The Bible is alive, it speaks to me; it has feet it runs after me; it has hands, it lays hold of me. ―Martin Luther
It is often rightly said that the Bible is the best-selling book of all time. Just looking at the distribution of Bible by the United Bible Societies for 2011 they distributed over 32.1 million Bibles.1 This amounts to about 88,000 Bibles per day. The Bible has been translated in whole or in part in over 4800 languages and this work is still ongoing.2 Scribes have spent countless hours over the course of history to bring forth accurate copies of the biblical manuscripts. William Tyndale died by a fiery execution in his efforts to translate the Bible into English. The Bible has had an amazing history and an amazing impact.
What is the nature of the Bible? Is the Bible without error? Is the Bible authoritative and how did Jesus view the Bible? How did we get it? Who decided what books went into the Bible and why? Why are there differences in Bible translations? The theological term for the study of the Bible is referred to as bibliology. This lesson will survey these critical issues surrounding the book that we base our entire faith and salvation on.
The Bible itself claims to be inspired by God. Paul states, “Every scripture is inspired by God”
(2 Tim 3:16) and also Peter, “No prophecy of scripture ever comes about by the prophet’s own imagination, for no prophecy was ever borne of human impulse; rather, men carried along by the Holy Spirit spoke from God (2 Pet 1:20-21). In essence, we can say that the Bible is “God breathed.” Also, sometimes the inspiration is referred to as verbal and plenary. That is, inspiration applies to all the individual words of the entire Bible. One good theological definition of inspiration is articulated like this, “The act of the Holy Spirit in which He superintended the writers of Scripture so that, while writing according to their own styles and personalities, they produced God’s Word, written, authoritative, trustworthy, and free from error in the original writings.”3
There are two implications of the doctrine of inspiration. The first is that the Bible is a human book. The authors used their own language, writing methods, style of writing and literary forms of writing. For example, the Old Testament was written in Hebrew and Aramaic and the New Testament in Greek. These were the common human languages of the authors. They used writing materials such as scraped animal skins. Also, the human authors wrote to an audience in a specific historical context for a specific purpose. Moses wrote the law for the nation of Israel as they were about to enter the promised land. Paul wrote 1 Corinthians to address certain problems in a church in Greece. In addition, the Bible is influenced by the culture in which the author wrote. Jesus is engaging the Jewish culture; Paul largely is dealing with the Roman and Greek cultures on his missionary journeys. The Bible has over 40 authors and was written over a time period of 1500 years.
The second implication of inspiration is that the Bible is a divine book. As such the Bible is inerrant and authoritative. Also, the Bible has unity of a coherent and consistent message and can be compared with itself for proper interpretation. In addition the Bible has an element of mystery. Some passages may be hard to understand. Lastly, the Bible has an interpretation to it that is intended by God.
A good example of the dual authorship of the Bible can be seen in the example of Matthew 1:22-23 who is citing the Old Testament prophet Isaiah: “This all happened so that what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet would be fulfilled: ‘Look! The virgin will conceive and bear a son, and they will call him Emmanuel.’” Notice that the Old Testament passage of Isaiah was spoken “by the Lord,” which indicates the divine ultimate source of what was said. This passage was also spoken “through the prophet,” which indicates a human intermediate source in this case Isaiah. It’s by the Lord and though the prophet. In other words the prophet is the human messenger by which God spoke.
A theological definition of inerrancy can be stated as follows, “The teaching that since the Scriptures are given by God, they are free from error in all their contents, including doctrinal, historical, scientific, geographical, and other branches of knowledge.”4 The inerrancy of the Bible is derived from Scripture itself. Deductively one can say that if God is true (and he is; Heb 6:18) and the Bible is inspired as God’s word (which it is; Mark 7:13), then this leads to the doctrine of inerrancy which means that the Bible in its entirety is without error.5 Jesus stated himself that the Scripture cannot be broken (John 10:35) and that even the smallest part of it would be fulfilled (Matt 5:18). Paul saw interpretive significance in a singular word as compared to a plural (Gal 3:16).
