A REMARKABLE COLLECTION
In this article we will investigate some of the most often-asked questions about
the Bible. Where did it come from? Who decided what was going to be on the official
list of accepted writings? How do we know if the Bible we read today is a reliable
version of the original writings? Have any people or religious groups changed the Bible
to reflect their own beliefs? Are all parts of the Bible equally reliable? Who
wrote the books of the Bible, and how can I be sure about that? What about the
different versions? If one can assume that the original writings are inspired, what
about when we read translations?
These are questions which are bound to come up for any thinking person who reads
the Bible much at all. Some would say asking questions such as these shows a
lack of faith. ?It says in 2 Timothy 3:16 that all scripture is inspired by
God. For me that settles it. Why are you asking these annoying questions?? Unfortunately
such an attitude will not make legitimate questions go away. In fact buried
questions have a habit of resurfacing at the most inopportune times. A better
approach would be to keep a good record of all significant questions, and systematically,
one by one, over a period of time, to seek for reasonable answers to these questions.
Many have claimed that the Old Testament contains a number of myths and legends
which were created by Jewish writers in the two or three centuries before the
time of Christ or soon thereafter. Others would claim that most of the New Testament
was written well into the late second century AD by Christian apologists who
were creating a Jesus very different from the historical person. They would
claim that the gospels are not an eye-witness account at all. Another common
claim is that the original writings of the apostles were radically edited by
the Catholic Church in the period after the conversion of the Roman Empire,
to reflect Catholic doctrine. These people would claim that the doctrines found
in the New Testament are very different from the original teachings of Jesus
Christ. Still others will claim that there were additional gospels written by
the apostles which were excluded by leaders in the early church because of their
bias against certain teachings.
Do these claims have merit? What is the history of the writing and the collection
of both the Old and the New Testament writings? How faithfully were the originals
passed on? These questions will be answered in this chapter.
It may seem logical to consider the origin and history of the Old Testament
before the New Testament for the obvious reason that it was written earlier.
However, for several reasons, we will consider the evidence for the New Testament
first. The New Testament was written over a shorter period of time. It will be considerably
easier to trace the origin of the New Testament canon. Besides, the manuscript
evidence and the different versions provide an easier evidence trail to follow
with the New Testament.
Before considering the evidence for the origins of the New Testament, it will
be helpful to define a few technical terms, some of which have already been
For us, a manuscript will be any ancient document which contains all or parts
of either the New of the Old Testament. The word literally means hand-written.
Manuscripts may be in the original language or they may be a translation from
the original language. The manuscripts are the basic materials available which can
be used to attempt to reconstruct the original biblical writings.
The canon of either the New or the Old Testament is the officially accepted
list of books to be included in the scriptures. How the canon of the New Testament
and of the Old Testament was arrived at is a very important question to be dealt
with in this chapter.
A long piece of material, usually leather, which containes a number of pages
of writing in rows, arranged in columns, designed to be rolled up and stored.
This was the principal form of manuscripts before the time of Christ (2 Timothy
A long piece of either leather or papyrus, folded up in a format basically like
a modern book. This was the most common form of manuscripts after about 200
Papyrus is a reedy plant found mostly in the Nile delta. It was split open and
rolled out. Horizontal and vertical layers were glued together to create a light
and easy-to-use writing substrate. Unfortunately, papyrus is the least likely
of the ancient writing materials to survive for long periods without disintegrating.
These are both specially prepared kinds of leather which were commonly used
as writing materials. Parchment was made of sheep or goat skins, while vellum
was made of calf or antelope skins. When papyrus became scarce in the early
centuries AD, vellum became the chief material for creating manuscripts.
These are manuscripts which are written using all capital letters. The oldest
Greek manuscripts are uncials.
These are manuscripts which use both capital and small letters, similar to a
modern style of writing. The later manuscripts in Greek are usually cursives.
