The following is a lightly edited transcript.
What books make up the Bible? That is what books are in the canon? There are other books in the time of the Bible that are in the Catholic canon, for example, namely, the Apocrypha which includes books like, Esdras, 1 and 2 Tobit, Judith, and so on. These are the books that you would find in the Apocrypha.
Now one question would be: Why don’t we have those in our Bible? Most of those come from the intertestamental period, now called Second Temple Judaism. The belief concerning those books among the Jews was this: The rabbinical literature, this is from the Talmud, after the latter prophets Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi had died and the Holy Spirit departed from Israel, they still availed themselves of the bat kol (daughter of the voice). And the typical Jewish view in Jesus’s day was that after the Minor Prophets, there wasn’t any inspiration of Scripture.
The Hebrew Canon and the Old Testament
Is that what Jesus thought? Is that what we should think or not? The Hebrew canon was traditionally 24 books, which include all of our 39 Old Testament books and no more — the reason for the change from 39 to 24 is that they combine some that we separate. There are three sections in the Old Testament, Jewish, Hebrew canon: Torah, Nevi’im, and Ketuvim. Those are the Hebrew words for Law, Prophets, Writings. If you take the T, the N, and the CH and put As between them you get Tanakh.
So if you’re talking to a Jewish friend today and you want to talk about his Bible, if you use the word Tanakh, he’ll know exactly what you’re talking about. That means that Hebrew canon. And he’ll appreciate that. In fact, if you called it the Old Testament, he won’t like you because it’s not the Old Testament, it’s the only testament for him. We do believe it’s the Old Testament and has been superseded by the New Testament, but they don’t. And so this would be their word and it would be fine to use it — the Tanakh.
The Torah in the Jewish Bible, Jesus’s Bible, contains Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. The Prophets, the Nevi’im, include: Joshua, Judges, Samuel (first and second combined), Kings combined, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, the minor prophets — all in one book, twelve books in one book — Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi. And the Writings, Ketuvim, includes Psalms, Job, Proverbs, Ruth, Song of Solomon, Ecclesiastes, Lamentations, Esther, Daniel, Ezra and Nehemiah in one book, and Chronicles in one book. That adds up to 24. And they’re exactly the same as the 39 that we have in our Old Testament. Thus, the canon of the Jews began with Genesis and ended with Chronicles.
I just gave you the order that they occur in the Hebrew Old Testament, different from our English Bible because our English Bible is based on the order of the Greek translation of the Old Testament, which is called the Septuagint. But the earliest Christian witnesses show that the apocryphal books included in the Septuagint were not counted as canonical. It’s very interesting that our Old Testament in the English Bible is given in the order of the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament, but it omits all the apocryphal books, which were in the Greek Testament. So you know it’s a pretty conscious choice not to include those books.
Evidence of the Old Testament
Now, do we have any New Testament pointers to the existence and the extent of the Old Testament canon? Paul assumed the legitimacy of the Scriptures that were being taught to Jewish children, so he says, “But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believe, knowing from whom you learned it, and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 3:14–15). So Eunice and Lois, these Jewish women were teaching Timothy, and Paul affirmed that he should believe those books.
There’s no record of any dispute between Jesus and the Jewish leaders of his day over what the extent of the Scriptures was. He seemed to assume that their Bible was his Bible, and he made remarkable claims about its authority, which “Scripture cannot be broken” (John 10:35).
The three-part Jewish division of the Old Testament is assumed by Jesus. Luke 24:44: “Now he said to them, ‘These are my words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things which are written about me in the law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms.’” Almost everybody agrees that the word “Psalms” here is simply a replacement of the word “Writings” because it’s the biggest and most dominant book in the writings, so stands for all the Writings, not that Christ rejected all the other Writings.
The Jewish order of the closed Jewish canon is assumed. Now here we get I think the most significant argument for saying that Jesus’s Bible, his Bible was the Jewish canon, not the canon that included the Apocrypha. Why do we say that? Here’s the argument. in Luke 11:49–51, Jesus says, “Therefore also the Wisdom of God said, ‘I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and persecute,’ that the blood of all the prophets, shed from the foundation of the world, may be required of this generation, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who perished between the altar and the sanctuary.’”
