Thy Words were found and I did eat them; and Thy Word was unto me the joy and rejoicing of mine heart. Jeremiah 15:16
The Autographs And Canonicity
Inasmuch as it has pleased God to reveal Himself in and through a book, the Bible, it is proper and even necessary that man understand the origin, compilation, and characteristics of that holy book.
That the Bible was given by inspiration of God has been affirmed; it remains that consideration be given to the method and process by which God produced that volume called the Holy Scriptures.
History in its relation to the Holy Scriptures was characterized by a providential preparation that facilitated their writing, printing and dissemination.
The invention of the alphabet: The earliest known method of writing was that of drawing pictures. It was laborious to be sure, but it has this value, there is no language barrier with which one has to contend. Between that stage and the much simpler method, the use of the alphabet in syllabic writing, lies the cuneiform and hieroglphic script of many elaborate training.
Moses was the first writer of Holy Scripture, so it is believed at present, and while it is true that he may have written in cuneiform script on clay tablets, archaeology reveals that it is more probable that he wrote in alphabetic script. God in His providence may have from the very beginning had His Word produced in a form of writing that lay within the reach of the ordinary man. This we do know, the earliest productions of the Holy Scriptures were closely associated with the invention of the original alphabet.
The Greek language: While our Lord Jesus and His apostles spoke mostly in Aramaic, the Greek language was used of God in the spread of the gospel throughout the world. The gospel message was for all nations (Matthew 28:19-20; Luke 24:47); to speed its divulgence, God had a universal language fully developed and ready for use. In the days of the apostles the Greek language was international, and although in the early Church there were Aramaic speaking Jews and Greek speaking Jews, these all understood the teachings of the apostles because of a general knowledge of Greek. There is a reference to these two groups in Acts 6:1-6. Through this international tongue God made possible a quick dispertion of His evangel over the then known world.
The invention of printing: The invention of printing in the middle of the fifteenth century providentially was a great aid to the Reformation and the reproduction of the Holy Scriptures. Luther nailed his thesis to the church door at Wittenburg in 1517. The Greek New Testament was first printed in Europe in 1514. In 1522 Luther’s translation of the New Testament into German was printed, and in 1525 Tyndale’s New Testament in English was also similarly produced.
God in His deep concern for man, through providential guidance had the writing of the Holy Scriptures coincide with the invention of the alphabet; the early proclamation of the gospel and the founding of the Christian Church along with the writing of the New Testament, with the existence of an international language, Greek. He directed that the Reformation and the publishing of the Bible in European languages for ordinary men be expedited by the invention of the printing press.
The Writing of the Bible
The entire Bible appears as if a Jewish work for all the writers with the exception of Luke were Hebrews. (There are some who think that Apollos wrote the Epistle to the Hebrews. If this debatable point were true, there would then be two Gentile writers.)
It was written at intervals over a period of nearly 1500 years, and not only written at different intervals of time but in different places stretching from the city of Rome into Mesopotamia. Men in divers walks of life contributed as they were moved by the Holy Spirit: kings, statemen, soldiers, prophets, priests, a taxgatherer, a rabbi, a physician. Each writer according to his own style and vocabulary wrote prose, poetry, treatises, narratives, biographies, autobiographies, diaries, and personal letters, etc.
The Bible from the human view-point is the product of many minds, controlling many hands writing under many circumstances in many styles. Yet, withal, there is a divine unity that binds each part to the other. Each contribution to the whole was God-breathed; each has a common theme, Christ, and each a common objective, the reconciliation of man to God.
The Original Manuscripts
There are those who wonder if at some time, somewhere an original manuscript will be found. While this may not be wholly impossible, it is likely improbable. The material on which most of them were written was fragile. Papyrus was made from the inner bark of a reed plant dried in flat strips. These strips placed side by side were gummed to similar strips laid over them in criss-cross manner. This material was not very durable and was badly effected by dampness.
Part of the New Testament may have been written on parchment, a more durable substance made from the skins of animals.
The autographs: The autographs of both Testaments have long since disappeared, and this in itself may be a great blessing. Depraved human nature made an idol out of the serpent of brass and burned incense to it (2 Kings 18:4) so we might expect that it would do the same with original autographs. Among all the ancient relics revered today, it is rather a wonder that some one has not claimed to be in possession of one. Probably such a hoax would be too easily discovered.
The copies: Textual criticism (The examination of dates, the comparing one manuscript with another, and the examination of quotations) is a most profitable and helpful art.
Inasmuch as divine inspiration is true of the original autographs only and these have all disappeared, how reliable are the copies of these originals? In spite of great care, copyists make mistakes. It is in this matter that textual criticism is so useful.
There are today in different places about 4000 manuscripts of the New Testament, either complete or in part. One of these at least dates back to within forty years of the original writing.
The work of textual criticism falls into three phases.
