Short Conversations: How did we get the Bible?

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It didn’t drop neatly from the sky

Week after week Christians gather to hear teachings from the Bible. How often do they pause to ask where their beloved writings really came from? The truth might surprise you.

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Frequently Avoided Questions: How did we get the Bible? A crash course

What books were in the Hebrew Bible at the time of Jesus?

Heiser argues the Hebrew text was finalised by around 200 BC. Josephus mentioned 22 books in the Hebrew Bible and his breakdown mirrors Philo’s works, Ben Sira and 4QMMT. The Modern Hebrew Bible has 36, the English Protestant versions have 39 while the Septuagint (Greek translation of OT used in early church) had 46.

With the exception of the apocryphal and deuterocanonical works included in the Septuagint, the books were the same as what we have in the Hebrew Bible/ Protestant Bible today. The difference lies in the breakdown of books such as 1 and 2 Chronicles, 1 and 2 Kings, 1 and 2 Samuel, Ezra and Nehemiah etc which were broken down as two books in some versions and combined into one book in others.

What were the main textual traditions of the Old Testament?

There are 3 key Hebrew manuscript traditions regarding the Old Testament: the Masoretic text/ tradition, the Hebrew text behind the Septuagint (LXX- Greek translation of the OT) and the Hebrew text behind the Samaritan Pentateuch. The Hebrew texts behind the Septuagint, the Masoretic text and the Samaritan Pentateuch were all discovered in existing manuscripts at Qumran through the Dead Sea Scrolls discovery between 1947 and 1956.

The Masoretic text (eg. Matt. 26:31, Matt. 27:46) and the Septuagint (eg. Heb. 8:9) are quoted/ referenced throughout the New Testament. There are also some references more in line with the Samaritan Pentateuch (eg. Holy Place item ordering in Heb. 9:4).

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Why do some Christians accept the Apocrypha and others not?

The Protestant Reformers followed the traditional Jewish method and excluded the books which were not written in Hebrew. The apocrypha were written during a Hellenistic era and primarily written in Greek with limited textual traces back to Hebrew. Hence, many Jews also rejected them.

Jesus interestingly refers to the prophets from the time of Abel to the blood of Zechariah in Luke 11:49–51 which interestingly marks prophets from Genesis (Gen. 4) to 2 Chronicles (2 Chron 24), the first and last books of the Hebrew Bible (same amount of books as Protestant Bible with a different ordering; no mention of the apocrypha).

Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic traditions tend to include the apocrypha (slightly different lists held by the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic traditions) as they were included in the Septuagint which was heavily used by the early church.

Frequently Avoided Questions: How did we get the Bible? A crash course

Was the New Testament created at the Council of Nicaea?

The Council voted to confirm the prevalent church view 214–2 on Jesus’ divinity, it referred to Scriptural writings but did not determine the canon. The New Testament books were gradually recognised over time among churches which led to more formal confirmations of this later on according to criteria such as orthodoxy, apostolicity and consensus.

Ignatius of Antioch (c.95AD), Papias (c.125), Polycarp (c.130), Justin Martyr (c.156), Tatian (c.150–160), Theophilus of Antioch (c. 180AD), Irenaeus (c.180AD), Tertullian (c.200), Clement of Alexandria (c.200), Origen (c. 240), Cyprian (c.248) and Eusebius (c.312–314) all referred to some if not many New Testament books despite coming from diverse geographic areas.

Origen (c.240) listed all of the 27 New Testament books together, while Athanasius in the year 367 AD was the first to declare the 27 books of the New Testament we have today as canonical. These same 27 New Testament books were also agreed on at the Council of Hippo (c.393 AD) and later reaffirmed at the Council of Carthage (c. 397 AD).

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Were Gnostic texts like the Gospel of Thomas included in the Bible then later taken out?

No. Well before Nicaea (c.325AD), Irenaeus in approx 180 AD, Papias in approx 125 AD, Clement of Alexandria in approx. 180 AD and also Tertullian 200 AD refer to at least some (in some cases all) of the four canonical Gospel authors despite these church fathers coming from different geographical areas. They don’t recognise the Gnostic texts as Scripture. The Gnostic texts were dated later than the four Gospels and are detached from the historical context of Jesus.

In an era where Google maps did not exist, the Gospel of Thomas mentions Judaea once but no other location. The Gospel of Judas names no locations. The Gospel of Philip names Jerusalem (four times), Nazara/ Nazareth (once) and the Jordan (once). Meanwhile Matthew refers to 90 places (towns, regions, bodies of water, other places etc), Mark 60, Luke 99 and John 76. More here.

P52 one of the earliest NT manuscripts from John 18 WikiMedia Commons

Have core Christian beliefs changed over time?

Even leading anti Christian sceptic, Bart Ehrman, claims in an interview found in the appendix of Misquoting Jesus (p. 252), “The position I argue for in ‘Misquoting Jesus’ does not actually stand at odds with Prof. Metzger’s position that the essential Christian beliefs are not affected by textual variants in the manuscript tradition of the New Testament.”

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How do we know the original texts have been largely preserved if we do not have the originals?

Through the science (part art?) of textual criticism. We have thousands of manuscripts from unrelated distant geographic areas. The Bible, unlike, the Quran (Caliph Uthman burning other versions of Quran), was not centrally controlled. Through this we can compare chains of transmission and work back to the originals. Moreover, virtually the entire New Testament is quoted by the early church fathers meaning we could reconstruct the nearly all the New Testament with no manuscripts.

We have over 5800 Greek New Testament manuscripts (most are not complete texts), 10,000 Latin manuscripts and approx. 8,000 in other languages such as Coptic, Syriac etc compared to 3 manuscripts of Tacitus, 7 of Plato, 10 of Julius Caesar, 49 of Aristotle, 75 of Herodotus, 200 of Suetonius and 1758 of Homer. Furthermore, the manuscripts of the New Testament are far closer to the timing of the events they describe than other famous ancient writings.

As per Dr. Dan Wallace, of the variants in New Testament manuscripts (thousands of manuscripts), 75% are spelling or similar differences, 15% are variations of Greek synonyms and transpositions, over 9% are late changes easily detectable and less than 1% impact the meaning of the text and are from early manuscripts. The Dead Sea Scroll findings at Qumran in 1947- 1956 including approximately 230 biblical manuscripts attest to the preservation of the OT.

Copies of copies of copies?

The fact is many manuscripts were copied with either the originals in existence or other early copies in existence. You don’t copy something precious then burn the original. Tertullian, for example, referred to the place where authentic writings of the apostles were read, indicating some originals were still in existence in 200 AD. Moreover, we can reconstruct the originals using textual criticism and early church father quotes.

Frequently Avoided Questions: How did we get the Bible? A crash course

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