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Bible Preservation: Transmission, Ancestry, and Canon of Scripture

Preservation of the Bible: Transmission, Ancestry, and Canon of Scripture (textual criticism)Has the Bible been accurately preserved and transmitted to us over the centuries? Have we accepted the proper books in the canon of Scripture, or has teaching been lost or added improperly? Do ancient manuscripts contradict one another? A study of the preservation, transmission, ancestry, and accuracy of the Bible: textual criticism.

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People often wonder whether we have received accurate copies of the Scriptures.

Critics claim “hundreds of errors” have crept into the Scriptures over the years.

Some religious groups claim we need new revelation because the Bible has become corrupted.

Many claim that the Catholic Church added, removed, or changed portions.

The purpose of this study is to consider the preservation of the text of the Bible.

Have parts been corrupted? Have parts been lost? Have uninspired parts been added?

Note: The evidence that the Bible was originally inspired by God is a separate study. In this study we consider only whether it has come to us accurately since God gave it.

Part I. God’s Promises to Preserve the Scriptures

Since God is all-powerful, He is completely able to preserve the Scriptures so that man cannot destroy them. What has He said about His plan? (Jeremiah 32:17,27; Matthew 19:26; Mark 14:36; Job 42:2)

God Revealed the Scriptures So Men Could Know His Will.

God revealed the Old Testament to teach the nation of Israel His will.

Exodus 24:3,4,7 – Moses wrote in a book all the words of God the people should obey.

Deuteronomy 28:58,59; 30:9,10 – If the people obeyed the commands written in the book, they would be blessed. If not, they would be punished.

Jeremiah 36:1-4 – Jeremiah should write in a book all the words God gave to teach Israel.

(Deuteronomy 31:9-13,24-29; 2 Peter 1:21; Zechariah 7:12; Joshua 1:7,8; 23:6; 24:26; Deuteronomy 17:18-20; Jeremiah 30:1-4; 2 Samuel 23:2; Acts 1:16; Matthew 15:1-9; 22:31,32,43; 2 Kings 17:37; Exodus 17:14; Habakkuk 2:1,2; Isaiah 30:8)

Likewise, God inspired the New Testament to teach men His will.

1 Corinthians 14:37 – Paul wrote the commands of the Lord.

1 John 1:1-4 – John wrote so people could know God’s teaching we should follow (2:1-17).

Revelation 1:10,11,19; chapters 2 & 3 – Jesus told John to write God’s instructions to the churches of Asia compare 14:13; 19:9; 21:5).

2 Timothy 3:16,17 – All Scripture is inspired by God and was given to teach and instruct men so they could know all good works.

Just as God gave Old Testament writings to guide Israel in their day, so the New Testament serves as the inspired guide for us in this age.

(See also John 20:29-31; Ephesians 3:3-5; Luke 1:1-4; Acts 1:1,2; Jude 3; 1 Timothy 4:1; 2 Thessalonians 2:13-15; 3:6-15; John 14:26; 16:12,13; 1 Corinthians 2:4,5,10-16; Galatians 1:8-12; Luke 10:16; Revelation 22:18,19; James 1:25; 1 Peter 5:12; 2 Peter 1:12-15; 3:1,2.)

God Intended the Scriptures to Guide People of Future Generations

The advantage of a written message is it can be copied and circulated. So God intended Scripture to instruct future generations after the generation in which it was written.

Old Testament Scriptures were intended to benefit future generations.

Deuteronomy 17:18-20 – Future kings of Israel were to copy God’s law, study it, and obey it.

Psalm 102:18 – The psalmist wrote “for the generation to come … yet to be created.”

1 Chronicles 16:15 – Remember His covenant for a thousand generations.

So the Old Law was intended to be authority for future generations. This would require God to preserve the written word.

(See also Deuteronomy 31:9-13,24-29; Psalm 78:1-7; Exodus 17:14; Isaiah 30:8; Deuteronomy 28:58,59; 29:20,21,27; 30:9,10; Jeremiah 30:1-4.)

New Testament Scriptures were also intended to benefit future generations.

