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Where did the Bible come from?

Mark Driscoll » Study Scripture Books of the Bible Church History Culture

How did we get the Bible? Can we be sure that our Bible today is the same as what God inspired to be written? Pastor Mark Driscoll explains the fascinating story of how the Bible got from God to us in this second installment of his blog series, which provides a guided tour of topics such as what is the Bible, principles for interpreting the Bible, and misconceptions about the Bible.

As New Testament scholar Daniel B. Wallace has said, “Before the year 1881, you had three choices for an English Bible translation: the KJV, the KJV, or the KJV.” In our day, we are tremendously blessed to have a variety of English Bible translations that we can access easily. With so many to choose from, however, it’s helpful to understand why multiple translations exists, what’s the difference between them, and how we came to have any Scripture in our language at all.

Many volumes have been written to explain the miraculous and fascinating process necessary for the Bible’s existence. To summarize, I’ll explain the five-step process that has occurred for you to read the Bible:

  1. Revelation
  2. Transmission
  3. Translation
  4. Interpretation
  5. Application

The story of how the Bible got to us from God is a captivating one, and it begins with revelation.

1. Revelation

Revelation is the miraculous event whereby God revealed himself and his truth to someone and inspired them, through the power of the Holy Spirit, to write down what he had to say—perfectly (2 Tim. 3:16; 2 Pet. 1:20–21). This original copy is called the autograph.

By comparing the ancient manuscripts, we find that the vast majority of the variations between them are minor elements of spelling, grammar, and style, or accidental omissions or duplications of words or phrases. Overall, 97 to 99 percent of the New Testament can be reconstructed beyond any reasonable doubt, and not one Christian doctrine is founded solely or even primarily on disputed passages.

Remarkably, the Scripture quoted in the works of the early Christian writers (mostly AD 95–150) are so extensive that virtually the entire New Testament can be reconstructed from quotations alone, except for eleven verses (mostly from 2 and 3 John).

Not one Christian doctrine is founded solely or even primarily on disputed passages.

Critics of the accuracy of the Bible routinely claim that it is in fact a series of fables and legends that have developed over hundreds of years, because there are not enough copies of ancient manuscripts to alleviate their skepticism. But a simple shepherd boy dealt a serious blow to their criticisms in 1947.

This boy wandered into a cave in the Middle East and discovered large pottery jars filled with leather scrolls that had been wrapped in linen cloth. Amazingly, the ancient copies of the books of the Bible were in good condition because they had been well sealed. What are now known as the Dead Sea Scrolls are made up of some forty thousand inscribed ancient fragments. From these fragments, more than five hundred books have been reconstructed, including some Old Testament books, such as a complete copy of Isaiah.

2. Transmission

The next aspect of how we got our Bible is transmission. Transmission occurred when trained scribes carefully copied the manuscript so that other copies could be made available for people to read.

While these handwritten copies have the occasional minor error in punctuation or spelling, called variants, they were accepted as accurate and authoritative by God’s people (e.g., Deut. 17:18; cf. 1 Kings 2:3; Ezra 7:14; Neh. 8:8).

For example, the apostles, who were the senior leaders in the early church, taught from copies of the books of the Bible (Acts 17:2; 18:8), and the early church tested all teachings against the existing scrolls (Acts 17:11). Furthermore, Jesus himself taught from copies of the books, not the autographs, and treated them as authoritative (e.g., Matt. 12:3–5; 21:16, 42; Luke 4:16–21; 10:26). God’s people have always relied on manuscripts, and these writings have proven to be accurate and trustworthy.

Tragically, opponents of Scripture have attacked its trustworthiness by falsely stating that our current English translations are built upon poorly transmitted copies. However, the bibliographical test of Scripture flatly refutes this false argument. This test determines the historicity of an ancient text by analyzing the quantity and quality of copied manuscripts, as well as how far removed they are from the time of the originals.

Jesus himself taught from copies of the books, not the autographs, and treated them as authoritative

The quantity of New Testament manuscripts is unparalleled in ancient literature. There are about 5,800 Greek manuscripts and about 15,000 manuscripts in other languages.

As the following chart illustrates, both the number of transmitted manuscripts we possess of Scripture and their proximity in date to the autographs are unparalleled when compared to other ancient documents.

 

Author

Work

Date Written

Earliest MSS

Time Gap

Manuscripts

Homer Iliad 800 BC c. 400 BC 400 1,757
Herodotus History 480-425 BC 10th C 1,350 109
Sophocles Plays 496-406 BC 3rd C BC 100-200 193
Plato Tetralogies 400 BC 895 1,300 210
Caeser Gallic Wars 100-44 BC 9th C  950 251
Livy History of Rome 59 BC-AD 17 Early 5th C 400 150
Tacitus Annals AD 100 1st half: 850, 2nd: 1050 (AD 1100) 750-950 2+31 15th C
Pliny, the Elder Natural History AD 49-79 5th C fragment: 1; Rem. 14-15th C 400 (750) 200
Thucydides History 460-400 BC 3rd C BC (AD 900) 200 (1,350) 96
Demosthenes Speeches 300 BC Some fragments from 1 BC. (AD 1100) 1,100+ (1400) 340
New Testament   AD 50-100 AD 130 (or less) 40 5,795

 

As the scholar who did the research for this chart put it: “Although there has been an increase in the number of non-NT [New Testament] ancient manuscripts, nothing has changed regarding the applicability of the bibliographical test. Even Homer’s Iliad, which has seen the greatest manuscript increase, is still dwarfed by the NT, which has more than three times the Greek manuscripts as the Iliad. When one adds the fifteen thousand manuscripts in other languages, and then considers that almost the entire NT could be reproduced by the quotations of the early church fathers, one must maintain that, despite the increase of non-NT ancient manuscripts, the NT remains in a class by itself: it is by far the most attested ancient work.”

