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Dionysius of Corinth, an avowed Christian overseer in the second century, lamented what had been done to his own writings. “For I wrote letters when the brethren requested me to write. And these letters the apostles of the devil have filled with tares [weeds, the sons of the wicked one], taking away some things and adding others, for whom a woe is in store. It is not wonderful, then, if some have attempted to adulterate the Lord’s writings when they have formed designs against those which are not such.” (bold mine)
The words of Dionysius show us that in his day (c. 71 C.E.) “some have attempted to adulterate the Lord’s writings,” the Scriptures. Tertullian tells us of that same period, “Marcion expressly and openly used the knife, not the pen since he made such an excision of the Scriptures as suited his own subject matter.” “That is, cutting out whatever did not fall in with it.” (Dodgson)
 Tertullian, “The Prescription against Heretics,” in Latin Christianity: Its Founder, Tertullian, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, trans. Peter Holmes, vol. 3, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 262.
Sadly, 30 years ago, almost all Christians would have been stunned if they had heard that there were intentional and unintentional changes made in the process of copying the manuscripts of the New Testament over a 1,400-year period, some 400,000+ variants. In fact, they would have been in denial, rejecting such an idea out of hand. The good news is, with the explosion of interest in Christian apologetics, evangelism, early Christianity, and textual criticism, there have been many dozens of books published on these subjects, and hundreds of thousands of Christians now understand and they fully realize that such purposeful tampering and accidental errors were not successful, changing the meaning of the Bible message because no one manuscript contained all of the textual errors, not even the master Greek text made up from the corrupt Byzantine manuscripts, that is, the Textus Receptus. The fact is, there was no choice but to copy by hand for centuries because the Guttenberg printing press was not invented until 1455. However, again, the copyists did not destroy the purity of God’s Word because (1) no text contains all the scribal errors, only a microscopic amount, (2) we have the original text within our 5,836 Greek New Testament manuscripts, (3) 400+ years of textual scholarship has given us a restored mirror-like reflection of the original Greek New Testament.
No Other Ancient Book Has Been Copied with Such Care
Centuries before the New Testament books were penned, faithful scribes meticulously copied the Hebrew Scriptures. These scribes were called Sopherim from the time of Ezra (c. 460 B.C.E.) until the time of Jesus Christ, a term that was clearly derived from the Hebrew verb “to count.” Why? According to the Talmud, this was because they counted all of the letters of the Law. Can we even imagine the level of dedication it must have taken, the stress, the strain to count every letter? They literally had to count 815,140 Hebrew letters in the Scriptures each time they copied a manuscript. Great care was taken to prevent corruption of the text.
However, we know that there are mistakes in the Hebrew Old Testament manuscripts because they all have some different readings in them. If there were no mistakes, all of the Hebrew Old Testament Manuscripts would have read exactly the same with absolutely no difference., which would have required that God repeat the miracles of inspiration, moving the copyists along with the Holy Spirit like he had done with the authors every time they picked up a pen. Yet, this simply was not the case. Mistakes were made. In fact, the same sopherim in Jesus’ day took liberties with the text. Were these so serious that our Bible was corrupted so that the meaning God wished to convey was lost? Or do we have evidence that we can show that, despite the passage of thousands of years of copying and recopying, the Hebrew Old Testament text is practically the same? For a very long time, we did not have the evidence to answer this question. It had to go unanswered. Why? The New Testament manuscripts that we had for centuries dated back to the fourth century, just 200 years after the originals, and in the early 20th century we discovered papyri that dated within decades of the originals. Not so with the Hebrew Old Testament manuscripts. The oldest Hebrew manuscripts went back to only around 900 C.E., at least 1,300 years removed from the penning of the last inspired Bible book, Malachi.
The Masoretic Text
Isaiah 40:8 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
8 The grass withers, the flower fades,
but the word of our God will stand forever.
God had promised that he would preserve his Word, the Bible. The apostle Peter quoted Isaiah 40:6, 8. For, “All flesh is like grass, And all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, And the flower falls off, But the word of the Lord endures forever.” And this is the word which was preached to you as good news.” (1 Peter 1:24-25.) However, we must consider Satan, the enemy of God, who has likely played a significant role in attempting to corrupt it and destroy it. (Matthew 13:39) Nevertheless, what we have today is a mirror-like reflection of what was penned and published by the original authors. The Masoretes (Mas·o·retes \ ˈma-sə-ˌrētes) scribe-scholars (‘preservers of tradition’) who worked between the 6th and 10th centuries C.E., based primarily in early medieval Palestine in the cities of Tiberias and Jerusalem. The Masoretes have not been adequately appreciated for their accomplishments. These nameless scribes copied the Hebrew Old Testament Scriptures with meticulous and loving care.
Between the 6th and 10th centuries C.E., the Masoretes setup a vowel point and accent mark system. (e.g., אִשָּׁה ishshah woman, wife, female) In the image of the Aleppo Codex above, all of the vowels appear below the line except Cholam ( ֹ), which is placed above, and Shuruk ( ִ), which appears in the bosom of Waw (וּ = u). This would help the reader to pronounce the vowel sounds properly, meaning that there would be a standard and no need to have the pronunciation handed down by oral tradition. Because the Masoretes saw the text as sacred, they made no changes to the text itself but chose to record notes within the margins of the text. Unlike the Sopherim before them, they did not take any textual liberties. Moreover, they drew attention to any textual issues, correcting them within the margins.
The Masoretes were very much concerned with the accurate transmission of each word, even each letter, of the text they were copying. Accuracy was of supreme importance; therefore the Masoretes used the side margins of each page to inform others of deliberate or inadvertent changes in the text by past copyists. The Masoretes also use these marginal notes for other reasons as well, such as unusual word forms and combinations. They even marked how frequently they occurred within a book or even the whole Hebrew Old Testament. Of course, marginal spaces were very limited, so they used abbreviated code. They formed a cross-checking tool as well, where they would mark the middle word and letter of certain books. As was said above, their push for accuracy moved them to go so far as to count every letter of the Hebrew Old Testament.
In the Masoretic text, we find notes in the side margins, which are known as the Small Masora. There are also notes in the top margin, which are referred to as the Large Masora. Any other notes placed elsewhere within the text are called the Final Masora. The Masoretes used the notes in the top and bottom margins to record more extensive notes comments concerning the abbreviated notes in the side margins. This enabled them to be able to cross-check their work. We have to remember, at this time, there were no numbered verses, and they had no Bible concordances. Well, one might wonder how the Masoretes were able to refer to different parts of the Hebrew text in order to have an effective cross-checking system. They would list part of a parallel verse in the top and bottom margins to remind them of where the word(s) indicated were found. Because they were dealing with limited space, many times, they could only list one word in order to remind them where each parallel verse could be found. In order to have an effective cross-reference system by way of these marginal notes, the Masoretes would literally have to have memorized the entire Hebrew Bible.
There were lists that were too long for the margins, so they had to be moved to another section of the manuscripts. For example, as can be seen from above, we have the Masoretic note in the side margin of Genesis 18:23, which shows three Hebrew letters קלד. The Hebrew letters correspond to our number 134. There is a list that appears in another section of the manuscript, which shows us where the pre-Masoretic copyists had purposely removed the personal name Jehovah from the Hebrew text. The Jewish Sopherim changed JHVH to Adonai, “Lord.” Giving us honesty and accuracy, the Masoretes, being well aware of these purposeful change, they did not alter the take that had been handed down to them. Yes, the Masoretes indicated these changes in their marginal notes, for they were nothing like their predecessors who had willfully altered the text.
The Masoretes viewed their copying of the Word of God as holy work. Certainly, they were motivated to a degree by their deeply held religious beliefs. It seems that their work of copying the Hebrew text was above any system of ideas and ideals that they may have had. We never see any attempt at a theological debate within their marginal notes. The Hebrew text alone was their life’s work; they refused to interfere with it in any way. The reformers of the sixteenth-century (Luther, Tyndale) certainly benefited from their work when they rejected the authority of the church and chose to do a translation into the common languages of their people. They had the well-preserved Hebrew text as the basis for their Old Testament.
