Can we trust the Bible? Why should we believe that it's true? These are questions that are often put to Christians, and for which Christians should have a ready answer.
One of the ideas out there today is that a group of church officials at the Council of Nicea (4th cent. AD) selected out of dozens of religious books the ones they wanted to put in the Bible, and in the process, invented Christianity. This is the view presented in the Da Vinci Code book and movie. But despite the fact that the book admits to being fictional, many people have accepted it as a fact. But this is not even close to what actually happened. So what is the truth? Where do we get our Bibles from?
THE HEBREW BIBLE
The foundation of the Bible is the five books of Moses: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. According to tradition, they were written by Moses during the time that the Israelites were wandering in the wilderness after being set free from Egypt. And in fact, the books of Moses specifically mention Moses writing down the instructions he was given by God: “And the LORD said to Moses, ‘Write this in a document as a memorial, and put it in the ear of Joshua [recite it repeatedly to him]...’” (Exo. 17:14). This is interesting, because it may indicate that Joshua didn’t know how to read.
Another is in Exodus 34:27, after the incident of the golden calf, when the covenant was renewed. “Then the LORD said to Moses, ‘Write down these words for yourself, for according to these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel.’” Putting their agreement in writing was clearly an important part of their covenant agreement with God.
But some of the events in the book of Genesis took place long before the time of Moses, like the story of creation and the events in the life of Abraham. Where did Moses get them from? Most likely they had been preserved as oral traditions among the Israelites and their Aramean ancestors for hundreds of years. It’s also possible that some of these traditions had already been written down, as in the similar creation and Flood accounts of other nations. But there is no evidence of a written tradition among the Israelites at that time. So most likely they were oral traditions told to Moses.
But if these early stories were oral traditions, how can they be considered trustworthy? In some nations, like for example in Europe, oral traditions were often changed and modified over the years to suit the person telling the story. But in the Middle East, great value was, and is even today, placed on oral traditions. They must be preserved exactly. This comes from the lifestyle of the desert, where people live in a very hostile environment. Here, traditions must be remembered accurately for the survival of the tribe. This includes the location of watering holes—even those that have not been visited for years, where the tribal boundaries are, where the traditional burying ground is. As a result, great value is attached to the accuracy of oral tradition.
Even today, Muslims memorize the Quran, their holy book, word for word. That’s what they’re doing in those madrasas from the time they are young children. Jewish rabbis memorize hundreds of pages of Talmud. It’s not enough just to read holy writings: they must become a part of you. As Moses said in Deut. 6:6-7: “And these words, which I am commanding you today, will be on your heart; and you will teach them carefully to your sons and will speak them when you sit in your house and when you walk on the road and when you lie down and when you rise up.”
This is why it's so important that elements in the story of Abraham refer to customs that Israelites later didn't understand and didn't practice anymore, and even to practices that were later forbidden. It shows that they just passed down the tradition the way it was exactly, word for word, without changing it. Otherwise it's hard to imagine how the mention of these earlier and strange cultural practices could have been preserved for so long.
But Moses was raised among the educated elite in Egypt, taught “all the learning of the Egyptians” (Acts 7:22). This means that he knew how to read and write, something that was not common in those days . And so he took all the oral memories preserved among the Israelites and wrote them down, together with all the revelations he had received personally from God.
Today, of course, we don’t have Moses’ original scrolls anymore, and the scrolls we do have are copies of copies over many hundreds of years. So the question naturally comes up whether there have been any changes over all that time. When scholars began to penetrate more deeply into the transmission of the books of Moses, in the 19th century, they assumed there had been many, many changes over the years.
That’s one of the reasons the Dead Sea Scrolls discovery is so important. It shows that the Biblical text has not changed in any significant way for over 2,000 years. In other words, those Jewish scribes knew exactly what they were doing. They copied their Bible scrolls very accurately. This was a strong cultural value for them. So of course, they were also doing this in earlier times, before the time of Jesus and the Dead Sea Scrolls.
One popular attempt by scholars to pick apart the books of Moses is the JEDP theory (the Documentary Hypothesis). This theory claims that there are four different strands of tradition in the books of Moses. These reflect four different original sources (J, E, D, and P) that were written at different times and then added together to create the books of Moses that we know today.
