worldview. If an individual is predisposed to believe the message contained in Scripture is indeed God’s word based on other available resources and experience, that individual will have faith that the message is reliable and has not been altered. Those who describe themselves as other than Christian will have presuppositions that predispose them to reject the message contained in the Bible, and will therefore be more likely to exercise faith that the message has not been accurately transmitted. Both viewpoints are justifiable given the manuscript evidence alone. More is needed in order to conclusively demonstrate that the Bible is actually true, from God, and not merely a work of man.

The next question that must be asked is whether or not what was originally written is reliable in content. It is historically taken for granted by much of the evangelical community that the four Gospels are eyewitness testimony written by the apostle Matthew, Mark, a companion of the apostle Peter, Luke, a companion of the apostle Paul, and the apostle John. But are we safe in making that assumption?

In future posts, I will investigate the authorship of the Gospels and other books in the Bible, elaborate on the claims made in the above-mentioned quotes, as well as respond to critical analysis in opposition to the truth of God’s word. The information that I provide in this blog is meant to convey my own understanding of the issues based on the evidence and information that I have found.

In all honesty, I do not believe that sufficient evidence exists to provide for the absolute certainty of any one viewpoint over another without faith and that nobody can deny. I also believe that God meant it that way in order to require faith for salvation. I base that understanding on what is traditionally called the faith chapter in the Bible, Hebrews 11, and most specifically verses one and six.

1 ¶ Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen… 6 And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.

By definition, faith is an assurance and conviction of what is unseen. This is opposed to what can be known by means of our physical senses. In my last post, I explained that the seed of faith must first be planted by God before we can act on it. Based then on what the author of Hebrews says, along with the understanding that faith must be initiated by God, no one can please God without God first working in the heart of that individual. No one can please God without faith.

If it were possible to conclusively demonstrate the truth of the biblical account in such a way that absolutely nobody could deny, the likelihood that anyone would freely and willfully choose to believe otherwise diminishes, and the basis for God’s election and man’s freedom is brought into question.

So if it is impossible to conclusively demonstrate the true nature of the biblical accounts, why try?

Is it merely an intellectual exercise?

To a degree, yes.

However, I believe that there is more to it than that.

As my knowledge and understanding is collectively increased, my faith is bolstered. As I post what I am learning, it may also be that God, through the work of the Holy Spirit, uses the information that I collect as a mechanism for planting or developing the faith of others.

And so I continue, not only to increase my faith, but to allow God to use me in whatever way he sees fit. My life is not my own. I was bought with a price, and I owe it to God to continue, for his honor and his glory, to offer my life for him.

(1) http://www.scottmanning.com/archives/scribeswritingoldtestament.php

(2) http://carm.org/manuscript-evidence

(3) http://www.skypoint.com/members/waltzmn/intro.html

(4) http://www.reasonablefaith.org/establishing-the-gospels-reliability#ixzz3KTEgfLCS

 

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