Where the world comes to study the Bible

The Bible

I. The Canon

Because this Textbook is basically an introduction to contextual and textual principles for interpreting the Bible, it seems obvious that we need to first look at the Bible itself. For the purpose of this study we are going to assume the Spirit’s guidance in canonization (the greatest presupposition).

A. The Author’s General Presuppositions

1. God exists and He wants us to know Him.

2. He has revealed Himself to us.

a. He acted in history (revelation)

b. He chose certain people to record and explain His acts (inspiration)

c. His Spirit helps the reader (hearer) of this written revelation understand its main truths (illumination)

3. The Bible is the only trustworthy source of truth about God (I know about Jesus’ life and teachings only through the Bible). It is collectively our only source for faith and practice. OT and NT books written to specific occasions and times are now inspired guides for all occasions and ages. However, they do contain some cultural truths that do not transcend their own time and culture (i.e., polygamy, holy war, slavery, celibacy, place of women, wearing veils, holy kiss, etc.).

B. I realize that the canonization process is a historical process with some unfortunate incidents and events, but it is my presupposition that God led its development. The early church accepted the recognized books of the OT that were accepted within Judaism. From historical research it seems that the early churches, not the early councils alone, decided the New Testament canon. Apparently the following criteria were involved, either consciously or subconsciously.

1. The Protestant Canon contains all the inspired books; the canon is closed! (i.e., “the faith,” Acts 6:7; 13:8; 14:22; Gal. 1:23; 6:10; Jude vv. 3,20)

a. accepted OT from Jews

b. twenty-seven books in NT (a progressive historical process)

2. New Testament authors are connected to Jesus or an Apostle (a progressive historical process)

a. James and Jude to Jesus (His half brothers)

b. Mark to Peter (turned his sermons at Rome into a Gospel)

c. Luke to Paul (missionary partner)

d. Hebrews traditionally to Paul

3. Theological unity with Apostolic training (later called “rule of faith”). The Gospels were written after most of the other NT books.

a. because of the rise of heresy (i.e., adoptionism, Gnosticism, Marcionism, and Montanism)

b. because of the delayed Second Coming

c. because of the death of the twelve Apostles

4. The permanently and morally changed lives of hearers where these books were read and accepted

5. The general consensus of the early churches and later church councils can be seen in the early lists of canonical books

a. Origen (a.d. 185-254) asserts that there were four Gospels and the Epistles of the Apostles in circulation among the churches.

b. the Muratorian Fragment dates between a.d. 180-200 from Rome (the only copy available today is a damaged, late Latin text). It lists the same 27 books as the Protestant NT (but adds Apocalypse of Peter and Shepherd of Hermas).

c. Eusebius of Caesarea (a.d. 265-340) introduced a threefold designation (as did Origen) to describe Christian writings: (1) “received” and thereby accepted; (2) “disputed” and thereby meaning some churches, but not all, accepted them; and (3) “spurious” and thereby unaccepted in the vast majority of churches and not to be read. The ones in the disputed category which were finally accepted were: James, Jude, II Peter, and II and III John.

d. the Cheltenham list (in Latin) from North Africa (a.d. 360) has the same 27 books (except for Hebrews, James, and Jude [Hebrews is not specifically mentioned, but may be included in Paul’s letters]), as the Protestant NT, but in an unusual order.

e. Athanasius’ Easter Letter of a.d. 367 is the first to list exactly the same 27 books (no more, no less) as the Protestant NT.

f. The concept and contents of an authoritative list of unique books was a historical and theological development.

6. Suggested reading

a. The Canon of the New Testament by Bruce Metzger, published by Oxford Press

b. Articles on canon in Zondervan Pictorial Bible Encyclopedia, Vol. 1, pp. 709-745

c. Introduction to the Bible by William E. Nix and Norman Geisler, published by Moody Press, 1968 (esp. the chart on p. 22)

d. Holy Writings – Sacred Text: The Canon in Early Christianity by John Barton, published by Westminster John Knox Press.

7. The Old and New Testaments are the only literary productions of the Ancient Near East that were “canonized” as especially coming from and revealing divine purposes. There are no other religious lists which differentiate between canonical (i.e., authoritative) vs. non-canonical religious writings. How, why, and when did this historical process happen?

a. Was it by the decisions of the church councils of the third and fourth centuries a.d.?

b. Was it by the use of Christian writers of the second century?

c. Was it by the churches of the late first through fourth centuries?

II. Claims of Inspiration


In our day of conflicting claims and statements about the Bible, biblical authority, and interpretation, it becomes extremely important that we focus on what the Bible claims for itself. Theological and philosophical discussions and their claims are interesting, but not inspired. Human categories and formulations have always been guilty of overstatement. It is crucial that we allow the Bible to speak for itself.