John 20:29-31 – John wrote to give eyewitness testimony so people who had not seen Jesus’ miracles could read, believe, and have eternal life. This would include future generations.

2 Peter 1:12-15 (3:1,2) – Peter wrote so people could have the written record after he died.

2 Peter 3:15,16; 1 Timothy 5:18 – Even in the first century, the writings of Paul and Luke were classified as “Scripture” just like the Old Testament had been.

God intended the sacred writings of both the Old and New Testaments to teach people in other places and future times. Miraculous direct revelation would cease leaving only the Scriptures to guide people (1 Corinthians 13:8-10; Jude 3). To accomplish His purpose, God’s providence must preserve the written word in a form that is accurate, complete, and authoritative.

So, God Promised to Preserve His Word for People of All Ages.

Now consider some passages that directly state that God intended to preserve the Scriptures.

God intended to preserve the Old Testament Scriptures.

Psalm 119:152,160 – Every one of God’s ordinances endures forever.

Isaiah 40:8 – God’s word is not like a flower that blooms and then dies. It will stand forever.

Isaiah 30:8 – God’s words written in a book to be for the time to come for ever and ever.

God had the message put in writing expressly so it would endure forever.

(Psalm 117:2 – check various translations; 12:6,7 (?); Deuteronomy 31:9-13,24-26)

God also intended to preserve the New Testament Scriptures.

John 12:48 – Jesus’ words will judge us at the last day. This necessarily means that they must endure till the judgment and must be available so people can know what to do to prepare.

2 John 2 – The truth abides in us and will be with us forever.

2 Peter 1:15 – Peter wrote so, after he died, people could remember these teachings “always” (KJV, NKJV) or “at every time” (ASV) or “at any time” (NASB, ESV).

1 Peter 1:23-25 – The gospel will live, abide, and endure forever. It will not be like grass or a flower that springs forth then dies. God will preserve the New Testament like He did the Old.

2 Timothy 3:16,17 – God intends for “Scripture” to instruct men and provide us to all good works. But remember that the New Testament constitutes “Scripture,” just like the Old Testament (2 Peter 3:15,16; 1 Timothy 5:18).

(See also Matthew 24:35; Hebrews 13:20.)

So God intended Scripture to be a standard of guidance not just for the people alive when it was written. He repeatedly promised to preserve the Scriptures to guide people forever.

Our faith that we have God’s true word today rests, not on any church, any humans, or any human decrees, but on the promises and power of Almighty God!

Part II. Evidence that God Has Kept His Promise to Preserve His Word.

God has given a convincing demonstration that He will keep this promise to preserve the Scriptures. The Old Testament demonstrates God’s preservation of His word.

Note the Parallels in the History of the Old and New Testaments.

God inspired both testaments and promised to preserve them as authority.

We have cited Scriptures showing that the Holy Spirit guided the inspired writers and God intended people to keep the inspired writings, obey them, and pass them on to future generations.

We have also cited passages where God promised for both testaments that He would preserve them forever. What He promised for one testament, He also promised for the other.

Both testaments were collected, copied, circulated, and translated for many years.

Some have criticized the New Testament because it was written by different men in different places. Uninspired men collected them, determined them to be canonical, and translated them.

But the same is true for the Old Testament. Both testaments were gradually written, then uninspired men collected, copied, listed canonical books, and translated them into other languages. For example, the Septuagint is a translation of the Old Testament from Hebrew to Greek which was made several centuries before Jesus’ birth.

If God used this method to accurately preserve the Old Testament, who can doubt that the New Testament has been accurately preserved when the same methods were used for it?

Both testaments passed through generations when no new revelations were added and when people neglected the Scriptures.

Some people claim that parts of the New Testament may have been perverted or lost during generations when people neglected or departed from the Bible. But the Old Testament also passed through generations when God’s people neglected or rebelled against it. Specifically, over 400 years passed from the time the last Old Testament book was written till the birth of Jesus.

So what is true of the New Testament is also true of the Old Testament. If we can demonstrate that God kept His promise to accurately preserve the Old Testament, we must conclude that He will keep His promise to preserve the whole Bible, including the New Testament.

