[NOTE: Clicking on the pictures below will make them larger]
We have no original manuscripts of the Bible. All we have are copies of copies.
That does not mean however that our Bibles are unreliable – as if a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy etc. might render it valueless. We now have some 7000 manuscripts and manuscript fragments of the Old and New Testament. A few of the New Testament fragments date to the first century.
Until the mid 20th century, most of the manuscript evidence was for the New Testament. Our oldest Old Testament manuscript dated to the 10th century AD – 1400 years past the closing of the Old Testament. In 1946 however, a young shepherd boy, searching for a stray goat, happened upon a cave in the Judean desert (note pictures of the caves to the left). In the cave he found jars containing Hebrew scrolls (the third picture is of a facsimilie in the museum of Qumran — the area of the caves). This was the beginning of the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls which would, in total, be found in eleven caves along the northwest shore of the Dead Sea (the whole story is a lot more extensive than I have room for here).
While not all the scrolls contain Bible text, portions of all of the Old Testament were found except for the book of Esther. The find was of tremendous significance because it took our manuscript evidence for the Old Testament back to the days before Jesus, as far as 250 B.C. What scholars discovered was that the text of the Old Testament from the tenth century AD was in remarkable agreement with the texts we now had from near the closing days of the Old Testament.
Today, a majority of the Dead Sea Scrolls are housed at the Shrine of the Book (4th picture), a part of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. I was privileged to spend half a day there a few months ago. It, along with the visit to the caves) was one of the highlights of the trip. The shrine is built to look like the top of the jars that held the scrolls.
Two observations are in order:
First, the Bible is the most studied and criticized text of antiquity. But the result is that it is the most reliable text of antiquity. No other document comes close.
Second, the vast majority of Bible manuscripts have been discovered since 1900. Additionally, textual studies of non-biblical manuscripts (the majority of which also were discovered in the last 100 years) have increased our understanding of ancient words and languages immensely. This does not mean that new translations are more reliable than old ones. It does, however, mean that new translations have the opportunity to be more reliable, for the translators have access to far greater knowledge and evidence than those of 100 (or more) years ago.