Since Jesus is the focus of our faith and doctrine, if we could find Him speaking on this subject it would be very informative. He did this in Matt. 5:17-19 in an opening section of the so-called “Sermon on the Mount” (Matthew 5-7). He spells out clearly His view of the body of sacred literature which we call the Old Testament. Notice His emphasis on its eternality and significance for the life and faith of believers. Also notice His central place in its purpose and fulfillment. This passage not only supports a divinely inspired Old Testament, but a supreme focusing of that revelation in Himself (Christocentric typology). However, it is also readily noticeable that in vv. 21-26, 27-31, 33-37, and 38-40 that He completely reorients the traditional interpretation of the Old Testament among rabbinical Judaism of His day. The Scripture itself is inspired, eternal, and Christocentric, but our human interpretations are not. This is an extremely valuable foundational truth. The Bible, not our understanding of it, is what is eternal and inspired. Jesus intensified the traditional, rule-focused application of the Torah and raised it to the impossible level of attitude, motivation, and intent.

The classical statement of biblical inspiration comes from the Apostle to the Gentiles, Saul of Tarsus. In II Timothy 3:15-16 Paul specifically states the “God-givenness” (literally, God-breathed) of Scripture. At this point it is textually uncertain if he would have included all the New Testament writings that we know in this statement. However, by implication, they are surely included. Also, II Pet. 3:15-16 includes Paul’s writings in the category of “Scripture.”

Another supporting Scripture passage from Paul concerning inspiration is found in

I Thess. 2:13. Here, as before, the focus is on God as the real source of the Apostle’s words. This same truth is echoed by the Apostle Peter in II Pet. 1:20-21.

Not only are the Scriptures presented as divine in origin, but also in purpose. All Scripture is given to believers for their faith and life (Rom. 4:23-24; 15:4; I Cor. 10:6, 11; I Pet. 1:10-12).

III. The Bible’s Purpose

A. Not a Rule Book

Much of our misunderstanding concerning Scripture begins in our mistaken notions concerning its purposes. One way to establish what a thing is is to state what it is not. The fallen human tendency toward legalism, so evident among the Pharisees, is alive and well and lives in your home church. This tendency turns the Bible into an extensive set of rules. Modern believers have almost turned the Scriptures into a legalistic rule book, a kind of “Christian Talmud.” It must be stated forcibly that the Scriptures’ primary focus is redemptive. It is meant to confront, convince, and turn wayward mankind back to God (McQuilkin 183, 49). The primary focus is salvation (II Tim. 3:15), which issues in Christlikeness (II Tim. 3:17). This Christlikeness is also a major goal (Romans 8:28-29; II Cor. 3:18; Gal. 4:19; Eph. 1:4;

I Thess. 3:13; 4:3; I Pet. 1:15), but it is a result of the first goal. At least one possibility for the structure and nature of the Bible is its redemptive purpose and not a systematized rule book or doctrine book (i.e., not a Christian Talmud). The Bible does not address all of our intellectual questions. Many issues are addressed in ambiguous or incomplete ways. The Bible was not designed primarily as a systematic theology book, but as a selective history of God’s dealing with His rebellious creation. Its purpose is not merely rules, but relationship. It leaves areas uncovered so that we are forced to walk in love (I Corinthians 13), not rules (Col. 2:16-23). We must see the priority of people made in His image (cf. Gen. 1:26-27), not rules. It is not a set of rules, but a new character, a new focus, a new life that is presented.

This is not to imply that the Bible does not contain rules, because it does, but they do not cover every area. Often rules become barriers instead of bridges in mankind’s search for God. The Bible provides us with enough information to live a God-pleasing life; it also provides us some guidelines or boundaries. Its primary gift, however, is the “Guide,” not the guidelines. Knowing and following the Guide until you become like Him is the second goal of Scripture.

B. Not a Science Book

Another example of modern mankind’s attempt to ask questions of Scripture which it is not designed to answer is in the area of modern scientific inquiry. Many want to force the Scriptures onto the philosophical grid of natural law, particularly in relation to the “scientific method” of inductive reasoning. The Bible is not a divine textbook on natural law. It is not anti-scientific; it is pre-scientific! Its primary purpose is not in this area. Although the Bible is not speaking directly to these questions it does speak about physical reality, however, it does so in the language of description (i.e., phenomenological language), not science. It describes reality in terms of its own day. It presents a “world view” more than a “world picture.” This means that it focuses more on “the who” than on “the how.” Things are described as how they appear (i.e., the five senses) to the common person. Some examples are

1. Do the dead really live in the ground? The Hebrew culture, like our own, buries their dead. Therefore, in the language of description, they were in the earth (Sheol or Hades).

2. Does the land really float on water? This is often connected to the three-storied universe model. The ancients knew that water was present underground (i.e., oasis). Their conclusion was expressed in poetic language.

