New Age Deism III: Manuscript Preservation

“Ac 17:11, 12 These were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so. Therefore many of them believed; also of honorable women which were Greeks, and of men, not a few.”

The apostle Paul had just spent three fruitful weeks in Thessalonica. Although many of the Thessalonians had believed, as evidenced by the later “Epistles to the Thessalonians,” the unbelieving Jews created such an uproar in the city that Paul was forced to flee for his life to the nearby city of Berea. In verse 11 we find Paul in the synagogue at Berea preaching to the Jews there.

When we read this passage, we might picture in our mind the apostle Paul preaching from a pulpit while the congregation busily flip through their leather bound Bibles. Such was not the case. Searching thru the manuscripts of the synagogue would have been a laborious task. Very few, if any, households owned personal manuscripts they could leisurely search through at home. A skilled scribe would labor from nine months to a year to produce a single copy of the 39 books of the Old Testament, making them too expensive for the average Jew to own.

There are 3 basic facts about bible manuscript transmission we need to keep in mind as we consider the preservation of God’s Word.

(1) They were given by God, through inspiration, to and for His people, not to the world at large.

Rom. 3:1 What advantage then hath the Jew? … 3:2 Much every way: chiefly, because that unto them were committed the oracles of God.”

2 Tim. 3:16 All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness:”

(2)The Jews, primarily through the Levitical priesthood, were the custodians of the Old Testament Scriptures (Deuteronomy 31:9-13, 2 Chronicles 35:3). The primary purpose of the Old Testament was to teach the descendents of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob the requirements of God in Worship and Service, and to point to Jesus, the coming Messiah and His future Kingdom. As evidenced by the text of Acts 17, the Jews considered the Scriptures to be the all authoritative Word of God by which they tested any teaching that might be contrary to Scripture.

In 2 Kings 22 we learn that the Old Testament manuscripts were lost or destroyed in the idolatrous culture of Judah during the 55 year reign of King Manasseh, however, the Word of the Lord had been preserved in the Temple, by God’s providence . The discovery of it and its effect on the kingdom of Judah is recorded in 2 Kings 22-23 and 2 Chronicles 33-34.

Jeremiah the prophet of Judah during that time tells us in Jeremiah 11 just how pervasive idolatry had become during the reign of Manasseh and in Jeremiah 19 he pronounces God‘s judgment on Judea and Jerusalem as a result.

“Jer 11:13 For according to the number of thy cities were thy gods, O Judah; and according to the number of the streets of Jerusalem have ye set up altars to that shameful thing, even altars to burn incense unto Baal.”

“Jer 19:3 Hear ye the word of the LORD, O kings of Judah, and inhabitants of Jerusalem; Thus saith the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel; Behold, I will bring evil upon this place, the which whosoever heareth, his ears shall tingle.”

Near the end of his reign, Manasseh was captured by the Assyrians and taken to Babylon (2 Chronicles 33:11). Although, Manasseh repented and was returned to the throne in Jerusalem, it seems to have been too little, too late. While Manasseh removed the idol he had placed in the Temple, broken down the heathen alters and commanded the people of Judah “to serve the Lord God of Israel,” the people continued their sacrifices in the “high places” as before,

2Ch 33:17 Nevertheless the people did sacrifice still in the high places, [yet] unto the LORD their God only.”

When Manasseh died, his son Amon became king in his stead. Amon served two years and then was assassinated by his servants. The people were so angered by the assassination of Amon, they killed the assassins and chose Amon’s eight-year old son Josiah as their king. Evidently, they approved of the idolatry and licentiousness that prevailed under the rule of Manasseh and Amon and assumed it would continue under Josiah, but God had other plans.

2Ch 34:3 For in the eighth year of his (Josiah‘s) reign, while he was yet young, he began to seek after the God of David his father: and in the twelfth year he began to purge Judah and Jerusalem from the high places, and the groves, and the carved images, and the molten images.

After purging Judah and Jerusalem of the idolatry of his fathers, Josiah sought to repair the Temple, which had deteriorated during the reign of the former kings. During the process of renovation, ordered by Josiah, the high priest Hilkiah found a copy of the Book of the Law and sent it to king Josiah (2 Kings 22:8-11, 2 Chr. 34).

“2Ch 34:14 And when they brought out the money that was brought into the house of the LORD, Hilkiah the priest found a book of the law of the LORD given by Moses.”

We are not told exactly what the book was that Hilkiah found. It could have been all the Old Testament Scripture written up to that time, or it could have been just the five books of Moses. Some “modern critics” have speculated that it was only the book of Deuteronomy written by a scribe during or shortly before the reign of Josiah. It could also have been the book of the law commanded by Moses to be placed in the side of the ark in Deutefonomy 31.

