King David loved the Scriptures. He writes “The law of the LORD is perfect, converting the soul: the testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple. The statutes of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart: the commandment of the LORD is pure, enlightening the eyes. The fear of the LORD is clean, enduring for ever: the judgments of the LORD are true and righteous altogether. More to be desired are they than gold, yea, than much fine gold: sweeter also than honey and the honeycomb” (Psalm 19:7-11 KJV). In this brief passage he describes the Scriptures using various terms for them. Today we generally refer to them as “the Bible”. The Scriptures he possessed were copies, but they were still Scripture, still the Bible. Even though at the time God inspired David to write this Psalm, it’s most likely that there were no extant original Scriptures, except for the Law which had been placed in the Ark of the Covenant by Aaron. Thus, God indirectly told David and all who love the Bible ever since, that he has preserved his words in copies.
The Scriptures Preserved in Copies
The Ten Commandments
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 he went back down the mountain to the people of Israel, Moses saw them engaged in idolatrous sexual worship. Consequently, he smashed the two tables of stone in his anger (Ex 32:19), and thus, the autograph (i.e. original) 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 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 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. But this perfect copy written on tables of stone, has also long since disappeared.
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 a whole as the Torah or 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); 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). 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.
Although the autograph still existed, at least until the time of Rehoboam (1 Kings 14:25-26), it wouldn’t have been accessible for copying because the Holy of Holies where the autograph was kept was closed to all except for the priest who entered it once a year; so all the copies of the Law were made from copies from the very beginning. Over time and after many copies of copies being produced, by the time of the Maccabees there were several different Hebrew manuscript textual traditions, and there were also several Greek translations of the Hebrew manuscript textual traditions, all different to each other, all existing at the same time as each other, all in circulation, and all accepted as Scripture.
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, saying, Hilkiah the priest hath delivered me a book. And Shaphan read it before the king” (2 Kings 22:8, 10). It’s unlikely that this “book of the law” was Moses’ original because that would probably have been taken to Babylon in the Ark of the Covenant, along with all the other Temple paraphernalia. It would more likely have been a copy, hidden by a godly 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, or 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 cut it up and threw it, piece by piece, into the fire. The original was thus 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 will 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 said 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 coming destruction of 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, the 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 to be lost forever? Didn’t he realise that unbelievers centuries later would refuse to believe the bible because there were no autographs?
The only conclusion we can draw is, again, that God is OK with copies of copies of scripture; so we should be too.
So, in every copy of scripture that has ever been made, all the prophecies of Jeremiah were made from copies of 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 and, for them, that was just as authoritative and binding as the autographs. Being copies of the inspired words of God, they, too, were regarded as inspired Scripture.
The New Testament
Turning to the New Testament, we find further assurance that copies of inspired Scripture are still, in themselves, inspired Scripture, and that it is not important to have the original autographs. When writing to Timothy, Paul said “And that from a child thou hast known the holy scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim 3:15). There is no way that Timothy would have possessed or even seen an original of the Old Testament; and who knows what variant of it that he would have possessed?. Yet Paul still regarded what Timothy possessed or had access to as Scripture. And Paul could say with absolute confidence that Timothy possessed the word of God in his copy because God promised he would preserve his words.
And all the authors of the NT regarded the available copies of the OT as inspired 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 unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself…..Did not our heart burn within us while he talked with us by the way, 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); “You 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 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 was concerned about original documents.
The Scriptures Have Never Been Lost
Despite claims by skeptics and other enemies of God 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 Fathers, all proclaim that the Bible is the preserved word of God. And the whole of Judaism and Christianity have been built on accurate copies of copies of the autographs and on Hebrew manuscripts which were still being finalised when the Jewish and Christian canons were defined. Add to this the resultant 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.
