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Study Resources :: Text Commentaries :: Don Stewart :: The Words of the Bible

Don Stewart :: Why Don’t We Possess Any of the Original Manuscripts of the Books of the Bible?

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Why Don’t We Possess Any of the Original Manuscripts of the Books of the Bible?

The Words of the Bible – Question 4

The original manuscripts in which the books of the Bible were written have been lost. This is true for the originals of almost all other ancient writings as well. There are several reasons why this is so. They include the following:

1. The Books Were Written upon Perishable Materials

The first reason we do not possess any of the originals of the biblical books concerns the materials upon which they were written. Surfaces such as papyri and parchment (animal skins) were not as durable as stone tablets. They would wear after long years of use. Only under the most ideal conditions can we expect this type of material to survive. Because most of the biblical text was originally written upon perishable material, we should not expect the autographs (originals) to last.

2. The Books Were Written Thousands of Years Ago

There is also the factor of time. The last written book of the Bible was composed some nineteen hundred years ago. The first books of Scripture, the writings of Moses, were composed about thirty four hundred and fifty years ago. Over this long period of time, manuscripts can become lost or worn out through constant usage. This factor, along with the perishable surfaces of the documents, makes it nearly impossible for an original text to have survived.

3. Some Manuscripts Were Destroyed by Those Copying the Text

Furthermore, Hebrew texts that had worn out were often buried or destroyed when a new copy was made. The ancient scribes would meticulously copy a new manuscript from the old worn out one. When the new manuscript was checked and found correct, then the old manuscript would be destroyed or buried to keep it from being defiled. Such was the reverence the Jews had for the text.

There is also the possibility that early scribes who copied New Testament manuscripts observed the Jewish practice of destroying old worn-out copies when the new ones were made. This would cause the loss of the original as well as older copies.

4. The Nation of Israel Went Through Many Difficult Times

The history of the nation Israel must also be considered. The nation has been twice removed from its homeland. The first time was for seventy years while the second time was for almost nineteen hundred years. At the seventy year Babylonian captivity, the people were sent off to a foreign nation. The city of Jerusalem was destroyed, the temple burned, and all its treasures taken away. It is a testimony to God’s providence that the Scripture survived the deportation of the nation to Babylon. The psalmist wrote of this difficult time:

How can we sing the songs of the LORD while in a foreign land? (Psalm 137:4 NIV)

As God had promised, the people returned to the land and again sang the songs of Scripture.

At the second exile, the city and temple were again destroyed. Those who survived were taken to Rome and sold as slaves. The nation did not again become an actual functioning state for almost two thousand years.

The Holy Scriptures had to contend with this sort of conflict from those who opposed the nation. The text would have had to have survived these two deportations as well as other calamities the nation faced.

5. The Texts Were Destroyed by Those Who Did Not Like the Message

There is an example of the text of Scripture being destroyed by one of the kings of Judah, Jehoiakim. We read about this episode in Jeremiah 36. It says:

Baruch read Jeremiah’s words to all the people from the Temple room of Gemariah son of Shaphan. This room was just off the upper courtyard of the Temple, near the New Gate entrance. When Micaiah son of Gemariah and grandson of Shaphan heard the messages from the LORD, he went down to the secretary’s room in the palace where the administrative officials were meeting. Elishama the secretary was there, along with Delaiah son of Shemaiah, Elnathan son of Acbor, Gemariah son of Shaphan, Zedekiah son of Hananiah, and all the others with official responsibilities. When Micaiah told them about the messages Baruch was reading to the people, the officials sent Jehudi son of Nethaniah, grandson of Shelemiah, and great-grandson of Cushi, to ask Baruch to come and read the messages to them, too. So Baruch took the scroll and went to them. “Sit down and read the scroll to us,” the officials said, and Baruch did as they requested. By the time Baruch had finished reading, they were badly frightened. “We must tell the king what we have heard,” they said. “But first, tell us how you got these messages. Did they come directly from Jeremiah?” So Baruch explained, “Jeremiah dictated them to me word by word, and I wrote down his words with ink on this scroll.” “You and Jeremiah should both hide,” the officials told Baruch. “Don’t tell anyone where you are!” Then the officials left the scroll for safekeeping in the room of Elishama the secretary and went to tell the king. The king sent Jehudi to get the scroll. Jehudi brought it from Elishama’s room and read it to the king as all his officials stood by. It was late autumn, and the king was in a winterized part of the palace, sitting in front of a fire to keep warm. Whenever Jehudi finished reading three or four columns, the king took his knife and cut off that section of the scroll. He then threw it into the fire, section by section, until the whole scroll was burned up. (Jeremiah 36:10-23 NLT)

