Do We Have What They Had?
Wouldn't it be nice to have a trustworthy source of truth? Even if you are someone who doesn't believe that there is an objective truth, wouldn't it at least be a little comforting if there was? Well, for Christians, the Bible has always been the final source of truth. But while we may accept the Bible as God's final word, non-believers certainly doubt the divine nature of the writings and I think it is fair to address their observations and concerns. I hear their questions and complaints all the time. The Bible has been re-translated so many times that it is no longer reliable!
The Bible is full of contradictions and errors!
The Bible was written by men, not God!
The Bible was assembled by the Catholic Church!
The Bible is full of mythology!
With all of these doubts and concerns, it's really no wonder that most non-believers think the Bible is anything but true.Handled With Care
But the Bible is really like no other book. It has one underlying message of redemption that is consistent throughout the text, yet it was written over a period of 1400 years, written over forty generations, written by over forty authors from all walks of life (kings, peasants, philosophers, poets, fishermen, statesmen, scholars, doctors, and businessmen), written on three continents (Asia, Africa and Europe), written in a variety of moods (sorrow, joy, anger, excitement, tranquility) and written in three languages (Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek)! Now think about it for a minute. What other book is this diverse? What other book is this complicated and crosses through this amount of time and history. All of that, yet it is centered on the singular message of redemption through a Savior. For a book of incredible depth and variety, the Bible is remarkably single minded, and its consistency is due at least in some part to the reverent way in which it has been handled over the years. And this reverence for the Bible as God's Word is the best place to start, when examining the reliability of the scriptures. Two Important Questions
Before we can even address the concerns and complaints of non-believers when it comes to the Bible, we've got to answer two important foundational questions. First, "Do we have what the ancients had?" In other words, how do we know that the Bible in our hands hasn't changed over the years and become corrupted as time has passed? This is an issue of "transmission", the process by which an ancient document is passed down over the generations. We've got to answer this question because a lot of folks will tell you that the Bible has been corrupted over time, and if that is true, there's no reason for Christians to put much faith in it! The second foundational question is, "How did we get what we've got?" This is a question that deals with the "canonization" of scripture and we’ve got to answer it because there are also a lot of people who will try to tell you that the books of the New Testament were written hundreds of years after Jesus lived and we assembled by a Roman Catholic Church that had an agenda to push and a lot to hide (refer to the Da Vinci Code, to see what I'm talking about!). Before we can look at other important issues related to the Bible, we've got to answer these two questions. The Old Testament
We'll begin by taking a look at the Old Testament. Many people have taken a quick examination of the Old Testament and discovered that the Masoretic text of the Hebrew Old Testament contains only twenty-four books, beginning with Genesis and ending with 2 Chronicles. They compare that with our Protestant Bible and discover that we've got thirty-nine books assembled in our Old Testament. The apparent difference really shouldn't alarm you. Though the arrangement of the Hebrew Old Testament is in only twenty-four books, the subject matter is identical with the thirty-nine book division of our Protestant English Bible. The difference is in the order and division of the arrangement of the books. Later formations of the Old Testament divided the books of Samuel, Kings, Chronicles and Ezra-Nehemiah each into two, which makes eight instead of four. The Twelve Minor Prophets were divided into twelve, instead of being counted as one book as in the twenty-four book division. This adds fifteen making a total of the thirty-nine books as in our present Old Testament.
It's also important to remember that the original scriptures weren't in book form at all. The sacred texts were originally written on animal skins or linen scrolls. They were written in Hebrew or Aramaic and from the earliest of times, they were treated as something more than simple stories. And by the time the Jews were exiled to Babylon as part of their captivity after being captured by neighboring civilizations, they REALLY treated the writings like the scripture they really were. Why? We'll perhaps because these same writings had miraculously and divinely predicted their captivity. Maybe they figured it out. But one thing is certain, by the time Israel returned to its homeland, the demand for copies of the scriptures rose dramatically. Now without a temple, local groups of devout believers began to form in synagogues and each synagogue was going to need a copy of the sacred writings. It was time for the Jews to become even more conscientious of their scriptures. Junker Verses Viper
No before we continue, I want you to imagine that your parents have just given you the gift of a car. You are extremely excited to hear that they have given you this gift, until, that is, you walk outside and discover that the car is actually a salvaged vehicle with extensive accident damage. But it does at least run just fine. You’re disappointed, but hey, it’s a car. So you drive it around town. It looks terrible, but it does run. Well how much care do you think you are going to give the junker? Are you going to wash it and try to wax it up? No, you’re going to use it and get rid of it as soon as you can afford something better.
