Let's play a game. Maybe you haven't played this since you were a kid, but let's play the "Telephone Game." I'm going to whisper a sentence into _______'s ear, and then they're going to repeat it into the next person's ear, and so on until we get to the end of the 3rd row. You can only whisper it once, and then the person has to pass it on. If you're not sure what the person whispered to you, take your best guess. Even if it doesn't make any sense to you. (Just a long as you're not whispering anything offensive.) And we'll see just how accurately the message is passed along. Ready?
"The penguin spilled root beer all over the principal's new dress."
Okay, so what did we end up with? Here on the screen is what I originally said...
"The penguin spilled root beer all over the principal's new dress."
That was a fun little game we used to play as kids. And some people think the same thing has happened to the Bible over the centuries. As it's been repeated and passed along, they think the message has gotten confused and distorted over the centuries.
In fact, a lot of people have a lot of concerns or objections about the reliability of the Bible. How do we know that what has been transmitted down to us today bears any resemblance to what was originally written? Why should I trust it? Why should I believe it or take it seriously today?
Over the past few weeks we've been looking at objections that people raise about the Bible, and this is one of the ones that comes up time and time again. The Bible was written thousands of years ago; how do I know it hasn't been corrupted, manipulated, or edited over the centuries? And besides, who chose what books to include? Why should I trust them, and what if they messed up?
Mostly, these kinds of questions deal with the New Testament. The Old Testament was the Jewish Scripture that was used by the Hebrews centuries before the time of Jesus and were accepted as authentic and authoritative by the Jews. Jesus and the disciples frequently referred to Old Testament people, passages, and events which adds to their credibility, at least for Christ-followers.
Most people, though, when they express objections to how the Bible was put together and how it has been passed down through the centuries are most concerned with the New Testament. So that's where we're going to spend most of our time this morning. We've looked at four of these objecitons already, so we're going to start today with...
Objection #5: Wasn't the New Testament compiled by Church Councils in the 4th century?
This is a common belief. The most popular allegation is that the Emperor Constantine commissioned the Council of Nicaea in A.D. 325 to put the Bible together and edited it to conform to what they wanted it to say.
So to answer that, let's all hop in my time machine and go back to the year 50. Because it was right about that time that the apostle Paul was writing some of his letters. In particular, his first letter to the church in Corinth, written sometime between AD 48 and AD 60. And in that letter, in chapter 15, this is what Paul wrote…
1 Corinthians 15:1-6 (NLT)
Now let me remind you, dear brothers and sisters, of the Good News I preached to you before. You welcomed it then and still do now, for your faith is built on this wonderful message. And it is this Good News that saves you if you firmly believe it--unless, of course, you believed something that was never true in the first place.
I passed on to you what was most important and what had also been passed on to me--that Christ died for our sins, just as the Scriptures said. He was buried, and he was raised from the dead on the third day, as the Scriptures said. He was seen by Peter and then by the twelve apostles. After that, he was seen by more than five hundred of his followers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died by now.
Paul is writing this within a generation of what had happened. And the closer the writing is to the actual events, the more likely it is to be accurate. There were witnesses still alive who could have disputed what Paul was writing. That's in your notes...
• The books of the New Testament were written during the first century and included eyewitness accounts.
And as any journalist… any lawyer… any investigator… will tell you, the earlier the testimony, especially with the presence of other witnesses, the greater confidence you can have that the testimony is true.
So here’s Paul, writing very early and summing up the basics of the Christian faith. And his validation is that he has talked with eyewitnesses… plus he has worked alongside the original disciples of Jesus.
And then there were the others who wrote. So we have the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Two of them were original Apostles of Jesus. The other two worked alongside them. Mark wrote down what he learned from Peter. Luke wrote down what he saw and what he learned while traveling with Paul.
