How can we be sure the Bible is really the word of God and hasn’t been filled with errors and mistakes over the years of copying it by hand? The Bible, as we know it, was written over a 1500-year span that encompassed forty generations with forty different writers. Also, the Bible was written from different places under differing circumstances and in three separate languages; Aramaic, Hebrew and Greek. The Bible is composed of poetry, song, narrative and prose. Yet, for all the great time it took to write the Bible, and through all the different circumstances and historical backgrounds, the Book has remained consistent in all that it wanted to say. It is a book of redemption and the promise that all things will, on one final day, be restored to God’s original plan.
The original manuscripts, known as autographs, have long disappeared, destroyed by time. Many critics of the Bible point to the fact that without the original manuscripts it is impossible to know for sure that the Bible we have today has the same message as those early autographs. In order to preserve the original thought, copies were produced and when those copies faded then new copies were made and so forth. For a skeptic the question is simple; how do you know that there were not mistakes in the copies?
God entrusted the safe keeping of passing down the manuscripts to Israel who had a great love for the Scriptures. The commands of God were of such importance to the people of Israel that they even kept them on their forehead and tied to their hands. God’s commands were also written on the gateposts of their homes and on their gates. (See Deut. 6: 3, 6-9)
Between the fifth and third century BC a group of Jewish Scribes began copying the scripture. This group of men were called the Sopherim and dedicated themselves to preserving very carefully the ancient manuscripts and producing new ones when needed.
A new group of copyist arose after the Sopherim called the Talmudic scribes. These men were great students who guarded the authenticity of the manuscripts with amazing dedication. They worked from around AD 100-500 when they were eclipsed by a new group of scholar copyist known as the Masoretic scribes (AD 500-900)
The Masoretic scribes surpassed the zeal of all their predecessors, if that was possible, to the dedication of copying manuscripts. They gave the same authority to the new manuscript as the one they were copying from because they were positive that the new work was an exact copy of the one they were copying. They would begin their day by ceremonially washing their entire body. Next they would dress themselves in full Jewish dress then proceed to their desk. There they would busy themselves coping a new manuscript from the old. These men were so connected to their work that when they came to the name of God they wouldn’t write God’s name with a quill that had been freshly dipped in ink in case it smudged the page.
Here is a list of the Masoretic guidelines for copying manuscripts.
1. The scroll must be written on the skin of a clean animal.
2. Each skin must contain a specified number of columns, equal throughout the entire book.
3. The length of each column must extend no less than 48 lines or more than 60 lines.
4. The column breadth must consist of exactly 30 letters.
5. The space of a thread must appear between every consonant.
6. The breadth of nine consonants had to be inserted between each section.
7. A space of three lines had to appear between each book.
8. The fifth book of Moses, Deuteronomy, had to conclude exactly with a full line.
9. Nothing-not even the shortest word- could be copied from memory, it had to be copied letter by letter.
10. The Scribe must count the number of times each letter of the alphabet occurred in each book and compare it to the original.
11. If a manuscript was found to contain even one mistake it was discarded. Note, it was not corrected but discarded.
Regardless of what you think about the truth of the Bible it is hard to say that it wasn’t copied accurately. Until 1947 we had no way to know just how accurate the copying was, outside of our knowledge that these scribes throughout the years had done a herculean job of copying the manuscripts to the best of their ability.
Previous to 1947, the oldest surviving manuscript was dated AD 900 but with the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls all that changed. These 223 scrolls discovered in a cave on the west side of the Dead Sea have been dated by paleographers to around 125 BC. Think about that for a moment; the discovery of these scrolls has pushed back our oldest known manuscripts by 1000 years. Now for the first time we could check and see if these Scribes had been as accurate as they claimed. If the Dead Sea Scrolls were identical to the AD 900 manuscript then that was proof the texts had been accurately and faithfully translated over the 1000-year period.
When Scholars compared the text, they were astonished to see that the Dead Sea Scrolls were identical to modern versions of the Hebrew Bible, word for word 95% of the time. The 5% variations consisted mainly of spelling variations. The other variations were mostly stylistic changes none of which brought the integrity of the meaning of the text into dispute.
Next post we will pick up the story of the accuracy of the Bible by looking at the New Testament and its writers.