How the Bible Came to Us

That the Bible has survived untarnished down to our day is nothing less than miraculous. Its writing was completed over 1,900 years ago. It was recorded on perishable materials​—paper made of papyrus reeds and parchment made of animal skin—​and the original writing was in languages that few people speak today. Also, powerful men, from emperors to religious leaders, tried desperately to eradicate the Bible.

HOW did this remarkable work survive the test of time to become mankind’s best-known book? Consider just two factors.

Multiple Copies Preserve the Texts

The guardians of the earliest Bible texts, the Israelites, carefully preserved the original scrolls and made numerous copies of them. Israel’s kings, for instance, were told to write “a copy of this law from that which is in the charge of the priests, the Levites.”​—Deuteronomy 17:18.

Many Israelites loved to read the Scriptures, recognizing them to be God’s Word. Thus, the copying of the text was done with extreme care by highly trained scribes. One God-fearing scribe named Ezra is referred to as “a skilled copyist in the law of Moses, which Jehovah the God of Israel had given.” (Ezra 7:6) The Masoretes, who copied the Hebrew Scriptures, or “Old Testament,” between the sixth and tenth centuries C.E., even counted the letters in the text to avoid errors. Such meticulous copying helped to ensure both the accuracy of the text and the survival of the Bible itself despite desperate and persistent attempts by enemies to destroy it.

For example, in 168 B.C.E., Syrian ruler Antiochus IV attempted to destroy all the copies of the Hebrew Scriptures he could find throughout Palestine. A Jewish history notes: “Any scrolls of the law which they found they tore up and burnt.” The Jewish Encyclopedia says: “The officers charged with carrying out these commands did so with great rigor . . . The possession of a sacred book . . . was punished with death.” But copies of the Scriptures survived both among Jews in Palestine and those living in other lands.

Soon after the writers of the Christian Greek Scriptures, or “New Testament,” finished their work, copies of their inspired letters, prophecies, and historical accounts proliferated. For instance, John wrote his Gospel in or near Ephesus. Yet, a fragment of that Gospel, part of a copy that experts say was made less than 50 years after he wrote his account, was found hundreds of miles away in Egypt. That discovery indicated that Christians in distant lands had copies of what were then recently inspired texts.

The wide distribution of God’s Word also contributed to its survival centuries after the time of Christ. For example, as dawn broke on the morning of February 23 in the year 303 C.E., Roman Emperor Diocletian is said to have watched his soldiers smash down the doors of a church and burn copies of the Scriptures. Diocletian thought he could eliminate Christianity by destroying its sacred writings. The next day, he decreed that throughout the Roman Empire, all copies of the Bible be publicly burned. Copies survived, however, and were reproduced. In fact, large sections of two copies of the Bible in Greek that were probably made not long  after Diocletian’s persecution survive to this day. One is in Rome; the other, in the British Library in London, England.

Although no original Bible manuscripts have yet been found, thousands of handwritten copies of the whole Bible or portions of it have survived to our day. Some of them are very old. Did the message contained in the original texts change as it was copied? Scholar W. H. Green stated concerning the Hebrew Scriptures: “It may be safely said that no other work of antiquity has been so accurately transmitted.” Concerning the Christian Greek Scriptures, a leading authority on Bible manuscripts, Sir Frederic Kenyon, wrote: “The interval then between the dates of original composition and the earliest extant evidence becomes so small as to be in fact negligible, and the last foundation for any doubt that the Scriptures have come down to us substantially as they were written has now been removed. Both the authenticity and the general integrity of the books of the New Testament may be regarded as finally established.” He also stated: “It cannot be too strongly asserted that in substance the text of the Bible is certain. . . . This can be said of no other ancient book in the world.”

Bible Translation

A second major factor that has helped the Bible to become mankind’s best-known book is its availability in many languages. This fact harmonizes with God’s purpose that people of all nations and tongues come to know and worship him “with spirit and truth.”​—John 4:23, 24; Micah 4:2.