Those books were also written very early. In fact, most New Testament historians agree that every book contained in the New Testament was written within the first century. Strong arguments can actually be made one or two of the books could have been written by A.D. 40 and that all the books were written before A.D. 70, though some say the Gospel of John and perhaps Revelation weren’t written until closer to the end of the first century.
But you should also understand that, when they were written, the books were not immediately compiled into the New Testament. Take the letters of Paul, for example. Many of his letters were written to specific churches. Like the book of Ephesians. It was a letter specifically for the Church in the city of Ephesus, and then it was shared with other churches as well. You even see Paul give instructions for this to happen in Colossians 4:6...
Colossians 4:16 (NLT)
After you have read this letter, pass it on to the church at Laodicea so they can read it, too. And you should read the letter I wrote to them.
So he's telling them to read each other's mail. It's authoritative. It's Scripture, so hand it around. And before long, groups of letters began to circulate together.
• By the end of the first century many of the books began to be circulated together.
In fact, some historians believe that the very idea of a book was invented by early Christians. Or at least, they were the first to popularize it. Remember that up until that time, books weren't written in books; they were written on scrolls. And because of that, you could only put so much information on a scroll before it would become too big to handle. That's why when you're reading the Bible and you wish the writer had expanded more on what he's writing about, you've got to remember that he was working with limited space.
Anyway, as these scrolls began to be grouped together and copied and handed around, it could be pretty bulky. So they cam me up with a solution: they started to cut the scrolls into separate sheets and then combine them in the form of a codex or a book. So the first book, or the first codex, was probably the combination of the four Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. And then someone grouped the letters of Paul together and did the same thing. And then some of the other books, and before long people werer grouping the groups together... "Okay, we have the four Gospels here, and the letters of Paul here... let's put them together." And that's your trivia for the day.
But this just kind of started to happen. No Council got together to group the letters or books together. In fact, because of persecution, the early believers had spread throughout the known world, they were living in diverse geographic regions and in various cultures, [PowerPoint] ranging perhaps from India to Palestine to Egypt and Asia Minor and into Europe. And because of the threat of persecution or even execution, it was impossible for the early believers to meet together to talk about which books they’d accept.
The believers were separated by months of travel, living under hostile conditions, and it’s amazing to discover how--despite all of this--there was an amazing consistency in what books came to be considered Scripture. Especially considering that the Church was growing at a phenomenal rate and was bringing in people from a multitude of backgrounds and cultures and beliefs. Everything was working against a consensus developing of what the Scriptures were.
Still, many of the books--such as the four Gospels--began circulating together around the end of the first century. There are records dating back to the first half of the second century which refer to all four Gospels together. Some have even proposed that the four Gospels were circulating together as early as the year A.D. 69. And it was always the same four Gospels.
There’s another manuscript that was written between A.D. 150 and 200, when refers to all the books that are now included in our New Testament with the exception of Hebrews, James, and 1 & 2 Peter. (The Muratorian Fragment.)
And by the year 200, the four Gospels, the letters of Paul, and the book of Acts were all packaged together. That’s 4/5 of the books of the New Testament--books that had been viewed as authoritative by Christians everywhere from the time they were written and were now packaged together.
So what about the other one-fifth? Well, it's true that there was some debate about some of the books. But the main issue was the distance and the time required for the books to circulate. For example, a letter written to a church in Rome in the western part of the Roman Empire would take a while to circulate all the way to Galatia in the east or even all the way to India. But as the remaining books became known, they were gradually accepted. And later, when Christianity became legal, believers were freed to meet together and discuss issues of doctrine. And yes, there were Church Councils and declarations in AD 350, 367, 393, 397, and 417 that affirmed the Books that were already considered to be Scripture and had been circulating for 250 years.
• The later Church Councils affirmed the books that were already accepted.
And for the record, Constantine and the Council of Nicaea had nothing to do with it. The topic never even came up there.
Objection #6: Wasn't the Bible edited by Church Councils? Or at least corrupted as it's been copied over and over and over again?
