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How We Got the Bible

The Great Story of Sacred Scripture

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Guest Contributor

ABSTRACT: Behind the storyline of Scripture is the story of how God, in his providence, gave his words to us. When God spoke, he ensured that it would be preserved through a process of writing, collecting, copying, translating, and printing. After thousands of years, the Scripture that began with the breath of God now comes to us in the Book that is worthy of our supreme trust.

Countless lives are changed by the preaching of the word of God. Since human beings tend to look at the outside and not at the inside, we often attribute the power of this transformative teaching to the preacher. We all know on reflection, though, that the real power does not rest in humans but in God’s word itself.

Reading Scripture is the most immediate exposure to the word of God. In practice, this means picking up a physical book and opening it to a specific page, or opening up an app on our phones and scrolling to a specific location. In either case, we trust that the word has not been corrupted and that the message of the Bible we hold in our hands was not changed or lost altogether. We believe that we are reading the actual words that God spoke.

In what follows, we will think about what has gone before that moment when we open Scripture and read it. What happened to the Bible between the earliest times and the twenty-first century? How did God bring his word to us? The reverse of this question — how he brought us to his word — is part of our individual testimony. But the way in which God brought about the Bible is the story of his providence in history, played out over thousands of years. And by understanding what God had done over the ages, we will see that it is reasonable and justified to trust that the Bible in our hands is a translation of the trustworthy words of Scripture. We could talk about ten reasons why to trust the Bible. But it may be more effective if we understand the larger narrative of the history of the Bible.

From God’s Breath to Israel’s Books

Because the Bible is the word of God, it naturally starts with God speaking, both in practice, as in Genesis 1:3 (“And God said, let there be light”), as well as logically, as in John 1:1 (“In the beginning was the Word”). And since we are talking about an infinite God, it should not surprise us that he uses an array of ways to communicate with his creatures.

God spoke directly to Moses from a burning bush (Exodus 3:2), and immediately after the exodus to the whole people from a burning mountain (Exodus 19:18). God speaks through the inspired recording of the history of his people, and through his prophets who heard his word — sometimes directly, but also through visions and dreams. We find personal reflections on the futility of life under the sun (Ecclesiastes), which is also part of God speaking to his people. And this in addition to the book of Proverbs, a collection of divinely crafted wisdom. In the New Testament, we have the records of how the apostles taught about Jesus and about what Jesus himself taught (the four Gospels). And we find the responses by the apostles to various situations within the churches, as well as positive teaching about the salvation that Jesus brought about.

There are many ways in which God spoke his word, and there are many ways in which it was written down. God shows his character even in the diverse ways that he used to form the Scriptures. And the Scriptures themselves testify to their formation.

‘Write This in a Book’

Of all the named authors in the Bible, Moses is the first. Immediately after the exodus, and still before the giving of the law at Mount Sinai, God tells Moses to start writing God’s words down (Exodus 17:14). Amalek had come out to fight Israel, and Moses commanded Joshua to lead the army while Moses would lift up the staff of God. It is after this fight that God speaks to Moses (the text does not tell us how) and commands him to write down what God’s ultimate judgment over Amalek will be as a memorial. The first command to record God’s words in a book comes in order that this book would become a memorial, a testimony, to the acts of God and the fulfilment of his promises. An interesting detail is that already this first Scripture is to be recited to Joshua. The future leader is to be formed by the word of God from its very beginning.

Soon after the fight with Amalek, Israel arrives at Mount Sinai. Here God speaks directly from the mountain, but the people cannot bear it (Exodus 20:19–21). Therefore, Moses goes up the mountain alone and receives the two tablets (Exodus 31:18; 32:15–16). The first set is made and written by God himself, but Moses breaks them in anger because of the idolatry of the people (Exodus 32:19). Moses then brings up a second set so that these can be inscribed with the same words of the covenant (Exodus 34:1, 28; Deuteronomy 10:4). It is also at this occasion that Moses is commanded to write down all the words, “for in accordance with these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel” (Exodus 34:27).

