How the Holy Hebrew and Greek Scriptures reached us
All the Bible books have been written by human authors under divine inspiration. They wrote their works by hand. No original manuscripts exist today. What we still have are a lot of hand-written copies of the Scriptures. Many of them are very old.
The Hebrew and Greek Scriptures were put on paper in their original form, without the divisions (in chapters and verses) that we know today. Divisions were first used in 1551 by a Paris printer and since then, it has been standard practice in all Bibles.
The Hebrew Scriptures were originally written and later copied without vowels or punctuation marks. These writings consisted only of consonants. The people who read these writings knew which vowels had to be placed between the consonants.
Between 607 and 537 before Christ, all the people of Israel lived in exile. In 537 B.C., they were allowed to return to the Holy Land. At that time, many Israelites decided to stay where they were. The result was that from those days onwards, there were Jewish communities all over the Middle East and these Jews came together in their synagogues on the Sabbaths. All these communities needed copies of their Scriptures and consequently, these were produced in large numbers during the last five centuries before Christ.
Nowadays, we still have about one and a half thousand hand-written copies of parts of the Hebrew Scriptures and even some complete texts. The great majority of these date back to the tenth up to and including the 15th century after Christ. The three oldest fragments date back to the years 895, 916, and 930 after Christ. The oldest copy of the complete text of all the Hebrew Scriptures dates from the year 1008 after Christ.
The Greek Scriptures were not originally written in the classical Greek in which the great Greek philosophers, scholars, historians, poets, and dramatists wrote their works between the 9th and 4th centuries before Christ. The Greek Scriptures were written in koine Greek, a simplified form of the classical Greek. This koine Greek was the international language of all the peoples in the Middle East in the 3rd century before Christ up to and including the days of Jesus Christ. In the days of Jesus, koine Greek was the language that was spoken and understood all over the Roman Empire. It is not surprising that the writers of the Greek Scriptures, who were all Jews, decided to write their books in koine Greek which was spoken and understood in all important countries during those days, instead of using Hebrew, which was understood by very few people outside their own country.
At present, we still have about 4500 hand-written copies of parts of the Greek Scriptures and even some complete texts. We also have more than 8000 hand-written copies of translations in Latin. The oldest of these manuscripts date from the 2nd up to and including the 4th century after Christ. The oldest text that we still have today dates from about 125 after Christ. It is a small fragment of the gospel of John which was written about 25 years after his death.
The art of printing was invented in the middle of the 15th century after Christ. Shortly afterwards, the first printed Bibles appeared. It became possible to mass-produce the Bible in such a way that printed ones only cost a fraction of the earlier hand-written copies. As a result, there was a tremendous increase in the number of Bibles that was spread among ordinary people in Europe from 15th century onwards. The Bible began to play a major part in daily life and in European culture. It should not be forgotten that in the Middle Ages, a handwritten Bible cost a number of years’ wages of an ordinary craftsman and from the 5th to 15th century, only the clerical and worldly elite could afford something so expensive. It should also be born in mind that during those times, the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures were only available in Latin and only the clerical and worldly elite could read this language.
Reformation – 16th century
During the second half of the 15th century and the first half of the 16th century, printed Bibles could be bought in increasingly large numbers for increasingly low prices. They became more and more available for people who could never have afforded a Bible in the Middle Ages – the lower clergy and the ordinary citizens. All sorts of common people and ordinary social groups began to study the Bible. They were the ones who in the past had always thought that reading the Bible was the exclusive domain of the higher ranking Catholic clergy. Many of the new Bible readers began to discover that the teachings and daily activities of the Roman Catholic Church could in no way be brought into agreement with the divine messages from their Bibles. This resulted in a schism within Christianity. The Reformation took place in the 16th century. Large numbers of people in Europe left the Roman Catholic Church and founded their own Protestant Churches.
The Bible played a large part in what led to the Reformation and what followed it. Scholars began to study the existing manuscripts of the Scriptures very critically. They collected and compared as many ancient manuscripts as they could find and tried to produce a definitive version that everybody could accept. Erasmus, a Dutch scholar, played a major part in this process. He published a definitive Greek edition of the Christian Greek Scriptures that was based on a thorough study and comparison of almost all manuscripts that were existing in those days.
At the beginning of the 16th century, it was tried to make the Bible readable for people who could not understand Hebrew, Greek, or Latin. The Bible was translated into various European languages. In 1522, Luther translated the Hebrew Scriptures from Greek into German. He based his translation on the Erasmus text. Three years later, Tyndale translated the Hebrew Scriptures from Greek into English. He also used the Greek text that Erasmus had produced.
From the 16th century to the present, thousands of experts on the Jewish religion and Christianity and linguists all over the world have been busy studying and comparing all existing old manuscripts of Bible parts and complete Bibles. They have done this to reconstruct the original text as accurately as possible, based on how God has inspired it and how the original authors have written it down. At the end of the 19th century, this resulted in a number of definitive text editions of both the Hebrew Scriptures and the Greek Scriptures. Biblical scholars generally assume that they represent almost perfectly the words and sentences originally used by the 40 human Bible writers. In this respect, special attention should be drawn to the text edition produced in 1881 by two scholars of the University of Cambridge – B.F. Westcott and F.J.A. Hort.
There is every reason to believe that what we consider the original Bible texts nowadays are really the original texts. It this context, it should be born in mind that of the great classical authors like Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Ovid, Seneca, and others, only an extremely limited number of old text editions are still existing. We still have thousands of manuscripts of Scriptures dating from 2nd to 16th century.
As a result, there is hardly any difference of opinion among Bible scholars of both Roman Catholic and of Protestant origin nowadays with regards to the original words and sentences of our Scriptures. There is only debate on about one in every thousand words. This debate and the doubt that lies beneath it are of no importance in understanding what the Bible says and teaches.
That this is so was proved beyond any doubt when shortly after the Second World War in 1947 and the years following it, some earthen pots were discovered in caves near the Dead Sea. In these earthenware pots, people found Bible texts that dated back to the 1st century before Christ. People first found the nearly complete text of the Bible book Isaiah. But in later years, practically all books that we consider part of the Hebrew Scriptures were found one after another.
The differences between what we now consider the generally accepted text of the Hebrew Scriptures and the words and sentences found in the earthenware pots mentioned are negligible. The slight differences in spelling and in grammar have no consequences on what the texts say and teach.