Every once in a while there is a great question that curious students ask. They say something like ‘how can we trust that the Bible matches what was written originally?’ This curiosity may be shaken when they see something like this in a major news publication:
“No television preacher has ever read the Bible. Neither has any evangelical politician. Neither has the pope. Neither have I. And neither have you. At best, we’ve all read a bad translation—a translation of translations of translations of hand-copied copies of copies of copies of copies, and on and on, hundreds of times. […] Back then, writings from one era could be passed to the next only by copying them by hand. While there were professional scribes whose lives were dedicated to this grueling work, they did not start copying the letters and testaments about Jesus’s time until centuries after they were written. Prior to that, amateurs handled the job.”
Now, this post is not going to directly address what that article says (as there are plenty of places that have done that) but will give a quick exercise on how we can know that the Bible is reliable with a simple party game.
Remember that telephone game, where people whisper from one person to the next hoping that there is no trickster that mangles the message. If the message is different, everyone laughs and then tries again…or not.
However, now there is a better example: the fun party game Telestrations. In this party game (available almost anywhere) people have 12 flip white boards. One person writes a small phrase, and then the next draws a picture instead, then next looks at the picture and then writes a phrase of what they think the picture is. This repeats until you get something like this:
Isn’t that how we transfer messages–one person speaks and then the listener pictures something in their mind and then transfers it back into words? So, if that is how we possibly distort messages how was the Bible written?
Note: If you do not have the telestrations game you can do this exercise on pieces of paper or index cards instead. The examples below assume you are using multiples of the game flip books.
First of all in the telephone game and the Telestrations game, there is a 1 to 1 correspondence and regression. The message is only given to the next person who then transfers it. However for the Bible, the process was different.
For example, let’s take the Telestrations game and, instead of passing one flip white board around the group one person at a time, put one flip book in front of the whole group with a simple phrase. Each scribe in the group draws what they see. Then, each person checks with the other ‘scribes’ and with the original author to make sure they wrote down the correct thing. When there is a consensus, repeat the process but in new small groups, with the scribes being the ones who have their flip white boards in front of their group. These new groups will take the scribes drawing and write the phrase. This process of checking and of having multiple scribes increases the accuracy substantially.
If the Bible was seen as the Word of God (which it was) both professional and amateur scribes would painstakingly check for errors. While there are typographical errors that were made even through this process, the message is the same.
The second difference between those games and how the Bible was transferred is that we can determine the autograph of the books of the Bible without needing it. The autograph is another word for the original statement. In both party games, the laughable moment comes when the players compare the end of the message to the beginning, but if the start of the message is never revealed, we cannot know it. For Bible translation, it is nearly the same way, but Bible scholars can determine what the autograph says.
Let’s continue our different telestartions game. So, the groups have done one generation at this point. So, if there were 5 scribes at the start, and there are another 5 people in the first group those scribes went to now there are 31 total copies (1 autograph, 5 first generation copies, and 25 second generation copies). If we happen to lose the autograph and even the first generation copies, so in the exercise erase/ remove them. Now there are only 25 existing copies and they are second generation. Take those 25 copies and as a large group look them over. Remove any that are not consistent with each other. There may be some ‘geographical’ differences depending on the first generation copy that was copied off of. Some 2nd generation copies may be removed. Now with the remaining copies check to see what the phrase is. Even if half of the second generation copies had to be removed the whole group could reconstruct what the original phrase was.
When the Bible was spread around, say for example the gospels or the epistles, there were many copies around the known world. Scholars today can check the accuracy of the transfer of the message in the same way. This is done for any work of antiquity. For example the important First Century document The Jewish War, by Josephus, survives in only nine complete manuscripts. Tacitus’ Annals of Imperial Rome is one of the chief historical sources for the Roman world of New Testament times and it survives in partial form in only two manuscripts dating from the Middle Ages. Thucydides’ History survives in eight copies. There are 10 copies of Caesar’s Gallic Wars, eight copies of Herodotus’ History, and seven copies of Plato. Homer’s Iliad has the most impressive manuscript evidence for any secular work with 647 existing copies.
How many manuscripts do we have of the Bible? If we believe that we can reconstruct a simple phrase from less than 25 copies in our ‘game’ and scholars can reconstruct complete histories from 2 to 647 copies then the over 5,366 separate Greek codices (manuscripts bound in book form) and over 3,000 fragments cataloged which include 34 complete New Testaments should be monumental enough to construct reliably what the original autographs said. These numbers given are dated as well as these come from F.F. Bruce’s book The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? published in 2003.
The best part is that we are still finding new manuscripts that are still being studied today:
These are only some of the basic evidences we have that the Bible is reliable.
Image credit: BGG user boardgamefreak2009