All this talk about the inerrancy of the Bible is good in abstract; the reality is, however, that the current text of the Bible, as we have it, does contain errors. However, there is a big difference between assuming a perfect autograph into which subsequently the sort of errors that copiests will make have crept in, and assuming an autograph that was not perfect. Assuming perfection at the beginning, the work of textual criticism is to restore that original, pristine text.

1. Reason for it

The necessity for textual criticism is obvious, because the modern reader is in the predicament of the man with two watches. If a man has one watch, he knows what time it is. If he has two, he is never sure. We have far more than two manuscripts - there are literally hundreds - more specifically, there are about five thousand manuscripts or portions of manuscripts of the NT or books of the NT. However, things are not quite so hopeless as they are for the man with two watches. There are methods - things that can be done, to arrive at an accurate text.

2. Text families

As the various (5000) manuscripts have been studied, it has become apparent that they may be categorized into what are called text types or text families.

a. Alexandrian
General characteristics: conciseness, no polished or embellished inclusions; generally it has the shorter readings
General value: generally considered the oldest and best texts
b. Western
General characteristics: no tendency to paraphrase
General value: tends to support the other family types
c. Caesarean (Unclassified)
General characteristics: tends to follow the Western pattern
General value: tends to support the other family types
d. Byzantine
General characteristics: tends to smooth out difficulties
General value: probably inferior; some believe that their abundance should be taken into consideration. However this seems an odd conclusion to draw, since majority cannot be said to imply right.

3. Methods

The history of the biblical texts shows clearly that all of them stand far removed from the originals both by time and by the process of transmission. They contain not only scribal errors, but even some actual transformations of the text, both deliberate and accidental. By means of textual criticism we attempt to find all the alterations that have occurred and then recover the earliest possible form of the text.

Textual criticism proceeds in steps:

a. All the variant readings of the text are collected and arranged. Of course, this is the very reason textual criticism is necessary at all. If we had only a single copy, there would be no questions, but since we have several, which all say different things, we have a problem. Which text accurately records the original statements?
b. The variants must then be examined.
c. The most likely reading is then determined.

For the Old Testament, in order to carry out these steps, it is necessary to use the Masoretic Text, which ordinarily serves as the basis from which the textual critic will work. Combined with the Masoretic Text the critic will consult all the ancient Hebrew manuscripts and versions that might be available.

4. Ideally, the work of textual criticism should proceed with all of these ancient versions and copies readily available. There are then some basic rules that help place the textual criticism of the Bible, whether Old or New Testament, on a firm basis that generally avoids arbitrariness and subjectivity.

1. Internal Evidence

a. For the Old Testament, where the Hebrew manuscripts and the ancient versions agree, we may assume that the original reading has been preserved. Likewise, with the New Testament, where the various manuscripts agree, we may assume the original text has been preserved. To our great relief, this covers 95 per cent of the Bible.

b. Where the manuscripts differ among themselves, one should chose either the more difficult reading from the point of view of language and subject matter or the reading that most readily makes the development of the other readings intelligible.

In order to make this choice, it is necessary that the critic have a thorough knowledge of the history and character of the various manuscripts. It needs also to be realized that these criteria work together and complement one another. A "more difficult reading" does not mean a "meaningless reading."

c. The shorter reading is preferred

The common tendency among scribes is toward additions and insertions rather than omissions. Hence arose, in the first place, the marginal glosses and insertions between lines which later transcribers incorporated into the text. Although this rule has been widely accepted, it must be applied with discrimination, a longer reading being in some cases clearly more in harmony with the style of the original, or the shorter having arisen from a case of homoeoteleuton. d. the reading different from the parallel reading is preferred.

e. The reading that best explains the origin of other variants is preferred. f. The reading that is most consistent with the writer's style and vocabulary is preferred.

g. The reading that is in agreement with its immediate context is preferred.

h. However, the critic must not assume that just because a reading appears meaningless that it necessarily is. Scribes are not likely to turn a meaningful passage into gibberish. Therefore, if a passage is not understandable, that is often as far as we can go. We must, as scholars, acknowledge our own ignorance.

i. With the Old Testament, where the Hebrew manuscripts and the translations differ, and a superior reading cannot be demonstrated on the basis of the above rules, then one should, as a matter of first principle, allow the Hebrew text to stand. With the New Testament, one will generally choose the shorter reading because of the tendency of scribes to try to "explain" passages.

j. Where the different manuscripts differ and none of them seem to make any sense, one may attempt a conjecture concerning the true reading - a conjecture that must be validated by demonstrating the process of the textual corruption that would have lead to the existing text forms. Such a conjecture, however, must not be used to validate the interpretation of a whole passage in that it might have been made on the basis of an expectation derived from the whole.

k. A reading is preferable which reflects no doctrinal bias, whether orthodox on the one side or heretical on the other. This principle is so obvious that it is accepted on all sides, but in practice wide divergence arises, owing to the doctrinal bias of the critic himself.

