When I began to look into the reliability of the Bible one of the first things I wanted to know was how we got it. Was the means of transmission trustworthy enough to ensure that what we have today is the same as the original writings? Starting out as a skeptic I was shocked at the abundance of evidence available to answer this question. Even if you don’t believe the Bible to be the inspired Word of God you have to admit that it is very intriguing to find an ancient document such as this one surviving over thousands of years with minimal damage to its reputation for accuracy and reliability.
So how did we get the Bible we have today, and can we be certain that what we have is what was there in the originals?
Let’s start at the beginning:
How do we know the Old Testament, and the Genesis record in particular, is accurate? Moses wasn’t there to witness the Genesis account, although he is the one that records it along with the other four books of the Torah. However, I believe that we can have confidence in these historical books based on three lines of reasoning with evidence we can follow:
1. God’s direction and inspiration:
If we are truly honest with the intent of Scripture as being the Word of God, then God Himself would guarantee that what we are reading is what He meant for us to get. In an earlier post we looked at evidence for the premise that if God exists then miracles are possible, and if miracles are possible then God can use miracles to communicate His message. Jesus also used miracles to communicate God’s message during His time here on earth.
We find in Exodus that God Himself wrote some of what He gave to Moses and directed Moses’ writing as well:
When He had finished speaking with him upon Mount Sinai, He gave Moses the two tablets of the testimony, tablets of stone, written by the finger of God. –Exodus 31:18
When Moses destroyed the tablets after God gave them to him the first time (see story in Exodus) he then went back up the mountain and God re-gave him what we find in the Torah (first five books of the Bible) today:
Now the Lord said to Moses, “Cut out for yourself two stone tablets like the former ones, and I will write on the tablets the words that were on the former tablets which you shattered. So be ready by morning, and come up in the morning to Mount Sinai, and present yourself there to Me on the top of the mountain.” –Exodus 34:1-2
Then the Lord said to Moses, “Write down these words, for in accordance with these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel.” –Exodus 34:27
Based on God’s direction Moses goes on to record what we have today in the first five books of the Bible (the Torah). The Jewish Bible contains these same books and they have been the accepted books since the time of Moses without change. The same acceptance goes for the the history books, the books of poetry and wisdom and the books of the prophets that make up the rest of the Old Testament.
He has made His wonders to be remembered; The Lord is gracious and compassionate. –Psalm 111:4
The word “remember” appears in the Scriptures roughly 227 times (examples: 1 Chronicles 16:15, Psalm 111:4, 119:52, Isaiah 46:9, Malachi 4:4), and the word “written” 251 times (examples: Deuteronomy 28:58, Joshua 1:8; 8:34, Psalm 102:18, 1 Kings 2:3, Ezra 3:2, Nehemiah 10:36). The high use of these words indicate that God is stressing something important. He wants us to remember our past, both good and bad, along with the Covenants he made that lead to the fulfilled promise of a Messiah. We can see over and over again throughout the Bible that God directs His chosen authors to write down these things so that they would be remembered over time and generations.
2. Oral Transmission:
Oral transmission of information from antiquity was community oriented and therefore self-correcting. In ancient cultures they did not have the technology we have today and information was memorized and past along in groups, it was not like the “telephone game” we think of today where information gets changed by the time it reaches the end of a line of people. If someone was passing along false information they would be called out on it, especially by the elders of the community.
Students of the Scriptures could commit the Torah to memory in ancient times and at the time of Christ, and they still do it today. Historians consider oral transmission very reliable up through the time of the printing press in the 15th-century AD. Oral transmission from Adam to Moses was only about five generations and this is a remarkably short transmission line to get to the written Word.
3. Written Transmission:
From Moses’ time on the written Word was considered sacred. The job of transmission through copying went to the tribe of Levi and the Scribes (along with the continuation of oral transmission). Skeptics will claim that since the Scriptures were copied over and over so many times they cannot be accurate. Careful investigation will show, however, that the skeptics are wrong.
Following Moses, the Scribes were required to protect and preserve the writings through the generations. Copying of the Scripture had extremely strict rules, check out this one minute video clip:
Examples of just a few of the 4000 strict rules for copying Scripture:
- Each scroll must contain a specific number of columns, all equal throughout the entire book.
