Why We Believe the Bible - Lesson 2

Content of the Bible

The group of writings that were chosen to be included in the Bible are called the Canon. Manuscript evidence indicates that we have the words of the authors.

John Piper
Why We Believe the Bible
Lesson 2
Watching Now
Content of the Bible

I. The Old Testament and Hebrew Canon, the Greek Septuagint and the Apocrypha

II. The New Testament Canon and How It Came into Being

III. Inspiration: Jesus, the Holy Spirit, the Apostles and Prophets

IV. The Books of the New Testament and Their Authors

I. New Testament Manuscripts

II. Textual Criticism

All Lessons
Class Resources
  • The importance of inspiration and inerrancy for our belief in the Bible.

  • Manuscript evidence indicates that we have the words of the authors. Jesus, the apostles and the authors of the Old Testament claim that Scripture was written by people who were inspired by God.

  • The writings of the apostle Paul are a significant part of the New Testament. The Westminster Confession includes a concise statement about why the Bible is the Word of God.

  • The scope and cohesiveness of the message of the Bible is remarkable, considering it was written over a period of hundreds of years by over 40 different authors.

  • Scriptures manifest themselves to be the word of God by their light and power to convince and convert sinners. The Spirit of God, bearing witness by and with the Scriptures in the heart of man, is alone able fully to persuade it that they are the very word of God.

The Bible is the infallible word of God, the supreme rule for faith and practice. The sixty-six books of the Old and New Testament came from the very mouth of God and are without error in the originals. Scripture is therefore the unique and supreme guide for all it affirms, including both belief and behavior.

The Bible claims that it's God's Word, it makes sense, and the Holy Spirit provides inner confirmation to us. Canonicity depended on authorship, content and tone consistent with other canonical writings, and consistent usage in worship and practice.

For notes and outlines that accompany these lectures, please go to desiringgod.org by clicking here.

We are thankful for John Piper's willingness to share these lectures with us. Copyright 2014 by Desiring God Ministries. Used with Permission. For more information, please visit www.DesiringGod.org.

Course: Why We Believe

Lecture 2: Content of the Bible

Step 2 – The Books that Make up the Bible

Father, I pray for another hour here for your help. We need to make progress in going deep with your word. And so I ask for your assistance again, in Jesus’ name. Amen.

I. The Old Testament and Hebrew Canon, the Greek Septuagint and the Apocrypha

Which books make up the Bible? That is, which books are in the canon? There were other books in the time of the Bible that have been included in the Catholic canon. For example, the apocrypha which include books like the Book of Esdras, the Book of Tobit, Judith, etc. These are the books that you would find in the apocrypha. Now, one question would be as to why we don’t have those books in our Bible, that is the Protestant Bible. Most of them come from the period between the testaments, intertestamental period, now referred to as second temple Judaism. The belief concerning those books among the Jews is that the rabbinical literature, this is from the Talmud; after the latter prophets Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi had died, the Holy Spirit departed from Israel, but they still availed themselves of ‘daughter of the voice.’ So the typical Jewish view in Jesus’ day was that after the Minor Prophets, there wasn’t any inspiration of Scripture. A question here - is that what Jesus thought? Is that what we should think or not? This is the Jewish canon that I am going to argue for, because that is the same as the Protestant Old Testament and I think we can know why. The Hebrew canon was traditionally twenty-four books which include all of our thirty-nine and no more. (Note that they combined some books that we separated) The Jewish Hebrew canon is divided into three sections: the Torah, the Nevi’im and the Ketuvim. Respectively, these are the Teachings or the Five Books of Moses, the Prophets and the Writings. The Jews refer to this as the Tanakh and they consider it the only testament. The Torah contains Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy; and the section called the Prophets, the Nevi’im are Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, the Minor Prophets all in one book: Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi and then there are the writings: Psalms, Job, Proverbs, Ruth, Song of Solomon, Ecclesiastes, Lamentations, Esther, Daniel, Ezra and Nehemiah as one book and Chronicles as one book. That adds up to be twenty-four books and these are exactly the same as the thirty-nine books that we have in our Old Testament. Thus, the canon of the Jews begins with Genesis and ended with Chronicles. This is the order they occur in the Hebrew Old Testament. It is different from our English Bible.

