How Did We Get the Bible?

How Did We Get the Bible?

Comment on this article

The Bible asserts that it is God's infallible, authoritative revelation to mankind. It claims to reveal truth that can be known in no other way. How did we actually get the Bible? And how should we study it today?


The Bible is unique. Few people have read it, but most have an opinion about it. The Bible asserts that it is God's infallible, authoritative revelation to mankind. It claims to reveal truth that can be known in no other way.

There are dozens of different translations of the Bible, with new ones coming out regularly. Some purport to be scholarly works, reflecting the words of the oldest manuscripts. Others are "trendy"—catering to modern values and special interests. Is one as good as another, or do we need to be careful of certain translations? These are all important questions that demand accurate answers for those who are considering taking the Bible seriously as a guide for life.

The portion of the Bible that we commonly call the Old Testament was completed in the days of Ezra the Priest and Governor Nehemiah, about 420bc. Ezra was sent by King Artaxerxes of Persia to Jerusalem in 457bc with the temple scrolls and other treasures which had been kept in Babylon since the days of Nebuchadnezzar (Ezra 7:14). Ezra came back to teach Scripture to the people (v. 10) and to institute religious reform for people who were on the verge of losing their very identity and absorbing the syncretistic paganism of their neighbors. About thirteen years after Ezra's return, Nehemiah returned as governor and had the authority to insist that Ezra's reforms be carried out.

The first century Jewish historian and priest, Flavius Josephus, recorded the history of the Hebrew Scriptures and contrasted them to the Greek writings extant in his day. "For we have not an innumerable multitude of books among us, disagreeing from and contradicting one another [as the Greeks have], but only 22 books… which are justly believed to be divine…" (Against Apion, 1, 8). Josephus went on to state that the Jewish scriptures had been compiled in their final form in the days of King Artaxerxes, who reigned in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah. He emphasized that, while many books had been composed among the Jews since that time, they were not considered to have divine authority, because there had not been a succession of prophets since the time of Malachi, a late contemporary of Ezra and Nehemiah. In addition to Josephus, the book of 1 Maccabees (second century bc), writings by the first century ad philosopher Philo, and traditions preserved in Seder Olam and the Talmud (ancient commentaries) all testify to a fixed canon since the time of Ezra.

The 22 books mentioned by Josephus correspond to the books of our Old Testament—normally counted as 39 books in modern translations. The difference in number is because of a difference in the way the books were counted. The 12 Minor Prophets, for instance, were kept on one scroll in Hebrew, and were counted as simply one book, not as 12 separate ones. There are several other combinations as well.

How can we know that the text of the Old Testament has been accurately preserved? The Jewish community has officially preserved the Old Testament in what is called the Masoretic Text. How was this done? Note the explanation from Appendix 30 of The Companion Bible: "The text itself had been fixed before the Masorites were put in charge of it… the Masorites were authorized custodians of it. Their work was to preserve it. The Masorah is called 'A Fence to the Scriptures,' because it locked all words and letters in their places.… It records the number of times the several letters occur in the various books of the Bible; the number of words, and the middle word; the number of verses, and the middle verse… for the set purpose of safeguarding the Sacred Text, and preventing the loss or misplacement of a single letter or word." This meticulous attention to detail provides a background for understanding the literal truth of Jesus' statement in Matthew 5:18 that not one jot or one tittle would pass from the Law. The jot refers to the smallest letter in the Hebrew alphabet and the tittle describes a part of a letter.

The New Testament

While the Hebrew Scriptures were complete from the days of Ezra, God's revelation to mankind was not finished. In the aftermath of Jesus' resurrection, accounts of His life and ministry were written. Letters to fledgling congregations were written. As the decades passed, those who were firsthand witnesses of what Jesus Christ said and did began to pass from the scene. False teachers arose who were teaching "a different gospel" (2 Corinthians 11:4). They also wrote letters, often signing the name of one of the Apostles (2 Thessalonians 2:2). In such confusion, how was an accurate account of Christ's teachings and the teachings of His Apostles to be preserved for future generations of disciples?

Peter addresses this issue in 2 Peter, the last letter that he wrote. Written shortly before his execution, not long after Paul's death, Peter puts things in perspective. Referring to his soon-approaching death in verse 14, Peter states: "Moreover I will be careful to ensure that you always have a reminder of these things after my decease" (2 Peter 1:15). The only way that he could ensure a permanent record of what he had taught was to leave behind writings officially designated as Holy Scripture.

Beginning in verse 16, Peter abruptly switched from using the first person singular to using "we," the first person plural. Who was the "we" to whom Peter referred in verses 16–19? He defined the "we" in verse 18, when he referred to them having witnessed the transfiguration of Jesus in the Mount. This event is detailed in Matthew 17:1–13 where we learn that only Peter, James, and John accompanied Jesus to the mount and were first-hand witnesses of this event. James the brother of John was the first of the Apostles to be martyred (Acts 12:1–2) and had been dead for decades at the time Peter was writing 2 Peter. Therefore, the "we" being referred to by Peter could only refer to him and John.