2. External evidence

1) Date - which ms. is earliest? The more ancient reading is usually one that is supported by the most ancient manuscripts.

2) Text family - which family? Is it the more reliable text type?

3) Geographical distribution - is their a wide diffusion of the variant? Great significance must be granted to the testimony of witnesses from localities or times widely apart, and it can only be satisfactorily met by balancing agreement of witness also from different times and localities.

4) The reading that has the undoubted support of the earliest manuscripts, versions, and patristic writers is unquestionably original.

5) Mere numerical preponderance of witnesses to a reading of any one class, locality, or time, is of comparative insignificance.

6) The disagreement of early authorities usually indicates the existence of corruption prior to them all.

4. Important Manuscripts

a. Papyrus Fragments The Papyrus fragments are some of the earliest NT texts available. They are written in uncial script, that is, in all capital letters, without divisions between words or any punctuation whatsoever. Most of the fragments date between the second and fourth centuries AD.

b. Greek Manuscripts

1) Codex Sinaiticus

It was discovered by Tischendorf at St. Catherine's Monastery on Mt. Sinai and now resides in the Imperial Library in St. Petersburg, Russia. It dates from the 4th century. This is the only uncial which contains the entire NT. It also has the Epistle of Barnabas and part of the Shepherd of Hermas. The marks of many corrections are found in the text. It is written on 147 and a half leaves of very thin vellum in four narrow columns of 48 lines each. The pages measure 15x13 and a half inches and the leaves are arranged in quaternions of four sheets. The open sheet exposing eight columns resembles greatly an open papyrus roll. There is but rudimentary punctuation and no use of accent or initial letters.

2) Codes Alexandrinus

It received its names since it was supposed to have come from Alexandria, Egypt, being the gift of Cyril Lucar, at one time Patriarch of that Province, though later of Constantinople, to Charles I, through the English ambassador at the Turkish court in 1627, and in 1757 presented to the Royal Library and now in the British Museum. It doubtless belongs to the 5th century, and contained the entire NT, lacking now only portions of Matthew, John, and 1 Corinthians, as well as containing the two epistles of Clement of Rome and the Psalms of Solomon. It is written on thin vellum in two columns of 41 lines to the page, which is 12 and five eighths by ten and three eighths inches. It employs frequent initial capitals, and is divided into paragraphs, but has no marginal signs except in the Gospels. Several different hands are discovered in the present state of the manuscript.

3) Codex Vaticanus

Since 1481 it has been in the Vatican Library and it is universally esteemed the oldest and best manuscript of the Greek NT. It dates from the fourth century. Written on very fine vellum, the leaves are nearly square, measuring 10 by 10 and a half inches, with three narrow columns of 40-44 lines per column and five sheets making the quire. A part of the Epistles to the Hebrews and the Pastorals, Philemon and Revelation are missing. It is written without accents, breathings or punctuation. In the Gospels the divisions are of an earlier date than in Codex Sinaiticus. The theory of Tischendorf that Codex Sinaiticus and Vaticanus were in part prepared by the same hand and that they were both among the fifty manuscripts made under the direction of Eusebius at Caesarea in 331 for use in the emperor Constantine's new capital, is not now generally accepted. 4) Codex Ephraemi Rescriptus

This is the great palimpsest (twice written) manuscript of the uncial group, and originally contained the whole NT. Now, however, a part - approximately half - of every book is missing and 2 Thess and 2 John are entirely gone. It belongs to the 5th century and is written on good vellum 9 by 12 and a half inches to the page of 41 lines, and of one column in the original text, though the superimposed writings of St. Ephraem are in two. Enlarged initials and the Eusebian marginal sections are used and several hands have corrected the Manuscript. Brought to Italy from the East in the 16th century, it came to France with Catherine de'Medici and is not in the Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris.