Our English Bible is based on the order of the Greek Septuagint. But the earliest Christian witnesses show that the apocrypha books included in the Septuagint were not counted as canonical. Interestingly, our 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 Septuagint. It was a fairly conscience choice not to include those books. Do we have any New Testament pointers to the existence and extent of the Old Testament canon? Paul assumed the legitimacy of the Scriptures that were being taught to Jewish children. He says in 2 Timothy 3, 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 by Scared Writings which are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. So this affirmed that Timothy should believe those books. There is no record of any dispute between Jesus and the Jewish leaders of his day over the extent of what the Scriptures were. He seemed to assume that their Bible was his Bible and he made remarkable claims about its authority. The Scriptures cannot be broken, he said to them; the Scriptures that they agreed on. The three part division of the Old Testament is assumed by Jesus. In Luke 24:44, Jesus said, ‘these are the words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things must be fulfilled which were written in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms concerning me.’ The use of the word Psalms is a replacement of the word ‘writings’ which was the largest and most dominate book in the writings. So he said that those three books spoke of him. The Jewish order of the closed Jewish canon is assumed. Here, we get the most significant argument for saying that Jesus’ Bible was the Jewish canon, not that which included the apocrypha.

Why do we say that? We have Luke 11:49-51 where Jesus says, ‘therefore the wisdom of God also said, I will send them prophets and apostles, and some of them they will kill and persecute, that the blood of all the prophets which was 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 temple. Yes, I say to you, it shall be required of this generation. What he was trying to do with that statement was to say that all the prophets in the Old Testament and he mentions one in Genesis 3:4; the very first prophet to die was Abel. The last one he mentions is a prophet named Zechariah who perished between the altar and the sanctuary. Who is that? 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 26:20-23 and he died during the reign of Jehoiakim who reigned from 609 to 598 BC. However, in 2 Chronicles, the last book of the Jewish Old Testament, it says that there was a Zechariah killed in the temple court. It goes like this 2 Chronicles 24; now picture this. Our Old Testament ends with Malachi but the Hebrew Old Testament ends with 2 Chronicles and Jesus said that 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. The Spirit of God took procession 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. So Zechariah, son of Jehoiada in 2 Chronicles 24 is stoned to death with stones in the court of the House of the Lord. And Jesus refers to him. So Abel to Zechariah; when there is a Uriah later who is stoned. Why didn’t he say from Abel to Uriah? It is because he was working with the Hebrew canon. So Jesus’ Bible was the Hebrew canon, not the apocrypha. The apocrypha isn’t in the Hebrew canon; the Hebrew canon consist of those twenty four books, and therefore I’m arguing that Jesus knew his Bible, he was studying the Hebrew Bible and he said spectacular things about this Bible.

Jesus says absolutely breathtaking things which would not apply to the apocrypha. According to Roger Nicole, the New Testament quotes various parts of the Old Testament as divinely authoritative over two hundred and ninety five times, but not once do they cite any statement of books of the apocrypha or any other writings as having divine authority. Jude 14 and 15 does quote 1st 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 at this point is the Bible that we are working with, which Jesus claims to be authoritative; the first two thirds of the Bible which is made up of the thirty-nine books that we have today; which are the same as the twenty-four books in the Hebrew Bible.

