Has the Bible been changed? What do the manuscripts say?
The Bible was written originally in Hebrew and Greek. It contains two collections of books: the Old Testament, written in Hebrew, with some portions in Aramaic, and the New Testament, written in Greek. They are the two lips by which God speaks with one voice to Mankind. We only have handwritten copies of these originals. To tell the truth, when I learned that there were no more originals, I felt quite unsettled. I said to myself, “If we only have copies of copies, Can I be sure that today’s Bible corresponds to the original text?” Are they accurate translations of reliable copies?
In fact, this question is not only for the Bible, but for all the documents that have come down to us since antiquity. However, the Bible, especially when it is compared with other writings, benefits from the survival of an exceptional number of copies.
Ancient Bible manuscripts are exhibited in famous museums around the world or held by libraries, museums and collectors.
The Old Testament
The earliest manuscript editions of the Scriptures could not stand the influence of time and decay of the materials they were written on. Like any sacred or other original text, they had to be copied if they were to be available for future generations. The oldest texts were then minutely reproduced by hand with strict instructions. In ancient Israel, the scribes (copyists) took the responsibility for this task and carried it out with seriousness and meticulous care, constantly checking and correcting their work. Thus, when a Jewish scribe had finished copying a book, he had to count all the words and letters of his copy; And then he made sure that his results were consistent with the manuscripts he had copied.
He then calculated and wrote in the margin the central word or letter of the page in order to compare it with his model (scribe, in Hebrew, means “to count”); So he made sure that he had not missed anything. Such special precautions ensure the proper transmission of the Old Testament Writings. This is what spectacularly confirmed the manuscripts of the Dead Sea.
In 1947, scrolls of skin were found in jars (pottery), which were hidden in caves at Qumran in the northwest of the Dead Sea. These rolls are now known as “Dead Sea Scrolls”. They would have been archived in these jars by the Jewish community of the “Essenes” then threatened by the Romans around 70 AD. After some thorough dating tests, it was found that some of these rolls had been written more than three centuries before their archiving, in about 250 BC.
The archaeologists were not mistaken. For them, it was “the greatest discovery of manuscripts of all time.” This is for two reasons: these scrolls contain all the Old Testament books, except the book of Esther, and they are 1200 years earlier than the oldest complete manuscript of the Old Testament ever preserved, that is in approximately the year 980 AD. Thus, with the discovery of the manuscripts of the Dead Sea, there are now manuscripts of the Old Testament well before the coming of Jesus Christ!
The whole world was anxious to know the results of the comparisons with the present texts. Were they different, had they been changed? The answer was a resounding “no”! All the scholars or scholars who examined the texts (and not all were Jews or Christians) concluded that they were almost identical to the Hebrew texts held today. These documents therefore were available to Jesus, who quoted from them without reservation. He knew they were accurate.
The copy of the book of the prophet Isaiah discovered at Qumran is representative of the faithfulness of the transmission of the biblical text. Dr. Gleason Archer personally compared the copy of Isaiah dating from 980 AD. with that found in the jars and dated 150 BC. He concludes:
“The texts of the two copies of Isaiah discovered in Qumran cave No. 1 are identical to the current texts for more than 95%. The differences concern only details without meaning: spelling, use of synonymous words, some errors of copy … ”
Gleason archer, introduction to the Old Testament; Editions emmaüs, 1984, p. 21
The manuscripts of the Dead Sea thus testify to the honesty of the scribes in the reproduction of the biblical manuscripts.
The New Testament
There are three sources we can refer to to judge the reliability of the transmission of New Testament texts:
1. the Greek manuscripts,
2. the first translations or “versions” of the New Testament, and
3. the writings of the “fathers of the Church” That is to say, the great Christian scholars of the first centuries.
