What is the Bible?

This is a long handout from a talk I gave last night.

Download it as a .pdf file in a nice format here, or read it below.

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We’re going to organize our thoughts around four main topics.  First, we’ll look at how we got this assembly of writings together, and not others.  Why do the different Christian traditions have different books in the Bible?  Why are other books not considered part of the Bible?  Second, we’ll look at the transmission of the text.  Is what we have what the original authors wrote?  How reliable is our text since we don’t have any of the original documents?  Third, we’ll look at the reliability of the Bible.  Weren’t the gospels were written by the early church fathers in an effort to gain control of this new group of people who followed the historical Jesus?  And finally, we’ll look at the authority of the Bible.  Why should a set of writings from thousands of years ago mean anything significant to anybody today?  Why do people base their lives on the Bible?  Why should I? So, we will proceed with . . . 

  1. The Canon of the Bible.
  2. The Text of the Bible.
  3. The Reliability of the Bible.
  4. The Authority of the Bible.

The Canon of the Bible“Canon” comes from a Greek word which means “measuring stick” or we might say, “yard stick.”  It has come to be known as the list of official books (or works).  We might argue over the canon of western literary classics or the canon of the best films of all time.  When we talk about the Bible, “canon” refers to the question, “which books are part of the Bible, which are not?” 

The Hebrew Scriptures.  Over time, there has been very little argument over the canon of the Hebrew Scriptures.  We do not have good historical records about any discussions that might have gone on about some of the earliest works, but a few hundred years before Jesus, things were pretty well accepted.  There are many and various Talmudic sources that all agree on the same books (which were arranged differently). 

The Apocrypha.  Protestants (like me) recognize 66 books of the Bible, Roman Catholics acknowledge 73.  Actually, Roman Catholics acknowledge all the writings that Protestants do, with 15 additional writings, some of which are attached to universally recognized books, and so do not count as an additional book in themselves (for example, Bel and the Dragon, which stands alone literarily , is always counted with the book of Daniel.  These 15 additional writings are known as the Apocrypha. These are the Apocryphal writings with their approximate date of writing (all dates are BC):

  • Tobit (250 -175)
  • Judith (175-110)
  • Wisdom of Solomon (150-100)
  • Ecclesiasticus (Sirach) (200-180)
  • Baruch (200-AD 70)
  • Letter of Jeremiah (320-300)
  • Song of the Young Men (167-163)
  • Susanna (120-80)
  • Bel and the Dragon (150-100)
  • Additions to Esther (180-130)
  • 1 Maccabees (105-60)
  • 2 Maccabees (100-80)
  • 1 Esdras (150-100)
  • 2 Esdras (AD 70-135)
  • Prayer of Manasseh (150-50)

The Apocryphal books were very popular writings in the first few centuries before Jesus.  They are mostly historical, poetic and popular Jewish writings. 

There was a bit of controversy at the time, but there was also a general consensus that the Apocryphal writings were good for reading and study.  An educated person should read them and know their content, but they are not canonical.  Jewish historian around the time of Jesus, Josephus stated that “Our books, those which are justly accredited, are but two and twenty, and contain the record of all time.”  The Jewish canon contained 24 books (which are the same as our 39), and we’re not sure if he is combining a few books (Judges with Ruth and Jeremiah with Lamentations  are likely candidates) or if he has a smaller canon (Ecclesiastes and Esther are likely candidates for removal).  Nonetheless, clearly he did not see the Apocryphal books to be canonical.


The Apocryphal books were gradually included in the Septuagint as they were written and became popular.  However, they are not part of the oldest Hebrew manuscripts we have.  Further, when St. Jerome (400 A.D.) translated the Hebrew Scriptures into Latin (the Vulgate), he included the Apocryphal books, but he set them apart from what he considered the canonical books of the Old Testament.  No one disputed him.


Jewish writers have never considered the Apocrypha to be canon. 

The Roman Catholic Church declared the Apocryphal books to be canonical in 1548 at the Council of Trent, largely in response to the Protestant’s refusal to recognize them as such.


For a long time, Protestants continued binding the Apocryphal books with the Bible, but marked them in a separate section as not being canonical.  When it was decided that this was confusing to people, it was dropped out.  Most Protestant Bibles had the apocrypha until about 120 years ago.

