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Inspiration of the Bible: Transmission/Textual Criticism

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The Dead Sea Scrolls—Seeing The Evidence Upclose

by  Kyle Butt, M.Div.

Small pieces of old, black papyrus might not sound very interesting. In fact, were you to see some of these nickel-sized jewels lying on the ground, you probably would think of them as pieces of trash, and simply leave them lying there (or else pick them up and put them in the trashcan). Even when they are displayed behind protective glass casing under regular lighting, they do not seem to be anything special. But when placed under infrared light, these treasures come alive. Dating back to about 150 B.C., these tiny pieces of the Dead Sea Scrolls—exhibited in Huntsville, Alabama, at the Von Braun Civic Center during January 2003—certainly are a sight to see. Most of us talk about the extensive manuscript evidence that verifies the Bible’s accurate transmission over the many centuries of its existence, but talking about this evidence is altogether different from being two inches away from it.

 

For many years, the oldest manuscripts available for the Old Testament dated back only to around A.D. 980. Due to this very late date, some questioned the integrity of the Old Testament documents. If some of these documents were written as early as 1500 B.C., but the earliest copies we could locate dated from 980 A.D., then how could we be sure that the copies we possessed said the same things as those original documents? In 1947, however, the treasure trove of Dead Sea Scrolls was discovered. Amazingly, the scrolls dated from 250 B.C. to A.D. 68. Among the thousands of scrolls and fragments, every single book of the Old Testament is represented, except the book of Esther. On display in Huntsville was a small fragment of Isaiah 26:19-21 that reads as follows: “Your dead shall live again, and their bodies shall rise, shall awake...My people, enter your chambers and shut your doors…to punish the iniquity of the inhabitants of the earth....” The text of this fragment is virtually identical to the text of Isaiah that we have had since A.D. 980. In fact, when the scrolls were compared to the text we possess, all of the texts are virtually identical, with only a few minor alterations (primarily involving the spelling of names). The Dead Sea Scrolls proved to the world that the Old Testament had been correctly transmitted for centuries.

The exhibit also presented several manuscripts attesting to the accuracy of the New Testament documents. Among those is an amazingly well-preserved papyrus sheet on which was written a portion of Paul’s Epistle to the Colossians. Dating back to third century A.D., this ancient document, written in the Egyptian language known as Coptic, contains major portions of Colossians 3:21-4:15. This manuscript, combined with the thousands of others of its kind, proves that the New Testament documents were circulating far and wide within a very few years of their original composition.

In fact, the New Testament can boast of more manuscript evidence than any other ancient book in existence. Take, for instance, Homer’s Iliad. To date, those who search for ancient manuscripts have located about 643 pieces of Homer’s work. One of those pieces is on exhibit along with the biblical manuscripts. This tiny strip of papyrus, dating back to the third century A.D., contains a tiny fragment of Homer’s epic poem. And, with 643 manuscript pieces, Homer’s work is among the most well-attested of all ancient documents—until it is compared to the New Testament. As of 2004, scholars have found over 5,700 Greek manuscripts of the New Testament, not to mention all those (like the piece of Colossians) written in other languages such as Coptic, Latin, Syriac, etc. In all, we have discovered at least 25,000 ancient written documents that attest to the New Testament’s accuracy, which surpasses every other ancient book by thousands of manuscripts.

Examining this type of ancient evidence firsthand impresses upon the mind the fact that the Word of God has been divinely preserved for thousands of years. As Jesus Christ put it almost two thousand years ago: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will by no means pass away” (Matthew 24:35).





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