Bart Ehrman: God’s Words Preserved in Copies

Bart Ehrman reveals to us the key issue that caused him to lose his faith.  He writes “It is hard for me to pinpoint the exact moment that I stopped being a fundamentalist who believed in the absolute inerrancy and verbal inspiration of the Bible.  As I point out in Misquoting Jesus, the key issue for me early on was the historical fact that we don’t have the original writings of any of the books of the Bible, but only copies made later – in most instances, many centuries later.  For me, it started making less and less sense to think that God had inspired the very words of the text if we didn’t actually have these words, if the texts had in fact been changed, in many thousands of places, most of the changes insignificant but many of them of real importance.  If God wanted us to have his words, why didn’t he preserve his words?” (Ehrman 2010, p 15-16).

Professor Ehrman’s question, “If God wanted us to have his words, why didn’t he preserve his words?” is the wrong question.  God does want us to have his words, and, what’s more, he has preserved his words.  “The words of the LORD are pure words: as silver tried in a furnace of earth, purified seven times.  Thou shalt keep them, O LORD, thou shalt preserve them from this generation for ever” (Psalm 12:6-7 KJV). 

God’s Words Preserved in Copies

King David loved the Scriptures.  In Psalm 119:9, 11, he writes “Wherewithal shall a young man cleanse his way?  By taking heed thereto according to thy word…..Thy word have I hid in my heart”.  In this brief passage, Psalm 119:9-16, he describes the Scriptures using various names – word, commandments, statutes, judgments, testimonies, precepts, ways.  The scriptures he possessed were copies, but they were still scripture.  Indeed, it was David himself who was inspired by the Spirit of God to pen those words in Psalm 12:6-7 which promised that God would preserve his words forever.  God did this through the means of copies.

For example, when God gave Moses the Ten Commandments, he personally wrote them on two tables of stone, and gave them into Moses’ care.  When Moses went back down the mountain to the people of Israel, he saw them engaged in idolatrous worship.  Consequently, he smashed the two tables of stone in his anger (Ex 32:19), and thus, the original autograph of the Ten Commandments was destroyed.  When he had resolved the problems caused by the people’s idolatry, he went back up the mountain to God, where he received a second set of two tables containing the Ten Commandments (Ex 34:1, 28).  Therefore, the Ten Commandments that the people of Israel received was a copy of the original autograph, written by the hand of Moses (Ex 34:27-28); nobody except Moses even saw the original.  All they had now was a copy of the original.  That copy was placed in the Ark of the Covenant. 

It has been objected that this second issue of the Ten Commandments was not a copy but a second original.  In a sense that is true, but the fact remains that the original autograph, that God wrote with his own finger, was smashed to pieces, and is no longer extant.  The second writing of the Ten Commandments was done by the hand of Moses, and was a copy of the original autograph, albeit given directly to Moses by God as if an original.  So, this copy was a perfect copy, corresponding perfectly with the original; it was thus inerrant and authoritative. 

The Book of the Law

Following God’s giving the Ten Commandments, he gave the whole law to Moses; it was the pattern by which the people of Israel were to live.  It is contained in the books Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.  These books, sometimes referred to as the Pentateuch, were written down and the original placed alongside (“in the side of”) the Ark of the Covenant, the copy of the Ten Commandments being inside the Ark (Deut 31:9, 24-27); these two tablets were the only item within the Ark itself (1 Kings 8:9).  Copies of the Law were made, according to God’s instruction, for each king, so that he would read it all his life, and remain faithful to God (Deut 17:18-20).

The king wasn’t told to take the original from the Ark and read it; he was told to write out a copy.  And God didn’t say “Well, king, I can’t give you the original; I can only give you second-best.  It’s bound to have errors in it because it’s been copied, but I hope you’ll be OK with that.  Because it’s only a copy, you might be challenged about your faith, and you might doubt that you even have my words.  But it’s the best I could do.  Sorry….”.  God was/is quite happy with copies.  He regarded the copies that the kings were to have made as being totally reliable and as scripture; in his instruction here given, he made no distinction between original and copy.  They were one and the same to him.

Because the autograph still existed, at least until the time of Rehoboam, these copies were made from the autograph, therefore they were extremely accurate, and they could be verified as such.  And any copies made from the copies would also have been accurate and without corruptions, especially since the Levites handled the scriptures with extreme care.  Thus, all the copies that the kings had, and any other copies that would have been made, were accurate copies.  And these copies were circulated and copied themselves.  So the scriptures of the Old Testament were accurately preserved, as God had promised (Ps 12:6-7).

