THE CANON OF SCRIPTURE
In the century before the birth of Jesus, perhaps earlier, the Jews used an expression to distinguish certain sacred scrolls from the remainder of their religious writings. There was a fixed group of writings which, they said, "defiled the hands." There have been various explanations of what that expression meant. One of the more plausible is that the quality of holiness which inhered in those sacred scrolls should not be transferred by touch to other less worthy books or objects. Thus, the man who had handled a sacred scroll must wash his hands after such handling.
The Canon of the Old Testament
In his Jewish Antiquities Josephus referred to a body of writings which his people regarded as the decrees of God, normative for their lives, precious enough to die for, not to be augmented or edited or mishandled in any way. He said that this sacred corpus included the books written from the time of Moses to the time of Artaxerxes. Now, Artaxerxes died in 424 B.C. This was the time of Ezra and Nehemiah, of the writer of the Chronicles and of the prophet Malachi. So, what Josephus was saying was that the normative writings of Israel's literature were the books written from the time of Israel's first prophet, Moses, to the time of her last prophet, Malachi. "Just this is God's Word because just these were God's prophets."
The number of books which Josephus mentions in his Contra Apionem (I.8) is 22. These 22 books were 22 scrolls, and many of the scrolls contained more than one of what we call "books." The Pentateuch comprised five scrolls. The Former Prophets comprised four scrolls. But these are Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings, six books. The Latter Prophets comprised four scrolls. These are Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the Twelve Minor Prophets, fifteen books. There are three scrolls for The Writings: Psalms, Proverbs and Job, three books. The Five Rolls are just that, and they include Song of Solomon, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes and Esther, five books. One more scroll contained Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah, 1 and 2 Chronicles, five books. The 22 books or scrolls are counted as 39 by us.
Although they did not use the word, the rabbis and Josephus were describing the Old Testament canon. There was a normative group of writings which served as the standard for doctrine and the rule for life. They regarded that group of writings as normative because they considered it to be the written Word of God.
We know that Jesus regarded that collection of writings in the same way in which his contemporaries regarded them: limited in number and unlimited in authority. It is not only that they are authoritative because he appealed to them. No, he appealed to them because they are authoritative. [Also See The Apocrypha]
As to the number of these books, two passages in the Gospels are especially interesting. In Luke 11:49-51, where he speaks of the slaying of the prophets from Abel to Zechariah, Jesus is surveying the Old Testament from Genesis 4 to 2 Chronicles 24:20,21. Today we would summarize or survey from Genesis to Malachi, because these are the first and last books in our English Old Testament. But the Hebrew Old Testament ends with 2 Chronicles. Jesus knew and appealed to a closed number of books. There has been considerable contention in recent years that this closed number did not include the Book of Daniel. It is, therefore, of special interest to us that Jesus cited that book and mentioned the author by name: "So when you see standing in the holy place the abomination that causes desolation, spoken of through the prophet Daniel—let the reader understand—then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains" (Mt 24:15,16).
As we have already seen (Lk 11:49-51), our Lord summarized a Hebrew canon that included Genesis through Chronicles. A casual scanning of the margins in the Nestle or UBS text of the Greek New Testament reveals that Jesus' apostles also regarded them as authoritative. Only Ezra, Ecclesiastes and Song of Solomon are not quoted or alluded to. No argument from silence should be based on their absence.
But why does the collection of books to which Jesus appealed or referred during his ministry stop where it does? The Bible itself answers the question, at least indirectly, in the book of the prophet Malachi. Malachi was the prophet in Judah after the Restoration. The Lord prophesied through Malachi that a messenger would prepare the way of the Lord (Mal 3:1; 4:5), and that this messenger would be Elijah the Prophet. There would be no prophet between Malachi and "Elijah," between Malachi and John the Baptist. The Hasmonean "theocracy" of the 2nd century B.C. recognized that there had been no prophet in Israel since Malachi (1 Maccabees 4:46; 9:27).
But when was the Old Testament canon gathered and who did this work? The apocryphal 2 Maccabees 2:13-15 ascribes to Nehemiah the work of gathering the books which follow the Pentateuch. A Jewish tradition ascribed the gathering of the entire canon to Ezra and a "Great Synagogue." Professor John Schaller in his Book of Books is typical of most scholars in regarding much that was written concerning Ezra and the Great Synagogue as incredible, but also acknowledging that the legend might have some basis in fact. In any case, the books were there to be gathered; the writing of the Old Testament had been completed at the time of or immediately after Ezra and Nehemiah. Though there is no historical record of it, it is at least plausible that the collection was completed at that time.
But if Jesus and his apostles operated with a completed canon Which included just 22 (39) books, why does the canon decreed by the Council of Trent in 1546 contain more books than that? How did Trent arrive at a canon which includes eleven of the books which we call Apocrypha? What about those books which Luther called "...Buecher, die der Heiligen Schrift nicht gleich gehalten und doch nuetzlich und gut zu lesen sind?"1 In the Jewish diaspora a considerable number of Jews began to lose their ability to read the Scriptures in the original language. From the 3rd century B.C. onward, for the sake of Jews living in a Hellenistic civilization, the Scriptures were translated into Greek. And, appended to the 22 scrolls, the 39 books, were a number of books written after the time of Malachi and Ezra and Nehemiah. In time, these appended books numbered fourteen. The resulting confusion, aggravated by the proliferation of still more apocryphal writings, prompted the rabbinical school at Jamnia (Jabneh) to decree that the Scriptures contained the 22 scrolls and only those 22. Acting about 90 A.D., they were regularizing and ratifying something that Jews in Palestine (including Jesus) had recognized and accepted many years before.
The fourteen books which were collected with the Septuagint but which were not part of the Palestinian canon are: 1 and 2 Esdras (sometimes called 3 and 4 Ezra); Tobit (in which an angel gives instruction for the practice of witchcraft); Judith (after whom Shakespeare named one of his daughters); Portions in Esther (which is an attempt to "improve" Esther by adding long prayers and a theological evaluation of the story); The Wisdom of Solomon; Ecclesiasticus, also known as The Wisdom of Jesus ben Sirach or simply Sirach (written about 130 B.C. and the only apocryphal book, written in Hebrew, in which Sirach acknowledges the rest of the canon and claims no prophetic status for himself); Baruch; The Prayer of Manasses; 1 and 2 Maccabees (of which the second book speaks in an approving way of suicide and intercession for the dead [2 Maccabees 12:43ff and 14:41ff]); and three additions to the Book of Daniel. These are Song of the Three Holy Children (Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego); Susanna (which is a plea for legal reform in the dress of a narrative); and Bel and the Dragon (which is included to ridicule idolatry). Incidentally, Shakespeare's other daughter was named Susanna.
1 From the heading of the Apocrypha in Luther's Bible: “...books which are not to put on a level with Holy Scripture but are nevertheless useful and worth reading."
The Jews referred to books which were not part of the fixed group as sepharim hitsonim, outside books. They kept these books in a separate case, never read them in a public meeting or public worship, and declared that they did not "defile the hands." An apokryphon is literally something that is hidden away, and that describes what was done with these "outside books." It is thought that the term apokryphon, used in the synagogues of the diaspora, is a translation of genuzim (from ganaz: to hide, store away). It is a fact that the genizah (from the same root) was a closet or garret in which noncanonical books were hidden away, along with worn or defective copies of canonical books.
After the decree of the rabbis at Jamnia, even Hellenistic Jews gradually accepted the limits of the Palestinian canon. But Christians generally, most of whom knew no Hebrew and felt no need to study Hebrew, continued to regard the entire Septuagint as Scripture.
If the Old Catholic and imperial and medieval churches were somewhat careless and too inclusive with regard to what is Holy Writ, that lack of discrimination can be ascribed at least in part to the fact that by the middle of the 2nd century the monarchic episcopate and the rule of faith figured at least as importantly in the church's thinking as did the Scriptures. Bishops and traditions, creeds and fathers of the church were becoming as authoritative in practice (if not in theory) as the Bible was. It did not seem as important for the institutional church under those conditions to exclude books which are not the inspired prophetic Word of God as it does for a church which insists on the principle of sola Scriptura.
Naturally, when Jews and Christians met in controversy or wrote polemics against one another, there was a problem in the fact that they were using two different canons. About 200 A.D., Melito of Sardis went to Palestine to learn what he could about the problem. We do not know what he learned, but the fact that he made the effort testifies that the problem was recognized. Early in the 3rd century Origen acknowledged that there was a discrepancy and pointed out the difficulties this caused in communication and controversy with the Jews. He did not receive much of a hearing on this subject; he was questioning 150 years of church usage.
