The English, Cebuano, Tagalog, Spanish and Latin translations (among many others) we have today are beautiful literary works in themselves. But the Bible was not originally written in these languages.
The books in the Bible were written one by one by various men in different times and even in different languages. The Bible was originally written in three languages 1) Hebrew 2) Aramaic and 3) Greek. The major portion was written in Hebrew. A smaller portion was written in Greek and only a few chapters were written in Aramaic.
Almost all of the Old Testament books were written in Hebrew. To us Hebrew is a strange language. It is written backwards from right to left and its alphabet has no vowels. A system of vowel sounds has been added but most Modern Hebrew books and magazines are printed without vowels. This would be the same way that the Old Testament text originally appeared.
Aramaic is a language related to Hebrew. At around 500 BC it was the language of the common man in Palestine. It is not surprising then to find parts of the Old Testament in Aramaic. There are about nine chapters in all mostly from the books of Ezra and Daniel.
Aramaic remained the language of Palestine for centuries. This is indicated in the New Testament because of the use of Aramaic words such as “mammon” meaning riches and “abba” which means father.
Although the native language of Jesus was Aramaic, the books of the New Testament were written in Greek. This is not surprising though, because Greek was the international language at that time. A document written in Jerusalem, using the Greek language, could be understood as far west as Spain and as far south as the northern coast of Africa.
The original writers of the New Testament most likely wrote their letters or books on papyrus sheets. We learned in our previous lesson that these papyrus sheets were made from plant fibers. The problem with this material is that, although they were readily available and cheap, they were not very durable. They were quite fragile and deteriorated quickly over time. Because of this the original copies of New Testament writings from the first century are no longer available.
However, there is no reasonable doubt that we possess the original message of the New Testament. More than 5000 copies or manuscripts of these writings in whole or in part have been discovered. Manuscripts of the New Testament are of two major types usually known as Uncials and Cursives.
Uncials were written in large letters without intervening spaces between the words and with little or no marks of punctuation. Uncial manuscripts generally speaking are more valuable than cursives because they date back as far as the second and third centuries. That’s around 1800 years old!
Cursive manuscripts get their name because they are written in small letters with a running hand style similar to what we call cursive today. Most of the discovered Greek manuscripts are cursives. Since the cursive style of writing came to use at a later time, around the ninth century, the cursive group is considered less important.
The most important uncials known today are the oldest vellum (refined animal skin) manuscripts. They are complete or almost complete copies of the New Testament. These old copies are three in number and are known as the Vatican, the Sinaitic and the Alexandrian manuscripts. They date back from the 3rd or 4th centuries A.D.
The Vatican manuscript is perhaps the most important of the three. Although its existence has been known for several centuries it has been so zealously guarded by Roman authorities that its contents were not fully made known until the last part of the 19th century. The Vatican manuscript, as its name implies, is located in the Vatican library in Rome.
Both the Sinaitic and Alexandrian manuscripts are located at the British Museum in London along with a very large collection of materials that are also important to the history of the Bible.
The Sinaitic Manuscript is so named because of its discovery by Constantine Tischendorf in the ancient monastery at Mt. Sinai.
A close up look of this great manuscript shows the uncial lettering to be bold and clear. The handwriting is in four columns to a page on vellum sheets about 15 inches square.
The Alexandrian Manuscript was the first one of the three great uncials to become known. It is a beautiful codex that was presented as a gift to King Charles I of England in 1627.
These three books, the Vatican, the Sinaitic and the Alexandrian are the chief witnesses of the text of the New Testament. Aged and worn they are the greatest document treasures of Christianity. They are the oldest Bibles in the world!
These three manuscripts and numerous others are either available in book form or on microfilm to Bible scholars in many nations. You can even find photographs of some of the manuscripts on the internet. All of these Bibles and manuscripts are important because of the message they bear.
Some manuscripts are especially interesting. For example, the codex of Ephraim is a manuscript whose writing underneath is a 5th century copy of much of the New Testament. This kind of manuscript is known as a palimpsest. It is called this because of the Greek word “palin” which means "again" and is a fitting word to describe the manuscript because it was used and then cleaned and used again for writing something else. The reason this happened was that sometimes writing materials were not always readily available. Sometimes the parchment of old manuscripts would be reused. Although much of the original writing of the codex Ephraim has been scraped and washed off, modern technology has affected the restoration of this 5th century text.
Another example of this type of a manuscript is the oldest known copy of the Syriac version. By using chemicals and ultra-violet light, scholars today have been able to read much of the damaged writing in these manuscripts.
Other manuscripts are of special interest because of their beautiful appearance. Usually scribes made copies of the scriptures or other documents in black or brown inks, but for special effects or a special copy, they would use gold lettering on choice vellum.