Now what he’s trying to do with that statement is to speak of all the prophets in the Old Testament. And he mentions one in Genesis 3:4 — the very first prophet to die, Abel. And the last one he mentions is a prophet named Zechariah who perished between the altar and the sanctuary. Well, it isn’t the last chronological martyr in the Old Testament. Chronologically the last martyr in the Old Testament was Uriah, the son of Shemaiah whose death is described in Jeremiah 26:22–23 and he died during the reign of Jehoiakim who reigned from 609–598 BC. However, in 2 Chronicles, the last book of the Jewish Old Testament canon, it says Zechariah killed in the temple court. Our Old Testament ends with Malachi. The Hebrew Old Testament ends with 2 Chronicles. Jesus has said they will be responsible for the blood of all the prophets from the one in the beginning of Genesis to the end of 2 Chronicles, Zechariah. Let’s read about that one.
The Spirit of the God took possession of Zechariah, the son of Jehoiada, the priest; and he stood above the people and said to them, “Thus says God, ‘Why do you transgress the commandments of the Lord so that you cannot prosper? Because you have forsaken the Lord, he has forsaken you.’” But they conspired against him and by command of the king they stoned him with stones. (2 Chronicles 24:20–21)
So Zechariah, son of Jehoiada, is stoned to death with stones in the court of the house of the Lord, and Jesus refers to him, Abel to Zechariah when Uriah later was stoned.
Why? Why didn’t he say from Abel to Uriah? And the answer is he’s working with the Hebrew canon. That’s why. This means his Bible was the Hebrew canon, not the Apocrypha. The Apocrypha is not in the Hebrew canon. It’s the 24 books that are in the Hebrew canon. And therefore I’m arguing that when Jesus held his Bible or studied his Bible, he was studying the Hebrew canon, which is going to be very important because I’m going to argue that he said spectacular things about this book, absolutely breathtaking things about it, which would not apply, at least we have no reason to believe it would apply to the Apocrypha.
“All of the Scriptures points to Jesus.”
According to one count by Roger Nicole, the New Testament quotes various parts of the Old Testament as divinely authoritative over 295 times, but not once do they cite any statement of the books of the Apocrypha or any other writings as having divine authority. Jude 14:15 does quote 1 Enoch and Paul quotes pagan authors in Acts 17:28 and Titus 1:12, but these citations are not said to be from Scripture or to be authoritative because of their sources.
My conclusion is that the Bible we’re working — the first two-thirds of the Bible — are made up of the 39 books that we have in our Old Testament, which were the same as the 24 books in the Hebrew Bible.
The New Testament
The New Testament assumed the existence of the canonical Scriptures. The concept was not foreign to them or added later. Luke 24:27: “Beginning with Moses and with all the Prophets, he explained to them the things concerning himself in all the scriptures.” Jesus is saying, “all the Scriptures testify to me.” So there is a body of truth called the Scriptures.
John 5:39: “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life.” Acts 17:2: “Paul’s custom, he went into them, and for three Sabbaths reasoned with them from the Scriptures.” We’re working with a New Testament conception of canon here that they didn’t make it up. The point here is that for the church to begin to govern its life and doctrine by more than this authoritative canon of Scriptures, something similar in authority and limitation would be necessary, namely, a supplementary canon.
Now get yourself into the mind and head of those who had lived all their lives with this canon of Old Testament and suddenly the Messiah comes into the world and begins to teach, forms a church, commissions apostles, and founds a movement. How will it function? How will it govern itself? How will it know what’s true as falsehoods come at it? And I’m saying they’ve got already a model of a cannon. Will they not move towards a larger one?
Jesus was recognized by the early church as having authority equal to and beyond the Old Testament Scriptures. We’re arguing now that there’s coming into being the concept of a New Testament canon. How is it coming to be? Jesus “was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes” (Matthew 7:29). So Jesus is emerging now as having an authority different from those who exposited the Old Testament. He seems to be aligning himself alongside the Old Testament, even over the Old Testament, which is shaking them up.