II. The New Testament Canon and How It Came into Being

The New Testament assumes the existence of the canonical Scriptures; the concept was not foreign to them or added later. Beginning with Moses, the twenty-four books and with all the prophets, Jesus explained to them the things concerning himself in all the Scriptures, Jesus and the writer of Luke said, all the Scriptures testify to me. So there is a body of truth called the Scriptures. John 5:39 says, ‘you search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life; and these are they which testify of me. But you are not willing to come to me that you may have life.’ Acts 17:2 says, ‘then Paul, as his custom was, went in to them, and for three Sabbaths reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and demonstrating that the Christ had to suffer and rise again from the dead, and saying, this Jesus whom I preach to you is the Christ.’ So, we are working with a New Testament conception of canon. They didn’t make it up. For the church to begin to govern its life and doctrine by more than just the authoritative canon of Scriptures, something similar in authority and limitation would be necessary it seems, namely a supplementary canon. Now, there are those who had lived all of their lives with this Old Testament, the Hebrew Canon and suddenly the Messiah comes into the world and began to teach, forms a church, commissions apostles, founds a movement; and so how will it function and govern itself and know what is true as falsehoods came at it? Jesus is recognized by the early church as having authority equal to and beyond the Old Testament Scriptures.

We are arguing now that there is coming into being the concept of a New Testament canon. How is it coming into being? Jesus, he was teaching them as one having authority and not as their scribes. Jesus is emerging, 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 says, ‘you have heard that it was said, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.’ This is a breath-taking statement from a human being. Then in Mark 13:31, Jesus says that heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will by no means pass away. Jesus said, ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life.’ These are spectacular claims in regards to his function in relationship to the truth of the Old Testament. Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, ‘all authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth.’ In Hebrews 1:1, it says that God, who at various times and in various ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets, has in these last days spoke to us by his Son, whom he has appointed heir of all things, through whom also he made the worlds; who being the brightness of his glory and the express image of his person, and upholding all things by the word of his power, when he had by himself purged our sins, sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become so much better than the angels, as he has by inheritance obtained a more excellent name than they. The point here is that the teachings of Jesus would inevitably lead to the expansion of the canon in the early church. The Old Testament would be supplemented by what Jesus taught and did. The challenge is then open for the early church in how to limit what has been opened by the coming and teachings of Jesus.

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. Norman Anderson says that if we accept Jesus’ testimony to the God given authority of the Old Testament, it would seem intrinsically unlikely that the more stupendous event in human history, the life and death and resurrection of the incarnate Lord, would have been left by the God who had revealed it in advance without any authoritative record or explanation for future generations. This is 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 and 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 means a sent one who goes with authoritative representation of another. So in choosing the twelve, he is choosing those who will now lay the foundation of truth in being his official representative and were not perpetuated. That is 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 again, because the apostles were going to fulfill the role of authoritative inspired spokesmen for the church.

III. Inspiration: Jesus, the Holy Spirit, the Apostles and Prophets

So what about inspiration? Jesus said that he, who does not love me, does not keep my word and the word that you hear is not mine but the Father who sent me. These things I have spoken to you while abiding with you, but the helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you. Now, I think the primary meaning of that last sentence there is to inform us and to insure them that when it came time for them to provide authoritative teachings for the church, they would be able to do it. The Holy Spirit would help them to do it. I think that was Jesus’ way of preparing us and them for doctrine of the inspiration of the New Testament. John 16 says, ‘I have many more things to say to you,’ Jesus said, but ‘you cannot bear them now, but when he, the Spirit of Truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth. For he will not speak on his own initiative but whatever he hears, he will speak and disclose to you what is to come. He will glorify me, but he shall take of mine and shall disclose it to you.’ There in two places, Jesus is preparing his apostles to know why he has chosen them in relationship to his church, namely that they are going to be a repository of his future inspiration and enabling authority. The early church saw the teachings that emerged from Jesus and the apostles as comprising a completed body of truth about the faith. You see that in Jude 1:3 where it says, ‘beloved, while I was very diligent to write to you concerning our common salvation, I found it necessary to write to you exhorting you to contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints.’ The Greek word, once for all, means what is 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 inspired 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. What about Paul? Paul saw the apostolic teachings 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 commands.

What has been taught by the apostles and prophets has become the foundation of the church. Ephesus 2:19 says that you are no long strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief cornerstone, in whom the whole building, being fitted together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are being built together for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit. So he pictures the apostles along with the prophets which is foundational. The church is like a temple and has a foundation with a cornerstone. And in this text, the foundation of the church is the apostles and the prophets; the cornerstone, being Christ, himself. Who are the apostles that govern the church today? They have written their word to us and we govern ourselves by summiting to this. And any elder or pastor’s role in the church is to make this structure and everything according to it clear in order to build their lives around this, rather than add to this. That is what foundation implies here.

