Know Why You Believe: Chapter 6 Are the Bible documents reliable?

Source: Know Why You Believe Book by Paul Little

First edition published in 1968 by Scripture Press Publications, Inc.

Several years ago a leading magazine carried an article purporting to show there are thousands of errors in the Bible.

How do we know that the text of the Bible as we have it today, having come to us through many translations and versions over the centuries, is not just a pale reflection of the original? What guarantee do we have that deletions and embellishments have not totally obscured the original message of the Bible? What difference does the historical accuracy of the Bible make? Surely the only thing that counts is the message!

But Christianity is rooted in history. Jesus Christ was counted in a Roman census. If the Bible’s historical references are not true, grave questions may be raised about the reliability of other parts of the message based on historical events. Likewise, it is crucial for us to know that we have substantially the same documents in our time as people had almost 2,000 years ago. And how do we know the books we now have are the ones that should be in the Bible? Or that others should not be included? These questions are worthy of answer.

If the Bible is believed to be the Word of God, verbally inspired, the job of establishing the text accurately is an extremely important one. This task is called textual criticism. It has to do with the reliability of the text, i.e., how the current text compares with the originals and how accurately the ancient manuscripts were copied.

Let us briefly examine the data for the Old and New Testaments.

The work of a scribe was a highly professional and carefully executed task. It was also a task undertaken by a devout Jew with the highest devotion. Since he believed he was dealing with the Word of God, he was acutely aware of the need for extreme care and accuracy. There are no complete copies of the Hebrew Old Testament earlier than around A.D. 900, but it seems evident that the text was preserved very carefully and faithfully since at least A.D. 100 or 200.

A check is provided by comparing some translations from the Hebrew into Latin and Greek at about this time. This comparison reveals the careful copying of the Hebrew text during this period. The text dating from around A.D. 900 is called the “Massoretic Text” because it was the product of Jewish scribes known as the “Massoretes.” All of the present copies of the Hebrew text which come from this period are in remarkable agreement, attesting to the skill of the scribes in proofreading.

But how could we know about the accuracy and authenticity of the text in pre-Massoretic times? The history of the Jews was very turbulent, raising questions as to the carefulness of the scribes during this hectic period.

In 1947 the world learned about what has been called the greatest archaeologic discovery of the century. In caves, in the valley of the Dead Sea, ancient jars were discovered containing — the now famous Dead Sea Scrolls. From these scrolls, it is evident that a group of Jews lived at a place called Qumran from about 150 B.C. to A.D. 70. Theirs was a communal society, operated very much like a monastery. In addition to tilling the fields, they spent their time studying and copying the Scriptures. It became apparent to them that the Romans were going to invade the land. They put their leather scrolls in jars and hid them in caves in the side of the cliffs west of the Dead Sea.

In the providence of God the scrolls survived undisturbed until discovered accidentally by a wandering Bedouin goat herdsman in February or March of 1947. The accidental discovery was followed by careful exploration, and several other caves containing scrolls have been located. The find included the earliest manuscript copy yet known of the complete book of Isaiah, and fragments of almost every book in the Old Testament. In addition, there is a fragmented copy containing much of Isaiah 38-66. The books of Samuel, in a tattered copy, were also found, along with two complete chapters of Habakkuk. A number of nonbiblical items, including the rules of the ancient community, were discovered.

The significance of this find, for those who wonder about the accuracy of the Old Testament text, can easily be seen. In one dramatic stroke, almost 1,000 years were hurdled in terms of the age of the manuscripts we now possess. By comparing the Dead Sea Scrolls with the Massoretic text, we would get a clear indication of the accuracy, or lack of it, of transmission over the period of nearly a millennium.

What was actually learned? In comparing the Qumran manuscript of Isaiah 38-66 with the one we had, scholars found that “the text is extremely close to our Massoretic text. A comparison of Isaiah 53 shows that only 17 letters differ from the Massoretic text. Ten of these are mere differences in spelling, like our ‘honor’ or ‘honour,’ and produce no change in the meaning at all. Four more are very minor differences, such as the presence of the conjunction, which is often a matter of style. The other three letters are the Hebrew word for ‘light’ which is added after ‘they shall see’ in verse 11. Out of 166 words in this chapter, only this one word is really in question, and it does not at all change the sense of the passage. This is typical of the whole manuscript.”1

Other ancient witnesses attest the accuracy of the copyists who ultimately gave us the Massoretic text. One of these is the Greek translation of the Old Testament, called the Septuagint. It is often referred to as the LXX because it was reputedly done by 70 Jewish scholars in Alexandria. The best estimate of its date seems to be around 200 B.C.

Up till the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls there was a question, when the LXX was different from the Massoretic text, why the variation existed. It is now apparent that the Massoretic text has not changed significantly since around 200 B.C. Other scrolls among those discovered show a type of Hebrew that is very similar to that from which the LXX was translated. The Samuel scroll especially resembles the reading of the LXX. The LXX appears to be a rather literal translation, and our manuscripts are pretty good copies of the original translation.