Several centuries later, and after many years of Israel’s apostasy, when reformation was underway during Josiah’s reign, and the temple was being restored, we’re told, “And Hilkiah the high priest said unto Shaphan the scribe, I have found the book of the law in the house of the LORD.  And Hilkiah gave the book to Shaphan, and he read it…..And Shaphan the scribe shewed the king….and read it before the king” (2 Kings 22:8, 10).  We don’t know whether this book of the law was Moses’ original or a copy, but it had apparently been hidden by a priest or a Levite during the reign of one of the apostate kings.  And it was old, because Hilkiah found it in the temple when the priests were cleaning it out and removing all the idolatrous objects. 

The Prophecies of Jeremiah

Next, we turn to the prophet Jeremiah.  In Jeremiah chapter 36, God told him to commit all the words that he’d spoken to Jeremiah to writing.  So Jeremiah called Baruch and he dictated the prophecies to him, and Baruch wrote them down (Jer 36:1-4).  This was the original autograph of Jeremiah’s prophecies.

Jeremiah then instructed Baruch to take this autograph and read it to the people in the temple.  Subsequently the original scroll was taken by the king and he threw it, piece by piece, into the fire.  The original autograph was destroyed (Jer 36:5-26).

Following this, God told Jeremiah to rewrite the prophecies on another scroll.  “Take thee again another roll, and write in it all the former words that were in the first roll, which Jehoiakim the king of Judah hath burned.  And thou shalt say to Jehoiakim king of Judah, Thus saith the LORD; Thou hast burned this roll, saying, Why hast thou written therein, saying, The king of Babylon shall certainly come and destroy this land, and cause to cease from thence man and beast?”(Jer 36:28-29).

Once again, we see that God makes no distinction between the original and the copy.  Indeed, he says to the king “Thou hast burned this roll” – the copy, which Jeremiah held in his hand, was equated by God to the roll which had been destroyed.  God regarded the copy as his word, just as surely as he regarded the original.

Still in Jeremiah, this time in chapter 51:1-58, God gave a dire prophecy of the destruction to come on Babylon.  Jeremiah then wrote the words of the prophecy in a book and gave it to Seraiah (a Jewish official and one of the captives in Babylon), with the instruction that when he returned to Babylon, Seraiah was to read the prophecy aloud and then bind a stone to it and toss it into the Euphrates River, which flowed through the centre of the city (51:59-64).  And in so doing, he was destroying the original autograph of this prophecy against Babylon.  Why didn’t Jeremiah tell Seraiah to write out a copy and throw that into the River; why did he allow the original autograph to be lost forever?  Didn’t he realise that unbelievers centuries later would refuse to believe the bible because there were no autographs?

So, in every copy of scripture that has ever been made, all the prophecies of Jeremiah were made from copies of copies.  They were never made from an autograph.  There was never an original autograph from which they could be made.  And there never has been a Hebrew collection consisting of all original autographs.  There has never been an original Old Testament.  And God doesn’t care.  Israel didn’t care.  They had copies of the autographs and, for them, that was just as authoritative and binding as the autographs.

The New Testament

Turning to the New Testament, we find further assurance that copies of scripture are still scripture, and that it is not important to have the original autographs.  When writing to Timothy, Paul said “from a child thou hast known the holy scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Jesus Christ” (2 Tim 3:15).  There is no way that Timothy would have possessed or even seen an original of the Old Testament.  Yet Paul still regards what Timothy possessed or had access to as scripture.  And Paul can say with absolute confidence that Timothy possessed the word of God in his copy because God promised he would preserve his words (Psalm 12:6-7); and “Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away” (Matt 24:35).

And all the authors of the NT regarded the available copies of the OT as scripture, writing in their God-breathed gospels and epistles such things as “But all this was done that the scriptures of the prophets might be fulfilled” (Matt 26:56).  And “And beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself…..did not our heart burn within us while he talked with us by the road, and while he opened to us the scriptures?…..Then opened he their understanding, that they might understand the scriptures.  And he said unto them, Thus it is written…..” (Lk 24: 27, 32, 45). 

Jesus also knew there were no autographs and it didn’t worry him.  He said such things as “Did ye never read in the scriptures….” (Matt 21:42); “Ye do err, not knowing the scriptures…” (Matt 22:29); “Search the scriptures; for in them ye think ye have eternal life: and they are they which testify of me” (Jn 5:39).  He knew the that the scribes and Pharisees only had copies; but he still regarded these copies as scripture.