What about inspiration among the apostles and Paul’s own understanding? 2 Corinthians 13:3 says that since you seek a proof of Christ speaking in me, who is not weak toward you, but mighty in you; for though he was crucified in weakness, yet he lives by the power of God. For we also are weak in him, but we shall live with him by the power of God toward you. So, he believes that Christ is speaking in him and it was controversial in his own day. You know how often he was being criticized questioning his apostolic authority. He had to defend himself again and again as an apostle. One of the qualifications of an apostle, Jesus had to have appeared to them and commissioned them. So, he had to make a special appearance to Paul on the Damascus Road and Paul says that he is like one who was born out of time; I wasn’t one of the twelve. But he was the decisive spokesperson for the gentiles and there wasn’t any after him. In 1 Corinthians 14:37 it says, ‘if anyone thinks himself to be a prophet or spiritual, let him acknowledge that the things which I write to you are the commandments of the Lord. But if anyone is ignorant, let him be ignorant.’ So he is making his writings the test of all spiritual plains in the church. This is amazing! Jesus is either a liar or a lunatic or it is true. The same thing is true of Paul; this statement is off the charts. Either he is a liar or a lunatic, megalomaniac or he is an inspired apostle. He says in 1 Corinthians 2:12 that we haven’t received the spirit of the word, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might know the things that have been freely given to us by God. And we impact this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit interpreting spiritual trues to those who are spiritual. This is important because we are here; this is Paul and the other apostles, authoritative spokesmen with him and we are here; he is interpreting spiritual things to those who have the spirit and God is giving to him words taught by the spirit, not by human understanding. So Paul is making very 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. 2 Peter 3:16 also says in his epistles, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which untaught and unstable people twist to their own destruction, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures to their own destruction. Peter is talking about Paul and saying that his writings are Scripture. That is really something! People are distorting Paul’s letters because they are hard to understand like they do the rest of the Scriptures to their own destruction. With this build-in trajectory toward a new canon that would give authorized record of the life and teachings of Jesus and the foundational teachings his authoritative spokesmen; what remained for the early church to do, was to discern which writings were the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise to the apostles. The rise of heretical teachings and the use of distorted books; Marcion, an early church father around AD 140, sparred the process of canonization. How did the church do that? Note, the closing and the final recognition of the New Testament canon, the twenty-seven books that we have as a rule and authority and inspired and authoritative was recognized in the first council in the 4th century. So, what happened in the first three centuries with the authoritative books? These twenty-four books were exercising their authority as they proved themselves to be apostolic and the church was being governed by them. And the church was gradually recognizing which books were and were not.

Doctor Gopal, a German Scholar, observed that theology in many respects of the early church becomes more pure 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. Everybody was then keying off the same group of documents, instead of random choices. The reason that is significant is because 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 close you are to Jesus in the books you read, the more accurate will be the theology. But Professor Gopal says, no way! That doesn’t follow and it may be true in any given case; it just doesn’t follow because the books were working their way gradually into the life of the church and the church finally confirmed them. These are the ones that have proved themselves over the last three centuries and in that process, you have people everywhere saying off the wall things because they don’t have the fullness of the canon in which to test their ideas. That is significant to think about. Once the canon became clearly unified and fully accepted by the church, it became a better foundation for coherent church theology.

