Vol. 3, No. 8
Many people are surprised to learn that the Bible, as we now have it, was not always in its present form. What was its original form, and how did it get to us today?
Originally, the Scriptures consisted of a collection of sixty-six different documents written over a span of about 1,600 years. The Old Testament was written mostly in Hebrew (some minor portions were in Aramaic) and the New Testament was composed in Greek. None of the original manuscripts survives. But there is a very good reason for this; likely, men would worship the inspired documents, instead of the God who gave them, were they still extant. That's what happened with reference to the brazen serpent that Moses made in the Old Testament (see 2 Kings 18:4).
But there is no cause for alarm simply because the original manuscripts are no longer available, because thousands of copies were made across the centuries. Here is an important historical note that helps put this matter in focus. The original manuscripts for the Greek classics, e.g., Homer, etc., vanished long ago, yet scholars are not in the least alarmed about that -- because there are copies that have survived.
The text of the Bible is available to us today by means of the science of "textural criticism," i.e., a restoration of the original text based upon a collection of the sources at our disposal. Let me illustrate this with reference to the New Testament.
There are three principal sources of data for the restoration of the New Testament text: 1.) Ancient manuscripts, 2.) Early translations, and 3.) Quotations from the so-called "church fathers." Let us momentarily consider each of these.
More than 5,000 Greek manuscripts of the New Testament are available to scholars today. Some of these go back to the very shadows of the first century. There is a fragment of John's Gospel that dates to the first half of the second century. By way of contrast, there is a gap of 900 years between the oldest manuscript of Julius Caesar's Gallic War and the original work (58-50 B.C.).
"Translations" are versions of the New Testament into languages other than Greek. There are more than 10,0000 versions of the New Testament in various ancient languages (e.g., Latin, Coptic, etc.), and some of these reach all the way back to the second and third centuries.
Finally, there are thousands of instances of where early church writers quoted the New Testament, relying upon manuscripts considerably older than what we have today. From their writings alone, the New Testament could be reproduced entirely (with the exception of about a dozen verses).
By comparing the evidence from these major categories, the "textural critic" is able to substantially restore the text of the original New Testament. Less than 1/1000th is even in question today (and that small percent relates to matters that are non-crucial to salvation issues).
What does all this mean? It means that we can have every confidence that a good translation today is a faithful reproduction of the original Word of God. You have in your possession a message from Heaven! Be thankful for it. Treasure your Bible. Study it every day. And by all means, dedicate yourself to understanding and being submissive to its instruction.