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Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Biblical Inerrancy: Where We Got the Bible

Many people are unaware of the background of the Bible, its divisions, and the material used for its production. This information may help some have a greater appreciation for how it was compiled.

1) Materials used:

Papyrus was the most common material used for writing in biblical times, made from reeds. Unfortunately, it is a perishable material, which is why the actual original autographs have been lost long since. It is only in exceptional conditions that papyrus survives for any length of time. The earliest manuscripts were written on papyrus, and unless they were stored in a very dry place (the desert sands of Egypt, or in caves such as where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found) they would likely not survive. Papyrus enjoyed popular use until about the third century A.D. Other writing “papers” of use in biblical times include parchment (prepared skins of animals), vellum (calf skin dyed purple, with gold or silver writing), ostraca (an unglazed pottery), stones and clay and wax tablets.

Chisels were used to write on stones, a metal stylus would be used to write on lay or wax tablets, and a pen, a pointed reed fashioned from rushes , was used for vellum, parchment and papyrus. The ink used was usually a compound of charcoal, gum and water.

Scrolls, or rolls, were made by gluing sheets of papyrus together and wrapping them around a stick. Writing was usually limited to one side. Some scrolls have been known to be 144 feet long! The average scroll was, however, only about 25-30 feet long. In order to make reading easier and less bulky, the codex or book was developed, which was assembling the papyrus leaves in leaf form and writing on both sides. J. Harold Greenlee states that Christianity was the prime reason for development of the codex-book form.

There are two primary types of writing. Uncial writing was a formal type of writing, characterized by more deliberate and carefully executed letters, each one separate from the others – much like all caps. Miniscule writing was more of a script or cursive writing, which was created for the production of books. Miniscule writing was not used for literary texts until about the 9th century A.D.

Greek manuscripts were written without any breaks between words, while Hebrew text was written without vowels. While both may be confusing to us, it was common practice for the times, and thus easy to read and understand.

2) Divisions of the Bible:

Chapters: The first divisions of the Old Testament (OT) were made prior to the Babylonian captivity (before 586 BC). The pentatuech (first 5 books) were divided into 154 groupings, intended to provide enough lessons to cover a three year cycle of reading. Around 165 BC the prophetic books of the OT were sectioned. Finally, after the Protestant reformation the Hebrew Bible followed the same chapter divisions as the Protestant OT, first placed in the margins in 1330.

The first paragraph divisions were made in the New Testament (NT) prior to the Council of Nicea (AD 325), perhaps as early as AD 250. In about 1227 the current chapter divisions were implemented by the eventual Archbishop of Canterbury, which was used in the Wycliffe Bible and is still the base for chapter divisions.

Verses: In the OT, the first verse indicators were merely spaces between words. After the Babylonian captivity, for the purpose of public reading and interpretation, space stops were employed, and still later additional markings were added. Unlike the rest of the text, the ‘verse’ markings were not regulated, but were made standardized in about AD 900.

Verse markings in the NT similar to our modern Bibles did not appear until the middle of the sixteenth century. They followed the development of chapters, apparently in an effort to make public reading easier and to facilitate cross referencing. They appear in a Greek NT in 1551, a Latin NT in 1555, and an English NT in 1557.

3) Which Books?

Many people are curious about why some books were included in the canon and some were not. The word canon is, in reference to scripture, “an officially accepted list of books”.

It is important to note that the Church did not create the canon; it did not determine which books would be called the Scriptures, the inspired Word of God. Instead, the church recognized, or discovered, which books had been inspired from their inception. Another way of saying this would be , “a book is not the Word of God because it is accepted by the people of God. Rather, it was accepted by the people of God because it is the Word of God.” Simply put, people cannot give a book divine authority! We can only recognize the divine authority given to it.

