The Word of God: Its Survival


It would be hard to come to any other conclusion when we examine the evidence, than that the Lord has preserved His Word. The number of textual documents that have been discovered, including manuscripts (copies of ancient texts), and versions (translations of ancient texts into other languages), is at least 20,000. Nearly 6,000 of these are manuscripts of the NT, some of them dating back to within a century or two of the original autographs. Other ancient writings such as the works of the Roman historian, Tacitus (58-117AD), survive on the basis of only two manuscripts, dated from the 9th and 11th centuries. This example is typical for most of the ancient classical works in our possession today. In his book Our Bible and the Ancient Manuscripts, Sir Frederic Kenyon wrote, “The number of manuscripts of the NT, of early translations from it, and of quotations from it in the oldest writers of the Church, is so large that it is practically certain that the true reading of every doubtful passage is preserved in some one or other of these ancient authorities. This can be said of no other ancient book in the world.” This remarkable preservation has occurred in the face of significant attacks leveled against the Bible.


There were two periods in history when the written Scriptures appeared to be on the brink of physical destruction. The first was during the reign of Antiochus Epiphanes IV, the Hellenistic Greek king of the Seleucid Empire (175-164 BC). The Jewish historian Josephus describes Antiochus’ invasion of Jerusalem and writes: “if there were any sacred book of the law found, it was destroyed, and those with whom they were found miserably perished also” (Antiquities of the Jews, Book 12, ch5). This attempt is also recorded in the non-canonical book of Maccabees, which states that, “Antiochus set up the abominable idol of desolation upon the altar of God, and they built altars throughout all the cities of Juda round about … and they cut in pieces, and burnt with fire the books of the law of God: and every one with whom the books of the testament of the Lord were found, and whosoever observed the law of the Lord, they put to death, according to the edict of the king” (1:57-60). But God used Judas Maccabeus, who saved many of those books, led a revolt against the Seleucid Empire, and restored Jewish worship at the temple in Jerusalem. This event is now celebrated among the Jews as Hanukkah. After this period of persecution, the Jews were driven to a renewed appreciation for the Scriptures, and formally separated from the canon those books deemed spurious.

The second major attempt to destroy the Scriptures occurred during the reign of the Roman Emperor Diocletian (284-305 AD). Although Antiochus’ assault was obviously on the OT Scriptures, Diocletian’s was aimed at the NT Scriptures. His persecution and hatred toward Christians was documented by the Greek historian, Eusebius of Caesarea, who wrote: “It was in the nineteenth year of the reign of Diocletian, in the month Dystrus … when the feast of the Savior’s passion was near at hand, that royal edicts were published everywhere, commanding that the churches be leveled to the ground and the Scriptures be destroyed by fire. Such was the first edict against us. But not long after, other decrees were issued…” (Church History, Book VIII, ch2). Remarkably, and we might argue providentially, the next Roman Emperor was Constantine, who decided to end the persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire and professed himself to be a convert to Christianity. In 331 AD, Constantine commissioned Eusebius to deliver 50 Bibles for the Church of Constantinople.


Although philosophical attacks on the Bible have always persisted, the most significant occurred shortly after the Reformation. With the Bible readily available in most languages, and a shift away from strict obedience to priestly interpretations of the Scriptures, many began to discuss (and deride) the actual content of the Bible itself. The rise of rationalism led many to abandon belief in the miraculous, and thus ridicule the Bible’s record of Jesus’ miracles, His virgin birth, resurrection, etc. Men like Robert Ingersoll and Thomas Paine, in their lectures and books, led many in America away from belief in the Bible. In Europe, no one was more influential in destroying faith in the Bible than the French philosopher, Voltaire. It is often noted that Voltaire predicted that, within 100 years of his death, Christianity would be swept from existence. He died in 1778. Few own any copies of his writings. Yet over five billion copies of the Bible have been sold since he died.


Enemies of the truth even came from within the “Christian” camp. Attempts to translate the Bible into the language of the common people were met with persistent and vicious opposition during the Reformation. The Latin Vulgate had been the standard text for centuries, but the common people didn’t speak Latin any more, and therefore could not read the Bible. The new English versions threatened to expose the errors of Roman Catholicism, and the attempts to repress these versions were fierce. Translators like John Wycliffe and William Tyndale faced persecution, and even death at the hands of the “Established Church” for their English translations of the Bible. Although their bodies were burned (Wycliffe’s being exhumed, then burned), their translations survived and influenced nearly all English Bible translations for the next few centuries.


The Bible has now been translated into approximately 2,000 languages (ancient and modern). Taking as an example the work of the Gideons International, 80 million copies of the Scriptures are distributed every year. In April 2015, Gideons distributed their historic two billionth Scripture. It took 93 years for the Gideons to distribute the first billion copies (from 1908 to 2001). The second billion was attained in less than 14 years. There are literally billions of copies of God’s Word in this world today. It might be accurate to say that, at this point in history, the only way all physical copies of the Bible could be destroyed is for the earth itself to be destroyed.

God has indeed preserved His Word. “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the Word of our God will stand forever” (Isa 40:8, ESV).