The Bible: can we trust it? (Part 2)

We turn our thoughts now to the veracity or truthfulness of the Bible.   How can we know that the Bible we have now is the same as the one that was originally written? Isn’t it a translation of a translation of a translation?

When I was at school we played this game called Chinese Whispers.  You sit around in a circle and the first person would whisper something in the ear of the person sitting next to him and it would go around this circle.  By the time it got to the end you’d end up with something so outlandish it was nothing near to what was said in the beginning.  People think the bible works the same way; it’s become so corrupted through the centuries we can never know what was originally written.

Interestingly enough, nobody questions other ancient works we have today such as Plato and Aristotle.  Nobody says, “Are these really the things that Plato actually wrote?”  They only do that with the bible.  There’s a double standard – one standard when it applies to ancient literature and other standard when it applies to the Scriptures.  Yet, as you will see, the Scriptures are more than adequate to handle that criticism.

Let me explain the process of how we got our English bibles today.  There are 4 links in the chain of God’s Word to us:

It all starts with Inspiration.  What exactly is divine inspiration?  The best definition I have found is from Geisler and Nix:

“Inspiration is that mysterious process by which the divine causality worked through the human prophets without destroying their individual personalities and styles to produce divinely authoritative and inerrant writings”[1]

There are two great Scriptures on inspiration.  The first is 2 Timothy 3:16 which says, “All Scripture is inspired [theopneustos – God breathed] by God” and then there is 2 Peter 1:21 which says, “no prophecy ever came by the will of man; instead, men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.”

That’s very different from other religious writings such as Quran which is a dictation.  Allah speaks and Mohammed has to write it all down, word-by-word, which is why devoted Muslims have their children learn Arabic so that they can recite it in it’s pure form – any other form would be a corruption.   The Bible isn’t like that.  When Matthew or Mark or Luke wrote their gospels their own writing style and personality comes through, yet the Holy Spirit ensures it’s from God.  When writing to the church in Corinth Paul voices his disappointment in their behaviour; yet everything he says is from God.   That’s how divine inspiration works.

Now look at the last link in the process: Translation.  Translation is the process whereby bible scholars and linguists convert Scripture from the original languages (Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek) to another language.  Every English bible today is a direct translation from the original languages.  Not one of them is a translation of a translation.  The difference lies in the technique or approaches the translating committee use – Formal, Dynamic and Optimal equivalence (we’ll get to that later).

OK, so that leaves the two middles links in the chain: Canonization and Transmission.  Canonization describes the process by which the community of God’s people accept certain scriptures as divinely inspired and authoritative.  Transmission describes the ancient process of copying Hebrew and Greek manuscripts to preserve them for future generation and to distribute them for greater use.  Since there were no copy machines, the texts had to be copied by hand.  In this way they were “transmitted.”

Let’s start with the Canon.  The word canon (from the Greek word kanon – meaning rule or standard) is a technical term for the original 66 books of the bible.  From the writings of early church Fathers and historians we can discern at least five principles that were used to determine whether or not a writing was to be included in the canon:

  1. Was the book written by a prophet of God?
  2. Was the writer confirmed by acts of God?
  3. Did the message tell the truth of God?
  4. Does it come with the power of God? If it’s from God, it will have a transforming power in the lives of those who read it.
  5. Was it accepted by the people of God? When a book was received, collected, read and used by the people of God as the Word of God, it was regarded as canonical.  And not all books were immediately accepted.

The book of Esther was in question for example, as it has no mention of God.  Yet the providential hand of God is at work from beginning to end.  The Song of Solomon was questioned due to its sensual flavour.  Jude was questioned for his use of the apocryphal Book of Enoch and 2nd Peter was questioned because of its late appearance history.  Eventually however they were recognized as Scripture by the entire church.

