I've had the privilege of examining a number of ancient biblical manuscripts (MSS) in the past twenty years or so. Some were written in (the original) Hebrew or Greek, others in such translation languages as Latin or Gothic. My interest in the manuscripts (handwritten copies -- before the invention of the printing press in the mid-1400s) originated in my desire to confidently prove to my friends that the books of the Bible had been copied accurately. The enthusiasm also stems from my love of languages. (In the ancient languages, I began my study of Latin in 1971, Greek in 1979, and Hebrew in 1980.)
I've held the oldest New Testament MS in my hand. (It dates from the beginning of the 100s AD.) I have browsed through medieval MSS in climate-controlled rooms, and wearing special white gloves. Several times I have even looked at the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS). In museums the world over, I've had numerous opportunities to strengthen my faith through this sort of up-close inspection. No excuse for doubt
I know well how accurately the MSS were copied. The occasional "errors" (normally matters of spelling variation or inadvertent copying mistakes) do not undermine the accuracy of the text, and since there are so many MSS anyway, the science of "textual criticism" allows scholars to reestablish the original text with an extremely high degree of confidence.
This is important, because through most of its history, the New Testament was preserved manually (from the 1st to the 15th centuries). In the very same way, the O.T. was copied by hand from the late second millennium until the 15th century AD. And it is just possible that the scribes of ancient Hebrew and Aramaic were even more careful than those who copied the Greek New Testament (No wonder the DSS matched the medieval Hebrew MSS almost perfectly, despite the thousand year gap!)
Yet in 2002 I wanted to get even more closely involved in the manuscript enterprise. What to do? How about copying the whole N.T.? "Well, that would take a long time," I thought, "but what about copying the thirteen letters of Paul?" I prepared my pen and a special notebook. For the most part, I copied the Greek as it was originally written -- with no spaces between words. As it turned out, there was even room to fit Hebrews in at the end of the collection. I tried to copy with the utmost caution and respect for the text. (I even wrote neatly, something that in my case goes against nature!) The project took me somewhere between 60 and 90 hours, and I devoted myself to it during my morning devotionals nearly every day. What did I learn?
I learned to respect those copyists -- scholars, monks, faithful Christians who patiently reproduced the gospels and epistles, as well as Acts and the Apocalypse. Yes, they made occasional errors. "How did you do, Douglas?", you may be thinking! I thought you'd ask.
Well, to my credit, there were some pages where, as far as I can tell, there were no errors at all. On other pages, I made errors, and if you study my notebook, you will probably find every error a copyist could make. I spelled a few words incorrectly. I skipped words. I accidentally repeated words. Sometimes I inverted the order of phrases in the sentence. At other times, my mind ran ahead of my eyes, and I completed the sentence as I recalled it, or in the Greek I thought sounded best, whereas in fact I had wandered from the text. Where I caught myself -- as I believe I usually did -- I used a system of dots to indicate the error, and made the corrections somewhere near the errant line.
Would a reader be able to follow my fallible rendering of the epistles? Absolutely. How much of the original "made it through" my version, even with all its mistakes? Probably 99.98%. In other words, no new doctrine was created. No heresy was committed. Nothing was lost from the basic message, and my worst errors seldom even affected the finer nuances of the text.
Christians do not believe their modern translations are necessarily error-free, but we do believe the original MSS perfectly presented the word of God. Nor are the surviving MS copies necessarily perfect'but then they would not need to be in order to faithfully convey the word of God. That is because the original message was unaffected.
In my trial scribal period, I was producing fallible copies from fallible copies. I stand in awe of those who dedicated years, even decades, to preserving the biblical texts for posterity. I've tried my hand at it, and can now begin to imagine how difficult the undertaking was.
May we all appreciate the labor of ages past which have enabled us to enjoy the living and enduring word of God.