Many Christians believe in what they would call “the doctrine of preservation.” What they mean by this is that God has preserved the scriptures. More sophisticated expressions would argue that God has preserved the scriptures in the original languages, down to the very words. This is where the problem begins.

When we look at the Hebrew Bible (or Old Testament), we soon discover that there are a few places in which, at least at this time in history, God has not preserved the scriptures. For example, in some places all the extant Hebrew manuscripts (as well as versions) are so corrupt that scholars have been forced to emend the text on the basis of mere conjecture. That is, there is no manuscript in any language that has the true, original reading. Among the passages that make the list are Deut 32.8, 1 Sam 13.1, 1 Sam 14.47, Isa 21.8, Isa 53.11, and Jer 2.21. Besides these are passages that up until fairly recently were corrupt in all the manuscripts. For example, Eugene Ulrich, Septuagint scholar extraordinaire, noted that Josephus preserved “at least four genuine Samuel readings which were preserved by no other witness until 4QSama was recovered” (Samuel and Josephus, 2). Ernst Würthwein, in his Text of the Old Testament, 142, noted that 1QIsaa confirmed conjectures that scholars had come up with at Isa 40.6 and 40.17. There are several other OT texts that could be added to the list. The point is that even in those places in which the Dead Sea Scrolls have confirmed the conjectures of scholars with hard data, the fact is that the Bible in its entirety—that is, in all of its very words—has not been available to God’s people for all these centuries.

E. F. Hills, who wrote his doctoral dissertation at Harvard, argued that:

If the doctrine of the Divine inspiration of the Old and New Testament scriptures is a true doctrine then providential preservation of the scriptures must also be a true doctrine. It must be that down through the centuries God has exercised a special providential control over the copying of the scriptures and the preservation and use of the copies, so that trustworthy representatives of the original text have been available to God’s people in every age.

Part of the problem with this approach is that the doctrinal basis becomes what God must do, rather than what scripture declares that he did. Another writer put things succinctly: “It is essential… that this distinction be maintained between the concepts of inspiration, which insures the reliability of the divine revelation, and preservation, which insures the availability of the divine revelation.” In other words, revelation is linked to inspiration and inspiration is linked to preservation. And yet another author wrote, “God has indeed inspired and preserved His OT words perfectly so that we might have an infallible, inerrant OT Bible in our hands today.” The link between inspiration and preservation seems to be almost one-for-one.

The sense that one gets when reading these definitions of preservation is twofold: First, the very words of the original text must be found somewhere among the existing manuscripts. But second, not only must they be found somewhere among the manuscripts, they must also be readily available to believers.

The problem that we see immediately is with the second implication: If there are some words in some passages in the OT that have not been readily accessible to believers for two thousand years, then what is the meaning of preservation? It would seem that the second implication is hardly true. And the fact is that there are still conjectures—places in which OT scholars know that the text is corrupted either here or there (e.g., how old Ahaziah was when he became king: 2 Chron 22.2 says he was 42; 2 Kings 8.26 says he was 22. Most scholars admit that a corruption occurred in either of these passages when they were copied by scribes, but which passage has been corrupted? The scribes were faithful to their predecessors by retaining the wording of the previous manuscripts that they used, even though they knew this would create a contradiction between these two passages. But they were unwilling to conform the two passages to each other because they thought that they might bury the true reading unwittingly.)

Although conjectural emendation is not necessary for the New Testament, the fact that it is for the Old Testament in some places means that God has not preserved the scriptures exactly as they were written in the original manuscripts. And unless we are prepared to say that the doctrine of preservation must mean something different for the OT than for the NT (which would be very Marcionite of us!), we need to admit that this form of the doctrine of preservation is not valid.

So, the first problem with any doctrine of preservation is the manuscript data: we certainly cannot say that the scriptures have been available, in exact copies of the original text, for the last two thousand years. We cannot even say they have been available by a patient, detailed examination of inexact copies over the past two millennia precisely because there are places in which no manuscripts of any age give the original reading. Does preservation mean that God has mostly preserved his word but human beings had to fill in the gaps from time to time? With the evidence mentioned so far, it would seem that we would either have to say something like that or that there is no solid historical basis for the doctrine of preservation. In the next blog (part 2), I will discuss the exegetical/biblical evidence (i.e., the proof-texts) that are used to show that preservation must be a doctrine that Christians should embrace—and why such texts do not mean what their advocates claim.