Despite the view though of many evangelicals, overtime there has been many challenges to inerrancy and these can be divided into three general categories: 1) alleged contradictions of the Bible with science, 2) alleged contradictions of the Bible with history, and 3) alleged contradictions of the Bible with itself. Let’s just take a look at a few examples of these common objections.
Evolution is often stated as a scientific contradiction to the Bible showing that the Bible is not without error in terms of the science of our origins. But while there is natural variation within species, macro-evolution (e.g., one species evolving to another species) is a theory and not a fact. It has never been observed and is not subject to the scientific method. The most that one can say is that the Bible is not consistent with a theory but this does not prove the Bible has an error when it speaks of the world and man’s origins. Some theologians have tried to reconcile the Bible with evolution by arguing for theistic evolution. Theistic evolution views that God created living things through the evolutionary process itself as understood by science. But this is a difficult exercise that is hard to square with all of the biblical data. For example, in the Bible plants are created on the third day but light is created on the fourth day (Gen 1). The existence of plants before light does not fit into any evolutionary scheme.
Another example sometimes given to argue that the Bible is not scientifically accurate is the case of the mustard seed found in Matthew 13:31. “He [Jesus] gave them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. It is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest garden plant and becomes a tree, so that the wild birds come and nest in its branches.’” The problem that some people have pointed out is that a wild orchid seed is smaller than the mustard seed. The Bible is then said to be inaccurate. What would a response be to this? Well for one thing, if this is true not only would the Bible be in error, but there would be a larger problem that Jesus spoke the error as well. While various solutions to this dilemma have been given, perhaps the simplest is to look at the statement in context and see that Jesus is referring only to sown seeds. Jesus speaks of a seed “sowed in a field.” The wild orchid is not a sown agricultural seed. Also, within the Judean world view and in their context it was the smallest seed.6
Alleged historical discrepancies have also sometimes been cited as an argument against the inerrancy of the Bible. Prior to the advent of the archeological era of the 19th and 20th centuries, critics often called into question the historicity of the Bible especially the Old Testament in terms of places, peoples and events. However, over time archeological discoveries have often silenced specific historical criticism. One can cite three examples of alleged or once alleged historical inaccuracies that have later been validated by archeological finds: 1) the Hittite Empire: In 1876 and later in 1906 evidence of the Hittite capital and language was discovered at Boghazkoy in modern Turkey; 2) the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah: starting in 1924 excavations were done in the area of the Dead Sea and evidence of cities which had been burned is present during the time of the biblical account; and 3) King David: In 1993 at Tel Dan in Northern Israel a 9th century BC inscription was discovered referring to the “King of Israel” and the “House of David.”7
William Albright was a prominent archeologist and professor at John Hopkins University (1930-1958). He stated, “There can be no doubt that archaeology has confirmed the substantial historicity of Old Testament tradition.”8 Nelson Glueck, archeologist and President of Hebrew Union College gave his overall perspective: “It may be stated categorically that no archaeological discovery has ever controverted a Biblical reference. Scores of archaeological findings have been made which confirm in clear outline or exact detail historical statements in the Bible. And, by the same token, proper evaluation of Biblical description has often led to amazing discoveries.”9
The third area that the Bible’s inerrancy has been challenged on is alleged contradictions with itself. In other words if the Bible claims to be the word of God there should be no real factual contradictions in comparing one passage with another because if there were then one of the passages would be in error. But one has to realize that differences in parallel passages do not necessarily mean there are actual contradictions. Harmonization and understanding the nature of historical reporting most often provides good solutions to differences. For example in a football game on a pass interference play one reporter states the cornerback bumped the receiver while another states the receiver bumped into the cornerback. Both statements while different may be true because they are being reported from a different perspective.
Let’s look at a difference in a parallel passage between Matthew 10 and Mark 10. Are there two blind men or one blind man? Matthew writes, “As they were leaving Jericho, a large crowd followed them. Two blind men were sitting by the road. When they heard that Jesus was passing by, they shouted, “Have mercy on us, Lord, Son of David!” (Matt 10:29-30). But Mark writes, “They came to Jericho. As Jesus and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus the son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the road. When he heard that it was Jesus the Nazarene, he began to shout, ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!
(Mark 10:46-47).’” Can these passages be harmonized? That is, can both of these accounts be reconciled as true or does one have to be false? Matthew writing to a Jewish audience may wish to confirm the testimony of the blind men (Jesus = the son of David = a Messianic title) by the Jewish required number of at least two (Deut 17:6). Mark chooses to focus on one of the blind men naming him. The fact that Mark reports that one blind man was healed does not preclude that another blind man was also healed on the same occasion. Therefore both accounts can be true even though they contain differenes.
How does one explain the following differences in Peter’s confession at Caesarea Phillipi? The question Jesus asks is slightly different: In Matthew 16:13 Jesus states, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” In Mark 8:27 it’s reported as “Who do people say I am?” And in Luke 9:18, “Who do the crowds say I am?” Peter’s answer in Matthew 16:16 is, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” In Mark 8:29 it’s, “You are the Christ.” And in Luke 9:20 the reply is reported as, “The Christ of God.” Can one reconcile these differences and if so how? Sometimes the Bible’s authors condense or summarize speeches and events. It does not mean the condensation is inaccurate. This is the nature of historical reporting. For example when the President of the United States gives the annual State of the Union address that lasts one hour, there is a verbatim speech of what he gave. But a reporter comes on the TV and gives a five minute accurate summary of what was said. The summary is correct but is condensed from the entire verbatim speech. This practice is considered accurate reporting of what was said. It’s not erroneous.
If the Bible is God’s word then the implication is that as God has authority over his creation, then his Word would also have authority over us. The term Sola Scriptura comes from the Latin which means, “by Scripture alone.” This was one of the major themes of the Protestant Reformation. Simply it means that the Scripture alone is our supreme authority to all other authorities in matters of faith and practice. The author of Hebrews writes, “For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any double-edged sword, piercing even to the point of dividing soul from spirit, and joints from marrow; it is able to judge the desires and thoughts of the heart” (Heb 4:12). As Martin Luther said, “The true rule is this: God’s Word shall establish articles of faith, and no one else, not even an angel can do so.”10 How did Jesus view the Bible? Jesus appealed to the authority of the Bible when he was tempted in the wilderness and in his arguments in citing the Old Testament stated “it is written” (Matt 4:1-11). Jesus declared, “I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth pass away not the smallest letter or stroke of a letter will pass from the law until everything takes place (Matt 5:18).” And “If those people to whom the word of God (= Old Testament Psalm) came were called `gods’ (and the scripture cannot be broken)”(John 10:35). These verses suggest that Jesus believed even the smallest portion of Scripture down to the letter or even the part of a letter would come to pass; none of it can be broken or nullified. The Scripture is what is authoritative in regard to truth and how that truth relates to us.
The term canon is from the Greek word kanon meaning reed or straight rod thus a “standard.” By the 4th century A.D. for the New Testament, it is what was applied to a list or a collection of books that met a prescribed standard recognized by the church. Now in a theological sense, the canon refers to the closed collection of Jewish and early Christian writings that are divinely inspired and authoritative Scripture for the beliefs and practices of the church.
The basic guideline for whether a book was included in the Old Testament canon was if it had a prophetic origin (Deut 18). The Old Testament canon is divided between the Law (or Torah), Prophets (or Neviim) and Writings (or Kethuvim). This is referred to as the Tanakh. For the New Testament the basic guideline was and is apostolic origin or association. For the Gospels, Matthew and John were apostles while Mark was an associate with Peter and Luke was an associate with Paul (cf. also Acts). For the Epistles Paul, Peter, Jude, James, John, the author of Hebrews11 and Revelation (John) were either apostles or associates of them. Other factors for New Testament canonicity included universality that is that the writings applied to the whole church (geographical and time); orthodoxy: that the writing in agreement and not conflict with the teaching of Jesus, the apostles and with the rest of the canon; and traditional usage: whether the book was used in the early first century church.
