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When I was a kid, we often played the telephone game, whispering a message from one ear to another all the way down a line until the last person would announce what she heard. We often laughed at how mixed up the message eventually got. Given how likely it is for oral or written messages to become distorted as they are passed from one person to another or one generation to another, our modern Bibles are remarkably consistent and faithful to the earliest manuscripts. This shows how the Holy Spirit guided the process of the transmission and preservation of the Scriptures for our edification today. 

Large parts of the Bible, especially the Old Testament, began as oral tradition. There is archaeological evidence to support events, places, and persons described in the Old Testament,  and with each passing decade more is discovered. Moreover, the Old Testament literature’s form, style, and shape is consistent with what we find in the ancient Near East at large, adding legitimacy to its antiquity.

The oral accounts were eventually written down, giving rise to manuscripts that were compiled, shaped, and edited over time. Scholars believe that different Jewish communities produced different manuscript traditions. While there are differences between these traditions, there also is a remarkable amount of congruence. The vast majority of the differences are grammatical or spelling variations. Although more substantial differences do exist, they don’t significantly impact or challenge the theology reflected in the rest of the Old Testament.

There are over 5,800 Greek fragments of the New Testament, with over 500,000 variants between the various manuscripts. Again, while there are some significant variants (for instance, the inclusion of the story in John 8 of the woman caught in adultery and the last 12 verses of the gospel of Mark), none of these variants affects a significant Christian teaching.  

We have manuscript fragments of almost the entire Old Testament that date to between the third century B.C. and the first century A.D., as well as fragments of individual texts that date as far back as the seventh century B.C. For the New Testament, we have manuscript fragments that date to as early as the first century A.D. and full manuscripts from the fourth and fifth centuries A.D. That the earliest manuscripts significantly agree with later manuscripts and that we have access to manuscripts that date relatively close to the time the authors wrote them suggest a high degree of reliability.  

As they considered the source text sacred and not to be altered, the scribes took meticulous care in copying the words of Scripture onto new scrolls and codices. Each letter, word, and paragraph was counted to ensure that the source scroll was copied accurately. Even when the scribes believed the source text was grammatically or theologically wrong, they would preserve the text and add a note to the margins.

We confess with the Belgic Confession that “we believe the things contained in the Scriptures not so much because the church receives and approves them as such but above all because the Holy Spirit testifies in our hearts that they are from God” (Art. 5). In other words, we receive the Scriptures through faith. But we can also see clear evidence of how the Holy Spirit directed the work of people to ensure that the Word we have today is true to God’s self-revelation to his people in days of old. So we can affirm with the apostle Paul that “all Scripture is inspired by God and useful for teaching” (2 Tim. 3:16).


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