THE Bible is the most widely distributed book in history—an estimated 4.8 billion copies have already been circulated. In 2007 alone, more than 64,600,000 copies were produced. To put that into perspective, consider that the best-selling work of fiction that year had an initial printing of 12 million copies in the United States.
On its way to becoming the world’s most published book, the Bible survived many hazards. Down through history, it has been banned and burned, and those who would translate it have been oppressed and killed. Yet, one of the greatest threats to the continued existence of the Bible was, not the sudden heat of persecution, but the slow process of decay. Why so?
The Bible is a compilation of 66 smaller books, the oldest of which were written or compiled over 3,000 years ago by members of the nation of Israel. The original writers and those who copied the texts recorded the inspired messages on perishable materials, such as papyrus and leather. None of the original writings have yet been discovered. But thousands of ancient copies of small and large sections of the books of the Bible have been unearthed. A fragment of one of these books, the Gospel of John, dates to within just a few decades of the original document written by the apostle John.
“The transmission of the text of the Hebrew Bible [Old Testament] is of extraordinary exactitude, without parallel in Greek and Latin classical literature.”—Professor Julio Trebolle Barrera
Why is it remarkable that any copies of the Bible have survived? And how accurately do modern Bibles reflect the messages recorded by the original writers?
What Happened to Other Ancient Documents?
The survival of the Bible is extraordinary, considering what happened to the writings of nations contemporary with the Israelites. The Phoenicians, for instance, were neighbors of the Israelites during the first millennium B.C.E. These sea traders spread their alphabetic writing system throughout the Mediterranean area. They also profited from an extensive papyrus trade with Egypt and the Greek world. Even so, the National Geographic magazine observes regarding the Phoenicians: “Their writings, mostly on fragile papyrus, disintegrated—so that we now know the Phoenicians mainly by the biased reports of their enemies. Although the Phoenicians themselves reportedly had a rich literature, it was totally lost in antiquity.”
What about the writings of the ancient Egyptians? The hieroglyphics they carved or painted on temple walls and elsewhere are well-known. The Egyptians are also famous for developing papyrus as a writing material. However, regarding Egyptian records written on papyrus, Egyptologist K. A. Kitchen says: “It has been estimated that some 99 percent of all papyri written from circa 3000 down to the advent of Greco-Roman times have perished completely.”
What about Roman records that were written on papyrus? Consider this example. According to the book Roman Military Records on Papyrus, Roman soldiers were apparently paid three times a year, and a record of the pay was made on papyrus pay vouchers. It is estimated that during the 300 years from Augustus (27 B.C.E.–14 C.E.) to Diocletian (284-305 C.E), there were 225,000,000 individual pay records. How many have survived? Only two have been found that are legible.
Why have so few ancient documents written on papyrus survived? Perishable materials, such as papyrus and another common writing material, leather, decay quickly in damp climates. The Anchor Bible Dictionary says: “Because of the climate, papyrus documents from this period [the first millennium B.C.E.] are likely to be preserved only if they are in a dry desert and in a cave or shelter.”
What About the Bible Texts?
The original Bible books were evidently written on material as fragile as that used by the Phoenicians, Egyptians, and Romans. Why, then, did the material contained in the Bible survive to become the world’s most published book? Professor James L. Kugel provides one reason. He says that the original writings were copied “many, many times even within the biblical period itself.”
How do modern translations of the Bible compare with ancient manuscripts? Professor Julio Trebolle Barrera, a member of the team of experts charged with studying and publishing the ancient manuscripts known as the Dead Sea Scrolls, says: “The transmission of the text of the Hebrew Bible is of extraordinary exactitude, without parallel in Greek and Latin classical literature.” Respected Bible scholar F. F. Bruce says: “The evidence for our New Testament writings is ever so much greater than the evidence for many writings of classical authors, the authenticity of which no one dreams of questioning.” He continues: “If the New Testament were a collection of secular writings, their authenticity would generally be regarded as beyond all doubt.” Certainly, the Bible is a remarkable book. Do you make time to read it each day?—1 Peter 1:24, 25.
Still in existence today are some 6,000 handwritten copies of the Hebrew Scriptures, or Old Testament, and some 5,000 copies of the Greek Scriptures, or New Testament