You’ve probably heard it suggested that the Bible we read today is nothing like the original, given how many times it’s been copied through the centuries.
Surely this has provided too much opportunity—so the argument goes—for people to copy it poorly. Or worse, to tamper with it to suit their own agenda.
This makes for a good story, but is it true?
The Old Testament
The Jews had a special class of people whose only task was to preserve the Scriptures. In making a new copy, the scribe wasn’t allowed to write a single letter from memory: every one had to be checked.
Two others would hover over his shoulder ensuring he made no mistakes. If an error was made, all three of them had to initial it.
“The Jews had a special class of people whose only task was to preserve the Scriptures.”
On completion of a book, every word would be counted. And tallies would be made of each letter of the Hebrew alphabet to see if it matched the original.
If a new manuscript didn’t pass these and other tests, it was trashed and the process would begin again.
The Dead Sea Scrolls
Until last century, the earliest copies we had of the Old Testament only went back as far as AD900. So arguably, it still could have changed a lot in that time, despite every scribe’s good intention.
But then along came a shepherd boy called Muhammad. He was tending his goats near some caves at the Dead Sea. The year was 1947.
Bored, he tossed a stone into a cave and heard the sound of breaking pottery. So he scrambled in and made the most important archaeological discovery of the 20th century: the Dead Sea Scrolls.
“What made this find so important was that they dated back to the time of Jesus.”
They were a collection of around 500 works, written on leather, wrapped in linen, and stored in jars. Among them was most of the Old Testament.
What made this find so important was that they dated back to the time of Jesus—a millennia older than any previous Old Testaments we had. More important still, they bore remarkable similarity to those older copies.
Take for example Isaiah 53. After a thousand years of copying, only 17 letters in the entire chapter were different. Most of the changes were obvious slips of the pen or minor spelling changes, and none affected the meaning of the text.
Reflecting on the value of the Dead Sea Scrolls, archaeologist W. F. Albright said, “We may rest assured that the consonantal text of the Hebrew Bible, though not infallible, has been preserved with an accuracy perhaps unparalleled in any other Near Eastern literature.”
The New Testament
Tiberius was the emperor who famously sent Mary and Joseph packing for Bethlehem. Volumes have been written about Tiberius. But almost everything we know about him was written 80 years after his life by the historian Tacitus.
Now consider the biographies of Jesus, also known as Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. These gospels were written within 30-60 years of Jesus’ life.
In other words, our records about Jesus are better than the those we have for the man who ruled the world at the same time.
This has other implications too. If Matthew, Mark, Luke and John wrote while witnesses to Jesus were still living, it would have been near impossible for them to invent stories about him.
“Our records about Jesus are better than they are for the man who ruled the world at the same time.”
Imagine an account was fake. To shut down the Jesus movement, all a skeptic needed to do was visit this village, ask if Jesus really did heal that person, and the whole charade would be exposed.
Instead, in those early centuries a perplexed pagan world watched on as this fledgling movement spread throughout the empire.
The Ancient World’s Most Copied Text
In the Rylands Library in Manchester, UK is a fragment of John’s gospel. It’s the earliest parchment we have of the New Testament.
Like most ancient documents, it’s a copy. But it’s been dated to within 50 years of the original. Compared with other writings from the ancient world, this is remarkable.
“As far as tests go for ancient documents, the Bible passes every one with flying colours.”
But the New Testament has even greater credentials. No one claims the history about Caesar or the writings of Plato were made up. But only a handful of these documents have survived.
On the other hand, 25,000 New Testament manuscripts can be found throughout the libraries of the world. Not just fragments, but whole scrolls and books too. As such, we can reconstruct the New Testament with near-perfect accuracy.
So has the Bible been tampered with?
There’s no evidence for this claim. Instead, the evidence points in a different direction. As far as tests go for ancient documents, the Bible passes every one with flying colours.
It’s no exaggeration to say that the Bible is the best-attested document of ancient history.
Thanks for reading. If you enjoyed this, please give it a like, comment or share on social media. To get new posts directly by email, scroll to the bottom of the page and subscribe.
Check out the rest of the series:
Clark, Mark. The Problem of God: Answering a Skeptic’s Challenges to Christianity. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017.
McDowell, Josh. Evidence That Demands a Verdict: Life-Changing Truth for a Skeptical World. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2017.