The Doctrine of Inspiration - Part 2
Many books were written about the life of Jesus, and several books were written by the Apostles and their disciples. How did they decide which books actually belonged in the New Testament?
The books that make up the New Testament are called the canon, from a Greek word which means "measuring rod." This term referred to the things that measured up when examined. In other words, when the church examined all the material that was written about Jesus, how did it decide which books belonged in the New Testament canon? There were three main factors that led the early church to form the New Testament canon and preserve it in a single compilation of 27 books.
During the time of the Apostles, the church did not have a high regard for keeping the letters that the Apostles and their disciples wrote. The Apostles were alive and producing many letters, so there was no urgency in preserving them. The prevailing thought was that Jesus was coming back in their lifetimes, so the need for preserving the material for the future was not there.
However, certain events took place that required them to begin collecting and preserving the teachings of the Lord and His Apostles for the current and future generations. Some of these events included:
The Canon of Marcion (140 AD)
Marcion was a false teacher who rejected the entire Old Testament, accepted only ten of the epistles of Paul and a part of Luke's gospel, but rejected others. He began circulating these as the official canon and so the early church was forced to decide which of the writings were authoritative, and collect and circulate these. This was done in 170 AD.
Under the Roman Emperor Diocletian, it was a capital offense to possess a copy of the Christian scriptures. This forced the Christians of that time to choose which of these documents were worth dying for. Many uninspired and historical books were burned and only the most precious, most accepted works were kept.
Codex is the term used to describe the "book" form where several pages were bound together instead of being attached together to form a scroll. When the codex form became popular, church leaders needed to decide which books should be grouped together into one volume. This motivated them to keep only the books that were acceptable in a single unit.
The main question for the early church was, "Which are the inspired books?" There was no meeting where they reviewed all the material and then made a decision as to which made it in and which did not. On the contrary, the early church simply accepted those works that had already been recognized as inspired over the centuries, but had not yet been collected and organized into one set. This was finally done in 367 AD and the 27 books we now have in the New Testament were confirmed into the canon by the Council of Carthage later in that century, and have remained the same since.
As the early church collected the books that would be included in the official New Testament canon it was guided by several key principles:
If a man was inspired when he spoke, then his writings were also considered inspired. For this reason, the writings of the Apostles were quickly accepted into the canon. In addition to these, the men associated with the Apostles were also accepted. For example, Luke was accepted because of his association with the Apostle Paul, Mark because of his association with the Apostle Peter, and James was called a brother of the Lord and an Apostle (Galatians 1:19). This, of course, allowed the gospels, the letters of Paul, Peter, James and John to be natural selections for the canon.
Value of book
In some cases a book had a name attached to it but did not read like an inspired work. Many uninspired authors tried to gain an audience by putting the name of an Apostle as the author of their books. One example of this was a book entitled, "Acts of Peter" that was not actually written by the Apostle Peter and thus excluded from the canon.
Scholars tell us that it was fairly easy to distinguish between inspired and fraudulent works when you actually read the material. For example, in the "Gospel of Thomas", the author explained that Jesus made sparrows out of mud, was rebuked for doing this on the Sabbath and said, "Rise up and fly away", and the birds came to life and flew away. There is another story where He miraculously lengthened a board to fit properly while working with His earthly father Joseph.
In other words, when comparing writings, it was easy to tell the real from the fakes. The inspired books had harmony of thought, purpose and style. They had no contradictions and were accurate historically as well as theologically.
The church did not decide which books and letters were suitable and which were not, they merely confirmed and collected the ones that had traditionally been accepted by all the churches but had never been organized into one volume before.
No new book was introduced, only those letters and volumes that had a wide circulation and acceptance after long ages of study and review. The canon was confirmed 300 years after the first writings began to be circulated.
We also believe that God was guiding and protecting the process in which His Word was recorded and preserved.
Division of the New Testament
When the canon was finally completed, the 27 books it contained were divided into the following groups:
- Matthew, Mark, Luke and John
- Pauline Epistles:
- Romans, I and II Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, I and II Thessalonians, I and II Timothy, Titus and Philemon
- General Epistles:
- Hebrews, James, I and II Peter, I, II and III John, and Jude
Most were written by Apostles or the disciples of Apostles. A couple (Hebrews and Jude) may have uncertain origins (some say Hebrews was written by Paul, Jude, Apollos or by the brother of Jesus), but they were widely accepted, and their material was perfectly in tune with the other New Testament writings.