5) Codex Bezae

This is the early known manuscript which Theodore Beza obtained in 1562 from the monastery of St. Irenaeus at Lyons and which he gave in 1581 to the University of Cambridge, where it now is. It is a Greek-Latin text, the Greek holding the chief place on the left-hand page, measuring 8 by 10 inches and dating probably from the end of the 5th century. Both Greek and Latin are written in large uncials and are divided into short clauses, corresponding line for line. The hands of no less than nine correctors have been traced, and the critical questions arising from the character of the readings are among the most interesting in the whole range of biblical criticism and are still unsettled. It contains only the Gospels and Acts, with a fragment of 3 John.

6) Codex Washingtoniensis

The U.S. has now in the National Library (Smithsonian) at the capital one of the foremost uncial manuscripts of the Greek NT. It is a complete codex of the Gospels, in a slightly sloping but very ancient hand, written upon good vellum, in one column of 30 lines to the page, and 6x9 inches in size. It dates between the 4th and 5th centuries.

c. Vernacular Versions

1) Latin

Vulgate. The Latin translation of the Old and New Testaments that was made by Jerome about 400 A.D.

2) Greek

The Septuagint - a translation of the Old Testament into Greek, made in Alexandria, Egypt about 250 B.C. There are several versions, with minor variations among them. They are: the Codex Sinaiticus, which dates to the fourth century A.D., the Codex Alexandrinus, which dates to the fifth century A.D, and the Codex Vaticanus, also of the fourth century A.D. 3) Syriac

Peshitta. The Syriac translation of the Old and New Testaments. Syriac is an Aramaic dialect. The translation was done sometime between 75 and 200 A.D.

4) Samaritan

The Samaritan Pentateuch. A copy of the first five books of Moses kept by the Samaritans in Samaritan characters. It is notorious for some deliberate alterations designed to legitimize the Samaritan place of worship on Mt. Gerizim (cf. John 4:20).

5) Aramaic Targums

Less serviceable than the LXX for textual studies are the Aramaic Targums (Targum is derived from the Aramaic word meaning translation) both because they were standardized only later in their history and because they contain aggadic (nonlegal or narrative) and paraphrastic material, obviate anthropomorphisms, explain figurative language, and modernize geographical names.


During the Persian period the majority of the Jews began to use Aramaic in addition to Hebrew; as a result, it became the custom to interpret in the synagogue the reading of the Bible with Targums after every verse. There are indications both in the rabbinic literature and in the Targums themselves that they were committed to writing at least by the first century AD.

1. Of the Pentateuch

a. Targum Onkelos

Because the Babylonian Talmud (Meg. 3a) attributes the official Targum of the Pentateuch to Onkelos in a text obviously parallel to a related account in the Jerusalem Talmud attributing the Greek translation to Aquila (note the phonetic similarity of the two names) A.E. Silverstone, along with many others, arrived at the conclusion that Onkelos and Aquila are one and the same, but the Babylonian applied to the official Aramaic version the tradition in Palestine regarding Aquila's Greek translation. On the other hand, we should note that on the basis of the mixture of Western and Eastern Aramaic in Onkelos, some of the most competent Aramaists believe it originated in Palestine, while its final redaction took place in Babylonia. Then to, its halakhic (legal) and aggadic (non-legal, narrative) content betrays the Palestinian school of Aquiba of the second century AD. Possibly, then, Aquila had a hand in its Palestinian base after which it was imported to Babylonia where it was revised in the third century AD.

Like Aquila's Greek recension, the Hebrew text lying behind the Aramaic is the one that ousted all rival recensions. While it aims to conform the Targum as closely as possible to this base, it misses the mark through the paraphrastic influences on all Targums.

After the destruction of the cultural centers of Judea in the first and second revolts against Rome, the centers of Jewish life shifted to Galilee. Here Targums in the Galilean dialect evolved, but it is widely agreed that they contain much earlier material. The recently discovered Codex Neofiti I is the oldest complete manuscript of this tradition and according to its editor, Diez Macho, it belongs to the first or second century AD.

b. Targum Yerushalmi I

It has been mistakenly ascribed to Jonathan and therefore it is sometimes known as Targum Jonathan (ben Uzziel) or Pseudo- Jonathan, but more correctly called Targum Erez Israel by earlier Jews; it lacks only fifteen verses of the pentateuch. It aggravates the distinctive traits of the paraphrastic translation. Its early base was revised not later than the seventh century.

c. Targum Yershalmi II

This targum is also called the Fragmentary Targum; it contains about 850 verses, preserving fragmentary portions of the Pentateuch. It is not clear how these fragments came together.

d. The Genizah Fragments

Edited by Kahle, they date from between the seventh and ninth centuries AD and represent various recensions and contain both older and younger materials.

