Has the Bible Been Accurately Copied Down Through the Centuries?

written by Dr. Norman Geisler

posted by SES

The Bible is the most accurately transmitted book from the ancient world. No other ancient book has as many, as early, or more accurately copied manuscripts.

Old Testament

Old Testament manuscript reliability is based on three factors: their abundance, dating, and accuracy. Most works from antiquity survive on only a handful of manuscripts: only 7 for Plato, 8 for Thucydides, 8 for Herodotus, 10 for Caesar’s Gallic Wars, and 20 for Tacitus. Only the works of Demosthenes and Homer number into the hundreds. Yet even before 1890 a scholar named Giovanni de Rossi published 731 OT manuscripts. Since that time some 10,000 OT manuscripts were found in the Cairo Geniza, and in 1947 the Dead Sea caves at Qumran produced over 600 OT manuscripts.

Further, the Dead Sea Scrolls, containing at least fragments of all OT books except Esther, all date from before the end of the first century A.D. and some to the third century B.C. The Nash Papyrus is dated between the second century B.C. and the first century A.D.

The manuscripts’ accuracy is known from internal and external evidence. (1) It is well known that Jewish scribal reverence for Scripture led to its careful transmission. (2) Examination of duplicate passages (e.g., Pss 14 and 53) show parallel transmission. (3) The early Greek translation of the OT, the Septuagint, substantially agrees with the Hebrew manuscripts. (4) Comparison of the Samaritan Pentateuch with the same biblical books preserved within the Jewish tradition shows close similarity. (5) The Dead Sea Scrolls provide manuscripts dating a thousand years earlier than most used to establish the Hebrew text.

Comparative studies reveal word-for-word identity in 95 percent of the text. Minor variants consist mostly of slips of the pen or spelling. Only 13 small changes were discovered in the entire Dead Sea Scrolls copy of Isaiah, eight of which were known from other-ancient sources. After 1,000 years of copying, there were no changes in meaning and almost no changes in wording!

New Testament

The reliability of the NT is established because the number, date, and accuracy of its manuscripts enable reconstruction of the original text with more precision than any other ancient text. The number of NT manuscripts is overwhelming (almost 5,700 Greek manuscripts) compared with the typical book from antiquity (about 7 to 10 manuscripts; Homer’s Iliad has the most at 643 manuscripts). The NT is simply the best textually supported book from the ancient world.

The earliest undisputed NT manuscript is the John Rylands Papyrus, dated between A.D. 117 and 138. Whole books (e.g., those contained in the Bodmer Papyri) are available from around the year 200. And most of the NT, including all the Gospels, is available in the Chester Beatty Papyri manuscripts, dating to about 250.
Noted British manuscript scholar Sir Frederick Kenyon wrote, “The interval then – between the dates or original composition and the earliest extant evidence becomes so small as to be in fact negligible, and the last foundation for any doubt that the Scriptures have come down to us substantially as they were written has now been removed.” Thus both “the authenticity and the general integrity of the books of the [NT] may be regarded as firmly established.” No other ancient book has as small a time gap between composition and earliest manuscript copies as the NT.

Not only are there more and earlier-NT manuscripts, but also they were more accurately copied than other ancient texts. The NT scholar and Princeton professor Bruce Metzger made a comparison of the NT with the Iliad of Homer and the Mahabharata of Hinduism. He found the text of the latter to represent only 90 percent of the original (with 10 percent textual corruption), the Iliad to be 95 percent pure, and only half of 1 percent of the NT text to remain in doubt. The Greek scholar A. T. Robertson estimated that NT textual concerns have to do with only a “thousandth part of the entire text,” placing the accuracy of the NT text at 99.9 percent-the best known for any book from the ancient world. Sir Frederick Kenyon noted that “the number of [manuscripts] of the NT, of early translations from it, and of quotations from it in the older writers of the Church, is so large that it is practically certain that the true reading of every doubtful passage is preserved in some one or the other of these ancient authorities. This can be said of no other ancient book in the world.”

In summary, the vast number, early dates, and unmatched accuracy of the OT and NT manuscript copies establish the Bible’s reliability well beyond that of any other ancient book. Its substantial message has been undiminished through the centuries, and its accuracy on even minor details has been confirmed, Thus the Bible we hold in our hands today is a highly trustworthy copy of the original that came from the pens of the prophets and apostles.

Dr. Norman Geisler, PhD and co-founder of SES, is a prolific author, veteran professor, speaker, lecturer, traveler, philosopher, apologist, evangelist, and theologian. To those who ask, “Who is Norm Geisler?” some have suggested, “Imagine a cross between Thomas Aquinas and Billy Graham and you’re not too far off.”

This article is one that had been published to the Apologetics Study Bible. The Apologetics Study Bible is a great resource for those wanting to deepen their understanding of the Christian faith, so be sure to check it out!

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