Here we have an ironic example of the Scripture being destroyed by a Jewish king. However, we are told that the burned scroll was rewritten by Baruch the scribe. We read:

After the king had burned Jeremiah’s scroll, the LORD gave Jeremiah another message. He said, “Get another scroll, and write everything again just as you did on the scroll King Jehoiakim burned.” (Jeremiah 36:27-28 NLT)

The Word of God cannot be destroyed!

6. New Testament Documents Were Also Destroyed

While there has been purposeful destruction of the Old Testament Scripture, there was also persecution of the New Testament documents. The early Christians and their sacred writings were made the object of persecution. One particular persecution, at the beginning of the fourth century, was Empire-wide.

The church historian Eusebius witnessed this persecution first-hand. He wrote the following account about this persecution:

All this [persecution] has been fulfilled in our day, when we saw with our own eyes our houses or worship thrown down from their elevation, the sacred Scriptures of inspiration committed to flames in the midst of the markets. (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 8::2:1)

Therefore, like the Old Testament texts, the New Testament documents were also destroyed by those who objected to the Christian faith.

7. They Have Been Used as an Object of Worship

While there are historical reasons as to why the originals of Scripture no longer exist, there are also some people who have advocated theological reasons as to why these books have not been preserved. They believe that if the originals of any books of the Bible had survived, they would be made objects of worship. The faith of the believer, they contend, would be placed in the wrong object. The text, rather than the ultimate Author of the text, would receive worship.

In fact, it seems that this is what did happen. In the writings of Peter of Alexandria, who died in A.D. 311, he relates how the original of the Gospel of John still existed in his day. He made the comment that this copy was “adored by the faithful.” This sounds like the people were giving a status to the actual writing that it did not deserve. We do not worship the text of Scripture! On the contrary, we worship the God whom the text of Scripture reveals.

The Text Is Still Trustworthy

These are some of the reasons as to why we do not possess the originals of any of the biblical books. However, the text we now have, while made from copies, is a completely trustworthy text.

This is not surprising. Indeed, God made the following promise some 2,700 years ago. The prophet Isaiah wrote:

The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God endures forever. (Isaiah 40:8 TNIV)

God’s Word has lasted forever.

Consequently, we can conclude that the Bible has been transmitted in such a reliable manner that we can trust what it says. The message has not been lost or distorted.

Summary – Question 4
Why Don’t We Possess Any of the Original Manuscripts of the Books of the Bible?

There are a number of reasons as to why we do not have the originals of the books of the Bible.

First, the materials used to copy the texts were perishable. They would wear out through constant use. This is to be expected with any ancient writing. In addition, thousands of years have gone by since the most recent biblical book was written. Again, we should not expect them to survive over such a long period of time.

There was also the practice of the Hebrew scribes destroying old copies to keep them from being corrupted by unbelievers. This would cause the originals to perish.

The nation Israel, with all of the upheavals they faced, made it difficult to protect the ancient manuscripts from destruction. We also have one example of a king of Judah destroying the original writing of Jeremiah. However, we are also told that Jeremiah was told by the Lord to produce a new copy of the Scripture.

We know of the destruction of copies of Scripture by the enemies of God. There was an Empire-wide persecution of Christians at the beginning of the fourth century.

There is also the fact that original copies of Scripture may become objects of worship. Because we do not have the original writings (autographs) of the books of the Bible, the science of textual criticism is absolutely necessary in reconstructing the text from the manuscripts we do have.

The good news is that the text has come down to us in a remarkable manner. This is in accord with the promise of God that His Word would last forever. The evidence shows that it indeed has.

What’s the Difference Between the History of the Text of the Old Testament and the History of the Text of the New Testament? ← Prior Section
What Is the Earliest Part of the Old Testament That Still Exists? What Is the Earliest New Testament Manuscript That Still Exists? Next Section →
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