In last week’s post on the doctrine of Inspiration, we focused on the biblical claim that the Scriptures have been inspired by God. In this week’s post, we will go a little deeper into this important topic by highlighting the quality of the manuscripts that we have for the biblical texts.

I’m confident that the Bible we have (66 books with about 40 authors over 1500 years of writing) is God’s inspired Word. But just because I’m confident doesn’t mean everyone else is confident. Textual criticism is that discipline that investigates the content and reliability of ancient texts. It is a discipline used for other manuscripts, but primarily associated with the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. If it is right to hold a high view of the inspiration of Scripture (that God is the author), then it should follow that the manuscripts we have for comparison purposes would not disagree with one another and create uncertainty in the meaning of the text. Can we have confidence in the manuscripts of the Old and New Testaments?

Here are some basic facts about the manuscripts we do have. You can find out more on this subject from Jonathan Morrow’s book, Questioning the Bible: 11 Major Challenges to the Bible’s Authority.

  • There are 5,756 New Testament manuscripts that can be compared and contrasted for quality and consistency purposes. Other ancient writings for a comparable time and place are as follows: Greek historian Herodotus, 109 manuscripts; Greek historian Thucydides, 95 manuscripts; Greek philosopher Plato, 219 manuscripts; Roman historian Livy, 150 manuscripts; Roman historian Tacitus, 31 manuscripts; Roman historian Seutonius, 300 manuscripts; Greek classic Homer’s Iliad, 2300 manuscriptsThe sheer number of New Testament manuscripts affords confidence that the documents we are reading today are consistent with the original manuscripts.
  • The NT manuscripts are significantly earlier than other ancient literature, within 35 years in at least one case and all of the NT within 200 years of the events.
  • While there are variations between the manuscripts, they do not distort the consistency or meaning of the New Testament. Bart Ehrman, professor and author of Misquoting Jesus, claims 400,000 variants within the New Testament manuscripts. Ehrman uses this number to undercut the confidence in the New Testament documents. Essentially, he reasons if there are so many variants, how can we be confident in the accuracy of the text? However, Ehrman fails to look into the types of variations carefully. According to Jonathan Morrow, “A variant is any place among the existing NT manuscripts where there is not uniformity of wording” (p. 98). A variant then could be a misspelled word in 1 manuscript different from 2,000 manuscripts. This would count as 2,000 variants. Morrow notes, “the reason we have so many variants is because we have so many manuscripts to work with” (p. 98).
  • Note the types of variation within the New Testament manuscripts:
    1) Spelling=70-80% of all the variants.
    2) Minor differences such as word order or the use of the definite article with a proper name.
    3) Meaningful, but not viable differences such as, “gospel of God” vs. “gospel of Christ.”
    4) Meaningful and viable differences such as “let us have peace with God” vs. “we have peace with God” (less than 1% are meaningful and viable). 
  • The Old Testament manuscripts and the and the Dead Sea Scrolls affirm that the copyists of the OT were careful, and that the OT that we do have is consistent with the earliest manuscripts. According to Douglas Stuart, it is a safe estimate that 99% of original words in NT and 95% of original words in OT are recoverable (quoted by Jonathan Morrow in Questioning the Bible). In essence, we can be confident that we have the Word of God.
  • These basic facts can be found in Questioning the Bible, by Jonathan Morrow pages 96-105.

The Old and New Testaments have been questioned and critiqued for millennia. Particularly, the New Testament has faced textual and source criticism aimed at discounting its claims of the supernatural and the deity of Jesus. This critique should not surprise us. We live in a post-enlightenment age where we question and doubt anything that cannot be tested scientifically.

These facts about the New Testament manuscripts do not force one to believe the stories they relate. But here is what they do. The sheer number of manuscripts dating back so nearly to the occasions of writing provide confidence that the New Testament we are reading today was the same New Testament originally written.

If we can have confidence in the consistency and accuracy of the Old and New Testaments, then we cannot claim that over time the authors changed stories to build their case for the deity of Jesus or other theological concepts. What they wrote is what we have. You may or may not believe what they wrote. After all, that underscores the importance of faith that permeates Christianity.

But if we are honest with the data we have, we must accept that the biblical documents relate to us an accurate account of the original manuscripts. This becomes foundational to the doctrine of revelation regarding the inerrancy, sufficiency, and authority of Scripture.

The “canon” of Scripture is a term related to special revelation. For the next several posts, the term will come underneath the subject of special revelation. Stay tuned for terms like inspiration, inerrancy, authority, sufficiency.

