How the Bible Came to Us


How long ago was the Bible written?

The Bible was written by various men between the years 1500bc and 100ad.


How can we possibly know that what was written then is what we now read in our Bibles?

First, it is a matter of faith that God carefully preserved His word and ensured that what He would have us to read is what we have in our Bibles today.  Second, we can study the historical process of how the Bible was transferred to us and see how strictly it was copied and how carefully it was preserved.


Why is it a matter of faith that God preserved His word?

Because God Himself promised us that He would so do.  Jesus said that even though heaven and earth might pass away, His word would never pass away. (Matt 24:35; Mark 13:31; Luke 21:33)  The Westminster Confession states:

Chapter 1, article 8: The Old Testament in Hebrew (which was the native language of the people of God of old), and the New Testament in Greek (which, at the time of the writing of it, was most generally known to the nations), being immediately inspired by God, and, by His singular care and providence, kept pure in all ages, are therefore authentical; so as, in all controversies of religion, the church is finally to appeal unto them. But, because these original tongues are not known to all the people of God, who have right unto, and interest in the Scriptures, and are commanded, in the fear of God, to read and search them, therefore they are to be translated into the vulgar language of every nation unto which they come, that, the Word of God dwelling plentifully in all, they may worship him in an acceptable manner; and, through patience and comfort of the Scriptures, may have hope.


What can be said about the historical process of how the Scriptures were preserved throughout the centuries and brought to us uncorrupted?

The first thing to note here is the the books of the Bible were originally written in different languages.  The Old Testament was originally written in the Hebrew language and the New Testament in the Greek language.  Second, we must look at the Jewish practice of preserving the Scriptures.  Third, we will look at the preservation of the New Testament.  Finally, we will look at the process of translation.


The History of the Old Testament

How was the Old Testament preserved from its original writing and to the present?

The Old Testament was preserved for us by the Jewish people; Christians have the Jews to thank for their Old Testaments.  The Jews were extremely scrupulous to copy their Scriptures accurately.  Owen tells of a Jewish saying, “to alter one letter of the law is no less sin than to set the whole world on fire.”  source  No doubt this extreme care to preserve the scriptures accuraetly arose from their great respect for them.  God had told them,

“Now, O Israel, listen to the statutes and the judgments which I am teaching you to perform, so that you may live and go in and take possession of the land which the LORD, the God of your fathers, is giving you. “You shall not add to the word which I am commanding you, nor take away from it, that you may keep the commandments of the LORD your God which I command you. (Deuteronomy 4:1-2)


Are any of the original Old Testament writings available today?

No, the books of the Old Testament in their original form as written by their author are no longer available.  The term “autograph” is used to refer to these original works.


How then can we know what was originally written?

Because many copies were made of these autographs, and our Bibles are based on these copies.


On which materials were these books written?

See Eichhorn on this; source.


How can we know that the Bible books were copied accurately?

We know this because we can read about the strictness with which the Jews made their copies.


Who were the Masoretes?

In Jewish society, there was great concern to know and practice the law.  Schurer writes:

the priests were at first the teachers and guardians of the law. Gradually however this was changed. The higher the law rose in the estimation of the people, the more did its study and exposition become an independent business. It was the law of God, and every individual of the nation had the same interest as the priests in knowing and obeying it. Hence non-priestly Israelites more and more occupied themselves with its scientific study. An independent class of “biblical scholars or scribes,” i.e. of men who made acquaintance with the law a profession, was formed beside the priests. And when in the time of Hellenism the priests, at least those of the higher strata, often applied themselves to heathen culture, and more or less neglected the law of their fathers, the scribes ever appeared in a relative contrast to the priests. It was no longer the priests, but the scribes, who were the zealous guardians of the law. Hence they were also from that time onwards the real teachers of the people, over whose spiritual life they bore complete sway.  source

Around the year 600, the Masoretes took over the responsibility of preserving the Scriptures.  Pfeiffer writes,

To insure the purity of their text the Masoretes counted the verses, words, and even the letters of the books of the Old Testament. They tell how often the same word occurs at the beginning, middle, or end of a verse. They give the middle verse, middle word, and middle letter of each book. The corrections suggested by the Sopherim were carefully noted in the margins, but the integrity of the text itself was never tampered with. We owe a great debt to the Masoretes for their care in preserving the traditional Masoretic text for so many centuries.  Pfeiffer, The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Bible, 105.

