The answer to this question is both “no” and “yes.” In the strictest sense, no, the original documents that comprise the 66 books of the Bible—sometimes called the “autographs”—are not in the possession of any organization. However, in a very real way, yes, humankind does have the actual words and books that make up the Word of God. How can this be? To gain an understanding of how the original Bible was written and how it compares to what is read today, it’s necessary to look at the process that resulted in its original compilation and what has happened since that time.
Background of the Original Bible
According to skeptics, there has never been a true “original” Bible. For example, Dan Brown’s fictional book The Da Vinci Code has his storyline “expert” say the following about the Bible: “The Bible did not arrive by fax from heaven. . . . The Bible is the product of man, my dear. Not of God. The Bible did not fall magically from the clouds. Man created it as a historical record of tumultuous times, and it has evolved through countless translations, additions, and revisions. History has never had a definitive version of the book.” Brown’s charge does indeed belong in a work of fiction because the assertion is simply not true.
It is correct that the Bible was written over a long period of time. Written by 40 authors over a period of nearly 1,500 years, Scripture is comprised of 66 books—39 in the Old Testament and 27 in the New. The Old Testament is often divided into three sections: (1) The Pentateuch, which is sometimes referred to as “The Law” and includes the first five books of the Bible; (2) The Prophets, which includes all the major and minor prophetic writings; and (3) The Writings, which includes Psalms, Proverbs, and a number of other books.
The New Testament is also divided into three segments: (1) The Gospels; (2) Church History, which basically includes just the book of Acts; and (3) The Apostolic Writings, which includes everything else.
Compilation of the Original Old Testament
How was the original Bible compiled? Its assemblage can be traced through Scripture in a fairly accurate manner. After Moses wrote the Pentateuch (Exodus 17:14; 24:4, 7; 34:27; Numbers 33:2; Joshua 1:8; Matthew 19:8; John 5:46–47; Romans 10:5), it was placed in the Ark of the Covenant and preserved (Deuteronomy 31:24). Over time, other inspired texts were added to the first five books of the Bible. During the time of David and Solomon, the books already compiled were placed in the temple treasury (1 Kings 8:6) and cared for by the priests who served in the temple (2 Kings 22:8). More books were also added during the reign of King Hezekiah: David’s hymns, Solomon’s proverbs, and prophetic books such as Isaiah, Hosea, and Micah (Proverbs 25:1). In general, as the prophets of God spoke, their words were written down, and what was recorded was included in what today is the Old Testament.
During the exile of the Jews in the sixth century, the books were preserved. Around 538 BC the Jews returned from the Babylonian captivity, and Ezra the priest later added other inspired works to the compilation. A copy of the Torah was then stored in the Most Holy Place of the second temple, where the ark of the covenant used to sit. Following a meticulous process, other copies of the Torah were made to protect and preserve the inspired writings. This collection of Old Testament books, written in the Hebrew language, is what Judaism calls the “Hebrew Bible.”
In the third century BC, the Old Testament books were translated into Greek by a team of 70 Jewish scholars, with the finished work being called the LXX (which stands for “70”), or the Septuagint (a Latin word derived from phrase “the translation of the seventy interpreters”). The Septuagint was certainly used and quoted by the apostles, including Paul, in their writings. The oldest manuscripts of the LXX include some 1st- and 2nd-century BC fragments.
In AD 1947 the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in the area of Qumran in Israel. Various scrolls date anywhere from the 5th century BC to the 1st century AD. Historians believe that Jewish scribes maintained the site to preserve God’s Word and to protect the writings during the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. The Dead Sea Scrolls represent nearly every book of the Old Testament, and comparisons with more recent manuscripts show them to be virtually identical—the main deviations are the spellings of some individuals’ names and various numbers quoted in Scripture.
