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Good question, @owensannemarie.
The reason is because we all know how easy it is to miscopy something. If all you have is one ancient manuscript to consider, with no others to compare it to, how would you know whether it was accurately copied or not? Well, you really couldn’t verify it by cross checking with another if all you had was one.
But if you had a second ancient manuscript, you could compare them and see if there were any differences between the two. Whatever passages were identical, you could feel much better about being accurately copied. Whatever passages differed would raise a flag in your mind. How would you decide which (if either) was correctly copied and which was in error?
By getting a third copy. And the more copies you have to compare, the greater the consensus you can find among them on passages where one or two might differ. If the majority of ancient manuscripts include a word or a phrase that another manuscript leaves out, then it would be very reasonable to conclude that the 99 are more likely right than the one.
Does this make sense to you?
Welcome to Connect @owensannemarie. Reading your question, I feel that I need to mention the Death Sea Scrolls and add some important points.
There are no original manuscripts in the world. What we have are copies of copies. We must take into consideration that the people who copied them did so meticulously and with great reverence because they know that they are dealing with sacred texts, the very word of God. They may not have modern photocopier machines but they reproduced almost exact copies of the older ones. The more hand written manuscripts means we have more copies to cross examine for accuracy and consistency as already mentioned by James Lyons @jlyons. The more ancient the discovered manuscripts are, the more accurate they are with less mistakes. The sensational discovery of Dead Sea Scrolls at Qumran in 1947 demonstrated that the biblical manuscripts that we have today are exactly the same as the ones written 300 years before Jesus. Add to this the tradition of the Jewish people, and endless number of copies from different eras that help us compare with each other and realize that there is no appreciable change in its message. In thousands of years the text remains intact.
Qumran is located between Jerusalem and the major Dead Sea beaches and other places. There are about 230 natural Qumran caves in the area and some man-made caves. Some natural caves went deeper then anyone had thought. It is believed that there are caves, not discovered yet. Remains dating back to the Iron Age have been uncovered at Qumran as well as walls, pottery and a cistern from later settlements.
A Jewish sect once settled here, isolating themselves from big city life and living as a communal monastery-like community. The community devoted itself to the study of the Bible. They were the ones who hid the Dead Sea scrolls in jars in these caves, right before the arriving Roman armies who killed everyone.
The Death Sea Scrolls were discovered in A.D. 1947 by a shepherd. As the story goes, a shepherd left his flock of sheep and goats to search for a stray. He found a cave in the crevice of a steep rocky hillside. Intrigued, he cast a stone into the dark interior, only to be startled by the sound of breaking pots. Upon entering the cave, the young boy found a mysterious collection of large clay jars. The majority were empty and upon examining the remaining few, he found that the jars were intact, with lids still in place. However, a closer look revealed old scrolls, some wrapped in linen and blackened with age. The boy has stumbled upon the greatest discovery of biblical manuscripts.
The scrolls (biblical, deuterocanonical, and non-canonical) come from the last century B.C. and the first century A.D. The discovered fragments include every book of the Hebrew Bible except Esther. The documents, dated between 130 BC to AD 70, were fragments of a library which belonged to a Jewish monastic community. A complete copy of Isaiah written in Hebrew was found and it was much older than any other known manuscripts. In all, 40,000 fragments were discovered. In a general sense these underline and emphasize the accuracy of the documents we already have.
The Dead Sea Scrolls proved that the Old Testament and the Hebrew Torah were true and independently confirmed. But there are mysteries too. We can only speculate about the scrolls which were destroyed when some of the caves collapsed and the scrolls in some caves which may never be discovered.
The discoveries of Qumran are important for biblical studies in general. In the matter of the text of the Old Testament, however, the Dead Sea Scrolls are of great importance. The text of the Greek Old Testament (or the Septuagint) as well as the quotations of the Old Testament in the New Testament, indicate that there were other texts besides the one that has come down to us (the Masoretic Text). In relation to the New Testament, the Dead Sea Scrolls furnish the background to the preaching of John the Baptist and Jesus Christ, as well as the writings of Paul and John.
The Bible is the best-documented book in human history, with over 18,000 manuscripts from all eras that repeat the same things. Speaking on the reliability of the New Testament, F. F. Bruce said, “There is no body of ancient literature in the world which enjoys such a wealth of good textual attestation as the New Testament.”
Here is a good internet resource which explains in simple terms how having multiple copies of a text helps in verifying if the content has been changed or is reliable.
The NT was written on parchment and papyrus which were easily destroyed by natural processes with the passage of time (unlike paper or plastic). The availability of multiple copies of the same text, copied independently, over a wide geographical area helps us to come to a conclusion if the text has been faithfully reproduced or not. Compared to other texts of the same era, the NT testament has a stunningly high number of copies, some dating back to even the early 2nd century. Yes, there were minor variations in spelling and other grammatical changes but less than 0.5% of the variations have any significant change in the meaning of the text according to historians who deal with the art and science of textual criticism. When this degree of accuracy in copying is coupled with a high number of copies of the text, it gives a high degree of certainty that the text was not changed according to the whims of those who copied it.
On the other hand if we had only one or two copies of the original, it is difficult to say with a high degree of certainty that the text was not changed.
Thank you! That makes sense! I just watched James White debating Bart Erhman and James points out that the manuscripts were spread out all over so it was not one manuscript that was used to make multiple copies. I think I used to understand multiple manuscripts similar to a copy machine…as if one copy was going to be no more significant than 300 copies. I’m seeing more clearly how it would not have been possible to control the manuscripts from one central place.
Thank you so much!!
This is really helpful. I think the most helpful part is that they were copied independently, over a wide geographical area! Thank you for the link!