Part one of this series is here: Is the bible credible? If the Bible is credible for you, not all questions are settled yet, because: Has the bible been handed down accurately? Do we have the reliable text as it was written at the time? Critics claim that it has been distorted over the centuries. Can we trust today’s translations? So bible accuracy is important. These are the questions I will now address.
1. The tradition of the Hewbrew Bible
For centuries, the oldest complete Bible of the Old Testament (better called the Hebrew Bible, the Tanakh) was the Codex Leningradensis (1008 AD). The oldest basis of this text dates from 895 AD (the Cairo Codex).
Bible critics doubted the proper transmission of the texts due to these relatively young writings. But further finds confirmed the correctness:
1.1 Qumran Finds: The Isaiah Scroll as Evidence for a Reliable Tradition
In the 1950s, about 200 texts of the Hebrew Bible were found in a cave in Qumran on the Dead Sea. Among the finds was a completely preserved Isaiah scroll with the complete text. The scroll is dated to about 200 BC, so it is about 1100 years older than the oldest text so far! Researchers have compared the text of the Qumran scroll with what we can read in the Bible today. It turned out that the tradition is extremely reliable.
Let’s look at this with an example:
“Of the 166 words in Isaiah 53, only 17 letters are questionable. Ten of these letters concern spelling only, with no effect on meaning. Four other letters are minor stylistic changes, such as conjunctions. The remaining three letters make up the word ‘light’, which is added in verse 11, but does not affect the meaning much. … Thus, in a chapter of 166 words, there is only one word (of 3 letters) that is in question after 1000 years of transmission – and this word does not change the meaning of the scripture passage much.”Geisler/Nix: A General Introduction to the Bible” (Moody Press 1968, p. 263),
The one added word mentioned in the quote is also confirmed by another scroll from the Qumran cave and by the Septuagint. We can therefore assume that this word reflects the original text (the Septuagint is the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible; the Isaiah Scroll was translated in it around 150 BC).
I am particularly pleased that it is the Isaiah scroll whose translation could be confirmed. There we find an astonishing prophecy of the death of Jesus Christ on the cross. With this text one could think that Isaiah would have been present on Golgotha. Isaiah also explains the reason for Jesus’ death on the cross: that he died vicariously for man’s sin. Read Isaiah 53.
1.3 The Talmudists and Masoretes – “Lords of Transmission”
Another indication of the reliability of the tradition is the work of the Talmudists and Masoretes:
As soon as a copy of the Hebrew Bible was damaged, it was destroyed. The reason: an illegible script carries the risk of transcription errors. That is why there are so few preserved ancient scripts, they were always renewed.
At the same time, this custom is a guarantee that the newly made copies do not contain errors.
Talmudists are called the Jewish scribes who copied the Hebrew Bible from 100 to 500 A.D. and made sure that damaged writings were destroyed.
The Masoretes are the scribes from 500 to 900 A.D. The Masoretes are best known for the way they ensured that no errors crept into the copies:
“The Masoretes counted everything in a text. They knew, for example, that the Torah, the first 5 books of the Old Testament, contains 304,805 letters and 79,847 words. They knew that in the middle of the Torah is the word translated as ‘sought’ (Deut. 10:16). … Thus the text was handed down with a perfection reminiscent of the computer age, for the computer also controls today’s texts by counting the characters and words used. The Masoretes were concerned that not the smallest letter nor the smallest part of a letter should perish or be lost.”Frederic G. Kenyon: Our Bible and the Ancient Manuscripts (Harper & Brothers, 1941 p. 38)
2. The tradition of the New Testament
2.1 The best attested ancient writing
The New Testament is the best attested ancient writing. Look at this comparison:
|Writings of Platon||7 copies, the oldest one from approx. 900 AC = 1200 years old|
|New Testament||5700 copies, of which 114 are fragments from the 1st and 2nd century AC = the oldest only approx. 35 years old|
The situation is similar with Plato and other ancient writings whose correctness is not usually questioned.
The oldest complete New Testament is the Codex Vaticanus. It is in the Vatican and was probably copied around the year 325 AD.
2.2 Citations of the Church Fathers
Out of the writings from the church fathers from the 2nd and 3rd century one can reconstruct large parts of the New Testament:
“Sir David Dalrymple was asked the question of whether the NT could be reconstructed from the writings of the Church Fathers. He came to the following conclusion after extensive research:
‘This question aroused my curiosity, and as I possess all the existing works of the Fathers from the 2nd and 3rd centuries, I began to investigate, and so far I have found the entire NT, except eleven verses.”Charles Leach: Our Bible, How we got it, S. 35f., cited here
Thus, not only do we have the 5700 copies, but we can also use the quotes from the Church Fathers to verify the correct tradition.
2.3 Despite different readings accurately handed down
Are you confused because there are supposedly so many differences in the manuscripts? They speak of “150,000 readings.” How then can you trust the Bible that you read today, or that is on your shelf ready to be read? For this I have three hints:
- M. Wahnschaffe explains in his book on page 115:
- 142,000 of these readings are errors in transcription that have no effect, such as misspelled letters, transposed letters, duplications of letters, omissions of single letters, abbreviations, or misspelled words.
- Another 7,500 readings are variations in grammar or spelling that do not change the meaning.
- This leaves 500 readings that required closer examination.
- Of these, only 50 are of greater importance. However, even these 50, which are known in detail, do not lead to any change in the biblical teaching.
- Norman Geisler writes: “Mathematically, this would result in a text that is 98.33 percent pure.” (Geisler/Nix: A General Introduction to the Bible; quoted by M. Wahnschaffe on p. 116).
- If we had only 7 copies (as with Plato), and if no differences were detectable in these copies, then this would be rather a bad sign. Who could guarantee us that here was not manipulated, that e.g. deviating writings were destroyed? The fact that we have so many smaller deviations with the Bible shows that everything happened here with right things. By the fact that the deviations are known, this is besides no problem.
- Today we have a great many translations of the Bible which have been prepared on the basis of the known readings. We can find out exactly where there are uncertainties in different publications.
3. Result: The Bible is delivered accurately
The arguments mentioned so far lead me to the conclusion that the Bible has been handed down correctly and that I can trust it. No fundamental doctrine of Christianity is called into question by different readings.
Which arguments do you like best? Did they convince you? Have I forgotten an important argument? I welcome comments on this article. I’m even happier if you start reading the Bible now, preferably starting with the Gospel of John in the New Testament who gives a good impression on the life and work of Jesus.
Of course, I have researched this information from many helpful books. In them you can still find many references to the tradition of the Bible:
- McDowell, Josh: Die Fakten des Glaubens (Hänssler, 2003)
- McDowell, Josh: Die Bibel im Test (CLV, 9. Auflage 2002 als kostenloser Download)
- Wahnschaffe, Mario: Mit Skeptikern im Gespräch – Schwierige Fragen an die Bibel (CLW Selbstverlag Bonn, 2019) – CLW Shop
- Williams, Peter J.: Glaubwürdig – Können wir den Evangelien vertrauen? (cvmd Verlag, 2020)
- Papyrus Bodmer II (P66): Wikipedia (gemeinfrei)