He goes on to explain in 2 Peter 1:19 that "we"—he and John—were the only ones remaining who possessed the "sure word of prophecy" (KJV). In other words, Peter was pointing out to his readers that he and John were the ones designated by Christ to leave behind an authoritative record that would guide the Christian community in generations to come, long after the death of the original disciples.

In 2 Peter 3:15–16, he referred to Paul's writings in a way that indicated that they were complete, mentioning "all" his letters. He also referred to people distorting them as they did "the rest of the Scriptures." Peter defined Paul's letters as Scripture, on a par with the Old Testament, and intimated that Paul was no longer alive to respond to those who sought to twist his meaning.

There are 27 books in the New Testament, five of which are attributed to the Apostle John and believed to have been written approximately three decades after the death of Peter. This would indicate that Peter, prior to his death, put together a canon of 22 books, exactly corresponding in number to the Jewish way of reckoning the books of the Old Testament. The Apostle John then completed our New Testament canon, adding his five books—a gospel, three epistles and Revelation—for a total of 27 books in all. The 22 books of the Hebrew scriptures, added to the 27 books of the Greek scriptures, make 49 in all—seven times seven, God's number of completion and perfection.

This account differs significantly from Roman Catholic assertions, which allege that it was the Council of Carthage which fixed the New Testament canon in 397ad. How accurate is that claim? What did this particular council really do?

Since we do not have a bound copy of the New Testament consisting of all of the original manuscripts dating from 100ad, what proof do we have that the books we know as the New Testament were acknowledged as Scripture prior to the Council of Carthage? Among other evidence, we have the testimony of early writers dating from within a few years of the death of the Apostle John. These men—including Clement of Rome, Polycarp, Ignatius and Justin Martyr—all wrote within 50 years of John's death. They quote from various New Testament books, showing that they were known and acknowledged as inspired writings.

Why, then, did several contradictory canon lists circulate? And what can we learn from them? The Muratorian canon was in use at Rome around 200ad. It omits Hebrews, 1 and 2 Peter and 3 John, and contains two spurious works—"Revelation of Peter" and "Wisdom of Solomon." Yet soon after, when Origen drew up a canon list, the uninspired nature of these two spurious works forced him to omit them altogether. Origen's list was otherwise almost identical to the Muratorian canon, except that he included 1 Peter and excluded James and 2 John and Jude. Shortly prior to the Nicene Council in 325ad, Eusebius gave a list of the books accepted as part of the New Testament by the western "orthodox" church. His list was virtually identical with Origen's.

Neither Origen nor Eusebius wished to accept Hebrews or most of the General Epistles, but they acknowledged that these books existed and that many considered them inspired. These two men also advanced several other spurious works, such as the "Letter of Barnabas" and the "Didache," for possible inclusion. Yet although Origen and Eusebius were influential theologians, they were unable to get their way, and the canon set by John remained intact—powerful evidence of God's hand in the preservation of His inspired Word.

It is worth noting that, during debates on the canon, those writings which drew the greatest opposition by these early Roman Catholic leaders had two characteristics in common. They either contained warnings of an apostasy from the truth (2 Peter, 2 and 3 John and Jude), or they contained a strong "Jewish" flavor (James and Hebrews).

Clearly, many Roman Catholic leaders were uncomfortable with the message contained in these books—and for good reason! However, there was such an overwhelming awareness of the genuine nature of these books, particularly in Asia Minor and in Greece, that removing them from the New Testament proved impossible. The Council of Carthage, far from establishing the New Testament canon, simply represented an acknowledgment by the Roman church that the canon known and established since the end of the first century could not be altered.

Greek Translations of Scripture

Should we be concerned that some New Testament quotations from the Old Testament were taken from a Greek translation—the Septuagint—rather than from the Hebrew Masoretic Text? Greek was the most universal language at the time when the New Testament was being written. Gentile converts were unfamiliar with the Hebrew language and even most Jews outside of Palestine no longer had a good reading knowledge of Hebrew. The Septuagint was a Greek translation of the Old Testament that had been made in Egypt.

But it was not the only Greek translation of the Old Testament available in the time when the New Testament was written. There was at least one Greek translation that differed significantly from the Septuagint. It was used by Theodotion in the second century ad for his revised Greek text of the Old Testament. The book of Daniel, as preserved in Greek translation by Theodotion, matches far more closely the quotations from Daniel in the New Testament than does the Septuagint, for instance. Though none of the Greek translations of the Old Testament were totally accurate, most of their deviations from the Hebrew text were in areas that did not affect the overall sense of the message.

Extant Greek translations of the Old Testament, including the Septuagint, are quoted in the Greek New Testament where they either properly translate or paraphrase the inspired meaning of the Hebrew text. In cases where the readily available first century Greek translations were unusable, the New Testament writers made their own direct translation or paraphrase from Hebrew into Greek.