Numbers 33:2 teaches that Moses did not just write down the laws God gave to the people, but also the historical account of the journey of Israel.

In the book of Deuteronomy, at the end of Israel’s time in the wilderness and just before the entrance into the Promised Land, Moses addresses the people and reminds them of what had happened, what God had told them, and what it meant to be the covenant people of God. As expected, the written basis of the covenant is again mentioned. In Deuteronomy 10:5 we learn that the two tablets are kept in the ark. Deuteronomy 31:9 adds that the whole law is given to the Levites who carry the ark, but that it is also given to the elders of the people. The actual book that Moses wrote is to be kept near the ark “for a witness against you” (Deuteronomy 31:26). This is the beginning of the tabernacle, later replaced by the temple, as the place where the word of God is kept and preserved.

Deuteronomy gives us one unexpected insight into the actual practice of copying the law. We read about the stipulations for the future kings in Deuteronomy 17. Once the king sits on his throne, he has to write for himself a copy of the law “from before” the Levitical priests in order that he may read in it all the days of his life (Deuteronomy 17:18–19). The expression “from before” has been interpreted as meaning “approved by,” which is certainly possible. However, there is a more direct interpretation. It seems likely to me that the king is allowed to make his personal copy from the master scroll that Moses deposited with the Levites. This was a true privilege for the king, but also a serious responsibility. The king is supposed to be a faithful scribe. And as with Joshua, the leader of the people is supposed to be formed by the written word of God.

Authors and Compilers

Many of the books in the Old Testament remain without a named author, which is significant in itself. Apparently, the circumstances of their production are not necessary for their interpretation. We also read about books that were in existence but have not been preserved — for example, the book of the rights and duties of the king, written by Samuel and “laid . . . up before the Lord” (1 Samuel 10:25) — that is, put in the tabernacle together with the Scriptures.

We know David mainly as king, yet he was also the author of many psalms. He is called a “prophet” (Acts 2:30), and he calls himself “the sweet psalmist of Israel” (2 Samuel 23:1). Other authors of Psalms are named too — Moses, Solomon, Asaph, Heman, and Ethan. When considering the book of Psalms as a whole, however, we hit another boundary to our knowledge. Who collected all the individual psalms into their canonical order? Was this a gradual process that happened over time? When did this book gets its final shape?

The same questions are raised by the book of Proverbs. Solomon is presented as the source for the wisdom tradition in the book (Proverbs 1:1), but the final two chapters name two other persons, Agur and Lemuel (Proverbs 30:1 and 31:1). In addition, Proverbs 25:1 adds a fascinating detail, as it says that the men of Hezekiah brought together the content of the following chapters — several hundred years after Solomon! Like the book of Psalms, we do not know who gave the book of Proverbs its final shape. But in this case, Scripture tells us that it was centuries after the oldest parts were produced.

Books such as Proverbs seem to be the exception, though. Most books do not give us explicit information about how they came into being. Scripture tells us, however, that later authors were often very much aware of what had been written before. Psalm 119 assumes the presence of the law, the prophet Hosea refers back to Genesis (Hosea 12:3–5), Zechariah alludes to prophets such as Isaiah and Jeremiah, and Daniel reads the prophet Jeremiah (Daniel 9:2). Throughout most of this period, the tabernacle or the temple would be the central location for the preservation of Scripture. It is not without reason that when Josiah restored the proper worship of the true God, it was the temple where the Book of the Law was rediscovered (2 Kings 22:8–11). But as would be expected, it was not just the temple that was active in the preservation of Scripture, but also faithful kings such as Hezekiah, and possibly the schools of prophets, which were not necessarily connected closely to the central sanctuary, played a role in the transmission of God’s word.

