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How did We Get the Bible?

by  Brad Harrub, Ph.D.

Ask any young child how we got the Bible, and the answers you receive may range from the corner bookstore to an angel from heaven. But, interestingly, many adults still are somewhat unsure as to exactly how we came to possess God’s Word. The answer, unfortunately, does not magically appear with age. Consider for just a moment if a friend or coworker were to ask you to describe how we got the Bible. What would your answer be?

OLD TESTAMENT

It was almost 3,500 years ago when Moses wrote the first books of the Old Testament. While we still have his words with us today, those original documents have long since been destroyed. So how do we know what we have today is what Moses penned many years ago.

The answer lies in how those words arrived in our hands. In ancient times, there were diligent Jewish scribes who spent their entire careers copying material. These individuals were very meticulous in regard to providing an exact duplicate of the original document. One group of scribes, known as the Masoretes, set its standards much higher than all the other scribes. The Masoretes counted every single letter, word, and verse of the Old Testament in order to preserve its accuracy.

An obvious question then becomes: If these men spent their entire lives doing little more than making thousands of copies of the Old Testament, then why do we not have innumerable copies still in existence? The fact is, only scarce copies from these ancient scribes are still in existence today. But the reason so few remain has to do with the people responsible for making the copies. They took great pride in their ability to copy without error, so that anytime a copy began to fade or show signs of wear, the scribes would either burn it or bury it in the ground. They did not want anyone obtaining a poor copy that could be misread or recopied incorrectly. After all, it was God’s Word that they were responsible for accurately passing on to posterity.

So how, then, can we be sure today, when we read accounts such as those of the Noahic Flood or Moses parting the Red Sea, that such events were recorded accurately? Consider the evidence. In 1948, an Arab boy was looking for a lost goat. As most children would, this young boy entertained himself by throwing rocks as he walked. He threw one of those rocks into a small cave, and heard the sound of pottery breaking. Scampering up the hill and into the cave, the boy found some leather scrolls with ancient writing on them. Amazingly, he had stumbled across what is known today as the Dead Sea scrolls. Inside the cave were hundreds of scrolls, most likely written by a group of people known as the Essenes.

Among the important discoveries from the caves were copies of several books of the Old Testament. These copies were produced from about 200 B.C. to A.D. 100, making them almost 900 years older than the oldest available copies of Old Testament books. Keep in mind, the Dead Sea scrolls were found in 1948, and the King James Bible was translated into English in 1611.

One scroll found in the Dead Sea caves was of particular importance. It was a scroll of the book of Isaiah—from which only a few words were missing! What was amazing about this scroll was that, when it was compared to the text of Isaiah produced 900 years after it, the two matched almost word for word! Thus, we can be confident that the Old Testament we hold in our hands today is worded exactly as the original writers wrote it.

NEW TESTAMENT

But what about the New Testament? How can we feel confident that Bibles being printed in 2003 still contain the words that God inspired approximately 2,000 years ago?

How Does the New Testament Measure Up
to Other Ancient Books?
Title of Ancient Book Date It was Written Date of Earliest Manuscrip Number of Manuscripts
Homer’s Illiad 700 B.C. unknown 643
History of Herodotus 425 B.C. A.D. 900 8
Josephus’ Jewish Wars A.D. 70 A.D. 400 9
Histories of Tacitus A.D. 100 A.D. 900 2
New Testament A.D. 35-100 A.D. 125 5,735

The New Testament was written between approximately A.D. 35 and A.D. 100. Among the books in the New Testament are letters that were sent to congregations of the Lord’s church from the apostle Paul. Those letters were priceless to those who received them. Because of that, copies sometimes were made.

Click for larger version of chart
Click image to view
a larger version.

Unlike the scribes who copied the Old Testament, people who copied the New Testament books did not see the need to bury or burn old, worn-out copies of the Scriptures. As a result, we still possess literally thousands of manuscripts of the New Testament (see the chart on previous page). (A manuscript is a hand-written copy of a document that was copied in its original language.) Since the New Testament originally was produced in Greek, the manuscripts also are written in Greek. Over 5,700 old manuscripts exist of various portions of the New Testament.

The total number of manuscripts is amazing, especially when compared to other ancient books. For example, Homer’s Iliad is one of the most famous ancient books in history. But there are less than 700 copies of his book.

Also, consider that many of the New Testament manuscripts were produced just decades after the apostles died. One manuscript, the John Ryland’s Papyrus, has portions of the gospel of John written on it. It was discovered in Egypt, and dates back to A.D. 130—just a few years after the New Testament was completed.

You may rest assured: the Bible you hold in your hand today is the inspired Word of God.




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