2. Of the Prophets

a. Targum Jonathan

The history of this Targum is like Targum Onkelos: it originated early in Palestine and was later revised in Babylonia at which point it was recognized as being of ancient authority. According to the Babylonian Talmud, it was written by Jonathan ben Uzziel who is named as Hillel's most prominent pupil in the first century BC. A conspicuous affinity between Targum Jonathan and Targum Onkelos has led some to conclude that Targum Jonathan influenced Onkelos. The usual rules of Targumic interpretation are observed, but the renderings of the latter prophets are more paraphrastic on the whole than in the former prophets.

b. Targum Yerushalmi to the Prophets

This work is known mainly from citations in Rashi and David Kimchi. Codex Reuchlinianus, written in 1105 AD in the form of eighty extracts, belongs to a later period, when the Babylonian Talmud began to exert an influence on Palestinian literature.

3. Of the Hagiographa

In general, these contain older materials, but in the current forms they did not originate until a later period. Written at different times by different authors, they never enjoyed official recognition.

6) Others

Other relatively early versions of the text are the Coptic, Gothic, Armenian, Ethiopic, Georgian, Arabic, Nubian, Old High German, Persian, Provencial, and Slavonic.

d. Patristic Quotations

The church fathers (early Christian writers antedating the time of the apostles), not surprisingly quoted extensively from the NT and OT; it would almost be possible to reconstruct the entire NT from just the writings of the church fathers, alone. However, the witness of the church fathers to the text is somewhat uneven, since they were often times quoting from memory rather than verbatim, with the text of the NT in front of them.

e. Hebrew Scriptures

For the Old Testament, the traditional text is what is known as the Masoretic. The Masoretes were Jewish scholars who worked diligently between the 6th and 10th centuries A.D. in Babylonia and Palestine to reproduce, as far as possible, the original text of the Old Testament. Their intention was not to interpret the Bible, but to transmit to future generations what they regarded as the authentic text. Therefore, to this end, they gathered manuscripts and whatever oral traditions were available to them.

They were careful to draw attention to any peculiarities they found in the spellings of words or the grammar of sentences in the Old Testament, and since Hebrew in their day was a dying language,they introduced a series of vowel signs to insure the correct pronunciation of the text, since traditionally, the text was written with consonants only. Among the various systems developed to represent the vowel sounds, the system developed in the city of Tiberias, on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, gained the ascendancy. The earliest complete copy of the Masoretic text of the Old Testament is located in the St. Petersburg (formerly Leningrad) Public Library; it was written about 1008 A.D. The Masoretic text is not a single, unbroken thread, but rather a river of manuscripts, with both a western and eastern branch; within the texts labeled "Masoretic" there is a certain amount of variation and the Masoretes carefully noted the differences in the texts that they used as their sources.

Therefore, it must be stressed that the so-called "Textus Receptus" that one may hear of occasionally (especially from those who believe that the King James Version is the only acceptable translation) is mostly a pious fiction; it is a concept that has little basis in reality beyond wishful thinking.

Remember, too, that English is not the only language that the Bible has been translated into. It has been translated into over two thousand languages by scholars using the original Greek and Hebrew texts.

1) St. Petersburg Codex

The St. Petersburg (or Leningrad) Codex, 1008 A.D. It is the largest and only complete manuscript of the entire Old Testament.

2) Qumran (Dead Sea Scrolls)

The earliest copies of Old Testament books are called the Dead Sea Scrolls, a body of biblical manuscripts discovered since 1947 inside caves near a place called Qumran, right next to the Dead Sea in Israel. The texts all date prior to 70 A.D., the period when the community at Qumran was destroyed by the Romans following the Jewish revolt. Some texts date as far back as 150- 200 B.C., based on epigraphic dating and Carbon 14 dating.

b. The Aleppo Codex, 930 A.D. It used to be a complete copy of the Old Testament, but was partially destroyed in a synagogue fire in 1948.

c. The British Museum Codex, 950 A.D. It is an incomplete copy of the Pentateuch.

d. The Cairo Codex, 895 A.D. A copy of the Former and Latter Prophets (Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the twelve minor prophets).

e. The St. Petersburg Codex of the Prophets, 916 A.D. containing only the Latter Prophets.

f. The Reuchlin Codex of the Prophets, 1105 A.D.

g. Cairo Geniza fragments, 6th to 9th century, A.D.