The History of the Old Testament Prior to Jesus’ Birth

Old Testament writings began about 1400 BC (all dates in this section are approximate). Let us trace the preservation of these Scriptures up to the time of Christ.

Joshua 1:7,8 – About 40 years after Moses wrote, God commanded Joshua to meditate on Moses’ words and obey them without variation.

Joshua 23:2,6 – About 60 years after Moses wrote, Joshua charged Israel to exactly keep all Moses wrote.

1 Kings 2:3 (about 960 BC) – About 400 years after Moses wrote, David charged Solomon to keep God’s commands as written in the Law of Moses.

2 Chronicles 34:14-19,29-31 (about 605 BC) – About 800 years after Moses, Josiah found Moses’ book of the law and used it to restore temple worship. The Scripture was accurate and authoritative though God’s people had been in apostasy for years. (Compare chapter35; 2 Kings 22,23.)

Nehemiah 8:1-3,8 (about 450 BC) – About 900 years after Moses, following an apostasy so great it led to the Babylonian captivity, the Israelites again reestablished the service of God by reading and following the book Moses wrote. (Compare verses 13-18; 9:3.)

By His providence God kept His promise to preserve Scripture so accurately it could be understood and obeyed as authority throughout Old Testament history.

(See also Nehemiah chapter13; Ezra 3:2ff; 7:10; Daniel 9:2,11-13; 2 Kings 17:37; 1 Chronicles 16:40; 2 Chronicles 17:9; 25:4; 31:3,4; Psalm 1:1,2; 19:7-11; chapter119.)

The Attitude of Jesus and His Disciples toward Old Testament Scripture

Jesus and His disciples lived some 1400 years after Moses and 400 years after the last Old Testament book was written. They rebuked the Jews of their day regarding any error the committed. Surely they would have revealed any problems in the Jewish Scriptures, if such problems existed.

Did they say parts of Old Testament Scripture were missing or uninspired parts had been added? Did they say the Scriptures could not be trusted as an accurate revelation of God’s will?

Copies of the Old Testament had been circulated and studied as revelation from God.

Luke 4:16-21 – In the synagogue in Nazareth, Jesus read from the prophet Isaiah.

Acts 8:27-35 – The Ethiopian treasurer was reading Isaiah. Philip used it to teach about Jesus.

Acts 15:21 – For generations in synagogues in every city Scriptures were read every Sabbath.

The Scriptures were preserved, copied, widely circulated, and studied and cited as authority.

Inspired men cited Old Testament Scripture as accurate, authoritative revelation.

Matthew 4:4,7,10 – Jesus quoted Scripture to defeat Satan’s temptations.

Matthew 15:1-9 – Jesus quoted the Old Testament as the commandment of God and rebuked those who did not obey it.

Matthew 22:29-33 – Jesus rebuked people for not knowing the Scriptures. He quoted Moses saying God said this “to you” (the people in His day).

1 Corinthians 10:11; Romans 15:4 – Paul said Old Testament Scriptures were written for the learning and admonition of people in his day, centuries after the passages were written.

Acts 17:11 – The Bereans were noble-minded because they willingly searched the Scriptures to determine truth.

Jesus and His apostles expected people to study and obey Scripture that had existed 1400 years. So the Scriptures had been accurately preserved. This is how we view Scripture today.

(See also John 10:35; Luke 10:25-28; 16:29-31; Matthew 5:17,18; 22:41-45; 21:13; 13:13-15; Mark 12:10,11; Romans 11:2-4; 2 Timothy 3:14-17.)

Inspired men appealed to Old Testament authority to confirm their own teaching.

Luke 24:27,44-46 – Jesus claimed He fulfilled Moses, all the prophets, and the psalms. Here He appealed to the whole Old Testament as being authoritative.

John 5:39,45-47 – Jesus said that Moses and the Scriptures testified of Him.

Acts 17:2,3 – Paul demonstrated that Jesus was the Christ by reasoning from the Scriptures.

(See also Luke 7:24-27; 18:31; 22:37; John 13:18; 19:24,28,36f; Acts 18:28; 2:16-36; 15:13-21; Romans 1:1-4; 1 Corinthians 15:1-4.)

Inspired men used evidence based on minute details of the Scriptures.

