I’m fascinated by the miraculous way the Bible has been handed down through the ages. More than any other book ever, we have evidence of the Bible’s accuracy: verifiable portions of Scripture, a chain of possession, references to the specific portions of the Bible in other texts (e.g. Josephus), and on-going archaeological research.
Last month, I shared some of the Old Testament’s history. This month, let’s look into the New Testament. I pray these aren’t just facts to you but that they inspire you to reverence for the Word and worship of the Author.
Greek Scriptures (or New Testament)
The letters, histories, and prophecy of the New Testament were originally written between about ad48 (possible for Galatians) and ad95 (Revelation of John). Naturally, many others things were written about Jesus and about Christ-followers during that same time period. When it became necessary to determine those which should be included in the “box set,” so to speak, the early church fathers tested their apostolicity. That doesn’t mean they were necessarily written by one of the apostles but that the apostles approved those documents, recognizing their authenticity and the truth within them.
Why They Needed a “Box Set”
- It was important to safeguard those books which were written or valued by an apostle or prophet. As we got further away from Jesus’ time on earth, we needed sure-fire resources for knowing what He was like and what He did.
- The churches and church leaders needed to counteract heretics and other false teachings as they arose. With a standard set of teachings, the Church (universal) could maintain the same doctrine throughout the small churches.
- As the church expanded, other people groups needed the Scriptures in their own languages. Why bother translating the non-inspired stuff?
As far as we know, the first list of books that exactly matches our present-day New Testament was written by Athanasius of Alexandria in ad367. Much earlier (ad115!), however, Polycarp equated the New Testament writings with those of the Old Testament. That means he recognized the same authority and power in the NT documents as in the OT. Polycarp was a disciple of the Apostle John.
During the first three hundred years of Christianity, believers were persecuted all over the place. Persecution kept groups small and communication sporadic. After Constantine established Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire, church leaders could meet to discuss/debate/argue. One of the first meetings was the Council of Nicea in ad325. (St. Nicholas was there, by the way.)
They had a lot of meetings. At the Synod of Hippo in ad393, they agreed upon the twenty-seven books that would comprise our New Testament. (The most controversial? James and Jude.) But here’s where it gets a little tricky. They weren’t giving those books any additional authority. They simply listed the books which already had apostolic authority. It would be like listing the names of all the parents in your church. Being on the list doesn’t make you a parent. Instead, being a parent means you’re on the list.
So who decided which works were inspired and which weren’t? They would have answered, “God.” All they did was state the obvious, agreeing on what everyone already knew to be true. Can’t remember where I read this, but…
The Church is not the determiner of Canon; the Church is the discoverer of Canon.
This is a good place to stop and talk about Canon. We say the sixty-six books of the Bible are Canon. This word comes from Greek, and it means “measuring stick.” In reference to the books of the Bible, it means “an officially accepted list of books.” Anything claiming to be from God has to “measure up” to what we already have in Scripture.
Don’t miss the sweet and simple application here. The Bible is a measuring stick for our lives! We compare ourselves not to each other but to the standards laid out by God Himself in His Word.
Chapters and Verses (OT and NT)
When Matthew sat down to write the history we know as the Gospel of Matthew, he didn’t segment his narrative into numbered sections (chapters) with numbered lines (verses). It was just a non-fiction story like a biography you might read today. In fact, Greek didn’t typically have paragraphs (and their word order…yargh!). But even before the Council of Nicea, copyists had started making paragraphs in the books.
The Hebrew Pentateuch was divided into segments for synagogue reading during the Babylonian captivity (around 536bc), and the books of the prophets were sectioned off around 165bc. So there were some smaller sections early on.
Over a thousand years later (1227), Stephen Langton, who would later become the Archbishop of Canterbury, divided the Bible into the chapter divisions that we still use today.
The verses began as spaces between certain words, but they differed from place to place. Around the middle of the sixteenth century, they were standardized to help with cross-referencing and first appeared in print in 1551.
So there you go! This remarkable book that we treat with such nonchalance has been preserved through thousands of years, across thousands of miles. It’s fallen into enemy hands, been burned, been vilified, been dissected and disparaged. And yet it remains the True and Living Word of God. Its inspiration is still clear, it’s influence still constant.
What amazes you about the transmission of the Bible? What wonderful fact did I leave out? I’d love to hear from you in the comments!