IV. The Books of the New Testament and Their Authors

The main criterion of the recognized books as being authoritative and canonical was apostolicity; not just was it a book written by an apostle, but it was written in the company of an apostle or presumably with his endorsement and approval. The first being by Matthew who was an apostle; Mark who was Peter’s interpreter and assistant. We have witness to this in Papias’ writings. Luke was a close associate and partner to Paul, where Luke wrote more of the New Testament than anyone else. Luke and Acts, together, represent more of the New Testament than all of the writings of Paul. So Luke is the dominant quantitative writer in the New Testament. As you can see in the Book of Acts, he was travelling with Paul. Luke said that Mary kept all the things and pondered them in her heart. How does he know that? Inspiration in my understanding pulls in by which an author finds out true things. I think Mary told him that; I think he interviewed Mary; he was roaming around in Palestine for two years while Paul was in jail toward the end of his life. We know that because of the ‘we sections’ in the Book of Acts. You got Luke arriving there with Paul but Paul gets put in Jail for two years. So what is he doing during that time? He wasn’t from Judea, he was a gentile. He was roaming around everywhere talking to people who knew Jesus. What else would he have done? But the reason we say that it is apostolic even though he wasn’t an apostle is that he was right there with the apostle Paul. We know, of course, that John was an apostle. We don’t know who wrote Hebrews but at the end it says, ‘I urge you, brethren, to 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. I only point that out to say; we don’t know the writer of Hebrews, but he was in the ‘band’ around Paul and Timothy here. Then there is James, the brother of Jesus, most likely called an apostle in Galatians 1:19, ‘but I did not see any of the other apostles except James, the Lord’s brother.’ At any rate, he was very closely connected to the apostles. There was then Peter and John and Jude, the brother of James and Revelation written by John. Those are the authors of the books we have in the New Testament. 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 never any controversy with the others. In the end the church discerned the harmony with the other books and their antiquity and essential apostolicity. The core was known at the latest in the latter part of the 2nd century. Irenaeus mentioned the list of the twenty-two books in 180 AD but not in any official way. That came in AD 367. The first list known to us with all twenty-seven books is in a letter from Epiphanius, the bishop of Alexander in AD 367. Here, the list was affirmed by the senate of Hippo in 393 AD. When you look at how late that date is - you might ask did the church finally create this canon? Dr. F. Jackson expresses my view when he says that the church assuredly did not make the New Testament. The two grew up together. The Roman Catholic’s understanding of authority is different from what we consider the authority of the church. F.F. Bruce and other Protestants put it this way, 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, the senate of Hippo in 393 listed the twenty-seven books of the New Testament, it did not confer upon them any authority which they did not already process, but they simply recorded their previously established canonicity. 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 that the church confirmed the Bible. In other words, the Bible has its authority because the church council gave it their authority and thus aligned church authority and the Pope especially, the office he holds and the Bible together. But the Protestants order it as the Bible and then the church and that is where I am and that is what happened. The Bible pressed itself upon the church; the church did not create a canon, it recognized a canon. So what is the canon? It is five books of narrative: Matthew, Mark, Luke, John and Acts. There are twenty-one letters and finally the Book of Revelation. That is what makes up our Bible. There are no books missing as we have the books that should be in it.

Step 3 – The Very Words of Scripture

I. New Testament Manuscripts

Do we have the very words written by the Biblical authors? Because, if you say these are the right books, but in fact they have been so distorted by transmission that you can’t really trust them, then it doesn’t really matter if you have the right books because you have lost what was in them anyway. This is what some people are saying today. Do we have any of the original manuscripts? This is fairly technical stuff and it would be easy and fun to look at this, but there are other things that need to be covered that are more important. So, the answer to that question, no, we don’t have any of the original manuscripts. We don’t have any of the actually pieces of paper, parchment that the Biblical writers actually wrote on. How were they preserved? The first printed Greek New Testament was done in AD 1516 by Desiderius Erasmus. Before that, everything was transmitted by hand copying and we owe our Bible to the meticulous love and care given by countless monks and scholars for the first fifteen hundred years of the church era. How many manuscripts are there? When I prepared this several years ago, I quoted from 1967 statistics that I had studied then. But today, I saw from Justin Taylors’ blog, reading an article by Dan Wallace. He said today we have 5,700 manuscripts and fragments of the New Testament in the original Greek. How does this amount of evidence compare with other ancient writing of the same era? We have no original manuscripts of any other writers from this period of history. It is phenomenal that the New Testament so outshines all others, just in terms of quantity compared to ancient books such as Caesars Gallic Wars of which ten manuscripts are available. There are parts of Roman history which consists of twenty manuscripts. There are the history and annals of Cassius which consists of two manuscripts. In addition, we have the history of Ucitidies which consists of eight manuscripts; this is compared to 5,799 manuscripts and fragments of the New Testament. It is simply astonishing. It creates problems, but it also creates amazing potential as well.

