Lesson #7 - Can We Trust Our Bible?

Bible student

"All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work."

2 Timothy 3:16-17

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We remind the student that the primary evidence supporting the Bible’s inspiration is found within the Bible itself. We noticed this evidence in lessons four and five when we studied the unity of the Bible and its fulfilled predictions. These “internal” evidences establish that the Bible must have God as its author.

Evidence from outside the Bible does not prove that the Bible is from God, but only supports the idea that it could be. As we pointed out in the last lesson, archaeology has shown that the Bible is accurate when compared to known facts.

But, there is another issue. Is the Bible we read today the same as when it was first written? If the Bible began as the word of God, has it remained the word of God? Or, have men corrupted the text as they copied it, so that now we cannot sort out what may be the words of God and what may be the words of men? Again, archaeology puts our fears to rest by establishing that the text of the Bible is reliable.

Reliability of the Old Testament Text

The Old Testament Scriptures were written primarily in the Hebrew language, with a few sections in Aramaic. A study of the trustworthiness of our English Bibles begins with a study of the preservation of the texts written in the original languages because our English Bibles are based on these texts.

Our English Old Testaments are primarily based on three textual witnesses: the Masoretic Hebrew text (MT), the Hebrew texts of the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS), and the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament (called the Septuagint or LXX, for its 70 translators).

The Masoretic Text is named after the family of Jewish scribes who worked to preserve the Hebrew text faithfully from about A.D. 500-1000. The complete manuscript known as the Codex Leningradens, dating from A.D. 1008, has come to be considered a good example of the Masoretes’ work and is the primary text most English versions are based on. Very few Hebrew manuscripts from the Masoretes have been found. The oldest dated codex (book), Codex Cairensis, contains only the prophets and dates from A.D. 895.

Why have so few manuscripts been preserved and why do these few date hundreds of years after the O.T. was first written? Several factors contribute to this situation. Ancient writing was primarily done on animal skins- highly perishable material. Also, Jewish laws demanded the ceremonial burial of defective or worn out manuscripts. And, Jerusalem has been conquered many times throughout history, (47 times between 1800 B.C. and A.D. 1948) and so many manuscripts were destroyed by war.

Finally, the Masoretes themselves are responsible in part for the small number surviving manuscripts. They did their work very conscientiously. They numbered the words, letters, columns, and lines of each book. They counted the number of times each letter was used in a book. They calculated the middle line, middle word, and middle letter of each book. They checked the accuracy of their copying by looking for these things. If an error was found, they destroyed that copy. However, as they copied, they looked at the variations in the manuscripts they had in their possession. They decided on the best readings and made a “standardized” text. Then they destroyed the manuscripts they copied from.

What do we know about the manuscripts the Masoretes copied from and then destroyed? Records have been preserved that describe the rules for scribes during the period 300 B.C. to A.D. 500, an 800-year period prior to the Masoretes. No word or letter was to be copied from memory. Between each consonant there was to be the space of a hair; between each section the breadth of nine consonants; and between each book three lines. Each column of writing was to be between 48 and 60 lines and had to be 30 letters wide. These records give us some confidence that the manuscripts passed on to the Masoretes were good, but how do we know these rules were followed?

One evidence is the Septuagint (or LXX), a Greek translation of the O.T. that was finished by about 200 B.C. Jesus and the N.T. writers often quoted this version instead of the Hebrew text, giving it credibility. The Septuagint helps us to spot a few scribal errors, but on the whole, it confirms the surviving Hebrew manuscripts were faithfully copied.

But the greatest evidence we have for confidence in the Masoretic Text came in March, 1947. A shepherd boy stumbled upon on of the greatest finds in Biblical archaeology, the Dead Sea scrolls. In 11 caves, the 4000 book library of the Essenes, an isolationist Jewish sect, was found. Included in this library were manuscripts from every O.T. book except Esther, dating from 100 B.C.! The Dead Sea Scroll copies of the O.T. were over 1000 years older than those we had in our hands before. How did they compare? The manuscripts read the same except for obvious slips of the pen and changes in spelling. Proof now is evident from original language manuscripts that the scribes indeed followed the meticulous rules they set up for copying. The O.T. has been faithfully preserved for us!

Reliability of the New Testament Text

While the O.T. has as its support scribal accuracy, the N.T. is supported by the sheer number of surviving manuscripts. As of 1978, 5,338 manuscripts containing at least part of the N.T. had been discovered. Comparing the N.T. with other ancient writings, Homer’s Iliad comes in a distant second in manuscripts that have been preserved with 643. Most of the classic writings that are studied in high schools and universities are based on less than 10 manuscripts. If we can put our trust in the text of any ancient work, then we must put trust in the New Testament!

The 5,338 manuscripts consist of 85 papyri (a paper-like writing material made from Egyptian reeds) dating from A.D. 125 to the 4th century; 268 uncials (manuscripts written with large letters, no spaces between the words, and no punctuation), dating from the 4th to the 9th century; 2792 minuscules (cursive manuscripts), dating from the 9th century onward; and 2,193 lectionaries (short sections of Scripture readings) dating from the 6th century onward.

In addition to these manuscripts, the N.T. text is also witnessed by 25 ostraca (broken pieces of pottery “recycled” for writing), early versions (translations from the original language of Greek into various world languages), and in the writings of the “church fathers” (uninspired Christians of the 2nd and 3rd centuries). All but 11 verses of the N.T. were quoted by the “church fathers” in their letters, sermons, and commentaries. So almost the entire N.T. could be reconstructed, even if every N.T. manuscript had been lost!

The most important manuscripts of the N.T. that have survived are the uncials. The closer to the original a manuscript is, the more it is relied on to establish what was first written. Though papyri are older than uncials, they mainly consist of fragments. The most important uncials are known as the “Vaticanus” (A.D. 325-50), “Sinaiticus” (A.D. 340), and “Alexandrinus” (A.D. 450). The Sinaiticus contains all of the N.T., while the other two contain nearly all of it. No other ancient writing has surviving copies that date this close to the original writing!

Conclusion

Archaeology supplies the evidence that God, in His Providence, has preserved His word. “The grass withers, and its flower falls away, but the word of the Lord endures forever” (1 Pet 1:25).

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Primary language of the O.T.
A portion of the O.T. was written in this language.
Language of the N.T.
Hebrew manuscript that is an example of the Masoretic text.
Oldest complete N.T. manuscript.
Highly perishable O.T. writing material.
Paperlike N.T. writing material.
What happened with many flawed O.T. manuscripts.
A translation made from the original languages.
Scribes who copied the O.T. from A.D. 500-1000.
Isolationist sect who owned the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Greek translation that helps to confirm the Masoretic text.
The oldest O.T. manuscripts we have were found near this body of water.
Homer’s work; distant 2nd to N.T. in number of surviving manuscripts.
Text that is composed after comparing various manuscripts.
Date of the oldest O.T. codex found before 1947.
Date of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Number of manuscripts in existence containing at least part of the N.T.
Most ancient writings are based on fewer than this number of manuscripts.
Written in all capital letters; the most important of the N.T. manuscripts.
Cursive manuscripts.
Short sections of Scripture readings.
Broken pieces of pottery.
Early Christians whose writings are evidence for the N.T. text.
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