How We Received the Bible

Course: New Testament, its Structure, Content, and Theology

Lecture: How We Received the Bible


Welcome to our third and final talk on what’s called bibliology, as opposed to bibliolatry. Bibliology is the study of the book; bibliolotry is the worship of the book. The first is a good thing; the second isn’t. Anyway, let’s pray: Father, once again we thank you for the chance to learn more about your word. We pray Father that not only as we learn information but as we learn that information, I should say, that it will move into our hearts, it will give us confidence, it will transform perhaps the way we use the Bible and we trust it. In Jesus name, Amen.

Well, as I said this is the third talk on bibliology and it will be the last. So we will get going on Mark next time. I want to address three basic issues today. One is canonicity, why do we have the books that we have in the Bible. I want to discuss the issue of transmission, how did the documents get copied throughout the centuries. Then I want to talk a bit about translations. Specifically, why they are so different and what is the best way to go about reading them. So those are the three major areas that we are going to look at.

Let’s start first on the whole issue of the transmission of the writings. How did we get them? The word ''autograph'' is the technical word used for the original document that was written. When Paul wrote his letter to the Roman church the actual physical document that he wrote was called the autograph. All the writing materials they had back then were perishable. They were made out of plant, papyrus, or they were made out of animal skin. All of these things perish over time. We don’t have any of the original autographs. That of course is redundant because autographs are original. We don’t have any of the autographs, but what we have are copies. And if you can think back to what it would have been like to live back in the first century, you can see why so many copies were made. Other churches certainly would have wanted copies they would have heard about this great later Paul wrote to the Romans. You are living in Colossae and you want to get a copy of it. The letter to the Colossians refers to, “get the one I wrote to Laodicea and swap them.” And so there are all kinds of needs for people to make copies of the letters of the Bible to get them dispersed. And there were basically two different methods of copying at the time. There were scribes who did it one to one. You would have a copy of Matthew and then you would on a fresh piece of parchment or something would be making a copy. They also had schools where I would be speaking and you all would be writing. And you can imagine that one of the things that happened out of that is that mistakes entered into the copies. For example, in Romans 5:1 Paul says, “Therefore, having been justified by faith, ''echomen'' peace with God.” Now did I say ''echomen'' or ''echōmen''? Those are two different forms in Greek. One means “we have peace with God” and the other is “we should have peace with God.” The difference between a long and short “o.”

So as copies were made, some of these kinds of mistakes crept into the copies. We will talk more about that in detail later but I wanted to set the stage.


So the copies are being made, they are being sent all over the world. We enter into a stage of what’s called canonization. Here is the problem that developed in the early church. Actually there are three of them. They gave rise to the whole issue of canonization or why do we have the books of the Bible that we do. One of the problems is the eyewitnesses and the apostles were starting to die. At the early stages of the church they were the ones that exerted the authority. So if there were questions of what did Jesus say or what did Jesus do, what should we do in this situation, there were eyewitness, there were apostles, there were people like James, Jesus’ brother, that lent authority and could make these kinds of decisions. Well, they started to die. And that raised questions of authority.

Second of all, there was the rise of persecution. Christians started to be persecuted for their faith. And you could imagine that if you were being persecuted for your faith, you would really want to make sure you were being persecuted for something you really believed. I mean it would be hard to be persecuted for something you didn’t believe right? So again the issue of authority would rise.

But thirdly there was the rise of heresy and specifically false writings. Remember when Paul writes to the Galatian church he says if you even think you get a letter from me that says something different from what I preached, I didn’t write and whoever did is accursed. So what was happening was that people were starting to teach false doctrine. They were starting to write letters presumably claiming to be written by Paul and I don’t know by other people perhaps.

And so you have all three of these issues that were basically raising the whole question of authority. How do we know what books are really from God? Which ones we can trust? Well, we are in an area; all these books are called the New Testament Apocrypha. Apocrypha is just a fancy word that means hidden. And if you look at the collections of the New Testament Apocrypha that you have you get the titles like of the ''Martyrdom of Matthew'', the ''Gospel of Nicodemus'' and most famously the ''Gospel of Thomas''. And these are stories that were being written around biblical characters claiming to address specific issues that perhaps you know about from the Bible. But you have all this rise of false literature and some of this false literature is not that bad. There are books like the ''Shepherd of Hermas'', I don’t know if you have heard any of these names, ''Clement of Rome'', ''Ignatius'', or the ''Didache''. These are all different names of some of these books that we generally call the New Testament Apocrypha. Some of them are pretty good; some of them are really bad. Okay? So here is the situation that was created. The authorities were dying; there was the rise of persecution and there was the rise of false writings. It was into that culture or situation that the whole issue of canonization comes in.


Canonicity, let’s define the terms here, canonicity is the study of why we have books we do in our Bible. So if you were to get a NT introduction book and in the table of contents, canonicity, that is where the author is talking about why we have the books of the Bible that we have. The other word that is important to know is canon. And the canon is simply the collection of books that we believe are from God. The collection of books that should be in the Bible. And there are several groupings of these books that we can’t talk about now, there is a thing called the OT Apocrypha, which is included in the Catholic Bible but not the Protestant Bible but its more Old Testament and we can’t address that issue. We are looking specifically at those documents that are classified as the NT Apocrypha. The books in this case that were not included in the Bible. Is all that clear? Okay. So you have all these problems, you have what we call the biblical writings and all these other writings.