So we see that neither Old Testament Israel nor New Testament Church were concerned about original documents.  Such an idea was never an issue until the Higher Critics began their futile search to find the “historical Jesus” (futile because they deny the historical Jesus as already found in the historical documents of the New Testament, and are thus left to find a replacement who never existed).  They began with unbelief and non-acceptance of the word of God and required “proof”, ignoring the proof right before their unbelieving eyes.  Even if they were shown the original autographs which constitute the Bible, they still would not believe or accept it.  Their unbelief is wilful, and is not due to ignorance or lack of evidence.  They are like the Pharisees in Jesus’ day, who, “though he had done so many miracles before them, yet they believed not on him” (Jn 12:37); and “ye will not come to me that ye might have life” (Jn 5:40).

The Wrong Question Which has Affected the Modern Church

All this shows that Professor Ehrman and the liberals are asking the wrong question.  Even conservative and evangelical churches and colleges, so-called “bible believing” organisations, now place a fatal qualification on their declarations about their belief in the bible, using statements such as “We believe the scriptures in the original autographs to be the infallible word of God”.  What they’re telling us is that we don’t have a Bible, only an approximation of it.  If only the autographs are infallible, what is it that we do have?  How can we stand on the promises of God if we’re not sure what they are?  How can we tell sinners the Gospel if we’re not sure what it is?  What is the point of preaching if we don’t really know what the bible is trying to tell us?  We might as well chuck it all in and do something better with our lives and our time.  Indeed, this is what Professor Ehrman has done.  And why not?  That’s what I’d do if the Bible wasn’t true.  I’ve got no interest in chasing after a myth or an ideal or a good example.  If the Bible isn’t true, it’s just worthless ink on paper.

Bart Ehrman himself admits, “At Moody I had been taught that the inspired words were the words of the originals, the so-called autographs.  Sure, scribes had modified these words over the years, but before they were modified they were the perfectly inspired Word of God…..Why would God have inspired the words of the bible if he chose not to preserve these words  for posterity?  Put differently, what should make me think he had inspired the words in the first place if I knew for certain (as I did) that he had not preserved them?  This became a major problem for me in trying to figure out which Bible I thought was inspired” (Ehrman 2009, 182 – emphasis mine).

The Divine Preservation of the Holy Scriptures

Bart Ehrman rightly asks “what should make me think he had inspired the words in the first place if I knew for certain (as I did) that he had not preserved them?”.  Unlike Professor Ehrman, contemporary Christianity seems not to have recognised this problem; they don’t appear to have seen the implications of their teaching that only the autographs were inspired.  Evangelical teachers blithely tell their audiences that only the autographs were inspired, without giving them the assurance that God has preserved his words in the copies of scripture, so that they are also the inspired and inerrant Word of God.

David Cloud, on the other hand, assures Christians that God has preserved his words: “The same God that inspired the Scripture has promised to preserve it – not merely its teachings but its very words.  To argue for a divinely-inspired Bible that no longer exists is vain jangling.  The bottom line in this matter is that the same Bible that claims to be inspired also claims to be divinely preserved.  Our faith in this is not based on common sense (though it is sensible to believe that if God gave a perfect Bible He would preserve that very Bible); our faith is based on the promises of a God that cannot lie.

Many evangelicals and even fundamentalists write volumes defining and defending what the Bible says about its own inspiration, but they are strangely silent about preservation.  They take the position of faith in regard to inspiration but retreat to the position of scepticism in regard to preservation” (Cloud 2008, 455).

The Teachings of Scripture Have Never Been Lost

Despite Professor Ehrman’s claims that the Bible is riddled with discrepancies and contradictions, the evidence for the reliability and trustworthiness of our Bible is astonishing.  The thousands of manuscripts in Greek, thousands more in Latin copies, versions in Syriac, Coptic, German etc., and the quotations from the bible in the writings of the early church leaders, all proclaim that the Bible is indeed the preserved word of God, and that the whole of Judaism and Christianity have been built on copies of copies of the autographs.  Add to this the resulting rapid spread of Christianity across the Roman empire and further, and the archaeological findings which give support to the Bible, the absence of autographs and presence of discrepancies (some real, some perceived, some misrepresented) in the texts and versions becomes a non-issue.  I have dealt with the discrepancies in another article.


“Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (and Why We Don’t Know About Them)” 2010, by Bart Ehrman, publ. HarperCollins Publishers, NY.

 “Way of Life Encyclopedia of the Bible and Christianity 5th Edition – Preservation – Bible”, 2008, p. 455, by David W. Cloud, publ. Way of Life Literature, Port Huron, Michigan.

Some of the information and ideas in this article are essentially from, and inspired by, a DVD entitled “Is Your Bible Missing Something?”, Volume 2, by David W. Daniels, 2015, publ. Chick Publications, Ontario, California.