Theology in 3D

Do We Still Have God’s Words? The Preservation of Scripture (Part 3)

Layton Talbert | February 2, 2024

Part 1 of this series explored several observations that imply the preservation of Scripture. Part 2 examined several biblical texts that assume and expect its preservation. One final point remains to be developed.

The History of Scripture Displays the Means of Preservation

It’s common—and correct—to specify that the doctrine of inspiration refers to the original inscripturation of God’s words in what scholars call the autographs—Paul’s original letter to the Romans, Moses’ initial inscription of Deuteronomy, David’s first penning of Psalm 23 (and others), etc. In other words, the inspiration process does not extend to copies; but to whatever degree the copies are accurate representations of the originals, they carry the same authority as the originals.

That observation automatically raises a legitimate and important question: Do we still have any of those original manuscripts? The answer is no; all we have is copies. So how is it meaningful to say what I just said—that to whatever degree a copy is an accurate representation of the originally inspired manuscript, it is as authoritative as the original? If we no longer have access to the originals, how can we possibly compare them to the copies to see how accurate the copies are? Is this just theological sleight of hand?

Before I answer that, we need to back up in our thinking to an even bigger question: Why don’t we have the original manuscripts? Would it not have been a very simple thing for an omnipotent God to miraculously preserve the original manuscripts of the entire Bible? And yet, he chose not to. God chose not to. That observation is as crucial as it is obvious.

Instead, God chose to preserve his word in a way that arguably demonstrates his wisdom and power even more vividly—through his providence over finite and fallen people (and some of them not even his people!). So, in the wisdom and will of God, we do not have the original documents. That’s a vital and liberating reality to recognize. And to rest in. The Bible teaches us to expect that God will preserve his word for his people. But it never says anything about how God would do that.

With that caveat, let’s return to the previous question: What good are copies if we don’t have the originals for comparison? Because we don’t just have a few random old copies here and there; we have thousands and thousands of copies. And we can read and compare all those copies over a whole history of transmission and translation—copies that go back not just 500 years, or 1000 years, but over 2000 years. That means we can trace the history of transmission which, as it turns out, doesn’t display numerous and wild divergences all over the place. What we find in that history is a stunning record of astonishingly consistent transmission.

That history displays providential preservation in action. In delivering the words he wanted us to have, God chose the supernatural means of divine inspiration and inscripturation. In preserving the words he wanted us to have, God chose the providential means of human transmission and translation.

God providentially superintended the preservation of his revelation through the normal arduous work of ancient [and modern] scribes and translators.

Meade and Gurry, Scribes & Scriptures: The Amazing Story of How We Got Our Bible, 82

So, the Bible’s preservation is a historical reality that is traceable to the providence of God, and verifiable through the accurate transmission of the Scriptures over thirty-five centuries. What does that process look like?  Here’s just one snapshot. For centuries, the Hebrew manuscripts of the OT were kept and hand-copied by Jewish scribes called the Masoretes. We know their work was incredibly painstaking; they would even count and record the number of words and letters in their copies—to make sure nothing was missing or added (e.g., F. F. Bruce, The Books and the Parchments, 117).

For a long time, the oldest Hebrew manuscripts we had access to dated back only to about 1000 . . . after Christ! That’s a big gap from when they were originally given—a gap of about 1500–2500 years between the original manuscripts and the only extant copies of the original writings of Moses, David, Jeremiah, and the other OT authors. We had no idea just how accurate (or inaccurate) the work of the Masoretes was until 1947, and the “accidental” providential discovery of a previously unknown stash of over 225 Hebrew OT manuscripts dating back another 1000+ years before the earliest Masoretic manuscripts, all the way back to a century or more before Christ. These became known as the Dead Sea Scrolls. When scholars began comparing the Masoretic manuscripts with those newly discovered scrolls—even though there was a 1000-year gap between the two groups of manuscripts—the DSS demonstrated the astonishing precision with which, in the providence of God, the Masoretic text was copied over those intervening 1000 years.

So, in the providence of God, we have this huge reservoir of thousands of Old and New Testament manuscripts. Are there any variations or differences between all these? Of course! Apart from an interventional, supernatural, miraculous process of preservation, that’s to be expected.

Think about it this way: has God promised to keep all preachers of his word free from error? If only! He has committed the oral transmission of his revelation—the preaching of his word—to a fallible human process which he sovereignly oversees and overrules in his providence. And yet, good (but not perfect) preachers and teachers are sufficient for God to accomplish his purposes. Likewise, God has committed the copying and preservation of his word to a fallible human process which he sovereignly oversees and overrules in his providence. What is stunning about the manuscript record is that the number of those differences is so minuscule and the nature of those differences so minor that no doctrine is brought into question. (How minor? Let me suggest a website for you to explore, put together by one of my former students, Dr. Mark Ward— The site highlights every difference between the two major NT manuscript families.)

In his book on The Doctrine of the Word of God, John Frame remarks that God chose not to record or preserve many things that he said. For example, take all the words of Jesus recorded in the NT, and you have a total of about 5 hours of speech. And yet Jesus’ ministry covered 3–3½ years! That’s a lot of infallible truth that God chose not to give us in Scripture. Why? Simply because God decided we didn’t need it.

God is absolutely sovereign over his own communication, and what becomes of his own communication.

[God] has determined that we will have all the personal words he intends to speak to us today. In that theological sense, we have lost nothing through the process of textual transmission. . . . Because of God’s ‘singular care and providence’ over the process of transmission [i.e., preservation], we now have in Scripture all the personal words that God intends to say to us today.

Frame, The Doctrine of the Word of God, 252

Let me return to the two realities from Jeremiah 36: (1) God has a vested interest in preserving his words, and (2) God has no difficulty in preserving his words. In that you can rest, and rest assured.

NOTE: Here are some helpful resources for those who wish to do some further investigation on their own.

Recommended Reading

  • Brash, Richard.  A Christian’s Pocket Guide to How God Preserved the Bible
  • Feinberg, John S.  Light in a Dark Place: The Doctrine of Scripture, Chapter 19
  • Frame, John M.  The Doctrine of the Word of God, Chapter 33
  • Meade, John D. and Peter J. Gurry, Scribes and Scripture: The Amazing Story of How We Got Our Bible
  • Williams, J. B. & R. Shaylor, God’s Word in Our Hands: The Bible Preserved for Us
  • The ESV Study Bible, Articles and Resources, “The Reliability of the Bible Manuscripts”

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