It is important that in the mid-4th century Athanasius distinguished between canonical and apocryphal books of the Old Testament. He listed the canonical books which were read by Jews and Christians. He might have had reservations with regard to Esther, but otherwise his Old Testament canon was ours. He then listed books which were read by Christians only. These are the Apocrypha as they were published in the Septuagint. His third list numbered apocryphal books which were accepted by neither Jews nor Christians. His view prevailed in the Eastern churches, which do not include the Apocrypha in the canon. In the West it remained for the Reformers of the 16th century to pick up what Origen, Athanasius and Jerome had called to the church's attention and do something about it. Incidentally, the oldest Peshitto (vernacular translation) of the Syrian Church omitted the scroll which contained Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah and Chronicles. The reasons for this cannot be definitely established. The Eastern Council of Laodicea (A.D. 363) listed a canon identical to that of Athanasius.
A man who learned much from Origen's writings and exegesis raised the question of the Apocrypha 150 years after Origen's death. When Jerome moved from Rome to Bethlehem to spend the last 39 years of his life in study, writing and translation, he made it his business to learn Hebrew. In that he was almost unique among Churchmen of his time. There was very little felt need among the earlier fathers to learn Hebrew. Jerome, however, steeped himself in the language of the Old Testament, and he studied cognate languages as well. When he set out to revise the Itala, the Latin Biblele of the Western church, he determined to work with what he called the Veritas Hebraica. He immediately noticed that the apocryphal books were not there in Hebrew. He called attention to this fact and tried to convince the Western church that it must limit itself to the Palestinian Canon, as the Eastern church had begun to do. His most influential and effective opponent in this was Augustine of Hippo. At African synods in 393, 397 and 419, Augustine persuaded his compatriots to affirm the Septuagint as the standard version of the Scriptures. Pope Innocent I issued a decree to the same effect in 405. It was this that Trent reaffirmed in 1546, although neither the two apocryphal books of Esdras nor the Prayer of Manasses were included in the canon of the Roman Church.
After Augustine and Pope Innocent had squelched Jerome's attempt to distinguish between canonical books and apocrypha, the Western church did not consider the matter again until the time of the Reformation. In 1520 Karlstadt published a Little Book concerning the Canonical Scriptures, in which he called The Wisdom of Solomon, Sirach, Judith, Tobit, 1 and 2 Maccabees "holy writings" of less than canonical status and declared the rest of the Apocrypha unworthy of use by Christians. Luther, Zwingli and Coverdale grouped the Apocrypha at the end of the Old Testament rather than leaving them interspersed in the body of the canon. After 1599 some Geneva Bibles omitted them entirely, and after 1629 some editions of the King James Version did the same. It may be that most of us have never seen a KJV which includes the Apocrypha. The charters of the English and American Bible societies forbid the inclusion of the Apocrypha in any editions which they publish or distribute.
Certain other books had currency in some parts of the Jewish Dispersion and therefore in certain translations of the Old Testament used in Christian churches. For example, there are an Ethiopic 1 Enoch, a Slavonic 2 Enoch and 3 Baruch, and a Syriac Apocalypse of Baruch. There are about twenty other similar writings. The Reformers coined the term pseudepigrapha for these writings falsely ascribed to various Old Testament patriarchs and prophets, as well as to Jewish heroes and oracles.
An obvious question which we have heard people ask in connection with the Scriptures is: Who decided that just these books and none other are to be regarded as the Word of God? How do we know that all of them really belong to God's inspired Word and that no part of God's inspired Word has been left out? With regard to the Old Testament the answer is quite simple: "Jesus himself operated with the Old Testament, and his Scripture is ours."
The New Testament Canon
The answer to the same question concerning the New Testament is not quite as simple. The Greek term kanon derives etymologically from the semitic root kanna, which meant a reed or cane. Since a straight reed could be used for a straight-edge, a level or a measuring rod, kanon came to mean something normative, standard, delimiting. Before the term was applied to the New Testament Scriptures in the 4th century, it had been used since the 2nd century in connection with the accepted doctrine: kanon tes pisteos, the rule of faith. Then it was used for the normative decisions and decrees of church councils. We often think of the canon as "the list." More correctly, the list tabulates the canon, lists what is canonical.
As noted above, the term was not used for the biblical books until the 4th century. It was used then by the church historian Eusebius. Later in the same century (367) Athanasius listed "the books to be read in church." Still later in the same century, this collection was referred to by John Chrysostom as Biblia—the first record we have of that term being applied to the Scriptures as a whole.
But, of course, the concept antedated the term. Long before the 4th century there was a body of writings which the church regarded as authoritative (the fathers appealed to those writings to support their teachings); as apostolic (that is why they appealed to them); as inspired by God; as normative for faith and life. The earliest postapostolic writers had collections of the apostles' writings which they studied and to which they appealed. That is not to say that they had the entire canon or that they called their collections complete. It is simply to say that the work of collecting the apostolic writings was under way. Indeed, there is evidence that it was under way in Paul's lifetime, before all the New Testament had been written. See Peter's allusion to Paul's letters (2 Pe 3:16). The Didache (ca. 120) refers to “the Gospel"—a written document, not simply the Good News. Later writers used the same expression for the collection of the four Gospels and spoke of the Gospel kata Matthaion, kata Markon, etc. The first to use these designations with which readers of the Greek New Testament are familiar was Papias, about 135.
Tatian's work makes clear that the church possessed the four Gospels and that it did not honor more than the Four. His work was the Diatessaron, a harmony similar to our Passion History readings, based on the four Evangelists. He began with John's Prologue and omitted the genealogies in Matthew and Luke. This harmony was used as "The Gospel" in the 2nd-century edition of the Syrian vernacular version, the Peshitto. The other collection to which the early fathers refer is “The Apostle.” We know that it was a collection because when they refer to “The Apostle,” they are referring to something in one of Paul’s letters, but not referring to the letter by its proper name.
So, there is evidence from the first quarter of the 2nd century (Didache, Justin, Ignatius, Clement of Rome, Polycarp, Epistle of Barnabas and Tatian) that the four Evangelists and Paul had been collected into a corpus of apostolic writings. This does not mean that the other New Testament writings were not being collected and used. We can only report on the documentary evidence that exists and on the conclusions which have been drawn from it.
In the late 2nd century, about 180, Irenaeus of Lyons referred to a collection of such writings as “The new Testament” to distinguish it from the Scriptures of the believers who lived before Christ came. He called those Scriptures which had been given before Christ came “The Old Testament.” The real significance of this is that he was placing them on a par. Some liberal scholars have made an issue of the fact that the early fathers did not refer to the apostolic writings as Scripture. But it would have been confusing for them to do so. “Scripture” (hai graphai) was a technical term applied to a very specific body of literature, the Old Testament. It would have been confusing to apply the term to the books of the New Testament. But there is no doubt that they regarded them as authoritative because they were apostolic. It is not nomenclature that really matters. What matters is the way in which the apostolic writings were regarded, quoted and relied upon.
The first person to draw up a definitive list of books to which he appealed for authority and from which he excluded all other writings was Marcion. He arrived in Rome about 144. he was determined to exclude everything Jewish from the life and work of Jesus. He rejected the Old Testament, the God of the Old Testament, the justice of God, the judgment of God, the Jewishness of Jesus. He edited all such references out of the Pauline corpus and called what was left “The Apostle.” He chose the Gospel according to Luke as the least Jewish and edited out whatever of Judaism he thought he detected there. He justified his activity on the ground that what he excised had been added to the Apostle and the Gospel by Judaizers and other legalists. He rejected the other three Gospels and all non-Pauline Epistles. He regarded the Pastoral Epistles as non-Pauline and excluded them. There are many clues as to how he edited Paul and Luke in the apparatus of the Nestle text of the Greek New Testament. Because of Marcion's recension, the church had to begin to argue the question of what is apostolic and what is not. Before then, the collection had gone on in a natural, unhurried manner, deter-mined by use rather than by formal critical standards. There had been a gradual consensus, without any contest we know of.
Marcion’s influence, however, was by no means the only challenge which the church faced in the latter half of the 2nd century. The charismatic movement known as Montanism appeared about 155 with its "New Prophecy" and its claim that the Holy Spirit was updating his message to the church. Obviously, it was increasingly important for the church to appeal to the body of apostolic writing in defense of the catholic doctrine.
A further impetus to defining the canon was provided by the Gnostics. The Gnostics had new writings for which they claimed apostolic authority, and their writings needed to be tested. There was apocryphal and pseudepigraghic literature appearing from other sources, and there had to be some separating of the chaff from the wheat. A group of anti-millenarians in Asia Minor, the Alogoi, were denying all of John's writings because they could see no other way of dealing with Revelation 20.
