How many times has the Bible been translated?
This is one of the most common questions raised about the Bible. And it’s a legitimate one. The Bible is a book that dates back over 3,000 years. Through that time, how can we can be sure that there were not numerous errors in translating it from language to language over the centuries? Is the Bible we have today anywhere close to the originals? Fortunately, there is an abundance of evidence that demonstrates not only is the Bible of today accurate and faithful to the original manuscripts, but that it is the most verifiable book in all of antiquity.
“The Bible has been translated hundreds of times!”
This statement is often asserted to attack the credibility of Scripture, based on speculation more than any fact or historical evidence. The Bible in ancient times was recorded in 3 languages: Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek. This was the case from the days of Moses (ca 1500 BC) through the time of Jesus Christ and the Apostles’ days on Earth (ca 30-96 AD). For over 1,500 years, there was no “series of translations” of the Bible into numerous languages. So one would only have to look at the oldest manuscripts from its 3 base languages to confirm or refute the accuracy of the Bible through history. And in the case of the Old Testament, the case can easily be made in favor of the Holy Bible.
The Dead Sea Scrolls: Ancient Discovery Proves the Bible’s Accuracy
Discovered in a series of caves in Jordan from 1946-1951, the Dead Sea Scrolls are copies Jewish writings preserved in clay jars and date back to ca 250 BC. Of those scrolls, approximately 230 were manuscripts (and thousands of manuscript fragments) of the Old Testament. This was a monumental find because up until that point the oldest Bible manuscripts still in existence were written by a group of Jewish scholars called the Masoretes in 935 AD. With the discovery of these ancient scrolls written almost 300 years before the birth of Christ, the Dead Sea scrolls would serve as the ultimate test of how accurately the Bible preserved and passed down over a time of 1,200 years. If the Old Testament texts found in Qumran differed greatly from the much younger manuscripts the Bibles of today are based on, it would certainly demonstrate that those tasked with transcribing the Bible over the years either made massive error or took liberty to change it as they saw fit.
After years of study and review Millar Burrows, Professor Emeritus at Yale Divinity School and Director of the American School of Oriental Research, wrote:
“It is a matter of wonder that through something like one thousand years the text underwent so little alteration. As I said in my first article on the scroll, ‘Herein lies its chief importance, supporting the fidelity of the Masoretic tradition.’ (source).
The Isaiah Scroll – one the most intact books of the Old Testament found in Qumran, was the subject of intense scrutiny as it allowed for a full word for word comparison to the much more recent Masoretic manuscripts. The 20-foot scroll contained the entire book of Isaiah. Old Testament scholar Gleason Archer wrote:
“Even though the two copies of Isaiah discovered in Qumran Cave 1 near the Dead Sea in 1947 were a thousand years earlier than the oldest dated manuscript previously known (A.D. 980), they proved to be word for word identical with our standard Hebrew Bible in more than 95 percent of the text. The five percent of variation consisted chiefly of obvious slips of the pen and variations in spelling.” (source).
This was an astounding discovery. The Dead Sea Scrolls are living proof of the accurate translation of the Bible and its preservation over a millennium. No ancient text has nearly the amount of evidence to demonstrate its existence, importance in history and faithful preservation through time. The Bibles being used today are just as accurate as those used in the 3rd century BC, shortly after the completion of the Old Testament.
Jesus Christ And The Dead Sea Scrolls
Another astounding proof from the Dead Sea Scrolls is its validation that the over 100 prophecies about the Jewish Messiah, fulfilled by Jesus Christ, were written centuries before His birth. Some of these prophecies were very specific, such as the Messiah being born in Bethlehem, spending time in Egypt, He would be a descendant of both Abraham and David (the tribe of Judah), that the Messiah would be the Passover lamb (Exodus 12, John 1:29, 1 Corinthians 5:7-8, 1 Peter 1:19 – and the fact that Jesus was crucified during Passover), that the Messiah would be hated, beaten and pierced (which specifically happened to Christ on the cross – Psalm 22, Matthew 27:39-46, Mark 15:34, John 19:24) and many other very detailed prophecies. Prior to the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, many Bible critics alleged that these prophetic portions of the Old Testament were added after the life of Christ on Earth, to help support and fraudulently “prove” the Bible’s accuracy. However all of those questions and doubts were permanently erased with the manuscripts from the caves of Qumran.
Isaiah 53, for example, predicted that rather than being a conquering warrior, the Messiah would be meek, humble and suffer physical torture for all of humanity:
“Who hath believed our report? and to whom is the arm of the Lord revealed? For he shall grow up before him as a tender plant, and as a root out of a dry ground: he hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him. He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth: he is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he openeth not his mouth. He was taken from prison and from judgment: and who shall declare his generation? for he was cut off out of the land of the living: for the transgression of my people was he stricken. And he made his grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death; because he had done no violence, neither was any deceit in his mouth.” – Isaiah 53:1-9.
Jesus Christ was indeed rejected and despised at the end of His earthly ministry. Falsely accused of crimes, He was sentenced to death by the Roman government and like a “lamb to the slaughter” was crucified offering no opposition to the charge or the punishment. Jesus Christ chose to lay His life down as a sacrifice for our sins – precisely what Isaiah 53 prophesied over 500 years before Christ’s incarnation on Earth – stating:
“Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.”
This is the message of the Gospel – that Christ specifically died to serve as the atonement for the sins of humanity. Through His death, Jesus took the punishment for the sins of every person who ever lived, endured God’s wrath and in His resurrection, provided a way for all people to be freely forgiven and receive eternal life. The Dead Sea Scrolls proved that the Bible accurately prophesied this centuries in advance and leave no question that the Old Testament was accurately preserved and handed down for millennia.
Other Phenomenal Discoveries
In addition to the Dead Sea Scrolls, Beginning and End previously chronicled other archaeological finds that helped confirm the accuracy of the Bible through centuries. In our article: “1,500 Year Old Scroll Contains Oldest Bible Text Since Dead Sea Scrolls”, Beginning and End detailed the discovery of scientists in Israel who were able to scan a 1,500-year old Torah scroll that contained a passage of Old Testament Scripture on it. Although the scroll was charred beyond recognition, the ability to now read the document confirmed it as the most ancient discovery of Hebrew writing since the Dead Sea Scrolls. The text contained the first 8 verses of Leviticus 1 and reads:
“The Lord summoned Moses and spoke to him from the tent of meeting, saying: Speak to the people of Israel and say to them: When any of you bring an offering of livestock to the Lord, you shall bring your offering from the herd or from the flock. If the offering is a burnt offering from the herd, you shall offer a male without blemish; you shall bring it to the entrance of the tent of meeting, for acceptance in your behalf before the Lord. You shall lay your hand on the head of the burnt offering, and it shall be acceptable in your behalf as atonement for you. The bull shall be slaughtered before the Lord; and Aaron’s sons the priests shall offer the blood, dashing the blood against all sides of the altar that is at the entrance of the tent of meeting. The burnt offering shall be flayed and cut up into its parts. The sons of the priest Aaron shall put fire on the altar and arrange wood on the fire. Aaron’s sons the priests shall arrange the parts, with the head and the suet, on the wood that is on the fire on the altar.” (Leviticus 1:1-8). (source).
Here is the same passage from a copy of the King James Version of the Bible used today:
“And the LORD called unto Moses, and spake unto him out of the tabernacle of the congregation, saying, Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them, If any man of you bring an offering unto the LORD, ye shall bring your offering of the cattle, even of the herd, and of the flock. If his offering be a burnt sacrifice of the herd, let him offer a male without blemish: he shall offer it of his own voluntary will at the door of the tabernacle of the congregation before the LORD. And he shall put his hand upon the head of the burnt offering; and it shall be accepted for him to make atonement for him. And he shall kill the bullock before the LORD: and the priests, Aaron’s sons, shall bring the blood, and sprinkle the blood round about upon the altar that is by the door of the tabernacle of the congregation. And he shall flay the burnt offering, and cut it into his pieces. And the sons of Aaron the priest shall put fire upon the altar, and lay the wood in order upon the fire: And the priests, Aaron’s sons, shall lay the parts, the head, and the fat, in order upon the wood that is on the fire which is upon the altar:” – Leviticus 1:1-8.
Despite over 1,000 years between the two manuscripts the only differences were in the use of the word “ye” and “you” and “tabernacle” with “tent of meeting” (which are interchangeable terms even today). The remarkable consistency completely removes any question of translators somehow altering or manipulating the text of the Bible over time. The faithfulness of Bible translators receives more support and evidence with every discovery.
The New Testament Manuscripts – More Manuscript Evidence Than Any Great Writing of Antiquity
So what about the New Testament? Does it have evidence to support its accuracy on par with the Dead Sea Scrolls? The answer is a definitive yes.
As we detailed in our article: Did Jesus Christ Really Exist? Proving Jesus Without the Bible, the number of ancient manuscripts and manuscript fragments of the New Testament dwarf any other text of antiquity.
Looking at the chart above one can make easy comparisons that show the textual reliability of the New Testament over other popular works that critics rarely, if ever, question with respect to authenticity. The Gallic Wars, written by Julius Caesar in ca 50 BC, chronicle some of his greatest military victories and rise to power as emperor of ancient Rome. Yet, the earliest manuscript of this text is dated to 900 AD, almost 1000 years after the original copy was written. And there are only 10 copies of these manuscripts. Many of the great books, TV shows and movies on Caesar are based on translations of these 10 copies. Yet do academics question the accuracy of Caesar’s own accounts of his successes? Or whether he actually existed? Are there doubts raised based on the “numerous times” his works have been translated? Rarely is such a concern ever voiced.
In addition to the abundance of manuscripts, the New Testament texts in existence today share the same astounding level of consistency in their words and message. There is a 99.5% consistency among the ancient manuscripts of the New Testament. The New Testament manuscript fragment known as the John Rylands Papyri P52 dates back to 29 years from the original manuscript of the book of John. No ancient text has any manuscript that comes remotely close in date to the original (and even those scientists who question the age of this fragment still place it 100-150 years after the original – closer to the original than manuscripts of other ancient texts).
Beginning and End also reported on The Last Supper Papyrus – a 1,500-year-old amulet discovered in Egypt that contained writings quoting both the Old and New Testaments. It is a rich expression of the Christian faith and more evidence of the preservation of God’s words over a millennium.
Trust The Bible
“For the Lord is good; his mercy is everlasting; and his truth endureth to all generations.” – Psalm 100:5.
Lord willing, it is now clear that there is more than enough substantive, historical evidence to confirm that the King James Bible in circulation today is an accurate translation of the same Bibles used over the last 2,000 years. Rather than being a doctored, manipulated document, the Bible stands on far greater evidence than any ancient writing in existence. But the archeological discoveries, for all of their amazing evidentiary value do not lead a person to saving faith in Jesus Christ. It is the hearing of God’s Word and responding to it with a repentant heart seeking God’s forgiveness for sin that does. The Bible says: “Turn you at my reproof: behold, I will pour out my spirit unto you, I will make known my words unto you.” (Proverbs 1:23). When we approach the Bible with a heart open to The Lord, the words of God become more alive in our minds and heart than ever before. It builds our relationship with God and the joy we experience knowing we are redeemed and loved through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross.
If you are a born again Christian, rejoice in these news reports and continue to study your word with the confidence that even the secular world cannot deny the accuracy of the preserved word of God. If you are not a Christian, understand that while discoveries of manuscripts are exciting news they are not the main story – which is your own need for forgiveness which God offers freely. Read the Bible without trying to disprove it or put God on trial and witness the work of His Spirit in your life. It’s the same Spirit that has inspired believers to accurately translate and record the Bible for thousands of years.
“The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: but the word of our God shall stand for ever.” – Isaiah 40:8.