“De 31:9 And Moses wrote this law, and delivered it unto the priests the sons of Levi, which bare the ark of the covenant of the LORD, and unto all the elders of Israel.”

“De 31:26 Take this book of the law, and put it in the side of the ark of the covenant of the LORD your God, that it may be there for a witness against thee.”

Or, it could have been the “master copy” of the law kept in the Temple for use by the scribes in reproducing copies for the Levites whose job it was to teach the law to all the inhabitants of Judah.

“2Ch 17:7-9 Also in the third year of his (Jehoshphat‘s) reign he sent to his princes, to teach in the cities of Judah … And with them he sent Levites, priests…and they taught in Judah, and had the book of the law of the LORD with them, and went about throughout all the cities of Judah, and taught the people.”

Whatever it was, it was immediately recognized and accepted as the Word of God. And, it is an excellent example of God’s preservation of His Word through acts of His providence. As more scripture was written by the inspired prophets and historians they were added to the collection of Temple manuscripts to be copied by the scribes. This process continued until the last of the minor prophets, MalachI, was written near the end of the fourth century B.C. completing the canon of Old Testament Scripture.

The scribe was a highly respected and influential office requiring both skill and talent. Scribes were motivated by the certain knowledge that they were copying the very Words of God. To minimize the possibility of human error, manuscripts were written in columns with a uniform number of lines. The characters in each line were counted and recorded in the margin. And, they were subject to peer review. When a copy was finished, other scribes checked each scroll for errors; the final check was then made by a priest. Manuscripts that were less than perfect were destroyed and had to be copied over again. Only those manuscripts that had survived the scrutiny of scribal editors and priests were put into use by the Levites.

During the captivity the Temple at Jerusalem was no longer available to the Jews for worship, and the use of synagogues for teaching the Word of God, prayer and worship was instituted, and continues to this day. (Animal sacrifices were only allowed in the Jerusalem Temple by Mosaic law). Copies of the manuscripts making up the Old Testament canon became the “Textus Receptus” of Judaism, received by all the synagogues as the Word of God.

These manuscripts were collected, collated and compiled by a group of scribes and Torah scholars known as the Masaretes in the seventh century A.D. This text, known as the Masoretic Text, became the source text for virtually all translations of the Hebrew Old Testament into other languages, including the English language Bibles of Today. For the most part, it seems to have escaped the ravages of modern critics except for the most rabid anti-scripture fanatics.

New Testament Manuscripts

(3) Just as the Levitical priesthood was the custodian and conservers of the Old Testament Scriptures, the apostolic churches were the custodians and conservers of the New Testament Scriptures.

“Joh 17:15 I pray not that thou shouldest take them out of the world, but that thou shouldest keep them from the evil.”

“Joh 17:17 Sanctify them through thy truth: thy word is truth.”

“Joh 17:19 And for their sakes I sanctify myself, that they also might be sanctified through the truth.”

“1Ti 3:15 But if I tarry long, that thou mayest know how thou oughtest to behave thyself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth.”

Within a few years after the death of the apostles, there were thousands of manuscripts circulating among the churches. However, not all of the manuscripts written by the apostles were considered inspired by God and received by the churches. For example, in the epistle to the church at Colosse, Paul mentions an epistle to the church at Laodicea.

“Col 4:16 And when this epistle is read among you, cause that it be read also in the church of the Laodiceans; and that ye likewise read the epistle from Laodicea.”

For some reason, known only to God, the epistle to Laodicea, mentioned here by Paul, was not preserved and circulated among the other churches so as to become a part of the New Testament canon. The method of preservation and transmission of the New Testament seem to be as follows: The inspired writer created a manuscript and submitted it to a particular church. That church’s scribe or scribes would then make copies and send to other churches. If a small church did not have a skilled scribe, they would conceivably make a copy which they would keep and send the original to another church that did have scribes for professional copying.

If, indeed, this was the process of transmission, the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and John would probably have been submitted to the Church at Jerusalem; the Gospel of Luke as well as the book of Acts would have been submitted to the church at Antioch since that was the “home base” of Paul and Luke. Hebrews, Jude, James and the epistles of Peter and John were probably submitted to the church at Jerusalem. The Pauline epistles along with Philemon, Colossians and the other recipients of Paul’s epistles would almost certainly have found their way to Antioch for copying. An exception to this list might be the book of Revelation which logically would have been sent to Ephesus since it was both the church of John at that time, and the first church mentioned by Jesus in the book.

After the persecution that arose in Jerusalem and the martyrdom of Stephen, the center of Christianity shifted from Jerusalem to Antioch. Antioch also became a major copying center for the manuscripts received by the early churches. In fact, Antioch was the source of so many manuscripts that an entire “text family” is referred to by modern critics as “Antiochian type” manuscripts. These make up the greater part of the “majority manuscripts” also known as the “received text.” The term “Textus Receptus” (English: received text) simply means the texts that were received as the Word of God by a consensus of all the early churches.