Let us consider the working canon of some of the men of the last quarter of the 2nd century. Irenaeus of Lyons, originally from Asia Minor, cited all of Paul except Philemon and all of the Catholic Epistles except 2 Peter and 2 John. He accepted Hebrews, Revelation and Acts at a time when these were still regarded with caution in certain areas of the church. Around 200, Hippolytus of Rome (also from Asia Minor and the last Roman theologian to work in Greek) shows familiarity with the whole of our canon except Philemon, 2 John and 3 John. Notice that we have not said that these men granted or refused canonical status to certain books. They did not have the right or the inclination to do that. They used the books. But of course, to use them as they did was to appeal to their authority, which is finally what the question of canonicity is all about.
Of a somewhat different nature and intention was the so-called Muratorian Canon. In 1740, a Vatican archivist, Professor L. A. Muratori, published a three-page fragment of an 8th century copy of a Latin translation from Greek. Dated around 180, it provides a list of books which may be read publicly in the services at Rome. It lacks a beginning, but it is quite clear that it introduces the Four Gospels. Then it says, "Luke also wrote the Acts of all the apostles in one book." With the expression "all the apostles" the author seems to be rejecting other (that is, apocryphal) books of Acts of various apostles which were current in his day. Thirteen Pauline Epistles, Jude, 1 and 2 John and Revelation are included. Missing are James, 1 and 2 Peter and Hebrews. 3 John is subsumed in 2 John. Included are The Wisdom of Solomon and The Apocalypse of Peter. A number of other writings are mentioned and rejected. This canon at Rome was not identical with that of all other contemporary churches, as we shall see.
In Alexandria, Clement (active ca. 200) accepted the Four Gospels and took Acts to be written by Luke. He accepted Hebrews, the Pauline Epistles, 1 Peter, 1 and 2 John, Jude and Revelation. He spoke of "the 27 books," but he was including a number of apocryphal books. His successor, Origen, included the New Testament books which Clement had omitted. He referred to them as antilegomena, books which were spoken against in some places. Two books which Clement had regarded as canonical Origen listed as antilegomena: The Epistle of Barnabas and Hermas' The Shepherd. Thus, he seemed to be according them less respect than Clement had, but they were still in his canon.
At this same time Syria was much less inclusive than either Rome or Alexandria in its canon. The Diatessaron, some of Paul's Epistles and perhaps the book of Acts were suitable for reading in the service along with the Law and the Prophets. In North Africa at the same time, Tertullian listed the Gospels, the 13 letters of Paul, 1 John and Revelation—19 of the 27 books in our canon.
There is no record that in the year 200 any church had a complete collection of what came to be regarded as the New Testament canon. This did not always mean an outright rejection of certain books. More often it meant that the bishop or the church at a given place did not have a particular book in possession or had not yet given it sufficient study. The experience of various local churches at this time could be compared with the experience of the individual Christian who does not read the entire Bible at one time but reads the individual books over a period of time.
It seems that from about 200 to about 360 the Muratorian (Roman) Canon was not widely questioned in the West. The situation in the East, however, was one of continued discussion and questioning. Around 250, Dionysius of Alexandria discussed the canon and came up with results about like those of Origen in the generation before. He denied that John had written the Apocalypse, but he regarded it as apostolic nevertheless.
Eusebius of Caesarea, church historian, chronicler of the Council of Nicea and biographer of Constantine, listed the homologoumena (books agreed upon) and antilegomena (books spoken against) along lines similar to that of others who had written on the subject in the East. He, however, rejected Hermas' The Shepherd, the Acts of Paul, the Apocalypse of Peter, the Epistle of Barnabas, the Didache and the Gospel of the Hebrews. Rather diffidently and apologetically, he also rejected the Revelation, "if it seem proper, which some, as I said, reject, but which some class with the accepted books." The reason that Revelation was questioned by many in the church was that then, as now, the church was troubled by chiliasts, especially by the Montanists, who were the Pentecostalists of their day. To be rid of Revelation 20, it seemed, might make it easier to deal with those fanatical spirits.
The Council of Laodicea in 363 listed a canon like ours, with the single difference that it excluded Revelation. It forbade (for its province) the reading of non-canonical books in the service. Then, in 367, Athanasius, patriarch of Alexandria and hero of Nicea and the trinitarian struggle of the 4th century, warned in an encyclical that "gall is not to be mingled with honey" and listed the 27 books of our New Testament canon as "the wellspring of salvation from which he who thirsts may take his fill of sacred words...." His contemporaries, Gregory of Nazianzen and John Chrysostom still rejected Revelation. Cyril of Jerusalem was in accord with Athanasius. Around 400 Jerome's revised Latin New Testament appeared with the 27 books. This was supported by Augustine and Pope Innocent I, and so the West accepted just those 27 books which we today call the New Testament.
Why did it take so long for the antilegomena to be universally accepted? We have mentioned the fact that they did not receive wide dissemination as early as others. We have seen that, when they arrived somewhere at a later time than the other books, they were often regarded with some hesitation or even suspicion. We must not overlook the difficulties which the gnostic movement caused in the church. The Gnostics proliferated apocryphal gospels, epistles, acts and apocalypses in order to lend their strange doctrines the aura of apostolic authority. They claimed to have information and teaching from Jesus through the apostles which was not available to ordinary Christians. This special gnosis, which they valued more highly than faith itself, they claimed to discover in hitherto unknown writings which had come into their hands. Careful Christian scholars in the centers of Christianity would naturally be very cautious about accepting any book—even a purported epistle of John or Peter—which they had come to know only recently. Even when the contents were acceptable, there was often some degree of uncertainty about authorship (as is still the case with Hebrews). The identity of James, the Lord's slave, is not definitely known. The Second and Third Letters of John are addressed to private individuals; 2 Peter had no addressee.
With regard to the antilegomena, it must be reported that Luther revived that concept in his translation of 1522 and in some of the remarks he made at table and in lectures. He questioned the apostolicity and therefore the canonicity of Jude, Hebrews, James and Revelation. He also challenged James and Hebrews on doctrinal grounds. He grouped the four books at the end of his translation, and did not assign numbers to them as he had to the others. This is by no means to suggest (as some have suggested) that he doubted that the Bible is God's Word in all of its words. He rather questioned, for at least part of his life, that these particular books were really part of the Bible.
The church which bears his name has not agreed with Luther in this matter. We include those four books in the canon. It is interesting that Bugenhagen in his sermon at the memorial service after Luther's death applied to Luther a passage from one of the books that Luther questioned. That same passage, Revelation 14:6,7, is one of the readings for the Festival of Reformation in our churches today. The Great Bible in England (1539) and all English versions after it, have listed the New Testament books in the order with which we are familiar today.
The fact that some books were for some time antilegomena has no real bearing on the authority of those books as the Word of God. It is simply a historical fact that some of them were not always and everywhere recognized at once as the Word of God. Just as certain doctrines were true before you and I learned them and are still true although some deny them, so these books were God's Word and had real apostolic authority before some recognized that fact and even now after others have denied that the Bible is God's Word at all.
But to get back to our original question of practical pastoral concern, who decided on these books and how did they decide? No individual or council ever said, "These are the criteria for apostolicity." At certain times and certain places various individuals and councils said, "These books are apostolic and these are not." In 367, when Athanasius finally listed the canon as we have it, he did not tell us what his criteria were. He simply treated the books as received. Any criteria we speak of today are really established by inference. We can look at the historical process and then say the church accepted nothing post-Johannine as apostolic—obviously because all the apostles were dead by the time John died. In fact the Muratorian Canon rejected The Shepherd on just that ground, although we would certainly reject it on other grounds. We know that "apostolic" did not have to mean "written by an apostle in the narrowest sense," for the church accepted Mark and Luke without any resistance except from heretics. We know that those Gospels were accepted because they harked back to the apostolic age and were written by men who accompanied the apostles. We know that the New Testament writings agree with one another as to what the apostolic doctrine is, and we know that several of the early fathers expressed that assumption. We know that Irenaeus appealed to the miracle of Pentecost and to the consequent inspiration of the Holy Ghost in the apostolic writings. It does not help us today, however, to say that the books were included because they were inspired. That is true, of course, but it was an assumption of faith rather than a I demonstrable fact in the 2nd century as it is in the 20th.
And that brings us to autopistia, the self-authenticating quality of the books of Holy Writ. They themselves have the power to convince us of their authority. As Christ opens them to us, our hearts burn within us. As we search the Scriptures, we accept them on their terms; we are convinced by them. History's way of stating how the canon came to be is to say that it was by a consensus of use. Another way of saying it, and this is what we mean by autopistia, is to say that we know by faith that these books and only these books constitute the norma normans.