Dating: By seeking out the oldest of the manuscripts, it is possible to eliminate some of the copyists’ errors. The more frequently a writing is copied, the greater is the probability of error; therefore the fewer times the better as far as accuracy is concerned.
Comparisons: By comparing one manuscript of earlier date with one of later date, mistakes are found through the disagreement between them. Agreement among many manuscripts gives confidence that the original words have been preserved in the processes of reproduction. Disagreement results in a closer examination of other manuscripts. This enables the observer to ascertain the date when first the error appeared, and to correct it by the earlier manuscript. If several copies have in them a divergence, not only are their dates taken into consideration, but also the preponderance of evidence against the divergence.
Quotations: There is another line of action through which the purity and accuracy of the Bible text is maintained. Manuscripts are compared with the quotations from the Word of God found in the writings of the immediate post-apostolic era. Quotations in the writings of the Church-fathers, as we call them, are examined for the purpose of comparing them with the manuscripts.
The word canon is defined as a rule or measure or a list. The last is the sense in which it is to be understood in its relation to the Bible. The whole Canon of Scripture is the list of those books accepted by the Church as inspired of God. Frequently references are made to the Old Testament Canon and to the New Testament Canon; these, of course, are the lists of books in the Old Testament given separately from the list of books in the New Testament.
Two questions arise relevant to this, why and how were books chosen for the Canon of Scripture?
The Old Testament Canon: In regard to the question as to why books appear on the sacred list this may be said. Many imagine that the inspiration and authority of a book resulted from its being canonized. The very opposite is true. A book was accepted, before Christ by the Hebrews and after Christ by the Church, because its inspiration, divinity, and authority had been already acknowledged. Consequently, the Canon of Scripture is merely the list of those books already accepted because of their evident divinity. A reading of the books of the Apocrypha and then a reading of the books of the Sacred Canon will show to any person that they are as far apart as the work of the Infinite can be from the work of the finite.
Historians believe that Ezra had much to do with the formation of the Old Testament Canon, and that was more than four hundred years before the birth of the Saviour. We might therefore ask if there are any proofs that the Lord Jesus accepted the Hebrew Canon and did He endorse it? There are proofs that He did. The number and the arrangement of the books in the Hebrew Bible of the times of Christ were different to ours although both contained the same material. The thirty-nine books of our Old Testament only numbered twenty-four in that ancient Hebrew Bible. It is also certain that the Holy Scriptures in the times of Christ ended not with the Book of Malachi but with the Books of Chronicles.
For centuries the Old Testament has been divided into three: the Law, the writings of Moses; the Prophets, the historical and the prophetical books; and the Psalms, all the poetical books; our Lord Jesus acknowledged all three and thus endorsed the Old Testament Canon. After His resurrection He said to His disciples: “These are the words which I spake unto you, while I was yet with you, that all things must be fulfilled, which were written in the law of Moses, and in the prophets, and in the Psalms, concerning Me” (Luke 24:44).
There is another proof of Christ endorsing the Old Testament Canon; it is found in this; as the Books of Chronicles were the last books in the Hebrew Bible in Christ’s day, He made reference to them in such a manner as to suggest His acceptance of the Old Testament Canon. In speaking to the hypocritical apostates who criticized Him, He said: “Therefore also said the wisdom of God, I will send them prophets and apostles, and some of them they shall slay and persecute: That the blood of all the prophets, which was shed from the foundation of the world, may be required of this generation; From the blood of Abel unto the blood of Zacharias, which perished between the altar and the temple” (Luke 11:49-51). These words were tantamount to saying that a charge would be laid against the Jewish nation of every martyrdom recorded from the first to the last of the Old Testament. The two names, “Abel” and “Zacharias,” embraced the entire Old Testament Canon as it was arranged in the times of Jesus. The martyrdom of Zacharias is recorded in 2 Chronicles 24:17-22.
The New Testament Canon: The method by which the books of the New Testament were put into the sacred catalogue was a simple one. First: the divinity of each book was self-evident. This may be readily demonstrated today by a comparative reading of an apocryphal book with a canonical book from the New Testament. The purpose, veracity and divinity of the one will be seen in contrast to the spurious, fictitious character of the other.
In second place, there was in the early Church a Christian consciousness produced by the Spirit of God that quickened spiritual instincts and discernment, and these resulted in special selective powers throughout the entire Church as it was scattered over the ancient world. No Church council undertook to choose the books we call canonical; these were accepted without agreement or planned action.
In third place: It seems that at the first, letters received by churches and individuals were lent to other churches and individuals who made copies of these letters for themselves. These in turn were lent to still others who made more copies. In this manner the originals were duplicated and triplicated until there were numerous copies in different areas.
Justin Martyr who lived about the middle of the second century of the Christian era; that is, about fifty years after the death of the Apostle John, says that it was the custom in those early days to read the writings of the apostles and of the prophets at the church gatherings on the Sundays. The books of the Bible, at that early date, although hand written, were being spread among the churches of our Lord Jesus.