Meticulous Care in the Transmission of the Bible
A common misunderstanding of the Bible by both Christians and non-Christians alike is the mistaken notion that the Bible is a translation upon a translation upon a translation, leading some to believe that the end result is so garbled it hardly represents the original. This couldn't be farther from the truth. Translations such as the King James version are derived from extant copies of old manuscripts such as the Greek Textus Receptus (Received Text) and the Hebrew Masoretic text, and are not translations of a text that had itself been translated from another interpretation. Often, the differences between Bibles with different translations lie only in how the scholars interpreted a word or sentence from the original language of the text source (Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek).
(Of course this doesn't mean that all translations are equal! Some are clearly better than others and convey wording closer to the original language. Most scholars I respect recommend the King James over all other versions - it is the standard that all modern translations are always compared to).
So how reliable are the manuscripts that all these Bibles are translated from? The evidence is overwhelming and seldom disputed. Manuscripts prepared from different individuals spread over various parts of the Middle East and Mediterranean region agree remarkably with each other. Also, the manuscripts agree with the Septuagint, which was translated to Greek from Hebrew possibly as far back as the 3rd century BC. The Dead Sea scrolls discovered in 1947 also provided a profound testimony to the reliability of the centuries of transmission of the Bible text, as every Old Testament book found was virtually word for word with today's Bible! (the few differences were "obvious slips of the pen or variations in spelling"1).
The scribes who were in charge of the Old Testament text dedicated their lives to preserving the text's accuracy when they made copies. The great lengths the scribes went to guarantee the reliability of the copies is illustrated by the fact that they would count every letter and every word, and record in the margins such things as the middle letter and word of the Torah. If a single error was found, the copy was immediately destroyed. As a software engineer, I can personally vouch that the scribe's method of protecting the text is more rigorous than the common checksuming methods used today to protect software programs from corruption2.
The New Testament manuscript evidence is even more impressive, with 24,000 known copies, 5,366 which are complete, and some that date as early as the second and third centuries. This manuscript authority greatly surpasses all other writings of antiquity, as illustrated in the following table3:
As can be seen from the table, Homer's Iliad, the most renowned book of ancient Greece, is a very distant second to the New Testament in manuscript support, with only 643 copies. Of these copies, there are 764 disputed lines, compared to only 40 lines in the New Testament4. The New Testament even fares better than the 37 plays written by William Shakespeare in the 17th century. Every play contains various gaps in the printed text, forcing scholars in many cases to "fill in the blanks". With the 24,000 copies of the New Testament, we can be sure that nothing has been lost. It is also very impressive to note that scholars can recreate all but 11 verses of the New Testament by simply piecing together quotations by the early church fathers of the second and third centuries!
The scholar F.F. Bruce, in The Books and the Parchments sums it up well:
2. A software checksum is typically the sum of bytes or words over the entire software program. In my 17 plus years as an engineer, I have never seen a software program that becomes corrupted yield a valid checksum which causes the corruption to go unnoticed. If a Bible manuscript copy had become corrupted but still yielded the proper word and letter count, it is highly likely that the corruption would still have been detected since the corrupted letter or word would make that portion of the text unreadable. A software program doesn't have this added safeguard protection since the software is not readable text to the naked eye.