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Has the Bible been preserved accurately?

   By Neil Earle Page 1 2 Good News Dec, 1980

Is the Bible, as some far-out critics contend, a hodgepodge of scribal errors, spurious manuscripts and copyists' forgeries? You need to know the encouraging truth!

Could a collection of writings scattered over 1,500 years of composition, spanning 60 generations and authored by 40-plus writers in three languages survive such a journey intact?

Jesus Christ said yes. "Heaven and earth shall pass away," He pronounced, "but my words shall not pass away" (Matt. 24:35).

The skeptics disagree. Accusations of linguistic errors, slips of the pen, unwarranted interpolations and pious forgeries have been trumpeted far and wide. Even to the average person it somehow seems unreasonable for manuscripts and documents to survive unblemished after 3½ millennia of copying and recopying.

And yet, the existence of the 66 books encompassing Genesis to Revelation is a fact, an observable, demonstrable reality. The Bible exists. Where did it come from?

Scientific literary analysis demands that the benefit of the doubt be given to the documents! Shakespeare's plays exist. Every year someone attempts to prove that someone other than Shakespeare wrote them or that counterfeit material was later inserted into his original writings. Yet until hard, unshakable evidence appears to the contrary, most, all scholars assume Shakespeare's authorship.

It is the same with the Bible. Critical doubts and scholarly questions do not constitute refutation; skeptical research beggars authoritative conclusions.

The document gets the benefit of any doubt. The burden of proof lies with the skeptic!


A nation of priests

The evidence for the integrity, authenticity and accuracy of the documents underlying the biblical text makes a fascinating story.

It begins with the Eternal God's selection of an entire nation as a "kingdom of priests" (Ex. 19:6). The care and preservation of Israel's lively oracles was a solemn duty of professionals called scribes.

In these conditions, how easy was it to palm off forgeries on the specially chosen teachers of the tribe of Levi (Deut. 33:10)? How did educated Jews feel about the authenticity of the documents they venerated as the "holy scriptures" (II Tim. 3:15)?

Let Josephus, a Jewish historian of the first century, answer: "From Artaxerxes [Malachi's time] until our time everything has been recorded but has not been deemed worthy of like credit with what has preceded, because the exact succession of prophets ceased. But what faith we have placed in our own writings is evident by our conduct; for though so long a time has now passed, no one has dared to add anything to them, or alter anything in them" (Contra Apion, Whiston's Josephus, p. 609).

Often overlooked is that the law, prophets and writings, which were accepted by Christ (Luke 24:44), formed the constitutional and legal basis of the Jewish nation. The Old Testament writings had national impact equal to Britain's Magna Carta, Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and Petition of Right, or America's Plymouth Rock Covenant and Declaration of Independence. Every Sabbath (Acts 15:21) for three millennia the Old Testament has been read, discussed, expounded by Jews. Genesis to Malachi underlined the Jewish people's unique position in the world and their claim to the land of Israel. As one rabbi observed, "More than Israel has kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept Israel."

Even the many sects and divisions within Judaism acted as unwitting guarantors of the purity of the Old Testament text, the vital record of their ancestors' deeds (John 8:33-59).

Animosity was, paradoxically, a powerful force in preserving the unimpeachability of Scripture. The appeal to the text was the common arbiter in theological debate (Matt. 19:7). The Scriptures 'were known at the grass-roots level as well (Luke 4:16-20). Deletions, insertions or corruptions would have triggered an outcry in a nation zealous for their law (Acts 22:3).

Tamper with the Old Testament text? One may as well consider editing the Declaration of Independence, deleting a sentence in a new copy of the Gettysburg Address or printing the Lord's Prayer with the beginning "Our Mother." Vital literary productions of national significance are too well known to be tampered with.

Today thousands of people have committed the Ten Commandments to memory. Imagine the protests if a new Bible translation inserted an extra commandment! Also consider it the astounding memory powers of the ancients. Even in this century a Cairo, Egypt, university required entering students to memorize the entire Koran, a book as large as the New Testament.


The thread of conveyance

Scripture itself speaks of a systematic, organized preservation of the law, prophets and writings.

Moses entrusted the law to the Levites guarding the ark, centerpiece of Israel's religion (Deut. 31:24-26). Joshua 1:8 comments upon "this book of the law" that Moses' successor read to the entire nation (Josh. 8:32-35).

Literate, proficient scholars functioned even through the chaotic Judges period (Judg. 5:14, I Sam. 1:3, 9). Under Samuel and David and Solomon, during Israel's Golden Age, inspired writers laid the basis for the historical narratives in Samuel, Kings and Chronicles. David revered the sacred writings (Ps. 119:97), and he and Solomon contributed and collected many psalms and proverbs.

These writings formed the basis for successive national revivals and reforms (II Chron. 17:7-9, II Kings 22:8). Later on Isaiah and Hezekiah updated the text (Prov. 25:1, Isa. 8:16). In this way "holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost" (II Pet. 1:21). The writings of the prophets were accepted because of God's evident approval and inspiration, shown through dramatic fulfillments (Isa. 38:4-7).

