Last night in our series ‘The Bigger Picture’, we looked at how the Bible actually came to be handed down to us. We believe that ‘all Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.’ (2 Tim 3:16-17), but the process by which God gave us His word often seems to us mundane and even confusing. Why couldn’t He just write it out for us, word for word, to ensure there was no dispute about it? Why entrust fallible humans with such an amazing job? As Casting Crowns say, ‘The Bible was inscribed over a period of 2000 years in times of war and in days of peace by kings, physicians, tax collectors, farmers, fishermen, singers and shepherds. The marvel is that a library so perfectly cohesive could have been produced by such a diverse crowd over a period of time which staggers the imagination. Jesus is its grand subject, our good is designed and the Glory of God is its end.’ (‘The Word Is Alive’)

Not everyone believes this, of course, and many people say that the Bible is full of contradictions and errors and therefore can’t be relied on. How did people decide over the years what books to include in the Bible and what books to leave out? How can we be sure that what we read today hasn’t been corrupted or changed?

The first Bible[1] containing both Old and New Testaments ever to be printed was an edition in Latin published in Mainz, Germany in 1456 known as the ‘Gutenberg Bible’, but the Latin version printed in that edition had been circulating in Europe for more than a thousand years. Jerome completed this version (known as the ‘Vulgate’, because it was the ‘common’ edition) in 404 AD.

The three oldest, fairly complete, manuscripts of the Bible known to be in existence are not in Latin, however, but in Greek and it’s thought that two of them were written probably at least two generations before Jerome was making his Latin version. Latin and Greek were, of course, the key languages of the world at those times, for the Romans and the Greeks were the conquerors of that day, in much the same way that English has become the lingua franca of the world in the 20th and 21st centuries because of the spread of the British Empire in Victorian times.

Those 3 manuscripts are now:

  • In the Vatican library in Rome (‘Codex Vaticanus’)
  • In the British Museum in London (‘Codex Sinaiticus’ & ‘Codex Alexandrinus’)

The Greek version of the Old Testament (known as the ‘Septuagint’) was done at Alexandria in Egypt, but the Old Testament was written down long before this and even before it was written down was handed down orally so that by the time Jesus lived, there was a recognised order to the Old Testament. The books in the New Testament were named by Origen in AD 240, although it was not until AD 367 that Athanasius provided us with an actual list of New Testament books identical with ours. However, long before we have that list, the evidence shows that the 27 books, and only those, were widely accepted as Scripture.

For books to be accepted as ‘God-breathed’, several criteria had to be fulfilled. These are often referred to as the ‘5 As’:

  1. Authorship (who wrote these books? The authority of the writers was paramount to accepting the authority of what was written)
  2. Authentic (did the writings have the ring of truth about them – ‘This is what the Lord says’ is the prophetic ring of Scripture.)
  3. Ancient (most of the New Testament, for example, was written by eyewitnesses in a relatively short time after the life of Christ)
  4. Accepted (Jesus said He came to fulfil the Law and the Prophets, and the Old Testament was widely accepted by all Jews in the form we know by the time He was born; with regard to the New Testament, it took time for letters to circulate among the churches, so it is all the more significant that 23 of the 27 books were almost universally accepted well before the middle of the second century. When tradition carries the weight of the overwhelming majority of churches throughout the widely scattered Christian communities across the vast Roman Empire, with no one church controlling the beliefs of all the others, it has to be taken seriously.)
  5. Accurate (did it conform to the general teaching of the church overall?)

Although this process may have taken a long time and may seem rather ordinary to us (where’s the inspiration in debating and discussing?!), it shows us how God is willing to work with people. 1 Cor 3:9 says we are God’s fellow workers, His co-workers. There is no need for God to include us in His work at all. He has the power and authority to do whatever He likes, but somehow He chooses to use us, a mystery that combines our imperfections with His perfection, another example of His completely undeserved grace

[1] See ‘The Making of the Bible’ (Geddes Macgregor), P 2ff