God has revealed Himself to us in Scripture. That revelation was given to holy men by means of inspiration, a process that was initiated, empowered, and overseen by God Himself. But seeing that this took place up to 4,000 years ago, it is clear that the revelation inspired by God had to be preserved through the centuries. The story of its preservation seems, at times, an astoundingly human one. It involved priests, preachers, and politicians. Some of the characters in the story had motives that were holy and pure; others moved in response to the prompting of ego, personal relationships, or political expediency. Yet, for all the messy humanity of the narrative, we can find clear traces of the sovereign hand of God moving providentially to ensure the preservation and transmission of Scripture from Moses to the present day.
God’s providential preservation of Scripture has not always taken the course that we, with human wisdom, might have expected. For example, none of the autographs of Scripture survive. Autographs are the original texts, written by the prophets, the apostles, or their amanuenses. So, we cannot point to a manuscript in the handwriting of Paul or of John in any of the libraries or museums of the world. To us, this does seem strange. Why would God have His people rely on copies, when He could have seen to it that the originals were preserved? It is not for us to question the way in which God has worked or to attempt to second guess His motives. His way, after all, is perfect. But there are two possible reasons for His acting in this way. Firstly, God’s people in every age have had the tendency to erect idols and to give to material objects the worship that is due to God alone. One can hardly begin to imagine the industry of idolatry that would have built up around any surviving autograph of Scripture. Secondly, right from its infancy, the Church has been attacked by heresies. Scripture in the hands of God’s people has always been the weapon with which these heresies have been met. But suppose one organization or individual were able to claim that they alone had access to the authoritative version of Scripture. Even without surviving autographs, this is not unprecedented in Christian history. By ensuring the transmission of Scripture in many copies, God has made it impossible for any one to claim a monopoly on divine truth.
So, Scripture was not preserved in its original manuscripts. But it was preserved in the multitude of apographs or copies that were made. Reverent scribes, both Jewish and Christian, painstakingly and accurately copied out the Scriptures. Because they all held the truth of the plenary and verbal inspiration of Scripture, they would have taken the utmost care in their copying. Both those who supervised their work and the end users of the text would, likewise, carefully ensure the accuracy and reliability of the copy. Mistakes would be made; the scribes were human. But the differences introduced by these mistakes would be minor and would in no way undermine any Biblical doctrine.
These copies were written on two different media. In 2 Timothy 4:13, the apostle Paul mentions “books and parchments” that he wishes to have with him in jail. We don’t know what the contents of those books and parchments were, but these two forms of written text had been the media for the transmission of Scripture right from the start.
Parchment is made from animal skin, usually the hide of a sheep or goat. Dried and scraped free of its hair, it made a smooth writing surface. For ease of use, stitched-together parchments were rolled into scrolls. It was a scroll of this sort that King Jehudi cut with his penknife (Jer 36) and from which the Lord Jesus read in the synagogue in Nazareth (Luke 4:17-20). These scrolls were very durable, but they were also expensive and bulky.
For these reasons, many of the books of the New Testament were transmitted in a new form. Technically known as the codex (plural codices), these books were formed from pages of papyrus. These thin sheets were made by laying rows of reeds in alternating directions and beating them flat. Unlike parchments, these papyrus codices were cheap and easily transportable. The latter virtue was particularly appealing to the persecuted Christians of the first century who required books that could readily be concealed and easily carried. However, papyrus is far less durable than parchment and is especially susceptible to damage by dampness. It is for this reason that most of the papyri that have survived have been found in hot and dry desert climates.
In these forms, thousands of portions of Scripture survive. There are more testimonies to the text of Scripture than there are to any other text of similar age. In fact scholars who work on more recent texts, right up to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, frequently have to make do with far fewer witnesses to textual accuracy. Rather than allowing any monopoly on the text of Scripture, God has spread it widely.
When the texts of these manuscript portions are compared, some inconsistencies or disagreements emerge. This gives rise to the work of textual scholars who pore over different manuscript readings, attempting to determine what reading is the best attested and most accurate. Their work is important. Sometimes, however, when we read works of textual criticism, the focus is so much on the differences that we lose sight of the vast amount of agreement that there is between all these manuscripts written across the centuries and found scattered all over the Middle East. Those who oppose the claims of Scripture like to cite vast numbers of “inconsistencies” but seldom outline how minor the disagreements are – often at the level of variations in spelling. These blips that have been introduced into the text of Scripture and transmitted through the centuries in no way imperil the truth of the Bible. Even the most radical critical editions of the Biblical text teach all the doctrines of Christianity.
God has given us His Word. And having given that Word, He has seen to it that it would be preserved to reveal His person and His ways long after those to whom it was first given had been taken to heaven. In His sovereignty, He has overruled so that believers in this twenty-first century do not need to grope after Divine truth or to reconstruct it from a few scattered fragments. He has given us a Book unlike any other, and in confidence and with safety we can receive and obey it.