3. Even we, in our day, speak in these categories.

a. “the sun rises”

b. “dew falls”

Some books which have really helped me in this area are

1) Religion and the Rise of Modern Science by R. Hooykaas

2) The Scientific Enterprise and the Christian Faith by Malcolm A. Jeeves

3) The Christian View of Science and Scripture by Bernard Ramm

4) Science and Hermeneutics by Vern S. Poythress

5) Darwinism on Trial by Phillip Johnson

6) Several good books by Hugh Ross, Pensacola Bible Church, Pensacola, FL

7) Science and Faith: An Evangelical Dialogue by Henry Poe and Jimmy Davis

8) The Battle of Beginnings by Del Ratzsch

9) Coming to Peace with Science by Daniel Falk

10) Mere Christianity: Science and Intelligent Design by William Demoski

C. Not a Magic Book

Not only is the Bible not a rule book or a science book, but it is not a magic book either. Our love for the Bible has caused us to handle it in some very strange ways. Have you ever sought God’s will by praying and then letting your Bible fall open to a page and then put your finger on a verse? This common practice treats the Bible as if it were a crystal ball or divine “Ouija board.” The Bible is a message, not a modern Urim and Thummim (Exod. 28:30). Its value is in its message, not in its physical presence. As Christians, we take our Bible into the hospital with us, not so we can read it, because we are too sick. We do so because it represents God’s presence to us. For many modern Christians the Bible has become a physical idol. Its physical presence is not its power, but its message about God in Christ. Placing your Bible on your surgical incision will not help it heal faster. We do not only need the Bible beside our bed; we need its message in our hearts.

I have even heard people get upset if someone drops a Bible or if someone writes in it. The Bible is nothing more than cow skin (if you have an expensive one), tree pulp, and ink. It is only holy in its connection to God. The Bible is useless unless it is read and followed. Our culture is reverent toward the Bible and rebellious toward God. Earlier in our court system one had to swear to tell the truth while holding his hand on the Bible. If one is a believer he would not lie anyway. If one is swearing on an ancient book in which he did not believe and whose content he did not know, what makes us think that he would not lie?

The Bible is not a magical charm. It is not a detailed, complete, unabridged textbook on natural phenomena and it is not “Hoyle’s” rule book on the game of life with detailed instructions in every area. It is a message from the God who acts within human history. It points toward His Son and it points its finger at our rebellion.

IV. Author’s Presuppositions About the Bible

Even though the Bible has been abused by mankind’s expectations and usages, it is still our only guide for faith and practice. I would like to state my presuppositions about the Bible.

I believe the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, is the only clear self-revelation of God. The New Testament is the perfect fulfillment and interpreter of the Old Testament (we must view the OT through the new revelations of Jesus and the NT, which radically universalize the promises to Israel). I believe the one and only Eternal, Creator, Redeemer God initiated the writing of our canonical Scriptures by inspiring certain chosen persons to record and explain His acts in the lives of individuals and nations. The Bible is our only clear source of information about God and His purposes (I know about Jesus only from the pages of the NT). Natural revelation (cf. Job 38-39; Ps. 19:1-6; Rom. 1:19-20; 2:14-15) is valid, but not complete. Jesus Christ is the capstone of God’s revelation about Himself (cf. John 1:18; Col. 1:14-16; Heb. 1:2-3). The Bible must be illuminated by the Holy Spirit (cf. John 14:23; 16:20-21; I Cor. 2:6-16) in order to be correctly understood (in its spiritual dimension). Its message is authoritative, adequate, eternal, infallible, and trustworthy for all believers. The exact mode of its inspiration has not been revealed to us, but it is obvious to believers that the Bible is a supernatural book, written by natural people under special leadership.

V. Evidence for a Supernaturally Inspired and Authoritative Bible

Although the above statement is presuppositional, as is all human knowledge, it does not mean that there is no credible supportive evidence. At this point let us examine some of this evidence.

A. The Bible contains very precise predictions (historical, not typological [Hosea 11:1] or apocalyptic [Zechariah 9]) about future events, not in vague formulations, but in specific and often shocking preciseness. Two good examples follow.

1. The area of Jesus’ ministry was predicted to be in Galilee, Isa. 9:1. This was very unexpected by Judean Jewry because Galilee was not considered to be quite Kosher because of its physical distance from the Temple. Yet, the majority of Jesus’ ministry was spent in this geographical area.

2. The place of Jesus’ birth is specifically recorded in Micah 5:2. Bethlehem was a very small village whose only claim to fame was that the family of Jesse lived there. Yet, 750 years before the birth of Jesus the Bible specifically pinpoints this as the birthplace of the Messiah. Even the rabbinical scholars of Herod’s court knew this (Matt. 2:4-6). Some may doubt the 8th century b.c. date for both Isaiah and Micah, however, because of the Septuagint (which is the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scripture, which was begun about 250-200 b.c.), even at the very minimum these prophecies were made over 200 years before their fulfillment.