Also, many manuscripts were decorated with multi-colored illustrations. This kind of art work is usually found in the cursive manuscripts.
Often times these types of manuscripts have portraits of the authors of the four gospels. Like one artistic representation of Mark pictured with a dove at his ear representing the inspiration of the Holy Spirit for his writing.
This is a drawing of the apostle John as he writes his gospel. These types of drawings depict the time in which the scribe lived. For example, in this particular drawing, John is inaccurately pictured sitting at a medieval style desk. Although they were not always very accurate, these drawings took much time and effort and are evidence of how important these scribes considered the Bible text.
Equal effort was used in copying the Bible texts themselves. Copying the manuscripts by hand was a very difficult thing to do. Try copying a single page document by hand and you will see that the work is slow and tiring and requires much mental concentration. Now imagine the task of copying the whole Bible!
Physical endurance was also a requirement for scribes. Many times scribes held their copies on the knees while writing. Other scribes stood while doing their copying. In ancient times it was not common to sit at a desk or table while writing as we do today.
In the times of the early church, copies of Bible manuscripts were made by individual Christians. But as time went by and Christianity spread, the need for more copies of scriptures increased greatly.
A new method was devised that would make it possible to make several copies at the same time. Several scribes would gather together with all their necessary supplies into a room called a scriptorium. Here a designated reader would read the scriptures aloud word by word and the scribes would write. With this technique, as many copies could be made as there were scribes in the scriptorium.
The work was very hard for scribes but they knew how important their work was for the future generations. One scribal note reads "There is no scribe who will not pass away but what his hands have written will live forever". Scribes were also conscious of their responsibility to copy accurately. Another scribal note warns "I adjure you who shall copy this book that you compare what you transcribe and correct it carefully".
Although the scribes tried very hard to copy accurately, it is true that there are some scribal variations in the copied manuscripts. This is expected though because, as we have seen, all ancient books had to be copied by hand and no human hand is perfect.
But now you might be wondering what kind of mistakes are there in the Biblical manuscripts? The answer to that question is clear, simply the kind of mistakes that we, ourselves make when we write or copy things down. When we pick up a paper and pen, the most common mistakes we make are usually small and unimportant.
We often make mistakes in spelling. For example "believe" is commonly misspelled as "beleive". If we were copying a dictation, most of our errors would be due to mistakes in hearing.
Some examples are, copying "their" instead of "there" because they sound the same and omitting small words like "and" and "the". It is the same way with Biblical manuscripts. In most cases where there is a variation in the text, it is because of mistakes of the eye or ear.
A great example of this is to look at the bottom of a page of an English translation like the American Standard Version or the Revised Standard Version. The reader can see for himself how slight the variations are among the different manuscripts. For example, some ancient manuscripts read "God your father" instead of "your father".
With over 5000 manuscripts available to compare, variations like these can be checked very easily. We can be sure of the reliability of the New Testament text.
But what about the text of the Old Testament? Can we be sure that these books came to us in the same form that they were first written? The written copies of the Old Testament are not as numerous as the many thousand copies of the New Testament texts.
Even so, it is still unquestionably true that the text of the Old Testament has been remarkably preserved. A great example of this is the Dead Sea Scrolls which were discovered in 1947 in the caves of Qumran by a young Bedouin shepherd. The copy of the book of Isaiah found with these scrolls predates the earliest copy of this book by 1100 years. Even with this large gap in time, the Isaiah scroll reads amazingly like the later copies and our English Bibles today. In summary then, three important facts must be kept in mind.
First of all, we must remember that all books of antiquity have come to us by means of hand written copies. The Bible texts have thousands of these copies available for examination.
Second, manuscripts of the Bible range in date from the 2nd to the 16th centuries and come from many parts of the world. This in itself is a significant indication that there cannot be a conspiracy or purposeful manipulation of the text by Christian scribes.
Third, variations do exist in the manuscripts but they mostly concern small matters of every day type errors that even we make today when we make copies by hand. It is good to remember though that examining the many copies available is an effective way of determining the true wording.
A man named Sir Frederick Kenyon served as a director and principal librarian of the British Museum for 21 years. He had the opportunity to see many of these texts and he was confident in the text of the Bible. Kenyon said "The Christian can take the whole Bible in his hand and say, without fear or hesitation that he holds in it the true word of God handed down without essential loss from generation to generation throughout the centuries." The evidence we have to examine the Bible text is such that we can be sure that we have the same message today as was written centuries ago.
Original text and slides of lessons 1-4 from "How We Got the Bible", ©1970 Gospel Services, Inc. Used by permission. Various edits and new audio recordings by the Bible Study Center 2006-2014.
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