Matthew 5:38: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’” That’s a quote from the Bible Old Testament. And he says, “But I say to you,” a breathtaking statement from a human being, “do not resist him who is evil.” Or Mark 13:31: “heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”
Jesus said, “I’m the way, the truth, the truth, the truth and the life” (John 14:6). These are spectacular claims about his function in relationship to the truth of the Old Testament. Matthew 28:18: “All authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth.” Hebrews 1:1–2 says, “At many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son.” Here, his Son is alongside those great prophets, and therefore, pressing for some kind of new or expanded canon with Jesus himself as the center authority of it.
So the point here is that the teaching of Jesus would inevitably lead to an expansion of the canon of the early church. The Old Testament would be supplemented by what Jesus taught and did. The challenge is open then for the early church how to limit what is inevitably opened by the coming and teaching of Jesus.
The Evidence for the New Testament
Theologically a closed canon of the New Testament is what we would expect in accord with what God has inspired and preserved for us in the Old Testament. This is what Norman Anderson said:
If we accept Jesus testimony to the God-given authority of the Old Testament, it would seem intrinsically unlikely that the most stupendous event in human history, the life and death and resurrection of its incarnate Lord, would have been left by the God who had revealed it in advance without any authoritative record or explanation for future generations.
Now that’s just simply saying that we would expect that if God had seen fit to govern his people through a canon in the Old Testament, then the arrival of his Son and the perpetuation of the people of God in the church would seem to be governed by a group of books as well. Now is that the case? Are there pointers to it?
Jesus pointed in this direction and prepared the early church to expect that he not only planned the canon of teaching concerning himself in his word, but he would provide for it as well through authorized apostles and through inspiration. So he chose apostles. He named them apostles. The word apostle means a sent one who goes with authoritative representation of another. So in choosing the twelve, he’s choosing those who will now lay the foundation of truth in being his official representatives and were not perpetuating. That’s why in Acts 1:26 they drew lots for them and the lot fell to Matthias and he was numbered with the eleven apostles. That didn’t happen over and over and over again because these apostles were going to fulfill the role of authoritative inspired spokesmen for the church.
Inspiration from the Holy Spirit
What about inspiration? Jesus says, “Whoever does not love me does not keep my words. And the word that you hear is not mine but the Father’s who sent me. “These things I have spoken to you while I am still with you. But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you” (John 14:24–26).
I think the primary meaning of that last sentence is to inform us and to insure them that when it came time for them to provide authoritative teaching for the church, they would be able to do it. He would help them do it. He would enable them to do it. I think that’s Jesus way of preparing us and them for the doctrine of the inspiration of the New Testament.
John 16:23–24: “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you.” So in two places, Jesus prepares his apostles to know why he has chosen them in relationship to his church, namely that they are going to be the repository of his future inspiration and enabling authority, to teach with authority.
The Witness of the Early Church
The early church saw the teaching that emerged from Jesus and the apostles as comprising a completed body of truth about the faith. And you get to see that in Jude 1:3: “Beloved, while I was making every effort to write you about our common salvation, I felt the necessity to write to you appealing that you contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints.”
That little Greek word is once for all, and that’s an important word in the New Testament because it means that what’s happening in the New Testament is unique and historically decisive, and once for all. Jesus comes once for all. He appoints twelve once for all. He inspires them to teach the church and provide the foundation for the church once for all, and there is now a faith delivered to us once for all. It doesn’t get added to century after century. Rather, what is taught every century subsequent to this takes its key from what was once for all delivered. That’s the importance of that little word there — “once for all.”
What about Paul? Paul saw the apostolic teaching as the unrepeatable foundation of the church or the canon, and saw his own teaching as the expression of the Lord’s very words and command. Ephesians 2:19: “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and are of God’s household. Having been built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone.”
There’s a little debate about how the prophets relate to the apostles here. But this is foundational, not repeated. You are built upon. The church is like a temple and it has a foundation with a cornerstone. And in this text the foundation of the church is the apostles/prophets, the cornerstone being Christ himself.
