Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.
We are taught the Word of God as infallible, authoritative, and all-sufficient. Yet when purchasing a Bible, you’ll notice different translations available: NIV, ESV, NLT, KJV, and so on. Why do we have these different translations? How reliable are these translations? Must we read the Bible in its original language to maintain its authority? These are some of the questions that surfaced in my mind as I began to read “Know How We Got Our Bible (KNOW Series)”by Ryan M Reeves & Charles Hill. Reeves and Hill condense the Bible’s extensive history while maintaining readability for his audience.
I’ve summarized the book but please be mindful that it will not be an all-inclusive history of the Bible’s wide-spreading publications. His book deals primarily within the boundary of the English language, though he comments briefly on others throughout. Please refer to his book also for further details. So here goes:
Our contemporary Bibles are a compilation of manuscripts of the original text. However, we do not have many ancient manuscripts available. Can we trust these manuscripts if they aren’t the original manuscripts?
“The copying of the Old Testament over the centuries, therefore, was done by Jewish scribes. The problem for scholars today, however, is that Jerusalem was destroyed in AD 70. Much was lost in the conflagration, including what must have been a wealth of biblical manuscripts. In fact, the text of our Old Testament is based on copies made in the Middle Age” (p. 30). The Masoretes are a family of scribes that not only copied the manuscripts from generation to generation, but also created a vowel system, since the original form of the Hebrew language only had consonants of each word. For example, we understand the text message about dinner being “rlly gd”, though no vowels were used. Several of their copies exist today, particularly the Leningrad Codex, which all significant editions of the Hebrew Bible are primarily based on, being the oldest complete manuscript of the Old Testament.
In 1946, the Dead Sea Scrolls were found in jars hidden in caves near the city of Qumran. These fragments dated back from 250 to 65 BC, and validated that the Masoretic scribes had copied and preserved the Old Testament accurately. “All the texts of our Old Testament were at Qumran except Esther. There are slight differences in the texts of Qumran—not unlike when scholars find slight differences between copies of the New Testament—but those differences amount to roughly a 1 percent discrepancy between the Masoretic text and these ancient texts” (pg 32).
We have 66 books of the Bible, but who decided which books should be canonized and why only 66?
With regards to the Christian Old Testament and the Jewish Old Testament, the most significant difference is its arrangement not content. Examining how the Jews got their Old Testament will directly shed light on how we got ours.
The Jewish arrangement has three main sections: the Pentateuch (Torah), the Prophets (Nevi’im), and the Writings (Ketuvim), collectively known as TaNaK. The entirety of the Old Testament can be described as “the Law and the Prophets” because of this order. These books were recognized as inspired and canonized based on authorship. “The Israelites did not choose random texts for the Old Testament, but instead based each one’s inclusion on its authorization by God’s chosen prophets or leaders” (p. 25) “The books of Moses and the larger and shorter prophetic books clearly fit into this category. They were written or recorded based on the teachings of these Israelite leaders” (p. 37). Psalms, though written by various authors over time, was received since David was credited as having written the bulk. “Chronicles and Kings do not provide an author, but they were received as official records of Israel’s development after settling in Canaan” (p. 37). “In the Old Testament, only a few books were ever disputed—Esther, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, and possibly Proverbs. Each of these disputes was related to uncertainty of authorship” (p. 25).
Reeves and Hill stress later the difference between “disputed” and “rejected” or “despised”, and how uncertainty does not nullify its validity. “The reason a book is accepted is not because it has universal acclaim but because it bears evidence of divine inspiration, and confidence should not be shaken because someone somewhere raised doubts about a few books” (p. 66). Some disputed for poor reasons and they were usually the minority.
The Old Testament was written in Hebrew but the New Testament was written in Greek. How did this happen?
The Greek culture and language became widespread during and after Alexander the Great’s reign around 300 BC. Supposedly around 285-246 BC, while Ptolemy II Philadelphus was king of Egypt, Demetrius convinced him to have the essential Scriptures of the Jews in his extensive library. Seventy-Two Jewish scribes were asked to translate the Torah into Greek individually and the translations came out identical, creating the Septuagint translation. “The fable also gave us the name of the translation, since septuaginta was Greek for “seventy”—thus the work of the seventy scribal translators” (p. 44). Along with the Septuagint, “deuterocanonical”, or supplemental texts outside the original Scriptures, were included in the passing down of the translations, some which would be known as the Apocrypha. These texts were easily mistaken as part of the Old Testament since it remained alongside it and “were written in a style similar to other books of the Old Testament” (p 70). However, “the evidence—and there is more we could share—suggests there was no widespread use of the Apocrypha as Scripture in the earliest centuries of the church” (p. 69). This will be important to note later.