But now let's say the car you were given wasn't a junker, but was instead a Viper! A brand new Viper with all the bells and whistles! Do you think you might treat it better? Do you think you might be very careful about where you parked it, how often you examined it for dents, or about how often you cleaned it? I think you would. There's a big difference between a junker and a Viper. See the ancient Jews never saw their sacred writings as junk. They always saw them as you might see the precious Viper. And they took care of them accordingly. The Careful Scribes
See, the Jews have always been a people of one book who have guarded it with extreme care and precision. From the post exile time of Ezra and even before, there were priests (Deut. 31:24-26) and later scribes called sopherim who were given the responsibility to copy and meticulously care for the sacred text so they could hand down the correct reading. And to this very day, the tradition of copying and caring for the scriptures remains something that is venerated in the orthodox Jewish faith. The Masoretes and the Masoretic Text
Early in this millennium, scribes known as the Masoretes took over the precise job of copying the ancient scriptures and transmitting them for later generations. They developed something that is now known as the Masoretic Text. This text has been recognized as an incredible trustworthy copy of the original scriptures, and one of the reasons for our faith in these documents lies in the manner in which they were copied. To ensure the accuracy of the Masoretic copies, the Masoretes developed a number of strict measures to ensure that every fresh copy was an exact reproduction of the original. They established tedious procedures to protect the text against being changed:
When obvious errors were noted in the text, perhaps because a tired scribe nodded, the text was still not changed. Instead, a correction was placed in the margin called qere, "to be read," and that which was written in the text was called, kethibh, "to be written."
When a word was considered textually, grammatically, or exegetically questionable, dots were placed above that word.
Minute statistics were also kept as a further means of guarding against errors: in the Hebrew Bible at Leviticus 8:8, the margin has a reference that this verse is the middle verse of the Torah. According to the note at Leviticus 10:16 the word darash is the middle word in the Torah, and at 11:42 we are assured that the waw in a Hebrew word there is the middle letter. At the end of each book are statistics as: the total number of verses in Deuteronomy is 955, the total in the entire Torah is 5,845; the total number of words is 97, 856, and the total number of letters is 400,945. In this way, each book could be measured mathematically to see if there was any copy error!
We can see from this very brief summary something of the painstaking procedures the Jews went through to assure the accurate transmission of the text. Our English Bible is a translation of this Hebrew text which has been handed down to us. God made the Jews the custodians of the Old Testament record. Though their eyes may be blind to its truth (see Isaiah 6:10; John 12:40 and Romans 10:1-3; 11:7), they have guarded its transmission with great accuracy. Verified By the Dead Sea Scrolls
But how do we know that the Old Testament Scriptures are truly accurate? Is there a way that we can test them? Well, yes there is a test that we can examine. In 1947, a young Bedouin goat herdsman found some strange clay jars in caves near the valley of the Dead Sea. Inside the jars were some leather scrolls. The discovery of these 'Dead Sea Scrolls' at Qumran has been hailed as the outstanding archeological discovery of the twentieth century. The scrolls have revealed that a commune of monastic farmers flourished in the valley from 150 B.C. to 70 A.D. It is believed that when they saw the Romans invade the land they put their cherished leather scrolls in the jars and hid them in the caves on the cliffs northwest of the Dead Sea.
The Dead Sea Scrolls include a complete copy of the Book of Isaiah, a fragmented copy of Isaiah, containing much of Isaiah 38-6, and fragments of almost every book in the Old Testament. The majority of the fragments are from Isaiah and the Pentateuch (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy). The books of Samuel, in a tattered copy, were also found and also two complete chapters of the book of Habakkuk. In addition, there were a number of non-biblical scrolls related to the commune found. These materials are dated around 100 B.C. The significance of the find, and particularly the copy of Isaiah, was recognized by Merrill F. Unger when he said: 'This complete document of Isaiah quite understandably created a sensation since it was the first major Biblical manuscript of great antiquity ever to be recovered. Interest in it was especially keen since it antedates by more than a thousand years the oldest Hebrew texts preserved in the Masoretic tradition.' (Merrill F. Unger, Famous Archaeological Discoveries (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1957), 72.)