- Each column’s length must not be less than 48 lines or more than 60.
- Each column’s breadth must be exactly 30 letters.
- The copyist must use a specially prepared black ink.
- The space between every consonant must be the size of a thread.
- The copyist must sit in full Jewish dress.
- The copyist must use a fresh quill to pen the sacred name of God.
- The copyist could copy only letter by letter not word by word.
- The copyist counted the number of times each letter of the alphabet occurred in each book.
- The copyist knew the middle letter of the Pentateuch and the middle letter of the entire Old Testament.
- After copying the copyist counted forward and backward from the middle letter.
- The copyist must count all letters and spaces.
- The copyist must not be interrupted, even if the King walked in, they could not stop.
- Each manuscript would be compared and read out-loud before the people.
- Any mistake in any area would require the copyist to burn the copy, or tear it up, and start over.
The scribes believed with all their hearts, souls and minds that this was the Word of God they were responsible for and they had a reverent fear for what they were doing. Scribes taught and lived by the highest ethical standards. They were willing to die for what they were doing and there were very harsh warnings for disobedience (see Deuteronomy 28:56-69).
Moses wrote these words to the Israelites:
These are the commands, decrees and laws the Lord your God directed me to teach you to observe in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to possess, so that you, your children and their children after them may fear the Lord your God as long as you live by keeping all his decrees and commands that I give you, and so that you may enjoy long life. Hear, Israel, and be careful to obey so that it may go well with you and that you may increase greatly in a land flowing with milk and honey, just as the Lord, the God of your ancestors, promised you. Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the door frames of your houses and on your gates. Deuteronomy 6:1-9
Watch this 36 minute video by one of the top Christian Apologists of our time, Josh McDowell on “How Scribes copied the ancient texts:”
Can we trust the translations we have today? YES!
- Since the birth of Christ the transmission of the Bible has come from translations of the original Hebrew and Greek (and a few parts of Daniel and Ezra in Aramaic).
- Most English Bibles you read from today have only been translated once from the original languages—these are called Versions.
- Besides the over 25,000 manuscript versions we have more than 15,000 existing early copies of the various versions translated into Latin and Syriac from very early on.
- The Christian faith was a missionary faith from its very inception (Matthew 28:19-20) and the Scriptures were immediately translated into the known languages of that time—ruling out any possibility of change from the original because eyewitnesses were still alive to dispute error.
- The Greek name for the Old Testament.
- The first work to be translated from the original Hebrew into Greek.
- The translation used for the early Jews and Christian through the second century.
The Latin Vulgate
- Latin replaced Greek about the middle of the third century.
- Jerome, an Italian Hebrew scholar, translated from the original Hebrew and Greek into Latin.
- The Vulgate became so popular and so identified with the Church of Rome, that it became blasphemous to have it in any other language.
These are men who put their life on the line to translate the Bible for the common person to read.
- John Wycliffe: 1384
- Martin Luther: 1522
- William Tyndale: 1530
- John Knox and Miles Coverdale: 1560
- King James: 1611
The explosion of the printing press, religious freedom in the modern world, and the work of missionaries brought a multitude of translations to the common person who would have otherwise been dependent on the interpretation of the Church leaders only. The Bible can be studied today by almost anyone of any language. Serious students of the Bible can checked with the original languages for accuracy in their translation because the original languages are not lost languages!
For additional evidence and resources on this topic read J. Warner Wallace’s Cold Case Christianity, or Josh McDowell’s books: New Evidence That Demands A Verdict, and God Breathed, The Undeniable Power and Reliability of Scripture. Also, How We Got the Bible, by Neil R. Lightfoot.
Join us next week as we look at how the Bible was canonized (how the books were chosen).
You will not find this material in the public school curriculum even though it is based on solid evidence and grounded in research. It is ironic that following the evidence to where it leads stops at the door of our public schools as they will not let a “Divine footprint” in! Join us as we examine evidence for Christianity and learn how to become a thoughtful defender and ambassador of your faith.
Click into the resource page of this website to view many of the top Christian thinkers and apologists along with some of their work; connecting to these types of resources is essential in your Christian growth.
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