In considering these manuscripts we must keep in mind that the earliest churches of the apostolic age were autonomous, individual churches whose only authority was Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit and the Old Testament Scriptures. There were no denominations, formal associations, or organizations of churches with the authority to direct the policies and actions of individual churches. The heresy of the Nicolaitans (Hierarchical church government), referred to by Christ in the second chapter of Revelations, would not come into full bloom until the second and third centuries. (more on this in a later article).

As manuscripts were copied and distributed by the Christian Scribes, after being checked by other scribes and elders in the copying church, they would be again scrutinized by the receiving church. Manuscripts that were found to have errors or other corruptions were either destroyed or set aside not to be used or passed along to other churches. These “defective” manuscripts would account for a large percentage of the “minority manuscripts” that would eventually become a part of the “critical text” used in modern translations.

All Bibles in other languages were translated from either the “Majority” or the “Alexandrian” texts until 382 A.D. when Jerome was commissioned by Pope Damasus I to translate a new Latin Bible to replace The Vetus Latina (“Old Latin”). The Vetus Latina was a collection of manuscripts used by the non-Greek speaking churches of the Roman Empire. These were translated into Latin during the mid-second century from the Greek “majority” or “Antiochian text” in use by all the Greek-speaking churches and became the preferred “Bible“ of churches speaking only the Latin language.

Jerome’s translation, produced from a mixture of Alexandrian and Antiochian texts, came to be known as “The Vulgate” but did not become popular among the Latin speaking churches until Latin became a “dead language” used only by the elites and intellectuals some 900 years later. It was formally declared to be the “official” Bible of the Roman Catholic Church at the Council of Trent (1545-63 A.D.) The Vetus Latina continued to be the popular version used by most Latin-speaking churches, especially the churches that refused to bow to the church of Rome, such as the Waldenses and other non-conformist groups until well into the middle ages. It may even have been the Latin version used by Wycliffe to translate the first English New Testament.

Another important translation compiled in the middle of the second century was the Syrian version known as the Peshitta. This version is written in Syriac, a regional dialect of the Aramaic language. Like everything else in Bible history, the origin and transmission of the Peshitta has been so scrambled by “critical scholarship” that it is difficult to state with any certainty it’s origins and transmission prior to the sixth century. For example, the Assyrian Church of the East, backed by many modern Syriac scholars, claims that the original New Testament manuscripts were first written in Aramaic and translated into Greek at Edessa.

Among western churches the “scholars” dominant belief is that the Peshitta was translated at Antioch from the Koine Greek spoken by the common people of the first century, the original language of the New Testament. It was translated between 150-175 A.D. and considered by most Syriac scholars to be “the queen of translations”. The early Peshitta contained only the four Gospels, Acts, and the Pauline epistles. Second Peter, Second and Third John, Jude and the Acocalypse were missing, as were all of the “catholic epistles”. These were incorporated into the Syriac canon much later, possibly as late as the 5th to 7th centuries.

Like most Bibles, the Peshitta, still used today by the Eastern churches, has been revised many times. However, there is little doubt that the original Peshitta was translated from the received, or majority text. The source for the additions and revisions is less certain. There is creditable evidence that both the Old Latin and the Old Aramaic Bibles, the Vulgate and the Peshitta, were translated by the scribes at Antioch between 150 and 170 A.D. Undoubtedly, there were other translations into other dialects and languages by individuals during the early centuries of the church age. Most of these would have been translated outside the “church” by false prophets and heretics of one type or another. Because of their obscurity and isolation, they are more likely to contain errors and deliberate attempts to obscure or change Bible doctrine. They also would be more likely to escape the attention of persecutors whose intent was to stamp our Christianity. No doubt, some of these would be the progenitors of some of the “minority texts”.

One of the axioms of Westcott and Hort, the fathers of modern textual criitcism, and their successors, is that the oldest manuscripts are to be considered as “closest to the original autographs“, therefore, most likely to be the more authentic “reading”. The “elephant in the room” overlooked by modern critics is the historical context of the churches from the first to the fourth century.

For over two-and-a-half centuries following the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ, the new churches underwent a level of persecution not to be repeated until the dark ages. The first persecution was by the Jews beginning with the martydom of Stephen, one of the seven deacons. John foxe in his “Book of Martyrs” tells us that under this persecution more than 2,000 Christians were put to death. And then, there was the short persecution mentioned in Acts 12 by Herod Agrippa in which the Apostle James was killed.

“Ac 12:1-2 Now about that time Herod the king stretched forth his hands to vex certain of the church. And he killed James the brother of John with the sword.”

