If you have a good modern translation of the Bible, then you have almost exactly what the ancient authors wrote. It is amazing that people try to argue that we cannot trust the Bible because we do not have the original copies. The same is true of Plato, Sophocles, Homer, or Caesar Augustus.
Until the middle of the twentieth century, our oldest copies of the Old Testament dated from about AD 900. We knew the extreme care the rabbis used to copy the sacred text before they destroyed the worn one. But still, the copies we had were historically distant from the original (called the autographa). But then in 1947 the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered at Qumran. Suddenly we had copies of much of the Old Testament that were more than a thousand years older than our previous oldest copies, including some 40,000 ancient inscriptions. From these fragments more than 500 books have been reconstructed, including some Old Testament books, such as a complete copy of Isaiah.
A comparison of the Qumran manuscript of Isaiah with the Masoretic text from AD 1000 showed the most minor variations, mostly spelling (like the American honor and the British honour) or stylistic changes such as adding a conjunction. Checking the pivotal text of Isaiah 53, we find that out of the 166 words in that chapter, only one word is really in question, and it does not at all change the meaning of the passage. The Qumran text added the word “light” after “he shall see” in verse 11. It’s a word that was implied but not actually written. Our confidence in the text was confirmed.
In the case of the New Testament, we have more than 20,000 handwritten manuscripts in Greek, Latin, Syriac, Coptic and other ancient languages including almost 6000 Greek manuscripts with fragments written no later than 50 years after the original books and letters. In addition, we have more than one million quotations of the New Testament by church fathers. This is truly amazing because the Bible was copied onto fragile materials like papyrus. The copies weren’t stored anywhere that protected them from the elements, but in God’s providence they still survived.
As we compare copies of both Old and New Testament, we do find variations, but most of the variations in the many handwritten copies involve spelling, word order, or style. We would expect such minor human error no matter how careful the scribes were. Less than 1 percent of all the variations have anything to do with doctrine, and no doctrine is affected by any variation.
Lastly, Jesus himself used copies and translations. He trusted them, so we should too, especially when the science of textual criticism has confirmed that our text is accurate. Because we have so many manuscripts to check, we are virtually certain that the text of the New Testament is 99.5% textually pure (1). In the entire text of 20,000 lines, only 40 lines are in doubt (about 400 words), and even Bible critics agree that none of these affects any significant doctrine (1).
Holy Scripture is God speaking. That simple but profound statement is why Christians believe that Scripture is our highest authority by which all other lesser authorities are tested. Practically, this means that lesser courts of reason, tradition, and culture are under the highest court of truth, which is divinely inspired Scripture.
By contrast, the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches teach that Scripture is a part of the larger pool of revelation that the church uses in its teaching. For them, authority is not in the Bible itself, but in the teaching office of the church.
Others appeal to the so-called Wesleyan Quadrilateral:
Wesley believed that the living core of the Christian faith was revealed in Scripture, illumined by tradition, vivified in personal experience, and confirmed by reason. Scripture [however] is primary, revealing the Word of God “so far as it is necessary for our salvation.” (2)
In practice, though, the Bible often becomes just one of four major sources of authority to be balanced. Thus, when contemporary critical theories of the Bible start to be taken seriously, the Bible often is judged by other authorities.
The central development of the Protestant Reformation was the return to Scripture as supreme authority. The Reformers coined the slogan sola Scriptura (sometimes prima Scriptura) to summarize this conviction. Nothing judges Scripture. It judges everything else. As followers of Jesus, we take the same stance He did and receive the Bible alone as infallible, inerrant truth from God with full authority over our lives.
The Bible is a living book of God authoritatively speaking as a perfect Father to children he dearly loves about how to live godly lives. For example, it commands us to “put away falsehood” and “speak the truth with [our] neighbor,” not as arbitrary rules of conduct but as church family members who are “members one of another” (3). It is a story of what is best in God’s loving family of the Spirit. It is the story of the God of redemption rescuing us from rebellion, brokenness, sin, and death. Its authority is that in these inspired words we find how to connect with the forgiving and transforming power of the death and resurrection of Jesus.
The canon of Scripture is the collection of books that God has chosen and the Church has recognized as having divine authority in matters of faith and doctrine. The term comes from the Greek word kanon and the Hebrew word qaneh, both of which mean “a rule,” or “measuring rod.” The canon is an authority to which other truth claims are compared and by which they are measured. To speak of canonical writings is to speak of those books that are regarded as having divine authority. They are the books of our Bible.
The thirty-nine books of the Old Testament and twenty-seven books of the New Testament graciously preserved by God in the Bible are the inspired Word of God. The Protestant church recognized that these books constitute the complete canon inspired by God and received them as uniquely authoritative because they are God speaking to his people. F. F. Bruce says:
One thing must be emphatically stated. The New Testament books did not become authoritative for the Church because they were formally included in a canonical list; on the contrary, the Church included them in her canon because she already regarded them as divinely inspired, recognizing their innate worth and generally apostolic authority, direct or indirect. The first ecclesiastical councils to classify the canonical books were both held in North Africa—at Hippo Regius in 393 and at Carthage in 397—but what these councils did was not to impose something new upon the Christian communities but to codify what was already the general practice of those communities (4).
Time after time Jesus and his apostles quoted from this distinctive body of authoritative writings. They designated them as “the Scripture,” “the Scriptures,” “the holy Scriptures,” “the sacred writings,” and so forth (5). They often introduced their quotations with “It is written”; that is, it stands firmly written.