Three criteria for canonicity

How did the church go about deciding on these books and not on other books? Well, there seems to be three basic criteria upon which people made their decision. One, apostolic authorship, who wrote it? My guess is that was the first thing they looked at. Who wrote the book? And sometimes you may meet someone that says, “How can you trust the canon, it wasn’t really set up until the end of the 300’s, so there’s a lot of questions?” Well the fact of the matter is that most of the books in the NT were accepted instantly. Paul’s books were accepted instantly, Matthew’s gospel, because he is an apostle, was accepted instantly. There were some problems with a few of the books but the majority of them were accepted very quickly because they were written by apostles. Now Luke wrote Luke and Acts, about one third or one forth of the Bible. He is not an apostle, yet I don’t believe that Luke or Acts had any problem getting into the canon. But we don’t know who wrote Hebrews, we aren’t really sure on that. Like 2 and 3 John weren’t distributed much around the ancient world because they were written to specific churches, so they had a little trouble getting into the canon. But for the most part when they knew the authorship, when they say the authorship was authoritative, especially the apostles, those books were accepted instantly. So don’t let anyone tell you it took the church 400 years for the church to decide what books belong to the NT. That’s simply not the case.

The second criteria is harmony of doctrine and tone. In other words, the church would read these books and they would say, do they agree with the books that we have already accepted as canonical? Do they agree with the books we have already accepted as authoritative? They looked at issues of doctrine. They looked at ''Ben Sirach'', that’s an OT apocryphal book but ''Ben Sirach'' says that sin had its beginning with woman. Paul says authoritatively that sin had its beginning with Adam not with Eve, so you’ve got a problem, both those books can’t be in the canon, because that is just a flat out … you can’t harmonize it. So they looked at issues of harmony and doctrine and also just of tone. How does it feel? It’s interesting if you talk to people who say that there should be other books in the Bible. The first question you ask is which one? Tell me from your reading of that book, what makes you think it should be in the Bible. And again 99% of the time they haven’t read them. But the most famous of these books is the ''Gospel of Thomas''; it gets dredged up all the time. Let me give you a few excerpts from the ''Gospel of Thomas'' and you tell me if it even remotely sounds like the Bible.

“Now after some days Jesus was playing [this was when he was a child] in the upper story of a house, and one of the children who were playing with him fell down from the house and died. And when the other children saw it they fled and Jesus remained alone. And the parents of him that was dead came and accused him [meaning Jesus] of having thrown him down. Jesus replied, I didn’t throw him down.” But they continued to rival him. Then Jesus leaped down from the roof and stood by the body of the child. (I guess he jumped a story or so down). And cried out with a loud voice, 'Zenon,' for that was his name, 'Arise and tell me, did I throw you down?' And he arose [meaning Zenon] at once and said 'No Lord you did not throw me down, but raised me up,' and when they saw it they were amazed and the parents of the child glorified God for the miracle that had happened and worshiped Jesus.”

Now does that sound even remotely scriptural? That’s just weird. There is another one here where he went to get water and he broke the pitcher and so he just used his cloak and his cloak became waterproof and he just carried the water back to Mary. But here is the best one.

“Jesus father was a carpenter and made at that time plows and yokes. And he received an order form a rich man to make a bed for him. But when one beam [one part of the bed] was shorter than its corresponding one and they did not know what to do, the child Jesus said to his father Joseph, 'Put down the two pieces of wood and make them even from the middle to one end.' And Joseph did as the child had told him and Jesus stood at the other end and took hold of the shorter piece of wood and stretching it made it equal to the other. And his father Joseph saw it and was amazed and he embraced the child and kissed him saying, 'Happy am I that God has given me this child.'”

Now I have a hard time believing that Jesus, empowered by the Holy Spirit, came to earth to make logs longer. But anyway, it’s just full of this kind of stuff, silly stuff. Harmony of doctrine and tone, that was one of the criteria, you can see why, I mean ''Thomas'' was left out for other reasons. We can date it to 180 AD within a couple years. We know for sure that’s when it was written so there is no way that Thomas wrote it, unless, well there is just no way.

The third criteria and this is an important one, continual usage in the church as a whole. Now sometimes the claim will be made that a bunch of stogy theologians hold up in some school somewhere made arbitrary decisions about what books belonged in the Bible. And that’s just simply not true. The church leaders did get together they got together in large groups called councils. And when the church leaders got together, there primary question was, has the church in your town accepted Matthew as truly being inspired by the Holy Spirit? And the answer was, yes. The church as a whole has seen it, do you use it? Yes, we use it. Now this is a bit of a simplification but you get the idea. The decisions were not made by individuals, the decision was made by the collective whole of the church and it was the church as the whole that recognized that this book was authoritative and this book wasn’t. And when the council of the early church leaders met, they simply formalized what the church as a whole had decided. And again it’s the church as a whole, it wasn’t, well the church in Antioch likes it and the church in Rome doesn’t, we have a problem. Why doesn’t the church is Rome think its authoritative when the church at Antioch does? That kind of stuff and you can see why books like 2 and 3 John had trouble getting into the canon. They eventually got in because they knew that John wrote it, but they weren’t being used by the church in the whole because they were written to two specific churches and they are very short letters. But anyway in a very general sense those are the three criteria the church appeared to use in saying these books belonged in the Bible or not.

Description of the “New Testament Apocrypha”

So let me give you a final definition of what we call the NT Apocrypha. Books like the ''Gospel of Thomas'', the ''Gospel of Nicodemus''. One, they claim to be Christian. These are not Jewish books they claim to be Christian books and rarely are. Number two; they all came from the 2nd century or later. That’s important, so somebody says, “Oh the ''Gospel of Nicodemus'' was written by Nicodemus.” No it wasn’t. It came from at least the 2nd century and, thirdly, these books were never accepted by the church as a whole. Never. There may have been one church somewhere that wanted the ''Didache'' to be in the canon but the bulk of the churches didn’t and so it was left out. That’s a helpful three things to remember as you get into discussions, because people will say, “Oh, but these are Christian books they are true.” Most of them that is not they case. “They are by the apostles,” no they were second century. And, “It was just an arbitrary decision by an individual to leave it out.” No, the church never accepted ''Shepherd of Hermas'' or the ''Gospel of Thomas'' and these. Okay, any comments or question on that?

