The Author and Originator of the Bible is also its Preserver. He is the One who caused this statement to be recorded:
“The word of our God endures forever.”—Isaiah 40:8.
That statement is true, even though no original Bible manuscript of the Hebrew and Aramaic Scriptures a or of the Christian Greek Scriptures has survived to our day. Therefore, how can we be so certain that the contents of the Bible we have today truly reflect the original inspired writings?
COPYISTS PRESERVE GOD’S WORD
Regarding the Hebrew Scriptures, part of the answer lies in an ancient tradition that was established by God, who said that the text should be copied. b For example, Jehovah instructed the kings of Israel to make their own copies of the written Law. (Deuteronomy 17:18) Additionally, God made the Levites responsible for preserving the Law and teaching it to the people. (Deuteronomy 31:26; Nehemiah 8:7) After the exile of the Jews to Babylon, a class of copyists, or scribes (Sopherim), developed. (Ezra 7:6, footnotes) Over time, those scribes made numerous copies of the 39 books of the Hebrew Scriptures.
Through the centuries, scribes meticulously copied these books. During the Middle Ages, a group of Jewish scribes known as the Masoretes carried on that tradition. The oldest complete Masoretic manuscript is the Leningrad Codex, which dates from 1008/1009 C.E. However, in the middle of the 20th century, some 220 Biblical manuscripts or fragments were discovered among the Dead Sea Scrolls. Those Biblical manuscripts were more than a thousand years older than the Leningrad Codex. A comparison of the Dead Sea Scrolls with the Leningrad Codex confirms a vital point: While the Dead Sea Scrolls contain some variations in wording, none of those variations affect the message itself.
What about the 27 books of the Christian Greek Scriptures? Those books were first penned by some of the apostles of Jesus Christ and by a few other early disciples. Following the tradition of the Jewish scribes, early Christians made copies of those books. (Colossians 4:16) Despite attempts by Roman Emperor Diocletian and others to destroy all early Christian literature, thousands of ancient fragments and manuscripts have been preserved until our day.
Christian writings were also translated into other languages. Early translations of the Bible include those in such ancient languages as Armenian, Coptic, Ethiopic, Georgian, Latin, and Syriac.
ESTABLISHING THE HEBREW AND GREEK TEXTS FOR TRANSLATION
Not all copies of ancient Bible manuscripts contain identical wording. How, then, can we know what the original text contained?
The situation could be likened to that of a teacher who asks 100 students to copy a chapter of a book. Even if the original chapter was later lost, a comparison of the 100 copies would still reveal the original text. While each student might make some errors, it is highly unlikely that all the students would make exactly the same ones. Similarly, when scholars compare the thousands of fragments and copies of ancient Bible books available to them, they can detect copyist error and determine the original wording.
“It may be safely said that no other work of antiquity has been so accurately transmitted”
How confident can we be that the thoughts contained in the original Bible texts have been accurately transmitted to us? Commenting on the text of the Hebrew Scriptures, scholar William H. Green stated: “It may be safely said that no other work of antiquity has been so accurately transmitted.” Regarding the Christian Greek Scriptures, or so-called New Testament, Bible scholar F. F. Bruce wrote: “The evidence for our New Testament writings is ever so much greater than the evidence for many writings of classical authors, the authenticity of which no one dreams of questioning.” He also said: “If the New Testament were a collection of secular writings, their authenticity would generally be regarded as beyond all doubt.”
Hebrew Text: The New World Translation of the Hebrew Scriptures (1953-1960) was based on Biblia Hebraica, by Rudolf Kittel. Since that time, updated editions of the Hebrew text, namely, Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia and Biblia Hebraica Quinta, have included recent research based on the Dead Sea Scrolls and other ancient manuscripts. These scholarly works reproduce the Leningrad Codex in the main text along with footnotes that contain comparative wording from other sources, including the Samaritan Pentateuch, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Greek Septuagint, the Aramaic Targums, the Latin Vulgate, and the Syriac Peshitta. Both Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia and Biblia Hebraica Quinta were consulted when preparing the present revision of the New World Translation.
Greek Text: In the late 19th century, scholars B. F. Westcott and F.J.A. Hort compared existing Bible manuscripts and fragments as they prepared the Greek master text that they felt most closely reflected the original writings. In the mid-20th century, the New World Bible Translation Committee used that master text as the basis for its translation. Other early papyri, thought to date back to the second and third centuries C.E., were also used. Since then, more papyri have become available. In addition, master texts such as those by Nestle and Aland and by the United Bible Societies reflect recent scholarly studies. Some of the findings of this research were incorporated into this present revision.
Based on those master texts, it is evident that some verses of the Christian Greek Scriptures found in older translations, such as the King James Version, were actually additions made by later copyists and were never part of the inspired Scriptures. However, because the verse division generally accepted in Bible translations was already established in the 16th century, the omission of these verses now creates gaps in the verse numbering in most Bibles. The verses are Matthew 17:21; 18:11; 23:14; Mark 7:16; 9:44, 46; 11:26; 15:28; Luke 17:36; 23:17; John 5:4; Acts 8:37; 15:34; 24:7; 28:29; and Romans 16:24. In this revised edition, those omitted verses are indicated by a study note at the location of the omission.
Regarding the long conclusion for Mark 16 (verses 9-20), the short conclusion for Mark 16, and the wording found at John 7:53–8:11, it is evident that none of these verses were included in the original manuscripts. Therefore, those spurious texts have not been included in this revision. c
Some other wording has been adjusted to incorporate what scholars generally accept as the most authentic reflection of the original writings. For instance, according to some manuscripts, Matthew 7:13 reads: “Go in through the narrow gate, because broad is the gate and spacious is the road leading off into destruction.” In previous editions of the New World Translation, “is the gate” was not included in the text. However, further study of the manuscript evidence led to the conclusion that “is the gate” was in the original text. So it was included in this present edition. There are a number of similar refinements. However, these adjustments are minor, and none of them change the basic message of God’s Word.
a Referred to simply as the Hebrew Scriptures from here on.
b One reason the manuscripts needed to be copied was that the originals were written on perishable materials.
c Further details on why these verses are viewed as spurious can be found in the footnotes of the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures—With References, published in 1984.