Another ancient witness is the evidence for a third type of text similar to that which was preserved by the Samaritans. Copies of the old scrolls of the Pentateuch are extant today in Nablus, Palestine.

Three main types of text existed in 200 B.C. The question for us is, What is the original version of the Old Testament, in the light of these three “families” of texts from which to choose?

R. Laird Harris concluded, “We can now be sure that copyists worked with great care and accuracy on the Old Testament, even back to 225 B.C. At that time there were two or three types of text available for copying. These types differed among themselves so little, however, that we can infer that still earlier copyists had also faithfully and carefully transmitted the Old Testament text. Indeed, it would be rash skepticism that would now deny that we have our Old Testament in a form very close to that used by Ezra when he taught the Law to those who had returned from the Babylonian captivity.”2

What of the New Testament? Again, based on the evidence, the conviction comes that there is a text which does not differ in any substantial particular from the originals of the various books as they came from the hands of the human writers. The great scholar, F. J. A. Hort, said that apart from insignificant variations of grammar or spelling, not more than one thousandth part of the whole New Testament is affected by differences of reading.3

The New Testament was written in Greek. More than 4,000 manuscripts of the New Testament, or of parts of it, have survived to our time. These are on different materials. Papyrus was the common material used for writing purposes at the beginning of the Christian era. It was made from reeds and was highly durable. In the last fifty years many remains of documents written on papyrus have been discovered, including fragments of manuscripts of the New Testament.

The second material of which Greek manuscripts were made is parchment. This was the skin of sheep or goats, polished with pumice. It was used until the late Middle Ages, when paper began to replace it.

The dates of the New Testament documents indicate that they were written within the lifetime of contemporaries of Christ. People were still alive who could remember the things he said and did. Many of the Pauline letters are even earlier than some of the Gospels.4

The evidence for the early existence of the New Testament writings is clear. The wealth of materials for the New Testament becomes even more evident when we compare it with other ancient documents which have been accepted without question. Bruce observes that only nine or ten good manuscripts of Caesar’s Gallic War exist. The oldest of these manuscripts was written some 900 years after Caesar’s time. The History of Thucydides (ca. 460- 400 B.C.) is known to us from eight manuscripts, the earliest belonging to around A.D. 900, and a few papyrus scraps that belong to about the beginning of the Christian era. The same is true of the History of Herodotus (ca. 480-425 B.C.). However, no classical scholar would listen to an argument that the authenticity of Herodotus or Thucydides is in doubt because the earliest manuscripts of their work which are of any use to us are more than 1,300 years later than the originals.”5

By contrast there are two excellent manuscripts of the New Testament from the fourth century. Fragments of papyrus copies of books of the New Testament date from 100 to 200 years earlier still. Perhaps the earliest piece of data we have is a fragment of a papyrus codex containing John 18:31-33, 37. It is dated around A.D. 130.

More evidence for the authenticity of the New Testament comes from other sources. These are the references and quotations of the New Testament books by both friends and enemies of Christianity. The Apostolic Fathers, writing mostly between A.D. 90 and 160, give indication of familiarity with most of the books of the New Testament.

It seems apparent, from recent discoveries, that the Gnostic school of Valentinus was also familiar with most of the New Testament.6

There are two other sources of data for establishing the authenticity of the New Testament books. The first source is the versions. Versions are those manuscripts which were translated from the Greek into other languages. Three groups of these are of the most significance: the Syriac versions, the Egyptian or Coptic versions, and the Latin versions. By careful study of the versions, important clues have been uncovered as to the original Greek manuscripts from which they were translated.

Finally, there is the evidence of the lectionaries, the reading lessons used in public church services. By the middle of the twentieth century more than 1,800 of these reading lessons had been classified. There are lectionaries of the Gospels, The Acts, and the Epistles. Though they did not appear before the sixth century, the text from which they quote may itself be early and of high quality.7

A question closely allied to that of the reliability of the present texts is, “How do we know the books in the Bible, and no others, are the ones that should be there?” This is called the question of the canon. There are distinct questions involved for Old and New Testaments.

The Protestant Church accepts identically the same Old Testament books as the Jews had, and as Jesus and the apostles accepted. The Roman Catholic Church, since the Council of Trent in 1546, includes the 14 books of the Apocrypha, The order in the English Bible follows that of the Septuagint. This is different from the Hebrew Bible, in which the books are divided into three groups: the Law (Genesis to Deuteronomy), known also as the Torah or the Pentateuch; the Prophets, including the Former Prophets (Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings) and the Latter Prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the Book of the Twelve  – Hosea to Malachi); and the Writings, the remaining books of the Old Testament canon.