This objection is basically about that game of "Telephone" we played earlier. I whisper something to you, you whisper it to someone else, they whisper it to someone else, and so on. And eventually, the message gets garbled and misunderstood and corrupted.
But there are problems with that assumption. First, the early Christians were not whispering their message in barely-audible sounds. Plus, if people misunderstood or didn't hear, they could confirm it. If they still got it wrong, the first person could correct them. Plus, the message wasn't coming from just one person. And... it was written down. And extreme care was taken to protect those writings from becoming corrupted.
EXTREME care was taken to prevent errors from creeping in.
Before the printing press, scribes would copy the text of the Bible word for word. A very detailed and time consuming task. But if they even made one slip with their pen that whole page would be destroyed. No error would be tolerated.
Plus, the writers could continually go back to their sources. It wasn't like they had one chance to hear a whisper They could go back to clearly written documents and verify that what they transcribed was what was originally written. Then it was read and proofread thoroughly.
Let me give you an example of how seriously the books of the New Testament were handled. In the 4th century a man named Jerome was asked by the Bishop of Rome to translate the Bible into Latin. You know what he did? He moved to Palestine where he lived for twenty years and studied Hebrew with the Rabbis in order to prepare himself to write the best translation possible.
Even the NLT version of the Bible that we use here was the product of a team of 90 scholars from a variety of theological and denominational backgrounds over a span of 7 years. And they went back to the oldest and most reliable manuscripts that we have. Great care has been taken to ensure that the Bible is preserved and not distorted.
Does it strike you as odd that, out of these, the Bible is the one that is continually attacked as being corrupted through the years? Romeo and Juliet was written about 400 years ago, but I've never heard anyone make the argument that Shakespeare's work has been corrupted over the years.
The truth is, given the number of ancient manuscripts available and the incredibly short timeframe between those copies and the originals, the Bible is simply the most accurate text we have from the ancient world. And what's really astounding is that so many manuscripts survived even though people like Nero and Diocletian were ordering that Christians be killed and that they be fed to lions and that their sacred writings be destroyed. In fact, that really made the early Christians decide what books they were willing to die for and which ones were just good books.
Now, does that mean that no error has crept in. No, it doesn't. The Christian doctrine of inerrancy refers to the original documents, but we don't have the originals. As a result, there are some discrepancies between the different manuscripts available. Most of them deal with a missing letter here or there, or words in a slightly different order--such as "Christ Jesus" instead of "Jesus Christ." And absolutely none of the variations affect any doctrinal issue. Plus, the fact that we have so many ancient manuscripts allows us through the science of textual criticism to have great confidence in what the originals said.
If you were to examine those 643 copies of Homer’s Illiad, you would discover that there’s a variance of 5% in the text… there are 764 lines of text which scholars aren’t quite sure of. For the New Testament, on the other hand, looking at 24,000 copies, there’s only a 0.5% variance, and in no way does the non-confirmed text alter our perception of Jesus or the Gospel.
Oh, and here's something else that I think is interesting. Even if all those ancient manuscripts were destroyed, we could completely reconstruct the entire New Testament with the exception of only 11 verses. How? From the 86,489 quotations found in the writings of the early Church fathers during the first 150-200 years.
Think about it like this: who were the most influential leaders in the early church? Peter and Paul, right? Well, the Bible includes some very unflattering details about both of these men. If these were the heroes of your faith and you were writing about them, wouldn't you kind of gloss over the negatives and maximize the positives? But that didn't happen. Nor did the early church erase those sections of the writings.
Or how about this? According to the Bible, the first witnesses to the Resurrection were women. But in first century Israel, women were not allowed to give legal testimony. Their testimony was considered to be too emotional and too unreliable to be accepted. So if the writers were making this whole thing up, or if the Church were editing it to make it more convincing, they never would have included the account of the women arriving first at the empty tomb. So the fact that it's in there makes it likely that it really happened that way.
