How Did We Get the Bible?: Part One

In this post and the next, we want to answer the question, “How did we get the Bible?” To do so will require us to take a tour of the history of the Bible in English.

Let’s start with nailing down some terminology. When we use the word “translate” we are talking about the transfer of a message from one language into another language. So, a “translation” would be the resultant message in the receptor language. An “edition” means the combined prints of a work of literature struck from one plate; they will all be the same. The word “text” could be used in two ways. (1) It is simply another name for a literary work, a writing: “the text of the NT; or the text of the Illiad”; (2) “text” can also be used to refer to a particular Bible passage: “Our text today is Jn 3:16.” A “manuscript” is a handwritten copy of a work of literature. Prior to the printing press, all books and pieces of literature were handwritten, this includes the original writings of the Bible.

Now let’s consider the process it took to get the Bible into the English language. There were three stages in this process. Stage 1 was Inspiration. This refers to the act of the Divine Author using the human author to compose the text of Scripture. For example, God inspired Moses to write the majority of the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament.

Stage 2 was the period of Transmission, when the original texts were copied by hand thousands of times over many centuries producing many manuscripts. In this stage we are not talking about changing languages, just copying manuscripts within the original language.

The Third Stage, then, would be Translation. Here is where manuscripts in the original languages of scripture are transferred into another language so that people can read it in their own language. The Bible has been and is still being translated into many different languages. From the earliest times, Christians wanted to produce translations for others to be able to read the Bible for themselves.

Not long after Christianity was legalized, the Latin Bible became the official Bible of the Roman Catholic Church. Throughout the Middle Ages, it was virtually the only Bible available in Europe. If you could not read Latin, you had to rely on the priest to tell you what the Bible said.

And so it was in Medieval England. Educated people spoke and wrote in Latin. The Latin translation completed by Jerome around 400 A.D. is known as the Vulgate. This was the almost exclusive Bible used in the British Isles for 1000 years. During this period, a few translations of sections of the Bible into English were done, but not the entire Bible. Access to the Bible was very restricted. As you might imagine, owning a personal or even family Bible (which would have been hand copied) was not economically possible.

Enter John Wycliffe (1330-1384) and his followers, the Lollards. They were responsible for the first complete translation of the Bible into English. They worked from the Latin Vulgate, which they had access to, since Wycliffe was a professor at Oxford University. This occurred around 1382. Hand copies were made and distributed by his followers. Their first translation was word-for-word, but Wycliffe’s colleague, John Purvey, later revised it to make it more readable.

For his translation of the Bible and for his criticism of the Catholic Church, Wycliffe was later officially declared a heretic. And even though he had been dead 44 years, the Pope had Wycliffe’s remains exhumed, burned, and thrown into the River Swift.

In Part 2, we will continue our history of the Bible in English.

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Believing the Bible: Part Five

In this final post of the series, we are addressing the second issue related to the reliability of the Bible. The first was translation; the second is transmission. This is an historical question, and it goes like this: were the original writings of the Old and New Testaments transmitted through copies that are faithful and accurate?

If I could go back in time, I would take a document scanner. We live in an era where we can make exact copies of documents, millions of copies. The ancients had no such luxury. If they wanted a copy of a book, they had to get it copied by hand. Some people, called scribes or copyists, would do this as a profession, and you could pay them.

While some professional copying of the biblical manuscripts probably happened, if you looked at most of the manuscripts, it would be clear to you that not all of the copyists were pros. They made mistakes. And when you consider how many hand-copied manuscripts still exist today and how many variations they have from one another, you might be overwhelmed.

Yet, the huge majority of these “errors of transmission” are spelling errors, words out of place, skipped words or phrases, and the like. Only a few of the variants have any real significance. Because of the overwhelming agreement, we can confidently say that our existing manuscripts, while not the original writings, are still faithful representatives of the originals.

We evangelicals maintain that the originals were God-breathed, inspired, and inerrant and that it is a worthy enterprise to compare the copies we do have to reconstruct, as best we can, the original wording of the Scriptures. Can we get there? We have sufficient reason to believe that not only we can but that we have.

So, in conclusion, let’s summarize the five parts of this blog series. The Creator God chose to reveal himself to humanity, which he loves and seeks as his own. He got humanity’s attention by two major events, the Exodus and the Resurrection. And through those events he initiated communications that spell out who he is and what he expects. The eyewitnesses faithfully shared their experience, and faithful copyists proliferated their testimony. Scholars today continue the arduous yet rewarding task of making the Scriptures accessible in living languages around the world. We do well when we know what the Creator has communicated and take it to heart.