New Testament Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha
It is really much easier to say why a multitude of books were excluded from the canon than to explain the process by which the 27 were included. Of the patristic writings that were at certain times and certain places received to be read in the church, the best is the Epistle of Clement. Written from Rome to Corinth about 97, it is quite orthodox and sane and historical. We assume it was finally excluded because it is obviously not apostolic in the sense of having been written by one who was contemporary with the apostles. We would exclude it today for that reason and also because it urges a particular form of church government as normative for all time. It establishes a New Testament ceremonial law. We would reject The Shepherd of Hermas for its legalism, its neglect of the historical Jesus and its teaching of works of supererogation. We would reject Didache for its externalism and its legalism. The Epistle of Barnabas is reasonably sane in its theology and its treatment of Bible history. It treats the Old Testament Law, however, as allegory. It was attributed to Paul's traveling companion on the first mission tour, but it was most likely written by an Alexandrian convert from Judaism about 130. It is the last book in the Codex Sinaiticus and was regarded as canonical only in Alexandria.
To mention just a few of the more serious apocryphal books, there was a Gospel of the Hebrews which from its content appears to be the product of Ebionites—Jews who denied Jesus' divinity and who regarded him as a mere teacher of morality. The Protevangel of James purports to offer a "historical exposition how the most holy Mother of God was born for our salvation." The Acts of Peter is the basis of the Quo Vadis story and a source of the legend that Peter was crucified head downward. The gnostic Gospel of Thomas begins with the statement, "These are the secret words which Jesus the Living spoke and Didymos Judas Thomas wrote." In it Jesus is quoted as saying, "He who will find the interpretation of these words will not taste death." After these the quality drops off, theologically and historically.
The person who challenges the canonicity of any book today must realize that the burden of proof is upon him and that the matter is beyond proof. The only objective test which he can apply is the test of unity in doctrine, and he must then tell us: what new doctrine or what contradiction does the antilegomenon introduce? Perhaps his exegesis—like Luther's in James and Hebrews is incomplete, inaccurate or mistaken. What is there in the book that he is not willing to be held to? What practical pastoral purpose will he serve by announcing that he no longer regards one or more of the antilegomena as included in his ordination vow? How will it serve his task of edifying the church and equipping the saints for ministry? Let the questioner bear in mind that the challenge to the Apocrypha has stood the test of historical investigation, and that the challenge to the New Testament antilegomena has not. Let him look again at what was left out, and he will most likely be persuaded that the antilegomena breathe a different spirit, the Holy Spirit. And let him thank God for the process and the Providence that has preserved these 27 books for us.
The Text Of Scripture
When and why the autographs of the Scriptures were lost we do not know. We are grateful that before then men had made copies of the holy writings in order to preserve what was written there by inspiration of the Holy Spirit. In the years before Jesus' birth it had long been the custom that the Law and the Prophets and the Writings were copied carefully onto the cured skins of ceremonially clean animals. It is said that a master copy of all the scrolls was kept in the temple at Jerusalem until 70 AD. Presumably, these master scrolls perished in the destruction of city and temple.
The Text of the Old Testament
One of the survivors of God's judgment on Jerusalem was the scholar and textual expert Johannan ben Zakkai. Before the final destruction he was carried out of the city on a bier, as a dead man. When the burial party had walked well into the Roman lines, ben Zakkai got off his bier and went to General Vespasian. He asked permission to establish a school for rabbis in an area that was already pacified, and permission was granted. Thus was founded the school at Jamnia, the Vineyard of Jabneh, and its greatest resource was a man who was reputed to be most conversant of all men with the scriptural texts, ben Zakkai. He gathered other scholars about him, and for sixty years the Jamnia academy near Lydda (modern Lod) worked to insure the integrity of the inspired text. This was the group that ratified the canon sometime between 90 and 100 AD, under the leadership of Rabbi ben Akiba. It was the theory of the late 19th century scholar Paul Anton de Lagarde that all extant Hebrew manuscripts, except for the Dead Sea scrolls, derive from the text established at Jamnia.
Another Jewish war (132-135) brought an end to the academy of Jamnia and new schools grew up in Galilee at Tiberias, Sepphoreth and Safad. Here the rabbis collected, collated, edited and transcribed the Talmud, the body of traditional commentary on the Old Testament and Jewish law. Here they also continued to work at the task of preserving inviolate the text of the Scriptures. The text they worked with was consonantal. Pronunciation was part of the tradition to be preserved, and the lector in any synagogue had to be carefully trained. There were no vowel markings, no accents, no verse and chapter divisions. In a scroll, one cannot even refer to a page number when searching out a reference. The scholar had to know the scroll in order to find a particular passage for study or citation. The lector had to know the lection in order to read it correctly and intelligibly in the service.
In Galilee, the scholars worked to preserve hammasorah, the tradition. The word derives from māasar, "to hand down." The text which the scholars of Galilee and elsewhere handed down came to be known as the Masoretic Text. We say "elsewhere" because Galilee was not the only center of this activity at this time. There were several such schools in various parts of the diaspora. Most notable besides the western or Palestinian school was the Babylonian school. The West prevailed and what we call the Masoretic Text is the text of the West. It should be stated, too, that this Masoretic Text comes from manuscripts dated in the 10th century or later.
Lest we doubt, however, that the 10th century text can be a faithful reproduction of 2nd or 6th century texts, let us consider the prescribed procedure for making a copy of the Hebrew Scriptures.
A synagogue roll must be written on the skins of clean animals, prepared for the particular use of the synagogue by a Jew. These must be fastened together with strings taken from clean animals. Every skin must contain a certain number of columns, equal throughout the entire codex. The length of each column must not extend over less than 48 or more than 60 lines, and the breadth must consist of 30 letters. The whole copy must be first lined; and if three words be written in it without a line, it is worthless. The ink should be black, neither red, green nor any other color, and be prepared according to a definite recipe. An authentic copy must be the exemplar, from which the transcriber ought not in the least to deviate. No word or letter, not even a yodh, must be written from memory, the scribe not having looked at the codex before him....Between every consonant the space of a hair or thread must intervene; between every word the breadth of a narrow consonant; between every parashah or section, the breadth of nine consonants; between every book three lines. The Fifth Book of Moses must terminate exactly with a line, but the rest need not do so. Beside this, the copyist (sōophēer) must sit in full Jewish dress, wash his whole body, not begin to write the name of God with a pen newly dipped in ink, and should a king address him while writing that name he must not take notice of him....The rolls in which these regulations are not observed are condemned to be buried in the ground or burned; or they are banished to the schools, to be used as reading books.2
2 Kenyon, Sir Frederick, Our Bible and the Ancient Manuscripts, rev. A. W. Adams (London: Eyre and Spottiswoode,1958), p 78f.
Just this care to destroy anything defective and thus to prevent the corruption of the text has also worked to deprive text critics and historians of any manuscript material copied between 70 and 1000. Even an accurate ceremonial scroll was either burned or buried after being soiled or torn. The scribes of Judaism were not motivated by a concern for history but by a zeal to keep God's revelation uncorrupted by scribal error and unsullied by careless treatment.
But if, as de Lagarde believed, all extant complete manuscripts derive from the single text at Jamnia, from what did that text derive? That is, were there various textual traditions upon which the Jamnia text (or the master text in Jerusalem) could have drawn and from which they selected readings? Were there other text traditions which had been passed by and rejected in the time before Christ? In 1616 Pietro delta Valla discovered the Samaritan Hebrew Pentateuch. It was published as a part of the Paris Polyglot in 1632. Scholars soon observed that in the Five Books there were about 6000 variations from the Masoretic Text. They also discovered that about one third of these variants could also be found in the Septuagint. This alignment of the Samaritan text with the Septuagint seemed to enhance the reliability of the Septuagint and to call into question the authenticity of the Masoretic Text. Kenyon says: "...In the Samaritan Pentateuch we have preserved a form of the Hebrew text of greater antiquity than that of any Hebrew manuscript..., when allowance has been made for deliberate alteration and the accidents of transmission, its readings must be reckoned with."3
A more recent find has added further considerations to this question. Among the scrolls found at Qumran are some which are more closely related to the Samaritan Text than to the Masoretic Text. Now, this does not prove that the Masoretic Text is wrong or that the Septuagint is more reliable than our Hebrew text. It does prove, however, that there was more than one text tradition in Palestine even while there was a master text in the temple of Jerusalem. It proves that there was more than one text tradition in existence at the time when the scholars of Jamnia began their work. It does not settle any question as to the reliability of any of the respective texts. And, let it be emphasized, no doctrine of Scripture is undercut or affected by any of those 6000 variants.
A discovery similar to that of the Samaritan Pentateuch in its significance is the fragment called the Nash Papyrus. Published by S.A. Cook in 1903, it has since been dated about 100 B.c. Some scholars have regarded it as part of a liturgy or lectionary rather than as a biblical fragment. Like the Samaritan text, it varies from the Masoretic, and where it varies it frequently agrees with the Septuagint.
One thing to remember in the matter of agreement with the Septuagint is that there was probably not just a single Greek translation of the Old Testament. We shall discuss this matter further in the section on translations of the Bible, but there is a body of evidence which suggests that Septuagint was a name applied to several translations and editions in order to give them the aura of authority which attached to the fabled 72 translators. Another way of saying it is, "Not every Greek translation of the Old Testament was the Septuagint." It is noteworthy in this connection that Jerome, working before 400, found little to question in the Hebrew text with which he was working. He never suggested that it might be one of several competing texts. While he found frequent and wide divergences in the manuscripts of the Latin and Greek translations with which he worked, the Hebrew text with which he worked was substantially the same as our Masoretic Text.
The work of the Masoretes was capped by the 10th century European rabbi, Aaron ben Moshe ben Asher. Ben Asher manuscripts provided the standard of excellence for accuracy and usefulness. In 1008 a copy of his text was made which now resides in Leningrad. It is the Codex Leningradensis, and the third edition of Kittel's Biblia Hebraica was based on it. Subsequent editions of Kittel-Kahle are substantially based on the third edition.
Another text which Ben Asher worked on and improved where it needed improving is the Aleppo Codex, copied between 900 and 950 A.D. The travels of this codex make a fascinating story in themselves. It was taken as plunder by the crusading Baldwin of Flanders in 1099, admired by Moses Maimonides at Cairo in the 12th century, moved to the Sephardic synagogue at Aleppo in northwest Syria in the 15th century, and reported destroyed in the fighting for Israel's independence in 1948. But the codex was not destroyed. It was rescued from a burning building and eventually found its way from Jordan to Israel. There it was consulted in the preparation of the Jerusalem Hebrew edition. 3 Ibid, p 93.
A source of readings for comparison when there are variants lies in the scriptural quotations which appear in the Talmud (the running and cumulative interpretation of the Law) and the targums (Aramaic commentaries on the Scriptures). Readings which appear in these, readings which are suggested by the Septuagint, readings which appear in the Samaritan Pentateuch, as well as readings found in the Masoretic Text are all represented in the scrolls and fragments found at Qumran in 1947 and in the years since.
We will not recount here the familiar story of the shepherd boy and his stone and the tinkling of broken pottery in a cave at the northwest end of the Dead Sea in 1947. What was found in that cave and in other caves at Qumran reduced the time between the oldest complete manuscripts and the writing of the Old Testament Scriptures by one thousand years. Codex Leningradensis and the Aleppo Codex belong to the 10th century A.D. The oldest pieces found at Qumran date from the 3rd century BC. The style of writing, the composition of the ink, the manner in which the pages were lined, the containers in which the scrolls had been placed, coins found with the scrolls—these and other evidences show that the biblical materials found at Qumran are at least 1000 years older than the oldest codices which represent the Masoretic Text.
In 1895 Sir Fredrick Kenyon had written in the first edition of Our Bible and the Ancient Manuscripts: "There is, indeed, no probability that we shall ever find manuscripts of the Hebrew text going back to a period before the formation of the text which we know as Masoretic."4 In the very year of the Qumran discovery a scholar despaired of doing further work in textual criticism with the materials at hand. He expressed the hope that the discovery of a few more manuscripts might shed light on a few more textual problems. By the time the archeologists had finished with Cave 4 at Qumran, every book except Esther was represented by at least fragments. The sifting and evaluating of this mass of material will occupy several generations of scholars and text critics.
Before Qumran it was assumed by many critics that any ancient textual find would prove the Masoretic text to be a confusion of errors. The Qumran Isaiah scroll was scrutinized and found to be in close agreement with the Masoretic Text. The translators of the Revised Standard Version (1952) adopted thirteen readings in all in which Qumran's Isaiah A deviates from the traditional text. One of the scholars involved, Dr. Miller Burrows, later expressed the view that in some cases the traditional text against which he voted ought to have been retained.
It might be well to say at this point that there are no textual variants in the Old Testament Scriptures that affect any doctrine. It is true that there are difficult passages and obscure expressions which could be readily understood if there were no difficulties with the text. But this does not shake the doctrines of the Word or the doctrine that the Word is reliable. Unreliable scribes and presumptuous "editors" may have made it more difficult for us to understand all the details of God's Word. But the fault does not lie with God's Word.
In 1516 and 1517 a Christian printer, Daniel Bomberg, cooperated with an editor who was a convert from Judaism, Felix Pratensis, to publish a rabbinical Bible. That is, they produced a work in which the Hebrew text was accompanied by targums and rabbinical commentary. This was the first printed Bible to have the official qere in the margins. The margins contained variants in addition to the qere readings. The second edition of this rabbinical Bible in 1524-25 was a great step toward obtaining the best possible text of the Hebrew Bible, because it took into account the work of the Tunisian refugee Jacob Ben Chayim. Paul Kahle, who carried forward the work of Rudolph Kittel, used Pratensis' 1524-25 edition along with fragments found in the Cairo Genizah as a resource for the third edition of the Kittel Biblia Hebraica. Incidentally, Luther used a Hebrew text which had been published in Brescia, Italy in 1494 for his translating work in the Old Testament.
The Text of the New Testament
4 Ibid, p 31.
There are about 5000 New Testament Greek manuscripts. Only about thirty of these are complete. Those thirty complete manuscripts and the thousands of incomplete manuscripts might be disappointing to us if we did not know that only Virgil of all ancient classical writers can begin to compare with the New Testament in re-gard to the availability of ancient manuscripts. In a sense, Virgil's works, especially the Aeneid, were religious writings. Part of his object was to breathe new life into dying paganism by recounting the divine origins of the Roman people. For some of Aeschylus' work there is only one ancient manuscript. A late manuscript of the poet Catullus was copied in the 15th century and then disappeared. In the 19th century, Westcott and Hort could say: "In the variety and fullness of the evidence on which it rests, the text of the New Testament stands absolutely and unapproachably alone among ancient prose writings."5
The oldest manuscript material for the New Testament reaches back into the 2nd century. The great find in New Testament texts as far as antiquity is concerned is the Chester Beatty collection of papyri, found in 1931. It consists of parts of biblical books copied in the 2nd to 4th centuries and discovered in Egypt. With a single exception these papyrus portions are in codex form. That is, they are not scrolls, which Jews and pagans alike used for literary works. Rather, they are in what we think of as book form, page on page, gathered into clusters of pages and bound. Long before that form was used for literature in the pagan world, it was used for copies of the Scriptures in Egypt.
Who taught the Christians in Alexandria that this was a good way to publish the apostolic Word? The theory is that first the Gospel of Mark—the shortest Gospel—circulated as a codex. The codex was easier to carry than a scroll, easier to refer to and, if necessary, to hide. The theory continues that a factual basis for the tradition that Mark founded the church at Alexandria is that his Gospel was the first Christian writing to arrive there. There, it is further theorized, copies were made; and not only was the writing copied, the codex form was also imitated. This then became the accepted form for all copies of all biblical writings, at least in Egypt. One more fascinating item here is that no manuscript found in Egypt or anywhere else, which can be dated in the 2nd or 3rd centuries, had writing on the recto side (the face) of the papyrus. The beginning of the book was not to be carelessly exposed to hostile eyes.
There were hostile eyes, of course, and this may account in part for the fact that there are no complete manuscripts from earlier than the 4th century. Before 250 there was no empire-wide policy of persecution against the Christian church; there were simply many local riots and suppressions directed against the believers. But in 303 an imperial edict of Diocletian and Galerius required that all Christian writings be turned over to the authorities for destruction. The losses to text history and to the history of doctrine during that period must have been considerable.
From the 4th to the 10th centuries come about 200 manuscripts, most of them fragmentary. They are of the type called uncials, so called because they were written with capital letters. Not only was there no punctuation but the words were not separated, there were no chapter and verse divisions, no breathing, no accents. Most familiar to us of these uncials is Codex Sinaiticus, discovered by G. F. C. Tischendorf in the monastery of Saint Catherine on Mount Sinai in 1844-56.6 This is a 4th century manuscript, containing the entire Bible, with the Old Testament in Greek. This has been designated Codex Aleph. It got that Hebrew letter under the system of sigla devised by Professor Caspar Rene Gregory. Tischendorf’s find occurred after the other major codices had already been assigned their letters and, because it is older than Alexandrinus (A), it received a letter which would signal its greater antiquity.
Codex Vaticanus is also 4th century and is designated by the letter B. It includes the Septuagint and the New Testament as far as Hebrews 9. The Pastoral Letters, Philemon and Revelation are missing. Erasmus became aware of this codex in the Vatican Library in 1533, but papal officials denied him access to it. In 1809 Napoleon took it as a prize of war and it was inspected by scholars in Paris. After its return, its use was again forbidden to even the most eminent scholars. Samuel P. Tregelles, the renowned English Bible scholar (1813-1875), was introduced to officials of the Vatican Library by a cardinal friend. He was permitted to examine the codex, but forbidden to carry any writing materials with him. The text has, however, been printed several times, and so it is available for scholars to read and make comparisons.