B. Another evidence relates to the modern scientific discipline of archaeology. The last few decades have seen a tremendous amount of archaeological discovery. To my knowledge there have not been any finds that have repudiated the Bible’s historical accuracies (Nelson Glueck, Rivers in the Desert, p. 31, “No archaeological discovery has ever been made that contradicts or controverts historical statements of Scripture”), quite the contrary. Archaeology has facilitated confidence in the historicity of the Bible over and over again.

1. One example is the use of Mesopotamian names in the Nuzi and Mari Tablets of the second millennium b.c., which also occur in Genesis. Now these are not the same people, but the same names. Names are characteristic of a particular time and place. The names “Terah” and “Nahor” are common to the biblical record and in these ancient tablets.

2. The existence of a Hittite civilization in Asia Minor is another example. For many years (19th century) secular history had no references to the stable, highly developed culture known by this name (Archer 1982, 96-98, 210). However, Genesis 10 and the historical books of the Bible mention them many times (II Kings 7:6,7; II Chr. 1:17). Archaeology has since confirmed, not only their existence, but their longevity and power (i.e., 1950 archeologists found royal library of 2,000 cuneiform tablets where the nation was called both Anatolia and Hittite).

3. The existence of Belshazzar, the last Babylonian king (Daniel 5), has often been denied. There are ten lists of Babylonian kings in secular history taken from Babylonian documents, but none contain Belshazzar’s name. With further archaeological finds it became obvious that Belshazzar was co-regent and the official in charge during that period of time. His father, Nabonidus, whose mother was the high priestess of the moon goddess, Zin, had become so involved in the worship of Zin (Nana) that he had moved to Tema (Arabia), her holy city, while on a ten-year military campaign against Egypt. He left his son, Belshazzar, to reign in the city of Babylon in his absence.

C. A further evidence for a supernatural Bible is the consistency of its message. This is not to say that the Bible does not contain some paradoxical material, but it also does not contradict itself. This is amazing when one considers that it was written over a 1600/1400 year period (depending on the date of the Exodus, i.e., 1495, 1290 b.c.) by authors of radically different educational and cultural backgrounds from Mesopotamia to Egypt. It is composed of various literary genres and is written in three separate languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, and Koine Greek). Yet, even with all of this variety, a unified message (i.e., plot line) is presented.

D. Finally, one of the most marvelous evidences for the Bible’s unique inspiration is the permanently morally changed lives of men and women from different cultures, different educational levels, and different socio-economic levels through history. Wherever the Bible has simply been read, radical, permanent lifestyle changes have occurred. The Bible is its own best apologist.

VI. Problems Related to Our Interpretation of the Bible

The above does not mean to imply that it is easy to understand or that there are not some problems connected with the Bible. Because of the nature of human language, hand copied manuscripts combined with the problem of translation, our modern Bibles must be interpreted in an analytical fashion.

The first problem to confront the modern Bible reader is the manuscript variations which exist. This is not only true of the Hebrew Old Testament, but also the Greek New Testament. This subject will be discussed in a more practical manner in a later chapter, but for now let us look at the problem. It is often called Textual Criticism. It basically tries to decide the original wording of the Bible. Some good books concerning this problem are:

A. Biblical Criticism: Historical, Literary and Textual by B. K. Walke, D. Guthrie, Gordon Fee, and R. H. Harrison

B. The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption and Restoration by Bruce M. Metzger

C. Introduction to New Testament Textual Criticism and Scribes, Scrolls, and Scriptures, by J. H. Greenlee

D. The Books and the Parchments by F. F. Bruce

E. The Early Versions of the New Testament by Bruce Metzger

F. The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? by F. F. Bruce

G. The King James Version Debate: A Plea for Realism by D. A. Carson

H. Ancient Orient and Old Testament by K. A. Kitchen

I. The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture by Bart D. Ehrman

J. Rethinking New Testament Textual Criticism edited by David Alan Beach

VII. The Major Textual Sources of Our Modern Bible

The modern text of the Old Testament in Hebrew is called the Masoretic Text (the consonantal text set by Rabbi Aquiba in a.d. 100). It was probably the text used by the Pharisees of Jesus’ day, who were the only religious group that survived the destruction of Jerusalem by Titus in a.d. 70. Its name comes from a group of Jewish scholars who put vowel points, punctuation marks, and some textual comments into the ancient, unpointed (no vowels) Hebrew text (finished in the 9th century a.d.). Following is a brief outline of OT and NT sources.

A. Old Testament

1. Masoretic Text (MT) – The Hebrew consonantal textual form was set by Rabbi Aquiba in a.d. 100. The addition of vowel points, accents, marginal notes, punctuation, and apparatus notes was finished in the 9th century a.d. by Masoretic scholars. This textual form is quoted in the Mishnah, Talmud, Targums (Aramaic translation), Peshitta (Syriac translation), and Vulgate (Latin translation).

