The Bible: can we trust it? (Part 3)

In my last post we were looking at the first of the three tests used to determine the reliability of an ancient document: the quantity of manuscripts.  When we apply this test to the Bible, the result is amazing.  The number of New Testaments manuscripts is unparalleled in ancient literature.  The number of Old Testament manuscripts far less.  But what the Old Testament manuscripts lack in quantity, they make up for in quality.  And that is the next test we are going to apply.


  • Quantity of manuscripts
  • Quality of manuscripts
  • Time frame

b) The Quality of Manuscripts

Because the great reverence the Jewish scribes had for the Scriptures, they exercised extreme care in making new copies of the Hebrew Bible.  During the early part of the tenth century (916 A.D.), there was a group of Jews called the Masoretes.  These Jews were meticulous in their copying. The texts they had were all in capital letters, and there was no punctuation or paragraphs.  The Masoretes would copy Isaiah, for example, and when they were through, they would total up the number of letters.  Then they would find the middle letter of the book.  If it was not the same, they made a new copy.  It was very slow and meticulous work.  But this helped preserve the accuracy of the manuscripts.

Now all of the present copies of the Hebrew text which come from this period are in remarkable agreement.  But there was still a huge time gap.  The earliest Hebrew manuscript dates only back to 916 A.D., more than 1500 years after the last book of the Old Testament.  And that put the reliability of the Hebrew text into question.  That was until the discover the Dead Sea Scrolls.  And that changed everything. Rather than me telling the story, I’ll let this video do it for us.

Perhaps the best known of all the scrolls is the Isaiah Scroll from Cave 1.  It is perfectly persevered and contains the entire book of Isaiah.  The 66 chapters of this prophet (who wrote in approximately 700 years B.C.) are copied in a neat and beautiful handwriting.  Professor Horn devotes several pages to a detailed description of the finding and the significance of the Dead Sea Scrolls and concludes:

Its text proves that since the time this copy was written, probably in the second century BC or in the first, the book of Isaiah has not experienced any change… Everyone who has worked with this scroll has been profoundly impressed by the unmistakable fact that this two -thousand-year-old Bible manuscript contains exactly the same text as we possess today.[1]

What about the quality of the New Testament manuscripts?  It is not as good as the Old Testament manuscripts, even though they are newer.  That is because of the vast amount of copies that were made.  What they lack in quality however, they make up for in quantity.  Taking the many thousand of manuscripts, scholars are able to look at all the variant readings and reconstruct what would very likely have been the original in any given passage.

And we are talking about very small variants here – a missing word, having “he” instead of “Jesus”, or words that have been added.  What you need to know is only a small number of these differences affect the sense of the passages, and only a fraction of these have any real consequences.  Furthermore, no variant readings are significant enough to call into question any of the doctrines of the New Testament.  The New Testament can be regarded as 99.5 percent pure.  That’s pretty close!

Let’s compare the numbers on variant readings.  The New Testament contains approximately 20,000 lines, of which 40 lines are in question.  This equals 0.5% (one half of one percent).  The Iliad contains approximately 15,600 lines, of which 764 lines are in question.  This equals five percent.  That’s ten times more variants than the New Testament in a document which is only three-quarters its length.  The sheer number of extant New Testament manuscripts we possess narrows tremendously the margin of doubt on the correct reading of the original documents (known as autographs).

Of the 0.5% of the New Testament variant readings, only one eighth of those amount to anything more than a stylistic difference or misspelling.  Here’s an example of a fairly typical variant reading:

MSS. 1 Jesus Christ is the Savior of the whole worl.
MSS. 2 Christ Jesus is the Savior of the whole world.
MSS. 3 Jesus Christ s the Savior of the whold world.
MSS. 4 Jesus Christ is th Savior of the whle world.
MSS. 5 Jesus Christ is the Savor of the whole wrld.

As you can see, many of these variants involve nothing more than a missing letter in a word, a misspelling, or a reversal of the order of two words (as seen above in #2).  Some may involve the absence of a word; but of all the variants in the NT, it should be noted that only about 50 have any real significance, and that no major Christian doctrine rests upon a disputed reading.