5. The Causes of Textual Corruption The goal of textual criticism is to remove the textual errors and restore the original readings. To aid in this goal, it is helpful if the textual critic has an idea of what sorts of errors he or she is likely to find.

When copying out a text, errors occur in every conceivable way, as we no doubt know from our own experiences. Sometimes it is difficult to explain, even to ourselves, how we might have come to make a particular error. Therefore it is unlikely that we will be able to correct or explain everything that has eluded the scribes over the centuries. A reading that appears doubtful or corrupt to us today may have been caused by a hole or some other damage to the copyist's manuscript. Or maybe the letters or words in a given section of his text were faded and nearly illegible, forcing the copyist to make his best guess. Moreover, a single error can give rise to many others, leaving us with no clue as to how it might have happened.

And of course, as always, the assumption of a textual error may really be only a cover for our failure to understand the language or the idiom. Beyond these unrecoverable sorts of errors, there are two categories of errors that may be distinguished and often corrected: errors due to an unintentional, mechanical lapse on the part of the copyist (often called Errors of Reading and Writing), and two, errors that are the result of deliberate alteration (called Intentional Alterations).

a. Errors of Reading and Writing

1. Confusion of similar letters

In Hebrew, there are several letters which look very similar to one another: the B and K, R and D, H and T, W and Y.

2. Transposition of Letters

3. Haplography - a fancy word that means when there were two or more identical or similar letters, groups of letters, or words all in sequence, one of them gets omitted by error. Of course, there is some evidence that some of these supposed "errors" are actually equivalent to English contractions like "don't" instead of "do not" and therefore are not errors at all.

4. Dittography - another fancy word that refers to an error caused by repeating a letter, group of letters , a word or a group of words. The opposite, really, of Haplography.

5. Homoioteleuton - an even fancier word which refers to the error that occurs when two words are identical, or similar in form, or have similar endings and are close to each other. It is easy in this sort of situation for the eye of the copyist to skip from one word to the other, leaving out everything in between. A good example of this occurs in 1 Samuel 14:41:

Therefore Saul said unto the Lord God of Israel, give a perfect lot. (KJV)
Therefore Saul said, "O Lord God of Israel, why hast thou not answered thy servant this day? If this guilt is in me or in Jonathan my son, O Lord, God of Israel, give Urim: but if this guilt is in thy people Israel, give Thummim. (RSV)

The copyist's eye jumped from the first instance of the word "Israel" to the last instance, leaving out everything in between for the reading that the KJV translators had at their disposal. The word translated "perfect" is spelled with the same consonants in Hebrew (TH-M-M) as the word Thummim.

6. Errors of Joining and Dividing Words.

This is more a problem in the New Testament than it is in the Old Testament, for while the Greek manuscripts were written well into the Medieval period without spacing or dividing signs between words, there is no evidence that this was EVER the case with the Old Testament Hebrew texts. In fact, the evidence is very strong to the contrary; inscriptions on walls from the time of Hezekiah actually had dots between each word to separate them from each other.

b. Deliberate Alterations

The Samaritan Pentateuch, as an example, is notorious for its purposeful changes designed to help legitimize some of their sectarian biases. They were sort of like the Jehovah's witnesses of their day.

A more substantive change in the Hebrew text came after the Babylonian captivity in the time of Ezra (fifth century BC) when the alphabet changed from the Old Hebrew Script to the Aramaic Square Script - in which all copies of the Old Testament except for the Samaritan Pentateuch are written.

It should not surprise us that there have been a certain amount of alteration in the text over time, since the Bible was not intended to be the object of scholarly study but rather was to be read by the whole believing community as God's word to them. Thus, the text would undergo adaptations to fit the linguistic needs of the community. For instance in Isaiah 39:1 the Masoretic Text preserves a rare word, hazaq, which has the sense of "to get well, recuperate." The community that produced the Dead Sea scrolls altered this word to the more common Hebrew word for get well, zayah. Other examples of adaptation to colloquial usage are likely. The lack of early material for the Old Testament makes it impossible to demonstrate these sorts of alterations on a larger scale. But a few small alterations are easily demonstrable.

The treatment of the divine name Baal is an example of deliberate change for theological reasons. In personal names which included the word "Baal", which simply means "master" or "lord", the scribes deliberately replaced "Baal" with "Bosheth," which means "shame". Hence, Jonathan's son was actually named "Meribbaal" rather than "Mephibosheth" (cf. 1 Chron. 8:34, 9:30 and 2 Sam 9:6, 19:24, 21:7) Another example of deliberate alteration is found in Job 1:5, 11 and 2:5, 9 where we now read the word berek, to bless (with God as the object) even though we should expect to find the word qalal, to curse. The scribes replaced the offensive expression "to curse God" with a euphemism - motivated no doubt by their fear of taking God's name in vain.

C. The Nature of Translation

1. How translation occurs

It is important to realize - and most people who have not learned a second language wouldn't know - that there is no such thing as a one-to-one correspondence between languages. You cannot have a word for word translation that is at all readable, because the word order is different, the nature of the grammar is different and even the sense of a word may cover a wider or smaller range than the corresponding English word.

For instance, the word "house" in Hebrew can mean "immediate family" or "a royal dynasty" besides the equivalent English idea of a building where a person dwells. Therefore to have an accurate English translation you cannot simply translate the Hebrew word with "house"; you need to translate it according to which of the possible meanings is intended.

Idioms, likewise, do not translate across directly: for instance the English phrase "I'm sick and tired of apple pie" if translated literally could give a reader in another language the false impression that the individual in question is sleepy and ready to throw up.

Consider the following "literal translation" of the first verse of the Bible, which maintains the Hebrew word order and phrasing and ask yourself if it is easily comprehensible:

In-beginning he-created God (definite direct object) the-heavens and-(definite direct object) the- earth.

But even this is not entirely accurate in a word for word sense, because Hebrew does not have past tense; however, there is no other way to indicate perfect aspect (completed action). However, when one of the prophets makes use of the perfect aspect to show the certainty of the prophesy, to translate it as a past tense can create the false impression that the prophet is speaking of things that have already happened when that is not the case at all! And in front of the single words (they are only one word in Hebrew) "the-heavens" and "the-earth" is the Hebrew word that indicates that what follows is a definite direct object, as you can see, hardly translatable into English at all.

Having said all this, one would imagine that this first verse is a complicated sentence. Not at all. It is remarkably simple. It only becomes difficult if we expect translation to be "literal". It isn't. All translation, by its very nature, is paraphrastic and interpretive.

The way translation happens is as follows. The translator learns a foreign language and learns it well. Learning Hebrew or Greek is just like learning French or Spanish in high school. There is nothing mysterious or special about the ancient languages. Then the translator reads the foreign text and understands it. Having understood it, he or she then puts it into the best English possible.

There is no mystery associated with the translation of the Bible, nor are there any significant disagreements between translations. However, by the nature of what translation is - the work of individuals with their own separate styles - the wording of say, Today's English Version is not going to be identical to the King James Version or the New International Version. Not because anyone is trying to twist something or make it say what it doesn't, but only because each translator is going to word it as he thinks best. But the MEANING will be the same. And of course between the King James and the more modern translations there is also the gap caused by the change in the English language - we don't speak like the people in Shakespeare's time did, but their way of speaking is no "grander" or any more "eloquent" than ours. King James English was the way any farmer or fisherman of 1611 would have talked, just as Today's English Version or the New International Version is the way an average person speaks today. For all the snobbishness of attitude on the part of some regarding Shakespeare today, in his own day he was considered somewhat vulgar and not a little risque. Shakespeare was like an ordinary television drama or sitcom is for us today.

D. Canon

(The material on Canon is excerpted from the book by James Barr, Holy Scripture: Canon, Authority, Criticism, Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1983 pp. 1-32)

1. What it is

There was not always a Bible. That is a truism, of course. And all of you are quite aware that this is the case. When was the time that was "before scripture"?

