Without the Original Manuscripts, How Can We Be Sure What God Really Said?

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This article is an installment of Holy Joys Questions. Submit your questions to questions@holyjoys.org.

Question: I’ve heard we don’t have any of the original manuscripts of the Bible. If that’s true, how can we be sure about what God really said?

Imagine a 3rd-grade teacher composing a lengthy poem on her classroom whiteboard and asking her 24 students to copy it. Later that day, while the students are at recess, the school room catches fire and destroys the whiteboard along with the poem. Four of the students’ papers are burned beyond recovery, but twenty copies suffer relatively little damage.

Could we reconstruct the original poem from the remaining 3rd graders’ copies? I think there is a good probability that we could.

Would there be mistakes in the 3rd graders’ copies? Very likely, but most mistakes could easily be resolved by comparing all the surviving copies.

What if there was a place where the students’ papers were split 50/50 regarding the text? Then we would evaluate the meter and rhyme of the poem to see which of the options best fits the context.  If that did not solve our dilemma, we would ask “Do either of the options alter the poem’s meaning?”

If the answer is no, then we would be satisfied that one of the two options is correct, and it doesn’t really matter which one is chosen. If the answer is yes, we would go with the option that seems to best fit the immediate context, meter, rhyme, and poem’s topic.

Imagine one last scenario with me. What if, by some strange providence, every surviving copy was missing one word in the middle the poem? Would that mean that we don’t have the poem?

No, of course not. Rather, it would mean that we would be less sure about what exactly that one word was. But, again, since we have all the rest of the poem, we could narrow down the options to no more than a handful of words that would fit that place in the poem.

Now, do we have the original poem? No, we don’t. Do we have the original text of the poem? Yes, we do! We have close to 99.9% of the original text. Even if we are unsure about the correct words in a few places, we know quite a bit about those places:

  1. where they are,
  2. what the options are,
  3. whether the options significantly change the meaning of the surrounding text, and
  4. what words are not options, given the meter, rhyme, context, and topic of the poem.

This is the case with Scripture. It is true: we do not possess any original manuscripts of any book of the Bible. However, in contrast to my fictional story with only twenty copies of the poem, we have thousands of Greek copies of the NT books and hundreds of Hebrew copies of the OT books.

Perhaps the following statistics will help. Out of the hundreds of thousands of differences among all the witnesses to the NT text, 90% of them are spelling differences, like the difference between “Savior” and “Saviour.” Of the thousands of differences left, 90% of them are word order differences; for example, “Jesus Christ” vs “Christ Jesus.”

Of the hundreds of differences left, 90% of them make no appreciable difference in the meaning of the text, like “God and Father” versus “God and the Father.” That leaves only .1% of all the hundreds of thousands of differences among the witnesses that actually affect the meaning of the text! And, of those, not one affects any major doctrine of the NT. Not one!

We don’t have original manuscripts, but we do know what the original text is with a 99.9% accuracy. Further, we know precisely where there are questions about the original text’s wording. And like my hypothetical poem, we know

  1. what the options are,
  2. what the implications of those options are for the text’s meaning, and
  3. what words are not options, given the nature of the manuscripts, the surrounding context, and the topic under discussion.

The original, inspired text of God’s word has been marvelously preserved, and we have it! Thanks be to God.

 


 

Originally published in God’s Revivalist. Used by permission.

Philip Brownhttp://apbrown2.net
Dr. Philip Brown is Graduate Program Director and Professor at God's Bible School & College. He holds a PhD in Old Testament Interpretation from Bob Jones University and is the author of A Reader's Hebrew Bible (Zondervan Academic, 2008).