THE NEW TESTAMENT TEXT
?All Scripture is inspired by God,? (2 Timothy 3:16) but how do we know that
the words we read in our Bibles are the same as those which were penned by the
writers of that Scripture? Over the years, many have attempted to undermine
confidence in the Bible by claiming that what we read bears only a very slender
relationship to the original writings. These same people will often claim that
many of the books of the Bible were written many generations and even hundreds
of years after the events recorded, casting doubt on their historical accuracy.
In the case of the New Testament, some scholars have claimed that most of it
was written in the second half of the second century AD. Others have pointed
out that there are ?over two hundred thousand errors? in the manuscripts that
we use to reconstruct the Greek New Testament text, implying that we can only guess at
the original writings. Still others have claimed that the ?Catholic Church?
made substantial changes to the Bible, especially in the fourth and fifth centuries
to remove unwanted teachings and to add statements which would support their own peculiar
doctrines. What is the history of the New Testament text, and is there any validity
to these claims? Let us examine these questions.
First, one must remember that the original books of the New Testament were written
in Greek. Producing an accurate New Testament means restoring the original
Greek text. Do we have the original Greek text of the New Testament or a copy
that is absolutely identical to it? The simple answer is no. The original letters of
Paul, probably written on papyrus, have long since perished. The same can be
said of the original gospel accounts. In order to give wider circulation of
their teachings, the writings of the apostles were copied many times and widely
circulated amongst the churches.
Therefore the accuracy of our Greek text is dependent on how carefully the early
Christians made copies. How can we be sure we have the original writings available
to us? This
question brings us to the manuscript evidence for the Greek New
The most famous English translation of the Bible is the King James Version.
This translation was originally published in 1611. The group of scholars who
produced the King James (or ?Authorized?) version relied heavily on the translation
made by William Tyndale about eighty years before. The full Greek text of the
New Testament was only make available to the Western world by the work of the
Dutch scholar Erasmus. His Greek New Testament was published in 1516. When Erasmus
composed his text, he had only about five Greek manuscripts available to him,
none of them older than the ninth century AD. It was certainly conceivable at
the time that these manuscripts were significantly different from the original.
Add a figure of either the Rylands fragment or pages from the Codes Siaiticus
or both or etc.
The case today is very much different. Scholars now have nearly ten thousand
Greek manuscripts to work from in their efforts to reconstruct the original
Greek text. This is to be compared to less than ten manuscripts available to
Tyndale and Erasmus. Besides, some of these manuscripts are several hundreds of
years older than those available to the first translators of the Greek text
into English. Consider a list of some of the most important Greek New Testament
1. The Codex Vaticanus, or Codex B. The Codex Vaticanus is a vellum codex on
759 pages in uncial script. The manuscript has been dated to around 350 AD.
It contains the entire New Testament, except Hebrews 9:13-end, I and II Timothy,
Titus and Revelation. It also contains all of the Old Testament in Greek except the first
few chapters of Genesis and several Psalms. The manuscript has been kept in
the Vatican since at least 1481.
2. The Codex Sinaiticus, or Codex Aleph. The Sinaiticus manuscript received
its name because it was discovered at St. Catharines Monastery on Mt. Sinai
in 1844 by the biblical scholar Tischendorf. It was found in a basket of old
parchments which were about to be thrown into a fire. This manuscript is now in
the British Museum. Like the Vatican manuscript, it has been dated to around
350 AD. It contains much of the Old Testament in Greek, but most significantly,
it has the entire New Testament in Greek.
3. The Alexandrian Codex, or Codex A. This is a fifth-century codex, containing
most of the Old Testament and all the New Testament except a few pages of Matthew,
two from 1st John and three from 2 Corinthians. This manuscript was found in
Alexandria in Egypt, but was given as a gift to the king of England in 1621.
The manuscript is now located on the British Library.