The first known translation of the Hebrew Scriptures was the Septuagint version in Greek. It was prepared for Greek-speaking Jews living outside Palestine and was completed about two centuries before Jesus’ earthly ministry. The whole Bible, including the Christian Greek Scriptures, was translated into many languages within a few centuries of its completion. But later, kings and even priests who should have done all in their power to get the Bible into the hands of the people did the very opposite. They tried to keep their flocks in spiritual darkness by not allowing God’s Word to be translated into common languages.

In defiance of Church and State, courageous men risked their lives to translate the Bible into the language of the people. For example, in 1530, Englishman William Tyndale, educated at Oxford, produced an edition of the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures. Despite much opposition, he became the first person to translate the Bible from Hebrew directly into English. Tyndale was also the first English translator to use the name Jehovah. Spanish Bible scholar Casiodoro de Reina was constantly in danger of death from Catholic persecutors as he worked on one early Spanish translation of the Bible. He traveled to England, Germany, France, Holland, and Switzerland as he worked to complete his translation. *

Today the Bible continues to be translated into more and more languages, and millions of copies are being published. Its survival to become mankind’s best-known book demonstrates the truth of the apostle Peter’s inspired statement: “Grass becomes withered, and the flower falls off, but the saying of Jehovah endures forever.”​—1 Peter 1:24, 25.

[Footnote]

^ par. 14 Reina’s version was published in 1569 and was revised by Cipriano de Valera in 1602.

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WHICH TRANSLATION SHOULD I READ?

Many languages have numerous Bible translations. Some translations use difficult, archaic language. Others are free, paraphrased translations that aim for easy reading rather than accuracy. Still others are literal, almost word-for-word translations.

The English edition of the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures, published by Jehovah’s Witnesses, was prepared directly from the original languages by an anonymous committee. This version, in turn, has been the primary text used for translations into about 60 other languages. Translators for those languages did, however, make extensive comparisons with the original-language text. The New World Translation aims for a literal rendering of the original-language text whenever such a rendering would not hide its meaning. The translators seek to make the Bible as understandable to readers today as the original text was to readers in Bible times.

Some linguists have examined modern Bible translations​—including the New World Translation—​for examples of inaccuracy and bias. One such scholar is Jason David BeDuhn, associate professor of religious studies at Northern Arizona University in the United States. In 2003 he published a 200-page study of nine of “the Bibles most widely in use in the English-speaking world.” * His study examined several passages of Scripture that are controversial, for that is where “bias is most likely to interfere with translation.” For each passage, he compared the Greek text with the renderings of each English translation, and he looked for biased attempts to change the meaning. What is his assessment?

BeDuhn points out that the general public and many Bible scholars assume that the differences in the New World Translation (NW) are due to religious bias on the part of its translators. However, he states: “Most of the differences are due to the greater accuracy of the NW as a literal, conservative translation.” While BeDuhn disagrees with certain renderings of the New World Translation, he says that this version “emerges as the most accurate of the translations compared.” He calls it a “remarkably good” translation.

Dr. Benjamin Kedar, a Hebrew scholar in Israel, made a similar comment concerning the New World Translation. In 1989 he said: “This work reflects an honest endeavor to achieve an understanding of the text that is as accurate as possible. . . . I have never discovered in the New World Translation any biased intent to read something into the text that it does not contain.”

Ask yourself: ‘What is my goal in reading the Bible? Do I want easy reading with less attention to accuracy? Or do I want to read thoughts that reflect the original inspired text as closely as possible?’ (2 Peter 1:20, 21) Your objective should determine your choice of translation.

[Footnote]

^ par. 22 Besides the New World Translation, the others were The Amplified New Testament, The Living Bible, The New American Bible With Revised New Testament, New American Standard Bible, The Holy Bible​New International Version, The New Revised Standard Version, The Bible in Today’s English Version, and King James Version.

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The “New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures” is available in many languages

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Masoretic manuscripts

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A fragment containing Luke 12:7, “. . . have no fear; you are worth more than many sparrows”

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Foreground page: National Library of Russia, St. Petersburg; second and third: Bibelmuseum, Münster; background: © The Trustees of the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin