How Did We Get the Bible and Can We Trust It?
by Darrell Bock Ph.D.
The reception of the Bible is a fascinating topic. We are dealing with writings stretched over more than 1400 years. The Bible contains an array of accounts about events, some of which had to have been initially passed on orally. The 66 books of Scripture reflect the work of many different authors, writing in a variety of settings and times. The Old Testament text Protestants use matches that of Judaism. In the ancient world, the process of passing accounts down orally over time before something became written was done with care when material mattered. One of the reasons the apostles had to really know Jesus was because they kept an eye on how the Jesus story was preached (Acts 1:21-22 and the oversight we see in Acts).
Recognition was another step in the process. The New Testament came to be recognized over a period of several centuries. The church did not choose the books of the New Testament. The use of books over time commended certain works over others. Athanasius gives us our earliest list of the 27 books in the AD 367, while Origen (c AD 250) may have mentioned all of them a century earlier (though there is debate whether he named the book of Revelation as manuscripts differ on this point). Either way, the core of the New Testament was functioning as canon by the end of the second century as other evidence shows. At that time, Irenaeus and the Muratorian Canon mention the core of the New Testament, noting the four gospels Acts, the Pauline Epistles, I Peter, and I John. These were the books that had apostolic roots and that churches in many distinct regions were using.
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Origen, Irenaus and the Muratorian Canon predate any church councils where some claim the canonical books were chosen. New Testament books were not chosen but recognized by their use over time in churches. The pressure to identify them had come from a variety factors: the claim by some that other Scripture about Jesus existed, the challenge of some that some writings circulated as Scripture were not (shown by Marcion’s reduced version of Luke as his gospel), and persecution which said Scripture had to be destroyed (so one had to know what to destroy!).
Getting the Bible was a painstaking process of copying. Long before the printing press of the 15th century not to mention computers, copies of Scripture had to be preserved by painstaking copying, one letter at a time. Some copies were made individually. Others were made in scriptoriums where someone read the text. In these locations, many copies were made at once as several scribes listened and wrote. I often tell people the Bible they hold in their hands is possible because many people faithfully over several centuries copied the text to replace worn out copies. Those copies were not perfect, but the fact we have many manuscripts of these texts allows us to reproduce the text with a high level of certainty. Where we are not sure, we do know what the likely options are. Good Bible translations signal the options to you by having a note in the margin that reads “or” with the variant noted. We have over 5800 Greek manuscripts. The best ancient texts of other works have 100-200 copies. In most cases we are confident what the text should read. In no case do these differences impact the overall teaching of the faith…