Is the canon closed?

Okay, let me address just a couple of questions that are generally raised on the issue of canonicity. One; is the canon closed? If, for example, what we call 1 and 2 Corinthians is really 2 and 4 Corinthians. We know there was a letter before 1 Corinthians; we know there was a letter written between first and second. So let’s say 1 or 3 Corinthians somehow appeared. We dug up an ancient Christian library and they had all for letters. Would we accept that as canonical? Well, there a several answers to the question. First of all, the biblical text I don’t think makes an explicit claim that the canon is closed. It would be really nice if the last verse of Revelation said, “Oh, by the way, this is the last book that was written in the NT and nothing can be written after it, so says God.” It would be nice if it said that, it doesn’t. Now there is a verse in Revelation 22 that says if you add to or take away from the description then these plagues are gonna be visited upon you. So there is a pretty strong statement, a curse basically that if you change it, but it doesn’t apply to the canon as a whole and there is a chance that even the Gospel of John was written later than Revelation. It’s hard to date, but it’s possible. There is however, Jude 3 (there is only one chapter in Jude so you don’t say Jude 1:3 you say Jude 3), Jude says “I’m writing so that you will contend for the faith once for all delivered to the saints.” Jude is Jesus' brother and I don’t know the dates for Jude somewhere in the 50s-60s I would guess. But certainly by the end of the fist century what Jude is saying is that the faith, the collection of doctrines that define who were are as Christians, they have been delivered in their finality. The faith has been delivered. It’s an identifiable set of doctrines, once for all and what Jude 3 tells us is that no other book can be brought into the Bible that disagrees with the existing books of the Bible. So Jude 3 is a pretty strong verse that the basic set of Bible doctrines is set. So that’s one of the criteria that you could use. I mean if we found 1 and 3 Corinthians it would be interesting but certainly if they disagreed with the two books of Corinthians that we have they would be tossed because they would disagree with the faith once for all delivered to the saints.

Some people would answer the question, “No the canon is not closed.” And I think theologically this is probably, not probably, it’s where I end up. I would be highly suspicious that if after 2000 years another book or letter appeared. It seems highly unlikely to me but theologically I can t find a way to close the canon as much as I would like to. But I think that if you said, no, the canon is not closed, if you look at new books are you gonna have to say, “well, do they fit the criteria?” “Who wrote them, do they agree in harmony, in doctrine and tone, were they used by the church?” These kinds of question would still come up. But again let me emphasize about every 15 or 20 years there is another set of books that come out and they all say the same thing. It happened when I was in seminary. It happened again recently. “Oh, the church has been hiding books from us, now thanks to me and my great research ability we are gonna make them available to you for $39.95.” It’s just the NT Apocrypha, they keep dredging up the same stuff over and over again and it's been 15 years so everybody forgets. If you are gonna say the canon theologically is still open you have to be extremely suspicious.

The other argument is pretty strong, though, and that argument is, yes, the canon is closed. And I think there are several arguments that they could argue. One; all the books that we currently have stem from first or second-hand contact with Jesus. I guess if a book appeared that claimed to have first-hand contact with Jesus than this argument wouldn’t apply. But if you get a book written in 150 by someone that is two or three generations beyond the disciples, I think people could fairly argue, “No, this simply isn’t acceptable, it’s too far, too long from the fact.” Second of all, this connects with other things you may or may not believe. Some people will argue that Jesus and the apostles possessed a certain authority and that authority was not passed on. Some of this may have to do with your view of spiritual gifts, specifically the gift of apostleship. But the argument can be made that Jesus and the original apostles possessed an authority and that authority is not replicated through the centuries and so if the book does not come from them it cannot be viewed as authoritative and, therefore, the canon is closed. And you have versus like Ephesians 2:20 that say the church is built on the apostles and the prophets. So if you are gonna start injecting books from some other place you are gonna have problems. So there are arguments there. I guess there is a third argument come to think of it and that is you could argue that the church really did close the canon. End of the 300’s, the end of the 4th century, the church said, “No the canon is closed, period.” And I guess you could argue that the church was let by the Spirit. And so if you think the canon is still open you aren’t just disagreeing with me or another individual you are disagreeing with the whole movement of the ancient church in closing the canon. It’s a possible argument.

So is the canon closed? For all purposes, probably, but I just think theologically I’m not ready to say absolutely not. But I really wouldn’t believe it if someone gave me a book written by Paul I haven’t seen before. That is a really important question. And in some ways you get it with the issues, for example, of the spiritual gift of prophecy. If somebody claims to be a prophet and stands up claims to say, “Thus saith the Lord.” What they are claiming is that they are saying is on equal authority with the written word and there’s all kinds of problems with that. But certainly that regardless to your view on spiritual gifts I think everyone would agree if a prophet claimed to prophesy and his prophecy contradicted Scripture they can’t be a prophet and they should be stoned, by the way. That’s normally one of my smart aleck comments when someone says, “I have a prophecy,” I say, “Are you ready to be killed if you’re wrong? Because that’s the penalty for false prophets. What a prophet says always comes true. And so if you are wrong I have to kill you, I have to stone you, are you ready?” And people generally don’t continue prophesying around me.

Why do I think the church got it right?

The second question related to canonization is, I guess it’s a related question, did the church get it right? Did the church really get it right in closing the canon? Because, understand the doctrine of inspiration is almost irrelevant if we don’t have the right books. So we can talk all we want about inspiration but if we have non-inspired books in the canon whether it’s inspired books outside the canon then we have some problems. Yeah, I think the church got it right and let me give you two reasons. One, I have never seen any reason to question their decision. I have never seen any book in the NT Apocrypha that even remotely comes close to the criteria. They are all written away after the time of the apostles. I should say almost all of them. And even those ones like the ''Shepherd of Hermas'' and ''Clement'' and the ''Didcache'', which are pretty good books, you can tell they are second generation books. They don’t claim the authority; they are quoting the NT as an authority; you can tell there is something different in them. I have never seen a book that even remotely suggested itself to me that it should be in the canon. So I have no reason to think the church got it wrong.

