Preservation of the Bible

Illustrated Dictionary of the Bible

The Bible is a written authoritative record by which any teaching or theory may be judged. But behind the writing lay periods of time when these messages were circulated in spoken form. The stories of the patriarchs were passed from generation to generation by word of mouth before they were written. The messages of the prophets were delivered orally before they were fixed in writing. Narratives of the life and ministry of Christ were repeated orally for two or three decades before they were given literary form. But the Bible owes its preservation to the fact that all these oral narratives were eventually reduced to writing. Just as GOD originally inspired the Bible, He has used this means to preserve His Word for future generations.

The first person in the Bible to write anything down was Moses. GOD instructed Moses to write as a permanent memorial the divine vow that the name of Amalek would be blotted out (Exod. 17:14). From that time until the end of the New Testament age, the writing of the many books and parts of the Bible continued.

None of the original biblical documents - referred to by scholars as the "original autographs" - has survived. No scrap of parchment or papyrus bearing the handwriting of any of the biblical authors has been discovered. But before the original documents disappeared, they were copied. These copies of the original writings are the texts on which current translations of the Bible are based.

The process of copying and recopying the Bible has continued to our time. Until the middle of the 15th century A.D., all the copying was done by hand. Then, with the invention of printing in Europe, copies could be made in greater quantities by using this new process. Each copy of the Bible had to be produced slowly by hand with the old system, but now the printing press could produce thousands of copies in a short time. This made the Scriptures available to many people, rather than just the few who could afford handmade copies.

The older handwritten copies of Bible texts are called manuscripts. Early manuscripts for the books of the Bible were written on papyrus or skin. Papyrus was a type of ancient paper manufactured from a reed plant that grew in the Nile Valley and similar environments. Papyrus was inexpensive, but it was not very durable. It rotted quickly when exposed to dampness.

The ancient papyrus manuscripts which have been discovered were found in the dry sands of Egypt and other arid places. Great quantities of inscribed papyri have been recovered from the Egyptian sands during the last hundred years dating from the period shortly before and after the beginning of the Christian era, about A.D. 30. A few scraps of papyri containing ancient texts of the Bible have been among the recovered manuscripts.

The skins on animals proved to be a much more durable writing material than papyrus. Many different writing materials were manufactured from such skins. Some were a coarse form of leather. Others were subjected to a special refining process, emerging as a writing material known as parchment. Vellum, another valued writing material, was made from calfskin. Some of the most important manuscripts of the Bible were written on vellum.

Taken from: the "Illustrated Dictionary of the Bible" by Herbert Lockyer, Sr., Editor with F. F. Bruce and R. K. Harrison, published by Thomas Nelson Publishers in 1986.