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.