Part 5 in this series explains how God’s Word has stood the test of time.
So far, we’ve looked at issues relating to the authority of the Bible. First, we examined whether the Word was from the mind of God. Having found that it is, we discussed why we believe what God has authored made its way into the text. Once a Bible reader decides that God delivered this Word to humanity, they face how to be confident that the Bible contains the books God authored. That’s what we explored in the last Bible Advocate.
Now we face the question of preservation. How do we know that what was in the original text is what has been preserved in the Bibles we have today?
This question takes us to manuscript evidence. Apart from the Bible, the works of Demosthenes, a classical writer, have the most documentary testimony. About 200 manuscripts of his writings have survived. We have 5,600 for the New Testament! These ancient Greek manuscripts don’t all contain the whole New Testament; some of them were partially destroyed, so they contain only portions of the text. We also have around 10,000 old Latin texts, along with about 3,000 in other languages of the ancient world, such as Babylonian, Egyptian, Coptic, and Aramean. So that’s about 20,000 New Testament texts, and the vast majority of those — somewhere between 95 and 99 percent — are what we call the Majority Text. They agree with each other and are otherwise known as the Byzantine Text, the standard of the Greek New Testament.
Aside from manuscripts, we have the writings of what we call early church fathers, men directly taught by original disciples of the Lord who conveyed what they learned. We can see that the very early church fathers taught essentially, and quoted liberally, the same truths we see attributed to Jesus and the apostles by modern New Testaments.
With Bible manuscripts, both Hebrew and Greek, oldest does not necessarily mean best. An old manuscript that has survived did so because it did not wear out. If it wasn’t worn out, it wasn’t used much. There may be various reasons that a manuscript would not have been used. The most common is that it was judged not as worthy of use like certain other manuscripts that no longer exist because they were dilapidated with use. These manuscripts were copied and recopied, the earlier being destroyed once the copyists were satisfied with the accuracy.
The primary Old Testament texts are the Masoretic Text (MT) and the Septuagint (LXX). A mystique has grown around the MT — legends about how the text has been preserved, such as counting the number of letters in a book to make sure it agreed with the source from which the book was copied. This did happen, but such procedures probably did not begin until after errors had been transmitted, for the MT does have corruptions. By way of example, the books of Samuel have deteriorated in places, suffering significant haplography (the omission of a letter in a word where it should be repeated: omision instead of omission).
The Qumran discovery demonstrated the existence of various versions of the Old Testament in ancient times. The MT is a valuable text. It appears to have become the standard after it had, in some places, departed from other texts from which the Tanakh was translated into other ancient languages.
The LXX is a Greek translation of an ancient Hebrew textual tradition around 200 years before Christ. In numerous places in the New Testament, a quote from the Old Testament appears to be from this ancient version, so it seems that the early church valued the LXX. It is a good thing that translators have been able to access the MT, the LXX, and other texts besides to identify likely early copying errors. Today we have an Old Testament that is highly reliable and that we can be confident reflects what was originally written.
What I have described may sound like we are guessing about what was written, but not so. The high degree of preservation of both the Old and New Testament texts is absolutely remarkable. If you doubt this, research the preservation of other ancient texts. These and versions of the Bible books do sometimes disagree (check the marginal notes in some modern translations of your Bible to find variant readings), but these variations are in details, not in doctrine.
No important doctrine is affected by the variances between textual witnesses. The Bible is so well constructed, so solidly built, that despite textual disagreements, we still end up with modern translations in most world languages teaching substantially the same thing as each other, no matter what manuscript tradition they have been translated from. We can rely on Romans 3:4: “Let God be true but every man a liar. As it is written: ‘That You may be justified in Your words.’”
There is good reason to believe that in all material ways, we have manuscripts that clearly reflect the original documents. We can believe that the words given to those men of old are from God and are what He intended. We can also believe that they’ve been preserved across time in the 66 books that make up the Bible in all its numerous translations and languages available to us today.