One historical factor that led to a formal list of the canon was heretical writings and groups who were making competing claims for authority. An example is the abridged canon of the heretic Marcion (A.D. 140) who left Jewish elements of the Bible out. He abandoned the Old Testament and only accepted Paul’s writings (except the pastorals letters of 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus) and Luke. There was also the expanded Canon of Montanus, who wanted his prophecies to be included and be elevated to canonical status.12 It is best to understand that the church recognized what the canon was as opposed to determining it. In some cases, it took some time for the entire church to recognize the entire collection of books.
What about books written between the Old Testament and New Testament (mostly 250 BC-AD 100) that are referred to as the Apocrypha? There are 15 books in this category: 1 & 2 Esdras, Tobit, Judith, Additions to Esther, Wisdom of Solomon, Ecclesiasticus (Ben Sirach), Baruch, Letter of Jeremiah, Prayer of Azariah and Song of the Three Young Men, Susanna, Bel and the Dragon, Prayer of Manasseh and 1&2 Maccabees. The church father Jerome included them in the Latin Vulgate but separated them from the canon describing them as “Deuterocanonical.” In response to the strong position against these books by the reformers in 1546 the Catholic Church at the Council of Trent declared them all canonical (except the Prayer of Manasseh and 1&2 Esdras). The Apocryphal books should not be part of the canon because: 1) they are not accepted in the New Testament as authoritative as seen by the fact there are no direct quotations from them; 2) they never make the claim to be inspired or say, “Thus says the Lord” like the Old Testament does; 3) they are not part of the Hebrew Bible and the Jews never viewed the books as authoritative or canonical and they wrote them; and 4) the Council of Trent in 1546 was the first official proclamation on the matter for their canonicity and this was 1500 years after the books were written.13
Perhaps the strongest argument for the canon’s close is that there is no longer the apostolic office to originate or validate the writings (cf. 1 Cor 9:1–2; 2 Cor 12:11; Eph 2:20). An important criteria to be an apostle is that one had to have seen the resurrected Jesus and been appointed by him. Paul states that these men as well as the prophets formed the foundation for the church, which has already been laid.
Most of the Old Testament is written in Hebrew. It was written over a period of over 1400 years from Moses (and probably before) to the last book of the Old Testament Malachi. The text was transmitted by Jewish scribes, experts in the Old Testament. The Masoretic Text refers to the Hebrew Old Testament text that Jewish scribes14 in the Middle Ages received with consonants only and they added vowels to it. These vowels aided in the pronunciation and interpretation of the text. The Dead Sea Scrolls contained Old Testament biblical manuscripts some of which were 1000 years earlier than other manuscripts that we previously had. Some sections of the Old Testament were originally written in Aramaic (Gen 31:47; Jer 10:11; Ezra 4:8-6:18; 7:12-26); Dan 2:4b-7:28). The entire New Testament is written in Koine Greek which was a period of Greek language that last from about the time of Alexander the Great (300 BC) to Constantine (300 A.D.). The New Testament text was transmitted by Christian scribes and there are over 5600 Greek manuscripts (2nd to 15th A.D).
בּרֵאשִׁית בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים אֵת הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֵת הָאָרֶץ
λέγει αὐτῷ ὁ ᾿Ιησοῦς· ἐγώ εἰμι ἡ ὁδὸς καὶ ἡ ἀλήθεια καὶ ἡ ζωή· οὐδεὶς ἔρχεται πρὸς τὸν πατέρα εἰ μὴ δι᾿ ἐμοῦ.
The purpose of Bible translation is to get the Bible into a native language that people can understand. There were many early Bible translations that preceded any effort to get one into English. For the Old Testament some of these early translations were the Koine Greek Septuagint (LXX) which was started in the 3rd Century B.C., the Syriac Peshitta, the Aramaic Jewish Targums and the Latin Vulgate done by Jerome 400 A.D. Early translations of the New Testament were also done starting in the second century A.D. in Coptic (Egyptian), Latin, and Syriac.