Israel’s Book Culture

If, however, the temple is of such great importance, what happened when the temple was destroyed and the people went into exile? Interestingly, around this time we see more and more signs of the book culture that we know must have existed. Jeremiah writes a letter to the Babylonian exiles (Jeremiah 29), and dictates his prophecies again to Baruch the scribe after the king burnt the first copy (Jeremiah 36:1–4). Only a little later, Daniel had a copy of Jeremiah’s prophecy in exile (Daniel 9:2). The prophet Ezekiel is ordered to eat a scroll (Ezekiel 3:1–3), and just after the exile Zechariah sees a flying scroll (Zechariah 5:1–2). Texts, scrolls, and scribes are part of the religious world and religious imagery.

Perhaps the capstone of this development is found in Ezra and Nehemiah. Here we find the scribe Ezra repeatedly expounding the Law that Moses had written. (See the expression “as it is written” in Ezra 3:2, 4; 6:18; Neh. 8:14; 10:34, 36; 13:1.) Nehemiah 8 especially is a glorious description how the people of Israel have now become a people gathered around the written word of God.

The biblical history is by and large silent about the period between Ezra and the New Testament. But when the New Testament tells us about the birth of Jesus, it mentions faithful believers who were expecting the salvation of Israel (Luke 1–2). The only story about the growing up of Jesus tells us about him questioning and answering the teachers of the law in the temple (Luke 2:41–51). Later, Jesus would say of these teachers that “they sit on the seat of Moses” and that the people were to do what they said, but not do as they do (Matthew 23:2–3). Throughout Jesus’s ministry, not only does he teach from the Scriptures (Luke 4:16–30), which were available in the synagogues, but he also fulfills prophecy by his actions (Matthew 21:4). Even when the evangelists record what Jesus had done, they use language directly derived from the Old Testament (compare, e.g., Luke 2:52 with Proverbs 3:4). Yet now we have arrived at the finale phase in writing God’s word, because all of the New Testament was written after the death and resurrection of Jesus, even though it extensively deals with the ministry of Jesus before the arrival of the new covenant.

Stewards of the Gospel Story

The four Gospels teach us about Jesus: what he said, what he did, what he taught. Each of the Gospels helps us also to see the significance of the One who died and rose again. Matthew does this openly by explaining how Jesus fulfilled the Old Testament. John teaches the eternal and divine truth about the Word who came down from heaven and returned to the Father. Mark shows the depth of Jesus’s obedience by not even mentioning the name Jesus as he is mocked, stripped, spit upon, and crucified (Mark 15:16–33), until his final moments and last words (Mark 15:34). The Gospels teach us about Jesus, but told from after the resurrection (John 2:22), from after the moment that the witnesses had received the power of the Holy Spirit. It is the Spirit who enabled the apostles to be his witnesses (Acts 1:8), and who reminded them of everything Jesus had said (John 14:26). The apostles had two powerful impulses at their disposal: the Spirit-sharpened memory of Jesus’s teaching and the Spirit-taught understanding of the existing Scriptures (Luke 24:44–45).

In the time immediately after Pentecost, the apostles started their teaching ministry (see Acts 4:2; 5:21, 42; 11:26; 15:35; 18:11; 28:31). There are some differences but also some similarities with how the old covenant started. At Pentecost, there was a loud sound (Acts 2:2), as in Exodus 19, but this time it did not strike fear into the hearts of the listeners. There were also flames, not on top of the mountain but on the gathered believers. The words of the law, the first covenant, were inscribed on stone tablets. But, just as Jeremiah 31:33 foretold, the new covenant was written directly on the hearts of people. The primary place of God’s word was now internal, written on hearts by the Spirit.

So what was happening to the teachings and events recorded in the Gospels between Pentecost and their writing down? When were the Gospels written? Scripture is not silent about this time, but we have to read carefully. In short, the apostles taught the content of the Gospels, the life and ministry of Jesus. And this teaching was remembered and shared among the churches. Therefore, initially the main source for knowledge of Jesus was found in the oral teaching of the apostles, rather than in a written record of this teaching.