What about the Apocrypha?  The Apocrypha (meaning “hidden”) refers to the fifteen books written between the years 300 B.C. and 100 B.C.  Eleven of these fourteen books are considered Scripture by the Roman Catholic church.  They were later rejected for the following reasons:

  • Nowhere do the books themselves claim to be inspired
  • They are never cited by any other Biblical book
  • They were rejected by Jewish Scribes
  • They contain a number of errors

Then there are the Gnostic gospels – the Gospel of Philip and the Gospel of Thomas.  The Gospel of Thomas is a text found in the Nag Hammadi collection of Gnostic writings, discovered in Egypt in 1945.  This text, like the Gospel of Judas or the Gospel of Philip, claims to be written by an apostle, but is actually the product of Gnostic teachers who used the fame of the Apostles to give their own writings credibility.  The early church knew of the book and rejected it. Eusebius of Caesarea said it should be “cast aside as absurd and impious.”  Here’s a little sample:

When you make the two one, and when you make the inside like the outside and the outside like the inside, and the above like the below, and when you make the male and the female one and the same, so that the male not be male nor the female female; and when you fashion eyes in place of an eye, and a hand in the place of a hand and a foot in place of a foot and a likeness in place of a likeness; then you will enter [the kingdom].

You don’t have to be a bible scholar to see why that fails the test of canonicity!

You say, “OK – so I understand why the early Church Fathers chose some books and rejected others.  But how did they know that the actual manuscipts they had in their hands were reliable?”  That’s a very good question.  In his book, Introduction in Research in English Literary History, C. Sanders sets forth three tests of reliability that are used to establish whether or not an ancient document (or any document for that matter) is reliable.  These are the Bibliographic test, the Internal test, and the External test.  The first test examines the biblical manuscripts, the second test deals with the claims made by the biblical authors, and the third test looks to outside confirmation of the biblical content.  So let’s take some time here see how the biblical manuscripts stack up.  Firstly,

  1. The Bibliographic Test

Now within the Bibliographic test we are going to look at 3 things – the quantity of the manuscripts, the quality of the manuscripts and the time span. Firstly,

a) The Quantity of Manuscripts

The quantity of New Testament manuscripts is extraordinary.  In fact it’s unparalleled in ancient literature.  There are over 5,000 Greek manuscripts, about 8,000 Latin manuscripts, and another 1,000 manuscripts in other languages (Syriac, Coptic, etc.).  In addition to this extraordinary number, there are tens of thousands of citations of New Testament passages by the early church fathers.  In contrast, the typical number of existing manuscript copies for any of the works of the Greek and Latin authors, such as Plato, Aristotle, Caesar, or Tacitus, ranges from one to 20.

Take a look at the above chart.  You can see Homer’s Iliad has the largest number of manuscripts, but none of them can be dated.  The History of Herodotus was written in 425 B.C. but the earliest manuscript found dates to A.D. 900 – a whopping 1300 years later.  And there are only 8 of them.   The writings of Tacitus were written in A.D. 100 with the earliest manuscript dating at A.D. 900 – 800 years later.  And there are 20 copies.  But look at the New Testament.  Written between A.D. 35-100, the earliest manuscript dating as far back as A.D. 125  and there are 5,735 copies that have been discovered.  But you are not likely to see that in the National Geographic!

You say, “Well what about the OT?”  There are only a small number of Hebrew manuscripts available.  But there’s a reason for that.  Many ancient manuscripts were also lost or destroyed during Israel’s turbulent history.  Also, the Old Testament text was standardized by the Masoretic Jews by the sixth century A.D., and all manuscripts that deviated from the Masoretic Text were evidently eliminated.  But the existing Hebrew manuscripts are supplemented by the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Septuagint (a third-century B.C. Greek translation of the Old Testament), the Samaritan Pentateuch, and the Targums (ancient paraphrases of the Old Testament), as well as the Talmud (teachings and commentaries related to the Hebrew Scriptures).

But quantity of manuscripts alone doesn’t always give us an accurate indication of how reliable a given document might be.  We also need to look at the quality of manuscripts.

But that’s for my next post.

[1] Geisler, N. L., & Nix, W. E. (1986). A General Introduction to the Bible (Rev. and expanded., p. 39). Chicago: Moody Press.

(Part 1)  (Part 3)  (Part 4


3 thoughts on “The Bible: can we trust it? (Part 2)

  1. Pingback: The Bible: can we trust it? (Part 3) | Feeling God's Pleasure

  2. Pingback: The Bible: can we trust it? (Part 4) | Feeling God's Pleasure

  3. Pingback: The Bible: can we trust it? | Feeling God's Pleasure

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