5 Source uncertain.
6 See "Tischendorf and the Greek New Testament Text, " by Armin J. Panning in Wisconsin Lutheran Quarterly 68:1 (January 1971).
As mentioned above, Codex A is Alexandrinus, 5th century. It includes the Septuagint and the Epistle of Clement, but there are several considerable gaps in the New Testament. In 1628 it was sent to Charles I of England by the Patriarch Cyrillus Lucaris of Constantinople. Of all the uncial codices, it is the first to have been used by modern Bible scholars. It arrived seventeen years too late for the translators of the King James Version to benefit from its use.
Codex C is Ephraemi. It dates from the 5th century, and what first meets the eyes is not a New Testament manuscript at all. It is a copy of a theological work by Ephraem the Syrian (d.372). In the 12th century someone wanted that work of Ephraem more than he wanted a copy of the New Testament. So, he scraped off the New Testament text and reused the parchment. The New Testament text of this palimpsest (reinscribed parchment) was recovered by eyestrain and chemical means in 1835. Of an original 238 leaves 145 remain; so this, too, is an incomplete codex.
The fifth of the great codices is D, Bezae, named for the Reformed theologian, Beza, who sent it to Canterbury in the 16th century. It contains only the Gospels and Acts, in Greek and Latin. It was probably produced in Southern Gaul, for it was found in a monastery at Lyons. It dates from the 6th century, which was the time when theological leadership in the West passed from North Africa to Southern Gaul. Beza did not use his precious possession in his critical work because it differed so much from the other texts in his possession.
None of these uncials are in complete and perfect agreement with one another in every detail of the text. The same is true of the minuscules, so called because they were written in lower case letters.
Where do variants come from? Anyone who has copied any material over a longer period of time has probably introduced variant readings into the material. If your eye passed over a word or phrase to another like it, you may have committed haplography, writing only once what should have been written twice. If a copyist writes twice what only appears once in the master copy, he has committed dittography. A hazard of the scribe as his eyes moved from the original to the copy and back was homoioteleuton. Where two phrases end in a similar way it is easy to omit one of them. Scribes working in a group in a scriptorium were involved in an early form of mass production. They did not have many copies to work from. They were supposed to produce many copies. So, a capable reader read from a single copy while a number of scribes took dictation. That could result in errors of hearing, where diphthongs such as ai and ei were confused; or when h(meij and u(meij were interchanged.
Some variants resulted from the copyist's attempts at "correction." They might attempt to harmonize the Gospels or the accounts of Paul's conversion. They might try to "improve" on a New Testament use of the Old by replacing the apostolic quotation with a Septuagint rendering or (less frequently) their own translation from the Hebrew. A combining of Gospel accounts, called conflation, may occasionally have been caused by the scribe's reference to Tatian's Diatessaron, the 2nd century harmony of the Four Gospels.
Tent criticism from Erasmus to the present
In Erasmus' first edition he shocked his contemporaries by omitting 1 John 5:7, the famous proof text for the doctrine of the Trinity. He knew it was in the Vulgate, but he could not find it in any Greek text of the eight which he was using. Objections were raised to his omission, and he rashly promised to restore the verse in his next edition if it could be found in any Greek manuscript. Such a manuscript was found in Dublin, late and worthless, but Erasmus inserted the reading into his second edition in 1519. Luther did not include the verse in his translation but others did, including the translators of the King James Version. As recently as 1897 the Vatican declared the passage authentic but reversed itself in 1937.
One of the great literary events of the 16th century was the publication of the Complutensian Polyglot, printed during the years 1514 to 1517. Sponsored by Francisco Jimenez de Cisneros, confessor to Queen Isabella, it appeared in six volumes. For the very first time all of the Bible appeared in Greek and Hebrew, along with a number of other ancient and modern languages. Its publication was delayed because the pope withheld his sanction until Jimenez should return certain books to the Vatican Library. That is how it came to pass that Erasmus' Greek New Testament gained great popularity just when the Complutensian Polyglot could have provided the reformers with a more critically sound Greek text.
Dr. Martin Luther used the second edition of Erasmus' New Testament for his translation, as did Tyndale. Erasmus did not have the earliest manuscripts, and he occasionally adjusted his readings to agree with the Vulgate (which he published with the Greek). Nevertheless, his text caught on and eventually became known as the Textus Receptus, which simply meant the commonly accepted text. This acceptance was firmly established by the 17th century when Bonaventura and Abraham Elzivir, brothers at Leyden, published a
neat and handy edition of Erasmus' text. The Textus Receptus type of text is called Byzantine or Imperial. It is a very large but late group manuscripts, represented mostly by cursives of the 10th century onward. It is signified by a Gothic K (for Koine) in the Nestle text and with Byz in the UBS text.
In the late 17th century John Mill of Oxford University reprinted a Stephanus text of 1550 and added variant readings from nearly 100 manuscripts, along with readings of various translations and the fathers. His work provided scholars, for the first time, with a broad base of textual evidence for comparison and critical analysis of New Testament texts. Because of this publication and because of the principles which he laid down in his prolegomena, Mill is regarded as the father of scientific textual criticism.
What Mill began was carried forward by a host of followers, most notably the 19th century text-critical scholars Westcott and Hort. Their edition of the New Testament, along with those of Tischendorf and Weymouth, underlie our Nestle text. In 1898 Eberhard Nestle published what he called a "resultant" text. He relied on the three aforementioned editions and, where they differed with one another, he went with the choice of the two who agreed. Incidentally, Weymouth had followed the same method.
Now, which texts are to be accorded the most respect? How do critical editors come to choose one reading over another? What should we think when we consider the sources of the variants which appear in the apparatus of our New Testament editions? Let us at least sketch the approach of Westcott and Hort to this question, while mentioning at the same time that their theories and methods have not found universal acceptance. The basic flaw in their approach is the assumption that some scribes handled the New Testament text "loosely" (by careless copying or arbitrary editing), because they did not regard the apostolic writings as God-given Scripture.
Westcott and Hort classified their sources into four general groupings: Syrian, Western, Alexandrian and Neutral. They regarded the Syrian grouping as least authoritative. None of the major codices represent this group and most of the readings appear as quotations in Chrysostom and a number of Antiochene fathers. In the fathers before 250 these particular readings do not appear. To abbreviate, Syrian readings are late in origin and therefore seemed less reliable to Westcott and Hort.
The Western group is represented in Latin versions and Codex D (Bezae). It is characterized by frequent additions and omissions. Manuscripts in this family contain whole verses or even longer passages which are not to be found in any other copies. According to Westcott and Hort, variants which show traces of this tendency of adding material must be rejected unless they are supported by readings in other groups.
The Alexandrian group is not represented by any one codex, but appears in parts of Alexandrinus (A), Ephraemi (C) and occasionally Sinaiticus (Aleph). These readings appear most frequently in the Alexandrine fathers. They are readings imposed by grammarians seeking to "improve" the Greek style, not the content of the text. They are not accorded much significance by Westcott and Hort and those who follow their methods.
Westcott and Hort believed that the Neutral Text best represents the original text of the New Testament. It is not characterized by the uniqueness of the Syrian, the tendency toward amplification of the Western or the grammatical concerns of the Alexandrian. Its main center was Alexandria, but it was not limited to that city, appearing in areas quite remote from the center of Egyptian Christianity. The principal authority cited for the Neutral Text is B (Vaticanus). It is frequently supported by Aleph (Sinaiticus). According to Westcott and Hort, where Vaticanus, Sinaiticus and others of the Neutral family concur, they are to be trusted even when a majority of other texts disagree. This theory of text selection was of considerable influence in the text-critical decisions of the men who produced the RSV and the NEB. The approach of the men who translated the New Testament for NIV has been characterized as "eclectic" with respect to following these canons of Westcott and Hort.
At Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary students are taught to consider the external evidence when they evaluate variant readings. Specifically, which reading is most ancient and widespread? Readings from the first six centuries which appear in texts from most regions of the early church are most likely to retain the reading of the autograph. This "ancient and widespread" approach avoids the error of settling subjectively on a single manuscript or group of manuscripts as more reliable than all others. It recognizes that there is no way to prove superior reliability in an objective manner. It is willing to examine all the available evidence without prejudging.
Such an approach does not predispose the reader in favor of manuscripts of the Byzantine text-type which, although they constitute one half of the total, are all very late. Neither does this approach predispose the reader to manuscripts of the Alexandrian text-type which, although they are all early, constitute only a small fraction of the total witnesses.
Since the external evidence, what is "ancient and widespread," will not always be conclusive, the reader must also consider the internal evidence. Here context, the linguistic usage, the possibility of a copyist's error or an editorial alteration come into consideration. Because there is a subjective element in such analysis, it should not be undertaken apart from prior consideration of the external evidence.