Don’t worry; I’ll end with some positive points too. But someone asked me to explain why I didn’t hold to the doctrine of preservation. This blog gives the first part of the reason: the evidence of the text that contradicts such a doctrine.

    16 replies to "Has God Preserved the Scriptures? . . . (Part 1)"

    • Nick N.

      As always, good stuff Dr. Wallace — couldn’t agree more. I’ve always viewed the doctrine of preservation as a decidedly Muslim concept, definitely not something taught in Scripture. Can’t wait for part 2.

    • stevemoore

      Dr Wallace –

      Thanks for your explanation.

      I’m hoping that as you address “part2” you’ll also give some insight as to how we’re to handle passages such as those you listed (Is 53:11 for example). What are we to do with them? Can we trust them as we would other passages?



    • wondersforoyarsa

      We have exactly the Bible God wants us to have, which he uses through the Holy Spirit to guide us into all truth. However, though I can understand and respect the thinking behind this doctrine of preservation, I wouldn’t call scripture inerrant in the sense they mean. I think it is important to understand that the chief virtue of scripture lies in its use by the Holy Spirit in making God known to us, and not simply in being a “perfect book” in the abstract. In taking up humanity in the task of writing scripture, God humbles himself to use every bit of them, including their frailties and limited circumstances. This is scandalous in the same sense as the incarnation.

    • Vance

      I agree with wondersforoyarsa in general. Dan, I think you have made some very good points, although I don’t think the “word for word” approach to preservation would necessarily be a “more sophisticated expression” of the concept. 🙂 In fact, I find it more simplistic and less nuanced.

      I agree completely that people get into trouble when they start assuming what God MUST have done. They are taking their limiting biases and presumptions and then insisting that God must have worked in a way that makes sense to them.

      I just went to see the Dead Sea Scrolls in San Diego on Saturday and it was wonderful to see 2000 year old copies of Scripture! I was reminded, however, how different their understanding and approach to Scripture must have been to so many in our Modern (using the word specifically) times. There in the Qumran community, they had two different versions of some of the texts and spent the time and energy to copy them both out and preserve them when in danger. They had two versions of Jeremiah, for example, that differed significantly in many ways. Yet, they were perfectly comfortable having both of them, and preserving both of them. This speaks volumes of how they viewed these texts when you realize that they could consider two texts, inconsistent in their details, as BOTH Holy Scripture. When we grasp how they could do this, we are then able to accept texts like the two creation accounts in the same way, without going through convoluted exegetical gymnastics to harmonize them.

      So, Dan, I think you might consider that maybe the Westminster Confession might simply be wrong on this point. It is not the “autographs” which are “inerrant” and unless and until we have them, we have a flawed and errant Scripture, thus leading to the requirement that preservation must mean God divinely maintained that original. I think a doctrine of preservation could mean that God simply preserved for us exactly what He wanted us to have.

      The fact that “what we have” might have some inconsistencies and variations BECOMES HERMENEUTICAL EVIDENCE! It can tell us that the existence of these variations simply do not detract from its inerrancy and holiness. And this then can lead to the conclusion that God’s message is not found at the level of these details, but at a wider scope. God was using the language of Man to describe the things of God. As Rhome mentions regarding the Incarnation in a TTP lecture, discussing God trying to fit into Man, “this is never going to be a perfect fit!”. And it is only when we are expecting a perfect fit in the text, it is when we assume that our language ever can express God’s ways in a specific and complete manner, that we get into trouble, and begin to look for such specificity.

      It is when we realize that our human language is still “looking through a glass darkly” and that each human writer, regardless of inspiration, was still limited by the human mind, the ability of written expression, and the limitation of his readers, that we can accept a doctrine of preservation that makes sense and is entirely defensible.

    • veritas83

      Dr. Wallace,

      Thanks for answering my questions with this blog series on preservation. I was wondering…

      Could it be that God has supernaturally preserved the OT text but we are not aware of its location? I mean, we have discovered manuscripts that have been hidden away for all these years. Could it be that the problems you presented in your blog are not really problems, because the OT text is “out there” somewhere?


      Stephen Stallard

    • Vance


      I think the problem with that concept would be that a Scripture hidden away from the Church is not a Scripture at all, since it is not accomplishing what a Scripture would be meant to do: provide a means of revelation from God TO the Church, a source of communication. Even worse, it would mean that we had, all this time, a “flawed” revelation.