Matthew 22:31,32 – Jesus proved the resurrection because God said, “I am the God of Abraham….” Jesus based His proof on the accuracy of a verb tense from Moses, the oldest part of Scripture. It would mean nothing if the passage could be inaccurate. (Compare Galatians 3:16.)

Had there been any error in the Jews’ Scriptures, Jesus and His inspired apostles would have told them so. Instead, they quoted the Scriptures and respected them as authority from God.

But the New Testament was written, copied, circulated, collected, translated, and preserved exactly like the Old Testament. Inspired men described the New Testament as “Scripture,” just like the Old Testament.

If by His providence God fulfilled His promises to preserve the Old Testament multiplied centuries till Jesus’ day, who can doubt that He has likewise preserved the whole Bible through the centuries till today? We should respect and obey the Bible today as God’s inerrant standard.

Evidence that God Has Preserved His Word Since the First Century.

We accept our modern Bible as an accurate record because of our faith in God’s promises. The actual fulfillment of these promises regarding the New Testament, however, occurred after the New Testament was completed. History confirms how thoroughly God fulfilled His promise.

Modern evidence for the original text of Scripture

We no longer have any of the “autographs”: the original Bible manuscripts in the handwriting of the authors. But men carefully copied, quoted, circulated, and translated God’s word through the years. These men were fanatically precise in their work. Today we have volumes of evidence to confirm what the original texts said.

1. We have over 5000 handwritten copies of the Bible in the original languages.

Some manuscripts are complete, others are partial or fragments. Some are dated within a few centuries of the time they were written, and a few are dated to within a few decades.

2. We have many ancient translations of the Bible into other languages.
3. We have thousands of Scripture quotations in ancient non-inspired writings.

All but a few New Testament verses could be reproduced from these uninspired quotations.

For other ancient writings, “convincing evidence” may consist of just a few manuscripts dated within 1000 years of when the men lived. But with the Bible we have thousands of manuscripts, including many dated within just a few centuries or even decades of the first century.

Variations in the manuscripts

What are the “thousands of errors” critics claim exist? These refer to variations when the ancient manuscripts are compared. With all these handwritten copies, we would expect some variations. But the main reason we have so many variations is that we have so many manuscripts.

For example, if 2000 manuscripts spell a word one way and 2000 others spell the word a little differently, that is counted as “thousands of variations.” So the large number of variations is a direct result of having so much evidence!

What is the nature of these variant readings?

* Different spellings that in no way affect the meaning of the text

* Variations in word order that in no way affect the meaning

* Insertion or omission of a word, or use of a different word, but the meaning is not affected

* Whole phrases or sentences are inserted or omitted. Yet none of these variations affect our understanding of God’s word because the same teaching is found in unquestioned passages.

Men who study these problems say these “significant variations” make up less than 1/1000 of the text of the New Testament. If all of them were put together, they would take up less than half a page. And none of them affect the teaching of God’s word!

(Material in this section is gathered mainly from: The Journey from Texts to Translations, by Paul D. Wegner; How We Got the Bible, by Neil Lightfoot; The Theme of the Bible, by Ferrell Jenkins; and A Book about the Book, by John Jarrett.)


What does all this mean to you?

1) God gave the Scriptures because He wants you to have the opportunity to know His will.

2) God repeatedly promised that He would preserve His word for you.

3) Both Bible history and secular history confirm that God has preserved His word.

We can be sure that we have God’s true word today. That faith rests, not on any church, human beings, or human decrees, but on the promises of Almighty God!

Do you appreciate that fact that you possess the pure word of God in a form that you can read and study for yourself? Do you obey it as God’s revelation for your life? Have you obeyed His teaching to be forgiven of sin and become one of his children? Are you living a faithful life?

(C) Copyright 1998, 2000, 2023, David E. Pratte;
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Topics for further Bible study

The Claims of the Bible
Why So Much Religious Confusion and Disagreement?
The Importance of Bible Knowledge
Bible Validation: How to Test It
The Inspiration of the Bible
Evidences for God, Jesus, & the Bible
Can We Understand the Bible? - Return to the Gospel Way home page.

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