You have probably read stories about all the supposed errors that are in the Bible. The theory is that mistakes were made through two thousand years of translations and what we have today is a pale reflection of the original writings. But Christianity is rooted in history, and history has not changed. If the historical references in the Bible are not true, we can then doubt the reliability of the rest of the book. We will also ask the question, “Why do we have these books and no others?”
Who wrote the words?
The work of the scribe was a highly professional and a carefully executed task. There are no complete copies of the Hebrew OT earlier than around AD 900 (Masoretic Text), but it is evident that it has been faithfully preserved since AD 100 or 200.
There are translations from Hebrew into Latin and Greek. All copies that came from the Masoretic Text are in remarkable agreement, which attests to the skill and detail of the Masoretes.
Dead Sea Scrolls:
Discovered in 1947, the greatest archaeological discovery of the century. Clay jars in Qumran, dated 150 BC to AD 70. They hid the scrolls in preparation for the Roman invasion, in cave on the west side of the Dead Sea. There is a complete book of Isaiah and another with Isaiah 38-66, the books of Samuel, and two chapters of Habakkuk.
By comparing the Dead Sea Scrolls with the Masoretic Text we see remarkable accuracy. For example, in Isaiah 53 only 17 letters differ from the Masoretic Text. Ten of these were merely spelling differences (like honor to honour) that produce no change of meaning at all. Four are minor like the presence of a conjunction (which is often a matter of style). The other three letters are the Hebrew word for “light” which is added after, “they shall see” in Isaiah 53:11. Of 166 words in the chapter, only one word is in question and it in no way changes the sense of the passage.
This is the Greek translation of the Hebrew text, referred to as LXX, for the 70 scholars taking 70 days to complete, in the third century BC. So in comparison to the Masoretic Text, it appears that nothing has changed since 200 BC! It seems to be a rather literal translation. There is also another text called the Samaritan Pentateuch, but this has a Samaritan leaning and emphasis.
Three families of texts:
The question is, “What is the original version of these three families of texts?” It is said that what we have since 225 BC is just about the same document that Ezra read before the people after the Babylonian captivity.
New Testament documents:
Evidence tells us that the same is true for the NT. Generally anything that differs from early manuscripts would be variations in grammar or spelling, not more than 1/1000 part of the whole NT. There are about 6000 manuscripts that have survived to our time. Papyrus was used early, and highly durable. Another material was called parchment, skins of sheep or goats, used up until the middle ages until paper replaced it.
The dates of the NT documents indicate that they were written during the lifetime of the contemporaries of Christ. People were still alive who could remember that events. Many Pauline letters predate the gospels. These early documents can be compared to other ancient documents that have been accepted without question to their authenticity. Nine or ten copies of Caesar’s Gallic War exist, and they were written about 900 years after Caesar’s time! The history of Thucydides (400 BC) with about 8 copies, dated to AD 900. These copies are 1300 years after the original. By contrast, two excellent copies of the NT date to the fourth century. Fragments date back to 100 or 200 years earlier. There is a papyrus codex of John 18:31-33, 37 that dates back to AD 130.
The question of canon:
How do we know these are the books that are supposed to be in the Bible? Protestants accept the same books that the Jews accept in the OT. Catholics at the Council of Trent in 1546 decided to add others, called the Apocrypha. OT books were authoritative based on the utterances of people inspired to declare God’s Word. It’s not clear why they were accepted but it is clear that they were accepted. Jesus even agreed with the Pharisees on the authority of the OT, just not the traditions holding the same authority. The council of Jamnia in AD 90 closed the OT canon. The discussion was on which books to include rather than on which books to exclude.
These were never received into the Jewish canon. Jews and Christians had never accepted them, and they are no where quoted in the NT. Some books like 1 Maccabees is valuable in retelling history, but are not considered as inspired sacred writings. Although not included at first the LXX included them for ecclesiastical purposes only.
What about the New Testament?
These were included based on their inspiration rather than by majority vote. Many claimed apostolic authority (1 Peter 3:15-16). Jude 1:3 mentions 2 Peter 3:3 is a word from the apostles. Early church fathers like Polycarp, Ignatius and Clement mention a number of books of the NT as authoritative.
The second century brought on many heresies, so there needed to be a debate on which writings were authoritative. In the East, the final fixed canon for the NT dates back to AD 367 (a letter from Athanasius), which books were used as sole sources for religious instruction and which could be read for information. In the West, it was decided at the Council of Carthage in AD 397.
The criteria for selecting the canon: could it be attributed to an apostle? Was it used in the church? Was there conformity to standard church doctrine? Luke 21:33 is a solid conclusion on this topic of God’s written Word.