Bible Basics: Transmission of the Scriptures

The term “transmission” refers to the process of how the Scriptures were written down and copied. It’s a process connected to the history of writing and the ancient writing materials used in making the Bible. Transmission describes how the Bible came to be.

The first known system of writing is from Mesopotamia dated around 3000–4000 BC and was done in pictures called cuneiform script, similar to Egyptian hieroglyphics. Picture writing is basic and can’t express many of the more complex ideas and concepts found in Scripture. Subsequently, an alphabet was developed.

Examples of the first-known alphabet were discovered in the region of Mount Sinai. The inscriptions on rocks in this area are dated about 1500 BC. This helps us understand the origin of the Bible since now we know an alphabetic script was in use in that area around the time Moses lived and wrote the first five books of the Bible.

The Bible also makes reference to the ancient writing materials used by people of ancient times.

  • Stone

Stone inscriptions have been found all over the ancient world with the earliest known examples having been found in Palestine. This agrees with what the Bible says about early writing because the Ten Commandments were first written on stone tablets (Exodus 31:18).

  • Clay

Clay was also used as a writing material and huge libraries containing thousands of clay tablets have been unearthed. Soft clay would be formed into tablets and the writer would take a stylus and imprint his message upon the clay and it would harden. Ezekiel 4:1 references this writing material where the prophet Ezekiel was told to draw on a clay tablet.

  • Leather

Leather is the material that was used to write down the law in the Old Testament times. This practice is continued today. The Jewish Talmud required that the law be copied on animal skins.

  • Papyrus

Papyrus was the most common writing material during the New Testament times. Thin strips were cut from the stem of the papyrus plant and laid side by side to form a sheet. A second layer was then laid across the first in the opposite direction and joined to it by moisture and pressure. After drying the sheet was ready for use.

Papyrus was so widely used that it is almost certain that the original New Testament books were written on papyrus sheets. The New Testament books of Second John and Third John would have only taken single sheets of papyrus. For longer letters or manuscripts such as Matthew, Luke, and Acts, individual sheets of papyrus would be joined together to be stored in scroll form.

Around the first or second century AD, papyrus scrolls began to give way to what is known as the papyrus codex—an early form of a book. For Christians who copied and circulated the New Testament writings, the codex had great advantages. The separate pages of papyrus would be stacked together and sewn along one edge making transporting much easier.

The Bible was originally written in three languages: Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. The majority of the Bible was written in Hebrew. A smaller portion was written in Greek and only a few chapters were written in Aramaic.

Almost all of the Old Testament books were written in Hebrew. To English-speakers, Hebrew is a strange language. It is written from right to left and its alphabet of 22 letters has no vowels. This would be the same way that the Old Testament text originally appeared.

Aramaic is a language related to Hebrew. At around 500 BC, it was the language of the common man in Palestine. It is not surprising then to find parts of the Old Testament in Aramaic. There are about nine chapters in all, mostly from the books of Ezra and Daniel. Aramaic remained the language of Palestine for centuries.

Although the native language of Jesus was Aramaic, the books of the New Testament were written in Greek because Greek was the international language at that time. A document written in Greek could be understood as far west as Spain and as far south as the northern coast of Africa.

The original writers of the New Testament probably wrote their letters or books on papyrus sheets. But it was not durable and deteriorated over time. That’s why the original copies of New Testament writings are no longer available. But there is no doubt that we possess the original message of the New Testament. More than 5,000 copies or manuscripts of these writings in whole or in part have been discovered.

Once the original letters were written, individuals made copies of them by textual transmission. They used great effort in copying the Bible texts by hand. It was difficult, slow, and tiring work, and it required a great deal of mental concentration.

As time went by, Christianity spread and the need for additional copies of the Scriptures increased. So, they devised a new method, manuscript transmission, that would make it possible to make multiple copies at once. Several scribes, together with all their necessary supplies, gathered in a room called a scriptorium. An individual would read the Scriptures aloud and the scribes would write down what the reader was saying. With this technique, many more copies of the Scripture could be created at the same time.

Although the scribes tried hard to copy accurately, there are still some scribal variations between manuscripts. This is because all ancient books had to be copied by hand and no human hand is perfect.

The kind of mistakes in the biblical manuscripts are the same kind of mistakes that we make when we write or copy things down, such as in spelling. For example, we may write “beleive” instead of “believe.”

When copying dictation, most errors would be due to hearing mistakes. For example, copying “their” instead of “there” and omitting small words like “and” or “the.” It is the same way with biblical manuscripts. In most cases where there is a variation in the text, it is because of mistakes of the eye or ear. But again, with over 5,000 manuscripts available to compare, variations like these can be checked easily and we can be sure the New Testament text is reliable.

The written copies of the Old Testament are not as numerous as the many thousand copies of the New Testament texts. Even so, the text of the Old Testament has been remarkably preserved. A great example of this is the Dead Sea Scrolls. A copy of the book of Isaiah found with these scrolls predates the earliest copy we had of this book by 1,100 years. Even with this large time gap, the Isaiah scroll is amazingly similar to the later copies and our English Bibles today.

In conclusion, three important facts must be kept in mind. First, we must remember that all ancient books have come to us by means of textual transmission. The Bible texts have thousands of these copies available for examination.

Second, manuscripts of the Bible range in date from the second to the 16th centuries and come from many parts of the world. This in itself is a significant indication that there isn’t a conspiracy or purposeful manipulation of the text by Christian scribes.

Finally, variations do exist in the manuscripts but they only concern small errors that even we make today when we copy by hand or transcribe by ear. It is good to remember though that examining the many copies available is an effective way of determining the true wording and give us confidence we have God’s Word today.

Isn’t that incredible? Although how the Bible came to be feels mysterious, it comes down to ancient writing materials and transmission of the Scriptures.