The way the Bible has been preserved is nothing short of miraculous. Let me briefly show you a few of the best preserved classics from antiquity to prove my point by comparison.
Let’s look at some classic works
Gallic Wars: Did you know that the well-loved Astérix comics are set in the period just after the Gallic Wars, which were fought between 58 BC and 50 BC. Julius Caesar’s commentary of those wars is regarded as an ancient classic. The earliest copies available of this work were written 800 years after Julius Caesar wrote the original. So, how can we know that the text we have is accurate? Scholars use a method called Texual Criticism to find out from later copies, what the original would have said.
The Histories: About the year 440 BC, an extraordinary piece of journalism, known today as the Histories, was produced by Herodotus, a Greek historian. This work was about the rise of the Persian empire. He travelled from place to place, interviewed people, and documented his findings. The Histories included folklore and exaggerations and yet Herodutus was known as the Father of History because the way in which his information was presented actually helped to give the study of history a legitimacy that it did not previously have. We have 109 manuscripts from this work with the earliest copy dating A.D. 900, which is 1350 years from the events.
Ancient works from India: For the sake of my Indian friends and family I must include a few sentences about the ancient works of India. Valmiki’s epic poem Ramayana dates to the 5th century B.C. and exists today in thousands of manuscripts, some partial and some complete. The oldest of these is a palm-leaf manuscript in Nepal and dates to the 11th century after Christ. So we have a long gap between the original writing and the earliest available copy. As for the other great Indian epic Mahabharata, it was completed about the 4th century BCE by Vyasa. Here again, unfortunately we do not have good early manuscripts, and the copies have large variations. This seems to be the case with the Vedas and the Puraanas too.
Before I tell you about the copies that we have for the Bible, which you have guessed that I am about to declare as second to none, let us quickly look at the RUNNER UP for the ancient book with the best manuscripts.
Iliad: This is the history of the Trojan War authored by Homer in 800 B.C. and has less than 2000 manuscripts with the earliest copy dated at 400 B.C.
And see how the Bible compares
As is the case with every other classic work, the original autographs of the 66 books of the Bible are all lost to us. But the abundance of copies amply makes up for that loss. The integrity of the Biblical text is undeniable.
Over 25,000 handwritten copies of the New Testament have been recovered and more manuscripts are being found all the time. Scholars tell us that even if all these copies were lost, we would still be able to reconstruct the New Testament just from the extensive citations of the early church fathers. The earliest COMPLETE copies of the New Testament are Codex Sinaiticus, housed in the British Library in London, and Codex Vaticanus kept in the Vatican Library. Both these complete copies date to the early fourth century; however we have manuscripts and fragments dating within 25 to 150 years of the original writing.
Truth be told, no two manuscripts agree perfectly, but because of the sheer abundance of copies, textual criticism quickly works its way back to what the original autographs would have said, dispelling most of the ambiguities, which are very minor in any case. The variations that remain do not affect any major Biblical doctrine and are always carefully footnoted in our Bibles.
If you are wondering why I mention only the New Testament and not the Old, it is simply because the reliability of the Old Testament is not questioned quite so much. Archaeological findings prove the text again and again. Secondly for me, the discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls, written before the New Testament was written, was an amazing test, and the Old Testament passed with flying colours as it perfectly agreed with our current text. That kind of perfect agreement comes about because the Jewish scribes were so meticulous when it came to copying the Biblical text and had many rules and guidelines. Last but not least, Jesus used the Old Testament when He walked your planet. If He thought it was reliable, then it was, don’t you think?
Note also that people set out to destroy the Bible
Rulers like Antiochus Epiphanes, the Syrian king, ordered the Jews to destroy the Old Testament in 175 BC. Several centuries later, Diocletian, the Roman emperor ordered for Bibles to be burned.
Not only did the Bible survive these and other plans for its destruction, but the Book of books has been translated into over two thousand languages. In English alone, we are spoiled for choice with a number of standard versions. I once read a half-baked article stating that the Bible could not be accurate because it had so many versions. This could not be further from the truth. Yes we have many versions. What else can you expect when so different scholarly teams set out to translate the Bible from early manuscripts. Some of the older teams have used a set of manuscripts called Textus Receptus and the more contemporary teams have used the Alexandrian text. Having many versions is a boon to Christians as we can compare how these various scholars have translated the text. The Bible has been marvelously preserved; no wonder then that it is the best-selling book of all time.