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The Bible is considered the most widely distributed book in history, with an estimated 4.8 billion copies already circulated and over 64.6 million copies produced in 2007 alone. In comparison, that year’s best-selling work of fiction had an initial printing of 12 million copies in the United States.
Despite its popularity, the Bible has faced many challenges in its journey to becoming the world’s most-published book. It has been banned and burned throughout history, and those who sought to translate it have been oppressed and killed. However, one of the greatest threats to the continued existence of the Bible was not sudden persecution but rather the slow process of decay.
The Bible is a compilation of 66 smaller books, some of which were written or compiled over 3,000 years ago by members of the nation of Israel. The original writers and copyists recorded the inspired messages on perishable materials such as papyrus and leather. None of the original writings have been discovered, but thousands of ancient copies of small and large sections of the books of the Bible have been unearthed. These ancient copies face the danger of decay due to the materials they were written on, making preservation efforts crucial.
Despite these challenges, the Bible has survived and even thrived. A fragment of the Gospel of John, one of the books of the Bible, has been found and dates to within just a few decades of the original document written by the apostle John. The Bible continues to impact the lives of millions of people and is considered a source of guidance and inspiration by many.
“The transmission of the text of the Hebrew Bible [Old Testament] is of extraordinary exactitude, without parallel in Greek and Latin classical literature.”—Professor Julio Trebolle Barrera
The Bible Survived Decay
The Bible, a collection of writings from ancient times, faced a serious threat to its survival. Its writers and copyists used materials such as papyrus and parchment that were prone to decay and deterioration. Papyrus, made from an aquatic plant, could easily tear, discolor, and weaken, while parchment, made from animal skins, could also degrade if exposed to extreme temperatures, humidity, or light. Insects, rodents, and mold were also a threat to the survival of these materials. The book Everyday Writing in the Graeco-Roman East notes that survival was the exception for ancient records rather than the rule.
However, the Bible survived these challenges thanks to the efforts of Jewish kings who were compelled by law to make copies of the first five books of the Bible. Additionally, professional copyists produced numerous manuscripts, resulting in the widespread distribution of the Scriptures in synagogues throughout Israel and even in distant Macedonia.
The survival of some of the oldest Bible manuscripts to this day is due to the tradition of storing them in clay jars or pitchers, which were known to preserve scrolls containing Scripture. This tradition was continued by Christians, resulting in the discovery of early Bible manuscripts in clay jars, dark closets, caves, and exceptionally dry regions.
As a result, thousands of portions of Bible manuscripts, some over 2,000 years old, have survived to this day, making it the ancient text with the most surviving manuscripts. This demonstrates the remarkable survival of the Bible despite the challenges posed by the materials used in its creation.
The Bible Survived Opposition
The Bible faced opposition from political and religious leaders who sought to stop people from owning, producing, or translating it because it went against their agenda. Seleucid King Antiochus Epiphanes and some Catholic leaders during the Middle Ages are two examples of this. Antiochus ordered the destruction of all copies of the Hebrew Scriptures, while some Catholic leaders branded as heretics any laymen who possessed Bible books other than the Psalms in Latin.
However, the Bible survived these threats. The Jews, who had formed communities in numerous lands by the first century C.E., kept copies of the Scriptures in their synagogues. Future generations, including Christians, used these same Scriptures. During the Middle Ages, despite persecution, lovers of the Bible continued to translate and copy the Scriptures. Portions of the Bible were available in as many as 33 languages even before the movable-type printing press was invented in the 15th century. After the invention of the printing press, the Bible was translated and produced at an unprecedented pace.
As a result, despite the efforts of powerful kings and misguided clergymen, the Bible is the most widely distributed and translated book in history. It has shaped the laws and languages of some countries and impacted the lives of millions of people.