Who are the apostles that govern the church today? Answer right here: They’re dead and they have written their word to us here, and we govern ourselves by submitting to this. And any elder or pastors role in the church is to make this plain structure everything according to this, build his life around this, teach this, rather than add to this. That’s what foundation implies here in Ephesians 2:20.
What about inspiration among the apostles and Paul’s own understanding? In 2 Corinthians 13:3, he says to the church, “You are seeking for proof that the Christ who speaks in me, you are seeking for truth of the Christ who speaks in me and who is not weak toward you but mighty in you.” So he believes that Christ is speaking in him and it was controversial in his own day.
Often he was being criticized of those saying, “You’re not a real apostle. The real apostles are from Jerusalem.” And he had to defend himself again and again as an apostle, as one that Christ had appeared to. That was the qualification of an apostle. He’d appeared to them and commissioned him. So he had to make a special appearance to Paul on the Damascus Road, and Paul said, “I’m like one who was born out of time. I wasn’t one of the twelve.” But he was the decisive spokesman for the Gentiles and there wasn’t any after him.
“The church is like a temple and it has a foundation with a cornerstone — Christ Jesus himself.”
Or consider 1 Corinthians 14:37: “If anyone thinks he is a prophet or spiritual, let him recognize that the things which I write to you are the Lord’s commandment.” So he’s making his writings the test of all spiritual claims in the church. That’s either like C.S. Lewis argued Jesus is either a liar, or he’s a lunatic, or he’s true. The same thing is true of Paul. I mean this statement is off the charts. Either he’s a liar, or he’s a lunatic, megalomaniac, or he’s an inspired apostle because to talk like that is amazing.
He says in 1 Corinthians 2:12: “Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit of who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given to us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom, but taught by the Spirit interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual.” This is not us. This is Paul and the other band of apostles, authoritative spokesmen with him, and we’re here. And he’s interpreting spiritual things to those who have the Spirit, and God is giving to him words taught by the Spirit, not by human wisdom to do that. I’m arguing that Paul is making very strong claims about his own authority which is where the New Testament canon is going to come from.
Peter saw Paul’s writings as part of an enlarging canon of Scripture alongside the Old Testament Scriptures. This is very important. Second Peter 3:16: “Paul wrote to you in all his letters, speaking in them of these things in which are some things hard to understand, which the untaught and unstable distort, as they do also the rest of or the other Scriptures to their own destruction.” Do you see what that implies? Peter, the apostle, is saying of this apostle, Paul, that his writings are Scripture. That’s really big. People are distorting Paul’s letters because they’re hard to understand like they do the rest of the scriptures to their own destruction.
So with this built-in trajectory toward a new canon that would give authorized record of the life and teachings of Jesus and the foundational teachings of his authoritative spokesmen, what remained for the early church to do was to discern which writings were the fulfillment of Jesus’s promise to the apostles. The rise of heretical teachings and the use of distorted books, Marcion for example, spurred the process of canonization. How did the church do that?
I heard something years and years ago from Dr. Goppelt, my professor in Germany, it was very, very significant. What you’re going to see in a moment is that the closing and the final recognition of the New Testament canon, the 27 books that we have as a rule and authority and inspired and authoritative and inspired, was recognized in the first council in the 4th century, three, something else, I’ll see in a minute.
So what has happened in the first three centuries with the authoritative books? And the answer is that they are exercising their authority as they prove themselves to be apostolic, and the church is being governed by them, and the church is gradually recognizing which are and which aren’t, and there are competing books. Dr. Goppelt observed that the theology in many respects of the early church becomes purer after the formal recognition of the canon than it was before, for this very reason, namely, that the books and the authoritative canon was fully recognized and finished so that everybody was keying off the same group of documents instead of random choices.
The reason that’s significant is that there are a lot of people today that are urging us to go back to the pristine first two or three centuries with the assumption the closer you are to Jesus in the books you read, the more accurate will be the theology. And professor Goppelt stated, “No way. That does not follow.” It may be true in any given case. It just doesn’t follow because the books were working their way into the life of the church gradually, and the church then finally said, “These are they. These are the ones have proved themselves over the last three centuries.” But in that process you got people all over the world saying off-the-wall things because they don’t have the fullness of the canon with which to test their ideas. That’s significant for you to think about.