Believing the Bible: Part Four

In part three, we considered the reliability of the eyewitnesses and how their circumstances speak to the trustworthiness of their testimony. But someone might ask, “Isn’t the English Bible you use a mere translation of a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy of the original Bible?”

The answer to that question is, “Yes, it is both a translation and a copy.” Although the Bible is no longer available in its original manuscripts, there is nevertheless justification for saying that the Bible we have is accurate. As we consider the question of accuracy, let’s break it down into two issues: translation and transmission.

First, translation. Some people get a bit overwhelmed at all the translations and versions of the Bible we have. There are about five really popular English translations, but there are a plethora of others, some of which you may have never heard. Can we trust them? Yes, we can, but only insofar as they represent the original languages and best manuscripts.

If you went to a foreign country and wanted to communicate with the nationals, you would need an interpreter, right? The same thing is true for you if you can’t read the Greek and Hebrew of the Bible. You need an interpreter. And not just any interpreter, but one who is fluent in both languages, one who has integrity, one who is trustworthy.

The same is true for translators: are they competent in the languages? Are they committed to the integrity and trustworthiness of the Scriptures? And another consideration when it comes to translations of the Bible: Are they working alone or are they working as a team and checking each others’ work? Consider these as you select a Bible version.

In the next post, we will consider the issue of transmission. Copies, copies, copies . . .

Believing the Bible: Part Three

Before we move on to part three of this blog series, let’s recap. In part one and part two, I suggested that the Creator God chose to communicate to his creation by means of two major miraculous events and that the Bible is the result of his communique.

The Bible is made up of two testaments. The Old Testament (our Jewish friends call it the Hebrew Bible) is the result of the Exodus event, which was recorded by eyewitnesses and provides an explanation of the formation of Israel and his Scriptures.

The New Testament is a product of the Resurrection of Jesus, which was also recorded by eyewitnesses. The New Testament explains the formation of the Church and her Scriptures. Superintending this process was the Creator God who intended to communicate the messages to his creatures. He performed the miracles, and he interpreted it through eyewitnesses.

So, now let’s consider their testimony. Why should we be compelled to believe the testimony? What is it about the testimony that makes it believable?

First, I would argue that their testimony is excruciating. That is, they paid a price for believing and sharing their experience. Moses’ entire life was changed. He went from being a shepherd to having a face-off with the Pharaoh of Egypt. The Twelve disciples of Jesus all suffered martyrdom or exile as a result of sharing the gospel. They could have avoided so much suffering had they just said that they made it all up. But they didn’t.

Second, I would argue that their testimony is embarrassing. Moses is reluctant to lead the children of Israel in the first place. He gets angry with the people. He sins. He doesn’t even get to go into the Promised Land. It’s very embarrassing when the recognized leader is a “failure.” Yet, that is exactly the testimony. It’s not pretty; it’s not exalting; it’s not fanciful. And that makes it all the more believable.

Same for the New Testament. Read the Gospels. The Twelve disciples are slow to learn. They make huge mistakes. They deny Jesus; one betrays Jesus. They don’t believe at first. It’s embarrassing. But then they experience the resurrected Jesus, and they are completely different: bold, courageous, willing to stand up to the authorities, willing to suffer for His name’s sake. Something miraculous, they say, has happened, and they can’t help but tell it to the whole world.

Third, I would throw in that nothing archaeologically or historically disproves the testimony. While we have not discovered or unearthed some artifacts we would love to have, what we have uncovered verifies, not contradicts, the Bible’s record.

Other considerations could be added here, but these three characteristics of the testimony of the Old and New Testaments should suffice to support our basic claim: We have sufficient reason to believe the Bible.

In part four, we will consider the faithfulness of the message handed down to us from the eyewitnesses. Can we be sure that we have received the actual eyewitness testimony or has it been [maliciously] changed?

 

Believing the Bible: Part Two

In the last post, I left you with the thought that a Creator who made beings with the ability to communicate would likely communicate with them through an extraordinary means. Miracles are extraordinary events. Do we have any records of miracles occurring in history? We do. We actually have lots of them, from all sorts of religious and non-religious traditions. I am not suggesting that all claims to the miraculous are legitimate, but could some of them be? I think so. Historical accounts that record a miraculous event without fanciful or highly nuanced features beg us to consider. For the sake of our argument, let’s add the qualification that if any miracles are legitimate, they also would be verifiable. That is, they will have supporting evidence that they occurred.