      I think we can only work at this backward, as it were:

      1. The purpose of an inspired and inerrant (however you define it) Scripture would be as a means of communication between God and Man. A source of revelation.

      2. So, whatever else we say about it, if there IS an inspired and inerrant Scripture, and God has preserved it for us, it HAS to be what we have ended up with, otherwise the “reason for being” of such a Scripture would not be met.

      3. Therefore, if we are to hold to an inerrant and inspired Scripture, we have to hold that the Scripture we HAVE, inconsistencies, omissions, contradictions and all, is what God intended for us.

      4. If so, and we accept that these variations and inconsistencies, etc, exist, then we must determine how inerrancy and inspiration is consistent with such “issues”. This could involve what I discuss above: a view that God preserved the inerrant and holy message, even if in a very human written presentation.

      If you go at it the “front” way, and insist that any “true” Scripture is one that is inerrant and inspired in the original autograph, you end up with no Scripture at all, unless you can positively affirm that the text we have now IS exactly the same as the original autograph. I agree with Dan that this would be VERY difficult.

    • Preacher Jack

      A couple of questions to continue the blogversation!

      So how can we trust the Scriptures?

      Does God protect his revelation so that what he said and wanted us to know is the same today as it was when it was written?

    • chris cookston

      Dr. Wallace,

      Thank you for this post. I was first introduced to this “problem” a few years ago in seminary. I’m convinced, as are you that we must rethink our doctrine of preservation. In joyful anticipation I wait to see what you write about the proof texts for preservation. Its my understanding that Scripture doesn’t support the doctrine of preservation as many would have it; not even Isa 40:8 or Mat 5:18 support preservation.

    • disciple

      Should we not ask, then “Has God preserved His Word,” rather than “Has God preserved the Scriptures?” The difference being that God’s Word can be communicated through oral as well as written methods?

      Thank you, Dr. Wallace, for the continuing encouragement of your good and faithful work. This blog in particular reminds me as well that inerrancy and preservation are too easily linked in Biblical discussions today, and should be divorced as separate topics.

      On that note, I’d love to see a future blog regarding your contemporary view of the Chicago Statement of Biblical Inerrancy! Maybe a future post?!

    • Dan Wallace

      Excellent comments, folks. Thanks for the interaction. I mentioned before that I do hold to inerrancy of the autographs, and that it is possible to reconstruct what the autographs said in every place, though not with certainty. Even when it comes to conjectural emendation, scholars have a high degree of certainty that they can know what the original said. This may sound like double-talk from what I said earlier: viz., we can’t know exactly what the original said. So let me clarify: we can know that the original is either A or B; even with the conjectures scholars are not left with “none of the above” as the right answer. I make a distinction between what is inspired (the original) and what is or can be inerrant (the copies). See my essay posted at on this point (referenced in an earlier blog).

      As for whether we have exactly the Bible that God wants us to have, I would ask, Which one is the Bible that God wants us to have? It continues to change—it gets updated on the basis of manuscript discoveries and more research into the style of a particular author. Even the King James Bible changed over the centuries—approximately 100,000 changes were made since 1611 (albeit the vast majority of them are mere spelling updates). And to this day, there are still errors in every printing of the KJV. Modern translations continue to evolve and improve. My basic point is that in all essentials, the Bible is what God wants us to have, but it is not exactly what God wants us to have in all particulars. If it were, there would be an end of biblical scholarship because the text is settled. And I believe that the text that the apostles and prophets and their associates wrote is the purest text, the one that in all particulars is inspired. It is that text that we must seek to recover, even though we will not be able to completely do so in the foreseeable future. Still, we are getting closer, becoming more sure of certain readings, overturning decisions on others, etc.

      Regarding the attitude that the Qumran community had toward the Bible, I’m not so sure it really is that different from modern attitudes. After all, there are Bible collectors who want to get various English versions of the text for their historical importance but would not regard each one of them as the final, perfect translation of the scriptures. And each of us probably owns more than one English translation. If someone two thousands years from now raided my library, they might think that I valued all these Bibles equally and that I had no problem calling each, in every particular, the word of God. They would be mistaken. I can call every Bible the word of God but I can’t say every word in every Bible is the word of God.