So when you hear somebody say, “I think we should go back to the first and second and third centuries and read all that and follow that as our key for what’s orthodoxy.” Well, maybe, maybe not. There may be insights there that you don’t get anywhere else. But be careful, you don’t assume that’s the case. It makes a lot of sense to me that once that canon is clearly unified, and the one book that the whole church is now saying yes to would be a better foundation for a coherent big church theology than the first three centuries.
The Books of the New Testament
Here are the books of the New Testament. The main criterion for the books that were recognized as authoritative and canonical was apostolicity. Not just was it a book written by an apostle, but also was it written in the company of an apostle or presumably with his endorsement and approval. For example, here they are, these are just the authors now: Matthew apostle, Mark, Peter’s interpreter and assistant — they have witness to that in Papias writings — Luke, close associate and partner of Paul who wrote more of the New Testament than anybody.
That’s why I named my first son Carsten Luke. Carsten because he was born in Germany and Luke because Luke wrote more of the New Testament than anybody else, and I thought maybe he’ll be a writer someday, which he is. You thought Paul wrote most of the New Testament, but Luke-Acts together are more of the New Testament than all of Paul, so Luke is the dominant quantitative writer in the New Testament. And he, as you can see from the book of Acts, is traveling with Paul. Just to give you a little tidbit of warranted speculation, Luke says that “Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart” (Luke 2:19, 51). How does he know that?
Inspiration in my understanding folds in all the means by which an author finds out true things. God doesn’t have to dictate that. I think Mary told him that. I think he interviewed Mary because he was roaming around in Palestine for two years while Paul was in jail in the Book of Acts at the end of his life. We know that because of the sections in the Book of Acts, “we went here and we went there.” So the “we” sections, you got Luke arriving there with Paul. Only Paul gets slammed in jail for two years. What’s Luke doing all that time? Luke’s not from Judea. He’s a Gentile. He’s going everywhere, talking to people who knew Jesus. I mean what else would you do? He had two years to spare right in Jesus’s home territory, and you hadn’t grown up there? But the reason we say it’s apostolic even though he wasn’t an apostle is that he was right there with the Apostle Paul.
John was an apostle. Thirteen epistles of Paul, he was an apostle. Hebrews, we don’t know who wrote Hebrews, but at the end it says, “I urge you brethren, bear with this word of exhortation for I have written to you briefly. Take notice that our brother Timothy has been released with whom if he comes soon I shall see you. Greet all the leaders.” I only point that out to say I don’t know who the writer to the Hebrews was, but he was in the band around Paul and Timothy it looks like.
James brother of Jesus called an apostle probably in Galatians 1:19: “But I did not see any other of the Apostles except James.” Maybe it’s not interpreted that way. It could be. Except James doesn’t have to mean he was an apostle, but it may mean that he was viewed as a kind of apostle. At any rate, very closely connected to the apostles. And then Peter, and then John — his epistles — Jude brother of James, and Revelation, written by John.
Those are the books that we have in the New Testament or the authors that we have, and the argument is that they are apostolic even though they are not all apostles. The most controversial books that took the longest to confirm themselves for the whole church were Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, and Jude. There was no controversy about the others. But the controversy swarmed around them, but in the end the church discerned their harmony with the others and their antiquity and essential apostolicity. The core list apart from the controverted books was known at the latest in the latter part of the second century. Irenaeus mentions a list of most of them, though not in any official way. That came in AD 367. The first list known to us with all 27 books is in the Festal Letter of Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria in AD 367. And here the list was affirmed by the Synod of Hippo then again in AD 393.
Now the question when you look how late that date is: Did the church finally create this canon or what happened? Dr. Foakes-Jackson expresses my view when he says the church assuredly did not make the New Testament. The two grew up together. I’m going to distance myself therefore from the Roman Catholic understanding of authority here, and go with F. F. Bruce and other Protestants. F.F. Bruce puts it like this:
What is particularly important to notice is that the New Testament canon was not demarcated by the arbitrary decree of any church council. When at last at church council the Synod of Hippo in 393 listed the 27 books of the New Testament. It did not confer upon them any authority which they did not already possess, but simply recorded their previously established canonicity.