An Absolutely Incredible Find
In the spring of 1947, a Bedouin shepherd threw a stone into a cave, marking an event that would be heard around the world, making the name “Dead Sea Scrolls” more known than any other associated with archaeology. As he released one of his rocks into the cave, the sound of a breaking earthenware jar came back at him. Upon further examination, he discovered the first of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
The discovery of the scrolls’ rise to fame has been partly fueled by controversy among scholars and the media. Sadly, this has left a public scandal, where those not in the know are thrown back and forth by confusion and misinformation. Stories have spread about an enormous conspiracy, driven by anxiety that the scrolls disclose details that would damage the faith of Christians and Jews as well. Nevertheless, what is the real importance of these scrolls? More than 63 years have now gone by; is it possible that the facts can be known?
The Dead Sea Scrolls are manuscripts of the Old Testament. Many of them are in Hebrew, with some being in Aramaic and a small number in Greek. Many of these scrolls and fragments date to the third and second Century B.C.E., almost 300 years before the birth of Jesus Christ. There were seven lengthy manuscripts in various stages of deterioration that had been acquired from the Bedouin. Soon other caves were being searched, with new discoveries of scrolls and fragments in the thousands. A total of eleven caves near Qumran, by the Dead Sea, were discovered between 1947 and 1956.
Since, it has been determined that there are 800 manuscripts, once all the scrolls and fragment are considered. About 200 manuscripts, or about twenty-five percent, are copies of portions of the Old Testament. The other seventy-five percent, or 600 manuscripts, belong to ancient non-Biblical Jewish writings, divided between Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha.
 “The Protestant designation for the fourteen or fifteen books of doubtful authenticity and authority that are not found in the Hebrew Old Testament but are in manuscripts of the LXX; most of these books were declared canonical by the Roman Catholic church at the Council of Trent in 1546, and they call these books deuterocanonical (second canon).”―Geisler 1986, 637.
 “A word meaning “false writings” and used to designate those spurious and unauthentic books of the late centuries B.C. and early centuries A.D. These books contain religious folklore and have never been considered canonical by the Christian church.”―Geisler 1986, 642.
Various scrolls that produced the greatest interest for scholars were formerly unknown texts. Among these were the interpretations on matters of Jewish law, detailed instructions for the community of the Qumran sect, eschatological works that disclose interpretations about the outcome of Bible prophecy and the end times, as well as liturgical poems and prayers. Among them, too were unique Bible commentaries, the oldest examples of verse-by-verse commentary on Biblical passages.
 Of course, there were no verses in the ancient texts, as they were simply running text. It was Rabbi Isaac Nathan, while working on a concordance, numbered the Bible into verses in 1440 C.E. Robert Estienne (Stephanus) introduced his system for dividing the Bible’s text into numbered verses in 1550 C.E., which we still use today.
None of the Hebrew Old Testament manuscripts contains identical wording. How, then, is it possible for us to know what the original text contained? Can the Hebrew text be trusted?
When we compare it with Hebrew manuscripts from about a thousand years later, we discover that there are only minor differences found, which are mostly in spelling.
Chapter 40 of Isaiah’s book in the Aleppo Codex, an important Hebrew Masoretic manuscript from about 930 C.E.
Hebrew Text: The forthcoming Updated American Standard Version (UASV) (2007-2020) is based on the updated editions of the Hebrew text, namely, Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia and Biblia Hebraica Quinta, which included recent research based on the Dead Sea Scrolls and other ancient manuscripts. These reproduce the Leningrad Codex in the main text along with footnotes that contain comparative wording from other sources of the Old Testament: such as the Greek Septuagint, the Samaritan Pentateuch, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Aramaic Targums, the Latin Vulgate, and the Syriac Peshitta. Both Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia and Biblia Hebraica Quinta are being considered as we prepare the Updated American Standard Version (UASV).