It has been said that in 95% of the variants, the correct reading is easily established. Of the remaining 5%, 95% do not materially affect the sense. Professor John Schaller wrote in 1924 that there were about 150,000 variants and that of these about 400 affect the meaning of the text, and that of these about 50 in all were important. Then he wrote: "Not one article of faith and not one exhortation to godliness of life is changed or eliminated."7 There have been additional manuscript finds and the number of variants has increased, but the judgment expressed by Professor Schaller in 1924 is still valid.
III. The Use And Interpretation Of Scripture
"Turn it and turn it, for all is in it." That advice of the rabbis expressed the attitude of the people of Israel to the Scriptures, and it described the activity of the Jews who took the Law and the Prophets seriously. The very act of reading the Scriptures was considered to be an act of piety. To provide centers for the study of the Scriptures as well as for worship, the Jews in exile and in the dispersion established and maintained synagogues. It was in connection with these synagogues that the Jews introduced an ideal of universal education for boys from age six onward. While other ancient civilizations limited educational opportunities to the privileged few, the Jews in 70 B.C. were establishing schools for orphan boys.
Jewish biblical interpretation
Because Hebrew was no longer the everyday language of the Jewish people, Aramaic translations and interpretative paraphrases, known as Targums, were developed. It also became customary to comment on the portion of Scripture which had been read. Before the time of Jesus' ministry, interpreters of the Torah had begun to accumulate a body of systematic exegesis which attempted to connect and justify contemporary customs and beliefs with Scripture. The result was the Mishnah (remembrance), a practical summary of applied biblical law. Some of its contents are probably representative of that "tradition of the elders" to which Jesus referred when he condemned those who used those traditions in a way that undercut God's Word. The present form of the Mishnah probably dates from about 200 A.D.
The Mishnah constitutes the first part of the Talmud, which the 19th century German hebraist Franz Delitzsch called "a vast debating club in which there hum confusedly the myriad voices of at least five centuries."8 The American church historian Philip Schaff called it "a rabbinical Bible without inspiration, without the Messiah, without hope."9 The second part of the Talmud was produced by subjecting the Mishnah itself to further commentary. This is the Gemara (Aramaic for "sayings"), which discusses, explains, and amplifies the Mishnah. As a matter of fact we should not be speaking of Talmud or Gemara as singular. There was a Jerusalem or Palestinian Talmud, for which the Gemara was completed about 350 A.D. There was also a Babylonian Talmud, for which the Gemara was completed about 550 A.D. The legal opinions and counsels of hundreds of rabbis are offered on the subjects of agriculture, Sabbath and festival observance, marriage, congregational life, sacrifices, and travel.
7 Schaller, John, The Book of Books: A Brief Introduction to the Bible for Christian Teachers and Readers (St.Louis: Concordia 1924), pp 287f.
8 Cited in Schaff, Philip, History of the Christian Church (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans,1968), Vol II, p 39.
Jewish biblical and legal scholarship did not end with the completion of the Talmud. While the Talmud was in development and after its completion, another body of literature was being compiled. From the root darash (rub, beat, tread, thresh) came the term applied to homiletical and legal interpretations of the Old Testament: midrash. The term is applied to all extracanonical and extratalmudic literature up to the 13th century. The homiletical material consists of rabbinical legends, anecdotes, and parables. The homilies are hag-gadoth, "things related." The legal interpretations establish traditional practices and rules which are not provided in the earlier talmudic writings. They are called halakoth.
Now, it is important for the history of Bible interpretation that the rabbis who gathered and contributed to Talmud and Midrash asserted the basic hermeneutical principle: No verse of Scripture can lose its literal (plain, simple) meaning. For the sake of homiletical invention, however, it was permitted to attach a figurative meaning to the literal sense. We shall hear later of a Jew who used that method and developed it to the utmost, and of the Christian theologians who learned from him to misuse and misinterpret the Old Testament.
Early Christian use of the Scriptures
But while the Jews wove ever more tightly the veil which hides Christ from the legalist, how were Christians using the Old Testament? There are those who believe that before any of the books of the New Testament were written, the apostles and others were using a Christian "Book of Testimonies," a selection of Old Testament passages which prophesied, foreshadowed, or typified Christ. So their use of such a book and their reason for compiling it would have been to show that the Old Testament "urges Christ," and that Jesus of Nazareth must be the fulfillment of the messianic hope which the Old Testament fostered.
Whether such a "Book of Testimonies" existed or not, we do know that the Holy Spirit moved the authors of the New Testament to use the Old in just that way. Long before Augustine ever expressed it, they were practicing the axiom:
The New Testament is latent in the Old.
The Old Testament becomes patent in the New.
The Apostolic Fathers, for 150 years after the resurrection, also did a major part of their exegetical work on the Old Testament, trying to demonstrate —as the apostolic writers had —that the Law and the Prophets and the Writings find their real significance in Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ.
But the Scriptures were not only central in the studies of theologians. They also had a central place in the public worship of the church. It is most likely that Tatian's Diatessaron (c. 170), the harmonization of the four Gospels, served the same purpose in the worshiping congregation that our seven harmonized readings for the Lenten Season serve. The Psalms had been used in the temple liturgy and sung in the synagogues, and that portion of the Scripture was used with hymns and spiritual songs in the church's worship from the beginning. It is possible that the Psalms were used in a triennial course. Justin Martyr's account of second century worship states that a Psalm was sung between the reading of the Gospel and the reading of the Prophet. It was probably after the codex form came into general use that the lectern for the reading of the Scriptures was invented. Incidentally, we are told that in the early medieval church the lector would place the massive Book on a desk to avoid muscular strain on his chest and thus allow his diaphragm full play to project his reading voice.
Use of the Bible by the laity
How many copies of the New Testament or its portions were available for reading by ordinary Christians in the early centuries of the church's history we cannot know. We have seen that the universal acceptance of the canon was a gradual process, and we know that publishing was actually the distribution of hand-copied texts. But we need not assume that the lay Christian's only contact with the Bible was in hearing it read at the Lord's House. After 321, a series of Christian emperors made universal education one of their goals, and it is safe to say an increasing number of believers at least had the ability to read the Scriptures for their own edification. In that century, the fourth, there were writers who assumed that lay Christians could get the Bible for personal study if they wanted it. John Chrysostom told his people in Constantinople to procure at least the New Testament. In 6th-century Gaul, well after the Germanic invasions had disrupted the Empire and closed down much educational enterprise, Caesarius of Arles could urge his flock to buy the Bible and read it at home in the long winter evenings. There is no hint that there might be a shortage of copies or that they might be terribly expensive.
Then came the Dark Ages, when reading was something that only monks (and not all of them) learned to do. Books were burned by Norse invaders, children went without letters, Catholicism saw little reason to encourage people to read what might lead them to question the church's doctrines and practices. Charlemagne revived the dream of universal literacy for his European empire, but it remained only a dream. His successors did not share it or could not carry it out. When, at various times in the Middle Ages, movements for lay Bible reading sprang up, they were usually associated with heresy—sometimes justifiably.
As we shall see in the lecture on the translation and dissemination of Scripture, it could be a dangerous undertaking to translate the Bible and place it into the hands of the people. One of the truly heretical movements which did encourage Bible reading was the Albigensian or Catharist religion, in the 11th to 13th centuries. Their Manichaean dualism and resultant extreme asceticism, but especially their anti-Roman Catholic stance, brought down on them a crusade, then an all-out war, and finally the Inquisition. It also led to the decrees of the Council of Toulouse in 1229, which forbade lay people in the south of France to read the Scriptures in any language whatsoever. In 1234 the Council of Tarragona decreed that neither priest nor layman should read the Bible in the Romance dialect of southern France. Similar prohibitions arose elsewhere, although there was never a universal decree on the part of the Roman Catholic Church directed against all use of the Bible by all lay people.
We know now that the medieval Bible was chained to protect it from the people rather than to protect the people from it. Still, Luther once wrote, describing the period when he was a university student: "When I was twenty years old I had not seen a (whole) Bible. I believed there to be no more to it than the Gospel and Epistle pericopes which were read in church. Those traditional pericopes...are often a rather poor guide to what is central in Scripture."10 A few years later he was in a position to do something about the general ignorance of the people (and many of the clergy) regarding the Scriptures. The contemporary who provided him with a Greek text to be translated into German, Erasmus, wrote in his First Edition in 1516: "I vehemently dissent from those who would not have private persons read the Holy Scriptures, nor have them translated into the vulgar tongue....I would wish all women, girls even, to read the Gospels and the Letters of Paul. I wish they were translated into all languages of all peoples."11
Thirty years later, at Trent, the Spanish Cardinal Pacheco and his theologians put the Spanish attitude toward Bible reading by the laity on record. They called vernacular Bibles the mothers of heresy. It was pointed out to them that the Catholics of Italy, Poland, and Germany would not accept an outright prohibition of Bible reading. It was likewise recognized that the hierarchies of Spain and France would not accept a decree which permitted Bible reading by the laity. The Council finally got off the horns of the dilemma by suggesting that where the vernacular Bible was already in use, only portions like the Psalms and Acts should be allowed. On no account should the people read the Epistles and Revelation without supervision. It was further decided that all versions should be officially annotated.