Secondly, it’s simply an issue of faith. I don’t understand why God would go through the work of inspiring all these books if he wouldn’t at the same time protect them, making sure the inspired ones got into the Bible and the non-inspired ones were kept out. That doesn’t make any sense to me and so I believe it. I had a very difficult conversation once when I was in college with a kid who was my age. His name was Tony. Tony was the head of everything. You know these in college, he was head of the Baptist Student Union, the head of Young Life, and he was one of the leaders in Campus Crusade for Christ. Everywhere you look there was Tony, except in class. We had quite a bit of contact together and then he dropped out of sight. And after about three or four weeks in the middle of the semester I got a little concerned. And I finally figured out where he lived and I went and found him and he was home and basically I said, “What on earth is going on? You just dropped out. You dropped out of ministry and you dropped out of school.” He goes, “Well I’m just having some real doubts about Christianity.” And I went, “Why?” And he said, “I’ve been taking a World Religions class.” And turns out this teacher’s sole purpose was to convince students at Western Kentucky University that Christianity was the most inferior of the world religions. And one of the major points of attack that he used was canonicity. “Oh, you can’t believe the Bible; they brought in books that weren’t supposed to be there and they didn’t get other books that we are supposed to have. You just can’t trust it.” And it was in class, this was one of the teacher’s attacks on Christianity and Tony started asking me questions. And I had never studied canonization. I was a sophomore and I didn’t have anything to say. And I never saw him after that. I went home and I found dad and I started asking him the questions Tony had. Dad did what he usually did when I had questions, he gave me a book to read. And I read it and it made me so mad that I was never gonna get tricked again, because the answers to Tony were so simple. Now I understand that most likely there were deeper issues in Tony’s life and canonization was kind of a trigger point. But the teacher used canonization to attack Tony’s faith and I have heard of that happening many, many times, so this is a good topic that’s worth making sure you understand.

Transmission of the Writings

Okay, well let’s move on from canonization to the issue of transmission. These manuscripts are being copied from century to century and they were copied for the sake of churches. Individuals probably wanted them. These copies are called manuscripts. You may see along in the footnotes in your Bible something like “other ms” or “other mss say” – “ms” means manuscript, “mss” means manuscripts. There were many, many manuscripts that were being copied. And as I said, when you look at these manuscripts there are differences and this is not some liberal concoction to destroy our faith. I mean you can physically look at these if you get into a library that has them, and you can read Greek. You can see that they are different. Some manuscripts at Romans 5 say, “we have peace with God.” – ''echomen''. Other manuscripts say, “Let us have peace with God.” – ''echōmen''. So these are real differences among the Greek manuscripts. I don’t want to go into too much detail, this is a highly technical field, but just to kind give you a feel for it, one of the things you will find when you compare the manuscripts is the whole issue of omissions or deletions. Some manuscripts have whole verses that other manuscripts don’t have. For example, in the best Greek manuscripts that we have in Mark 16:8, and the women have seen the empty tomb and they leave and they were afraid, period. And you will normally see some sort of designation in your Bible – "Other manuscripts add." And you get verses 9 to 20. So you get this rather large, this is the biggest chunk in Scripture and it appears to either have been added at a later date or left out at another date. But some manuscripts stop at Mark 16:8 and others at Mark 16:20.

I like to tell the story of the sociology class that you probably were all in. Did you see the stories of the Appalachian snake people? I like to tell people those are my cousins. Mounces are from Gravelswitch, Kentucky. I think it was our last year that we lived there, we went to Gravelswitch. It was a nice little town, it was strange there everyone was named Mounce. I can still remember that. Mounce's bakery, Mounce's garage, I went in to the bank and it was Mounce, Mounce, Mounce, Johnson, she was the outsider. Anyway, these are my cousins that you see in the sociology movies because in the expression of their Christianity, they do two really strange things, they drink poison and they handle snakes, and they don’t get bit by the rattlers, now why are they doing that? Because in Mark 16:18, these are the signs of the Christians who go out, “They will pick up serpents and if they drink any deadly things it won’t hurt them.” See, my cousins are real Christians and we all are namby-pambies, because we won’t drink poison and pick up snakes. Well, its right there, it’s in the Bible, don’t you believe the Bible? I don’t think there is much question I think among anyone hardly anyone that Mark 16:8 ended at verse 8 or we’ve lost the full ending and this was added several hundred years later. It’s not part of the Bible. The other largest section is John 8; the woman caught in adultery, you will see markers in your Bible around it, “the better manuscripts omit these verses.” You won’t see that in the King James or the New King James. You’ll see it in all the other translations, though as well. The woman caught in adultery most certainly is a later addition. People tend to argue that it was true, John never wrote it and it got stuck into John’s gospel 100 years or later, or so. But there are also smaller sections. You know the Lord's Prayer? If you read it in the ESV or the NIV – "Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors, Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil." Period. Then you go, ‘wuahhh’ you finished it. Well this is another one of these things where when you look at the manuscripts we can see that, “For Thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever,” only appears in the later manuscripts, it doesn’t appear in the earlier and best manuscripts. We know that it was the habit of the church to add to the Bible especially flowery language. And so it fits that pattern. So anyway, the differences have to do with omissions and/or deletions.