What About the Greek New Testament Manuscripts?
We have the 27 books of the New Testament that were penned individually in the second half of the first century. Each of these would have been copied and recopied throughout the first century. Copies of these copies would, of course, be made as well. Some of the earliest manuscripts that we now have indicate that a professional scribe copied them. Many of the other papyri provide evidence that a semi-professional hand copied them, while most of these early papyri give evidence of being made by a copyist who was literate and experienced at making documents. Therefore, either literate or semi-professional copyists produced the vast majority of our early papyri, with some being made by professionals.
The earliest sources for the Greek New Testament are the papyri in codex (book-like) form. Of course, this designation came from the medium on which they were inscribed. At present, there have been over one hundred of these discovered, with sixty-two of these manuscripts dating between 100 – 300 C.E. These biblical papyri range from a very small fragment to codices, which may be incomplete, but still, contain large portions of several New Testament books. They are noted in literature with the Black letter character also known as Gothic script 𝔓, or by an upper- or lowercase “P” followed by a superscript Arabic number. (e.g., 𝔓52, 𝔓66, and 𝔓75).
The Diocletian persecution (303-313 C.E.) was, in the end, unsuccessful. Many Christian libraries escaped the persecution of Diocletian. Two of the best collections today, the Beatty and Bodmer papyri, survived the fires. Alfred Chester Beatty (1875-1968), at the age of 32, had amassed a fortune. As a collector of books, he had over 50 papyrus codices, both religious and secular, which are dated earlier than the fourth century C.E. There are seven consisting of portions of Old Testament books, and three consisting of portions of the New Testament (P45 c. 250, P46 c. 175–225, and P47 c. 250-300). Martin Bodmer (1899-1971) was also a wealthy collector, who discovered twenty-two papyri in Egypt in 1952 which contained parts of the Old and New Testaments, as well as other early Christian literature. Particularly noteworthy are the New Testament Bodmer papyri, which consist of P66 dating to c. 200 C.E. and P75 dating to c. 175 C.E. Many in rural Egypt would have heard of the persecution in Alexandria, likely making great efforts to remove their manuscripts from their congregations, hiding them until the persecution was lifted. These early manuscripts and many others (such as Codex Vaticanus c. 300–325 C.E. and Codex Sinaiticus c. 330–360 C.E.) demonstrate extraordinary stability in the transmission history of the Greek New Testament text in the first 300 years.
Unlike the denial of the King James Onlyist (KJVO), Textus Receptus Onlyist (TRO), and Majority Text Onlyist (MTO), we accept the fact of 1,400 years of 400,000 copyist errors. Bible copyists made mistakes. However, none of those mistakes end up corrupting the Bible. Because we also accept the lifetime work of hundreds of New Testament textual scholars, who have restored the Greek New Testament to a mirror image of the original. We also accept the meticulous care of the Masoretes in their copying of the Hebrew text, which has given us the inspired Word of God, as they preserved textual integrity. Rather than having corrupted translations today, the tens of thousands of Old Testament and New Testament manuscripts have given us the Word of God in our language within the literal translations that are accurate in their rendering of the original language words.
How Can We Explain Bible Difficulties and the Existence of Hundreds of Thousands of Scribal Errors in Our Manuscripts?
“The uniquely large number of New Testament manuscripts and their comparative proximity to the time of writing establish the textual reliability of the New Testament, including a 99%-plus fidelity to the divinely inspired New Testament as originally written. If you placed the manuscript copies of the average ancient author it would form a pile four feet high. However, the NT manuscripts and translations would reach a mile high.” – Dr. Daniel Wallace is an American professor of New Testament Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary. He is also the founder and executive director of the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts.
The sheer volume of Hebrew Old Testament and Greek New Testament manuscripts today actually helps Bible scholars to weed out the textual variants (errors). While Preservation of Scripture should never be equated with the inerrancy of Scripture, we can appreciate Preservation of Scripture by Restoration as getting us a reliable, accurate, and trustworthy text and a translation that has the equivalent of the original language words.