 The Greek Scriptures.  We have far more information about the origins and preservation of the Greek Testament than the Hebrew one.  It was written in the 1st century and each of the books was passed around from church to church and copied by pastors.  Individual church communities began collecting various books.  Some would become part of the Bible, some would not. Apparently there were collections beginning to form before the Apostles died.  2 Peter 3.16 tells us of a collection of Paul’s writings, and clearly John wanted his book of Revelation to be distributed to the various churches in Asia. After a few centuries Christians became a threat to the Roman Empire.  Church communities had to decide which books were worth dying for, and which were not.  This became the basis for the discussion that will end with a definite set of inspired books for the New Testament. Some of the earliest and best manuscripts we have contain books that eventually did not make it into the canon.  For example, Codex Sinaiticus ( A.D. 350 or so) contains the Shepherd of Hermas and Barnabas.  Codex Alexandrinus (A.D. 450 or so) contains 1 and 2 Clement.  These books were especially popular in Alexandria, but not so much in the other parts of the Christian world. 

How we got our New Testament canon is a huge process, let me hit some of the highlights.  Lists of books which were in and out were not popular during the time of the underground church.  It just wasn’t on their radar.  So, before 325, we don’t have real precise information.  But, based on the many writings we have, it seems the four gospels were the first to be clearly recognized by everyone, followed closely by the letters of Paul.  By the middle of the second century, there were many references in the writings of the Christian pastors to what we now consider the 27 books of the New Testament, and few references to any others.  There were some debates about Hebrews, James, 2 Peter and 3 John.  These books were scorned by some, but accepted by others. Shortly after Christianity was “legalized,” Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, gave a list that turned out to be our exact list of the books of the New Testament, and he said they were scripture, on par with the Hebrew Scriptures.  This list was affirmed by Church Councils in 325, 393, 397 and 419. In a nutshell, when Christianity became legalized in 313, Christian leaders met together for the first time.  When they did, they all agreed on which books ought to be considered canonical – so much so, that it was not a topic of discussion when several hundred bishops met for the first ecumenical council in 325.  

The Text of the Bible

There is significant difference between trying to determine that actual words (and letters) of “God’s Word” between the Old Testament and the New Testament. 

Old Testament

New Testament

Hebrew (and Aramaic) language, fluid, poetic, image-oriented

Greek language, precise, logical, technical

Much of the OT was originally orally transmitted, and the written page is a copy

The written words are the original source

Much of the OT material was compiled over many generations

Each book was written complete by a single author

Hebrew (Oriental) people revered the tradition of the text and were very careful in transmission

Greek thinkers (Western world) was much less careful in transmission, preferring quantity to quality

To illustrate the difference, think about what it means to “get back” to the original text of the book of Psalms — it’s just a collection of songs.  Each song came from somewhere other than the “Book of Psalms.”  Or, compare Psalm 14 and 53.  Or, compare 2 Kings 18-20 and Isaiah 36-39.  Or, think about Deuteronomy 34 — Moses dies.  Certainly that’s not part of the original text that Moses wrote, yet, it is certainly part of the book of Deuteronomy.  For these reasons, New Testament textual criticism is far more important and useful[1] than Old Testament textual criticism.

Further, while we have few texts of the Old Testament, those that we do are incredibly precise across over 1,000 years of time and various parts of the world.  This is because Jewish people regarded the wording to be sacred.  Texts were copied very carefully, slowly, and checks and double checks.  Any tiny mistakes would require that the entire page be destroyed as well as the previous page (which “touched” the faulty page).


The New Testament was as different story.  Think of the “telephone game” where one person whispers a story into the ear of another.  That person then repeats the story to another and on it goes.  At the end of a long line, the story has morphed quite a bit.  Each person remembers a different story.


Now, we can think of a poorly paid scribe copying the gospel of Luke for a wealthy landowner in the 6th century He is in a poorly lit room, standing (not sitting) all day at a rickety desk, with poor writing paper and ink.  He’s cold (or hot) and hungry.  He may be barely literate.  His “original” copy is smudged in places, and apparently whoever wrote it had bad handwriting.  Further, remember that there are no punctuation marks, every letter is capitalized, and there are no spaces between words.  As he looks at the “original” he sees that someone has come along and “corrected” or edited the text in some places.  There are original words crossed out and replacement words in the margins.  He wonders which is truly original, and why the new words are there.  Also, there are some personal notes in the margins — some of which is done with terrible handwriting!  To top it all off, his boss is very pushy and wants the completed copy immediately.  Ok, our poor, tired scribe is doing his best, but he’s bound to make mistakes.