For example, they say, Genesis 1 uses Elohim as a name for God, and Genesis 2 and 3 uses Yahweh. So therefore these are from two different sources that used different names for God. And on they go like that through all the books of Moses, assigning different sections to different sources from different periods of time. Sometimes they even assign different parts of the same sentence to different sources. If this theory were true, it would mean that large portions of the books of Moses don't come from Moses at all. But one of the biggest problems with this theory is that no two scholars can agree on the divisions between these supposed sources. And as a result, the theory is totally subjective: there is no clear evidence at all that this process ever took place.
The logic of this approach is similar to the theory of evolution, in which vague similarities between the body shapes of different animals are arranged into a family tree. But there is no actual evidence to back this idea up. It’s a just-so story. And the same is true of the JEDP theory. It’s a theory with no convincing evidence.
So what is the truth about the books of Moses? Some Israeli scholars did a computerized word-use and linguistic analysis of the books of Moses, and they found no evidence of different sources. In other words, there is no evidence that it wasn’t written by a single author. There are no big differences in vocabulary or style as you would expect with different authors. Rather the continuity of the language indicates that it was in fact written by a single author.
This is also why the form of the covenant with God that appears in the books of Moses is so important: it matches covenants and treaties as they were made in the time of Moses, and not earlier or later covenant types. This is strong confirmation that the books of Moses come from the time of Moses himself.
The process of writing the history of Israel started by Moses continued later to give us the other historical books, from Joshua and Judges through Samuel and Kings, and then after the exile to Babylon with Ezra and Nehemiah. This is a remarkable continuous written historical tradition, like nothing that exists in any other culture from this early time. Let me say that again: no other culture from this time period had a continuous written historical tradition. None. Up until the last couple of centuries, the Bible was the only available record of events in these early years. And all the research of scholars and archeologists in the last 150 years or so has proven it to be a completely reliable historical record. There is just no comparison with the mythologies of other nations from this same time period of time. In fact, most people didn’t have the idea of ordered history in the way we think of it today until they came under the influence of the Bible. But because of the Bible’s view that God orders the events in history, it became very important to keep track of what he had said and done over the years.
THE OLD TESTAMENT APOCRYPHA
Then, in the Hellenistic period, the time of the Greeks, additional writings started to appear of both a historical and a religious nature. These are often referred to as the Old Testament Apocrypha. Apocrypha is a Greek word that originally meant “hidden or secret,” but later came to mean “not approved.” They were written from about 200 BC to 100 AD. It seems that these books were taken more seriously by Jews living outside of Israel than by those living in Israel. Some of these writings were, in fact, originally written in Greek.
As a result, they ended up in the Greek translation of the Bible, the Septuagint, made in Alexandria in Egypt. This translation was started a couple of hundred years before the time of Jesus (from 283 BC). The Septuagint was well known all around the Jewish world. It’s important because it became the Bible of the early Gentile Church. This is because most Gentile Christians spoke Greek, and didn’t know Hebrew. So the Old Testament of the early Gentile Church was naturally the Septuagint (also known as the LXX or the Old Greek) version of the Bible.
So what are the apocryphal books that made it into the Septuagint? 1 Esdras, also known as 3 Ezra, is a retelling of parts of Chronicles and Ezra-Nehemiah with some differences (as well as some historical errors). Tobit is a religious romance featuring Tobit, a Jew in exile in Babylon (also with historical and geographical errors). Judith is a fictional story, though it was thought to be historical by some of the Church Fathers. It tells of the overthrow of Nebuchadnezzar’s armies by the clever actions of a woman named Judith (along with some historical errors). The Additions to Esther include direct references to God, which the original book of Esther does not have. The Wisdom of Solomon is an example of wisdom literature (like Proverbs or Ecclesiastes), though influenced by Greek ideas. Ecclesiasticus, also known as the Wisdom of Ben Sirach, is another example of wisdom literature, sometimes cited by the rabbis as Scripture. Baruch was addressed to the Jews in captivity in Babylon, though actually written much later. The Letter of Jeremiah is an attack on idolatry. The Additions to Daniel include: Susanna, the story of the false accusation and vindication of a Babylonian Jewess. Bel and the Dragon is the story of how Daniel exposed the falsehoods of idolatry and a dragon worshiped by the Babylonians. The Prayer of Manasseh is the prayer of repentance of King Manasseh for his wickedness.
Of all these, just about the only useful book is First Maccabees, a historical account of the rebellion of the Jews against the Greeks. These are the events commemorated in the festival of Hanukkah. But Second Maccabees is a historically unreliable retelling of the first, while Third and Fourth Maccabees are even less useful. Taken as a whole, the Old Testament Apocrypha includes very little useful history. Most of it is unreliable.
