were manuscripts passed down through the ages?
these words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart;
and you shall teach them diligently to your sons and shall talk of them
when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie
down and when you rise up. And you shall bind them as a sign on your hand
and they shall be as frontals on your forehead. And you shall write them
on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
has not only stated, but he has demonstrated, that the inspired writer
knew nothing of this world...; that the Bible is a book written by ignorance
-- at the instigation of fear."
Were biblical writings preceded by centuries of oral transmission?
The original biblical
documents, which were begun as long ago as the early second millennium,
no longer exist. All we have today are copies; copies of copies. To the
alert reader, this should raise two red flags. The two questions that should
immediately come to mind are
1) by what process
were those documents copied, and
2) how successful
was that process.
This chapter examines
the process of copying scripture; the next evaluates the effectiveness of
The Old and New Testament
scriptures were not the only written records that were copied in ancient
times with the full intent of preserving the fidelity of the original autographa.
Neighboring civilizations carried out their own programs of careful duplication
as R. K. Harrison records:
The fact that scholars
now possess firsthand, datable, contemporary, and comparative material
with which to exercise objective control over the forms of Old Testament
literature as well as over the different varieties of literary criticism,
has made possible a closer inspection of the recording and transmissional
methods employed by the scribes of Near Eastern antiquity. In both Mesopotamia
and Egypt scribes were educated to a high degree of literary proficiency,
and were renowned for their consistent accuracy in recording and copying.
An Egyptian religious papyrus from about 1400 BC carried a certification
to the effect that the scribes regarded the book in its extant written
form as complete from beginning to end, having been copied, revised, compared,
and verified sign by sign. If this was the case in Mesopotamia and Egypt,
there is no warrant for the assumption that the Hebrews were any less
careful or accurate in the matter of their own sacred writings.
So we see that writing
was not only in existence at the time the first books of the Bible were
being penned, but it existed to such a high degree that a formalized method
of its preservation was already in place. Thus the allegation that the
biblical writings were preceded by, or evolved from, centuries of oral transmission
is an accusation without foundation. "The firm tradition of the Mosaic period,
as well as of ancient peoples other than the Hebrews, was that any events
of importance were generally recorded in written form quite soon after they
had taken place." 2
Some of the oldest Semitic
writings are found at the turquoise mines of Serabit el-Khadim which were
made by Semitic miners employed by Egypt. Discovered in 1904, these are
believed to have been made no more recently than 1500 B.C.3.
Not only do these predate the most current estimation for Moses' writings,
but they suggest that writing was a capability of the working class and
possibly even slave class.
6.2 What was the ancient process for duplicating documents?
From the time of the
first writing to the invention of the printing press in the 15th century,
all writing to be copied was copied by hand. In ancient Israel, the copies
of scripture were actively used for teaching, reading and studying, and
as a consequence, were subject to wearing out. When each honored copy reached
a certain age it was required to be ceremonially buried. Thus it is highly
improbable any of those oldest copies or original documents will ever be
found. For it was not the physical document that was the object of reverence
and preservation, it was the message contained thereon.
The special scribes
who copied the message for worship and study purposes did so as a way of
life. They had to adhere to strict rules. Guidelines the Sopherim used,
and later the Talmudists, perfectly illustrate the care a people would take
concerning writing they fully believed was directly inspired of God:
A synagogue roll must
be written on the skins of clean animals, and prepared for the
particular use of the synagogue by a Jew. These must be fastened together
with strings taken from clean animals. Every skin must contain a certain
number of columns, equal throughout the entire codex. The length
of each column must not extend over less than 48 or more than 60 lines;
and the breadth must consist of 30 letters. The whole copy must
be first-lined; and if three words should be written without a line,
it is worthless.
The ink should
be black, neither red, green, nor any other color, and be prepared
according to a definite recipe. An authentic copy must be the exemplar,
from which the transcriber ought not in the least deviate. No word
or letter, not even a yod, must be written from memory, the scribe
not having looked at the codex before him... Between every consonant
the space of a hair or thread must intervene; between every new parashah,
or section, the breadth of nine consonants; between every book, three
lines. The fifth book of Moses must terminate exactly with a line; but
the rest need not do so. Besides this, the copyist must sit in full
Jewish dress, wash his whole body, not begin to write the name of
God with a pen newly dipped in ink, and should a king address him while
writing that name he must take no notice of him. [emphasis mine] 4
Later, Massoretic copyists
added greater safeguards to ensure against mistakes:
They numbered the
verses, words, and letters of every book. They calculated the middle
word and the middle letter of each. They enumerated verses
which contained all the letters of the alphabet, or a certain number of
them; and so on. These trivialities, as we may rightly consider them,
had yet the effect of securing minute attention to the precise transmission
of the text.... 5
The major work of
the scribes was to transcribe the Masorah, which were marginal and endnotes
about the text itself pointing out problem spots to copyists, how often
a word is used, and concordance-like lists. Passing on the text of
the Old Testament became a whole way of life to these men. [emphasis
care was taken to reproduce the biblical documents, an occasional misprint
of any one of several varieties may still be found among the thousands of
extant copies. Fortunately the volume of those early copies which are available
for cross-reference and comparison makes the issue of misprints or mistakes
an inconsequential one.
The intent of the original
authors still comes through the old manuscripts; not unlike listening to
an old vinyl album or an Edison recording. To paraphrase the late Dr. Walter
Martin, 'There are scratches here and there, but for those who will listen,
there can still be heard the Master's voice.'
NEXT: Have the original words been lost over the
How can different translations
exist of the same Bible?
Isn't one interpretation
just as good as the next?