And again, the multitude of very early manuscripts show that no such editing took place.
Objection #7: Could mistakes have been made in which books were accepted?
Really, this objection is about the criteria that was used for the books that became part of our New Testament. Was there any, or where all the early books accepted regardless of the content or who wrote it? Well, there were criteria that needed to be met. Three in particular:
• There were criteria for what books were accepted.
• Authority of the Apostles
All the writing needed to have the authority of the apostles attached to them. In other words, an apostle had to write it or sanction it. The Gospels of Mark and Luke were accepted because they were written by coworkers with the apostles – another book, the Shepherd of Hermas, was not included because it wasn’t written until sometime in the 2nd century and therefore could not have that apostolic authority.
And by the way, in several places the books of the New Testament verify each other. In 2 Peter 3, Peter endorses the writings of Paul. Jude quoted from Peter (Jude 1:17-18). Paul quotes Luke (1 Timothy 5:18). So there’s a cross-verification going on.
• Consistency with the Old Testament and teaching of Apostles
This is one reason why the book of Hebrews was included. No one’s sure of who wrote it… maybe Paul, maybe Barnabas, maybe Luke, maybe Apollos, maybe Silas, maybe Priscilla… they’ve all been suggested. There's debate about who wrote it. But we do know that it was written in the second half of the first century, possibly before AD 70. So it was written at the time of the apostles. But the main reason it was accepted was because it so powerfully shows how Jesus fulfilled the Old Testament prophecies and laws and rituals. It’s remarkably consistent with other accepted Scripture.
• Widespread and continuous acceptance
Here’s what we’ve already been talking about. The books were not voted on by a Council. And that’s actually a good thing, because it virtually eliminates the possibility of it all being engineered and edited for political reasons. There were hundreds and possibly thousands of copies being circulated very early in the life of the Church, and believers throughout the world were discovering first-hand that the books were inspired… that they were practical… that they were true.
Plus, within a generation of the end of the apostolic age, every New Testament book had been referred to as being authoritative by some church father. Even within the New Testament, Peter referred to Paul's writing as Scripture...
2 Peter 3:15-16 (NLT)
This is what our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you with the wisdom God gave him—speaking of these things in all of his letters. Some of his comments are hard to understand, and those who are ignorant and unstable have twisted his letters to mean something quite different, just as they do with other parts of Scripture.
Notice the phrase “other parts of Scripture.” That tells us that Paul’s writing was considered to be equal to other Scripture. In 1 Timothy 5:18, Paul quotes from Luke and calls it Scripture.
The 27 books that gelled together so quickly did so because it was natural for them to do so. They fit. They are consistent with each other and with the Old Testament, and they have proven themselves time and time again over the past nearly 2000 years.
But yet, there is one nagging question… could the Church have made a mistake? I mean, even good-intentioned people make mistakes. We’re all fallible. Could the early believers have made mistakes in determining which books would be included and which ones wouldn’t be? Well, yeah, they could have. It’s theoretically possible.
So if you think that mistakes were made when the Bible was being formed, then tell me which books should have made it that didn’t, or which books did make it but shouldn't have. Build a case for it.
You see, I think that we as Christians too often accept that we're on the defensive. And it's okay for us to ask the person presenting the objection to state their case. If they disagree with what you believe, ask them why. If they think the Bible is flawed, then ask them to state their case.
As for me, I think the criteria used for which books were accepted was sound, I think the consistency between the books of the New Testament and between the New Testament and Old Testament is remarkable, the accepted books have proven themselves over time, and I do believe that God protects His Word. None of that completely rules out the possibility of error, but it does reduce the possibility to being remote.
For that reason, it's important to remember...
• Even if one of the books of the New Testament is discovered to be corrupted or fraudulent, that does not discredit all the other books.