At least five principles have been applied to guide the recognition and collection of divinely inspired books. They are:

1. Was the book written by a prophet of God? “If it was written by a spokesman of God, then it is the Word of God.”
2. Was the writer confirmed by acts of God? Frequently miracles separated the true prophets from the false ones – Moses to prove his al of God in Exodus 4:1-9, Elijah to triumph over the false prophets of Baal, Jesus when “attested to…by God with miracles and wonders and signs which God performed through him (Acts 2:2). The miracle is the sign to substantiate the sermon.
3. Did the message tell the truth about God? As God cannot contradict Himself, nor can He utter what is false, no book with false claims can be the Word of God. For reasons such as these, the church fathers maintained the policy, “if in doubt, throw it out”. This enhanced the validity of their discernment of the canonical books. It is almost humorous that many claim there are “so many contradictions in the Bible”, when canon was selected based, in part, upon an absolute certainty of the absence of contradiction!
4. Does it come with the power of God? Since the church fathers believed the Word of God is living and active, and consequently ought to have a transforming force for edification and evangelization. If the message of a book did not affect its stated goal, if it did not have the power to change a life, then God was apparently not part of the message.
5. Was it accepted by the people of God? Whatever debate there may have been about a book’s place in the canon, the people in the best position to know its prophetic credentials were those who knew the prophet who wrote it. Hence, despite all later debate about the canonicity of some books, the definitive evidence is that which attests to its original acceptance by the contemporary believers. Basically, when a book was received, collected, read, and used by the people of God as the Word of God, it was regarded as canonical. This practice is seen in the Bible itself – one example is when the apostle Peter acknowledges Paul’s writings as Scripture on par with OT scripture (2 Pet 3:16).

Those tests were applied to the both testaments. The NT has the additional test of divine inspiration through apostolicity – however, merely being written by an apostle was not the test. Apostolic authority, through apostolic approval, was the primary test of canonicity. This apostolic authority is never detached from the authority of the Lord himself, and is not the authority of the apostle alone. For example, whenever Paul defends his authority as an apostle, e bases his claim solely upon his commission by the Lord.

The NT books were initially collected for a number of reasons: their prophetic nature, the needs of the early church for instruction and assurance, the rise of heretical teachings (a false canon was developed as early as AD 140 by the heretic Marcion who attempted to propagate his false teachings through it), the circulation of spurious writings, missions to other cultures, and persecution. The NT canon was recognized as early as AD 367 by Athanasius of Alexandria, whose letter to the churches lists the very 27 books we still have in the NT. He was followed soon by Augustine and Jerome, and the list was made official by the Synod of Hippo in AD 393. Even before these, Justin Martyr (100-165), Irenaeus (180) and Ignatius (AD 50-115) made reference that the canon was acknowledged even then by the church.

The OT canon is even less in dispute, as it had been solidified by 150 BC at the latest, and likely by about 400 BC. The Jews acknowledged that the prophets had fallen silent since Malachi (450-430 BC) and that no new inspired works had been written since Chronicles (400 BC). This is even noted in Maccabees and 2 Baruch, apocryphal books which are not canon. Although the Jewish and Christian OTs have different numbers of books, the writings are the same – the Christian church has merely broken down Kings, Chronicles, Samuel, and Ezra-Nehemiah into two books each, and has further broken down the book of “The Twelve” into the individual books for each of the minor prophets. Also, the church has changed the order, going with a topical arrangement instead of the previous Jewish order of books.

Conclusion – while the books of the Bible were written hundreds, and some over a thousand, years ago, the Bible of today has been subject to greater scrutiny than most people are aware in its formation. It has remained relatively unchanged since the fourth century, and the tests for inclusion of the books of the Bible have ensured its theological and historical reliability. (Note: I have left out a discussion of why other books (such as Maccabees, Tobit, Gospel of the Hebrews, etc, were not included. If more than one or two people are interested in the subject, I can do that in an additional post as well). This information should address the question of, “why does book X have to be considered as reliable as book Y?”

The only question remaining must be – how can we be sure that the books we have today are the books that were actually written? I will address it in two posts – Old and New Testament.


  • Very well stated, Hammer!

    There is one important overriding point to canonization, however, which is God’s sovereign guidance in the process. As much as I respect intellectual acumen, (probably because I’m lacking) I sincerely doubt that the ‘church fathers’ possessed the requisite level of discernment for such a weighty compilation…or anyone else for that matter.

