Bible Manuscripts: Embarrassment of Riches

2008-08 50 de HamelIt’s a common expression.

When it comes to the number of ancient handwritten copies of the Bible known to exist, we have an embarrassment of riches.

For the New Testament, we know of more than 5,800 partial and complete manuscripts written in Greek (the language of the NT). These date from the second to the fifteenth century.

It is well-documented that this represents more copies than that of any other ancient author.

Here’s the problem: these biblical manuscripts have differences.

That’s right. Don’t picture 5,800 identical, bound copies gracing the shelves of some library somewhere. Instead, these copies vary in length, in condition, in completeness, and in quality. They are spread out in more than 250 locations around the world.

The photo above shows me examining five unregistered New Testament manuscripts (at the time; they have since been catalogued). This shows how fragmentary some can be.

And no two are exactly the same.

Does that trouble you? Would you be more confident in today’s Bible if only one ancient manuscript existed. Think about it. If only one manuscript existed, how many differences would exist? None. But would you be more or less confident in today’s Bible?

I don’t know about you, but I want MORE evidence, not less.

An illustration is in order.

Some say that the Apostle Paul did not write some of the NT letters attributed to him because they are too different from letters known to be written by Paul. These same scholars argue that 2 Peter could not be written by the Apostle Peter because the author tries too hard to make himself sound like Peter.

You get it? If Paul’s letters sound different than one another, they must be written by different authors. If Peter’s letters sound too similar to one another, they must be written by different authors. Does anyone else smell a conspiracy?

We can’t win!

It’s the same with manuscripts. The arguments go like this: If there are differences, then the manuscripts can’t be reliable. If all of the manuscripts were identical, then a human conspiracy must be behind it!

As it turns out, the manuscripts match the exact level of difference we should expect to find if careful humans tried their best to copy them.

And copy they did. To the tune of thousands. We have an embarrassment of riches of evidence for the reliability of the Bible.

That’s worth celebrating.

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