In 54 A.D. the psychopath Nero became empror at Rome. In 64 A.D. the city of Rome suffered a disastrous fire, destroying a major part of the city. Many citizens claimed Nero himself had started the fire to clear land for a palatial complex he planned to build. To deflect criticism from himself, Nero successfully convinced the people that the cause of the disaster was the Christians, setting off one of the cruelest persecutions imaginable. The persecution reached its peak in 67 A.D. Thousands of Christians perished, some were doused in flammable materials, and while still alive, placed on stakes and burned to provide light to Nero’s gardens. Both Peter and Paul were martyred during this persecution.

Nero committed suicide in 68 and was followed by Domitian, who in 81 A.D. set off another persecution of Christian. Christianity was outlawed, and a law was made that no Christian brought before the tribunal could escape punishment without first renouncing his faith. Anyone suspected of being a Christian was given a test oath. If they refused to take it they were sentenced to death. If they confessed to being a Christian they were also sentenced to death. It was during this period of persecution that the apostle John was banished to the Isle of Patmos and wrote the Book of Revelation.

The third persecution was instituted by Trajan in 108 A.D. and continued under his successor Hadrian. There were, between 67 A.D. and 313 A.D., when the Persecutions by Roman Emperors ended, a total of ten periods of persecution. In addition to the three already mentioned, there were: Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (162 A.D.), Severus (192), Maximus (235), Decius (249), Valerian (257), Aurelia (274) and the last and most vicious of all, Diocletian (303).

Persecution was not uniform throughout the empire. For example, as vicious as the persecution under Nero was, it was primarily carried out only in the confines of Rome. Although the persecutions instituted by the emperors were intended to be throughout the empire, the severity of the persecutions seems to be dependent on how cruel the governors of the various provinces were. The two periods of persecution with the most bearing on our present subject were the one under Decius (249 A.D.) and Diocletian (303).

These two periods of persecution were directed toward the destruction of Scripture rather than the destruction of life. In fact, the lives of christians who surrendered their Scriptures were spared; the surrender of their Scriptures being considered sufficient repudiation of their Christian faith. This led to two schisms in the Nicolaitan churches, Novatianism and Donatism.

After a period of persecution ended, many Christians who had denounced their faith sought readmission to membership in the Churches. Following the rein of Decius, followers of Novatian, a Roman priest, opposed the election of Pope Cornelius, elected to replace Pope Fabian who had been martyred during the Decius persecutions. Novatian himself was martyred under the persecutions of Valerian between 257 and 260 A.D. His followers became a schismatic sect who opposed the the leniency of the churches in forgiving those who surrendered their Scruiptures to the heathens.

A similar group emerged in Northern Africa among the Berber Christians after the Diocletain persecutions. This group was known as Donatists, named after the Berber Christian Bishop Donatus Magnus. The Donatists were a major force in Africa until well into the fifth century.

The success of Decius and Diocletian in destroying Christian Scriptures is evidenced by the fact that of the 5,000+ majority manuscripts extant today, few, if any, are dated earlier than the fourth century. However, once the persections ended by the Edict of Milan signed by Emperors Constantine and Lininius in 313 A.D. decreeing religious tolerance to all religious groups throughout the Roman Empire, the churches quickly began to replenish the supply of Scriptures among the faithful Bible-believing churches.
The Antiochian-type manuscripts quickly became the Scriptures accepted and used by the Bible-believing churches once again. The Alexandrian-type manuscripts were mostly rejected or ignored by the churches . Hence, today the surviving Antiochican-type manuscripts are numbered in the thousands while the Alexandrian-type manuscripts are numbered in the hundreds.

Modern New Age Deist-critics are quick to point out minor variances among the Antiochichian-type manuscripts in order to “sell” the NA/UBS “Critical Texts” drawn mostly from Alexandrian-type manuscripts to an unsuspecting Christian public. The variances pointed out as “variant readings” and “textual errors” are usually differences in spelling, punctuation, word order, etc.

In order to better understand how insignificant these “variances” are, picture yourself strolling through the Great Smokey Mountain National Forests. You will see hundreds, maybe thousands, of Oak Trees. Not one of those Oak trees are “exactly” like any other. Yet no one, with any knowledge of trees has any trouble identifying the Oaks. They are easily identified by their general apperance, their leaves, and their fruit–acorns. As Jesus said “by their fruit, ye shall know them”.

If we apply this same test to our discussion of Bible texts, here is what we find: Bibles translated from Antochican-type texts bear fruits of revival, salvation, faith, and sound doctrine. The fruits born by Bibles translated from the “Alexandrian-type critical texts” are doubt, confusion, and liberal or “fuzzy” doctrine.