Does this small amount of manuscripts cause secular scholars to despair, that we can know what these writers wrote? F.F. Bruce says that no classical scholar would listen to an argument that the authenticity of Herodotus or Ustedes is in doubt because the earliest manuscripts of their works which are any use to us are over thirteen hundred years later than the original; whereas some of the New Testament manuscripts go back to the 2nd century. So, 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 the oldest manuscripts? The oldest one is a papyrus which comes from about AD 130 and contains John 18:31-33 and 37 and following. It is a small fragment with writing on both sides. The only fully early manuscript of the New Testament comes from AD 350 called the Codex Sinaiticus because it was discovered in a monetary on Mount Sinai. Are the manuscripts our only source of knowledge of the original wording of the New Testament writings? No, there are quotations of the New Testament by very early writers, for example in the Didache (The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles), the epistle of Barabbas and Clément’s letter to the Corinthians, these were produce around AD 100 and quote extensively from the New Testament. The letters of Polycarp and Ignatius, the Bishop of Antioch around AD 120 contain many quotes from the Gospels and the letters of Paul. Do all these manuscripts create problems or solutions for getting back to the original writings? The huge number of manuscripts for the New Testament result in two things: first there are many variations in wording among them. This is 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 that we have to compare. F.F. Bruce says that fortunately if the great number of manuscripts increases, the number of scribal errors increases proportionately and the means of correcting such errors so that the margin of doubt left in the process of recovering the original wording is not so large as might be feared. It is in truth, remarkably small.

II. Textual Criticism

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 and I thank God that there are text critics who do that work for us. When I was in Germany in 1971-74 doing my dissertation on Love Your Enemies, I was so nervous, I wondered whether I could do it or not. I felt that I had gotten into the program under false pretenses because they didn’t look at any of my papers or any of my grades. He just said to come because I was recommended. My German wasn’t very good of which I had only studied nine months. So a group of people, all speaking German in a living room with glasses of wine sitting in front of them. I was able to write in English and present it in English, but the discussion would be in German. This was a paragraph on the first paper on this topic in Matthew 5:43-48. I spent the whole time in text criticism. I wanted to prove that these were the very words that Matthew wrote. I got to have a text that I can count on. So, eventually, I presented by paper; it was really complicated. And of them were no native English speakers and I’m sure listening to me taxed them to the limit. But afterwards, I was told that the text critics had already done what I was talking about and that we don’t need to do this anymore; that work is finishes. It was a lesson to me in what the radical and critical German scene believed that the text critical work had been done; and that it had been done well. In other words, the documents that we have in our Greek New Testament are considered to be valid by the most liberal German scholars. Just so that you don’t over interpret what I’m saying, F.J. Hort says that the proportion of words virtually accepted on all hands as raised above doubt is great. We have 5,700 manuscripts and fragments with a few whole manuscripts of Greek text of the New Testament. Text critics compare John 18:30 in one manuscript to John 18:30 in another manuscript and for example may see that they have a singular in one and a plural in another. They are not the same and ask which the original is. If you just had two, that would make it difficult to decide, but when you have 5,700, the evidence of what is original, starts to mount up. The variations increase but so do the evidence for why you can assume one and not the other.

The proportion of words virtually accepted on hands has been a reason of doubt is great, not less than a rough computation seven eights of the whole. The remaining one eight form in great part by changes or order and other comparative trivialities constitute 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 historical 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 has been challenged today by Bart Ehrman and others but I think most scholars would still say that is in fact the case. Our affirmation says that we believe that the Word of God, fully inspired and without error in the original manuscripts in which we don’t have. People scoff at that and ask what good does it do to confirm the infallibility of it then? It matters because it affirms the reality of objective historical inspiration. There is an objective measuring rod for us to return to the degree that we come close to the wording of the original; we come close to very Word of God. We are there for all practical purposes.