This is the old "don't throw the baby out with the bathwater" thing. Remember that all these books originally stood independently of each other, and later began circulating together until they were compiled into our Bible. So each book stands on its own. As I mentioned, while most of the books were accepted without much disagreement, there was some debate about some of the books.
Specifically, Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, and Revelation had people who argued against their inclusion. As recently as the 1500s, Martin Luther stated that he didn't believe the book of James belonged. Today, I couldn't imagine the Bible not including those books. But the arguments were made. As for the Gospels and the letters of Paul, they were pretty much accepted as Scripture from the day they were written.
• Even today the Catholic Church, the Ethiopian Church, and the Protestant Church disagree on some aspects of the "canon."
Just to clarify, this is a "cannon" [PowerPoint]. This is Nick Cannon [PowerPoint]. And this is our "canon" [PowerPoint].
The word "canon" literally means "measuring rod" or "ruler," and so it refers to the books that we believe "measure up" to the standard of Scripture. If you have a Catholic background, you know that the Catholic Bible includes a section known as the Apocrypha or the Deuterocanonical Books. Those were writings that basically came from the time between the end of the Old Testament and the beginning of the New Testament. The Council of Trent in 1546 accepted these books into the Catholic Bible, but the Protestant Church questions their validity as Scripture.
Plus, the Ethiopian Church has a canon that predates ours, and in includes First Clement. He was from the first century, an associate of Paul's, so they put it in. There are in-house debates about these books even today.
And then, there were also some other books that were used by the early church that were never considered to be Scripture but were useful as commentaries or as handbooks or as devotional readings. Such as the Didache, the Epistle of Barnabas, the Shepherd of Hermas...
So here's the thing: we do believe that all Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to guide us and to teach us and to instruct us, but what exactly is Scripture? What books qualify? That's the debate. We know that Jesus Himself accepted the Old Testament books as Scripture, but what about the New Testament books that weren't even written at the time? We've already looked at the criteria, and the criteria make sense. But that does not completely rule out the possibility of human error. And so...
• We must remember that the Bible is a map, not a destination.
Listen... the New Testament in particular was developmental. It wasn't like it suddenly appeared one day and was immediately and entirely accepted as Scripture. It took decades and centuries for some of the books to be decided on. And to an extent... especially without learning Latin and Greek and reading all the different writings and doing the research and investigating all the claims, we've got to trust that the early Christians who were the closest to the actual events, to the apostles and to the time of the writings know what they were doing. They chose which books they were willing to die for, and that's a pretty good indication to us just how seriously they viewed what they regarded as Scripture. Plus, we've already talked about how the historical claims and the cultural context of some of the writings can show the credibility of the writings.
But ultimately, we need to remember that the Bible is a map, not the destination. You don’t look at a map of Madagascar and then say, "Okay, I've now been to Madagascar."
No, a map is not the destination. It merely shows you how to reach the destination. And that's how the Bible should be handled. It's not the destination; it shows the way to the destination. It points toward Jesus. It's Jesus who offers forgiveness and eternal life, not the Bible. The Bible just tells us how to get to Him.
Our devotion is not to the Bible but to the Jesus the Bible reveals. Jesus Himself accused people of becoming so focused on the Scripture that they miss the whole point…
John 5:39-40 (NLT)
“You search the Scriptures because you think they give you eternal life. But the Scriptures point to me! Yet you refuse to come to me to receive this life.”
They were so focused on the Scriptures that they neglected where the Scriptures were pointing. Paul made a similar point when he wrote...
Romans 10:4 (NLT/NIV)
For they don’t understand God’s way of making people right with himself. Refusing to accept God’s way, they cling to their own way of getting right with God by trying to keep the law. Christ is the culmination of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes.
And as it says in Hebrews...
Hebrews 12:1-2 (NLT)
And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us. We do this by keeping our eyes on Jesus, the champion who initiates and perfects our faith.
The Bible is important, but only as it points to Jesus. We need to fix our eyes on Him.
Copyright © 2011 Greg Hanson