“Mercy to him who wrote, O Lord, wisdom to those who read, grace to those who hear, salvation to those who own. Amen.” Unknown (Metzger, TNT. page 20.)
“. . . O reader, in spiritual love forgive me, and pardon the daring of him who wrote, and turn his errors into some mystic good. . . . There is no scribe who will not pass away, but what his hands have written will remain for ever. Write nothing with thy hand but that which thou wilt be pleased to see at the resurrection. . . . May the soul of the Lord Jesus Christ cause this holy copy to avail for the saving of the soul of the wretched man who wrote it.” Unknown (20)
Who would you suspect could be the author of either of these quotes? A theologian? An apostle? A Christian blogger?
No, according to Bruce Metzger’s “The Text of the New Testament”, the quotes above are examples of what are called colophons, notes in which ancient scribes placed at the ends of their books. These notes appear in both biblical and non-biblical manuscripts. A common colophon would detail the rigorous mental and physical tolls taken by the workers as they transcribe manuscripts for hours on end. For example:
“He who does not know how to write supposes it to be no labour; but though only three fingers write, the whole body labours.” (17)
Still, others placed these notes as curses to ward off thieves who would be under “the wrath of the Eternal Word of God” should they use their sticky fingers to nefariously acquire scripture or a writing. There are also colophons that provide invaluable information like the name of the scribe or the time and date of the writing. While others offer a prayer or simple blessing.
So who were these people who humbly and diligently produced the Bible for us? In the earliest stages of biblical transcription, these duties were performed by individual Christians who wanted to produce copies for personal use or for service to their congregations. But as conversions to Christianity increased in the first centuries, so did the demand for copies. With the production of so many manuscripts, standards for accuracy in transcribing came into place. By the fourth century, state funded book manufacturers, called scriptoria, produce copies of the books of the New Testament. Each employed a person, called a corrector, whose job it was to fix mistakes during the transcription process. Even today, experts can detect the presence of the corrector in the sudden changes in style and tint of ink on the parchment.
But what are we, as Christians, to think about this process? Skeptics tell us that the Holy Bible is filled with errors made by an unsophisticated people over huge passages of time. How can we trust what it says? They will bring up the “Telephone Game” some played as kids, in which we sat in a circle and one child would whisper something to another. Then that kid would pass it along to the next. Then, by the time the message reached the last young person, it became a different message entirely.
Unfortunately, the issues mentioned above are well beyond the scope of this short article. I will say, in response, that the great number of manuscripts enables us to have confidence that what we have an accurate Bible because any error or difference found in a particular manuscript can be tested against others. We have uncovered over 5,600 manuscripts for the New Testament. The nearest item of antiquity in number of manuscripts is Homer’s The Iliad with 643. The age of the manuscripts matter, as well, when you factor in that the time gap between the original and the first surviving copies of the NT is only 25 years in comparison to Homer’s 500 years. Have you ever heard anyone question the accuracy of The Iliad? So, to question the accuracy of the New Testament is to question all works of antiquity.
Still, as I read Dr. Metzger’s book, I simply could not get past the fact that there is a personal element to how we got the Holy Bible. Of course, this makes sense, since we have a personal God who acts within our lives and who, by His very nature, holds everything together. He chose to create each one of us and chooses who He uses for His good pleasure.
When you think about it, isn’t His inspiration is evident here in the devotion of the people He picked for the job? The folks who copied our many manuscripts are directly responsible for how we are able to connect with our Good Good Father through His word. During the Byzantine period, scripture was transcribed by monks in commercial scriptoriums, tirelessly and, in many cases, anonymously living out their faith. They suffered long hours of the mental and physical drudgery of their work with the idea that it would further the kingdom of God. For example, Metzger’s book quotes Cassiodorus, the rhetorician/philosopher and Prime Minister to Ostrogothic princes of Italy, who later became a monk, founding the monastery of Vivarium:
“ . . . What happy application, what praiseworthy industry, to preach unto men by means of the hand, to untie the tongue by means of the fingers, to bring quiet salvation to the mortals, and to fight the Devil’s insidious wiles with pen and ink! For every word of the Lord written by the scribe is a wound inflicted on Satan.” (18)
Clearly, this dedication, one without any tangible earthly reward, illustrated in these colophons, these few lines of ancient text, serve as good evidence that these people cared deeply about the finished product of the Holy Bible. Can there be any question that the passing of the Word to the many generations and cultures of history was in very good hands?