“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).
King David loved the Scriptures. In Psalm 19:7-11, 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”. 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. Indeed, it was David himself who was inspired by the Spirit of God to pen those words in Psalm 12:6-7, heading this page. Even though at the time God inspired David to write this Psalm, it’s possible 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 was 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 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; but I can 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 can do for you; the originals are all gone. 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.
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 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….and 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 have most likely 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 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 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 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, the autograph, 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.
The Chaos of Copies
Timothy Law describes this chaos of multitudes of copies extant in the centuries before Christ: “To be candid: before the Bible, there was no Bible. Before the beginning of the second century CE, there were Jewish scriptures whose forms were still in flux and many scriptures were excluded in the finalisation of the Hebrew Bible. Prior to the second century there was no way of knowing which scriptural books would be included within the collection and which would be left out; nor was there any way of knowing how the final version of the individual books would appear. There are several important implications, some of which we shall see unfold in the following chapters: Jesus and Paul did not have a Bible; before the production of a “Bible”, Jews and Christians used numerous scriptural texts that never made it into the “canon”; and the forms that later became biblical books were in an extraordinary state of fluctuation between the third century BCE and the second CE.
We will soon encounter some remarkable differences between the Greek and Hebrew scriptures. This should be stated very clearly right away since the Septuagint translation is sometimes misjudged as merely a translation when it is more than that. In many places the messages contained in the Septuagint are different from what we have in the Hebrew Bible, a significance whose weight will be forced upon us when we see how New Testament authors and early Christian writers constructed their theological visions on the basis of the Septuagint. The divergent character of the Septuagint is not always the result of the ingenuity of its translators. Sometimes we see evidence that the Greek translation was produced from an alternative Hebrew text that has since been lost. The Septuagint and the Hebrew Bible often reflect divergent traditions of scriptural texts in the same biblical books, and it is not always possible to discover if one was from an earlier time than another. Sometimes they are simply different, perhaps parallel traditions. Today most English Bible versions are based on a medieval edition of the Hebrew Bible. Until the last century many assumed the Hebrew scriptures existed only in this form preserved in the medieval tradition, but most now recognise it reflects only one of several forms in circulation before the second century CE” (Law, T. 2013, p. 19-20).
Law continues a few pages later, describing OT books, numbers of copies found at Qumran and other places in the Judean Desert, and how those found in those locations outside of Qumran agree with the Masoretic tradition in almost every detail, while “Within Qumran there is more variation. Manuscripts of the Torah reflect the Masoretic Text only 48 percent of the time, while the remaining books outside the Torah reflect the Masoretic Text only 44 percent of the time. This is hardly the picture of textual uniformity to which we have been accustomed. What is more, some of these were found stored together in the same cave. That different editions of the same biblical books could coexist in the same community seems not to have caused any concern for the 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 CE there was no real preoccupation with a fixed text and authoritative status was shared by different versions of the same books” (Law, T. 2013, p. 25-26).
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. Despite the many Hebrew and Greek textual traditions in circulation, and the variations between them, the copies of scripture that they had were all regarded by God and Israel as authoritative 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 “…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 regarded what Timothy possessed or had access to as Scripture. And Paul could say with absolute confidence that Timothy possessed the words of God in his copy because God promised he would preserve his words (Psalm 12:6-7). “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 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 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 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.
It’s sad that Evangelical Christians, who profess to be the Bible’s friends, think they know better. Conservative and evangelical churches and colleges, so-called “bible believing” organisations, have placed 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”. This statement actually undermines the authority of the bible and suggests that the scrolls, parchments, books, and complete bibles, used by both Israel and the Church, are doubtful. It suggests – to me, at least – that we can’t really trust the bibles we have – even the King James Bible. If only the autographs are infallible Scripture, what is it that we have now? What have the people of God been trusting in if only the Originals are infallible?
Our modern versions are merely “best guess” bibles, the readings of which are voted on by a small committee of textual critics, and which change every few years according to the whim of the committee members. The Nestle-Aland Greek New Testament is up to its 28th edition, each edition being changed, updated, and “improved”. And it will continue to change because there are no autographs against which it can be checked.
The obvious implication of these changes and new editions is that all the earlier editions, which were referred to as being “the original Greek” are now wrong to a greater or lesser degree; consequently the bible versions based on them are also wrong to a greater or lesser degree. Therefore they are not infallible; therefore you can’t base doctrine on them. Furthermore, the Church since the 1st or 2nd centuries following the demise of the last original gospel and the last original epistle, has been without a reliable, authoritative, Bible – all they’ve had are unreliable copies. I say “unreliable” because, since they’re not the autographs, according to the statement of most Evangelical organisations, only the originals are infallible. So the Church has only had an “approximate” bible for most of its existence. Until the end of time, if contemporary scholarship is correct, there will never be a truly reliable, infallible, authentic, Bible. And therefore God has left the Church without an infallible guide.
The Divine Preservation of the Holy Scriptures
Professor Bart Ehrman perceptively asks “…what should make me think he [God] 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 are 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, too, are the inspired and inerrant words of God.
David Cloud, however, assures Christians that God has preserved his words, and that these words are found in the King James Version of the Bible. In his “Way of Life Encyclopedia”, entry entitled “Preservation – Bible”, he 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).
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 King James 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 King James Bible is the preserved words of God. The Old Testament of the KJV is comprised of Hebrew documents of the Masoretic Text of Jacob ben-Chayyim ibn Adonijah printed by Daniel Bomberg (1524), and the New Testament is comprised of Greek documents known as Textus Receptus, and agrees with the majority Byzantine family of texts. And the whole of Judaism and Christianity have been built on accurate copies of copies of the autographs. 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.
Ehrman, Bart, 2010, “Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (and Why We Don’t Know About Them)”, publ. HarperCollins Publishers, NY.
Law, T. 2013, When God Spoke Greek: The Septuagint and the Making of the Christian Bible, Oxford University Press, New York
“Way of Life Encyclopedia of the Bible and Christianity 5th Edition”, Entry “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.