The Old Testament was written in the Hebrew language (most of it, some small parts in Aramaic). There came a time when many Jews could not speak Hebrew because of the Greek influence in their society, so a translation of the Hebrew Old Testament was made in the Greek language. It was called the "Septuagint" (seventy) because it was produced by 70 scholars.
During New Testament times the people spoke in Aramaic which was an ancient language of Palestine. The books and letters of the New Testament were not written in this language however, they were written in the common form of Greek (Koine), which was the universal language of the period.
The Greek form of the New Testament remained the standard as copies were made from the original and distributed for the first several centuries. There are 5357 complete and partial Greek manuscripts in existence today. These are the documents that scholars who produce translations into various languages work with at the present time.
With time, the Greek was translated into Latin and other languages, but these translations were always made from the original Greek manuscripts.
Latin was the language of the western portion of the Roman Empire and as Christianity spread westward from its original home (where Greek was the dominant language) a new version of the Bible was developed (the Greek Orthodox Church still uses the Septuagint version of the Old Testament).
In 404 AD a new Latin version of the Bible was produced by Jerome, an early church leader. His translation from Greek to Latin was called the Latin Vulgate. This term was used because Jerome used common rather than formal Latin for his translation. This became the standard version for study and church life in the Middle Ages.
Various translations were made into common languages from the 5thto 14thcenturies. These included Gothic, Syrian, Slavic, English, French, German, Italian and Spanish translations.
In the 14thcentury the Renaissance movement sparked a renewed interest in the Greco-Roman world's languages and literature. This produced a greater effort to examine Greek culture and resulted in a revival of the knowledge of Greek and Hebrew languages as well as a study of the ancient biblical manuscripts. One important result of this renewed interest in ancient languages was a zeal to produce new Bible versions in common languages translated directly from the original Greek and Hebrew. All of this activity was helped along by a powerful religious movement called the Reformation.
With the invention of the printing press in 1436, the technology to actually produce mass quantities of Bibles in different languages was realized.
It is interesting to note that the very first book to be printed on Gutenberg's new invention was the Latin Vulgate version of the Bible sometime between 1452 and 1455. This Bible was called the 42-line Bible because there were exactly 42 lines on each page. It still exists today and can be seen at the Gutenberg Museum in Frankfurt, Germany.
The invention of the printing press helped spread the Bible in various languages throughout the world.
The earliest known English translation was produced in 700 AD. (A Latin version with English notes between the lines.) The first English translation was done by John Wycliffe in 1382, he was imprisoned for his efforts. The first printed English Bible was William Tyndale's in 1526. There were many translations as the science of translation and archeology developed. A major translation of the time was the King James Bible in 1611. It became the authorized version for English speaking people for many years, and is still one of the most popular Bibles today.
Many other translations have appeared over the years and each has a different style:
- Revised Standard Version: A good Old Testament, but the New Testament is a little awkward.
- American Standard Version: Best word-per-word translation, but the English is complicated.
- New American Standard Version: Easy to read while retaining accurate translation from the original languages.
- New International Version: English flows well, but some find it too general.
- New Living Translation: Paraphrases rather than translates.
There are many other translations aside from these as each generation tries to more accurately translate the Word of God for easy understanding.
Some say you cannot trust any translation because translators are human and can make mistakes. Of the thousands of translations in different languages, there are no major doctrines, persons or commands that are in conflict or question. If there are mistakes, they are punctuation, names of places or locations, etc., which are obscure in the original languages as well.
The percentage of error in today's translations from the Greek text is less than 1/10 of 1%. When we are reading the English or French versions for example, we are reading 99 9/10 % of what is written in the Greek and Hebrew. We can trust the particular translation of the Bible we are reading because it accurately tells us what God is saying.
We have reviewed:
- How the early church decided which books belonged in the New Testament canon.
- What events motivated them to do this.
- What criteria they used to select the material.
- The division of the New Testament.
- Some information on how the Greek and Hebrew were translated into modern languages.
In our next chapter we will look at the content of the Bible and answer the question, "Why do we believe that it is inspired?"