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These pages are designed to aid study or investigation for Christian discipleship through individual Bible study, Cell groups, Home groups, or meeting one to one.  The questions could be used alone allowing each person to use their own Bible.

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The huge wealth of Bible manuscripts from ancient times makes the Bible the best preserved ancient document by a factor of thousands.  Literally nothing comes close. No serious historian would doubt the text we have today!  It is so close to the original there is no room for discussion about meaningful changes over the centuries.

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Why is it important?

The Bible, is God’s word, and as such it has authority on our lives.  This causes irritation and suspicions in those who don’t like what it says.  One way of challenging the Bible’s authority is to question its reliability as a text.

Historian’s view

Let us hear listen to the experts, the historians.  They have little doubt about the authenticity of the text:

F.F. Bruce, Rylands Professor of Biblical Criticism and Exegesis at Manchester University says:    'There is no body of ancient literature in the world which enjoys such a wealth of textual attestation as the New Testament.'  (F.F. Bruce, The Books and the Parchments, Pickering & Inglis.)

To illustrate this statement, consider the example of Caesar's Gallic Wars, written 58-50 BC.  There exists only 10 ancient manuscripts, the oldest of which dates from 900 AD.  And yet no serious scholar doubts that they are genuine.

However the New Testament, written 48-100 AD, is known to us from about 5000 Greek manuscripts and thousands more in Latin, Syriac and other languages.  The best and most important manuscript dates from about 350 AD.  Other fragments date from as early as 120 AD!

It is not surprising then that Sir Frederick Kenyon, who was director and principal librarian of the British Museum says:

'The interval then between the date of original composition and the earliest evidence becomes so small as to be in fact negligible, and the last foundation for any doubt that the Scriptures have come down to us substantially as they were written has now been removed.  Both the authenticity and the general integrity of the books of the New Testament may be regarded as finally established.'    (  Sir Frederick Kenyon, The Bible and Archaeology, Inter-Varsity Press.)               

What of errors?

For some, this still leaves the nagging doubt - It is nice to have  the expert giving assurances, but what changes are there?  The expert says substantially, what does that mean?  Can you even know?

To understand the answer needs a little explanation about the culture in which the Bible was transmitted.  Our culture does not give a lot of attention to working on accuracy of reproducing text.  Children at school do not have to spend hours learning everything by rote memory.  The source text is so easily available you can go straight to it.  In Bible times, the text was not easily available.  There would be one precious copy locked in he synagogue.  To be sure of the text one memorized it from the synagogue copy. When new copies were required a reader dictated to a class room of trained scribes.  At the end of each line, there was a cross check by the scribes of the number of words and the number of characters on the line.  No errors were permitted. Close was not good enough.

The degree of accuracy is testable today. For centuries the earliest Hebrew texts of the Bible were from the year 350 AD.  Then in about 1950, scrolls were found in a cave by the Dead Sea written about 60 BCE, 400 years earlier than the previous earliest Hebrew texts of the Old Testament.  (There were many earlier copies translated into Greek).  When these texts were analysed it was found that the differences were negligible and certainly did not lead to any rewriting of our understanding of the Bible.  Here are a couple of random examples -

  1. Isaiah 23:10 (NIV)  I use the NIV here as more textually precise than the more normal NLT to pick up the differences.

Dead Sea scrolls (60 BCE)  texts -  Till your land as along the Nile, o Daughter of Tarshish, for you no longer have a harbour.”

Masoretic Text (300AD)

   “Go through your land as along the Nile, o Daughter of Tarshish, for you no longer have a harbour.”

Although there is a change of one phrase in the text, the real essence of what is being said has not changed - the descendents of the city of Tarshish (a sea trading people), no longer have a harbour. There is nothing here to change one’s belief systems.

  1. Isaiah 33:8 (NIV)

Dead Sea Scrolls - 8 The highways are deserted, no travellers are on the roads.  The treaty is broken, its witnesses are despised, no one is respected.”

The Masoretic Text - 8 The highways are deserted, no travellers are on the roads.  The treaty is broken, the cities are despised, no one is respected.”

The differences here do not significantly change what the Bible is saying, although it obviously has an impact on the verse in question.  To highlight these changes, translations such as the NIV will give a footnote showing the alternate.  There might be one or two per chapter in the Old Testament.  Why not pick up a copy of the NIV or go to www.biblegateway.com select the NIV and look at the footnotes in Isaiah.

When scholars, both favourable to Christianity and antagonistic look at the differences they all declared there is no real difference.  Lay people might have concerns but the experts have no doubts.

Another factor is a study known as Text Criticism.  This study is based on the wide range of copies of the Bible texts available, and the geographic spread of the texts. Texts in certain regions developed certain characteristic errors.  These were passed down the generations of documents in that region.  In other regions however there were different errors. By looking at the characteristics of each geographic region it is possible to eliminate the vast majority of errors and get back to what is the original document.

To take the illustration below.  If the original text was ABCD, then by comparing the range of texts with their very few errors one comes up with a tree of copies.  By comparing these, one can eliminate the errors W,X,Y,Z and get back to ABCD.

This technique is useful in Greek texts of the New Testament, including the Gospels where Jesus spoke.  In the case of these Greek New Testament texts, the earliest is about 30 to 40 years after the first writing and thousands of copies made within a few hundred years still exist.

The vast majority of errors introduced into the New Testament occurred when the person dictating to the scribes came to a place where another document is similar.  The speaker then could accidentally include the words from the similar document.  These are relatively easy to identify and eliminate.

Consider the following example (emphasis added):

Matthew 5:44 But I tell you, love your enemies* and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven.

* some manuscripts insert after the word ‘enemies’: ‘bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you.

Now look at the parallel passage told by Luke in his gospel.

Luke 6:27-28 27 “But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.”

I hope from looking at these illustrations that you will understand why, as far as historians are concerned, there is no question that the Bible texts are almost identical to the original.  

HOW ACCURATE - Bible text?

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Text - How accurate?