    • Vance

      Dan, you said:

      “My basic point is that in all essentials, the Bible is what God wants us to have, but it is not exactly what God wants us to have in all particulars.”

      And I would agree with the first part of this entirely: the Bible as we have it, and as we have always had it, is complete in the essentials.

      But I would differ regarding the second part. I think it begs the question that this IS a text with “particulars” that God wants us to have. I would say the particulars simply don’t matter if they are not essentials, and God allowed the variations for that reason. As you say, the areas of possible error and inconsistency are very minor. This approach would answer your question “which one is the bible God wanted us to have?” and I would say all of them, or any of them, since the essentials are there. God allowed us early enough documents to ensure those essentials were preserved.

      To say otherwise is to run into the dilemma that I discussed earlier: it would mean Scripture was not serving its purpose of communicating God’s message, and that for centuries the Church has had something LESS than what God wanted us to have, something less than what God inspired for our edification.

      To say that God inspired Scripture for us, but then didn’t make sure we got what he intended, is to say God failed in His communication process, is it not?

      And I think this “essentials” approach solves the issue of the various translations, since it is much easier to show that they have those essentials than to show that they could ever get the fine “particulars” even if we had the original Greek and Hebrew autographs.

      And I don’t think Biblical scholarship would grind to a halt even if we HAD the original autographs. There would still be plenty to argue about in exegesis! 🙂

    • Vance

      Sorry, I should have said, in the second paragraph “I think it begs the question that there IS a text with “particulars” that God wants us to have.”

    • mghysell

      Dr Wallace,

      I deeply appreciate the topic being raised.

      I suspect that, in addition to the “problems” with the idea of the preservation of the Scriptures is that, even if God did preserve the Scriptures, it is almost as if the Scriptures have not “come of age” until the rise of higher criticism especially during the period of Erasmus and Ximenes.

      In my current study of the Cappadocian Fathers and the formulation of Trinitarian doctrine in the fourth century, I’ve concluded that while their hermeneutics were occasionally mistaken, they’ve at least arrived at conclusions similar to what can be taken from contemporary criticism. Why were they right, even if their methods were unacceptable by today’s standards?

      The answer lies in part, I would propose, in the role of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Church. I seriously suspect that in circles where there is a “monophysite” high bibliology (to misuse a word!), the Bible is accorded a responsibility that belongs rightly to the Holy Spirit. Moreover, I think there is a profound confusion between Divine Revelation and witness to Revelation. You pointed out in one of your articles that Evangelicals often make Christ a handmaid to the Bible rather than the other way around. Christ, not the Bible, should be understood to be the locus of Divine Revelation (this is the unmistakable thesis in the Fourth Gospel, especially with the verb “exegesato” in 1:18, that Jesus is the “exegete” of the Father). Once it is put into perspective that the Bible is really a witness to Christ, and once we grasp that Christ is the locus of God’s Self-disclosure, I think that the problematic issues with the idea of God preserving the Scriptures becomes a non-issue.

      In point of fact, I think what adds to the weight of your argument is that not one of the books in the Scriptures sets out to systematize Divine Revelation (only Romans, it seems, comes close). If in fact the Bible were a “systematic” treatment of Divine Revelation, we would have an even bigger challenge in reconciling this with the problems associated with the divine preservation of the Scriptures.

      But, as a student who is concentrating on Triadology, I’m deeply concerned about what seems to be a reliance upon the “static” Book (which is in itself a good thing!) rather than the Holy Spirit, who Jesus promised the Apostles would lead us to all truth. Otherwise, what would be the role of the hypostasis whose “identifying particularity” (St Basil of Caesarea) or “circumscription” (St Gregory of Nyssa) is to preserve the community of believers? If anything, the Bible should be seen as an extension of the Incarnation (because it follows up on the appearance of the God-Man) rather than an extension of the Holy Spirit. But, in either case, is the enormous question of interpretation.

      Which leads me to my final point for Ecumenism: Indeed Christians disagree on the finer points of many essentials. But even prior to our disagreement, perhaps Christians of divergent confessions, ought to accept the responsibility they have towards “theological opponents” to embark on a joint pilgrimage towards Truth. After all, the Church is not about “me and Jesus” but “Jesus and us.” In fact, looking at the editorial committee of Nestle-Aland, I see Ecumenism at work beautifully. It could be that whatever preservation there is is done by the Holy Spirit through the community of believers–this seems more “engraced” than a mechanical or automatic divine preservation of the Scriptures. One would be hard-pressed philosophically to argue that automatic or mechanical preservation of the Scriptures is better than the Holy Spirit using the People of God to reconstruct the autographs.