The books were received as authoritative because they were recognized as utterances of men inspired by God to reveal his Word. As E. J. Young says, “When the Word of God was written, it became Scripture, and inasmuch as it had been spoken by God, it possessed absolute authority. Since it was the Word of God, it was canonical. That which determines the canonicity of a book, therefore, is the fact that the book is inspired of God. Hence, a distinction is properly made between the authority which the Old Testament books possess as divinely inspired and the recognition of that authority on the part of Israel.”8

This development can be seen in the work of Moses, The laws issued by him and by the later prophets were intended to be respected as the decrees of God himself. They were so regarded then and also by later generations, The Law was neglected, to be sure, but its authority was recognized by Israel’s spiritual leaders. It was the recognition of this authority that shook Josiah when he realized how long the Law had been neglected (2 Kings 22:11).

When we examine the writings of the prophets, it is obvious that they believed they spoke with authority. “Thus saith the Lord” and “The Word of the Lord came unto me saying” are common preambles to their messages.

It is not clear on what grounds the authority of the writings was accepted. That it was accepted, however, is clear. In New Testament times it was customary to describe at least some of these writings as the utterances of the Holy Spirit.

By the beginning of the Christian era the term “Scripture” had come to mean a fixed body of divinely inspired writings that were fully recognized as authoritative. Jesus used the term in this sense and was fully understood by his hearers when he said, “The scripture cannot be broken” (John 10:35). It is interesting that there was no controversy between our Lord and the Pharisees on the authority of the Old Testament. Contention arose because they had added their tradition and had given it the same authority as Scripture.

At the Council of Jamnia, in A.D. 90, informal discussions were held about the canon. Whether any formal or binding decisions were made is problematic. The discussion seemed to center not on whether certain books should be included in the canon, but whether certain ones should be excluded. In any case, those present recognized what already was accepted, rather than brought into being what had not existed. In other words, they recognized but did not establish the present canonicity of the Old Testament books.

The Apocryphal books do not claim to be the Word of God or the work of prophets. They vary greatly in content and value. Some, like I Maccabees, were probably written around 100 B.C. and are valuable as historical background. Others are more characterized by legend and are of little value. Though not included at first, these books were later added to the LXX. In this way they came to be included by Jerome in the Latin Vulgate. Even Jerome, however, accepted only the books in the Hebrew Canon. He viewed the others as having ecclesiastical value only. He was in conflict with the later action of the Council of Trent, in Reformation times, which elevated the Apocrypha to canonical status.

The Apocryphal books, it is important to note, were never received into the Jewish canon and were not considered as part of the inspired Scriptures by Jews or Christians in the early centuries of the Christian era. This is evident from a study of the writings of Josephus, the Jewish historian, and of Augustine, the great North African Bishop of Hippo.

It is interesting that the New Testament writers do not once quote the Apocrypha.

For the Old Testament we have, ultimately, the witness of our Lord to the canonicity of the 39 books we now have.

What about the books of the New Testament?

Here, as for the Old Testament, the books possessed canonicity by virtue of their inspiration, not by virtue of their being “voted” into canonicity by any group. The history of the recognition of the New Testament’s canonicity, however, is interesting. Much of the material of the New Testament claimed apostolic authority. Paul and Peter clearly wrote with this authority in mind. Peter specifically refers to Paul’s letters as Scripture (2 Peter 3:15, 16).

Jude (v. 18) says 2 Peter 3:3 is a word from the apostles. Such early Church Fathers as Polycarp, Ignatius, and Clement mention a number of the New Testament books as authoritative.

The onslaught of heresy in the middle of the second century caused the concept of a canon to be revived in the thinking of Christians. What was authoritative and what was not came to be clearly delineated. Irenaeus and, later, Eusebius in the third century give more light in their writings. The final fixation of the canon as we know it came in the fourth century. In the east, a letter of Athanasius A.D. 367 clearly distinguishes between works in the canon which are described as the sole sources of religious instruction and others which believers were permitted to read. In the west, the canon was fixed by decision of a church council held at Carthage in A.D. 397.

Three criteria were generally utilized, throughout this period of time, to establish that particular written documents were the true record of the voice and message of apostolic witness. First, could authorship be attributed to an apostle? The Gospels of Mark and Luke do not meet this criterion specifically, but were accepted as the works of close associates of the apostles. Secondly, there was the matter of ecclesiastical usage – that is, recognition of a book by a leading church or majority of churches. Third, conformity to standards of sound doctrine.

Though there have been many changes in the many copyings of the New Testament writings, most of them are minor. The science of textual criticism, which is very exacting, has enabled us to be sure of the true text of the New Testament. Rather than share the “alarm” of Look magazine at all the “errors” which it chose to call those minor variations in the Bible, we can rest with the conclusion of the late Sir Frederic Kenyon, a world-renowned scholar of the ancient manuscripts. He said, “The interval, then, between the dates of original composition and the earliest extant evidence becomes so small as to be in fact negligible, and the last foundation for any doubt that the Scriptures have come down to us substantially as they were written has now been removed. Both the authenticity and the general integrity of the books of the New Testament may be regarded as finally estabIished.”9

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