Manuscripts.  We’ll return to our poor scribe but for now, let’s get more concrete.  There are almost 5800 Greek Manuscripts of the New Testament, some are only portions of particular books and some contain many or even all of the New Testament.  Besides that, we have 15,000 to 20,000 manuscripts of translations of the New Testament, primarily in Latin, Coptic and a few other languages.  These versional copies help tremendously, too.  Finally, many pastors (known as “church fathers”) wrote to each other and to other churches and regularly quoted their New Testament.  We have more than 1,000,000 NT quotations in the writings of the church fathers.  In fact, we could construct the entire Greek New Testament (except for about 6 or 7 verses) simply from the church fathers.

Variants.  Textual critics refer to textual “variants.”  A variant is one possible “reading” of a particular part of the text.  For example, perhaps in one manuscript, at a particular place, it says, “Jesus.”  In another manuscript, at that same place, it says, “Jesus Christ.”  In another, it says, “Christ.”  In another is says, “the Lord Jesus.”  That would be 4 variants.  Which is original?  That’s the job of the textual critic.  There are about 300,000 to 400,000 variants in the Greek New Testament.  There are about 138,000 words in the Greek New Testament, meaning that for every word, there is an average of 3 or 4 variant readings.


By far the largest category is Nonsense and Spelling Errors.  There were no dictionaries and so there were no standard spellings of words.  Proper names, especially, were subject to many different spellings.  Sometimes, it was clear that a scribe was getting sleepy, and making stupid mistakes toward the end of a page, or a paragraph.  Then, sometimes, you can see on the next line, a fresh pen, good handwriting, and no stupid mistakes.  It must be the next morning. 

The second largest category of variants is those that do not affect the translation at all.  For example, in Greek, the definite article can be used in front of a proper name, or not.  For example, in Greek you could say, “the Paul went to Jerusalem” or “Paul went to Jerusalem.”  No scholar has any idea what the difference is.  There doesn’t seem to be any discernable pattern.  The meaning is not affected at all.

Another large group are those variants that are meaningfully different, but not viable.  For example, there are some church fathers that clearly misquote the New Testament (perhaps they didn’t take the time to look up the exact wording, but just relied on their faulty memory).  If the only testimony to a particular variant is one church father, of course it is not original.


The meaningful and viable variants make up less than 1% of variants, and no cardinal doctrine is in question or is affected by any viable variant.


Introducing Errors.  Ok, for a few more words about how these variant get into the text, let’s get back to our scribes.  There were other common ways (in some places at various times) to copy the books of the New Testament.  For example, a reader would stand in front of a large group of copiers.  The reader would read a line of text from his manuscript and the copiers would then write down what they heard.  If the reader went too fast or had an accent errors would creep in to some of the texts.  If a listener heard the wrong word, he might write a word similar to what he heard.  Think of these sentences:


Our chance that he will be allowed to chant aloud this hour is not good.

He was seen mourning in the morning scene of the play.

You two need to wait with your cart, too, for four people is too many in this car. 

Also, sometimes somebody would cough, or a particular scribe would be inattentive for some reason.  For example, in Revelation 15.6, most translations say that seven angels were clothed in “linen,” but the ASV says they were clothed in “stone.”  Well, the Greek words for “linen” and “stone” sound very similar, but are spelled differently, and some manuscripts have one, others have the other.

This “He must have heard it wrong” kind of error is but one in a much larger category of unintentional changes.  Bad handwriting, poor eyesight and dim lighting account for a large number of mistakes, too — sometimes a scribe would skip a line altogether — so in his new copy, 6 or 10 words would be missing, which made no sense at all.  Sometimes, somebody would catch the mistake and put the missing text in the margin.  Speaking of which, it was common for users of these texts to write notes to themselves in the margins of the book.  If there was a word they were not familiar with, they would commonly put a synonym in the margin, but the margin was also used to correct the text.  In later years if a scribe were to use this manuscript to copy from, how was he to know which one was a correction and which was a personal note?  He made his best guess.