Yet these apocryphal books were accepted by Greek-speaking Jews and by the early Christians. But they were not accepted by the Hebrew-speaking Jews in Israel. They had their own ideas about what should and shouldn’t be included in the Bible.
One reason the rabbis didn’t like the Septuagint was that it was strongly Messianic in its understanding of many passages in the Bible. This greatly favored Christianity. And so after Christianity became popular, the rabbis sponsored alternative translations to be used among the Jews living outside of Israel: translations that were not so favorable to Christianity. One of these was Aquila’s translation, in the second century, sponsored by the famous Rabbi Akiva.
THE OLD TESTAMENT CANON
These concerns led to discussions in Israel about what exactly should be in the Hebrew Bible. These discussions began in the first century AD, in Jamnia, which became the center of rabbinical learning after the war of the Jews against the Romans (66-73 AD). This was shortly after the time of the Book of Acts.
Here they debated the books of Ecclesiastes and the Song of Solomon, though both were finally accepted. In the 2nd century, they debated about Proverbs, Ruth, and Esther, all of which were finally accepted. But aside from these five books, all the rest of the Old Testament had long been firmly established as Scripture—there was no reason to debate about them.
But none of the apocryphal books were accepted in Israel. This view seems to have been shared by the apostles of Jesus. The apostles quote from the Septuagint many times in the New Testament. But they never quote from the apocrypha. But since the apocrypha was included in the Septuagint, many of the church fathers considered these writings to be Scripture.
THE NEW TESTAMENT
Among the Christians, the teachings of Jesus were originally shared by the apostles by word of mouth. This was their job as “apostles,” which meant “those sent out with a message.” Their job was to spread the teaching of Jesus. To back up these teachings, they used the Old Testament as Scripture. When they were teaching Gentiles, who didn’t know Hebrew, they naturally used the Septuagint translation, although sometimes they used their own translations from the original Hebrew. This is how the apostle Paul did it, too: sometimes he quoted from the Septuagint, sometimes he made his own translation.
The first Christian writings were the letters of Paul. The reason he wrote them down was that he was communicating with people at a distance, trying to make sure that the different congregations he had started didn't fall away from the faith, or get misled by false teachings. There is evidence in the Bible itself that the letters of Paul circulated at a very early date as Scripture: “just as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given him, wrote to you, as also in all his letters, speaking in them of these things in which are some things hard to understand, which the untaught and unstable distort, as also the rest of the Scriptures...” (2 Peter 3:15-16).
But as the apostles started to get older, there was a concern that their testimony would be lost, and so the effort began to write down their sayings. This is what produced the Gospels and the book of Acts.
The first to be written, according to the church fathers, was the book of Matthew, but not as we know it today. The first version of Matthew was in Hebrew. And there is evidence that this Hebrew Matthew continued to exist for many years among Jewish Christians. Evidence for a Hebrew Matthew comes from as far away as central Arabia and even India. But unfortunately, it was lost over the years. But this early Matthew, the church fathers tell us, was then translated into Greek, and became the foundation of the Greek gospels that we have today—or at least of the first three gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke. This helps to account for the similarity between them.
But each of these gospels also has additional information that is different than the others. Luke, for example, has several parables that don't appear in any other gospel. This includes the parable of the Good Samaritan. And Matthew and Luke share information that doesn’t appear in Mark.
There have been many attempts to figure out the exact relationship of the gospels to one another because of this shared information. This is known as the Synoptic Problem. But all we can really say for sure is that in addition to the early Hebrew Matthew, and perhaps another written source that Matthew and Luke shared, each gospel writer drew on a variety of mostly oral but also possibly some written sources. As Luke says at the beginning of his gospel: “Since many have attempted to compose a written account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as those who were eyewitnesses from the beginning and servants of the Word delivered them to us, it seemed fitting for me, too, having carefully investigated everything from the beginning, to write it out for you in order...” (Luke 1:1-3). The gospel of John is quite different than the other three, and there is some evidence that John wrote after the others with the goal of filling in gaps that weren’t mentioned in the others.
NEW TESTAMENT APOCRYPHA
But once Christianity started to become popular, other writings started to show up that were different versions of the gospels or acts or letters of the apostles, usually promoting an alternative version of Christianity. These writings are known as the New Testament Apocrypha if their theology is not too far off. If their theology is too obviously off, they are known as Gnostic gospels and acts and letters. One of the most well-known of these is the Gnostic gospel of Thomas. Or maybe you've heard of the gospel of Judas recently, in which Judas is presented as the “good guy” of the gospel story.