We call these authoritative writings the Old Testament. Jewish people call them the Tanakh, an acronym formed from the first letters of Torah (Law), Naviim (Prophets), and Ketubim (Writings). We see this idea when Jesus explained to his disciples “everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled” (6).It is important to note that the Tanakh includes the same material as the Protestant Old Testament, though they arrange the books differently (7).
Beginning two hundred and fifty years before Christ, Greek-speaking Jews living in Alexandria translated the Old Testament into Greek, calling it the Septuagint. For some unknown reason, they changed the content of several books, added many books, and rearranged the order of the books.
Early Jewish Christians followed Jesus and used the same Old Testament books as found in the Hebrew Bible today, the canon that was formally ratified in a meeting of rabbis at Javneh in A.D. 90. But as the center of Christianity moved away from Jerusalem and Christians read and worshiped more in Greek than Hebrew, the books of the Septuagint were widely used. There was a long and complicated debate about the validity and status of these books. Eventually the Roman Catholic Church adopted many of the books of the Septuagint into its Latin version, called the Vulgate. They referred to them as deuterocanonical, which means secondary canon. As the Reformers attempted to rid the church of many tradition-based Bible-less teachings and get back to the Bible, they also rejected the deuterocanonical books, calling them the Apocrypha. They kept the ordering of the Vulgate but returned to the authoritative books of Jesus, the Hebrew-speaking Jews, and the original Christians.
Today the Eastern Churches and the Catholic Churches accept the Apocrypha while Protestants remain with the books accepted by Hebrews then and now. It should be noted that accepting the Apocrypha would have no significant impact on the doctrinal teaching of the church. The errors of the Catholic Church came from using Apocryphal texts as seeds for speculation rather than from the teachings of the texts themselves.
The early church immediately recognized most of the books of the New Testament as canonical. The four Gospels, written to preserve and spread the story of Jesus to the whole church, were received gladly and universally, as were the writings of Paul, including 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus (also known as the Pastoral Letters). Acts, 1 John, 1 Peter, and Revelation were also universally recognized. However, Hebrews remained in dispute for several centuries, especially in the West, because of the anonymity of its author. The status of James, 2 Peter, 2 John, 3 John, and Jude fluctuated according to church, age, and individual judgment and are occasionally omitted from canonical lists. Some works of the apostolic fathers, such as the Epistle of Barnabas, the Shepherd of Hermas, and the first and second epistles of Clement are sporadically cited as potentially Scripture but are not included in formal canonical lists.
In the fourth century the church moved to settle the issues of the New Testament canon. In the East it was done in the Thirty-Ninth Paschal Letter of Athanasius in AD 367. In the West the canon was fixed at the Council of Carthage in AD 397.
Was the New Testament canon disputed? Not really. Virtually all the books were immediately accepted. Did the church canonize the books? Not at all. Rather, they recognized and confirmed their canonical status. J.I. Packer writes:
The Church no more gave us the New Testament canon than Sir Isaac Newton gave us the force of gravity. God gave us gravity, by His work of creation, and similarly He gave us the New Testament canon, by inspiring the individual books that make it up (8).
How did the church know which books ought to be recognized as canonical? What were the criteria for canonicity? They used three primary criteria:
- Conformity to “the rule of faith.” Did the book conform to orthodoxy, Christian truth recognized as normative in the churches?
- Was the writer of the book an apostle or did the writer of the book have immediate contact with the apostles? All but a few New Testament writers were eyewitnesses to the events they recorded (9).
Though not eyewitnesses, Luke received his information from Paul and numerous eyewitnesses, while Mark received his information from Peter, who was an eyewitness. James and Jude were closely associated with the apostles in Jerusalem and were probably Jesus’ brothers, which would have also made them eyewitnesses (10).
- Did the book have widespread and continuous acceptance and usage by churches everywhere?
In considering the great agreement surrounding the canon of Scripture, scholars have said:
The fact that substantially the whole church came to recognize the same twenty-seven books as canonical is remarkable when it is remembered that the result was not contrived. All that the several churches throughout the Empire could do was to witness to their own experience with the documents and share whatever knowledge they might have about their origin and character. When consideration is given to the diversity in cultural backgrounds and in orientation to the essentials of the Christian faith within the churches, their common agreement about which books belonged to the New Testament serves to suggest that this final decision did not originate solely at the human level (11).
(1) Geisler, Norman L., Nix, William E., A General Introduction to the Bible (Chicago: Moody Press, 1986), 475
(2) United Methodist Church, The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church (Nashville: Abingdon, 2004), 77.
(3) Eph. 4:25
(4) F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1981), 22.
(5) John 7:38, Acts 8:32, Rom. 4:3; Matt. 21:42, John 5:39, Acts 17:11; Rom. 1:2; 2 Tim. 3:15
(6) Luke 24:44
(7) Walter A. Elwell and Barry J. Beitzel, Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1988), 301.
(8) I. Packer, God Has Spoken: Revelation and the Bible, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2000), 109.
(9) John 19:35; 20:30–31; Acts 1:1–3, 9; 10:39–42; 1 Cor. 15:6–8; 1 Pet. 5:1; 2 Pet. 1:16; 1 John 1:1–3
(10) 2 Tim. 4:11; Luke 1:1–4; 1 Pet. 5:13
(11) Glenn W. Barker, William L. Lane, and J. Ramsey Michaels, The New Testament Speaks (New York: Harper & Row, 1969), 29.