2. Septuagint (LXX) – Tradition says it was produced by 70 Jewish scholars in 70 days for the library of Alexandria, Egypt. It was supposedly requested by a Jewish leader of King Ptolemy II living in Alexandria (285-246 b.c.). The Ptolemy rulers of Egypt boasted of the largest library in the world. This tradition comes from “Letter of Aristeas.” The LXX provides a differing Hebrew textual tradition from the text of Rabbi Aquiba (MT). Both traditions are represented in the Dead Sea Scrolls.

The problem comes when these two texts do not agree. And, in books like Jeremiah and Hosea, they are radically different. Since the finding of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947, it has become obvious that both the Masoretic Text and the Septuagint have ancient manuscript attestation. Usually the Masoretic Text is accepted as the basic text for the Old Testament and the Septuagint is allowed to supplement it in difficult passages or corrupted readings.

a. The LXX has helped in the understanding of the MT (one example):

(1) the LXX of Isa. 52:14, “as many shall be amazed at him

(2) the MT of Isa. 52:14, “just as many were astonished over you”

b. The DSS have helped in the understanding of the MT (one example):

(1) the DSS (IQ Isaiah) of Isa. 21:8 – “then the seer cried, upon a watchtower I stand…”

(2) the MT of Isa. 21:8 – “and I cried a lion! My Lord, I always stand on the watchtower by day…”

c. Both the LXX and DSS have helped our understanding of Isa. 53:11

(1) LXX and DSS – “after the travail of his soul he will see light, he will be satisfied”

(2) MT – “he shall see of the travail of his soul. He shall be satisfied” (The MT doubled the verb, but left out the first object).

We do not have the autographs or original manuscripts of any of the original biblical authors, only copies of copies of copies.

3. Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS) – Written in the Roman b.c. period, close to New Testament times by a sect of Jewish separatists (they left temple worship because the current high priest was not of the line of Aaron), called “Essenes.” The Hebrew manuscripts (MSS) were found in 1947 in several cave sites around the Dead Sea. They contain the Hebrew textual family behind both the MT and the LXX.

Another problem in this area is the discrepancy between the Masoretic Text and the Old Testament quotes in the New Testament. One good example would be a comparison of Num. 25:9 and I Cor. 10:8. The OT reference states that 24,000 died, while Paul states that 23,000 died. Here we are faced with the problem of an ancient text which was copied by hand. This could be a scribal error in transmission or it could be a quotation from memory by Paul or a rabbinical tradition. I know it is painful to us (because of our presuppositions about inspiration) to find discrepancies such as this, but the truth of the matter is that our modern translations of the Bible have some minor problems of this type.

A similar problem is found in Matt. 27:9, where an OT quote is referred to Jeremiah, when it seems to come from Zechariah. To show you how much disagreement this has caused let me give you some of the supposed reasons for this discrepancy.

1. The 5th century Syriac version called the Peshitta simply removes the name “Jeremiah.”

2. Augustine, Luther, and Keil assert an error in Matthew’s text.

3. Origen and Eusebius assert an error by a copyist.

4. Jerome and Ewald assert that it is a quote from an apocryphal work attributed to Jeremiah which was lost and that it was not a quote from Zechariah at all.

5. Mede asserts that Jeremiah wrote Zechariah 9-11.

6. Lightfoot asserts that Jeremiah was listed as the first of the prophets; in this designation all other prophets were implied.

7. Hengstenberg asserts that Zechariah quoted Jeremiah.

8. Calvin asserts that an error has crept into the text in an unknown way.

With so many theories from learned, godly men it is obvious that we simply do not know. To deny the problem (#1) is not an answer either. To hide behind cliches or presuppositions also does not solve the problem. Our modern translations of the Bible have some problems which we must try to sort out. For the layperson this can often be done by comparing modern translations. A simple practical suggestion would be, if in the margin of your modern study Bible it says, “not in the oldest and best Greek manuscripts,” just do not build a doctrine on this text. Find the parallel passages where the doctrine is clearly taught.

B. New Testament

Over 5,300 manuscripts (whole or fragmentary) of the Greek New Testament are in existence today. About 85 of these are written on papyri. There are 268 (uncial) manuscripts written in all capital letters. Later, about the ninth century a.d., a running script (minuscule) was developed. The Greek manuscripts written in this form number about 2,700. We also have about 2,100 copies of lists of Scripture texts used in worship that are called lectionaries. The following is a brief outline of NT sources.

1. The Papyri – About 85 Greek manuscripts containing parts of the New Testament are extant, written on papyrus, dating from the second century a.d., but most are from the third and fourth centuries a.d. None of these manuscripts contain the whole New Testament. Some are done by professional scribes, but many of them are hastily copied by less exacting copyists. Just being old does not, in and of itself, make it more accurate.

2. Codex Sinaiticus – is known by the Hebrew “A” (aleph), À, or (01). It was found at St. Catherine’s monastery on Mt. Sinai by Tischendorf. It dates from the fourth century a.d. It contains both the Old and New Testaments. It is of “the Alexandrian Text” type, as is Codex B.

3. Codes Alexandrinus – is known as “A” (alpha) or (02). It is a fifth century a.d. manuscript which was found at Alexandria, Egypt. Only the Gospels are of “the Alexandrian text” type.

4. Codex Vaticanus – is known as “B” or (03), was found in the Vatican’s library in Rome and dates from the middle of the fourth century a.d. It contains both the Old and New Testaments. It is of “The Alexandrian Text” type, as is Codex À. Its roots go back into the second century from P75.

5. Codex Ephraemi – is known as “C” or (04), is a fifth century a.d. manuscript which was partially destroyed. Its roots go back to the third century P45. Codex W, from the fifth century is also of this textual family.

6. Codex Bezae – is known as “D” or (05), is a fifth or sixth century a.d. manuscript. Its roots, according to Eldon Jay Epp, go back into the second century, based on the Old Latin and Old Syriac translations, as well as many papyri fragments. However, Kurt and Barbara Eland do not list any papyri connected to this textual family and they put it to the fourth century and no earlier, but they do list a few precursor papyri (i.e., P38, P48, P69). It is the chief representative of what is called “The Western Text.” It contains many additions and was the main Greek witness behind the third edition of Erasmus’ Greek New Testament, which was the Greek witness for the King James translation.

The NT manuscripts can be grouped into three, possibly four, families of manuscripts that share certain characteristics.

1. Alexandrian “local” text, which includes

a. P75, P66 (about a.d. 200) the Gospels

b. P46 (about a.d. 225) Paul’s letters

c. P72 (about a.d. 225-250) Peter and Jude

d. Codex B, called Vaticanus (about a.d. 325), which includes the entire OT and NT

e. quoted by Origen

f. other manuscripts which show this text type are À, L, W, 33

2. Western text from North Africa which includes

a. quotes from North Africa: Tertullian, Cyprian, and the Old Latin

b. quotes from Irenaeus

c. quotes from Tatian and Old Syriac

d. Codex D “Bezae”

3. Byzantine text

a. reflected in over 80% of the 5,300 manuscripts (mostly minuscules)

b. quoted by leaders from Antioch of Syria: Cappadoceans, Chrysostom, and Therdoret

c. Codex A in the Gospels only

d. Codex E (eighth century) for the full NT

4. the fourth possible type is “Caesarean”

a. primarily seen in Mark

b. some witnesses to it are P45, W, H

C. Brief explanation of the problems and theories of “lower criticism,” also called “textual criticism.”


1. How did the variants occur?

a. inadvertent or accidental (vast majority of occurrences)

(1) slip of the eye

(a) in hand copying, which reads the second instance of two similar words and, thereby, omits all of the words in between (homoioteleuton)

(b) in omitting a double letter word or phrase (haplography)

(c) in hand copying, a mental error in repeating a phrase or line of a Greek text (dittography)

(2) slip of the ear in hand copying by oral dictation, where a misspelling occurs (itacism) in similar sounding words. Often the misspelling implies or spells another Greek word

(3) the earliest Greek texts had no chapter or verse divisions, little or no punctuation, and no division between words. It is possible to divide letters into different words

b. intentional

(1) changes were made to improve the grammatical form of the text copied

(2) changes were made to bring the text into conformity with other biblical texts (harmonization of parallels)

(3) changes were made by combining two or more variant readings into one long combined text (conflation)

(4) changes were made to correct a perceived problem in the text (cf. Bart Ehrman, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, pp. 146-50, concerning Heb. 2:9)

(5) changes were made to make the text more doctrinally orthodox (cf. I John 5:7-8)

(6) some additional information as to the historical setting or proper interpretation of the text was placed in the margin by one scribe, but placed into the text by a second scribe (cf. John 5:4)

D. The basic tenets of textual criticism (transcriptional probabilities)


1. the most awkward or grammatically unusual text is probably the original because the scribes tended to make the text smoother

2. the shortest text is probably the original because scribes tended to add additional information or phrases from parallel passages (this has recently been challenged by papyrus comparative studies)

3. the older text is given more weight because of its historical proximity to the original, everything else being equal

4. manuscripts that are geographically diverse usually have the original readings

5. attempts to explain how variants could have occurred. This is considered the most important tenet by most scholars.

6. analysis of a given biblical author’s literary style, vocabulary, and theology is used to decide probable original wording.

7. doctrinally weaker texts, especially those relating to major theological discussions during the period of manuscript changes, like the Trinity in I John 5:7-8, are to be preferred. At this point I would like to quote from J. Harold Greenlee’s book, Introduction to New Testament Textual Criticism.

