How Careful were Scribes when Copying the Bible?


Some people claim the early Christians believed they were copying letters, history, biographies, and apocalypses, not scripture, so they may not have been as careful while the copying the New Testament as the Jews had been when copying their Bible, and introduced errors into the New Testament. The belief that the Bible has been corrupted over the past 2,000 years contradicts what is actually known about the early church.

The city of Alexandria, Egypt, was founded by Alexander the Great in 331 B.C., and the Library of Alexandria was likely founded by pharaoh Ptolemy II Philadelphus between 285–246 B.C. This library was one of the largest in the Roman Empire, and some of the best scholars in the world worked at the library.

In about the second century BC the rules for careful copying and textual criticism were developed heavily in Alexandria, Egypt, which became the primary scholarly city in the ancient world for book reproduction (before the New Testament was ever written). The New Testament manuscripts became benefactors of that approach.1

Strict standards existed for professional scribes in the ancient world for copying books, whether religious or secular. Even in the 21st century, Jewish scribes (or Sopherim2) follow rules standardized over 1,000 years ago, and those rules are based on practices that had been used for hundreds of years.

One significant difference between the Jewish scribes and the New Testament copyists is that the Jewish scriptures were almost always copied by highly trained professionals3 (and only scrolls written by a professional may be used in public settings), while the New Testament was copied by people with a wide range of skills. It’s likely some were amateurs while others were trained as well as the Jewish scribes.

From the late 1800’s to the mid 1900’s, dozens ancient of New Testament manuscripts written on papyrus were discovered. Some of the first New Testament papyri found had enough mistakes in them that scholars believed they were written by untrained people4. For decades, these poorly copied manuscripts led many scholars to believe the early Christians didn’t have professional scribes to copy their scriptures. This problem gave rise to the belief that mistakes in copying the New Testament made it unreliable.

As more manuscripts were found during the 20th century, some scholars were surprised to find the poorly copied manuscripts were the exception rather than the rule. Although relatively few early manuscripts seem to have been copied by highly trained professionals, many were copied by people who had experience in copying documents.

…some of the earliest [New Testament] manuscripts we now have indicate that a professional scribe copied them. Many of the other papyri confirm that a semi-professional hand copied them, while most of these early papyri give evidence of being produced by a copyist who was literate and experienced. Therefore, either literate or semi-professional copyist did the vast majority of our early papyri, with some being done by professionals. As it happened, the few poorly copied manuscripts became known first, establishing a precedent that was difficult for some to discard when the enormous amount of evidence came forth that showed just the opposite.5

The Old Testament, or Jewish Scriptures, were written for a group of people who had the same language and culture. For the past 1,000 years or more, the exact words in the scriptures have been considered important, and the scribes follow over 4,000 rules to ensure accuracy when making a copy of the scriptures. That wasn’t always the case, however. Among the Dead Sea Scrolls, four copies of the book of Jeremiah were found, and even during the time of Jesus’s ministry, the Jewish scriptures had textual variants.6

On the other hand, parts of the New Testament were written for Jews, while other parts were written for Gentles. The New Testament was quickly translated into other languages, and for people from other cultures. Since different languages have different rules of grammar, and a word in the source language may have several possibilities in the target language, translators must work carefully to keep the intended meaning of the text while making sure the text is understandable by the intended audience. The New Testament manuscripts have much greater variations in them compared to the Old Testament, but that doesn’t mean they’re less accurate in their meaning.

There are two ways to interpret the number of manuscripts responsibly when it comes to the reliability of the New Testament text. On the one hand, a large majority of manuscripts are text-critically unnecessary for establishing the original text, producing no more noticeable effect than a pebble dropped in the ocean. On the other hand, it is precisely this lack of effect that is important when judging reliability. If the bulk of the papyri discovered at the beginning of the twentieth century and all other manuscripts since then have not resulted in major revisions of our critical editions, then this attests to a remarkably stable text that can reliably be reconstructed even without them.7

The claim that untrained people made huge changes to the Bible while copying it is false. The  intended meaning of the New Testament has been transmitted from the Biblical authors to us accurately. Most of the changes that were made were accidental, and textual scholars can detect and correct them. Some changes were intentional, but even most of those can be corrected. There are only a few places where scholars debate the original wording, but none of those places change Christian beliefs.

Bibliography

  • Andrews, Edward D. From Spoken Words to Sacred Texts: Introduction-Intermediate to New Testament Textual Studies (Cambridge, Ohio: Christian Publishing House, 2020; Kindle) (Amazon) (Google Play)

Footnotes

  1. Wallace, Daniel. Lecture at Discover the Evidence (Dallas, TX, December 3–4, 2013). Quoted in: McDowell, Josh and McDowell, Sean. Evidence That Demands a Verdict: Life-Changing Truth for a Skeptical World (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2017) 66. (Amazon)
  2. Who are the Hebrew Sofer?
  3. Wegner, Paul D. A Student’s Guide to Textual Criticism of the Bible: Its History, Methods and Results (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2006; Logos) Page 73. (Amazon) (Logos)
  4. e.g. Papyrus 45 (P45)
  5. Wilkins, Don and Edward D. Andrews. The Text of the New Testament: The Science and Art of Textual Criticism (Cambridge, OH: Christian Publishing House, 2017; Kindle) Page 101-102. (Amazon)
  6. In the study [of the Dead Sea Scrolls], researchers were able to establish that four copies of the book of Jeremiah were represented among the fragments, each a different version. This suggests Jewish society of the Second Temple period was open to differently worded versions circulating simultaneously, with emphasis more on the larger meaning and themes conveyed, and less insistence on the precise wording of the religious scripture. (Laden, Jonathan. Dead Sea Scrolls Genetically Fingerprinted (Biblical Archaeology Society: June 11, 2020: webpage) Accessed 17-Jun-2020.)
  7. Peterson, Jacob W. “Math Myths: How Many Manuscripts We Have and Why More Isn’t Always Better” In: Hixson, Elijah and Gurry, Peter J. Myths and Mistakes in New Testament Textual Criticism (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2019; Logos) Page 67. (Amazon) (Logos)

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