One question always raised by skeptics is whether or not the biblical texts can be trusted. The idea is that since the writing of Scripture took place a long time after the events recorded, it is likely that errors crept in that change the original meaning of the texts. Obviously, we do not have copies of the original manuscripts, so is it possible that our Bible has errors? This is a valid question to ask: are there errors in the biblical texts that make them unreliable as a source for understanding about God and His purposes?
Before anything in the Bible was written down, people told stories about God and God’s relationship with the people we now read about in the Bible. Eventually, as human societies in the Near East began to develop forms of writing that were easy to learn and use, people began to write down the stories, songs (psalms), and prophecies that would one day become a part of the Bible. This process took centuries.
Some critics have suggested that writing was invented long after events in the Hebrew Bible took place. Therefore, how can we know that these events actually took place in the way they are portrayed in the Hebrew Bible?
Writing with symbols carved into stone tablets began around 3100 BC in Sumer. By 1500 BC writing had developed with an alphabet that made it possible to put writing on parchment. This not only made writing easier, but more people could have access to what was written.
Scholars put Moses on the scene at about the same time writing on parchment began, around 1500 BC. There is no reason to suppose that he could not read or write.
At first, Scripture was handed down in story form from generation to generation, father passing on stories to sons. This stage of passing on stories by word of mouth is known as the “oral tradition.” With the development of language that could be written on parchment what had been transmitted orally began to be recorded in writing. The earliest examples of Scriptures are in the Phoenician script around 1200 BC. The texts were written on individual scrolls measuring ten inches wide by thirty feet long.
The Bible as Christians know it today did not begin as one large volume—with Old and New Testaments. It came into being as part of a selection process called “canonization.” The Greek word for “canon” can mean many things, such as “measuring rod” or “ruler.”
How did the collection of New Testament books come into being? Faith tells us that the Holy Spirit who controlled the writing of the individual books also controlled the selection and collection of the individual books. While this is true as a statement of faith, the process of determining what books were to be included in the New Testament was not a simple one. Neither is it quite accurate to say that there was never any question about whether a book should be included in the New Testament.
We do not have original copies of any book in the Bible. Specialist scholars of many different faith traditions have worked over the past 100 years and continue to work on assuring we have a Bible that is as close to the original as possible. Their efforts have been published for other scholars to study. Two of these sources for modern translators of the Bible are Biblia Hebraica (Old Testament) and Novum Testamentum Graece (New Testament).
Scripture fragments are continually being discovered and there are thousands of biblical texts to study and compare. This process will continue so long as there are more ttets are discovered. There are some textual variations among all of these fragments and portions of books, but nothing has been discovered that puts into question any orthodox biblical teaching.
In spite of what those in popular culture may say, the New Testament books did not become authoritative because the Church or an emperor placed them on a canonical list. The Church included these books because they were already thought to be divinely inspired and the result of apostolic authority, direct and indirect. At least four criteria were used:
- Was the writing the work of an apostle or someone closely associated with an apostle?
- Did the teaching of the work uphold the apostolic teachings maintained in the churches established by the apostles?
- Was the work accepted as genuine by the greater part of the churches? A fifth century AD writer put it this way: “What has been believed everywhere, always, by all.”
- Was the work related to the Old Testament? In other words, was the Old Testament referenced in the book?
In spite of the thousands of textual variations that have been found and the struggles of the early church to determine what writings were to be accepted, we can be assured that a modern translation of both the Old and New Testament are reliable and as close to the original documents that we can get at the present time.
There are scores of books covering this subject and I am listing four that are very readable for anyone who wants to have more information.
Karen Armstrong, The Bible.
- F. Bruce, et. al., The Origin of the Bible.
- F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents.
- F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture