Do we have any of the originals of the Bible's 66 books? NO. Not 1.
But, we do have enough pieces of the cross to build several crosses, and enough other relics to rebuild several sacred objects several times over. Get the point? Anytime something of religious significance survives the ages, we turn it into an idol or good luck charm! That's why, in the OT, God commanded Moses to build a bronze snake and set it up on a pole, to help the people. Later, it had to be taken and smashed by King Hezekiah because the people had named it and were burning incense to it! That's why you get a movie like Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark! You can bet, if we had an original copy of John, from the hand of John, people would be somewhere bowing to it today! They'd miss the point. We don't have the originals. Not one.
How many of you have ever seen an original of the Declaration of Independence? But how many of you have seen at least the text of it and felt confident that you were reading what Thomas Jefferson wrote and then Adams and Franklin adjusted? Why did you feel confident? Several reasons:
1. It was regarded as an important document, so it was treated that way.
2. Many copies were made of it right away and sent around to the 13 colonies
3. Many witnesses saw it and would verify its contents
4. We could always go back and look at the original.
What about the US Constitution? The Gettysburg Address? Same things: they were important, many copies were made of them and spread around, many witnesses saw them, and we could always go back and look at the originals in some form. We believe about those old, important documents that we have the original writings of their authors, even without seeing them in person, based on all of these external evidences.
Now, let's take away #4.
Let's say no one living today has seen the originals of other old writings: Longfellow, Shakespeare, Chaucer. Let's go further back: Homer, Plato, Aristotle. We read their works. We accept that what we're reading are their works, but all of that's based only on copies. There's no original for comparison. Still, we assume that what we have is fairly accurate. Why? Because of…
the number of copies that exist
the care given to making the copies
the age of the copies
witnesses verify them
Even without the originals, we're still confident that we're reading Shakespeare, Chaucer, Longfellow, even Homer, Plato, and Aristotle.
Just for comparison, let's take the external evidence for the ancient writing of which we have the most and oldest copies and compare it to the NT. That would be Homer's Iliad.
There are 643 different copies of the Iliad existing today. The oldest one was made 500 years after Homer wrote the original in 725-625 BC. It was regarded as sacred literature, so it was carefully copied, sent around, and preserved. It's still read and studied today. We figure, when we're reading it, we're reading Homer - translated from classical Greek, of course. When we take those 643 copies and compare them, there are differences in about 5% of the whole text. Only 5% of the whole, and most of these places don't affect the meaning significantly. As ancient writing is concerned, the Iliad's very well-preserved.
Let's compare that to the whole NT.
The NT was also regarded as sacred literature early on too, so it was carefully copied, spread around and preserved. The oldest copied parts of it that we have today were made about 25 years after it was collected. All totaled, there are 24,633 ancient copies of the NT and parts of it. When we take all of those copies and compare them, there are differences in the copies in about .5% of the whole text - ½ of 1% - 400 words of the total. All of these are places that don't significantly affect the meaning - and, we know where they all are!
- Precept Austin
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