Manuscripts and the Wisdom of God: A Brief Essay on the Transmission of the Bible

One of the reasons why Mormons look to revelation other than the Bible is because they believe—and assert in official LDS teaching—that the original content of the Bible has been corrupted over the centuries as the Scriptures have been passed down from generation to generation. Because of this alleged corruption, God’s revelation in the Bible had become tainted and is in need of corrective revelation. Alongside the Bible, Mormons receive The Book of Mormon, The Pearl of Great Price, and Doctrines and Covenants as authoritative Scripture.

My goal in this essay is not to examine and critique the claims of these “latter-day revelations” (others have ably handled this issue). Rather, I want to consider the accusation that the content of the Bible has been corrupted over time. If it can be shown that the Bible is wholly reliable and without textual corruption, the basis on which Mormons posit a need for new revelation is significantly undermined. Positively, a fresh look at the reliability of our Bibles can provide Christians with a renewed confidence that what they have in the Bible is the pure and sufficient word of God.

The Claim that the Biblical Text has been Corrupted
The Mormon claim that the original text of Scripture has been corrupted is not new, nor is it exclusive to the Mormon Church. Those with little knowledge of Scripture or the history of its transmission often wonder how an ancient document could survive from generation to generation without undergoing some significant changes. Even those with first-hand knowledge of these issues express their doubts about the veracity of the biblical text.

Recently and most famously, Bart Ehrman, professor of religious studies at UNC Chapel Hill, publicly challenged, through a series of books and debates, the historic Christian position that Scripture has been handed down from generation to generation without modification. These challenges have been met with convincing force by some of evangelical’s best scholars, and have, as a result, produced much excellent literature on the topic of textual criticism.

The Gift of Hand Copying
God himself promises that he will protect his Word. Isaiah 40:8, for example, says, “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.” Jesus told his disciples that the smallest markings of the Hebrew Old Testament would remain in tact throughout the centuries: “For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished” (see Matt 5:18). Jesus also said his own words would endure beyond the existence of heaven and earth (see Mark 13:31). But God has not left us to rely merely upon a faith-claim; he has provided empirical evidence of how he has preserved his Word over time.

Both the Old Testament and New Testament were written prior to the convenience of the printing press or ink-jet printers, so copying these documents required the work of scribes. Once the autograph—the original inspired text—was completed by the author (e.g. Luke, Paul, etc.), the only way to reproduce that work was to create written copies. This process was slightly different in the Old Testament than it was for the New Testament, but in both cases, hand copying was how the inspired message would be transmitted.

We learn from the Bible itself that the original text (i.e., the autograph) is the inspired text. That is, God, by his Spirit, worked in such a way through the author so as to produce a text that was the Word of God and entirely without error. That is why Paul could refer to the Scripture as “God-breathed” (2 Tim 3:16, ESV). In the copying process, however, mistakes were inevitable. Scribes might misspell words, overlook words, and even skip whole lines of text. These mistakes would then be passed on to subsequent copies if the error wasn’t noted and corrected.

The Multiplication of Manuscripts
We might wonder why God would allow mistakes to creep into the copies at all. But rather than focusing our questions on why God allowed errors to creep into subsequent copies, we should consider the beneficial reasons for why God chose the process he did for transmitting his Word. Yes, the process of hand copying allowed for errors to creep into subsequent copies. But the process of hand copying also produced a massive amount of manuscripts that can be used to determine, with a high degree of accuracy, the original text of Scripture. Let me explain.

As the early Christians began to recognize the New Testament gospels and apostolic letters as divinely inspired Scripture, the demand for these documents intensified. Copies of these documents multiplied as Christians all over the Middle East and Mediterranean region sought to acquire reproductions of these God-breathed texts.

Errors crept into these copies, yes. But we must also keep in mind that most of the original text was preserved in the subsequent copies. Today we have a massive collection of New Testament manuscripts—copies of the gospels and epistles—that can be compared with each other in order to determine the original text of Scripture. This work of comparing manuscripts in order to determine the original text is called textual criticism.

Scholars, both evangelical and non-evangelical, have determined, through the science of textual criticism, that we are able to recover the original text of the New Testament with a 98-99% accuracy. This doesn’t mean, however, that 1-2% of the New Testament text is lost. No, we know that among the extant manuscripts, we have 100% of the original text. The remaining 1-2% refers to a few places in the New Testament where we are not absolutely certain about specific words or phrases.

The Wisdom of God
The process of hand copying, therefore, has provided the Church with a wealth of evidence in order to demonstrate that God has faithfully preserved his Word as the Church has handed it down from generation to generation. The multiplication of manuscripts has afforded us the ability to spot exactly when and where errors crept into the copies. No one man or group of men would have been able to form a large enough effort to introduce changes into Scripture or take vital truths away from the original text.

In other words, New Testament copies multiplied at such pace that no individual or coalition could have successfully altered the text so as to avoid the later corrective process of textual criticism. The sheer number of copies and geographical distribution ensured that errors would eventually be discovered and corrected. God’s wisdom, therefore, is on display in the process he chose to transmit his written Word.

The bottom line is this: God has protected the transmission of his Word just as he said he would. Today, our English Bibles are based on well-preserved and well-supported Old Testament Hebrew and New Testament Greek texts. As you read your Bibles, you can have certainty that you have God’s very Word before you. What a gift. There is no need to go elsewhere, for his Word is all we need (Matt 4:4).

 

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