These Gnostic and apocryphal writings are often promoted today as “hidden” gospels or “lost” gospels or some other sensationalistic thing. But the earliest churches founded in the time of the apostles weren't fooled by these new writings. They already knew what the true teaching of Jesus was, and they recognized the falsehood of these newer writings right away.
The problem was that many false teachers started showing up, claiming to be teaching “true” Christianity and leading people astray. Some of these early false teachings were quite bizarre, justifying all kinds of immorality under the name of Christianity—much as some are doing again today. Most of these false teachers were Gnostics. They gave Christianity a bad name. And as a result, a spiritual war was fought against them, so people would know what true Christianity actually taught and believed. Many early church fathers faithfully battled the Gnostics for many years, and in the end thoroughly discredited them. But it took a long time to win the victory.
One of the most dangerous of these false teachers was Marcion (-c. 160 AD). Marcion was the son of a Christian bishop who broke away to establish his own church; a cult, we would call it today, that survived for 800 years. Although many of his views were rejected as heretical by the Church, they remained influential in Rome, and even affected the thinking of many in the Church.
Marcion interpreted Paul to mean that the Old Testament has no authority for Christians: in fact, that the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament were two different gods. He taught that Jesus came to destroy the Old Testament—just the opposite of what Jesus himself said (Matt. 5:17). And to prove his point, he made long lists of what he thought were contradictions between the Old and the New Testaments.
Because of this, Marcion rejected the entire Old Testament and some of the New Testament, too, because they were "too Jewish"! Yes, he was very anti-Semitic. His Bible included a modified version of the gospel of Luke and ten of the letters of Paul. But he rejected the stories about Jesus’ birth in Luke, for example, because they were “too Jewish.”
THE CANON OF THE NEW TESTAMENT
Marcion's list of accepted Scripture forced the Church to develop its own list. Before this, there had been no official list of which writings were accepted. But everyone seems to have had, in addition to the Septuagint, Paul’s letters, the gospels, the book of Acts, 1 Peter, and 1 John. But other than this basic core, different churches in different areas had different writings that they read in their church services.
At the time, we have to remember, there were no single-volume books that included the entire Bible. In fact, there were no books at all: books (codices) had not yet been invented. The “books” of the Bible as we call them today existed only as separate scrolls. These were copied by hand and very expensive. They were usually owned by the entire community—by the church. It was too expensive for most people to have their own copies. As a result, not every community had every “book” of the Bible. And some had “books” that are not part of our Bibles today.
What were these additional books? They include some of the writings of the Apostolic Fathers. These were people who had heard the apostles preach and remembered their teachings. Their writings were treated with great respect. Many considered them, or some of them, to be Scripture. In the first Bibles bound as books (in the 4th century), they were sometimes included, with nothing to mark them as being any different than the rest of Scripture.
What are these additional writings? One is the First Letter of Clement. It was included as Scripture in some ancient Bibles at the end of the New Testament. It was written in Rome just after the persecution of the Emperor Domitian (in which John was put on the island of Patmos), and mentions the earlier persecution of Nero in which Peter and Paul were killed. It says that these apostles were joined by "a great multitude of the chosen" in experiencing a martyr's death. The persecutions were also clearly continuing. It says: "we are in the same arena, and the same struggle is before us."
This was a letter written from the church of Rome to the church of Corinth. It is only attributed to Clement by tradition—his name doesn’t appear in it. At the time of this letter, elders were still alive that had been appointed by the apostles. In fact, the reason for the letter was some troubles in the church at Corinth which led to the removal of certain elders there. This letter was written to encourage them to accept these elders back again and to discourage them from replacing those properly chosen as elders who were faithful in performing their duties.
Another of the writings of the Apostolic Fathers is the Shepherd of Hermas. This is an allegory written in Rome at about the same time as the Epistle of Clement. The writer’s name was Hermas. He was a slave who was a member of the Roman church. The writing has three parts: 1) The Visions (a series of visions of an old woman who represents the Church, who gets progressively younger over the course of the visions); 2) the Mandates (or Precepts); and 3) The Similitudes (or Parables). The main problem dealt with by the book is that of sin after baptism. Hermas belonged to a group that believed it was possible to lead a sinless life after baptism—a view widely shared in the early years of the Church. According to this view, it was not possible to gain forgiveness for sin after you were baptized. Because of this, many in the early Church postponed baptism until just before death. But in these visions, Hermas was taught that with repentance, there is forgiveness for post-baptismal sin, but only once!