We find a good example of this in 1 Corinthians 11. At the beginning of this chapter, Paul commends the church in Corinth for maintaining “the traditions just as I delivered them to you” (1 Corinthians 11:2). Both the words tradition and to deliver have the same root in Greek, having everything to do with handing down. Paul comes back to this language a little later: “I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you” (1 Corinthians 11:23). The words of the institution of the Lord’s Supper are a “tradition” that Paul received and had taught to the Corinthians. Later, these words would be written down almost word for word in Luke’s Gospel.

In fact, Luke at the beginning of his Gospel tells Theophilus that his book is “just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us” (Luke 1:2). The resemblance to Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 11:2 is striking.

There are other references to the teaching of Jesus in 1 Corinthians. That Greeks seek wisdom and Jews seek signs goes at least partly back to Jesus’s words later written down in Mark 8:12. Jesus’s teaching about divorce is mentioned in 1 Corinthians 7:10–11, distinguished from the apostolic teaching in the next verse. That is, there was no explicit teaching of Jesus on the situation described in 1 Corinthians 7:12, and the Corinthians should not think that there was some saying they had missed somehow. And elsewhere in the New Testament, it pays off to read the letter of James side by side with the Sermon on the Mount. The similarities are clear, and it is not difficult to see how James’s teaching has started out from the words of Jesus himself.

Tradition Becomes Scripture

The apostles had a special ministry and authority. The traditions they had taught and the letters they had written, combined with their physical presence, contained all the guidance the churches needed. However, apostles would not be around forever (John 21:22–23), and they were faced with the question of whether the traditions they had taught would be remembered “just as they had delivered them.” In 2 Peter 1:15, Peter shares that this consideration was a real concern. This brings us to the closing stages of the formation of the New Testament, the writing down of the Gospels.

Luke knew about many others who had attempted to write a Gospel (Luke 1:1). Likewise, John wrote his testimony down after having preached its content for a long time. He had the benefit of looking back and being able to select those parts of the story that are sufficient for a saving knowledge of Jesus (John 20:30–31). For each of the four Gospels, the church retained the tradition of how they were linked to apostolic authority, directly (Matthew, John) or indirectly (Mark to Peter, Luke to Paul).

Entry into the new covenant remained an inward work, the word of God written on hearts by the Holy Spirit, yet the written accounts of Jesus’s life and ministry, and the teaching of how his salvation shapes the life of his people, were now entrusted to paper and ink — sometimes almost reluctantly (2 John 12), yet ultimately in the expectation that the apostolic writings were sufficient to make our joy complete (1 John 1:4).

This transition from remembered traditions to written accounts is reflected in Paul’s letters. As we have seen, Paul praises the Corinthians for keeping the traditions as he had delivered them. Later, however, in 1 Timothy 5:18, Paul introduces a double citation with the phrase “for the Scripture says.” The first of these, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,” comes from Deuteronomy 25:4. The second citation from Scripture is “the laborer deserves his wages.” These exact words are found only in Luke 10:7, with a less exact parallel in Matthew 10:10. Therefore, by the time 1 Timothy was written, the Gospel tradition as written down by Luke was used — and approved — by Paul as being Scripture. (Alternatively, it is possible to read “for the Scripture says” as covering only the first of the two citations. But this reading is somewhat forced; the most natural reading is to apply the phrase to both citations.)

The implications of 1 Timothy 5:18 and its use of Luke are considerable. Just as in 1 Corinthians 11, again we have a link between the preaching of Paul and Luke’s Gospel. Moreover, though Paul must have taught the content of Luke 10:7 as part of the “Jesus tradition,” he decides to appeal to the written form, the Gospel, and by doing so Paul signals that there has been a transition from the remembered tradition to the written form. Scripture now includes the gospel and is part of all Scripture that is God-breathed (2 Timothy 3:16). Also, the use of Luke in 1 Timothy seems to indicate that the Gospels were written earlier rather than later, and mostly before the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70.