John Wycliffe (1330-1384) is credited as being the first person inspiring the effort toward a complete English translation though his followers did the actual work15. It was translated from the Latin Vulgate. Here is a verse from the Wycliffe translation. Matt 22:37-40: Thou schalt love thi Lord God of al thin herte, and of al thi soule and of al thi mynde, and thi neighebore as thi self, for in these twey comaundements hangith al the lawe and prophetis. The Wycliffe translation was copied by hand as it preceded the development of the printing press. In 1415, Wycliffe was condemned by the church, his followers were jailed and Wycliffe’s bones were dug up, burned and ashes scattered in a river. William Tyndale (1492-1536) was the first to use Greek and Hebrew manuscripts for an English translation. He explained that the reason he did it was for the common man: “I will cause a boy that drives a plow to know more of the Scripture than a learned scholar.”16 Many modern renderings of English Bible phrases can be traced back to Tyndale. John 14:6: “Iesus sayd vnto him: I am the waye verite and lyfe. Noman cometh vnto the father but by me.” He was the first to complete a printed edition of English Bible and six thousand printed copies of the English Bible were smuggled into England. Tyndale was hounded and eventually burned at the stake for the translation and prayed as he was being burned, “Lord open the King’s eyes.”
God answered Tyndale’s prayer and later the English King began to allow the English Bible into the church. Following Tyndale’s translation there was: The Coverdale Bible (1535); Matthew’s Bible (1537); The Tavner Bible (1539); The Great Bible (1539); The Geneva Bible (1560; Bible used by the Pilgrims); The Bishops Bible (1568); The Douai-Rheims Bible (1609-10). These were largely revisions of each other. In 1603 King James I took the throne of England. He was unhappy with the Calvinist notes in Geneva Bible and the anti-protestant notes in the Douay-Rheims Bible. The King wanted to have one standard Bible for the English church. So he supported 50 scholar/translators to complete the King James Bible, which they did in 1611. The King also controlled the English presses which helped to ensure the translation’s widespread use. The King James Version underwent revisions in 1629, 1638, 1762, 1769 (Current KJV), and 1982 (New King James Version (NKJV)).17 Starting with the English Revised Version in 1885, many other English translation followed: 1901 American Standard Version; 1952 Revised Standard Version (RV) (1971; Protestant); 1989 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) (Protestant); 1958 The Phillips Bible (Evangelical.); 1960/95 The New American Standard Bible (NASB) (Evangelical.); 1966 Jerusalem Bible (JB); 1985 New Jerusalem Bible (NJB) (Catholic); 1971 The Living Bible (LB) and 1996 New Living Translation (NLT)(Evangelical); 1979 New International Version (NIV) (1984; 2005 TNIV; 2011 (Evangelical); 1993 The Message (Evangelical); 1995 Contemporary English Version (CEV)(Evangelical); 2004 Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB) (Evangelical); 2005 The NET Bible 2001; and The Evangelical Standard Version (2007, 2011; Evangelical).18
Many people who read different Bible translations wonder why there are differences in Bible translations. One of the main reasons for these differences is differing translation philosophies. The three major translation philosophies are termed Dynamic Equivalence, Word Equivalence, and Paraphrase. Dynamic Equivalence translations seek to express the meaning of the text in a way that is idiomatic in English. It is more concerned about good stylistic English and willing to forgo some literalness to accomplish this objective. It usually results in translations that are easier to read and understand. These types of translations are also more interpretive to what the translators think the text means. Examples of Dynamic Equivalent translations are: NIV, NLT, CEV, (NET and HCSB in part). Word Equivalence translations are more literal to the language structure of the original text. The translations seek to produce the semantic equivalence of each word and represent it in the translation. This type of translation is usually harder to read. Also, sometimes these may confuse what the author means with an unfamiliar idiom. They are generally less interpretive in translation and allow for more interpretive options translating what text says not what it means necessarily. Examples of Word Equivalent translations are: NASB, NKJV, RSV (NET and HCSB in part). Paraphrases are not translations from the original language, but someone putting something in their own words as to how they would say it. Examples of Paraphrases are the Living Bible and The Message. Below is a comparison of how different types of translations render Psalm 1:1.
