Considering that the original documents of the Bible exist, how do we know that the copies or manuscripts we have are accurate to the original documents?
Manuscript evidence deals with how accurate the oldest manuscripts (copies of original documents) are to the original documents, called Source Documents. Manuscript evidence also relates to the number of manuscripts of the source documents there are, and the length of time between the manuscripts and source documents.
As you would think, the closer the copies to the original manuscripts, the more accurate the copies. And the greater the number of copies, the the easier they can be compared to each other for accuracy. As an example, if you only have only one copy of a document dating 1000 years after the original, and you have 100 copies dating 100 years after the original, which would you give better reliability to? The 100 copies are much closer to the original copy and can be compared to each other. If 5 of the copies has in one location the word "a" while the other 95 have the word "as", it's reasonable to conclude that the word "as" is the correct word at that location.
The following chart illustrates these details as they apply to both many unquestioned documents from ancient history, and also to the New Testament documents. The chart shows the specifics of each of the documents listed, and also allows for a comparison of the details of the New Testament to the other accepted works of ancient literature.
Manuscript evidence for superior New Testament reliability
In addition to the 5600 Greek manuscripts indicated for the New Testament, there are also over 19,000 manuscripts in the Syriac, Latin, Coptic, and Aramaic languages!
The chart shows how the New Testament manuscripts and partial manuscripts compare to some of the major ancient literary works, both in the quantity of copies compared to these ancient works as well as the amount of time that has passed from the closest copy to the originals. This chart shows that the New Testament manuscripts have far greater numbers of copies as compared to the existing copies of major ancient works, and also are significantly closer in time between the manuscripts and the copies than the other works.
It is important to realize that the other works indicated are well known documents from antiquity and are not questioned as to the accuracy of the copies nor the time that has passed from the original manuscripts. With the New Testament, however, even with the overwhelming number of copies or portions that exist and the closeness of the copies in time to the originals, the Bible’s accuracy is regularly challenged. It certainly seems that anyone who questions the accuracy of the New Testament either doesn’t know how it compares to other ancient works or has decided that the Bible can’t be accurate regardless of the evidence.
As you can see by the chart above, the New Testament is so incredibly confirmed by manuscript evidence that no other ancient book, religious or otherwise, even comes close.
When comparing the number of partial or full manuscripts of the New Testament to other unchallenged ancient documents and also comparing the time distance between the copies and the originals, there is absolutely no comparison, as shown by the chart above. The quotes below illustrate the reality of the uniqueness of the New Testament
"There is no body of ancient literature in the world which enjoys such a wealth of good attestation as the New Testament." F. F. Bruce
"Thanks to the Qumran discoveries, the New Testament proves to be in fact what it was formerly believed to be: the teaching of Christ and His immediate followers circa. 25 and circa. 80 AD." William F. Albright:
There is a person from history which shows God to have a sense of humor. Believing God to have a sense of humor is reasonable considering that his creation, people, have a sense of humor.
Voltaire was a French philosopher (1694-1778) who is said to have made the following quote,
“One hundred years from today the Bible will be a forgotten book.”
The humorous fact is that while not many remember Voltaire anymore, The Guinness World Records indicates the Bible as the best-selling book of all time with over 5 billion copies sold and distributed.
The Historical Reliability of the New Testament
How Details in the Gospels Support Their Historicity
The New Testament Compared to Classical Literature
What about the Old Testament manuscripts?
As we have seen, the New Testament has remarkable confirmation both in numbers of copies and the close distance in time they are to the originals as compared to other ancient documents.
The Old Testament in contrast doesn’t have anything like the manuscript/copy evidence of the New Testament, and until the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947 the closest full or partial copy of any manuscript of the Old Testament was over 1000 years later. While the number of copies of Old Testament books are very few, this ironically is actually one of the best evidences for its accurate transmission over time. You will see why this is evidence in the Reliability of Scripture videos link below. It has to do with what was done with copies which show signs of aging, where errors might creep in due to the text legibility degrading.
The printing press wasn't invented until 1439 by Johannes Gutenberg. Previous to this, copies of manuscripts had to be completed by hand. When we think of copying by hand today we try to reproduce written information with the intent to be reasonably accurate. When the Old Testament was hand copied, the scribes’ implemented meticulous rules which virtually guaranteed an identical copy.
One of the very specific rules they were required to follow is that they could not copy from memory. To clarify, not only were they not allowed to copy an entire phrase or word, they weren't allowed to copy even two characters at one time. They would need to copy character by character. To give you an example, take the first part of Genesis 1:1
Genesis 1:1“In the beginning”.