With this one discovery, we were able to examine documents that were 1000 years older than the nearest available Masoretic Text. And when we examined the Dead Sea Scroll version of Isaiah, we confirmed the reliability of the Masoretes! The Proof From Isaiah
A comparison of the Qumran manuscript of Isaiah with the Masoretic text revealed them to be extremely close in accuracy to each other. A comparison of Isaiah 53 shows that only 17 letters differ from the Masoretic text. Ten of these are mere differences in spelling (like our 'honor' and the English 'honour') and produce no change in the meaning at all. Four more are very minor differences, such as the presence of a conjunction (and) which are stylistic rather than substantive. The other three letters are the Hebrew word for 'light.' This word was added to the text by someone after 'they shall see' in verse 11. Out of 166 words in this chapter, only this one word is really in question, and it does not at all change the meaning of the passage. We are told by biblical scholars that this is typical of the whole manuscript of Isaiah. The Missing Puzzle Pieces
See, critics of the Old Testament transmission would like you to believe that there is something substantial that is missing or that has been corrupted over time. They would like you to believe that we have a tremendous void in the scriptures that later writers invented and added to the text. As a result, they would argue that we don't really know what is true and what is invention. But if you could imagine the Old Testament to be a puzzle, you would need to recognize that the transmission of the puzzle has been so accurate that what's now missing are not large pieces from the core of the puzzle, (making it difficult to see what is being said) but simply a few inconsequential pieces from the edge (which have no bearing on the meaning at all).What the World Thinks and What We Know
The world would have you believe that our scriptures have been corrupted over time, but the evidence is clear here. Don't be fooled. More scholarship has been spent on this singular issue than in perhaps any other study of ancient documents Let the world think what it may, You need to stand firm in the knowledge that in the Old Testament, we have recovered a text that is true to its history and amazingly accurate.
Remember that the New Testament Writers were confident in the accurate formation of the Old Testament. They considered it to be God given scripture. Listen to what Paul tells Timothy:2 Timothy 3:16-17
All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.
So what scripture is Paul referring to? How do we know that Paul is talking about the same scriptures that we are talking about? Well one way to know is to realize that Paul and other New Testament Writers are constantly either quoting from Old Testament scriptures or citing their nature and the spirit of their content. And in case you were wondering, there is more than just Paul's word on this matter of the formation and reliability of the Old Testament. Other ancient figures talked about the canon of the Old Testament scriptures: Prologue to Ecclesiasticus
This non-canonical book refers to a threefold division of books (namely, the Law, the Prophets, and hymns and precepts for human conduct) which was known by the writer’s grandfather (which would be around 200 B.C.).
The Alexandrian Philosopher (around A D. 40) referred to the same threefold division.
A teaching house of rabbis (A. D. 90), discussed canonicity. Some questioned whether it was right to accept (as was being done) Esther, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Solomon. These discussions concerned an existing canon.
The Church Fathers
All (with the sole exception of Augustine in 400AD) accepted the thirty-nine books of the Old Testament.
The Testimony of Josephus
But perhaps the most compelling recognition of the Old Testament comes from the Jewish Historian, Josephus (A. D. 37-100) who said that the Jews held as sacred only twenty-two books (which include exactly the same as our present thirty-nine books of the Old Testament). It's clear that the Jews of Jesus' day were holding the same Hebrew Bible that we recognize today. As a matter of fact, Jesus Himself confirmed this for us.
The Testimony of Jesus
In Matthew 23:35, Jesus said, "that upon you may fall the guilt of all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah, the son of Berechiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar." The murder Jesus spoke of is recorded in 2 Chronicles 24:20-22. Abel's death is recorded in Genesis and in the Hebrew Bible, 2 Chronicles is the last book. In essence then, Christ was saying "from the first to the last murder in the Bible." In this one statement, Jesus recognized the canon of the Hebrew Old Testament and confirmed for us that we have today, what they had back then!