Comparison of Ps 1:1
How blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked, nor stand in the path of sinners, nor sit in the seat of scoffers.
How blessed is the one who does not follow the advice of the wicked, or stand in the pathway with sinners, or sit in the assembly of scoffers!
How happy is the man who does not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path of sinners, or join a group of mockers.
How well God must like you– you don’t hang out at Sin Saloon, you don’t slink along Dead-End Road, you don’t go to Smart-Mouth College
Notice how the word equivalence rendering of the NASB translated the Hebrews words very literally as “walk”, “stand” and “sit”. The NET keeps two of three of these renderings but on the first one translates, “follow” for a more literal “walk.” The HCSB renders all three terms in a dynamic equivalence fashion “follow” for “walk”, “take” for “stand” and “join” for “sit”. The Message speaks for itself.
The Bible has an amazing history of how it came to be and how it came to us. It is the inspired and inerrant Word of God. People, some of them to the point of death, have dedicated themselves to get the Bible into our hands. John Wycliffe states the importance of God’s word: “God’s words will give men new life more than other words that are for pleasure. O marvelous power of the Divine Seed which overpowers strong men in arms, softens hard hearts, and renews and changes into godly men, those men who had been brutalized by sins and departed infinitely far from God.”
1 (Date accessed November 27, 2012).
2 (Date accessed November 27, 2012).
3 Paul Enns, The Moody Handbook of Theology (Chicago: Moody Press, 2008), 715.
4 Paul Enns, The Moody Handbook of Theology, 713-714.
5 See Norm Geisler, (Date Accessed Nov 28, 2012).
6 Other less attractive solutions have been to see the statement as proverbial or as seeing the reference to the seed as “very small” as opposed to “smallest”. But in any case the different possibilities are a demonstration that a scientific error what Jesus said cannot be proved.
7 See Patrick Zukeran, (Date accessed Nov 27, 2012).
8 William F. Albright, Archaeology and the Religions of Israel (Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1956), 176.
9 Nelson Glueck, Rivers in the Desert (New York: Farrar, Strous and Cudahy, 1959), 136.
10 Martin Luther, Smalcald Articles II, 15.
11 Even though we do not know for sure who wrote Hebrews it seems clear that at least he had an association with the apostles (Heb 2:3-4).
12 James Davis, “Class Notes Critical Issues and Bible Backgrounds – New Testament Portion,” Capital Bible Seminary, 2009; Köstenburger, Kellum, and Quarles, The Cradle, the Cross and the Crown (Nashville: Broadman Holman Publishers, 2009) 8-10.
13 Credit is given to Dr. Todd Beall for most of the ideas in this paragraph. Todd Beall, “Class Notes Critical Issues and Bible Backgrounds- Old Testament Portion,” Capital Bible Seminary, 2004.
14 The Jewish scribes of this historical era were called Masoretes which means “tradition.” See .
15 F. F. Bruce, The English Bible A History of Translation (New York: Oxford University Press, 1961), 12-13.
16 F. F. Bruce, The English Bible A History of Translation, 29.
17 Arthur L. Farstad, The New King James Version in the Great Tradition (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1993) 9-18.
18 Andreas Köstenburger and David A. Croteau, eds, Which Bible Translation Should I Use? (Nashville: Broadman Holman Publishers, 2012), vi.
19 Peterson notes that the Message was not intended to be a replacement for other translations: “When I’m in a congregation where somebody uses [The Message] in the Scripture reading, it makes me a little uneasy. I would never recommend it be used as saying, “Hear the Word of God from The Message.” But it surprises me how many do.” Eugene Peterson, “I didn’t Want to Be Cute,” Christianity Today (October 2002) (http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2002/october7/33.107.html?start=2) (Date accessed March 5, 2013).
20 The HCSB editors prefer to term their translation approach as “optimal equivalence” using word equivalence where they can but dynamic equivalence when deemed necessary. Andreas Köstenburger and David A. Croteau, eds, Which Bible Translation Should I Use, 117.