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Bible Dictionaries

Bridgeway Bible Dictionary


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It appears that the books of the Bible were written originally on scrolls of papyrus, a material made from dried and flattened strips of papyrus reed (see WRITING). Papyrus did not last well, and the original writings all perished long ago. But from the beginning people had made copies of the original writings, and others continued to make copies down through the centuries. These copies are known as manuscripts (abbreviated MS in the singular, MSS in the plural).

Although the original writings were written by ordinary people in ordinary human language, they were at the same time written under the special direction of the Spirit of God. They expressed the truth as God wanted it expressed (see INSPIRATION). The copies that have survived, however, have suffered some damage from people who have copied or used them.

Because methods of mechanical printing were unknown in ancient times, people who made copies of the Scriptures had to write them out by hand. Writing skills varied and copyists at times made errors. Some of the common errors were to misread the master copy, misspell words, or misplace, omit, or repeat words or lines. There were also cases where copyists deliberately changed the wording to make a sentence mean what they thought it should mean. Yet, in spite of human failings, God has preserved his Word. There are so many good manuscripts in existence that people with the necessary skills are able to determine the original wording fairly accurately.

Old Testament manuscripts

The language of the Old Testament, Hebrew, reads from right to left and was written originally with consonants only. The absence of vowels caused no problem to the readers, as they could mentally put in the vowels as they read. But with the spread of the Aramaic language and then Greek during the latter centuries BC (see ARAM; GREECE), Hebrew had become less widely known in Palestine in New Testament times. After the destruction of the Jewish state in AD 70, the use of Hebrew declined even further. This decline continued, till Hebrew ceased to be a commonly spoken language.

Over an extended period from the sixth to the eleventh centuries AD, Hebrew scholars called Massoretes introduced a system of vowel signs, or ‘points’, to ensure that the meaning of the original writing was not lost. These vowel points were dots and other symbols placed below or above the consonants to show what the word was and how it should be pronounced. The version of the Old Testament that the Massoretes established is commonly called the Massoretic Text (MT).

Until the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1948, the oldest known manuscripts of the Old Testament were from the ninth to the eleventh centuries AD. The reason why no earlier manuscripts survived was that when manuscripts became too old or worn to use, the Hebrew scholars buried them, rather than let them fall into dishonourable use. In making fresh manuscripts, the Hebrew copyists were almost fanatical at preserving every letter exactly as it was in the former manuscripts. As a result they made few errors.


Versions and translations from the ancient past confirm the general reliability of the Hebrew manuscripts. Among the most important of these are the Dead Sea Scrolls, a collection of Old Testament and other writings belonging to a Jewish community that lived in the region of the Dead Sea about 130 BC to AD 70.

There is added confirmation of this reliability in the copies of early translations that were based on Old Testament manuscripts older than any available today. These include translations into Greek in the second century BC, into Syriac in the first century AD, and into Latin in the fifth century AD. Further confirmation comes from the Samaritan version of the Pentateuch and from quotations from the Old Testament found in Jewish writings of the first five centuries AD. (See also SEPTUAGINT.)

New Testament manuscripts

In New Testament times Greek was the language commonly spoken throughout the lands of the Bible story. The books of the New Testament were written in Greek – not classical Greek, but the everyday language spoken by ordinary people. From the beginning, people made copies of letters that Paul and others had written, as well as copies of the Gospel records, and sent them to churches far and near. All this took time, and many years passed before all the writings were gathered together to form the complete New Testament as we know it today (see CANON).

Greek manuscripts were of two kinds, those written entirely in uncial (or capital) letters, and those written in minuscule (or lower case) letters. Writing in uncials was more common in the earlier centuries, but it was gradually replaced by the more convenient minuscule script.

Copyists’ errors are more common in the Greek manuscripts of the New Testament than in the Hebrew manuscripts of the Old Testament. But the variations in the Greek manuscripts do not seriously affect our understanding of what the New Testament writers wrote. There are in existence over five thousand manuscripts of the Greek New Testament (in part or in whole), and although these increase the number of variations, they also increase the possibility of eliminating the errors.

Copyright Statement
These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of Used by Permission.

Bibliography Information
Fleming, Don. Entry for 'Manuscripts'. Bridgeway Bible Dictionary. 2004.

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