The Didache we talked about once before. It’s the oldest church manual in existence. It was lost for many years, and only rediscovered in the 19th century. Some place it back in the time when the New Testament was still being written. Others place it later. It clearly reflects the view of Christianity as “the Way” of Jesus. It starts with a discussion of the two ways: The Way of Life (Christianity) vs. the Way of Death. This was an outline of the principles of Christian conduct that were to be taught before baptism, and was used in this way for hundreds of years.
Other writings of the Apostolic Fathers that some considered to be Scripture are the Epistle of Barnabas, 2 Clement, the Acts of Paul, the letter of Polycarp to the Philippians, the Apocalypse of Peter, and the Gospel of the Hebrews. There was also the Book of Enoch, which unlike the others dated back to before the time of Jesus. This is more like one of the Old Testament Apocrypha, but it strongly influenced many Christians, and is even quoted in Jude 1:14-15.
Thanks to Marcion, Christians began to realize the need for an official list of accepted books. One of the earliest of these lists was the Muratorian Canon (175-180), which lists most of the New Testament books. But debates continued into the 3rd and 4th centuries. The book of Hebrews was not generally thought to be written by Paul, as can be seen by its placement in our Bibles even today. Second and Third John were debated as to whether they were written by John the Apostle or another John. Revelation was rejected by some even though it was well-attested as being written by the Apostle John—in fact, one of the best attested writings of the New Testament for apostolic authorship. But it was rejected by some because of its teaching about the Millennium. Many Gentiles didn’t like the idea of an earthly kingdom of Messiah ruling from Jerusalem. It seemed to honor the Jews too much, who had recently become wartime enemies. James, 2 Peter, and Jude were also questioned.
The final New Testament list of books or canon as we have it today was first noted by Athanasius (367). He was the first to list all twenty-seven New Testament books as being accepted by all. This same list appears again in the Council of Rome (382) and the Synod of Hippo (393).
The Council of Carthage (397), under the influence of Augustine of Hippo, stated that only these 27 books should be received into the New Testament. The rest of the Western church soon followed. It took another century until the Eastern Church finally accepted the Book of Revelation. So as you can see, the Council of Nicea had nothing to do with it.
The debate about the books to be accepted into the New Testament revolved around three important ideas: that a) they must be accepted everywhere as Scripture (Catholicity), b) they must have doctrinal consistency, that is, they must agree with all other parts of the Bible, and c) they must be closely associated with an apostle (Apostolicity).
But what about the Old Testament Apocrypha? In the late 4th century, Jerome went from Rome to Israel as a monk. Here he began to study Hebrew. He was one of the first Gentile Christians to do so, with the goal of making a better translation of the Bible. And he did: he made the first Gentile version of the Bible that was translated directly from the Hebrew (into Latin: the Vulgate). This became the official Roman Catholic Bible for hundreds of years. He even considered some old scrolls from the Dead Sea in his translation: which probably means he was also the first Dead Sea Scrolls scholar!
While there, he learned that the Bible used by the Jews in Israel was different than the Greek Bible (the Septuagint). He soon became convinced that they were right to reject its additional writings. From him, the idea spread to others. This is when Gentile Christians first started to call these extra books "apocrypha," even though they still kept them in their Bibles. But in the Protestant Reformation, in which many of the reformers also studied Hebrew, the apocryphal books were finally removed from Protestant Christian Bibles altogether. Today, the Apocrypha is still included in Catholic Bibles and in the Bibles of other older, traditional churches. But even they agree that the apocrypha are not at the same level of inspiration as the rest of the Bible.
So there you have it: the story of how we got our Bibles—or at any rate, the short version of the story. And as you can see, it has nothing to do with the story told in the Da Vinci Code.
ORDER OF THE NEW TESTAMENT
One last point: once Bibles began to be bound as single books (codices), the order of the books was not the same everywhere. In the Eastern Church, the book of Acts was originally followed by James and the letters of Peter, John, and Jude, after which came the writings of Paul. This order reflected the historical priority of the original apostles and the brothers of Jesus. But in the West, the letters of Paul were placed before these other epistles, giving priority to Rome by placing Romans directly after the book of Acts.
In more recent times, Martin Luther didn’t like Hebrews, James, Jude, and Revelation. So they were put last in German language Bibles.