Inspiration, Preservation, Original Manuscripts, and 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).

Inspiration and the Problem of Words

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.  Professor Ehrman is asking the wrong question because his understanding of the nature and character of the Bible is wrong.  He was taught, as he implies here, by fundamentalists who believe that God inspired every single word in scripture.  This idea is true in a general sense, because “all scripture is inspired by God” (2 Tim 3:16 RSV-CE).  For example, David Cloud, an avowed fundamentalist, and whom I quote further down, says, “The same God that inspired the Scripture has promised to preserve it – not merely its teachings but its very words

And their key verses for this position are:

“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” (Ps 12:6-7 KJV).

“Every word of God is pure: he is a shield unto them that put their trust in him.  Add thou not unto his words, lest he reprove thee, and thou be found a liar” (Prov 30:5-6 KJV).

“Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away” (Matt 24:35 KJV).

It is a tragedy that Professor Ehrman lost his faith because of the false teachers and false teaching in the colleges he went to for instruction; they undermined the truth and stole it from him.  He began his Christian life as a fundamentalist and loved the bible so much he wanted to learn more about it.  So he enrolled at Moody Bible College where he would have been taught that every single word of scripture is inspired.  This false doctrine set him up for his fall by causing him to believe error.  By the time he got to Princeton University and was shown how this view doesn’t work, he was primed to be deceived by an even greater error, i.e. that the gospel writer, Mark, was wrong.  Consequently, having lost confidence in the bible, he abandoned his faith and commitment to Jesus the Son of God, who is God incarnate, and he “exchanged the truth about God for a lie” (Rom 1:25).  He became agnostic and now cannot believe in a God who either causes or allows the terrible suffering we see in our fallen world.

As for the use of the words “word/s” in the above verses, Souter’s Greek lexicon and Strong’s Concordance show that they mean a message or teaching.  Strong’s, for example says of “words” in the Hebrew that it means “words”, but also speech, speeches, sayings, commandments, something said, promise (Strong’s 561, 565).  In the Greek, the general meaning of “words” is (1) the expression of thought”, and the particular use for Matt 24:35 is, (2) a saying or statement….(2b) by Christ, e.g. Matt 24:35” (Strong’s 3056).  Souter gives some of the meaning and usage of the Greek word “logos” as “a word, an utterance, speech, discourse, saying” (Souter 1949, p. 147). 

The NKJV Study Bible, commenting on “words” in Ps 12:6, says: “This Hebrew word based on the common verb meaning ‘to say’, occurs mainly in poetry.  Over half of its appearances are in Ps 119, where it refers to what God has said.  It is also used to refer to the prophetic warning of Isaiah (Is 28:23), the humble prayer of the psalmists (17:6), or even the prideful boast of Lamech (Gen 4:23).  In Ps 119, the term is used in parallel with ‘statute’, ‘commandment’, ‘judgment’, ‘precept’, and ‘testimony’.  The Psalmist describes treacherous people as not keeping God’s word, but the Psalmist himself treasures God’s word in his heart as a guide for life, that he might not sin against the Lord (119:11, 133, 158)”.

So we can see from all this that it is not necessary to hold the view that God inspired every single word of scripture in order to hold a high view of inspiration.  By understanding that the Bible is God’s message given to human authors to express in their own ways and own words delivers us from going into free-fall whenever someone like Bart Ehrman points out discrepancies in it.

“It was not enough for God to reveal Himself perfectly and finally: men must be brought to apprehend him.  It was the work of the Holy Spirit to bring about this apprehension.  Indeed, Jesus himself assured his Disciples that this is what would take place; the Holy Spirit, he said, would ‘guide them into all truth’ (John 14:26; 16:13 ff).

The N.T. is the record of what took place in the minds and hearts of men as they came under the influence of the Holy Spirit in their consideration of Jesus Christ.  They were inspired to a fuller understanding of the revelation which God had made of Himself in His Son.  The N.T. gives us the result of that inspiration.  This does not mean that the Holy Spirit gave the writers all the words they used; He gave them the truth, which they then expressed in their own way.  Our task is through those words to apprehend that truth” (Black’s Bible Dictionary, “Inspiration”).