Davidson adds to this:

The chief of these regulations are the following: A synagogue roll must be written on the skins of clean animals prepared for the particular use of the synagogue by a Jew. These must be fastened together with strings taken from clean animals. Every skin must contain a certain number of columns equal throughout the entire codex. The length of each column must not extend over less than forty-eight or more than sixty lines and the breadth must consist of thirty letters. The whole copy must be first lined and if three words be written in it without a line it is worthless. The ink should be black neither red green nor any other color and be prepared according to a definite receipt. An authentic copy must be the exemplar from which the transcriber ought not in the least to deviate. No word or letter not even a yod must be written from memory, the scribe not having looked at the codex before him. The square character is that used in synagogue rolls without vowel points and accents. The consonants שעטכזנץ must have the prescribed ornaments. The extraordinary points are to be inserted in their proper places, and the consonants of unusual forms to be put viz the so called literæ majusculæ minusculæ suspensæ inversae.  Words are not to be divided at the end of lines; and in two poetical pieces, (Exodus 15 Deuteronomy 32), they are to be written in such hemistichs (στιχοι) as the Tract. Sopherim prescribes.  Between every consonant, the space of a hair or thread must intervene; between every word the breadth of a narrow consonant; between every new parshiah or section the breadth of אשר written three times or of nine consonants; between every book, three lines. The fifth book of Moses must terminate exactly with a line, but the rest need not do so. Besides this the copyist must sit in full Jewish dress, wash his whole body, not begin to write the Name of God with a pen newly dipped in ink, and should a king address him, while writing that Name, he must take no notice of him.  The revisal of the Torah or synagogue copy must take place as soon as the copying is finished and be completed within thirty days. Three mistakes on a page may be tolerated but should there be four, or a mistake in the sections open or closed, or in the position of the poetical pieces that are to be written in hemistichs, the whole is vitiated.  source


What was learned from the discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls?

One reason the Dead Sea scrolls are so important is that they provided scholars with copies of the various Old Testament books that were 1000 years older than any of the other texts they had at the time.  See more in chapter 11 of Metaxas, Is Atheism Dead.


When was the Bible divided up into chapters?

See Eichorn for verses (see here) and chapters (see here).


The History of the New Testament


How does the history of the New Testament text differ from the Old Testament text?

The Old Testament text was copied with greater care than the New.  The care which the Jews took to accurately copy their Scriptures is described above.  When Paul or Peter or anyone else wrote a letter to a church or an individual, one can imagine that this letter would have been copied and passed around.  This copying, however, was not done with the same precision and accuracy as the Jewish practice.


Are any of the New Testament autographs in existence?

No, some evidence exists, however, that Tertullian made reference to the autographs in his day; see Wallace.  Alexander argues:

although little is said about the originals of the apostles’ writings, we have a testimony in Tertullian, that the Authentic Letters of the apostles might be seen by any that would take the pains to go to the churches to which they were addressed. Some, indeed, think that Tertullian does not mean to refer to the autographs, but to authentic copies; but why then send the inquirer to the churches to which the Epistles were addressed? Had not other churches, all over the world, authentic copies of these Epistles also? There seems to be good reason, therefore, for believing, that the autographs, or original letters of the apostles, were preserved by the churches to which they were addressed, in the time of Tertullian; cf p173 here.


If the New Testament was not copied with the same care as the Old Testament, how can we be sure of its accuracy?

Because of the sheer number of copies which are available and the extent of time that separates our copies from the originals.


How many copies of the New Testament exist?

Over 5000 copies of the New Testament exist.  Use the table below to compare this to many other ancient texts where the original no longer exists.

Furthermore, even if all these manuscripts did not exist, scholars assert that the entire New Testament could be reconstructed from all the quotations of Scripture that exist in the writings of the church fathers.  Wallace writes:

If someone were to destroy all those manuscripts, we would not be left without a witness, because the church fathers wrote commentaries on the NT. To date, more than one million quotations of the NT by the fathers have been recorded. “[I]f all other sources for our knowledge of the text of the New Testament were destroyed, [the patristic quotations] would be sufficient alone for the reconstruction of practically the entire New Testament,” wrote Bruce Metzger and Bart Ehrman.   Wallace, “Lost in Transmission,” in Revisiting the Corruption of the New Testament, 28.

This means that a great deal of work can be done by scholars in comparing the different manuscripts and drawing conclusions about which copy represents the closest to what was originally written.


Does this not mean that errors may have crept into Scripture?

No, it means that, over time, copying errors have occurred and need to be straightened out.  It does not mean that there is any error in what Scripture teaches.  Schaff writes:

God has watched with special providence over the essential integrity of the Bible, but He has not chosen to exempt it, by a perpetual miracle or series of miracles, from the common fate of human compositions, and to endow the copyists, translators and printers of the Bible with infallibility. He wastes no miracles. The command, “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread,” applies to intellectual and spiritual as well as physical labor.   source


But how can we know if what we are reading is really what Jesus said or what Paul wrote, etc. if the person copying the writing wasn’t completely accurate?