Even during the Babylonian captivity Daniel had access to the Scriptures (Dan. 9:2), and the return to Jerusalem was greatly influenced by Ezra, a "ready scribe" and guardian of the text (Ezra 7:6, 10). According to Jewish tradition, Ezra actually updated and clarified the text in certain places (e.g., Deut. 34:5). Shortly after his time, Malachi, the last Old Testament book, was written.


Ancient computers

How scientific was the transmission of the text? We can get a good insight by surveying two periods of transcription: from the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 to about A.D. 500, and from A.D. 500 to A.D. 916.

In the first five centuries a group known as the Talmudists guarded and copied the text. A supreme effort to safeguard the Old Testament accompanied the scattering of the Jewish people after A.D. 70.

"A great rabbi — Yochanan ben Zakkia by name — [reconstituted] the Sanhedrin at Jannia, between Joppa and Azotus. They considered whether canonical recognition should be accorded to Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, the Song of Songs and Esther . . . the upshot was the firm acknowledgment of all these books as Holy Scripture" (Bruce, The Books and the Parchments, p. 97).

Why wasn't canonical recognition granted to the controversial "apocryphal" books such as Maccabees, Judith and Bel and the Dragon? Because they abounded, in varying degree, in historical and geographical inaccuracies, displayed an artificial and sometimes vulgar style and taught doctrines and practices inconsistent with true Scripture.

In Bel and the Dragon, for example, Cyrus brags to Daniel about the superiority of the god Bel since the god actually ate food offered every night on his altar. Daniel secretly scatters ashes on the temple floor and afterwards shows Cyrus the unmistakable footprints of the priests who ate the food offered to Bel.

No self-respecting rabbi would dare equate this polite Jewish fiction with the biblical Daniel. It would be like equating the majesty of Winston Churchill's best speeches with the poem "Casey at the Bat." Professionalism purged this spurious literature from serious consideration.

Notice some of the demanding discipline of the transcribers who worked from A.D. 70 to A.D. 500:

"A synagogue roll must be written on the skins of clean animals, the length of each column must not extend less than 48 or more than 80 lines; the breadth must consist of 30 letters. No word or letter, not even a yod, must be written from memory. . . . Between every consonant the space of a hair or thread must intervene, between every book three lines. Besides this the copyist must sit in full Jewish dress, wash his whole body" (Davidson, Hebrew Text of the Old Testament, p. 89).

Transcription was letter by letter, not word for word or phrase for phrase! Diligence. Veneration. Professionalism. The hallmarks of the Talmudist tradition!

The Masoretes (Hebrew Masorah, meaning "to deliver something into the hands of another") safeguarded the text from about A.D. 500 to A.D. 916. These dedicated scholars based in Tiberias produced the Masoretic Text used today; it is the basis for our English Old Testament of 1611. "The Massorah is called 'a fence to the scriptures' because it locked all
words and letters in their places. It records the number of times the several letters occur in the Bible; the number of words and the middle word; the number of verses and the middle verses, etc., for the set purpose of preventing the loss or misplacement of a single letter or word" (Bullinger, Companion Bible, Appendix 30).

Designating the middle letter of the Pentateuch and the middle letter and verse of each book as well as of the entire Old Testament was not enough for these technicians. Phrases were counted, enumerated, distinguished. "House of Israel" was computed separately from "sons of Israel" and the number of times each occurred was well noted. The expression "sins of Jeroboam" is noted separately from the phrase "the sins of Jeroboam, the son of Nebat." Thus the Jewish zeal for God was turned to good use (Rom. 10:2).

So confident were the Talmudists and Masoretes that older documents were discarded. In the words of Sir Frederick Kenyon, late curator of the British Museum, "Age gave no advantage to a manuscript." Understanding the precision and skill of the Jewish scribes explains why. Who has ever counted the letters of Shakespeare, the words of Herodotus, the phrases of Homer?


The text and the Dead Sea Scrolls

What external evidence exists for checking the Masoretic Text of A.D. 916? A.D. 916 is 1,300 years from the last Old Testament writing, Malachi, in the fifth century B.C. Should this gap alarm us?

"It is nothing to that which parts most of the great classical authors from their earliest manuscripts. We believe that we have the seven plays of Sophocles; yet the earliest substantial manuscript upon which it is based was written more than 1,400 years after the poet's death" (Kenyon, Handbook to the Textual Criticism of the New Testament, p. 4). In other words, our Old Testament text is closer to its time of original composition than the major classical works of antiquity.

Traditionally, the major sources for cross-checking the Masoretic Text were the fifth century B.C. Samaritan Pentateuch ("variations from the Masoretic quite insignificant" — F.F. Bruce), the Targums — oral paraphrases from the sixth century B.C., the Mishnah — scriptural quotes and commentary from A.D. 200 and the Midrash (100 B.C.-A.D. 300) — rabbinical studies on doctrine. The net result of these literary cross-references was the strengthening of the authenticity of the Masoretic Text.

Then came 1947. One of the famous Dead Sea Scrolls found was a complete Isaiah manuscript. Its date? Approximately 125 B.C. This is a thousand years earlier than the Masoretic Text. How did it compare?