How did we get the Bible?

bibleWilliam Tyndale grew up in England in the 1500’s. Back then ordinary people did not own Bibles; they had to go to church to hear what the Bible had to say.   The church, at the time, believed that only the Pope and priests were educated enough to understand and interpret the Bible.   But there was a problem, the only version of the Bible tolerated in England was Jerome’s Latin translation which dated back to the 4th century and most of the priests could not understand Latin.

William Tyndale felt that God was calling him to translate the Bible into English so that all people, ordinary people, could read it for themselves.  God had given William a gift for languages and graduating from Oxford University he had mastered seven languages including Hebrew and Greek, the original languages of the Bible.  However, translating the Bible was against the law.

William famously said,

“I defy the Pope and all his laws. If God spare my life, after many years I will cause a boy that driveth the plough to know more of the Scripture, than he does.”

William fled to Germany and continued translating the scriptures and smuggled the Bibles into England.  Families put their money together to buy a Bible and read the Word of God for the first time in their own language.  The religious leaders and the king were livid and tried to destroy as many copies as they could.  A spy betrayed William and he was jailed, charged with heresy and sentenced to death by burning.

The last thing we know about William Tyndale is that he was led through a crowd into the public square. A noose was placed around his neck and his last words were, “God please open the King of England’s eyes.” He was then hanged and his body was set alight.  Within one year of William’s death, the King of England gave approval for an English Bible to be published – King Henry eighth’s “Great Bible” – and Tyndale’s version was used as a guide for the new translation.

The Bible is the great authority for Christians.  In reality what the Bible says to Christians, it also says to the entire world, for God is God of the entire world.  In the Bible we learn about the human condition, our need for salvation, God’s plan through Christ, the everlasting joy that awaits those who trust in Jesus, and more.  “How did we get the Bible?” We’ll look at four key areas: inspiration, canonization, transmission and translations.

Misconceptions about the Bible

  1. Some people think the Bible was written at one time, like someone writing a bestselling novel. No, the 66 books of the Bible were written over 1400 years by over 40 authors in 3 languages, yet with one unifying, consistent message culminating in Christ.
  2. Another misconception about the Bible is that it was written by a select few to gain power and influence. However, the opposite it true. More often than not, those men God used to author his word were frowned upon, ostracized, persecuted and killed.
  3. Another misconception is that there are many different Bibles so we cannot be sure the one we read is the right one.

1. Inspiration

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:16-17)

In this verse, the term “all Scripture” refers to the Old Testament as the New Testament was in the process of being written.  “Breathed out by God” translates a Greek word (theopneustos) that does not occur in any other Greek text prior to this letter.  The term stresses the divine origin of Scripture.  Paul does not so much point to the human authors of Scripture as inspired people but says that the writings themselves are the words spoken (“breathed out”) by God.  The divine origin of Scripture is the reason for its power to convert unbelievers and grow believers in the faith.

 “…No prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” (2 Peter 1:20-21)

These verses again explain the origin of the Old Testament Scripture, namely that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation or understanding, but rather, that “all prophecy of Scripture” came about from the Holy Spirit’s leading – men spoke from God carried along by Holy Spirit.

Kevin DeYoung wrote in his book, “Taking God at his Word”:

We do not follow myths. We are not interested in stories with nice morals to them. Nothing in all of the Bible was produced solely by the human will. God used men to write the words, but these men did their work carried along by the Holy Spirit. The Bible is an utterly reliable book, an unerring book, a holy book, a divine book.

Inspiration means that human writers were inspired by God to record accurately what God wanted them to write.  It does not mean that God took control of people in the sense of some occultic practice like automatic writing.  It means that their writings were divinely inspired and recorded.   The Bible was written by real people, living in real places, recording real events, and also communicating what God wanted to communicate.

What about the New Testament, is it also inspired?

15 And count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, 16 as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures. (2 Peter 3:15-16)

Here the Apostle Peter refers to the Apostle Paul’s writings as Scripture.  The Bible, Old and New Testament, is not the thoughts of humans about God, but the written word of God to us.

How did the church put the Bible together?