    By Blogger Robert, at 6/22/2005 11:36:00 PM  

  • HI Robert,

    How do you show through evidence and facts God’s sovereign guidance in the process of canonization? How is it different than God’s sovereign guidance in the Koran? What is your claim based on?

    By Blogger David M. Smith, at 6/23/2005 12:56:00 PM  

  • Hey David,

    Good question. The answer is a “two parter”: 1.) the nature and attributes of God 2.) apprehension of exactly what the Bible claims.

    I tangentially addressed #2 here. With respect to #1, such information is attainable via #2, but only by the power of the Holy Spirit, by way of regeneration.

    Now, the evidence and proof for God’s sovereignty is delineated in Scripture (Romans 9 being one of many such passages). God’s sovereignty, omnipotence, omniscience, et al is not limited to creation and salvation, but extends to all things, canonization included.

    If you’re referring to evidence sufficient for unbelievers, however, I submit that merely asserting that wise men (church fathers) are solely responsible for the configuration of the Bible does nothing to demonstrate that the texts are divine in origin. To be sure, Muslims insist that the Koran is tantamount to Allah, but unsubstantiated positive statements do not equate to veracity. Therefore, the Bible is wholly dependant upon its author, the one true God. Otherwise, it’s no more than the outlandish fantasies of men, which I would attribute to such books as the Koran, the Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants.

    By Blogger Robert, at 6/23/2005 02:49:00 PM  

  • Hi Robert,

    As a believer, I want proof of the claims made by other believers. If the proof of God breathed inerrancy of the Bible is the Bible, then it is circular reasoning and therefore, not proof. If the proof of God breathed inerrancy is regeneration through the Holy Spirit, then it is unverifiable, and therefore, not proof.

    Two thousand years of inspection and affirmation by some of the greatest minds in history is compelling enough for me to consider the Bible the most sacred of all texts, and more than likely, the consensus word of God, but it still doesn’t rise to the level of God breathed inerrancy proof.

    I would like more!

    By Blogger David M. Smith, at 6/23/2005 05:38:00 PM  

  • David,

    I’m a believer in healthy skepticism as well as a believer in The God of the Bible, so proof is essential for me. However, proof of the existence God (and by extension, the Bible) cannot be produced empirically, which is to say by the normative scientific method. The evidence is faith (Hebrews 11:1). By that I mean internal verification that is granted by the Holy Spirit (Romans 9:1), rather than mere intellectual assent. So, I would not ask anyone to accept my claims as proof, nor would I consider that Two thousand years of inspection and affirmation by some of the greatest minds in history is compelling enough for me to consider the Bible the most sacred of all texts, and more than likely, the consensus word of God.

    A major problem with deferring to ‘great minds of history’ is that many have subsequently been proven wrong. Therefore, as a regenerate believer, I submit that the reliability of the Scriptures is attributable to God’s sovereignty…not the wisdom of men, no matter how bright they may have been.

    By Blogger Robert, at 6/23/2005 08:17:00 PM  

  • Hi Robert,

    The Holy Spirit is telling me that the Bible and the God of the Bible are not one in the same as you claim the Holy Spirit is telling you. Now, where do we go from here?

    By Blogger David M. Smith, at 6/24/2005 10:57:00 AM  

  • "The OT canon is even less in dispute, as it had been solidified by 150 BC at the latest, and likely by about 400 BC."

    I would like to see your sources on this. There is no evidence of which I am aware that places canonization of the Hebrew scriptures by 150 BC, much less 400 BC. The Letter of Aristeas is dubious proof of this and even this does not clearly state what the books are that should be placed in the canon. Further, what do you make of the Qumran community? Undoubtedly, they held almost all of the books now called the OT to be of worth, but there are numerous copies of other non-canonical works (almost all portions of the work now called 1 Enoch) that were clearly of some value to the Qumranites as well. Were those works "canon" to them? Were they as authoritative as Torah? As the Psalms? We cannot answer this question, of course, and thus it is very difficult to say that there was a canon at this point. Even if you point to Josephus, while we can make the numbers he gives us fit the books of the OT, we do not *know* that he has in mind the same books that we have in mind.