First, we must continually fall back on our unshaken belief in God’s promise that He would preserve His word and bring it to us in a form that is able to make us wise unto salvation.

Second, we must note just how many of these discrepancies really exist between the different copies of Scripture;

Third, we must note when these copies were made in relation to the original;

Fourth, we must note how significant these discrepancies are.


In all the copies of the New Testament, how many discrepancies are there?

There are hundreds of thousands of differences between these copies.


Why are there so many variants?

There are so many variants because there are so many copies.  Most of the writings that come to us from ancient times do not have this many copies as was shown in the table above.


How significant are these discrepancies?

The vast majority of these variants are of no significance whatsoever.  Most are matters of spelling and involve no change in wording at all.  Some involve a disagreement in word order, for example, in 1Thess 2:13 where the order between verb and adverb is unclear:

…εδεξασθε ου λογον ανθρωπων αλλα καθως αληθως εστιν (or εστιν αληθως) λογον θεου… (1Thess 2:13)

Some of the differences are so obviously incorrect as to cause no discussion.

  • Wallace references 1 Thessalonians 2:7 “On the contrary, we were gentle among you…” where one manuscript reads “On the contrary, we were horses among you…”  The issue here is clearly the one letter difference between νήπιοι children and ἤπιοι horses.
  • Another variant is seen in John 10:22 “Now it was the Feast of Dedication in Jerusalem, and it was winter.”  Many copies do not have “…and it was winter or καὶ χειμὼν ἦν”  True this is a variant, but it makes no difference since we already know that the feast of dedication was in winter.

Other differences involve the use of synonyms.

  • In Luke 7:19, we read, “And summoning two of his disciples, John sent them to the Lord, saying, “Are You the Expected One, or do we look for someone else?”  Some copies have αλλον, while others have ετερον.  The words are almost identical in meaning.

Some differences are significant but are almost certainly not the true reading as the variant in 1John 5:7; see here.  Wallace estimates that less than 1% of all the variants in existence are both meaningful and possible.


What are some of the more significant variants?

Bart Ehrman, an agnostic scholar of the New Testament, lists the following:

  1. Mark 16:9–20
  2. John 7:53–8:11
  3. 1 John 5:7 (in the KJV)
  4. Mark 1:41
  5. Hebrews 2:9
  6. John 1:18
  7. Matthew 24:36

Ehrman points to #7 as the most significant of these.  The text reads: “But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone.”  The KJV does not have “nor the Son” because the manuscripts used in the translation of the KJV do not have these words.  Ehrman asserts that these words were removed by pious scribes who thought they reflected poorly on the person and deity of Jesus.  Wallace, however, raises this question.  Why didn’t the scribe also remove the word “alone” which still carries the idea that Jesus Himself does not know the last hour?  Wallace has more to say on this; see “Lost in Transmission,” in Revisiting the Corruption of the New Testament, 45.


Does not Matthew 24:36 call into question Jesus’ omniscience?

It does, but this is no problem for Christian theology which teaches that Jesus was fully human (1 John 4:2-3) as well as divine.  This means there were things which, at certain times, Jesus didn’t know.  How the divine and human work together in Jesus is entirely a mystery to us; but there were times, when Jesus’s divine nature did not divulge things to His human nature.  Luke also says that Jesus grew in wisdom (Luke 2:52) which must be, of course, a statement of Jesus’ human nature.  See Shedd on this.


Did scribes occasionally correct the text to suit their own theological presuppositions?

This undoubtedly did happen and perhaps even in Matthew 24:36, but the sheer number of New Testament copies makes it easy to cross check these variants and to know with reasonable certainty the correct reading.  Schaff writes:

The abundance of variations, far from unsettling the general integrity of the text, furnishes us the material for restoring it with approximate certainty to a far greater degree than is the case with any classical author of antiquity. There is no need of resorting to uncertain conjectures and emendations. The true reading is sure to be preserved in the great mass of variations.  source


How far removed are the copies from the originals?

Most of the New Testament was written between the 40s and the 70s of the first century AD.  Wallace writes:

Today we have as many as 12 manuscripts from the second century (100-199ad), 64 from the third (200-299ad), and 48 from the fourth (300-399ad)—a total of 124 manuscripts within 300 years of the composition of the NT. Most of these are fragmentary, but the whole NT text is found in this collection multiple times. “Lost in Transmission,” in Revisiting the Corruption of the New Testament, 28-9.

Furthermore, if Tertullian was referring to the autographs in the comment given above, then even the autographs were still in existence in the second century which means that some of our copies could be directly linked to these originals.



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