The Dead Sea Scrolls are a testimony to the accuracy and preservation of the Old Testament and give confidence that the Old Testament we have today is the same Old Testament used by Jesus. In fact, Luke records a statement made by Jesus regarding the assemblage of the Old Testament: “For this reason also the wisdom of God said, ‘I will send to them prophets and apostles, and some of them they will kill and some they will persecute, so that the blood of all the prophets, shed since the foundation of the world, may be charged against this generation, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who was killed between the altar and the house of God; yes, I tell you, it shall be charged against this generation’” (Luke 11:49–51, emphasis added). Jesus confirmed the 39 books of the Old Testament in these verses. Abel’s death is found in Genesis and Zechariah’s in 2 Chronicles—the first and last books of the Hebrew Bible.
Compilation of the Original New Testament
Dan Burstein, in his book Secrets of the Code (a book similar to Dan Brown’s book), says this about the New Testament: “Eventually, four Gospels and twenty-three other texts were canonized into a Bible. This did not occur, however, until the sixth century.” Is this assertion true? Actually, it is 100 percent false. The truth is the composition of the New Testament was officially settled at the Council of Carthage in AD 397. However, the majority of the New Testament was accepted as authoritative much earlier. The first collection of New Testament books was proposed by a man named Marcion in AD 140. Marcion was a Docetist (Docetism is a system of belief that says all spirit is good and all material matter is bad), and so Marcion excluded any book that spoke of Jesus being both divine and human, and he also edited Paul’s letters to match his own philosophy.
The next proposed collection of New Testament books on record was the Muratorian Canon, dated AD 170. It included all four gospels, Acts, thirteen of Paul’s letters, 1, 2, 3 John, Jude, and Revelation. The final New Testament canon was first identified by the church father Athanasius in AD 367 and ratified by the Council of Carthage in AD 397.
But history shows that the actual New Testament in modern Bibles was recognized much earlier and that it is an exact reflection of what the “autographs” contained. First, Scripture itself shows that the writings of the New Testament were considered inspired and equal to the Old Testament. For example, Paul writes, “For the Scripture says, ‘Do not muzzle the ox while it is treading out the grain,’ and ‘The laborer is worthy of his wages’” (1 Timothy 5:18, emphasis added). The latter quotation is from Luke 10:7, which shows Paul considered Luke’s Gospel to be “Scripture.” Another example includes a statement made by Peter: “Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him. He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction” (2 Peter 3:15–16, emphasis added). It is clear that Peter regarded Paul’s letters as equally inspired as the Old Testament canon.
Second, quotations from the early church fathers allow the reconstruction of almost the entire New Testament as it is found today. For example, Clement (c. AD 95) quotes from eleven New Testament books, Ignatius (c. AD 107) quotes from nearly every New Testament book, and Polycarp (a disciple of John, c. AD 110) quotes from seventeen New Testament books. Using the early church fathers’ quotes, the entire New Testament can be pieced together, with the exception of 20–27 verses, most of them from 3 John. Such evidence witnesses to the fact that the New Testament was recognized far earlier than the Council of Carthage in AD 397 and that the New Testament we have today is the same as what was written 2,000 years ago.
Third, there is no literary rival in the ancient world to the number of manuscript copies and the early dating of the New Testament. There are 5,300 Greek, 10,000 Latin, and 9,000 miscellaneous copies of the New Testament extant today, and more continue to be unearthed via archaeology. The combination of early dating and the enormous number of New Testament copies causes historical experts such as Sir Frederic Kenyon (former director and principal librarian of the British Museum) to say, “The interval, then, between the dates of original composition and the earliest extant evidence becomes so small as to be in fact negligible, and the last foundation for any doubt that the Scriptures have come down to us substantially as they were written has now been removed. Both the authenticity and the general integrity of the books of the New Testament may be regarded as finally established.”
Original Bible – Conclusion
In summary, while no one today possesses the original autographs, we do have many extant copies, and the work of biblical historians via the science of textual criticism gives us great confidence that today’s Bible is an accurate reflection of the original writers’ work. As an analogy, if the original and preserved unit of measure known as a “yard” was lost in a fire in its holding place in Washington, D.C., there is little doubt that that measurement could be replaced with full assurance through all the exact copies of it that exist elsewhere. The same is true of God’s Word.