What is perhaps the most atrocious of all scribal blunders is contained in the fourteenth-century codex 109.  This manuscript of the Four Gospels, now in the British Museum, was transcribed from a copy which must have had Luke’s genealogy of Jesus … in two columns of twenty-eight lines to the column.  Instead of transcribing the text by following the columns in succession, the scribe of 109 copied the genealogy by following the lines across the two columns.  As a result, not only is almost everyone made the son of the wrong father, but, because the names apparently did not fill the last column of the exemplar, the name of God now stands within the list instead of at its close (it should end, of course, “…Adam, the son of God”).  In this manuscript God is actually said to have been the son of Aram, and the source of the whole race is not God but Phares![2]


There were many intentional changes, too.  Not all of the Biblical writers wrote with grammatical precision, so it was common to “correct” the grammar, spelling, etc. of the copy in front of you.  Further, there are many “parallel” passages in the New Testament which are slightly different.  Many of the monks had large sections of the Bible translated.  If Mark’s version of a gospel story was “lacking” compared to Luke’s version, a scribe might put the “extra” sentence back in to his copy of Mark’s Gospel.  Early versions of Mark 1.2 say “as it was written in Isaiah the prophet.”  The quotation it refers to is a composite from both Isaiah and Malachi.  Later versions of Mark simply say, “as it is written in the prophets.”  This was probably an intentional change.  Other changes were made for theological reasons.  For example, in Luke 2.41 and 43, the text reads “his parents” referring to Mary and Joseph, the parents of Jesus.  However, some later manuscripts read “Mary and Joseph” in an apparent attempt to protect the doctrine of the virgin birth.  Lastly, many “pulpit” copies of the New Testament were prepared specifically for public reading at worship services on Sunday.  Each week, a little more was read, continuing where we left off last week.  If a particular week’s reading started with, “He began teaching them, saying…” then the “pulpit” copy would substitute the person’s name (“Jesus” for example) instead of “He.”  Or, a brief phrase or sentence might be included to help the readers understand the reading.  This was often confused as being part the text itself.

However, the vast majority of scribes and copies were amazingly scrupulous with their work.  With the many thousands of copies made, we would expect to have far more textual problems than we have.  Many errors (even in spelling) are copied over and over because most scribes would not change anything, they would copy exactly and check and recheck their work.


NT vs. Others.  One more thing on the text.  The average ancient Greek author has about 20 manuscripts of any kind.  The very best is Homer (who wrote The Illiad and The Odyssey).  We have less than 800 manuscripts for his work, even though he wrote 900 years before Christ.  Also, the earliest copy we have of any Greek author is 500 years after the writing, but for the New Testament we have many copies from the 2nd Century (AD 100-200), which are about 100 years after the originals.


To sum up, while we don’t have the original copies of any of the books of the Bible, the few ancient copies of the Old Testament are so precise to each other across wide geographic and time distances give us a good indication that what we have is what was originally written.  In the New Testament, we have so many copies from so many different parts of the world, over so many centuries, that we are almost certain on pretty much every word of the original text.  The evidence is simply overwhelming, and every scholar who has looked into this aspect of Christianity has never found any weaknesses.


The Reliability of the Bible

Here I want to address a particular notion popular today that the gospels (and especially the rest of the New Testament) were written by the “winners” of history who suppressed the truth of Jesus with these writings.  The argument and explanation can be quite lengthy, but let me address it quickly.


The gospels and the rest of the New Testament were all completely written very early . . . too early to be legend.  Legends take time.  We have fragments of John’s gospel (clearly the last one written) from the first century!  Thousands of people were still alive who could quickly dispel any kind of propaganda.  Paul’s letters were written about 20 years after Jesus died.  That’s just too quick.  Imagine if someone were to try to write a bunch of books today putting forth the theory that President Nixon was assassinated while in office.  Even with all the technology we have today to print books, and disseminate information on the internet, nobody who investigated the facts would conclude you were correct.  There are too many people who where there, who knew him.