James Barr wrote:

Clearly, in the misty antiquity of the human race, before Abraham, before the origins of Israel: then there was as yet no holy scripture. But it is not to this distant antiquity that I refer. When we say "before scripture", we are speaking of the time of the Bible itself. In what we call "biblical times", or in much of them, there was as yet no Bible.
Our traditional doctrine of scripture takes its departure from the situation where the Bible is already complete, defined, known and acknowledged. The Bible is understood to be already there, it is already demarcated from other writings. This is so both in Catholic and Protestant doctrines, but it is particularly evident in Protestantism because in it the role and the authority of scripture are more starkly isolated and more sharply defined as uniquely essential.

Traditional doctrines - and most emphatically in Protestant orthodoxy - are from the start predicated upon the existence of scripture as a whole, as a collection delimited and defined. The canon of scripture, that is, that list which defines which books lay within it, and by exclusion, those which lay without it, is seen as complete, exclusive, and unchanging; the attributes of scripture, its inspiration, its necessity, its sufficiency, its clarity, and so on, are applied in a level way to all parts of the Bible. In Protestant orthodoxy scripture is taken to be the central criterion for faith, and, even more, it is taken to be the central source for doctrine: thus, doctrine is represented as derived from scripture, so that in the total scheme of understanding, scripture is antecedent to doctrine. Doctrine, to be valid, must derive from scripture. Faith is required to be biblical. That's why the study of theology always (except in one college to be left nameless) begins with bibliology - the study of the Bible.

The Westminster Confession places its formulation of the doctrine of scripture right at the beginning, before any other matters at all are considered. Scripture was given by inspiration of God, and the scope of its operation was defined with extreme precision: all sixty-six books of the Protestant canon were completely inspired. No other books were inspired at all. Everything else, however good, belongs at the best to human tradition or ecclesiastical opinion. Verbal inspiration means that all the words of the text of exactly these books are inspired and therefore infallible. All doctrinal formulation is to be strictly guided and controlled by scripture and by no other comparable source of authority.

2. Problem

But there is a difficulty here which we must face: the question of the canon itself. It is impossible to provide scriptural proof for this most central of questions, namely, which precisely were the books which had been divinely inspired. No passage in either the Old or New Testament gives a list.

The list of contents prefaced to the Bible is not a part of the inspired text of the Bible itself.

For evidence about what is within the canon, what exactly the Bible is, one must go outside the canon itself. The most ancient precise evidence for the shape of the Old Testament, which supports the traditional Protestant view, is in Josephus (Ap. i.37-41). He does not name the books precisely. He says there are five books of Moses, thirteen books written by prophets to continue the history after Moses, and four books containing "hymns to God and precepts for the conduct of human life." If one takes together certain books, e.g. Judges and Ruth, Jeremiah and Lamentations, this enumeration can fit that of the present Jewish and Protestant canons.

Another source is 4 Ezra 14:37ff, which tells us that after the Law had been burned and lost, and needed to be restored, five men under the direction of Ezra wrote what had been dictated in order, producing 94 books. Afterwards, the Most High spoke to Ezra saying that the 24 should be made public so that all should read them, but the other 70 should be kept and delivered only to the wise. This is a text that is really interested in the numbering and delimiting of the books, and at least some people, one supposes, have thought it to be an inspired work: it is part of the Latin Bible, even if only in an appendix nowadays. But of course it is no more possible to use 4 Ezra than to use Josephus as proof of a Protestant orthodox view of Scripture: 4 Ezra is a book considered to be apocryphal, and - even worse - it expressly sanctioned the authority of no less than seventy additional works outside the Jewish canon.

These exotic sources being ruled out, there is, on the orthodox view, no scriptural evidence to decide what are the exact limits of the canon. Most books do not necessarily say whether they are divinely inspired or not, and many books that do in some fashion lay claim to divine inspiration were nevertheless not accepted as canonical.

3. Tradition

Appeal can be made to the Fathers and to tradition but the Fathers and tradition are disunited over exactly this matter. Protestantism in following the Hebrew Canon, agrees with the judgment of Jerome.

And so, when all is said and done, what is the Bible? It is what has been accepted traditionally; primarily, it is what the Jewish tradition has been.

In the final analysis, we must accept the canon on faith - just as we accept Jesus Christ on faith. The study of the Bible and theology in a work such as this can become so technical, so esoteric, so concerned with objectivity as regards facts, that we forget to remember the element of faith, and the end or goal of our studies.

Consider Hebrews 11:1-6.

Please be reminded that we do not know and cannot know everything.