Transmission Of The Bible

The accuracy of the present-day Hebrew version of the Old Testament is a result of the fastidious care with which the Sopherim and the Masoretes transmitted it. The Sopherim copied manuscripts of the Hebrew Scriptures from about 300 B.C. until A.D. 500. According to the Talmud, they came to be called "Sopherim" because, in their endeavor to preserve the text from alteration or addition, they counted the number of words in each section of Scripture, as well as the number of verses and paragraphs.

During this time, there were two general classes of manuscript copies, the synagogue rolls and private copies. Even the private copies, or "common copies" of the Old Testament text, which were not used in public meetings, were preserved with great care. For the synagogue rolls, however, there was a very elaborate set of rules for the copyists. The manuscript had to be prepared by a Jew, written on the skins of clean animals and fastened together with strings taken from clean animals. Every skin was to contain a certain number of columns, equal throughout the codex. The length of each column was to be no less than 48 and no more than 60 lines. The breadth was to be 30 letters. The ink was to be prepared according to a definite special recipe. An authentic copy was to be used from which to copy, and the transcriber was not to deviate from it in the least. No word or letter, not even a yod, was to be written from memory. The scribe was to examine carefully the codex to be copied. Between all of the consonants of the new copy, a space of at least the thickness of a hair or thread had to intervene. Between every parashah, or section, there was to be a breadth of nine consonants. Between every book, there was to be three lines.1

During the period A.D. 500-900, the text of the Hebrew Bible was standardized by the Masoretes, who were also very careful in the transmission of the text. They counted every letter and marked the middle letter and middle word of each book, of the Pentateuch and of the whole Hebrew Bible, and counted all parashas (sections), verses, and words for every book. These procedures were a manifestation of the great respect they had for the sacred Scriptures, and secured their minute attention to the precise transmission of the text.

The Masoretes also introduced a complete system of vowel pointings and punctuation for the text. Because of their high regard for faithfulness to the text in transmission, wherever they felt that corrections or improvements should be made, they placed them in the margin.2 They retained certain marks of the earlier scribes relating to doubtful words and offered various possibilities as to what they were. Among the many lists they drew up was one containing all the words that occur only twice in the Old Testament.

Accuracy was also a primary consideration in the transmission of the books of the New Testament. After Christianity became legal in A.D. 313, commercial book manufacturers, or scriptoria, were used to produce copies of the New Testament books. Bruce Metzger wrote:

In order to ensure greater accuracy, books produced in scriptoria were commonly checked over by a corrector . . . specially trained to rectify mistakes in copying. His annotations in the manuscript can usually be detected today from differences in styles of handwriting or tints of ink. . . .

When prose works were copied, a line called a stichos, having sixteen (or sometimes fifteen) syllables, was frequently used as a measure for determining the market price of a manuscript. . . . The application of stichometric reckoning served also as a rough and ready check on the general accuracy of a manuscript, for obviously a document which was short of the total number of stichoi was a defective copy. . . .

In order to secure a high degree of efficiency and accuracy, certain rules pertaining to the work of scribes were developed and enforced in monastic scriptoria. The following are examples of such regulations prepared for the renowned monastery of the Studium at Constantinople. About A.D. 800 the abbot of this monastery, Theodore the Studite, who was himself highly skilled in writing an elegant Greek hand, included in his rules for the monastery severe punishments for monks who were not careful in copying manuscripts. A diet of bread and water was the penalty set for the scribe who became so much interested in the subject-matter of what he was copying that he neglected his task of copying. Monks had to keep their parchment leaves neat and clean, on penalty of 130 penances. If anyone should take without permission another's quaternion (that is, the ruled and folded sheets of parchment), fifty penances were prescribed. If anyone should make more glue than he could use at one time, and it should harden, he must do fifty penances. If a scribe broke his pen in a fit of temper (perhaps after having made some accidental blunder near the close of an otherwise perfectly copied sheet), he had to do thirty penances.3

The accuracy of the present-day Greek version of the New Testament has resulted from the comparison of thousands of manuscripts by textual critics who have been able to separate them into families on the basis of certain variations that each manuscript family has in common. The principles of textual criticism enable scholars to determine which versions of the text are predecessors of the others, thereby coming close to the original reading.

While there are many variant readings in the documents of the New Testament, the vast majority of them are of very minor significance, and, according to A. T. Robertson, affect a "thousandth part of the text."4 This minuscule portion of the text does not affect any aspect of Christian doctrine. F. C. Grant wrote in his Introduction to the Revised Standard Version of the New Testament that, of the variant readings in the New Testament manuscripts, "none has turned up thus far that requires a revision of Christian doctrine."5 Philip Schaff wrote that not one of the variant readings affects "an article of faith or a precept of duty which is not abundantly sustained by other and undoubted passages, or by the whole tenor of Scripture teaching."6

The great multitude of variant readings of the text supplies abundant means for checking on the accuracy of those variants. The criteria used in choosing among conflicting readings in New Testament texts can be found in the introduction to Bruce M. Metzger's A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (United Bible Societies, 1971), pp. xxiv-xxviii.

1 Norman L. Geisler and William E. Nix, A General Introduction to the Bible (Chicago: Moody Press, 1968), pp. 240-241, citing Samuel Davidson, The Hebrew Text of the Old Testament, 2d ed., p.89.

2 Gleason L. Archer, A Survey of Old Testament Introduction, Revised ed. (Chicago: Moody Press, 1974), p. 63.

3 Bruce M. Metzger, The Text of the New Testament, 2d ed. (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1968), pp. 15, 16, 19.

4 Archibald T. Robertson, An Introduction to the Textual Criticism of the New Testament, p. 22, as quoted by Geisler and Nix, p. 366.

5 F. C. Grant, An Introduction to the Revised Standard Version ofthe New Testament (1946), p. 42, quoted by F. F. Bruce, The Books and the Parchments, third ed. (Westwood, NJ: Fleming H. Revell Co., 1963), p. 189.

6Philip Schaff, Companion to the Greek Testament and the English Version, 3d ed., rev., p. 177, as quoted by Geisler and Nix, p. 366.


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