How were manuscripts passed down through the ages?


And these words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart; and you shall teach them diligently to your sons and shall talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise up. And you shall bind them as a sign on your hand and they shall be as frontals on your forehead. And you shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

- Deuteronomy 6:6-9 NASB

"[Darwin] has not only stated, but he has demonstrated, that the inspired writer knew nothing of this world...; that the Bible is a book written by ignorance -- at the instigation of fear."

- Robert G. Ingersoll


6.1 Were biblical writings preceded by centuries of oral transmission?

The original biblical documents, which were begun as long ago as the early second millennium, no longer exist. All we have today are copies; copies of copies. To the alert reader, this should raise two red flags. The two questions that should immediately come to mind are

1) by what process were those documents copied, and

2) how successful was that process.

This chapter examines the process of copying scripture; the next evaluates the effectiveness of that process.

The Old and New Testament scriptures were not the only written records that were copied in ancient times with the full intent of preserving the fidelity of the original autographa. Neighboring civilizations carried out their own programs of careful duplication as R. K. Harrison records:

The fact that scholars now possess firsthand, datable, contemporary, and comparative material with which to exercise objective control over the forms of Old Testament literature as well as over the different varieties of literary criticism, has made possible a closer inspection of the recording and transmissional methods employed by the scribes of Near Eastern antiquity. In both Mesopotamia and Egypt scribes were educated to a high degree of literary proficiency, and were renowned for their consistent accuracy in recording and copying. An Egyptian religious papyrus from about 1400 BC carried a certification to the effect that the scribes regarded the book in its extant written form as complete from beginning to end, having been copied, revised, compared, and verified sign by sign. If this was the case in Mesopotamia and Egypt, there is no warrant for the assumption that the Hebrews were any less careful or accurate in the matter of their own sacred writings. 1

So we see that writing was not only in existence at the time the first books of the Bible were being penned, but it existed to such a high degree that a formalized method of its preservation was already in place. Thus the allegation that the biblical writings were preceded by, or evolved from, centuries of oral transmission is an accusation without foundation. "The firm tradition of the Mosaic period, as well as of ancient peoples other than the Hebrews, was that any events of importance were generally recorded in written form quite soon after they had taken place." 2

Some of the oldest Semitic writings are found at the turquoise mines of Serabit el-Khadim which were made by Semitic miners employed by Egypt. Discovered in 1904, these are believed to have been made no more recently than 1500 B.C.3. Not only do these predate the most current estimation for Moses' writings, but they suggest that writing was a capability of the working class and possibly even slave class.

6.2 What was the ancient process for duplicating documents?

From the time of the first writing to the invention of the printing press in the 15th century, all writing to be copied was copied by hand. In ancient Israel, the copies of scripture were actively used for teaching, reading and studying, and as a consequence, were subject to wearing out. When each honored copy reached a certain age it was required to be ceremonially buried. Thus it is highly improbable any of those oldest copies or original documents will ever be found. For it was not the physical document that was the object of reverence and preservation, it was the message contained thereon.

The special scribes who copied the message for worship and study purposes did so as a way of life. They had to adhere to strict rules. Guidelines the Sopherim used, and later the Talmudists, perfectly illustrate the care a people would take concerning writing they fully believed was directly inspired of God:

A synagogue roll must be written on the skins of clean animals, and prepared for the particular use of the synagogue by a Jew. These must be fastened together with strings taken from clean animals. Every skin must contain a certain number of columns, equal throughout the entire codex. The length of each column must not extend over less than 48 or more than 60 lines; and the breadth must consist of 30 letters. The whole copy must be first-lined; and if three words should be written without a line, it is worthless.

The ink should be black, neither red, green, nor any other color, and be prepared according to a definite recipe. An authentic copy must be the exemplar, from which the transcriber ought not in the least deviate. No word or letter, not even a yod, must be written from memory, the scribe not having looked at the codex before him... Between every consonant the space of a hair or thread must intervene; between every new parashah, or section, the breadth of nine consonants; between every book, three lines. The fifth book of Moses must terminate exactly with a line; but the rest need not do so. Besides this, the copyist must sit in full Jewish dress, wash his whole body, not begin to write the name of God with a pen newly dipped in ink, and should a king address him while writing that name he must take no notice of him. [emphasis mine] 4

Later, Massoretic copyists added greater safeguards to ensure against mistakes:

They numbered the verses, words, and letters of every book. They calculated the middle word and the middle letter of each. They enumerated verses which contained all the letters of the alphabet, or a certain number of them; and so on. These trivialities, as we may rightly consider them, had yet the effect of securing minute attention to the precise transmission of the text.... 5

The major work of the scribes was to transcribe the Masorah, which were marginal and endnotes about the text itself pointing out problem spots to copyists, how often a word is used, and concordance-like lists. Passing on the text of the Old Testament became a whole way of life to these men. [emphasis mine] 6

Although incredible care was taken to reproduce the biblical documents, an occasional misprint of any one of several varieties may still be found among the thousands of extant copies. Fortunately the volume of those early copies which are available for cross-reference and comparison makes the issue of misprints or mistakes an inconsequential one.

The intent of the original authors still comes through the old manuscripts; not unlike listening to an old vinyl album or an Edison recording. To paraphrase the late Dr. Walter Martin, 'There are scratches here and there, but for those who will listen, there can still be heard the Master's voice.'



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NEXT: Have the original words been lost over the centuries?

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How can different translations exist of the same Bible?

Isn't one interpretation just as good as the next?

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Having established a finite set of writings to be "the Bible", we need to know if a reliable process both existed and was used to accurately transmit the writings from the original generation to subsequent ones.