4. The Washington Manuscript. This manuscript from the end of the fourth century
contains the four gospels. It is especially significant, as it contains Mark
16:9-20, unlike the three manuscripts already mentioned.
5. The Chester Beatty Papyri. This is a collection of a number of papyrus codex
fragments, located in the Chester Beatty Museum in Dublin, Ireland. One of the
papyri contains thirty leaves of the New Testament in Greek which have been
dated to the late second or early third century (ie. around 200 AD). Another includes
86 of 104 leaves of the letters of Paul from around from the early third century.
6. The Bodmer Papyri. This is a group of manuscripts found in the Bodmer Library
of World Literature. Included are a complete manuscript of Luke and John dated
to 175-225 AD, as well as a manuscript of over half of the book of John which
has been dated as early as 150 AD.
7. The John Rylands Fragment. This papyrus fragment contains only John 18:31-33
and 37,38, which would make it an insignificant find except that it has been
dated to 130 AD. This fragment was copied within fifty years of the death of
the apostle John.
Many other important ancient manuscripts could be mentioned as well. The situation
with the Greek New Testament today is very different from what it was when the
King James version was translated. We have available entire manuscripts of the
New Testament from less than three hundred years after the original writings.
Besides, we have manuscripts of large portions of the New Testament from one
hundred fifty years after they were written, and even fragments which were copied
only about fifty years after the original was written?during the lifetime of some
who had seen the original documents. Scholars who seek to produce a Greek text
as close to the original as possible have thousands of manuscripts to compare.
Besides, the manuscripts are not the only evidence supporting the text of the
Greek New Testament. In addition, there exist a large body of letters written
by the early church ?fathers? such as Clement of Rome, Polycarp, Justin Martyr,
Iranaeus and others. These early Christian writers quoted extensively from every
part of the New Testament. The letters known as the Epistle of Barnabus, the
Didache and the Letter of Clement have all been dated from around 100 AD. These
authors quote from Matthew, Mark, Luke, Acts, Romans, I Corinthians, Ephesians,
Titus, Hebrews, I Peter and others. The early church father Ignatius was martyred
in 115 AD. In a set of letters he composed on his way to his execution in Rome,
he quoted from nearly every New Testament book. Such evidence puts to rest any claims
that these books were written in the second half of the second century AD, as
some have claimed.
One could continue by mentioning the much more extensive writings of Justin
Martyr from around 150 AD, and those of Iranaeus, from near the end of the second
century. Experts have claimed that using quotes from early Christian writers
in the first three centuries, one could reconstruct virtually the entire text
of the New Testament.
Being able to compare the oldest extant manuscripts with the quotes from the
first two or three centuries allows scholars to reproduce the original New Testament
text with even greater reliability. The relatively small number of passages
in the New Testament about which there is some doubt (see below) can have their validity
tested by examining the letters of the church fathers. The evidence for our
Greek text of the New Testament is so strong that one can say with great confidence
that we have a virtually exact copy of all the original Greek writings. It is worth
quoting Sir Frederic Kenyon, one of the most noted scholars of the Greek text
of the Bible;
The interval then between the dates of original composition and the earliest
extant evidence becomes so small as to be in fact negligible, and the last foundation
for any doubt that the Scriptures have come down to us substantially as they
were written has now been removed. Both the authenticity and the general integrity
of the books of the New Testament may be regarded as finally established.?
As already mentioned, some have attempted to date some of the New Testament
books to the second century. In general, this has been done in order to support
a theory that many of the miraculous events recorded in its pages are later
inventions. For example, F. C. Bauer, a German theologian from the nineteenth century
wrote a thesis in which he claimed that a number of the New Testament books
after 160 AD. Most likely he came up with such a late date, not
because of any real evidence, but because of a philosophical presupposition against
the miraculous. Nevertheless, in the nineteenth century such a conclusion, although
very questionable, was at least still conceivable based on the evidence. However,
to quote from Neil Lightfoot;
? the amount of such evidence available in our own day is
so much greater and more conclusive that a first-century date
for most of the New Testament writing cannot reasonably be
denied, no matter what our philosophical presuppositions
The exemplary evidence to support the text of the New Testament is made even
more obvious when one compares it to the manuscripts available in support of
some of the other significant writings of the ancient world. Those who have
questioned the accuracy of the Biblical manuscripts are legion, yet few have
raised significant questions concerning the authenticity of the ancient manuscripts
available for such important works as Homer or Julius Caesar, Herodotus or Tacitus.
The fact is that the manuscript evidence for these works is extremely thin when
compared to New Testament manuscripts; both in terms of numbers and of age relative
to when the originals were written.
For example, consider the most famous writing of Julius Caesar, Gallic War,
with its famous ?Vine, vide, vice,? (I came, I saw, I conquered). This important
historical piece was written between 58 and 50 BC. The oldest available manuscript
in Latin (the original language) was produced around 850 AD?nine hundred years after
the original was penned. This is to be compared to the New Testament, for which
we have some evidence only fifty years after the original and significant manuscript
support only one hundred and fifty years after the original. In all, there are
only about ten ancient manuscripts of Gallic Wars, compared to about ten thousand
in the case of the New Testament.
As another example, consider the writings of Livy; along with Tacitus, the greatest
of Roman historians. Livy lived from 59 BC to 17 AD. Of his original 142 books,
only thirty-five survive in a total of only about 20 manuscripts. There is a
fragment of Livy from the fourth century, but all the others are from hundreds
of years later. In the case of Tacitus, who wrote for Roman emperors around
100 AD, four and one-half of his fourteen Histories survive, while manuscripts
of twelve of his sixteen Annals have been found. These are from a total of only
two manuscripts, one from the ninth and one from the eleventh century. Yet,
when Tacitus is quoted from, who questions the validity of these manuscripts?
The examples above are all Latin authors. What about ancient Greek writers?
The Greek literature with the most manuscript evidence is the Iliad of Homer.
This book was written around 800 BC. Over six hundred manuscripts have survived,
including a fragment of the Iliad as old as 400 BC. However, the oldest complete manuscript
to survive is from the thirteenth century?over two thousand years younger than
the original. The two most important Greek historians were Herodotus and Thucydides.
Both lived in the 400?s BC. By an interesting coincidence, both historians?
writings survive in eight manuscripts. Each have as their oldest surviving manuscript
around 900 AD; over 1,300 years after the original composition.
Other examples could be mentioned, but the point is made. Unquestionably, the
New Testament is by far the most well-attested of all ancient writings in the
world. Few question the accuracy of the text of these other ancient writings,
yet in every case they are supported by far fewer manuscripts which are much farther
removed from the original date of authorship.
One can concede that it is only reasonable to put the Bible under a closer scrutiny
than these other books. This is only fair because, unlike Caesar, Tacitus and
Herodotus, the writers of the Bible, claim it has authority over human lives.
Nevertheless, the current Greek text of the New Testament will pass the most
rigorous possible test of its accuracy as a representation of the original writers
of the New Testament.
Those who would question the integrity of the New Testament might interject
at this point in the discussion to ask ?But what about those two hundred thousand
errors in the Greek manuscripts? How can you claim you have an accurate record
of the original if it is riddled with errors?? This sounds convincing at first,
but let us consider the nature of these hundreds of thousands of scribal mistakes.
First of all, this number is so large because there are so many manuscripts.
Dividing two hundred thousand scribal errors by the more than five thousand
manuscripts brings the number of mistakes into a more realistic perspective.
And what are the nature of the differences between the available manuscripts?
Do they reflect such differences as to draw into question the accuracy of our
manuscripts compared with the original?
A page from a typical Greek uncial manuscript is pictured above. The text of
an uncial contains all capital letters, with no spaces between the words, and
with no punctuation. In this type of manuscript, if the end of a line was reached
in the middle of a word, the copyist simply went to the next line in the middle
of the word. For comparison, consider the passage below in uncial-like script.
With this type of script, it is easy to imagine even the most careful copyist
making a minor mistake such as dropping off a letter, interposing two letters,
repeating a line, or skipping a line. The vast majority of the supposed two
hundred thousand mistakes in the Greek manuscripts are just such scribal slips of
the pen. These errors are very easily detected and corrected by the scholars
who study the Greek text of the New Testament. They have absolutely no effect
on the integrity of the Greek New Testament.
By taking into account the large number of manuscripts and by eliminating very
easily corrected slips of the pen from the list, the 200,000 mistakes are reduced
to a couple of hundred variations between the manuscripts. What is the nature
of these variations? These would include such minor changes as a single rather insignificant
word such as an article being added or dropped by a copyist. These changes may
have been made by the copyist either as a subconscious error or intentionally
in an attempt on the part of the copyist to ?improve? the text.
There are also some examples in which it would appear that a copyist detected
a difference between parallel accounts, for example in the gospels of Matthew
and Mark, and attempted to smooth the differences by making Matthew and Mark
say exactly the same thing. Textual critics use some basic rules when comparing
different manuscripts. For example, if the Greek manuscripts exhibit two variant
readings of a particular passage in Matthew, and if one of the two readings
is identical to a parallel passage in Mark, scholars will lean toward using the
reading of Matthew which is different from that in Mark. They do this on the
assumption that a scribe had tried to make the two passages identical in an
unfortunate but well-intentioned attempt to ?improve? the text.
Bear in mind that in almost every case like this, the differences are so
that they have no significant effect on the meaning of the scriptures. For example,
in Matthew 11:19, two slightly different readings are found in the Greek manuscripts.
Some end with the phrase, ?But wisdom is proved right by her children.? Others
end with the phrase, ?But wisdom is proved right by her actions.? In this case,
the oldest and most reliable manuscripts, the Vatican and Sinai, have ?actions,?
while most of the later manuscripts have ?children.? Despite the fact that a
majority of manuscripts have the alternative reading, because the earliest manuscripts
have ?actions,? most English translations use the word actions.
Whether one uses ?actions? or ?children? in Matthew 11:19, clearly this represents
a very minor difference in the text of the New Testament. The saying of Jesus
has the same meaning in either case. This minor difference is typical of the
supposed errors in our New Testament.
When all the truly minor supposed mistakes in our received Greek New Testament
are removed from consideration, the student of the Bible is left with only about
a half dozen non-trivial variations in the Greek text. These would include;
1. John 7:53-8:11. The story of the woman caught in adultery. None of the earliest
and most reliable versions include this passage. It is probably a very early
tradition of the primitive disciples which was later inserted into John. Almost
certainly it is a genuine story, but it was not part of the original book of John.
This passage is not controversial because the story is so consistent with everything
we know about Jesus.
2. Acts 8:37 and 1 John 5:7. These examples are listed together because the
nature of the evidence is similar. In both cases, absolutely none of the earliest
manuscripts include these passages. They are both rather transparent attempts
by scribes to ?improve? the text to support orthodox doctrine. They found their
way into the King James version because in 1611 only much later Greek manuscripts
were available. None of the modern English translations include these passages,
except in the marginal notes.
3. Mark 16:9-20. This is an account of Jesus? final words to his disciples.
Virtually every Greek manuscript, including the Alexandrian, includes this passage.
The problem with this is that the two exceptions are the Sinai and the Vatican
codices. These two are universally considered the most authoritative manuscripts.
Besides, the oldest version of the Syriac translation of the New Testament also
does not include Mark 16:9-20. In the final analysis, one cannot say with absolute
certainty whether this passage was in the original Mark or not.
A couple of other similar but less significant examples could be mentioned,
but that is it! Of the four examples listed above, only one is actually controversial.