Scripture Copied and Translated

When the time of the apostles was over, scriptural revelation was also complete. Because of the wide acknowledgement that the apostles, brothers of Jesus (James, Jude; see also 1 Corinthians 9:5), and those who recorded their teaching were a special gift to the church, their writings were rightly accepted as the word of God, in the same way the Old Testament was. There are some indications that certain memories from the time of the preaching of the first generation lasted well into the second half of the second century, but more and more the writings of the New Testament became the sole authoritative link to the apostles. In the absence of special revelation, our knowledge of what happened in the transmission of the New Testament text after its completion can only be inferred from the surviving manuscript evidence and from what is said by church fathers.

Some things had changed in comparison to the situation under the old covenant. No longer was there a central sanctuary. The apostles may have formed the figurative pillars of the spiritual temple that is the church, yet after their passing away there was no authoritative central location that could function in the way the temple in Jerusalem did. Jerusalem functioned as the center where approved copies of the Scriptures could be obtained (compare Acts 8:27–28). Yet the early church was spread out all over the Roman Empire and beyond, and everywhere the Scripture was copied. It is telling that in these early centuries no church claimed to have an original letter or Gospel in their possession, even though it is clear such originals must have been sent at some point.

Comparing Manuscripts

Printed Bibles have been in existence for a little over five hundred years. For the preceding centuries (1,400 years for the New Testament, and much longer for the Old), the original Hebrew and Greek were copied by hand. For those who are used to a printing culture, the idea that a copy is not necessarily identical to the original is somewhat disturbing. Yet for the early church, this was part of everyday reality. We have examples from every century of church fathers who discussed the difference in wording that existed between manuscripts.

It is important to distinguish between the transmission of the text of the Hebrew Old Testament and that of the Greek New Testament. Quite early on in church history, the main text used for the Old Testament was a Greek or Latin translation (or further translations made from these versions). The transmission of the Hebrew text was carried out in rabbinic circles. The Masoretic text of the Middle Ages reflects the text preserved in the temple in great detail and accurately records not only how the text was pronounced but also differences that existed between the major scrolls kept in the temple before its destruction.

As we have seen, the Greek New Testament does not go back to a temple text or to a single, central location. And manuscripts of the New Testament differ in their wording of the text. Sometimes these are big differences, sometimes small. Already in the late second century, the church father Irenaeus discussed the issue of some manuscripts of Revelation giving the number of the beast as 616 instead of 666. These discussions give us insight into how the problem of differences in wording was dealt with at the time. One important argument for Irenaeus was that 666 was used in the “oldest and approved” manuscripts (even though “oldest” could not mean more than 100–120 years or so). The term “approved” suggests that, already by the end of the second century, some places or some churches were in possession of manuscripts that functioned as normative. But most of these normative manuscripts have perished, either because of age or violent destruction. So what sort of manuscript do we have left?

There are about four hundred manuscripts that come from before the big transition in Greek writing from individual capital letters to a joined-up cursive script in the ninth century (majuscule script and minuscule script, respectively). The majority of these manuscripts are incomplete or even fragmentary. The three manuscripts that are often dated to the second century are all single fragments from a single page from one of the Gospels. We would need hundreds of these to form one complete book. However, we do have manuscripts that are more extensive, and from the fourth and fifth century we even have manuscripts that have a near-complete New Testament in Greek. What we learn from these manuscripts is that in the early centuries the copies were not always made very carefully, to the extent that sometimes one wonders if some of these were written from memory rather than copied from an existing master copy. What we also learn is that the vast majority of differences are easily resolved because they are obvious errors. The more difficult problems require deeper consideration.

Here it helps that we have so many manuscripts, because now we can look for the type of thing that can go wrong (and likewise the type of error that is rarely made). So it is much more common to make the wording of one Gospel similar to that of another, than to do the reverse. For example, Luke tends to abbreviate citations from the Old Testament, while Matthew gives the longer version. As a result, later manuscripts of Luke often have expanded citations that resemble the longer versions found in Matthew. The King James Version is based on such later manuscripts, so its longer wording in Luke 4:4, 5, and 8 (compared to, for example, the ESV) is all due to influence from Matthew.