Put simply, if someone seeks to eliminate the trustworthiness of the New Testament, then to be consistent they would also have to dismiss virtually the entire canon of Western literature and pull everything from Homer to Plato to Aristotle off of bookstore shelves and out of classroom discussions. The transmission process of Scripture is without peer.

3. Translation

The third step in getting the Bible from God to you is translation. Translation occurs in service to people who want to read the books of the Bible but are not familiar with the original language in which they were written (Hebrew, Greek, or Aramaic). Teams of language theory scholars carefully undertake the painstaking process of translating the original languages into the languages of other peoples. Today, the Bible has been carefully translated into nearly three thousand languages. While the thought of a translation may concern some people, the fact is that most of Western literature has also been translated—because we don’t use their original languages either. The first translation of the English Bible was initiated by John Wycliffe and completed by John Purvey in AD 1388.

The quantity of New Testament manuscripts is unparalleled in ancient literature.

In translating the Bible into English, four general categories of translation are most common: word-for-word, thought-for-thought, paraphrases, and corruptions. The same four options are also used in the translation of other ancient books into English.

I.   Word-for-word (also known as literal translations) make a special effort to carefully interpret each word from the original Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic into English. Word-for-word translations emphasize God, the divine author of Scripture, over the human reader of Scripture. The result is a striving for the precision of what the Bible says, much like one would expect in other important communications, such as legal documents, marriage vows, or contracts. Word-for-word translations are generally at a high-school reading level. 

Word-for-word translations tend to be the best for studying because of their accuracy, though they sometimes lose the poetic nuances of the original languages. Probably the best word-for-word translations are the English Standard Version (ESV), the New American Standard Bible (NASB), and the New King James Version (NKJV). The King James Version (KJV) is also a word-for-word translation, but because of its use of archaic English, it is very difficult for some people to read. The NASB was widely regarded as the most scholarly word-for-word translation until the arrival of the ESV. It did not become widely popular, however, because of its tight copyright and sometimes stiff translation of poetry that lost some of the beauty of the original writings. Thankfully, the ESV has preserved the degree of accuracy present in the NASB while also doing a better job of translating the poetic parts of Scripture in a more fluid manner. 

The philosophy of word-for-word translation guided virtually every English Bible translation until the middle of the twentieth century. At that time, thought-for-thought translation became popular. 

II.   Thought-for-thought (also known as dynamic equivalence or functional equivalence) translations attempt to convey the full nuance of each passage by interpreting the Scripture’s entire meaning and not just the individual words. Thought-for-thought translations may include words that were not included in the original text in an effort to give the same meaning that the reader of the original languages would have had. 

The best and most widely read thought-for-thought English translation is the New International Version (NIV). Other thought-for-thought translations include Today’s New International Version (TNIV), New Living Translation (NLT), Contemporary English Version (CEV), and the Good News Bible (GNB). The benefit of thought-for-thought translations in general, and the NIV, my favorite thought-for-thought translation, in particular, is that they are easy to understand and make the Bible accessible to a wide number of people.  

Going one step further than thought-for-thought translations are paraphrases, which combine both Scripture and interpretive commentary into the translation method. 

III.   Paraphrases pay even less attention to specific word meanings than thought-for-thought translations in an attempt to capture the poetic or narrative essence of a passage. For this reason, many paraphrased translations do not even have verse divisions in them. Examples of paraphrased translations include The Message (TM), The Living Bible (TLB), and The Amplified Bible (AMP).

IV.   Corruptions are “translations” of Scripture that clearly seek to undermine the teaching of Scripture. These “translations” are very poor and should not be used as credible translations for study. These include the Jehovah’s Witness translation called the New World Translation, which was written in large part to eliminate the deity of Jesus Christ. 

4. Interpretation

After translation, the fourth step is interpretation, which occurs when someone reads the Bible in a language they can understand and determines the meaning of the text they read by the enablement of God the Holy Spirit. We must be careful to read the truth out of the Bible (exegesis) rather than reading our beliefs and desires into it (eisegesis).

The Bible is to be interpreted literally, but there are plain-literal and figurative-literal portions of the Bible. We begin by assuming the plain-literal meaning, and if that seems absurd then we go with a figurative-literal interpretation. A figurative-literal Scripture teaches a truth in a poetic way and often uses the words “like” or “as” to tip us off that figurative language is being used. But even when figurative language is being used in Scripture, it is still communicating a literal truth. I’ll discuss this more in a future post.

5. Application

Finally, the fifth step of getting the Bible is application, which is the result of taking what we learn from the principles in the Bible and making changes in our thoughts and actions by the empowering grace of God the Holy Spirit, so that our life is congruent with the Bible. There are a seemingly infinite number of applications for a text of the Bible. For example, when the Bible says that we should love people, the applications for that principle are endless.

In this five-step process—revelation, transmission, translation, interpretation, and application—we see how God speaks to us and cares deeply about our lives. We also see how the chasm between God and us is graciously filled by God’s revelation, which is more accurate and true than any human speculation (such as religion and philosophy).


Interested in learning more? See Pastor Mark's previous post in this series, What is the Bible? 

Join us next Thursday for the third installment in this series. 

 


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