“No Christian doctrine hangs upon a debatable text; and the student of the New Testament must beware of wanting his text to be more orthodox or doctrinally stronger than is the inspired original” (p. 68).

8. W. A. Criswell told Greg Garrison of THE BIRMINGHAM NEWS that he (Criswell) doesn’t believer every word in the Bible is inspired, “at least not every word that has been given to the modern public by centuries of translators.” Criswell further said, “I very much am a believer in textual criticism. As such, I think the last half of the 16th chapter of Mark is heresy: it’s not inspired, it’s just concocted…when you compare those manuscripts way back yonder, there was no such thing as that conclusion of the Book of Mark. Somebody added it…”

The patriarch of the SBC inerrantists also claimed that “interpolation” is also evident in John 5:4, the account of Jesus at the pool of Bethesda. And he discusses the two different accounts of the suicide of Judas (cf. Matt. 27 and Acts 1), “It’s just a different view of the suicide,” Criswell said. “If it is in the bible, there is an explanation for it. And the two accounts of the suicide of Judas are in the Bible.” Criswell added, “Textual criticism is a wonderful science in itself. It is not ephemeral, it’s not impertinent. It’s dynamic and central…”

An additional problem with our modern English copies of the Bible is that from the time of the original authors until the invention of the printing press, the Bible was copied by hand. Often these copyists added their own thoughts or “corrected” the manuscript they were copying. This has caused several non-original additions to the New Testament.

E. Some examples of the problem of hand-copied manuscripts in the Greek New Testament.

1. Mark 16:9ff – In the Greek manuscripts of Mark there are four different endings. The longest ending of twelve verses found in King James is missing in manuscripts À and B. The Greek texts used by Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Eusebius, and Jerome also lack this long ending. The long ending is present in manuscripts A, C, D, K, U, and Àc. The earliest witness to this long ending in the Fathers is Irenaeus (ministered from a.d. 177-190) and the Diatessaron (a.d. 180). The passage is obviously non-Markan (i.e., uninspired).

These verses contain terms and theology not found elsewhere in Mark. They even contain heresy (i.e., drinking of poison and handling snakes).

2. John 5:4 – This verse is not in P66, P75, nor the uncial manuscripts À, B, C, or D. However, it is found in A. It was obviously added by a scribe to explain the historical setting. This is likey Jewish folklore answering the question why there were so many sick people around this pool. God does not heal by angels stirring water with the first to enter being rewarded with physical healing.

3. John 7:53-8:11 – This passage does not appear in any of the ancient Greek manuscripts or early church Fathers until the sixth century a.d. in manuscript “D” called Bezae. No Greek church Father, until the twelveth century a.d., comments on this passage. The account is found in several other places in the Greek manuscripts of John, after 7:36, after 7:44, and after 21:25. It also appears in Luke’s Gospel after Luke 21:38. It is obviously non-Johannine (i.e., uninspired). It is probably an oral tradition from the life of Jesus. It sounds so much like Him, but it is not from the pen of an inspired Apostle, therefore, I reject it as Scripture.

4. Matthew 6:13 – This verse is not found in manuscripts À, B, or D. It is present in manuscripts K, L, and W, but with variations. It is also absent from the early church Father’s comments on the Lord’s Prayer (i.e., Tertullian [a.d. 150-230], Origen [a.d.182-251], and Cyprian [a.d. ministered 248-258]). It is found in the King James translation because it was included in Erasmus’ third edition Greek text.

5. Luke 22:43-44 – These verses are found in the ancient Greek uncial manuscripts À*, À2, D, K, L, X, and Delta. They are also found in the quotations of Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Hippolytus, Eusebius, and Jerome. However, they are omitted in MSS P69[probably],75, Àc, A, N, T, and W, as well as the manuscripts used by Clement of Alexandria and Origen. The UBS4 ranks their omission as “certain” (A).

Bart D. Ehrman, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, pp. 187-194, assumes these verses are an early second century addition to refute docetic (agnostic) Christologists who denied Christ’s humanity and suffering. The church’s conflict with Christological heresies was the source of many of the early manuscript changes.

The NASB and NRSV bracket these verses, while NKJV, TEV, and NIV have a footnote which says, “some ancient manuscripts omit verses 43 and 44.” This information is unique to Luke’s Gospel.

6. I John 5:7-8 – These verses are not found in manuscripts À, A, or B nor any other Greek manuscript except four dating from the twelveth century a.d. This text is not quoted by any of the Greek Fathers, even in their defense of the concept of the deity of Christ or the Trinity. They are absent from all ancient translations including Jerome’s Vulgate. They were apparently added later by well-meaning copyists in order to bolster the doctrine of the Trinity. They are found in the King James translation because of their inclusion in Erasmus’ third edition (and only this edition) of the Greek New Testament.