So we’ve considered the quality and quantity of biblical manuscripts, now let’s look at:

C. The Time Span of Manuscripts

Apart from some fragments, the earliest Masoretic manuscript of the Old Testament is dated at A.D. 895 (due to the systematic destruction of worn manuscripts by the Masoretes).  However, the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls dating from 200 B.C. to A.D. 68 drastically closed the gap from 1500 to 400 years.

Now the time span of the New Testament manuscripts is exceptional.  The manuscripts written on papyrus came from the second and third centuries A.D.  Papyrus was a reed from the Nile Valley that was glued together much like plywood and then allowed to dry in the sun.  Another material was parchment.  This was made from the skin of sheep and goats and was in wide use until the late Middle Ages.  The Apostle Paul often wrote on parchment (1 Timothy 4:13).

The oldest of all known manuscripts that has survived is the John Rylands Fragment (P52), which was discovered in Egypt in 1936 and is now housed in the John Rylands Library in Manchester University.  It is another amazing story of survival.  This fragment is a small piece of papyrus that contains a few verses of the Gospel of John.  It has been dated by experts to around 130 A.D., only a few years after John’s death.  The 19th and early 20th century critics challenged the traditional date of John’s Gospel, saying it had been written much later – many even questioning whether John actually wrote it.  With the find of P52, those critics have now been silenced.  Take a look at this video clip – it is stunning to behold:

Then we have the Bodmer Papyri , dating back back to A.D. 175-225, which were discovered in Egypt in 1952.  They contain 104 leaves of John and other fragments.  Most of the papyri are kept at the Bibliothec Bodmeriana in Switzerland, outside of Geneva.  In 2007 the Vatican Library acquired Bodmer Papyrus 14-15 (known as P75), and is today kept at the Vatican Library.

Chester Beatty Papyri

And then there’s the Chester Beatty Papyri which dates from about A.D. 250 and contains most of the New Testament.  These papyrus fragments, well-preserved in earthenware jars, were found in an old Christian graveyard near the river Nile about 45 miles south of Cairo.  Dr. Siegfried Horn described it as “the greatest discovery with regard to the New Testament,” adding that the Chester Beatty papyri demonstrates once more that “no change of any significance had ever been made in the Biblical text.” [2]

Then came the find of a lifetime, the Codex Sinaiticus, which was discovered in St. Catharine’s monastery near the foot of Mt Sinai in 1859 by a German scholar, Konstantin Tischendorf.  It’s a fascinating story – one well worth reading if you get the time.  I’ll tell it briefly here.  Tischendorf had heard that St Catharine’s held the largest collection of ancient biblical manuscripts in the world and had visited the monastery on two occasions.

Monastery of St Catharine, Egypt, Sinai

On one of these visits, he had discovered a large basket full of old parchments in the middle of the monastery’s great hall and had been told two piles of old documents like them had already been burnt.  Horrified, he salvaged what he could and took home with him several pages that turned out to be parts of the Old Testament!  On his third visit in 1859, he discovered in the monaster library a large, bound manuscript that proved to be the remains in Greek of the entire Bible as we have it today.

Codex Sinaiticus

This manuscript dates back to 330-350 A.D.  It narrowed the gap between the last of the apostles and the earliest complete manuscript of the New Testament to less than 250 years and demonstrated beyond all doubt the differences between the bible we have today and the bible as it existed around 350 A.D. are marginal if not insignificant.  David Marshall says,

Thanks to the Codex Sinaiticus we can say with assurance that in the New Testament of our twentieth-century Bibles we have to all intents and purposes the gospels, books, and letters as set down by their first-century authors.

In summary:  Applying the bibliographic test we find that the Old and New Testaments enjoy far greater manuscript attestation in terms of quantity, quality, and time span than any other ancient documents.  Sir Frederic Kenyon, British palaeographer and classical scholar, after researching all the available evidence, reached this conclusion:

The Christian can take the whole Bible in his hand and say without fear or hesitation that he holds in it the true word of God, handed down without essential loss from generation to generation throughout the centuries.

We still have two other tests to conduct – the Internal test and the External test.  But that’s for next time.

[1] Siegfried H Horn, Light From the Dust Heaps, Review and Herald, 1955, pp 79-80

[2] Horn, op cit, pp.89-90

(Part 1)  (Part 2)  (Part 4

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