- Greek manuscripts:
Up to the present day, nearly 5700 Greek manuscripts of the entire New Testament or portions have been preserved and are available for scrutiny between the second and the sixteenth century, when printing ensured that the documents are able to be preserved permanently. By comparison, there are only 650 manuscripts of the Iliad and the Odyssey, the works with the most manuscript copies after the New Testament. Why this abundance of manuscripts? Of course, the more copies we have, especially if they come from different geographical or different eras, the more we can, by cross-referencing them, have an idea of the original. Their agreement can only come from their belonging to a genealogical chain dating back to those originals. If some passages do not appear in all manuscripts, but only in the majority of them, they are indicated in square brackets to attract the attention of the reader. It is believed that the New Testament was written between years 50-90 AD. Now, the oldest fragment of copy found to date is about approximately 120 AD. To these may be added about fifty other fragments dated up to the year 325. The two oldest complete Greek manuscripts of the New Testament are the Vaticanus, 325 AD, and the Sinaiticus, 350 AD.These manuscripts might seem late, but in comparison with the earliest complete copies of other works by ancient authors, the difference in time from the original to the copies is considerable: about 800 to 1000 years for other documents compared with under 250 years for the New Testament. Anyone with the competence to compare these two Greek manuscripts with the current Greek reference texts can only notice their extreme similarity.
- The first translations of the New Testament:
Not only do the Greek documents of the New Testament provide more evidence for their accuracy than any other documents of other ancient authors, they were also translated into many other languages soon after being written. These ancient translations, or versions, made from the Greek manuscripts then in circulation, accurately reflect the texts from which they were made, even if those originals have since been lost. The number of manuscripts available today exceeds 19,000. The oldest translations go back to around 200-300 AD — which is very significant, because in antiquity few translations of other documents were ever made; it just wasn’t something that was done. But parts of the New Testament are available in Latin, Syriac, Coptic, Armenian and other languages.Through these translations into other languages we conclude how concerned the early Christians were that the New Testament should be spread among the people groups whose mother tongue was not Greek. They also completed translations of the Old Testament which were already circulating, notably the famous Greek translation of the “Septuagint” made in Alexandria around 270 BC by seventy Jewish scholars.
Moreover, and this is vital, even if we had lost all the Greek manuscripts and the first translations, we would still be able to find the contents of the New Testament 250 years after it was finally completed with the last book, written by the apostle John. How? Thanks to the sheer multitude of quotations in the writings of the first leaders of the churches who wrote after the apostles of Jesus had died.
- The writings of the fathers of the Church:
The Roman emperors did everything possible to destroy the new faith of the Christians by persecuting them and burning their writings. It failed miserably. The enthusiasm of the Christian believers and their attachment to the Scriptures was such that they braved all dangers and produced and circulated numerous copies and commentaries that circulated secretly when the believers were persecuted, or publicly as soon as the their sufferings eased.Throughout the Empire, since its writing, the New Testament has become the most quoted book in the history of the world. Thus in the year 70, just four decades after Jesus Christ, Ignatius, the pastor of the church in Antioch who was also responsible for several churches in Syria, already quoted the New Testament abundantly in his writings. In general, in their commentaries and letters, the earliest leaders of the Christian Churches have so frequently cited the New Testament text, that by uniting all these quotations and eliminating duplicates, it can be reconstituted in its entirety with the exception of just11 verses. Researchers have documented nearly 86,000 biblical quotations from church fathers, between 150 and 200 years later.
Of course, not only can we prove the reliability of the Bible, we also have the right to ask some very simple questions to those who say Christians have changed it. The documents we have access to prove this is wrong, but it is fair for us to ask those who accuse us of changing the Bible, “Who changed it? When was it changed? Where, in its pages, was it changed? Why was it changed?”
We need to remember this: when Mohammed lived, he never once cast doubt on the accuracy of the Old or New Testaments in terms of their accuracy. We now know that the documents we translate from are identical in every respect to those available in and in the centuries before Mohammed’s day. This alone is unanswerable proof that modern accusations of Christians changing the Bible are a new attack on the Bible, are without any justification and were unknown in the years before 632 when Mohammed died.