As a reminder, special revelation is God’s specific revelation of himself to us. The Bible is the product of God’s special revelation. In one sense, special revelation preceded the written word. Consider God speaking with Abraham and Moses. Those conversations were special revelation. That they were recorded in the Old Testament now makes them special revelation written down for generations afterward to read. Jesus Christ is also God’s special revelation of himself to us. How we know anything about God specifically comes through the words God gave us in the Bible.

So, what is the Bible? We are going to try to answer this question over the course of this post and subsequent posts.

The Bible is the Word of God, special revelation, that addresses God, us, and redemption. It is made up of 66 books over 1500 years with 40 different authors. 

The term “canon” means “straight rod.” Canon carries with it the idea of the “rule of faith.” This means that the canon of the Bible (66 books in total, 39 in OT and and 27 in NT) provide the rule of faith that guides our practice as followers of Jesus. 

In one sense there are 2 canons—the Old Testament and the New Testaement. The Old Testament was the rule of faith under God’s original covenant with Abraham. As the Word of God, it still holds validity and importance. We cannot ignore or modify the words of God according to our wants and wishes.

You shall not add to the word that I command you, nor take from it, that you may keep the commandments of the Lord your God that I command you.

God, through Moses in Deuteronomy 4:2

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” 

Jesus, in Matthew 5:17

However, because of the New Covenant inaugurated by Jesus, the OT does not function as our primary “rule of faith.” That belongs to the NT. We are to interpret the OT in light of the NT. In so doing, we discover the importance of the law, prophets, and writings as foreshadowing Jesus and the gospel and filling in important aspects of God’s character and nature.

The OT canon came down from Hebrew Scriptures, translated into the Septuagint (the OT in Greek language), and was used and adopted by the earliest Christians. As early as 170 AD (outside of the NT testimony), Melito of Sardis wrote about the OT list of books. Other early Christians like Origen, Athanasius, and Augustine had similar lists (occasionally referring to an additional book or including an OT book within another one: Ezra/Nehemiah, Jeremiah/Lamentations).

The NT canon was adopted prior to the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD. Criteria for NT books being included in the canon are as follows:

Apostolic authority. Authorship must be an apostle or someone writing from the perspective of an apostle. This criteria also relates to dates within the first century. Writings claimed to be written by an apostle, but obvioulsy written in the second century and beyond were never accepted by the church at large.

Orthodoxy. The books must conform to orthodox positions regarding Christ and God. Some writings claimed authorship by apostles, but their views were not orthodox. Heretical views, such as advocated in Gnosticism or other heresies were excluded from the canon.

Catholicity. The books of the NT had to be accepted by the church universal: in time, geography, and people. Obviously, this criterion does not require every single congregation in the early church to affirm canonicity, but it does require universal or general acceptance. For example, a single congregation’s acceptance of a letter/book would not be sufficient for inclusion in the canon. The 27 books of the NT were being used as a “rule of faith” for the church prior to Nicea. At Nicea, the council affirmed what the church had already accepted. 

These criteria guided the early church to canonize the 27 books of our NT. Some may question the process of canonization. But if God can inspire Scripture (2 Timothy 3:15), then he can certainly guide the process of canonization. We will explore the doctrine of inspiration in subsequent posts.

In the canon of Scripture, we have the foundation documents of Christianity, the charter of the church, the title-deeds of faith. For no other literature can such a claim be made. And when the claim is made, it is made not merely for a collection of ancient writings. In the words of Scripture, the voice of the Spirit of God continues to be heard. Repeatedly, new spiritual movements have been launched by the rediscovery of the living power which resides in the canon of Scripture—a living power which strengthens and liberates.

F. F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture, 283.

F. F. Bruce connects canonicity to a foundational truth. The Bible is powerful and authoritative. It is life-changing and redemptive. This does not surprise the Christian, for if the Bible is the Word of God, it should be life-changing and redemptive.

What does it mean to have a canon of Scripture for believers today? Here are several takeaways for todays’ word of the week:

  • We don’t get to adjust the Bible; we must adjust to the Bible. (Deut. 4:2; Rev. 22:18)
  • If we can trust that the Bible is inspired and the canon came from God, we can trust the Bible. 
  • If we can trust the Bible, then the Bible is our authority for life and practice. 

One of the primary reasons for these theological word of the week posts is to connect theological truths to daily Christian living. If the Bible is God’s special revelation of himself to us, then it is authoritative in our lives. We must learn from it, submit to it, and apply it.

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