    I say all this to simply ask for your sources in this (and, for that matter, all that you have written).

    By Blogger Pelty, at 6/30/2005 11:44:00 AM  

  • Pelty,

    Here are my sources for OT Canoncity

    1) The “Council of Jamnia”, A.D. 90

    A group of rabbis convened at Jamnia to discuss the existing canon. No book not in the current OT canon was discussed. Source: Ewert, David, 1983. “From Ancient Tablets to Modern Translations”

    From the post:

    1 Maccabees 14:41 and 2 Baruch 85: 3 – self reference.

    Malachi and Chronicles dated 400 BC and before – Walvoord, John F., 1969. “Our Lord Jesus Christ”.

    2) The Septuagint

    Purportedly composed by 70 Jewish scholars, the Septuagint was the Greek Tranlsation of the Hebrew Scriptures, composed between 250 and 150 BC. Its Hebrew canon was identical to the current OT Canon. Source: Geisler, Norman L. & Nix, William E., 1986. “A General Introduction to the Bible”. Also, Ewert (Ibid) and Wurthwein, E., 1979. “The Text of the Old Testament: An Introduction to the Biblia Hebraica”. (note – I will not put any further multiple citings. If you want more than one, tell me why you would need it, and I’ll dig it back up.)

    There are traditionally three divisions of the Hebrew Scriptures are the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings (24 total, as mentioned in the post). Bruce, F.F., 1988, “The Canon of Scripture.”

    3) Extra Biblical Support in writings:

    a) Ecclesiasticus (a book, 130 BC) – the prologue says, “The Law, the Prophets, and the other books of the fathers”, indicating three divisions of the Hebrew Scriptures. Source: Young, E.J., 1949. “An Introduction to the Old Testament”.
    b) Philo (40 AD) “witnessed a classification of the canon making reference to the Law, the Prophets, as well as hymns and the others which foster and perfect knowledge and piety.” Source: Geisler, 1986, Ibid.
    c) Josephus (end of 1st century AD) Spoke of the threefold division and the utmost care which was taken to ensure the perfection of copying of the Hebrew Scriptures throughout time. How could they be so vigilant if they weren't sure which ones were true Scriptures and which were merely "important"?
    d) The Talmud. The Talmud is an ancient collection of rabbinical laws, law decisions and comments on the laws of Moses that preserves the oral tradition of the Jewish people. Source: Whitelaw, T., 1903, “Old Testament Critics”.

    i) Tosefta Yadaim 3:5 “The Gospel and the books of the heretics do not make the hands unclean; the books of Ben Sira and whatever books have been written since his time are not canonical.” Thus, only canonical books made the hands unclean, (thus demanding careful and rare handling) because they were holy.
    ii) Seder Olam Rabba 30 “Until then [the coming of Alexander the Great] the prophets prophesied through the Holy Scriptures. From then on, inclie thine ear and hear the words of the wise.” Thus, no canonical books written after 400 BC.
    iii) Tos. Sotah 13:2 “With the death of Haggai, Zachariah and Malachi the latter prophets, the Holy Spirit ceased out of Israel”

    4) NT testimony – when “as the Scripture saith” is spoken in the NT, clearly canonical books are being quoted. Otherwise they would not be called scripture! The canonical OT is quoted in Matthew 21:42, 22:29, 26:54 and 56, Luke 24, John 5:39, 7:38 and 10:35, Acts 17:2 and 11, and 18:28, Romans 1:2, 4:3, 9:17, 10:11, 11:2, 15:4, and 16:26, 1 Corinthians 15:3-4, Galatians 3:8 and 22 and 4:30, 1 Timothy 5:18, 2 Timothy 3:16, 2 Peter 1:20-21 and 3:16. NT Books were written between 30 and 90 AD. Source – YHWH, The Holy Bible.

    This is a blog, not an academic journal. I’m not going to cite every thing I write about. None of it is my own. I’m simply not of that stature.