Let me just try to say this gently. One of the things that separate Protestants and Roman Catholics is the way you think about authority of the Bible in relationship to the church. Protestants like to say that the Bible created the church, and Catholics tend to say the church created or confirmed the Bible. In other words, the Bible has its authority because the church councils gave it their authority, and thus align church authority, Pope especially, the office that he holds and Bible are together in the Roman Catholic Church. Protestants order it like this: Bible and church. That’s where I am, and I think that’s what happened, that the Bible pressed itself upon the church and the church didn’t create a canon. It recognized a canon.
So we come to the question: What is the canon? Five books of narrative: Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts, 21 letters, and then Revelation. That’s what makes up our Bible. That’s how the Bible came to be, and why I believe what we have as the Bible is what we should have as the Bible. No books are missing that should be in it, and no books are in it that shouldn’t be there.
The Wealth of Manuscripts
Do we have the very words written by the biblical authors? If you say these are the right books, but in fact they’ve been so distorted by transmission that you can’t trust them, then it doesn’t really matter that you have the right books because you’ve lost what was in them anyway, which is what some people are saying today.
Do we have any of the original manuscripts? No, we don’t. We do not have any of the actual pieces of paper or papyrus or parchment that a biblical writer actually wrote on. How were the manuscripts of the New Testament preserved? The first printed Greek New Testament was in 1516 by Erasmus. Before that, everything was transmitted by copying by hand, and we owe our Bible to the meticulous love and care given by countless monks and scholars for the first 1,500 years of the church era. How many manuscripts are there? I just saw online today at Justin Taylor’s blog reading an article by Dan Wallace that he said today 5,700 manuscript fragments of the New Testament in the original Greek.
How does this amount of evidence compare with other ancient writings of the same era? We have no original manuscripts of any other writers from this period of history. It’s phenomenal that the New Testament so outshines all others just in terms of quantity. I could give you examples here. Caesar’s Gallic Wars have ten manuscripts available, parts of Roman history, Livy has twenty manuscripts, the histories and annals of Tacitus have two manuscripts, history of Thucydides has eight manuscripts compared to 5,000 fragments of manuscripts for the New Testament is simply astonishing. It creates problems but it creates amazing potential as well.
Does this small number of manuscript call secular scholars to despair that we can know what these writers wrote? F.F. Bruce says no classical scholar would listen to an argument that the authenticity of Herodotus or Thucydides is in doubt because the earliest manuscripts of their works which are of any use to us are over 1,300 years later than the originals, whereas New Testament to go back to the second century. So are you saying that the New Testament is unique in having so many manuscripts? Yes. No other ancient book comes close to this kind of wealth of diverse preservation.
What are some of these oldest manuscripts? The oldest comes from about AD 130. Some date it into the first century and some later like this and contains John 18:31–33, 37 and following. It’s just little old fragment, and you see it on both sides. The only full early manuscript of the New Testament comes from AD 350, called the Codex Sinaiticus because it was discovered in a monastery on Mount Sinai.
Are the manuscripts the only source of our knowledge of the original wording the New Testament writings? No. In addition to manuscripts, there are quotations from the New Testament in very early writers outside the New Testament. For example in the Didache, in the Epistle of Barnabas, in Clement’s Letter to the Corinthians were produced around AD 100, and quote extensively from the New Testament so you can compare what they quoted and what’s actually there in the Greek manuscripts, the letters of Polycarp and Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch around AD 120 contain many quotes from the gospels and the letters of Paul.
God’s Gift of Textual Criticism
Do all these manuscripts create problems or solutions for getting back to the original writings? There are many variations in wording among them because they were all copied by hand and subject to human error. There are so many manuscripts that these errors tend to be self-correcting by the many manuscript witnesses we have to compare. Here’s what F.F. Bruce says, “Fortunately if the great number of manuscripts increases, the number of scribal errors increases proportionally. The means of correcting such errors so that the margin of doubt left in the process of recovering the exact original wording is not so large as might be feared it is in truth remarkably small.”