Secondly, the way the gospels (and the rest of the New Testament) are written, they could not be legends.  There are little details throughout the gospels, such as the pillow that Jesus rested his head on in the bottom of a boat.  Those kind of details are not put in political propaganda stories, or in fables, or in any other genre except history.  The novel (fiction stories with that kind of attention to seemingly meaningless details) had not been invented yet. 

Further, the apostles look like idiots with complete lack of faith on almost every page of the gospels.  This would be completely counterproductive to a movement seeking to give the apostles power and control of the fledgling church.  In fact, Peter, the leader of the movement at first, comes across looking the worst (though they all follow him).


The Authority of the Bible

The canon, text and reliability of the Bible, when questioned, are fairly easy to answer for modern people.  The evidence is fairly conclusive.  There is no real “leap of faith” in the standard Christian commitments on these issues.  Even liberal theologians have moved away from these criticisms of classic Christian teaching, based on the overwhelming evidence and scholarship on these three issues.

The question of authority, however, is not so easy to address, and liberal theologians working to discount the Bible’s authority are now doing so directly, rather than through undermining the canon, text or reliability.


Ok, says the skeptic, perhaps the books of our current Bible really are the ones always accepted as true by the entire Church.  And the text is reliable.  So what?  What does that mean for me?  What do I care?  Maybe these things happened the way it says.  That’s no reason to base your life on the Bible.


Of course the skeptic is correct.  Just because we have a reliable canon and text means nothing for us today.


The best way to address the Bible’s authority is to get into the message of the Bible itself.  There is uniqueness in the message that has been drawing people for several thousand years now.  The best way I can invite someone to understand the authority of the Bible is to invite you to look into the message for yourself.


Let me offer you an invitation.  Think of two groups of people.  In category A put all the people in the history of the world who claimed to be God.  There have been a few recent ones.  In category B put the leaders of the world’s major religions: Jesus, Muhammad, Buddha, Moses, maybe a few more.  Ok, now, Jesus is the only one who fits in both groups.  That’s remarkable.  All thinking people in our modern era need to investigate that, at least.  Even if you decide that Christianity is not for you, at least you need to reject it mindfully.  Jesus is not some silly backwoods religious nut-job claiming to be God.  Jesus convinced his family (even his brother James!) that he was God.  Usually that kind of thing disqualifies you from being a great person.  That kind of arrogance makes you repulsive normally.  But not Jesus.  What was going on with him?


Finally, let me offer this advice.   There are parts of the Bible that make you uncomfortable.  Why?  It is because of your culture.  The questions about gender roles, money, wrath and justice are typically problematic for Americans.  These issues are not a problem for people of other cultures (who don’t believe the Bible).  For example, Middle East Muslims would never think of these parts of the Bible as offensive.  They would have major problems, however, with the parts of the Bible that talk about loving your enemy, which we have no problem with (theoretically).  If you reject parts of the Bible because you think “we are now enlightened . . . we live in a more sophisticated age . . . we now know better,” you are engaging in the height of cultural and temporal arrogance.


What your grandparents believed may offend you just as what you believe may offend your grandchildren.  So what? 

Who is the arbiter of truth?  If you come to Jesus (and/or the Bible) looking for wisdom you can use to help improve your life, he (it) cannot help you at all.  If your God can never offend you, he can never help you.  A friend who agrees with you completely can be nice, but she can never help you.  She can never show you your blind spots, she can never help you overcome your problems, she can never give you real inspiration when you need it. 

Unless you allow God to offend you (in the Bible, at times), he can never help you, and you can never be in real relationship.  What kind of relationship is always affirming and never opposing?  That’s not a real relationship, that is an imaginary friend.  He may give you comfort, but only when things are going really well for you.  In which case, what’s the point?

 So, we shouldn’t be surprised that the Bible is offensive.  It is at the place of offense that it can help us.[3]

[1] This does not mean that the Old Testament is less important, useful or relevant than the New, but we are simply talking about textual criticism here.[2] Bruce M. Metzger, The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption and Restoration, 3rd, enlarged edition, Oxford University Press, 1992, p.194-195.[3] Of course I don’t mean that everything offensive is necessarily good.  Some things that people find offensive in the Bible are not actually there.  We should study carefully what the Bible says, and let it offend us with what it actually says.


One response to “What is the Bible?

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