But also there are just differences sometimes. Some manuscripts will have a really difficult word but then in this manuscript they’ve used a synonym that a younger kid could understand. And you can see what the scribe did, he was copying along and he goes, “What does this word mean? No one understands that word anymore, I better use a word they can understand.” It wasn’t necessarily a bad idea ... but it was. A lot of time you will see changes where they want to make one gospel read exactly like the other. So Matthew talks about "blessed are the poor in spirit" and Luke talks about "blessed are the poor." There are a few manuscripts in Luke that say, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” so they are trying to get the gospels to agree to get away from problems. When along the bottom of your Bible it says “other manuscripts read,” that’s what it is talking about. There are differences among the Greek manuscripts and we have to deal with it.

Textual Criticism

Into this arena comes what we call textual criticism. Textual criticism is the name of the science that comes along and looks at ''echōmen'', ''echomen'', or any other difference and says "okay, which one is more likely to be original? Which one did Paul most likely write?" It is a highly highly technical field. But let me give you as snippet kind of peak into the way textual critics work. One of their premises is that it is more likely that information was added rather than omitted. That’s one of those fundamental assertions. Here is what I mean by that. John 4 Jesus goes to the pool of Bethesda and there was a man who was lying there for 38 years and Jesus says, “What are you here for?” Did you notice what I skipped? I skipped John 5:4. “For an angel of the lord would come down periodically and stir up the water, and the first one into the pool would be healed. John 5:4. The better Greek manuscripts don’t have verse 4. The later ones have verse 4. Now is it more likely that that verse about the angel was added or subtracted? You can’t think of any reason why it would be subtracted. I mean why have you lying by this water for 38 years? I mean if John in the gospel told us why you would certainly expect it to be included. But you could see a situation where a scribe is copying it and Jesus meets this man he’s been lying by the pool for 38 years. “You know what? I think I know why he was there and its kind of a hole in the story I better add it in.” So one of the starting points that text critics use is that it is more likely that material was added rather than taken away. It’s really hard to take away from the word of God. The second thing they look at is how old is the manuscript. Siniaticus which is the primary Greek manuscript that our Bible are based on is 4th century. The King James is based on 3 manuscripts that came from the 11th century. Now if there was nothing else to decide, which one would you trust? A copy that was 400 years after the fact, r something that was over 1000 years after the fact? So they tend to look at the older manuscripts because they are closer to the event and can be trusted more. Anyway it’s a very very complicated field and I just wanted to give you a snip bit of it.

Current Situation

What is our current situation when it comes to all of this? Let me give you three things. One, we have a little over 5,000 Greek manuscripts of the NT, none of the autographs, but over 5,000 copies. That’s an amazing number of mass. We also have thousands in other languages; you know translations and what not. A lot of the ancient works of history like Caesar's ''Gallic Wars'' there are only three copies of it extant. And so you have three Latin manuscripts to try to figure out what Caesar wrote, but with the Bible you have over 5,000. That’s really quite remarkable so we have a lot of data to draw from. Second of all, 99% of the text is sure. I don’t want you to think with these differences that there are huge chunks of the Bible that we are not sure about; 99% of the text is set. And, thirdly, that final one percent where we’re just not absolutely sure, contains no important biblical teaching. A lot of the things that we don’t know for sure is how you spell things. There are seven spellings for the pool of Bethesda, there are five spellings for the Gaderene demoniac. You just can’t tell. There is a lot of that kind of stuff. But the atonement, the cross, salvation, none of these things are brought into question at all by differences among the Greek manuscripts. And finally one note on inspiration and we will stop for a beak. If you notice in our statement of faith, it says that our doctrine of inspiration only applies to the autographs, you can’t apply the doctrine of inspiration to the copies because they are so different. I have been told that there are 150,000 places where they are different. I suspect that that number is too high but that’s the number that is passed around a lot and I have better things to do with my life than count. But we know that there are differences so the doctrine of inspiration is applied to these autographs. Now you may meet some that people say, “Hey, if we don’t have these autographs it's not even worth while to talk about the doctrine of inspiration. If all that we have are copies then inspiration is passé. We don’t even need to talk about it.” I think the response is that text critics have done their work really, really well. And while there is that one percent we just aren’t sure of, the 99% is absolutely set and there’s no, at least in the academic community, there is simply no question that 99% of the text is accurate and it is trustworthy.


We’ve gone through canonization, we’ve gone though textual criticism, so chronologically we come up to the whole topic of translation. And again it’s another huge topic, but I want to introduce some basic issues, primarily so that you will know to trust your Bible. Even those different from other Bibles. And to kind of give you a little bit of a feel for why they are different, let’s start with a problem, several problems. First of all, the Bible isn’t written in English, despite what some people unfortunately think. The NT is written in Greek, most of the OT is written in Hebrew, small portions of it are written in Aramaic, a later version of Hebrew. And if you can’t read Greek, Hebrew, or Aramaic you need a translation, that’s one of the problems. The second problem connected to translations has to do with the nature of languages. Languages are not codes. And this is gonna sound really simplistic but I remember when I first started learning Latin in high school I went in to class thinking that it was kind of like Morse code. “B” in morse code is “dash dot dot dot.” An “I” is “dot dot” and “L” is “dot dash dot dot.” So, “Bill” is “dash dot dot dot, dot dot, dot dash dot dot, dot dash dot dot” in Morse code. I figure in Greek you would just switch the dots and the dashes. So Bill in Greek would be “dot dash dot dot, dash dot dash dot” or something like that. It was this unbelievably simplistic view of languages. I guess I thought there was a one to one correspondence. Okay, in English, “I want the water,” four words. In German you would say, you have four words, the word for “I” the word for “want”, you know that kind of stuff. But, of course, languages are not codes and there are not exact equivalents. It is virtually impossible to say exactly in one language what is said in another. And I don’t care if you are going from Greek and Hebrew to English or German to French. And that’s why if you listen to simultaneous translators they always speak more than the person speaking. Because there’s gonna be nuances and what not in the one language, it just takes a while to say in the other language. Let me give you an example of the type of problems we have. What does the word ''can'' mean in English? “The ability to do,” “ a container,” “to fire, can someone.” My supervisor used to say, “Americans eat what they can and can what they can't.” See, a word doesn’t have a meaning. A word has a bundle of meanings. And you can’t find another word in another language that has the same bundle of meanings. You can’t. It’s impossible. Even the word “the.” Well, you say that’s pretty simply. Certainly there must be a word for “the” in Greek. Not really. There is a word that we translate "the," that can also be translated "my" or "your" or "his" or "our." See, there are not exactly the same bundle of meanings. So how are you gonna translate the word “can” from English to another language if you are translating in that direction. Here is another example and this has to do more with grammar than it does with word meanings . Romans 6:15 Paul is talking about the role of ongoing sin in the life of a believer. He says, and this is the NASB, “What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? May it never be!” Pretty good translation. ESV translates, “By no means” you go, “Well, that’s odd.” “May it never be,” “By no means.” I wonder how that happened? The New Living, NLT, goes, “of course not” which is colloquial, and not anywhere near as strong as the Greek. The KJV says, “ God forbid” now forget the fact that the word “God” doesn’t occur and the word "forbid" doesn’t occur. Actually I think “God Forbid” is the best translation, because the Greek ''mē genoito'' is the strongest way in Greek to say that under no circumstances can sin be okay as an ongoing part of a Christian's life. How can you say that in English? "Of course not?" No, you can see they are struggling with it, because we don’t have the words ''mē genoito'', we don’t have the optative, the form of the verb in the Greek. How do you say it? This is an example of the types of problems that we have in translation. Languages are not exactly equivalent and you simply cannot say exactly in one language what is said in another, with all the nuances and all the force of a language.

Now connected to that let me say something about the word ''literal'', because we all want a literal Bible right? Now normally when we use the word ''literal'', what do we mean by that? If I were to say “Larry, do you want a literal Bible?” You say, yeah. I say, well what does it mean to be literal? It’s accurate. It says, well I can’t even use the right verb here, you’ll know why in a second. You want it to accurately represent what the original is saying. But how do you do that? See, here is the problem a lot of people think literal means word for word and they say I want a literal translation. If the Greek has eight words I want a translation with eight words. If they use a participle I want a participle. I want to be as close to the Greek as I can. The word ''literal'' if you look it up in the dictionary it actual has to do with meaning. If you want a literal Bible and if you use English the way the dictionary says we should, then you are saying I want a Bible that says the same thing that has the same meaning. And yet we use the word literal more for form than we do meaning. Here is an example, here is a literal translation, a word for word, we’ll call it, translation of John 3:16, “So for loved the God the world that the son the only he gave so that every the believing into him not perish but have life eternal.” Now does anybody want to read a word for word Bible? It’s not English, is it? Now this is just the nature of languages. Languages have different vocabulary, they have different word order, they have different grammar. You simply can't go directly from one language to the next; it's impossible.

The example that I use and I’m never sure whether I should use these or not, but its works so well. I was in graduate school. I was struggling with reading German. I called mom and dad and said, "Can I go to Germany and learn German." They said, fine. So, I went to Schwäbisch Hall, it’s a great little tourist town in southern Germany. I went to German school for three months, absolutely loved it. There were a bunch of Americans there from some American university, who knew a lot more German than I did. They were in the upper division class; I was in the beginners. It was late Fall and I was talking to my friends. And we weren’t ever supposed to speak in English. We were only supposed to speak in German. That was part of the deal. And I wanted to say I was cold. So I said, "I" is “ik,” “am” is “bin,” and “cold” is “cult.” So I said, “Ik bin cult.” And all 20 of my friends hit the ground rolling in hysterical laughter and I’m going, “What did I say?” I said, “ik bin cult,” “I am cold,” and it literally took about two or three minutes to regain their composure, and these are my friends. They said, “Do you have any idea what you said, Bill?” and I go, “No,” and they said, “You said you are sexually frigid.” And I went, “What?” They said, if you want to say "I am cold," you have to say “it is to me cold,” “es essumia cult,” that’s how you say, “I am cold,” in German. You know, what can I say. And you think I would have learned my lesson. It got warm a few days later. And I said “ik bin varm.” And they sat there and rolled their heads. I said, will you ever learn. I thought “ik vin varn,” “I am horny” is what I said. I mean you can have the same problem going to Scotland. They kind of speak the same language or they would say we kind of speak the same language. I was at a restaurant once and I asked for a napkin and they just sat there and shook their heads; a napkin is a tampon in Scotland. So you can get in all kinds of problems thinking you are being safe and being literal, it doesn’t work in languages. So here is what happens because of the nature of language and a lot of other things.

Translation Philosophy

Every translation has a philosophy; every translation has to make a choice of what kind of Bible do we want to be? How do we want to translate it and it’s that decision that determines how the Bible reads and that’s why Bibles are different. The ESV was written for people who wanted to study. So, we use words like ''propitiation''. "Well, we don’t know what ''propitiation'' means." Well, look it up. This is a study Bible. The NIV is somewhere in the middle. They translate ''hilastērion'' as "atoning sacrifice." You can kinda figure out what that means. The New Living just completely explains it. It takes about a phrase to explain it. See, that’s not because some people can translate and some can’t. There’s different translation philosophies, different audiences, and that kind of thing and that’s why Bibles tend to be different. Let me give you the most basic division, the most basic questions that translators have to answer.