“No other ancient book comes close to the wealth of diverse preservation that the Bible has.”
Is there a branch of biblical studies that focus on this problem of getting back to the wording of the original writings? Yes, the branch of biblical studies that works with all these sources to determine the best manuscript is textual criticism. I thank God that there are text critics who do that work for us.
When I was in Germany 1971–74 doing my dissertation on Love Your Enemies, I was so nervous. I felt like I’d gotten into this program under false pretenses because they didn’t look at any of my papers or any of my grades. They just said come because Dr. Ladd recommended me.
So here I am. I don’t speak German well enough. I’ve been there about nine months, been studying like crazy, and Dr. Goppelt assigns me a topic and I say, “It looks great. I’ll do it.” He says, “You’ll present this in the seminar,” and gave me the date about two months out. He said, “You can write in English, not a problem, you can present in English, but the discussion will be in German.”
So what do I do? What would you do on your first paper that you’re going to present as part of your dissertation on a paragraph of Jesus teaching on love your enemies (Matthew 5:43–48)? I spent the whole time on text criticism. I won’t be scholarly. I’m going to prove these are the very words that Matthew wrote. I got to have a text that I can count on, so I worked my pants off to show with all the manuscript evidence that this is it.
So I presented my paper. I read it. It was really complicated. And none of them were native English speakers and so I’m sure it taxed them to the limit. And when I was done, Professor Goppelt said, “We don’t need any of this. The text critics have done this. We don’t need to do this anymore. That work is finished.” It was a lesson for me how the entire radical, critical German scene believes that the text-critical work has been done and has been done well.
In other words, the documents that we have in front of us in our Greek New Testament are considered to be valid by the most liberal German scholars. Now let me show you what I mean when I say that just so you don’t over-interpret it. It’s out of order here I think. F.J.A. Hort said, “The proportion of words virtually accepted on all hands as raised above doubt is great.”
Let me get the picture for you here because I might have lost some of you. You got 5,700 fragments with a few whole manuscripts of Greek texts of the New Testament. Text critics compare John 18:30 in one to John 18:30 and another and they see, “Oh, here we have a plural and here we have a singular,” or, “Here we have a sigma at the end and here we don’t have a sigma at the end. Or here we have one word.” And so they’re not the same, so which is original? And if you just had two, you’d be hard-put. You might say the oldest, or you might say the reading is the hardest and so that’s probably original. You got these criteria. But when you have 5,700, the evidences of what’s original starts to mount up greater. The variations increase, but so do the evidences for why you can assume one and not the other. And this is talking about how many of these variations are up for grabs.
The proportion of words virtually accepted on all hands has been raised above doubt as is great, not less than a rough computation seven-eights of the whole. The remaining one-eighth formed in great part by changes of order and other comparative trivialities constitutes the whole area of textual criticism. The words in our opinion still subject to doubt only make up about one-sixtieth of the whole New Testament. Substantial variation is but a small fraction of the whole residuary variation and can hardly form more than a thousandth part of the entire text.
F.F. Bruce puts it this way, “The variant readings about which any doubt remains among textual critics of the New Testament affects no material question of historic fact or of Christian faith and practice.” In other words, the remaining uncertainties of any significant uncertainty don’t affect the substance of what the New Testament is teaching. Now that’s been challenged today by Bart Ehrman and others, but I think most scholars would still say that is, in fact, the case.
The Originals Are Without Error
Does the doctrine of inerrancy in the original manuscripts matter? Our affirmation of faith says we believe that the Bible is the word of God, fully inspired and without error in the original manuscripts, which we don’t have. People scoff at that. They say, “What good is it to affirm the infallibility of it?”
I think it matters. This is my effort to say why. Yes, it matters because it affirms the reality of objective historical inspiration. There is an objective measuring rod for us to return to. To the degree that we come close to the wording of the original, we come close to the very words of God. We are there for all practical purposes. I think it does matter to say that the Bible is inspired and inerrant in the original manuscripts.