The discussions of church fathers of some of textual differences shows that most of the important differences have been talked about over the last sixteen or seventeen centuries. It also shows that the existence of such differences was never a reason to give up trust in the Scriptures.

Evaluating Variants

There seems to be a tension between God preserving his word and the existence of differences between manuscripts. How can we trust our English Bibles if they are the result of comparing the manuscripts that have, in places, a different wording of Scripture?

First, the existence of textual variants often makes little or no difference to the wider meaning of the text. For example, in Romans 1:1, there is a question whether Paul wrote “a servant of Jesus Christ” or “a servant of Christ Jesus.” If someone specializes in particular details of Paul’s language, he or she may be very much interested in solving the problem. Yet on a wider scale, say if we look at Romans 1:1–7 as a whole, the issue has no effect on our understanding of what is going on. In general, this is true of all communication. We can cope with noise in the room and still understand perfectly well what our conversation partner is saying.

Second, of all the textual variants in existence, the vast majority can be resolved with relative ease. It is clear how the error came into being and also why it managed to survive in the textual transmission.

Translating the Word of God

The final step in that long journey from the moment that God inspired his word to us reading his word is that of translation. Translation is not easy. One language (English, for example) tends to use grammar and syntax differently than Hebrew or Greek, which are also quite different languages from one another. It is good to realize that any translation has made choices as to which features of the original to represent and which to leave out. For example, it is traditional to represent the Greek name Iakobos (the Greek form of the Old Testament name Jacob) with James, and as a result we lose something of the feel of this name (Iakobos writes his letter “to the 12 tribes” [James 1:1]!).

Also on a sentence level a translator needs to make difficult choices. How we do present the focus of a sentence in Greek into English, which uses different techniques to show which part of the sentence is prominent? How do we represent the repetition of the same word but used in different shades of meaning? To what extent is the translation intended to be understood the first time of hearing, and to what extent do we expect the reader to make considerable effort to dig deeper into the text? And how do we present some of the bigger issues in the different manuscripts? Do we simply ignore them and choose one text to translate, or do we add the occasional footnote? Translations have to make difficult choices, and different translations make different choices.

How can we trust our translations if a single translation cannot give us the full glory of the original? We may fall into the trap of thinking that because we do not have all the knowledge and insight into what God exactly said, we have nothing at all.

Yet we should not be sucked into such a false opposition. It is important to distinguish carefully between two different words: being accurate and being exhaustive. For example, if we look at a map that gives us only the capital cities of each state, we can learn a lot. This map can be of great benefit in learning the lay of the land. It is accurate, but not exhaustive; there is more to tell. We need a map with more information when we are planning a car journey, also accurate but with more information. And think also of the different map we need when preparing for a long hike; a road map will not get us very far. Each of these maps is accurate, but each also gives a different level of detail.

A good translation will render the Scriptures in the original language accurately into English, and will therefore be the word of God, able to teach, to rebuke, to correct, to build the church up. But the level of detail will be different from translation to translation, and will again be different when we read Scripture in the original languages.

For almost all purposes, our translations give us all that we need to study God’s words and to meet him in his word. Yet it is good to know that many of our pastors and other scholars are also reading Scripture in Greek and Hebrew, as it helps them to understand God’s word more precisely. It is as if they are zooming in with a higher magnification and resolution. As we have seen, sometimes the circumstances prevent us from zooming in as far as we would like. This happens when there are some remaining problems in the wording of the Greek and Hebrew originals. We can see the lay of the land, but the fine detail is less clear. But again, these textual problems are mostly small, and none of them influences what Scripture teaches as a whole.

The Word About the Word

The story of how the Bible came into being is largely told in the Bible itself. Perhaps we would like to know things that are not revealed. There are limitations to our knowledge. Yet the Bible is God’s revelation that tells us in great detail about the whole of salvation history, about the coming of the Messiah and his death and resurrection, and about the great hope of glory that is revealed in the Word who became flesh, the Lord Jesus Christ. And this word is fully trustworthy.