Can we really trust the authenticity of what is written in the Bible as we know it today? One could argue that, with numerous transcriptions and translations, the content of the Bible will undoubtedly have changed. Individuals who transcribed and translated Bible passages may have been tempted to change content and meaning for whatever reason. In times when there were no photocopy machines and computers, how easy must it have been to introduce errors and inaccuracies.
The assumption is that, when Bible passages were transcribed and copied from one generation to another, errors may have been introduced and meanings of sections and sentences changed. After all, as with all translations, there is room to add a personal touch by whoever attempts the task. Come to think of it, the famous game of Chinese Whispers, also called Telephone or Rumours, does just that. One person whispers a message to the next, which is then passed through a line of people until the last person announces a distorted message. Errors typically accumulate down the line, while some players may deliberately alter what is being said. This is a fun game, after all.
Think outside the Bible for a moment and consider another historic document, a musical masterpiece, written two centuries ago. Ludwig von Beethoven, the famous German composer and pianist, who lived from 1770 to 1827, was a lover of music. As colours delight our eyes, so tones fell with delight upon the ears of this man. Year after year he wrote symphonies and concertos, sonatas, songs, chorals and chamber music. Most of the great symphonies were composed after he lost his hearing at the age of 30.
Can we trust Beethoven? Can we trust his writings? Ever wondered how he put his music to paper? Beethoven was notorious for his appalling musical handwriting. His manuscript scores are riddled with cross-outs and corrections. Yet, some of them were supposed to be “final drafts”. Here is an example of one of his greatest compositions, the 9th Symphony, composed from 1822 to 1824. It was first performed in Vienna on 7 May 1824.
Beethoven’s handwritten 9th Symphony
As we look at this “final draft”, can we really trust this to be Beethoven’s music as we know it today? Should we not question whether this symphony, as you and I know it, still reflects accurately what Beethoven wrote? Ask yourself how this can be. How can the content of this document have been copied and survived for a few hundred years? Why was it authentically and accurately passed down the generations?
It is all about ‘passion’ and ‘dedication’. Someone somewhere sometime, after Beethoven, was inspired by his music and decided that it should be written clearly and exactly in the way that Beethoven intended it, meaning more legible and without any changes to the original. Those who did this painstaking transcription were most likely lovers of music and in particular lovers of Beethoven’s music. Whoever they were, they were passionate about the challenge set before them. They succeeded to transcribe the music from the original, making sure that no errors were introduced.
We conclude that the written music of Beethoven that we all have access to today, whether at concerts, in music stores or on our computers, is an accurate reflection of what Beethoven wrote. Beethoven would be satisfied if he were sitting in the audience at a performance of his masterpiece.
Earthquakes, Typhoons and Fish
The Haiyuan earthquake, in Haiyuan County, Ningxia Province, Republic of China, occurred on December 16, 1920. It was also called the 1920 Gansu earthquake because Ningxia was a part of Gansu Province when the earthquake occurred. A total of 273,400 inhabitants died. More recently, in Vietnam in November 2017, Typhoon Damrey caused 29 deaths and destroyed 600 houses.
John 21:11 describes a miraculous catch of fish. Peter is one of seven disciples present on the Galilean beach. The Bible text says that they went fishing in the night and that they did not catch anything. “So, Simon Peter climbed back into the boat and dragged the net ashore. It was full of large fish, 153, but even with so many the net was not torn.” This event took place after the Resurrection of Jesus.
Can we believe these figures? Have they changed over time? Most probably not. In 10 years from now, in 100 years from now, we will still read that 273,400 people died in that earthquake, 29 in a typhoon and that the apostles caught 153 fish.
What do we know about early transcripts of the Bible? Between 1947 and 1956, the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in eleven caves along the northwest shore of the Dead Sea. They are regarded by many as the most important archaeological find of the twentieth century. The scrolls are mostly written in Hebrew, but some are written in Aramaic and Greek. Aramaic was the common language of the Jews of Palestine for the last two centuries B.C. and of the first two centuries A.D. The scrolls are mostly made of animal skin, but also of papyrus and there is one made of copper. They are written with a carbon-based ink. The Scrolls provide a wealth of comparative material for New Testament scholars.
Dead Sea Scrolls: Book of Isaiah
The Isaiah Scroll is the only complete biblical book surviving among the Dead Sea Scrolls. Found in Cave One at Qumran in 1947, it dates from about 120 BC. The text of this scroll hardly differs from the version used today and demonstrates the degree to which the text of the Bible was faithfully transmitted over the centuries.
In 1970, archaeologist Yosef Porath excavated Ein Gedi, located west of the Dead Sea, near Masada in Israel. He discovered charcoal chunks of what he believed to be early copies of biblical texts. In 2016, he asked researchers at the Israel Antiquities Authority’s Dead Sea Scrolls Preservation Laboratory in Jerusalem to scan the burned scrolls. Through a process of ‘virtual unwrapping’ with the aid of modern tomographic technology, the scrolls revealed their content, being the earliest copy of a Pentateuchal book — Leviticus.
En-Gedi Scroll virtually unwrapped
The text discovered in the charred Ein Gedi scroll is identical to the version of the Book of Leviticus as we know it today. As the scholar Emmanuel Tov from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem said, ‘This is quite amazing. In 2000 years, this text has not changed.’