      Fraternally in Christ,
      Matthew Hysell

    • James Snapp Jr

      Certainly it is true that “the Bible in its entirety—that is, in all of its very words—has not been available to God’s people for all these centuries.” Nevertheless, I think E. Hill’s statement — “trustworthy representatives of the original text have been available to God’s people in every age” — can be salvaged. It depends on how one defines the term “trustworthy.”

      A trustworthy text is like a trustworthy ship. It takes ideas from the author to the reader. As a ship depends on its captain, the text depends on the Holy Spirit (and, to some extent, on the church, and on the sincere reverence of the reader) to deliver what the author communicated, and what the Holy Spirit intends to communicate, into the heart and mind of the reader.

      The problem comes when we detect, in the textual hull, either holes or barnacles. What is the meaning of preservation at those places where the original hull is not accessible? The hull of the ship has not been preserved. The important question, though, is, Has any of the cargo been lost as a result?

      If, in a worst-case scenario, we conclude that although the authors communicated to their readers various numerical amounts that we can only surmise (like, 40,000 horses versus 4,000, or “Did Saul reign for 40 years or 20 years?”), and that the authors communicated to their readers various proper names that we can only surmise, then it seems to me that the damage to the hull has not resulted in a diminution of the cargo.

      But things are a little more complex than that: the ship does not damage and repair itself. Its crew has been entrusted to watch over the cargo and ensure that it is not lost. Sometimes crewmembers have been willing to preserve the cargo even at the expense of the hull — for instance, when copyists made explicit what was only implicit in the text. (Luke 2:33 is one example of this, where the reference to Jesus’ “father and mother” was replaced by “Joseph and his mother.”) After a voyage of many miles, the ship which has been cared for by its crew might be better suited to retain the cargo than the ship was when it began its journey. The cared-for ship has reinforcements and cargo-protecting shields that the ship originally did not have.

      Plus, the crew — i.e., the church — should bear in mind that the owner of the ship must have known that the ship would face harsh weather, and that it would be attacked by pirates, and that barnacles would attach to its hull. The owner foresaw that the crew would fail to keep the hull perfectly clean and intact. The owner also foresaw that the need would arise to reinforce, and even replace, particular points in the hull that were targeted by pirates, in order that the cargo would not be lost. So, while it is interesting to notice which parts of the ship are original and which parts are not original, this is not the same as determining which parts of the ship are “trustworthy” and which parts are “not trustworthy,” if we are considering how reliably a ship carries and preserves its cargo, rather than how reliably a ship simply preserves itself.

      DW: “Does preservation mean that God has mostly preserved his word but human beings had to fill in the gaps from time to time?”

      Speaking for myself, the doctrine of preservation ought to be defined to mean that God has providentially ensured that the Biblical text perpetuated by the church would remain capable of conveying exactly what He intends for it to convey to the reader who is willing and able to receive its message. This does not leave the church or the Holy Spirit out of the equation. Nor does it mean that God necessarily ensured that the text used outside the church would have this capability, even though such a text may do so.

      When the idea of preservation is formulated in such a way, the Christian text-critic is in the equation, informing the reader about the history of the text, especially where it is difficult to ascertain the original text, so that even at those points, the extant text may continue to convey what God wants to communicate to the reader.

      DW: “OT scholars know that the text is corrupted either here or there (e.g., how old Ahaziah was when he became king: 2 Chron 22.2 says he was 42; 2 Kings 8.26 says he was 22. Most scholars admit that a corruption occurred in either of these passages when they were copied by scribes, but which passage has been corrupted?”

      Since II Chron. 21:20 implies that Ahaziah’s father Jehoram died at age 40 (he was 32 when he became king and he reigned for eight years), I think we can safely say that II Chron. 22:2 has been corrupted (where it says that Ahaziah was 42 when he became king), and that II Kings 8:26 has the accurate number.

      Yours in Christ,

      James Snapp, Jr.

      P.S. Earlier today, as I am recovering from a bad cold, I entered a lengthy comment on your earlier entry about John 7:53-8:11 and Mk. 16:9-20. I focus on your comments about Mk. 16:9-20.

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