Formal Equivalence

Some translations are what’s called formal equivalent translation. Now, the New American Standard is the best example of this. A formal equivalent means they want to go as much as is possible word for word. If the Greek takes eight words, we want to use eight words in English. If the Greek uses a participle we want to use a participle. If the word, “the” is there in Greek we want to say a “the” there in English. It’s done with a recognition that it's not always possible, but they want to be as close to word for word to the Greek and Hebrew manuscripts as they possibly can. Formally equivalent translations tend to use the same English word for the same Greek word. I mean these guys know that words have bundles of meaning, but you know the word ''polis'' occurs 60 some odd times, so we are gonna translate it "cities" every time. NASB does it, so there is the kind of word for word mentality. There’s obviously certain values in NASB, if I sit down and read the NASB I can see the Greek behind it. They have done a really good job. The Greek and Hebrew are very transparent behind it. And I think it's much less interpretive than most, because they are just translating words, they are not concerned about meaning. So there is less of the translator involved in the process. Now the translator is involved in the process, but not as much so as in other philosophies.

But there are several, at least three major problems I think with formal equivalent translations. One is that they are just terrible English and they make Paul sound like an idiot in places. Was Paul this uneducated that he couldn’t put a coherent sentence together? No, sometimes Paul gets mad and its hard to translate his Greek, but he is not incompetent and it makes the Bible feel like really, really bad literature and it makes it hard to read, it makes it hard to memorize there are other problems connected to that. But, you know, having bad English may not be an issue to some people.

Number two is that formally equivalent translations sometimes obscure meaning. I mean the heart and sole of formally equivalent translations is to not interject myself into the translation, but if the Greek says it I want to say it, I want to get it clear. And in many ways they do a great job but they can obscure meaning as well. For example, every time ''polis'' occurs, that’s the Greek word, they translate it "city." So they translate it the "city" of Nazareth. That’s a bad translation; there were about 600 people in Nazareth in Jesus’ day. Is 600 people a city? No, 600 people is a wide spot on a road. They are lucky to have their own zip code. It mis-communicates; it's not a city, it’s a hamlet, it’s a village, something like that. Another example is in John 2, I’m gonna pick on all translations by the way, except the ESV of course, no I could pick on that too. In John 2 the NASB, this is the wedding at Cana, Mary is telling Jesus to take care of the wine problem. And the NASB says, “And Jesus says to her, 'Woman, what does this have to do with us, my hour has not yet come.'” You ever struggle with that? “Woman.” Jesus, wash your mouth out with soap. Oh, that’s right, you are sinless, why are you being so mean to your mother? Well the Greek ''gynē'' is not mean. It’s just a normal form of address. We don’t have anything remotely like that form of address in English, so the NASB comes along and says “woman” and we hear it's derogatory, its under his thumb, that’s not in the Greek at all, doesn’t exist. That’s why the NIV says, “Dear woman, why do you involve me.” The NIV translators are saying, we’ve got to make people understand its not a bad term for Jesus to call his mother, "woman." "Dear woman." The New Living simply skips it all together. “'How does that concern you and me,' Jesus asked?” And in a sense that’s not that bad of an option, because there is simply no way to say "woman," I mean "dear woman" is close but still it raises questions that the Greek doesn’t raise. So these kinds of translation are going to obscure meaning.

The third problem and again the second and third problems are very related, it is impossible to not be interpretive in translation. If you hear someone say my Bible is not interpretive, they really don’t know what they are talking about, but be nice to them, but they simply don’t know. It is impossible to translate without being interpretive. For example, 1 Timothy 3, in the discussions of elders and deacons, verse 11 is talking about females. The RSV says “The women likewise must be serious, no slanderers, but temperate, faithful in all things.” The word ''gynē'' can be translated "women" and what the RSV is saying is that they are talking about deaconesses. Now the word ''deaconess'' wasn’t created until the second century, so Paul just used "woman," context shows its talking about deaconesses. The ESV says “their wives,” which is the other translation of gune, “their wives likewise must be dignified.” The ESV position was that this verse is not talking about deaconesses but is talking about the wives of male deacons. Now when you come to ''gynē''. You cannot get around that problem; you have to be interpretive. You look at the context, you look at the exegesis, you look at your theology, you make a decision and you go with it in your translation. So the NASB suffers from what all translations suffer with, they have to be interpretive. You can’t get away from it. There is an Italian proverb, if I could speak Italian I could sound really cool, but it means translators are traitors. All translators are traitors to the original meaning. You either put too much into it or not enough into it. Now that’s kind of a gross overstatement but you get the idea.

Dynamic Equivalence

So, problems of formal equivalence, the problem of translations. The other kind of translation, or should I say the second of four, is called dynamic equivalence, and the NIV is the best example of dynamic equivalent translations. Basically these translations are not concerned to translate words, they are concerned to translate meaning. And in that sense that is the fundamental question that translators have to make. Am I gonna simply translate the words and let you figure it out or am I gonna translate what the original means. And the form is called dynamic because they don’t care how many Greek words it takes to say something, they don’t care about the grammar, they don’t care that it’s a participle. If I can say the same thing within English with a finite verb or with an adjective, I’m gonna do it. So dynamic equivalence says translation process is dynamic, we don’t have to stick to the same grammatical forms, but what we are trying to do is get an equivalence of meaning. The problem with dynamic equivalence is that they are more interpretive. The more you go down this path and it’s a continuum, it’s not a stair step it’s a very smooth continuum, and as you go further down away from word to word, away form translating words to translating meaning, more and more of the translator's theology gets put into the translation. And so they get more interpretive and therefore less trustworthy in a sense. For example. Can someone who is divorced be an elder in a church? Well, the only passage is 1 Timothy 3:2. Now if you translate 1 Timothy 3:2 word for word it’s “of one of woman man.” But the problem is the word for woman and man could also be wife or husband, so it could also be translated, “of one of wife husband.” So, first of all, you have to make a choice on whether you are talking about married people or not. Okay, how are you gonna translate this? Well, the ESV translates “an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife.” Almost everyone was married and we figured the point wasn’t whether they had to be married or not it’s just that was the culture, almost everyone was married, the husband of one wife. See what we did, and I say, we, because I don’t know if everyone knows it our not but dad and I were two of the translators on the ESV, that’s why we are sort of biased to it. It's also why we have some good stories about it, too, but that is another talk. That’s as close as we could get to the Greek where it had some meaning and we weren’t interjecting ourselves too far into it, because this is a difficult passage. The NRSV translates this, "married only once." The NIV, and tell me if you can hear, “the husband of but one wife.” There is no word “but” in there. Well, I don’t know why the NIV choose “but.” One of the possible interpretations is that elders can’t be polygamous and the “but” may be there to help you understand that. I don’t know. The New Living says, “he must be faithful to his wife.” I actually think that is the right interpretation. It’s in the commentary if you want to read the reasons for it. I think it’s an odd Greek idiom. It has no parallel in Greek literature. The, “Of one, of woman man” doesn’t exist, that kind of construction doesn’t exist anywhere in Greek literature. So it’s an idiom Paul is making up something and it seems to me that he must be saying he must be faithful. So does the word faithful occur in the Greek? No, but that’s what it means. But you can see the problem as you get more interpretive you get more meaning, it gets clearer, it flows better, it reads better, and more of the translators are in between the lines of your Bible. That’s dynamic equivalence. Translate words, formal, translate meaning, dynamic, and you can understand the problems. There are two other categories.