Select Passages from a Textual Critic
Daniel B. Wallace, editor and contributor to a book of essays to do with the transmission and reliability of the New Testament titled “Revisiting the Corruption of the New Testament”, critiques Bart Ehrman and shows where he agrees with him. He points out some important problems in Ehrman’s books, particularly those in “Misquoting Jesus”. Here are a few random quotes concerning the preservation and purity of the NT text:
“…..there is some evidence that the NT autographa [originals] were revered in the second century. Tertullian, a church father living up through the first quarter of the third century, chastised his theological opponents about their doubts over what the original text said. The exact meaning of his statement is somewhat controversial: ‘Come now, you who would indulge a better curiosity, if you would apply it to the business of your salvation, run over to the apostolic churches, in which the very thrones of the apostles are still pre-eminent in their places, in which their own authentic writings are read, uttering the voice and representing the face of each of them severally’ (Tertullian, The Prescription against Heretics, chap. 36; italics added). What is at issue here is the meaning of ‘authentic’ writings. If this refers to the original documents, as the word in Latin (authenticae) normally does, Tertullian is saying that several of the original NT books still existed in his day, well over a century after the time of their writing. He specifically refers to Paul’s letters sent to Corinth, Philippi, Thessalonica, Ephesus, and Rome, urging his reader to visit these sites to check out these authentic writings. But if authenticae does not mean original documents, it would at least mean, in the context, carefully produced copies. Most likely, the term is here referring to the originals, but Tertullian’s testimony may not be credible. However, by Tertullian’s day, carefully done copies of the originals both were considered important for verifying what the NT authors wrote, and may still have been available for consultation. Even taking the worst-case scenario, Tertullian’s statement is an early documented concern about having the original text or at least accurate copies in circulation, rather than quietly put on the shelf never to be consulted again…..
…..Regarding the second assumption – that the original text was copied only once (Ehrman says that it may have worn out from being read, but not from being copied) – surely it was copied often if it was read often. To suppose that the early Christians just somehow forgot about the originals or, worse, destroyed them is contrary to human nature, to at least one early patristic writer’s testimony, and to all the evidence we have from the first several centuries of the Christian era” (Wallace, D. 2011, p. 32).
“There was at least one very carefully produced stream of transmission for the NT MSS, and there is sufficient evidence to show that even particular a fourth-century MS in this line is usually more accurate than any second-century MS.
We can illustrate this with two manuscripts that Ehrman and I would both agree are two of the most accurate MSS of the NT, if not the two most accurate: P75 and Codex Vaticanus (or B). These two manuscripts have an incredibly strong agreement. Their agreement is higher than the agreement of any other two early MSS. P75 is 100 to 150 years older than B, yet it is not an ancestor of B… Instead, B copied from an earlier common ancestor that both B and P75 were related to. The combination of both of these manuscripts in a particular reading goes back to early in the second century”. (Wallace, D. 2011, p. 33).
“Ehrman has asserted, ‘If we have very few early copies – in fact, scarcely any – how can we know that the text was not changed significantly before the New Testament began to be reproduced in such large quantities’. I am not sure what large quantities he is speaking about, since there are more MSS from the third century than there are from the fourth or fifth century.
But how can we know? It is a legitimate question. There is a way to be relatively confident that the text of the fourth century looked remarkably like the earliest form of the text. P75 has large portions of Luke and John in it – and nothing else. Codex B has most of the NT in it. If B and P75 are very close to each other yet B often has the more primitive reading, we can extrapolate that the text of B is pretty decent for the rest of the NT. When it agrees with a MS such as Codex Sinaiticus, which it usually does, that combined reading almost surely goes back to a common archetype from deep in the second century” (Wallace, D. 2011, p. 34).
“On the one hand, there was uncontrolled copying of MSS in the earliest period, but this was largely restricted to the Western text form. On the other hand, there was a strand of early copying that may appear to be controlled. This is the Alexandrian family of MSS. Yet the reason that MSS of this text form look so much like each other is largely because they were in a relatively pure line of transmission. There was no conspiracy, just good practices” (Wallace, D. 2011, p. 36).
Ehrman, Bart, 2010, “Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (and Why We Don’t Know About Them)”, publ. HarperCollins Publishers, NY.
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.
Wallace, D. 2011, “Revisiting the Corruption of the New Testament”, Kregel Publications, Grand Rapids, MI 49501