The Old Testament
The original Bible manuscripts (called autographs) were written on material such as papyrus, which deteriorated quickly. Consequently, scribes were needed to copy and recopy the Old Testament books letter by letter. These copyists knew they were duplicating God’s Word, so they went to incredible lengths to prevent error from creeping into their work. The whole process of recopying the Bible was controlled by strict religious rituals, and the scribes carefully counted every line, word, syllable, and letter to ensure accuracy. As a result of their diligence, the Old Testament in our Bible today is virtually identical to the autographs.
Bible scholars have demonstrated this by comparing ancient copies of the Bible with more recent copies. For example, prior to the discovery of the Dead Sea Scroll manuscripts in 1947, the oldest existing (extant) Old Testament manuscript was the Massoretic Text, dated around a.d. 900. But with the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, fragments of almost every book in the Old Testament were found, many of them dating back to around 150 b.c., a thousand years earlier.
One of the most important manuscript discoveries was two copies of Isaiah. So far they are the oldest known copies of any complete book of the Bible. What did textual critics discover when they compared the Dead Sea manuscripts of Isaiah with the Isaiah preserved in the Massoretic Text dated a thousand years later? Old Testament scholar Gleason Archer provides the answer:
“Even though the two copies of Isaiah discovered in Qumran Cave number one near the Dead Sea in 1947 were a thousand years earlier than the oldest dated manuscript previously known (a.d. 980), they proved to be word for word identical with our standard Hebrew Bible in more than 95 percent of the text. The 5 percent of variation consisted chiefly of obvious slips of the pen and variations in spelling.”
From manuscript discoveries like the Dead Sea Scrolls, Christians have undeniable evidence that today’s Old Testament Scripture, for all practical purposes, is exactly the same as it was when originally inspired by God and recorded in the Bible.
The New Testament
We do not posses any of the autographs of the New Testament. Like the Old Testament, the New Testament books were originally written on materials that quickly wore out and therefore had to be copied and recopied by hand for centuries before the invention of the printing press. So we need to determine how closely the existing copies represent the autographs. That is, how do we know that the New Testament we have today is close enough to the original writings as to be equally reliable?
One of the areas of evidence has to do with the available number of New Testament manuscripts. What we discover is that there are more extant New Testament manuscripts than any other document from antiquity. More than 24,000 partial and complete copies of the New Testament are in existence today. By comparison, the ancient document second in number of available copies is the Iliad, which has only 643 surviving manuscripts. And this number is extremely high compared to other ancient documents.
In fact, there are enough quotations from the early church fathers that even if we did not have a single copy of the Bible, scholars could still reconstruct all but 11 verses of the entire New Testament from material written within 150 to 200 years from the time of Christ.
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