Was the Bible Copied Like Links in a Chain or a Tangled Ball of String?

Chain or String

A common complaint against the Bible is that it’s been copied, re-copied and corrupted so many times that it’s impossible to know what was originally written. Behind this complaint is the assumption that scribes frequently made errors while copying the Bible, and that later scribes simply copied the errors rather than correcting them.

Many people believe the Bible was copied like links in a chain, with each copy made from the last one that was copied before it. There have been times when the Bible was copied this way. During the Middle Ages, in particular, some scribes would destroy a manuscript after it had been copied, wanting to keep the new copy rather than the worn out one. Any error in the copying process could then be copied into later copies, compounding the errors over time. This is a legitimate concern that scholars have been aware of and have tried to avoid as far back as records exist.

The process of copying New Testament manuscripts is more like a tangled ball of string rather than a chain. Scholars have access to nearly complete Bibles from about A.D. 300-4001, and fragments from earlier times exist. Even if one branch of the Bible had gotten horribly mangled through repeatedly copying errors, there are so many connections to other copies that scholars can reconstruct the meaning of the original text.

The chain may look strong and reliable, but if any link in the chain fails, all of the links after it are unreliable. The tangled ball of string seems messy, but each piece of string touches many other pieces of string. There are ancient copies of the Bible and modern copies of the Bible. There are copies in Hebrew, Greek, Latin, English and hundreds of other languages2. There are copies made by professional scribes and scholars, and by people who just love God’s word. For the purpose of reliably transmitting the Bible, the tangled ball of string actually increases the probability we have the meaning the original authors intended. 

Even in ancient times there were multiple copies  of the Bible available. The Hexapla was written by Origin of Alexandria sometime before A.D. 240. This massive work contains the Old Testament in six different versions, including two in Hebrew and four in Greek.3 Scholars can compare the versions, which will allow them to find copying mistakes, then correct them in later copies.

Great Isaiah Scroll, 1QIsa(a) (Wikimedia Commons)
Great Isaiah Scroll, 1QIsaa, about 300-100 B.C. (Wikimedia Commons)

The Old Testament book of Isaiah is an example of the care scribes have taken to ensure the accuracy of their work. The Great Isaiah Scroll (1QIsaa), written about 300-100 B.C., is a nearly complete copy of the book of Isaiah. This is one of the Dead Sea Scrolls, discovered by Bedouin shepherds in 1946 in Cave 1 at Qumran.

While there are differences between the Great Isaiah Scroll and the versions in modern Bibles (based on the Masoretic Text), most of those differences are minor, such as spelling changes. The more significant changes, such as Isaiah 16:8-9b being missing, can be attributed to mistakes in copying, not changes to theology. What’s important is the meaning of the text hasn’t changed.

How do scholars know one-and-a-half verses are missing? The Great Isaiah Scroll can be compared to other copies, and the mistakes can be discovered. If copying the Bible was like links in a chain, errors like this would never be found. Since there is an abundance of Biblical manuscripts, it is possible to find the errors and correct them.

The “links in a chain” argument actually conflicts with another common argument against the Bible: “there are so many differences in copies of the Bible that it can’t be trusted.” If “links in a chain” is true, then it wouldn’t even be possible to detect copying mistakes, and no one could complain about differences in copies.

The very fact that some people argue “there are so many differences in copies of the Bible that it can’t be trusted” is an admission that there are many copies that can be compared.4 It’s an admission copying the Bible is like a tangled ball of string. This means scholars can find the differences among the copies, and bring the text closer to what the Prophets and Apostles actually wrote.

Having a lot of manuscripts (the tangled ball of string) is helpful when trying to determine if a text has been transmitted accurately. If there’s only one copy, it’s impossible to know if the scribe carefully copied the source. If there are a hundred copies made by different scribes at different times in different locations, and they’re almost the same, there’s good reason to believe the text has been faithfully transmitted. The remaining inconsistent passages can be compared in an attempt to  reconstruct the original text.

The goal in studying manuscripts this way is to preserve the Word of God, and God provided the intellect, skills and tools to allow scholars to do that.

Footnotes

  1. Codex Vaticanus contains a nearly complete Old Testament and Codex Sinaiticus contains a complete New Testament.
  2. Bible.com currently (14-Feb-2020) lists 2,041 versions in 1,386 languages (not all of these are complete Bibles with both Old and New Testaments).
  3. What are Diglots and Polyglots?
  4. How Many New Testament Manuscripts Exist?

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