In the first century, the Council of Jamnia gathered to preserve the Jewish heritage, which also included discussions about the canon. “The point of any discussions was not to determine the canon but to affirm what was already authoritative for the community” (p. 38). One debate that arose during the council of Jamnia was over a few books’ inclusion into the canon, such as the books of I and II Maccabee. “Several of these books were included, therefore, in the Septuagint translation of the Old Testament” (p. 38). However, some Jews rejected the Septuagint; flaws were noticed in the translation, and the Greek language was one spread by their very oppressors. In Acts 6, the tension is seen between the Hellenistic Jews, those who were Greek-speaking and most likely using the Septuagint, and the Hebraic Jews.
After Jerusalem was destroyed in AD 70, the Jews were eventually scattered and relocated. “Though the Hebrew language was their heritage, and though the Hebrew text was read in the synagogues, everyday life was being overtaken by Greek” (p. 42). “Indeed, so pervasive was the cultural influence of the Greeks that knowledge of Greek spilled down onto the streets, creating a “common” (koine) or simplified form of Greek used in the marketplace. Most of the New Testament books were written in this Koine Greek, and the choice to write in Greek was no accident” (p. 43).
The New Testament was “arranged according to genre, and then often according to size” (p. 56). The only exception is 2 Corinthians being placed after 1 Corinthians. The Gospels are placed first, since Christ’s ministry is the foundation of the new covenant” (p. 56) with Acts setting the stage for the apostles’ ministry and their letters, concluding with Revelations. As God spoke through the prophets in the Old Testament, culminating in Jesus Christ who would restore the Word of God to Israel, the apostles would also proclaim God’s message in a uniquely authoritative way for a limited time. The Canon would close after the last apostle dies. A question arises: “Did they [apostles] know these works were going to be collected and included in the Bible? Maybe they just wrote letters, and the early church created a Bible out of them” (p. 58). Reeves and Hill argues that “Paul does not consider his words to be merely a casual letter—or even just an important pastoral letter”, as he declares in 2 Corinthians 13:3 that “Christ is speaking through me” (p. 59). Paul was aware of his authority as an apostle, and naturally, other apostles would as well. “Though some authors of New Testament books were not themselves apostles, their message was based on their relationship to the apostles, not their own authority” (p. 60), such as apostolic coworkers like Mark and Luke. This is especially important for a book like Hebrews since it’s author is debated but is known to be a companion with Timothy.
Like some of the books of the Old Testament were disputed as being canonized, a few New Testament books were also disputed due to authorship. “Eusebius [a historian of the church during the fourth century] wrote that some books of the New Testament were disputed (antilegomena), though he stated they were “recognized by many.” The books in question were James, Jude, 2 Peter, and 2 and 3 John. The concern of some, he wrote, was whether these books were really written by James, Jude, Peter, and John. In the end, these books were received as genuine and apostolic” (p. 64). Reeves and Hill illustrate that some early churches that had only a few books of the Bible in possession may be suspicious of receiving another book from another community as trustworthy. “The point is that those in the early church—especially in Christian churches far away from the first apostolic churches—had few resources from which to get quick answers. If doubts—even hard questions—crept in, then a certain amount of doubt might spread throughout a community. It would not take much for doubt to give way to dispute (p. 65).
“The early church had a consistent belief that New Testament books were to be treated as Scripture. They disputed only a very few books that some had doubts about, but they never felt pressured to provide works that defended this position” (p. 72). A figure named Marcion (AD 85-160) believed that the Old Testament should be omitted from the Canon, and then, seeing the Jewish origins in the New Testament, trimmed the entire New Testament with only the Gospel of Luke and some of Paul’s Letters. “Partly in response to Marcion, the church began to clarify which New Testament books it accepted as canonical…” “Around AD 240 Origen mentioned the twenty-seven New Testament books by name…” “Eusebius, who disputed over James, Jude, 2 Peter, and 2 and 3 John, affirms they are “nevertheless known to most,” meaning most churches accepted them as inspired (p. 73). “Even for those books that were disputed, the problems were uncommon and often local problems within individual churches. The early church received nearly all the books of our New Testament without controversy” (p. 74)
The next part will deal with the Vulgate to today’s translations. See you next time!