Of the 200,000 supposed mistakes in the Greek New Testament, we are left with
only one significant passage which is truly controversial. Count them.?one! Of course,
if the reader would like to check out this claim more carefully for herself
by looking into a resource which covers this topic more thoroughly, that would
be a great idea. Sir Frederic Kenyon, the world famous Biblical scholar and
former director of the British Museum for twenty-one years, sums up the evidence
?The Christian can take the whole Bible in his hands
and say without fear or hesitation that he holds in it the true
word of God, handed down without essential loss from
generation to generation throughout the centuries.?
THE NEW TESTAMENT CANON
Before moving on to considering the Hebrew text of the Old Testament, a few
significant questions regarding the text of the New Testament remain. How were
the actual books contained in the New Testament chosen? How can we know these
books are inspired? Were there any other writings which were inspired, but which
were not included in the New Testament? These questions are all related. They
all concern what is known as the canon of the New Testament. The word canon
comes from the Greek word kanon which springs from the Hebrew word qaneh, which
means reed or cane. The implication of the word is a measuring stick, standard
or ruler. In other word, the canon of scripture is the standard list of books
accepted by the main body of believers. In the case of the Old Testament, that
would be the Jewish leaders, while in the case of the New Testament, it would
mean the leaders in the early church.
Some have made claims that church leaders in the fourth or fifth centuries AD
chose the New Testament canon. These same people have claimed that such spurious
works as the Gospel of Thomas (a second century Gnostic writing) were removed
from the official list of scriptures at a late date. These attempts to cast
doubt on the authenticity of the New Testament scriptures have one problem.
They are not supported by the facts.
The fact is that the authority of the letters of Paul, of the Gospels and the
book of Acts, as well as the other books of the New Testament was established
in the early second century by acclamation of the church. The New Testament
books were chosen by the church as a whole on the basis of the fact that these
particular books had apostolic authority. The data is conclusive that by about
150 AD a more or less fixed list of accepted writings was already circulating
amongst the churches throughout the Roman world. There were minor differences
in some of the lists, but these were worked out by about 200 AD.
Writing in the middle of the second century, Justin Martyr described the customs
of the church in his time. The ?memoirs of the apostles? and the ?writings of
the prophets? were read to the people on the first day of the week. Apparently,
a more or less fixed list of apostolic writings (?the memoirs of the apostles?)
was already in existence at this time. For example, a small manuscript known
as the Muratorian Fragment was found and published in the 1700?s. It has been
dated to the latter part of the second century, or around 180 AD. It contains
an early list of accepted scriptures. This fragmented list begins with Luke,
but mentions it as the third gospel. The list mentions John, Acts, and all thirteen
letters of Paul. In fact, all the letters in the New Testament are mentioned
or implied except for Matthew, Mark, Hebrews, James, 1 and 2 Peter and 1 John.
In the third century, the Christian leader Origin recorded the accepted list
of letters. His list was identical to our New Testament, although he mentioned
?that Hebrews, James, 1 and 2 John and Jude were questioned by some.
One can see that the books of the New Testament were collected together gradually
in the late first and early second centuries. In every case apostolic authority
appears to have been the key factor determining whether or not they would be
included in the canon. In some of the earliest lists, other books were mentioned.
The letters known as the Epistle of Barnabas and the Shepherd of Hermas, were
mentioned by some. These are non-apostolic writings from around 100 AD. The
Muratorian Fragment specifically mentions that the Shepherd of Hermas could be
read in public, but that it was not to be considered as part of the apostolic
writings. One can see that other letters circulated, but that the dividing line
between those that could be read for the encouragement of the church and those which were
considered canonical was clearly based on apostolic authority. Even today it
is not uncommon for excerpts from other spiritual books (the modern equivalent
of the Shepherd of Hermas) to be read during a sermon. Of course there is always
a clear line between such books and the Scripture.