Gleason Archer and G. C. Chirichigno in their comprehensive work, Old Testament Quotations in the New Testament: A Complete Survey, make the following points about New Testament quotations: 1) in 268 New Testament citations both the Septuagint and Masoretic Text are in complete harmony; 2) in 50 citations the New Testament agrees with the Septuagint, even though it differs slightly from the Masoretic Text (although not seriously enough to distort the meaning); 3) in 33 citations the New Testament adheres more closely to the Masoretic Text than to the Septuagint; 4) in 22 citations the New Testament adheres closely to the Septuagint even when it deviates somewhat from the Masoretic Text. The New Testament writers only made use of Septuagint quotations if those passages properly conveyed the inspired meaning of the Hebrew text. A valid meaning could be conveyed in cases even where the Septuagint offered more of a paraphrase or an interpretation than a literal translation of the Hebrew. What about surviving New Testament texts? There are literally thousands of complete or partial Greek manuscripts which survive from early times. The oldest is a fragment of John's gospel that is dated to around 130ad, only about 30 years after John's death (Eerdman's Handbook to the History of Christianity, p. 93).

Most of the Greek manuscripts that have come down to us are of what scholars call the Byzantine (or Antiochan) family of texts. These manuscripts, though not the oldest, are the ones preserved by the Greek church. Because they represent the vast majority of Greek manuscripts they are sometimes referred to as the Majority Text or the Textus Receptus. This is the text from which the King James translation of the New Testament was made. However, beginning in 1881, other Greek texts have been published that have been the basis for nearly all subsequent translations, including the New International Version, the New American Standard Bible, and the New English Bible. These published texts have relied heavily upon two ancient Greek manuscripts, called Codex Vaticanus (also known as 'B') and Codex Sinaiticus (also known as Aleph). Where did these manuscripts originate?

Vaticanus was "discovered" in the Vatican in 1481 and was released as the Jesuit-Rheims Bible in 1582. It differs from the Textus Receptus in nearly 8,000 places. The use of recent technology such as the vidicon camera, which creates a digital form of faint writing, reveals that Vaticanus has been altered by at least two hands, one as late as the twelfth century. Noted scholar Dr. Bruce Metzger states: "A few passages therefore remain to show the original appearance of the first hand." The corrector "omitted [things] he believed to be incorrect" (Manuscripts of the Greek Bible, Oxford University Press, p. 74).

The Sinaiticus manuscripts were discovered by Constantine von Tischendorf in a monastery in the Sinai desert in the 1850s. They differ in about 9,000 places from the traditional Byzantine Text (Textus Receptus). Dr. Bruce Metzger describes the carelessness of transmission that marks the Sinaiticus manuscripts. He declared that at least nine "correctors" had worked on the manuscripts over the centuries. "Tichendorf's edition of the manuscript enumerates some 14,800 places where some alteration has been made to the text" (p. 77). Later use of ultra-violet lamps showed multiple additional places where the original reading had been erased.

Not only do Sinaiticus and Vaticanus disagree with the overwhelming majority of manuscripts, but also they disagree with one another perhaps a dozen times on every page. While many of these disagreements are small and may involve merely a preposition or the spelling of a word, others omit whole verses such as the ending of Mark's gospel.

When the Apostle John put our New Testament into its final form, shortly before his death at the end of the first century, he was living in Ephesus, a Greek-speaking city located near the western coast of ancient Asia Minor (modern Turkey). This is the same city that had served as the repository of the copies of Paul's writings decades earlier. It is the city used in Revelation 2 to represent the entire first stage of the Church of God. The Greek manuscripts that come from this area are the ones labeled by scholars as the Byzantine type.

Scholars fleeing from the Turkish invasion in the 15th century brought copies of Byzantine texts west. Many of these Greek scholars and the manuscripts that they brought with them ended up in the area of Basel, Switzerland after the fall of Constantinople in 1453. It is from these manuscripts that printed texts of Erasmus (1516) and Stephens (1520) were primarily derived. Stephen's printed text was known as the Textus Receptus and was the accepted standard of the Greek New Testament until the latter part of the 19th century.

Since the 19th century, Bible translation has undergone a further change. Dismissing the idea that the Bible was supernaturally inspired and preserved, many scholars have taken the approach that the oldest manuscripts, whatever their source, are closer to the original and therefore must be more accurate. Most 20th century Bible translations, apart from the New King James Version, have used these texts touted by such critics, and relegated the readings of officially preserved texts to footnotes. While these translations can be useful for Bible study, they should be treated with caution, and not accepted to the exclusion of the more historically sound texts.

The Creator God not only inspired the writing of the Bible, He also guided the process of both canonization and preservation of the text. In spite of numerous attempts by carnal men through the centuries to suppress or distort the word of God, God has been faithful to ensure that His "instruction book" for life is still available for us today.

OTHER ARTICLES IN THIS ISSUE

View All