And while God inspired the human authors to write infallible scripture, allowing them to use their own words to express the truth that had been revealed to them, it still remains that the words are God’s as well.  This is expressed in “Providentissimus Deus” (chapter 20) by Pope Leo XIII: “Hence, because the Holy Ghost employed men as His instruments, we cannot therefore say that it was these inspired instruments who, perchance, have fallen into error, and not the primary author.  For, by supernatural power, He so moved and impelled them to write – He was so present to them – that the things which He ordered, and those only, they first rightly understood, then willed faithfully to write down, and finally expressed in apt words and with infallible truth.  Otherwise it could not be said that He was the Author of the entire Scripture”.  This encyclical is found at the beginning of Catholic bibles.

So this understanding of the inspiration of scripture describes a totally different process of revelation to that taught by fundamentalists, and it allows the person in whom God moves to express the revelation through their own personality and individuality, and in their own words; this accounts for the different styles of the various human authors of scripture.  The authors of the gospels, for example, each planned the structure of their gospel, placing various events where they wanted them in order to make their point; and each gospel, while essentially the same as the others, has variations in it because of the way the author planned them and what he wanted to get across to his readers.  While the scripture tells us that God inspired the authors of the Bible so that they wrote without doctrinal error, the authors were free to express themselves as best suited their design.

However, it doesn’t mean that the authors of scripture were free to say what they wanted – to embellish or change what God told them.  The Spirit of God was in them to tell them what to say, yet giving them freedom to express it in their own way.  They weren’t simply some kind of keyboard on which the Spirit typed words which were to be reproduced exactly as they were typed.  Neither were they robots which had to be programmed by the Spirit to repeat every word he gave them as he gave it to them.  The words the writers of scripture used to express the revelation given to them were the words of God; and yet they were the words of the writers themselves.  “…no prophecy ever came by the impulse of man, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God” (2 Pet 1:21).  “The prophets who prophesied of the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired, inquiring about this salvation; they inquired what person or time was indicated by the Spirit of Christ within them, when predicting the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glory” (1 Pet 1:10-11).

And the doctrine of the preservation of scripture allows us to make allowances for the seeming discrepancies and contradictions in the bible.  It also enables us to understand why we can accept that there are various and differing Hebrew and Greek manuscripts and yet still regard them as scripture, despite their differences.   

The Divine Preservation of the Holy Scriptures

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).

David Cloud writes: “The doctrine that God has preserved His Word through the ages.  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). Although Pastor Cloud here is supporting the King James Version of the Bible and is against modern English versions, what he says is appropriate to our discussion. 

The science of textual criticism and the continuing discovery of many more manuscripts since the 19th century have enabled scholars to determine more confidently what the original would have been, or at least given a better idea of it.  Indeed, the differences between the various Hebrew manuscripts, and the differences between the Greek translations of the Hebrew, and which were all accepted as scripture anyway, are far greater than the differences between our modern English versions.  Law (2013, p 25-26) writes, “That different editions of the same biblical books could coexist in the same community (Qumran) seems not to have caused any kind of concern for ancient readers of scripture.  We shall soon see that the New Testament authors are likewise unperturbed by the existence of multiple versions of the same biblical book.  Again, these are not different versions in the way one might compare modern English translations of the Bible, where differences can be slight and are often related simply to the style of the English.  Between the third century BCE and the second century CE there was no real preoccupation with a fixed text and authoritative status was shared by different versions of the same books”

If the Jews before Christ had no problem accepting the various Hebrew and Greek manuscripts, with all their differences, as Scripture; and if, as I show below, Jews and Christians in the bible accepted copies and translations of copies as scripture, and if Jesus himself accepted them as scripture, the idea that only the scriptures in the originals were infallible is false.  We can trust the versions that we have today because the witness of the Bible itself, and the use of the Jews and the Church, assure us that it is not just that the originals were infallible, but the copies and versions are also absolutely dependable trustworthy scripture….in other words, God has preserved his word. 

Despite Professor Ehrman’s claims that the Bible is riddled with discrepancies and contradictions, and that there are no autographs, 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 testify 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 beyond, and the archaeological findings which give support to the Bible, the lack 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.

Original Manuscripts and Copies

The Ten Commandments

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 – also known as 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 were a copy of the original, 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 to me 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 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 of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.  These books, sometimes referred to as the Pentateuch, were written down and the original placed beside the Ark of the Covenant, the copy of the Ten Commandments being inside the Ark (Deut 31:9, 24-27; 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 Pentateuch from the Ark and read it; he was told to write out a copy.  Even though a scribe would have copied the king’s copy from the original, the potential was there for “scribal” errors.  But God was OK with that; and he’s 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 we assume 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 were accurate copies.  When and how discrepancies (most likely mainly caused by scribal or copyists’ errors), crept in we don’t know, but over time they did occur, and there was never any concern that because the autographs weren’t extant, the scriptures themselves weren’t trustworthy, original or not.