Let me give you an illustration or a working analogy for this. When you throw a rock into a pond, it makes a splash, right? And from that splash there are ripples. Those ripples continue out until some force causes them to cease, such as the shoreline. Now let’s say that someone threw a rock in the pond while you were not looking. You did not see the splash, but you can see ripples. You can confidently conclude that an object made a splash.smoke-on-the-water

I would like to suggest that the Old Testament is a collection of “ripples” resulting from the “splash” of the Exodus event – the miraculous event of God’s deliverance of the children of Israel from Egypt and the formation of a new nation. Of course, the OT is more than that, but not less. Without the “splash” of the Exodus, Israel would not exist, nor would its Law, written by Moses, its historical records of the judges and kings, its poetry and wisdom, or its prophecies calling for a return to Yahweh.

I would also like to propose that the New Testament is a collection of “ripples” resulting from the “splash” of the Jesus event (including everything from his Baptism to his Ascension) with special focus on the miracle of the Resurrection. Without the “splash” of the Resurrection, the church would not exist, nor its Gospels, history, epistles, or prophecy.

In the next post in this series, we will consider the reliability of the testimony of those miraculous events and their effects.

Believing the Bible: Part One

When it comes to the question of what we believe, we evangelical Christians offer the Bible as our foundation for faith and practice. But why do we believe the Bible? It’s a compelling book, yes, but so are other books. The question really is, “Is it true?” And the second question is, “How do we know it is true?”

Let’s start with the existence of God. We have many good, sound reasons for believing in the existence of God. I won’t argue them here; instead, we will assume this truth. Building on that foundation, we can move into talking about who this God is. First, we would say he is the Creator. Now think about this: a God who creates ipso facto reveals himself, at least in a general sort of way. God’s act of creation gives his creatures access to knowing him, at least in part. That’s revelation, self-disclosure. We can know something about the creator by observing his creation. For example, God created large creatures and microscopic creatures; he created rocks and trees; he created color and music; he created humanity. All of these designs tell us something about the designer.

Now a Creator of living beings who possess the ability to communicate with one another may very well choose to communicate with those creatures beyond mere general revelation of himself through creation. Indeed, doesn’t it stand to reason that he would communicate to them? Logically, yes. So, what would it look like if he did? And does history reveal that he has?

A Creator God who has fashioned a world from nothing, a world in which he is not confined, mind you, could choose to send messages to that world via any number of media. But the most likely way to get attention would be through doing something extraordinary.

In the next part in this series, we will consider the miraculous communication from God to humanity.

What to Look for in Bible Passages

The following list comes from Duvall and Hays, Grasping God’s Word.

What to look for in Bible texts (that will help you interpret them):

In Sentences

  1. Repetition of Words
  2. Contrasts
  3. Comparisons
  4. Lists
  5. Cause and Effect
  6. Figures of Speech
  7. Conjunctions
  8. Verbs
  9. Pronouns

In Paragraphs

  1. General and Specific
  2. Questions and Answers
  3. Dialogue
  4. Purpose/Result Statements
  5. Means
  6. Conditional Clauses
  7. Actions/Roles of People or God
  8. Emotional Terms
  9. Tone

In Discourses

  1. Connections between Paragraphs and Episodes
  2. Story Shifts: Major Breaks and Pivots
  3. Interchange (aka intercalation or “sandwiching”)
  4. Chiasm
  5. Inclusio

Reading Greek

For my birthday this summer, my wife gave me a leather-bound UBS Greek New Testament (published by Crossway). I have been delighting in it for my morning studies. So far, I have read through Matthew 17. Here are some of the practical lessons I’ve learned from the practice:

  • Alas, how Greek mastery can be lost from a lack of use!
  • Yet I am also encouraged by how much and how quickly one can regain by keeping at the regular daily task of reading.
  • Reading the Bible slowly, we notice the details and mull the message over and over in our minds. A foreign language does us good by making us read s l o w l y (kind of like kids reading the AV).

Let me encourage you to keep up with your Greek. And if you haven’t taken Greek, you should!

Beginning with a Beatitude

Do you find it difficult to begin a piece of writing or a speech? I certainly do. Once I get started, I am alright. Beginning . . . that’s a challenge.

I have been teaching the Sermon on the Mount in our church. A few years back I taught it as a Greek exegesis course at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary when I was a doctoral student. The Beatitudes mesmerize me. Jesus covers a lot of ground with an economy of words.

And just how did the Messiah start this ‘first’ public discourse? “Happy are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 5:3). Note: While it is impossible to know for certain whether this was Jesus’ first public discourse (aside from preaching in the synagogues and towns a bit), Matthew seems to present it that way.

Everyone wants to be happy; it is the motive behind everything we do. In the Beatitudes, Jesus reveals his concern for our happiness, but he teaches us that happiness is not found where we might naturally think. Jesus’ first quality to highlight was poverty of spirit, which I define as a humble recognition that I bring nothing of spiritual significance to the table when I approach God. He said that’s the beginning point of true joy and fulfillment.

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