2. Canonization

The process of canonization has to do with what writings were deemed inspired and thus included in the biblical canon.   The word canon is a reference to a measuring reed or standard by which something is measured.   When referring to the Bible, a canon has to do with genuinely inspired writings by which all else can be judged.

Old Testament canon

The Old Testament written in Hebrew and consists of 39 individual books.  By time of Jesus the Old Testament canon was recognised as divinely inspired and Jesus affirmed this truth.  For example, in Matthew 19:4-5 Jesus said that the Old Testament is God’s words.

He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, (Jesus was now going to tell them what God said and then quotes Genesis 2.24)  ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’?

The implication could not be any plainer: for Jesus, what the Old Testament said, God says.  Jesus believed in the inspiration of the Old Testament and therefore so should we.   Jesus affirmed the human authorship of the Old Testament Scriptures while at the same time pointed to it’s divine authorship.

New Testament canon

Following the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ, the apostles and their associates wrote documents that came to be confirmed as inspired Scripture.  The New Testament was written in Greek and consists of 27 individual books.  Several criteria were necessary in order for a writing to be included.  First, the document in question had to conform to the “rule of faith” i.e. it was consistent with what God had already revealed.  Second, the document required some sort of apostolicity – written by an apostle commissioned by Christ or a close associate.   Third, the document had widespread acceptance in the church.  The New Testament came to be recognized very soon.  Yet, we must remember, the church did not choose the books of the New Testament.  The church recognized and affirmed the writings that were inspired by God.  F.F. Bruce writes:

“The early Christians were not exceptionally intelligent people, but they did have the capacity to recognise divine authority when they saw it…When at last a Church Council – the synod of Hippo in A.D. 393 – listed the 27 books of the New Testament, it did not confer upon them any authority which they did not already possess, but simply recorded their previously established authority.”

3. Transmission

“Transmission” has to do with how the contents of the Bible were transmitted through history – how copies of the original writings came down to us.  If the record of transmission is poor, then the Bible we have is highly suspect.  But if the record of transmission is rich, then we have great cause for trusting the Bible.  Providentially, the transmission of the Biblical documents through history is astounding.   In the case of the New Testament we have thousands of manuscript copies, as well as thousands more fragments or portions of the New Testament.  The Old Testament is much the same.

Copying 

Getting our present day Bible was a painstaking process of copying.  Long before the printing press of the 15th century, copies of Scripture had to be preserved by meticulously copying one letter at a time. The Bible we hold in our hands or on our Samsung tablets is only because people faithfully over several centuries copied the text to replace worn out copies.   These copies were not perfect, but the fact we have so many manuscripts allows us to reproduce the text with an excellent level of certainty.  Good Bible translations let you know where there are differences by having a note in the margin that says “alternate reading” with the variant noted.   In no case do these minor differences impact the overall teaching of the Bible.

4. Translations

Some people say, “Look at how many versions of the Bible are available today. How do we know which is the right one?”

Because the Bible the Bible was written in Hebrew, Greek and a little Aramaic, it needs to be translated for various people groups to read it.   Some translations are very literal and are good for studying, and are known as “word for word” translations.  Other translation or versions translate ideas more that individual words, they are “thought for thought” translations – they are good for reading out loud.  In all these different versions or translations of the Bible the message of the Bible stays the same.

As we study language and the history of words more, the Bible’s one meaning, rather than being lost in translation, is becoming even clearer.

Implications

Because the Bible is God’s word, some implication necessarily follow:

The Bible is true; not myth or legend.

The Bible is reliable; you can base your life and future on it.

The Bible is inerrant; it cannot contradict itself or contain untruths because God cannot contradict himself or lie.

The Bible is authoritative; because it is God’s breathed out word it must be our highest authority; not the latest best-selling novel or psychological insight.

The Bible is clear.  God has chosen to reveal himself and because God is good he reveals himself in a way we can understand.  Therefore the Bible is clear and understandable.  Of course, some sections of the Bible are harder to understand than others (cf. 2 Peter 3:15-16!) – but the overall message of the Bible is very plain and clear.

Today

William Tyndale died so we can have the Bible in English.  Present day there are over 500 languages with the full Bible and nearly 1300 languages with the New Testament. Over 4000 languages have no Bible in their language at all.

 

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