The Bible Survived Attempts to Alter Its Message
The Bible has faced attempts to alter its message by some copyists and translators who have tried to make it conform to their doctrines rather than conforming their doctrines to the Bible. Some examples include the insertion of words into the Samaritan Pentateuch to support the construction of a temple on Mount Gerizim, the addition of the phrase “in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one” to 1 John 5:7, and the removal of the divine name from the Scriptures. This was likely added to the manuscripts by copyists so as to bolster the Trinity doctrine. Regardless of one’s motivations, one needs to contemplate John’s words in the Book of Revelation:
18 I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, 19 and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.
However, the Bible has survived attempts to alter its message. Many Bible copyists were highly skilled and meticulous, and between the sixth and tenth centuries C.E., the Masoretes produced what is known as the Masoretic text. They counted the words and letters to verify that no mistakes crept in and refused to tamper with the Bible text. The sheer volume of manuscripts available today has also helped Bible scholars to spot errors, and revised editions of the King James Version and other Bibles have removed erroneous phrases.
The age and multitude of Bible manuscripts have actually improved its accuracy. The Dead Sea Scrolls, written more than a thousand years earlier than the Masoretic text, provided irrefutable proof that the transmission of the biblical text through a period of more than one thousand years by the hands of Jewish copyists has been extremely faithful and careful. The Chester Beatty Library in Dublin, Ireland, features a collection of papyri that represents nearly every book of the Christian Greek Scriptures, including manuscripts dating from the second century C.E. The remarkable stability in the transmission history of the biblical text demonstrates its accuracy.
Scholars have attested to the Bible’s accuracy in transmission. Sir Frederic Kenyon wrote that no other ancient book has anything like such early and plentiful testimony to its text, and no unbiased scholar would deny that the text that has come down to us is substantially sound. Similarly, scholar William Henry Green stated that it might be safely said that no other work of antiquity has been so accurately transmitted.
What Happened to Other Ancient Documents?
The Bible’s survival is quite exceptional compared to the documents of other ancient nations. The Phoenicians, for example, who lived around the same time as the Israelites, were known for their writing system and trade in papyrus, but their writings have all disintegrated, and we know very little about their culture. The same is true for ancient Egyptian records written on papyrus, which have not survived due to the fragility of the writing material and the damp climate. Even the Romans, who recorded their soldiers’ pay on papyrus, have left behind only a handful of legible documents out of millions.
So why did the writings contained in the Bible survive to become the world’s most published book? One reason is that the original texts were copied many times, even within the biblical period itself, leading to numerous ancient manuscripts that have been meticulously preserved. In fact, the Hebrew Bible’s transmission of the text is unparalleled in its accuracy, according to expert Julio Trebolle Barrera.
Additionally, respected Bible scholar F. F. Bruce notes that the evidence for the authenticity of the New Testament is far greater than that of many classical works whose authenticity is not questioned. These factors, combined with the Bible’s message of hope and enduring relevance, make it a remarkable book that has stood the test of time.
Why the Bible Has Survived
Despite facing numerous challenges over the years, the Bible has survived and remains widely available today. Some scholars attribute this to the belief that the Bible is the unique Word of God and that God has preserved it. As 2 Timothy 3:16 states, “All Scripture is inspired of God.” However, not everyone believes in this idea.
Many readers have found that the Bible’s teachings differ from those commonly found in Catholicism and even in some Protestant Denominations, and they have been touched by God’s purpose for the earth, as revealed in His Word. Ultimately, whether one believes that the Bible has survived because it is the Word of God or due to other reasons, it is clear that the Bible is a remarkable book that has profoundly impacted millions of lives throughout history. As Isaiah 40:8 reminds us, “The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God endures forever.”
NOTE: The Bible was not miraculously preserved as some would like you to believe. Yes, many great, hardworking copyists have done a fantastic job. Nevertheless, over 400,000 scribal variants crept into the 5,898 manuscripts that we now have. The Bible was miraculously restored by many dozens of world-renowned translators and textual scholars over the past 400+ years.
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