    I am not aware of the “Qumrans”, nor of 1 Enoch. It seems to me that books held as canon in only in small communities are not simply as a function of their minimal acceptance. After all, it is God who makes it canon, not the Qumrans nor the non-Qumrans. God’s word will be seen as such by the majority who seek him.

    Putting together a response like this drains my time to complete the next stage. Honestly, the request for sources will be ignored barring a request accompanied by a source counter to my presentation – and it has to be more than a Google. I am willing to present my sources if you are willing to do the same work. Thanks.

    David – You are being contrarian, but have forgotten what I am doing here – acknowledging that we can never prove the holiness or inspiration of the Bible (nor can you prove their non-holiness or non-inspiriation), I am presenting the next best thing – the academic proof that the Bible is 1) Unique, 2) Assembled with greater attention to detail (practical and theological) than most ever realized, and 3) Preserved better than any book has ever been. Thus, I eliminate any honest intellectual disagreement that the Bible is unique, properly assembled and preserved the closest form to the original as possible.

    We are to serve the Lord with our heart, soul, strength…and mind. The first three are not objective to external observers. The last is. Demanding proof of things that cannot be proven is disingenuous. If the best retort a non-believer can come up with is, “I don’t think it is” then it is pride speaking, not the Holy Spirit.

    By Blogger Hammertime, at 6/30/2005 11:56:00 PM  

  • Fair enough. I understand time restraints, etc. I also understand that you are not a scholar who understands some of the complexities of which you write (I assure you that that is not meant to be a negative *nor* some form of snooty one-upsmanship), but the fact is that even within the NT we have references to books which you would deem non-canonical but which at least one of the authors (Jude)believed to be authoritative. Further, while we have divisions mentioned by various authors, they do not mention the books by name and thus one has to allow for the possibility that these books are not the books that we commonly understand to be canonical.

    The Qumran community is the group associated w/ the Dead Sea Scrolls and are generally thought to be in some way related to the Essenes, one of the four sects mentioned by Josephus; while the Qumranites were probably a pretty small group, it is not clear that the Essenes were similarly small. One has to wonder if they saw certain (now) non-canonical books (such as 1 Enoch which you should be aware of as it is quoted in the NT) as authoritative. If so, what does this say about the status of the canon in this period?

    I am not at all asking you to change your views, I am simply interested in pointing out that the Canon Question is a big and complicated one and should be recognized as such. For what it is worth, if pressed, I would likely agree with you and say that Josephus, Philo, et al probably did have in mind the books of the OT (or at least the majority of them), but unfortunately, they do not list them out for us.

    By Blogger Pelty, at 7/01/2005 10:13:00 AM  

  • Hi Hammer,

    Welcome back; I pray that you and Mrs. Hammer are able to mourn less and smile more in the coming days.

    When you wrote, “we can never prove the holiness or inspiration of the Bible”, I was a little disappointed, but it is as I suspected. For years I have heard Christian after Christian claim the Bible is the word of God without any type of caveat. I suspected there was an element of faith, but everyone who said this said it like it was an absolute fact.

    I agree with you that 2000 years of inspection by great minds is very compelling even if it doesn’t quite reach the level of absolute proof. Thank you for the effort you put into writing these posts. Is there more to come?

    By Blogger David M. Smith, at 7/01/2005 10:48:00 AM  

  • Pelty,
    No offense taken, especially since I have seen your blog! Thanks for the info and keeping my straight.

    Yes! The next is on NT reliability of preservation. I wouldn't expect it up until Tuesday, though.

    By Blogger Hammertime, at 7/02/2005 12:37:00 AM  

  • This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    By Blogger A.T., at 7/02/2005 06:36:00 AM  

  • Hammer,

    I appreciate the fact that you are making posts such as these as it is important for the Church to have a better understanding of the issues surrounding canon formation and textual reliability and its early history in general. Thanks for doing this.

    Re: the blog - thank for looking at it but as you can see, I have not added substantially to it since May. Life has just not permitted me the time to do so to the degree I would prefer.

    By Blogger Pelty, at 7/02/2005 10:31:00 AM  

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