If we were to copy as they did, we wouldn’t read from the manuscript “In the beginning,” and then write, “In the beginning.” We would copy letter by letter:
- Read the letter "I" then write the letter "I" on the copy
- Read the letter "n" then write the letter "n" on the copy
- Read the "space" then leave room for a space on the copy
- Read the "t" then write the "t" on the copy
- Read the "h" then write the "h" on the copy
- Read the "e" then write the "e" on the copy
- Read the "space" then writ the "space" on the copy
Then follow the same process with the rest of each of the letters: read "b", write "b", read "e" write "e", and each of the remaining letters of the word.
That was just for the phrase "In the beginning". Now imagine doing that for the entire book of Genesis? And this was only one of the copying disciplines they were required to follow to make sure the copy was identical to the original. And part of the reason why there are very few examples of Old Testament manuscripts remaining today is that when a copy started to show wear, where it could compromise the letters being able to be clearly read, they buried it. They didn't keep it to guarantee that a copy couldn't be created that might have errors.
The following text shows another meticulous rule they followed when copying from an original Old Testament manuscript. The text is from the following link:
Has the Old Testament been corrupted?
When these Jews copied various portions of the Bible, they took extreme care to ensure the precision of their scribal copying. In fact, in some cases, if there was one error between a copy and the original, the copy was to be burned.
The following links go into greater detail showing a number of the meticulous rules which were established showing the amazing lengths the scribes went to verify that the copy of an Old Testament book was essentially identical to the manuscript it was copied from.
How Did We Get the Old Testament?
Did Scribes Faithfully Transmit Old Testament Manuscripts?
History of the Bible: How The Bible Came To Us
The next link is the Reliability of Scripture link I indicated earlier, and includes videos of Josh McDowell presenting these and many other meticulous rules which the Old Testament scribes were required to follow when copying. In the left column are the video links addressing the steps that were taken to guarantee the accuracy of the copies that were made.
Reliability of Scripture – Accuracy of the Old Testament
"But Hasn’t the Bible Been Translated Multiple Times?"
Many people mistakenly think that the different translations of the Bible are evidence that it has been translated many times; that it was translated from the original language to a 2nd language, then from the 2nd language to a 3rd language, then from 3rd to 4th, 4th to 5th, etc. Many translation steps. This would be much like the Telephone Game:
How to Play Telephone
In reality, the Bible was translated into each language by using the same original documents and then translating those same original documents into each language. Only one translation step.
Are the Biblical Documents Reliable?
Can We Trust the Bible?
The Preservation of the Bible
The Bibliographical Test Updated
Again, despite the overwhelming manuscript evidence for the Bible as compared to other ancient works, the accuracy and reliability of the Biblical text is still challenged while these other ancient works are not. I believe there are two primary reasons for this. One reason is that misinformation about Christianity continues to be repeated. The second is the desire by some to create doubts in others about the authenticity and reliability of the Bible and subsequently the truths of Christianity.
The Dead Sea Scrolls
One of the amazing discoveries providing one of the best confirmations of Manuscript Evidences for the Bible is the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in 1947 in Qumran Israel, and are referenced in the quote above by William F. Albright.
The Dead Sea Scrolls are manuscripts and portions of manuscripts of both Biblical and non-Biblical works. The scrolls of the Biblical works are almost all of the books of the Old Testament. They have been described as the greatest manuscript discovery of modern time.
Until the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in Qumran, the oldest manuscripts of the Old Testament in existence dated to approximately 800 years after Christ. When the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered, they were verified to be written about 200 BC, approximately 1000 years before the oldest manuscripts available till their discovery.
The amazing fact of the Dead Sea Scrolls is that when these manuscripts which are dated 1000 years later were compared to the Dead Sea Scrolls, the manuscripts were found to be nearly identical. This verification proved wrong the critics who claimed the Old Testament we have isn’t accurate to the original manuscripts, and proved wrong the critics claiming that over 100 prophesies regarding Jesus Christ in the Old Testament were written after Jesus lived. This also proves the copying process indicated above, and the meticulous rules followed to make an almost identical copy. Since the prophesies referring to Christ have now been shown to have been made centuries before He was born, the Dead Sea Scrolls have proven these critics wrong.
What are the Dead Sea Scrolls?
What Are The Dead Sea Scrolls?
What is the importance of the Dead Sea Scrolls?
The Dead Sea Scrolls
The Digital Dead Sea Scrolls
History of the Bible: How The Bible Came To Us
How Did We Get the Old Testament?
As can now be seen by the manuscript evidence verifying the new testament and the Dead Sea Scrolls verifying the Old Testament, we can have full confidence that the Bibles we have today are essentially unchanged in content from the original documents. No other volume has that kind of amazing confirmation!
Next Page: Scientific Evidences