Our modern translations of the Bible do have some textual problems. However, these do not affect a major doctrine. We can trust these modern translations of the Bible for all that is necessary for faith and practice. One of the translators of the RSV, F. C. Grant, said, “No doctrine of the Christian faith has been affected by the revision, for the simple reason that, out of thousands of variant readings in the manuscripts, none has turned up thus far that requires a revision of Christian doctrine.” “It is noteworthy that for most scholars over 90% of all the variants of the NT text are resolved, because in most instances the variant that best explains the origins of the others is also supported by the earliest and best witnesses” (Gordon Fee, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 1, p. 430).

I have cited these examples to show you that we must analyze our English translations (Fee and Stuart 1982, 30-34). They do have textual problems. I do not feel comfortable with these textual variants, but they are a reality. It is reassuring to realize that they are rare and do not affect any major Christian doctrine. Also, in comparison to other ancient literature, the Bible has remarkably few variations.

F. The problem of translating from one language to another.

Besides the problem of manuscript variations there is the added problem of translating one language into anther. In reality all translations are concise commentaries. Possibly an understanding of translation theory will (1) encourage us to use more than one translation in our study and (2) help us know which different translations to compare. There are three basic methods available to translators.

1. A literal approach tries to use a word-for-word correspondence.

2. An idiom-for-idiom approach tries to use clauses or phrases, not words, as the basis to communicate the ancient text.

3. A thought-for-thought approach tries to use concepts instead of actual terms and phrases of the originals.

We can see this more clearly on the following graph.




Amplified Bible



Phillips Translation











Williams Translation






Clause-for clause

Free Rendering

Formal Correspondence

Dynamic Equivalent


A good discussion of translation theory is found in Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart’s How To Read the Bible for All Its Worth, pp. 34-41. Also, tremendous help in this area is found in the United Bible Societies’ publications by Eugene A. Nida on translation theory and practice.

G. The problem of human languages in describing God.

Not only do we face an uncertain text at some places, but also, if we are not fluent in ancient Hebrew and Koine Greek, we face a variety of English translations. Complicating the problem even more is our own human finitude and sinfulness. Human language itself limits and determines the categories and scope of divine revelation. God has spoken to us in analogies. Human language is adequate to speak about God, but it is not exhaustive or ultimate. We can know God, but with some limits. One good example of this limitation is anthropomorphism, that is, speaking about God in human, physical, or psychological terms. We have nothing else to use. We assert that God is a person and all we know about personhood is in human categories. Some examples of this difficulty follow.

1. anthropomorphism (God described in human terms)

a. God with human body

(1) walking - Gen. 3:8; 18:33; Lev. 26:12; Deut. 23:14

(2) eyes - Gen. 6:8; Exod. 33:17

(3) man on a throne - Isa. 6:1; Dan.7:9

b. God as female

(1) Gen. 1:2 (Spirit as female bird)

(2) Deut. 32:18 (God as mother)

(3) Exod. 19:4 (God as mother eagle)

(4) Isa. 49:14-15; 66:9-13 (God as nursing mother and also possibly Hos. 11:4)

c. God as advocating lying (cf. I Kgs 22:19-23)

d. NT examples of “God’s right hand” (cf. Luke 22:69; Acts 7:55-56; Rom. 8:34; Eph. 1:20; Col. 3:1; Heb. 13:1; 8:1; 10:12; 12:2; I Pet. 3:22)

2. Human titles used to describe God

a. Shepherd (cf. Psalm 23)

b. Father (cf. Isaiah 63:16; Psalm 103:13)

c. Go’el – kinsman redeemer (cf. Exod. 6:6)

d. Lover – husband (cf. Hosea 1-3)

e. Parent, father, and mother (cf. Hos. 11:3-4)

3. Physical objects used to describe God

a. Rock (cf. Psalm 18)

b. Fortress and stronghold (cf. Psalm 18)

c. Shield (cf. Gen. 15:1; Psalm 18)

d. Horn of salvation (cf. Psalm 18)

e. Tree (cf. Hos. 14:8)

4. Language is part of the image of God in mankind, but sin has affected all aspects of our existence, including language.

5. God is faithful and communicates to us adequately, if not exhaustively, knowledge about Himself. This is usually in the form of negation, analogy, or metaphor.

The biggest problem we face in interpreting the Bible, along with the others mentioned, is our sinfulness. We twist everything, including the Bible, to fit and meet our wants. We never have an objective, unaffected view of God, our world, or ourselves. Yet, even with all of these handicaps, God is faithful. We can know God and His Word because He wants us to do so (Silva 1987, 118). He has provided all that we need by the illumination of the Holy Spirit (Calvin). Yes, there are problems, but there are also abounding provisions. The problems should limit our dogmatism and increase our thanksgiving through prayerful, diligent Bible study. The road is not easy, but He walks with us. The goal is Christlikeness, not only a correct interpretation. Interpretation is a means to the goal of knowing, serving, and praising Him who called us out of darkness through His Son (Col. 1:13).