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 to Shaphan the secretary, ‘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…..Then Shaphan the secretary told the king, ‘The priest Hilkiah has given me a book’.  And Shaphan then 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 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 autograph was thus destroyed (Jer 36:5-26).

Following this, God told Jeremiah to rewrite the prophecies on another scroll.  “Take another scroll and write on it all the former words that were in the first scroll, which Jehoiakim the king of Judah has burned.  And concerning King Jehoiakim king of Judah you shall say: ‘Thus says the LORD, You have burned this scroll, saying, Why have you written in it that the king of Babylon will certainly come and destroy this land, and will cut off from it 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 “You have burned this scroll” – the copy, which Jeremiah held in his hand, was equated by God with 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 autograph to be lost forever?  Didn’t he realise that unbelievers centuries later would refuse to believe the bible because there were no originals?

Copies, Copies, Everywhere….

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 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, it was just as authoritative and binding as the autographs.

Over time, more and more copies of the scriptures were made, and discrepancies inevitably crept into the text.  And there even developed differing Hebrew texts, all made from copies.  From one or more of these Hebrew texts, far older than the Masoretic Text which we use today as our Old Testament exemplar, the 2nd century BC Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Hebrew, was produced.  The Septuagint (LXX) originated in Alexandria, Egypt and soon became widely used throughout the ancient world.  Eventually, there were varying versions even of this Greek text; and by the time of Christ, these varying Hebrew and Greek texts were in circulation, all at the same time.  The Essenes had copies of many of them, apparently regarding each of them as authoritative scripture, despite the discrepancies between them. 

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 autographs.  When writing to Timothy, Paul said: “from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings which are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim 3:15).  There is no way that Timothy would have possessed or even seen an original autograph of the Old Testament; in fact, the scriptures he used would most certainly have been the LXX, the Greek translation of a Hebrew copy of a Hebrew copy (Timothy and his family were Greek, after all).  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: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will 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 has taken place, that the Scriptures of the prophets might be fulfilled” (Matt 26:56).  And “…beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself…..Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?…..Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, ‘Thus it is written….’” (Lk 24: 27, 32, 45-46). 

Jesus also knew there were no autographs and it didn’t worry him.  He said such things as “Have you never read in the scriptures….?” (Matt 21:42); “You are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God…” (Matt 22:29); “You search the Scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness to me” (Jn 5:39).  He knew that the scribes and Pharisees only had copies; but he still regarded those copies as scripture.

So we see that neither Old Testament Israel nor New Testament Church was 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.  For example, “The real protest against Daniel, as a few liberal scholars, such as R. Pfeiffer (Old Testament Introduction, P. 755), are honest enough to admit, is prejudice against the supernatural.  There are too many miracles, too much precise prediction in Daniel to suit rationalistic criticism” (“Believer’s Bible Commentary”, p. 988).  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, “Although he had done so many signs before them, yet they did not believe in him” (Jn 12:37).  And the rich man in hell, when he asked that Lazarus should warn his brothers of the torments that awaited them if they didn’t repent, was told, “If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead” (Lk 16:31).

References

“Believer’s Bible Commentary 2nd edition” by William MacDonald ed. Art Farstad, “Daniel: Introduction” p. 988, copyright 1995, publ. Thomas Nelson, Nashville, Tennessee

Black’s Bible Dictionary”, ed. Miller, Madeleine S and Miller, J. Lane, “inspiration”, p. 281, “First published in 1952 as Harper’s Bible Dictionary by Harper & Brothers, New York, First British Edition 1954, Published by A & C Black Ltd., London

“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.

Law, Timothy Michael, 2013, “When God Spoke Greek”, Oxford University Press, New York, NY

NKJV Study Bible, Gen. Ed. Radmacher, Earl D, OT Ed Allen, Ronald B, NT Ed. House, H. Wayne, 2014, publ. Thomas Nelson, Inc.

Souter, A.  “A Pocket Lexicon to the Greek New Testament”, Oxford University Press, London

 “Way of Life Encyclopedia of the Bible and Christianity 5th Edition – Preservation – Bible”, 2008, 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.

Revised Standard Version Bible, Ignatius Edition, Copyright 2006, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. 

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