One is paraphrase and again a paraphrase is very much a thought for thought, just further down the spectrum. Go NASB, NIV, then you get the rest of the paraphrases. And you get some very good paraphrases like the NLT. I don’t call the New Living a translation. I think it's very periphrastic. I really like the NLT. I know a bunch of the guys that helped do it. They are good scholars, they are good people, and they are conservative. And I read the New Living almost as a commentary. I wonder what Craig [Blomberg] thinks on Galatians? Oh, okay. But there is so much of the translator in these things that it gets dangerous. Another magnificent paraphrase is JB Phillips translation in the fox holes of London during the bombing of London and he writes only as an Englishman can write. Romans 12, "Don’t let the world squeeze you into its mold," as opposed to "don’t be conformed to this world." Magnificent paraphrase, but they are paraphrases.

Running Commentary

There is a forth category and I just call it running commentary, there is not a technical word for it. The Living Bible is just so far out past it. Kenneth Taylor may have sold 40 million of these and they may be great assurance to people, but it’s not a Bible. There is so much made up stuff all the way, a lot of good stuff, a lot of made up stuff all the way through it. The Message, it’s a great running commentary, if you like it, it’s great running commentary on the Bible, it’s not a Bible. It’s simply so far down the line you can’t say, thus saith the Lord and quote that book, you just can’t. So you have this long range. Let me give you an example using Romans 16:16. The NIV translates it, “Greet one another with a holy kiss.” What’s a holy kiss? Well, the NIV said figure it out. I have down here Phillips’ translation is, “Greet one another with a brotherly kiss.” Now maybe that’s not Phillips, maybe that’s another translation, but you can see what they are trying to do. They are saying, “Don’t lay it on them.” What would a brotherly kiss look like in our culture? A kiss on the cheek, right? I guess. The Living Bible says “Shake hands warmly with each other.” Now having said something negative about the Living let me say something positive; that’s exactly what it means. That is exactly what Paul means. What is the current acceptable way of warmly greeting someone? You shake hands with them, maybe now we should say, “Give them a quick hug.” I don’t know. The Living just nailed it. That’s exactly what Paul means. What he said was, “Greet one another with a holy kiss.” And so this is the basic issue and this is basically where translations are different. Where on this spectrum do they want to go? Word for word, translate meaning? Thought for thought, my good ideas mixed in with the Bibles?

Final Comments

Let me give you some final comments. First of all; trust your Bibles. The translators have done a really, really, really good job. I’ve done, for one of the books I wrote, a tremendous amount of comparison between the translations and I expected to find them to contradict themselves all over the place. And that’s not what happens. Some are gonna be ambiguous. Some are gonna be a little more specific, some are gonna be a little more word for word, other translations are gonna pull out the meaning and even something like the NLT, I rarely disagree with their interpretation of the verse. But you can trust them. These are goods ways to understand. I think knowing Greek is great. And there are some people who need to do it, but you can really be comfortable with your translations, I don’t want to interject a bunch of question and doubts, I just want you to know why they are different. And I really want to encourage you to read more than one. And don’t read like the NASB and the ESV. Don’t read two pretty much formally equivalent translations. And certainly don’t read two paraphrases, don’t read Phillips and the NLT. But I would encourage you to pick one primary Bible and it should be closer to the formally equivalent side. So you can trust the words more, because we hang onto words, you notice that? You see a word in a verse and you want to hang on it. You want to make sure that word is there in the Greek. So the encouragement is get something like the NASB or an NRSV or an ESV, or maybe even an NIV which are gonna be more on the word for word side, and I think that should be a primary study Bible but by all means find something on the other side of the spectrum, get a Phillips, get a New Living and read them together and when you read them together you can be really confident that what you are seeing is what the text says. And so that would be my encouragement for you. If you would like to see a chart of translations, I swiped this off the Zondervan website and you can just get an idea. Far left are the word for word, interlinears, and the NASB’s and as you start going more thought for though, translating meaning instead of words, RSV, KJV, NKJV. NRSV. NRSV is hard to peg because it more literal of a translation, more word for word, but it won’t use male oriented language, so brother becomes, whatever. So that pushes it further to this other side. The NIV, then Zondervans new Bible the TNIV. Then you are moving down here to NLT, Good News, the Living Bible and the Message and so that gives you a good idea of where translations are. And I think this chart is basically accurate. If you want more information, there is this character Bill Mounce who wrote a book ''Greek for the Rest of Us''. And this whole issue from canonization through transmission through translation is in the book and he recorded all of his lectures and there are included in the back of his book and you can also go to There’s a lot more information and there is a bibliography in that book.