10 WA, TR, III, 599, n. 3767.
11 Goodspeed, Edgar J., How Came the Bible? (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1940), p 91.
In Protestant lands, when lay people were taught to read, it was for the express purpose that they should be able to read God's Word. The Bible was the basic component in elementary education, and much of it was learned by heart. It helped to shape the vernacular languages of Europe. In Geneva, to encourage Bible reading, all citizens were to be provided with at least an elementary education. In France, Spain, and Italy the Catholic Church followed the Protestant example, but not so that more people could read their Bibles. Rather, the interest in a more widespread literacy was to keep the citizenry of those Catholic countries from falling too far behind their Protestant counterparts in the knowledge needed for commerce.
In America the foundations of education were laid by the Calvinist Puritans of New England. In 1642 the legislature of the Massachusetts Bay Colony passed a law requiring all parents to give their children elementary education. In 1647 a second law required each town of at least 50 families to provide an elementary school teacher. The other New England colonies established similar town schools. In every case the object was first of all that people know how to read God's Word.
The New England theocracy was a new attempt to build a City of God along biblical lines, and that was in the best Calvinistic tradition. Calvin's organization of church and state at Geneva, and the blurring of the lines of distinction between the two of them, had been an attempt to establish a Bible-based society. Calvin was not alone in this attempt. At Muenster in 1534 the Anabaptists used force of arms to establish a theocratic kingdom. A decade earlier, Anabaptist delegates from a wide area had met in Waldshut to legislate a morality derived from the Bible.
But long before the Reformation, whole people tried to place their history into a biblical context and to establish their cultures along biblical lines. For example, when Alfred the Great of England (871901) drew up his legislative code, he began by enacting the Mosaic laws of Exodus 20 to 23. The royal genealogies traced the descent of the old English kings back through the Germanic heroes, through Odin to Noah and Methuselah, and thus back to Adam. The Frisian people rearranged their chronologies to make them conform with the sequence of events in the Old Testament. The Bible was the basic book of medieval European culture.
Monastic, scholastic, and artistic use of the Scriptures
As far as the monastics and the clergy were concerned, two ways of reading the Scriptures were practiced during the Middle Ages. The one was the way of the contemplative monk, lectio divina. The purpose here was to taste and savor the Word of God, to strengthen the contemplative life, and to strive for closer union with God. This use of the Scriptures was devotional rather than informational or educational. It was not far removed from what Gerard Groot and his Brethren of the Common Life, along with other mystics, later tried to encourage in the approach to Scripture known as devotio moderna.
The second way to approach Scripture developed somewhat later in the Middle Ages. It was the way of the scholastics. There, the Bible text was pagina sacra, the sacred page. In order to gain light on intellectual and moral problems, questions were addressed to the Scriptures: "It is asked," and "It remains to be asked." The matter was then disputed on the basis of what can be known from Scripture and what might be deduced with the help of whatever philosophical system the master followed. The devotio moderna, and mysticism generally, were in part, reactions to such a "talmudic" approach to the Bible.
In the latter part of the 12th century a Paris master, Peter Comestor, produced the Historia Scholastica. In it he recounted the whole biblical history, drew upon nonbiblical writers who had been contemporary with the writers of the events of the Bible, and at the appropriate places inserted the histories of the Persians, Greeks, and Romans. The book did not always enjoy high esteem in the universities, but it remained popular throughout the Middle Ages. Chaucer was familiar with it.
In the universities all the Scriptures were glossed, that is, commented upon. The parts most glossed, however, were the Psalms, the Pauline Letters, and the creation account. The Psalms were an important part of the monastic life since they were used several times a day at the canonical hours. Those who chanted them wanted to understand better what they were chanting. The interest in Paul and in Genesis evidences a concern with doctrine.
We are accustomed to thinking of cathedral and church art—statuary, painting, windows—as the Bible of the illiterate. That was true, and it was not done first in Europe. Constantinople (later Byzantium) adapted many forms of art from the East and integrated them into the service of proclaiming the great Bible truths. Even before Byzantium and its Christian emperors, by 200, the Christian congregation at Dura-Europos in Mesopotamia worshiped in a building whose walls held paintings which represent scenes from the New Testament. One hundred or more years before that, biblical themes were depicted in symbolic form in the catacombs. The desire to make the Bible live for the people of Christendom issued in literature, drama, and painting. Literature and painting came together in the illuminated manuscripts. In the late Middle Ages a "Biblia Pauperum" circulated in manuscript form and was block printed in the mid-15th century. About 40 pages long, it depicted the story of salvation with many pictures and minimal text—a king of "Bible Comics."
Tools for Bible study
There are many tools which we use in our study of the Scriptures which have not always been available to those who meditated on God's Word. We will mention only a few, to honor the men who produced them and to demonstrate how relatively late in the history of the Bible many of these taken-for-granted tools made their appearance.
It was the Masoretes who gradually developed the system of vowel points, accents, and punctuation which are now a part of our Hebrew Bibles. They realized that in the diaspora more and more pronunciations were being called into question. To preserve the pronunciation in a form which they regarded as correct, and thus to preserve the correct sense, the Masoretes began to mark up the consonantal text. These markings became so much an accepted part of the Hebrew text that when Elijah ben Asher Levita (ca. 1500) suggested that the vowel points were not really integral elements of the autographs, he stirred up a controversy that raged for three centuries.
The Spaniard Menahem ben Saruk (910 ca. 970) compiled the first complete lexicon for the Hebrew Bible. He made the error of reducing all verbal roots to or two letters. A generation later Judah ben David Hayyuj (ca. 940-ca. 1010) corrected the error and established the trilateral law of Hebrew verb roots. He was also largely responsible for developing the conjugations which modern Hebrew grammars employ. Konrad Pellicanus (d. 1556) was the first Christian to produce a Hebrew grammar (1504). His work was supplanted in 1506 by that of the humanist Johannes Reuchlin. It was Reuchlin who resisted the effort, spearheaded by a convert from Judaism, Pfefferkorn, to have all Jewish writings destroyed.
The most popular commentary of the Middle Ages was the Glossa Ordinaria of Walafrid Strabo, the squinting Abbot of Reichenau in the early 9th century. A Jewish commentator who made an enduring contribution to the study of the Old Testament, particularly the Pentateuch, was Rabbi Solomon ben Issac of Troyes (1040-1096). He was often referred to as Rashi, from the initial letters of his title, his given name and his father's name. Christian exegetes from his day to at least the time of the King James Version drew upon his work. One of those who was very dependent on him was the commentator so often referred to by Luther: Nicholas of Lyra (1270-1340). According to a popular saying, "If Lyra had not played, Luther would not have danced, and the whole world would have gone to perdition."
An indispensable aid in finding our way through the Scriptures is the division into chapters and verses. The chapter divisions were first applied to the Vulgate, early in the 13th century. Some ascribe this work to Hugo Cardinal de Sancto Caro, others to Stephen Langton, archbishop of Canterbury. The chapter divisions with which we are acquainted did not appear in a Hebrew test until the 15th century. They were borrowed from the Vulgate for the convenience of Christian readers of the Hebrew Scriptures. About 1550 (300 years after the chapter divisions), Robert Stephanus (Etienne) divided the chapters into verses. Unfortunately, this influential printer set off each verse as a paragraph. This has led many people to regard each verse in isolation, and what that has meant in terms of ignoring context and founding new sects we cannot measure. The Antwerp Polyglot (1569-72) was the first edition of the Hebrew Bible to mark the verses with Arabic numerals.
Another invaluable aid in Bible study is the atlas. Eusebius of Caesarea, in the early 4th century, had written a book on the geographical names of the Bible: Concerning the Place Names Which Appear in the Divine Scripture. But there were no maps in the book. In the last years of the same century, Jerome amplified Eusebius' work in his Book concerning the Situation and Names of Jewish Places. Jerome's contemporary, Augustine, expressed appreciation for this work, but asked for a work "which would carefully classify and accord individual treatment to the geographical localities, the flora and fauna, and the stones and unknown metals of Scripture . . . ."12 He was asking for a Bible dictionary. We do not know how soon good maps were available for a biblical atlas, but we do know that Augustine's plea for a Bible dictionary was not answered for 1200 years. In 1625 Johann Heinrich Alsted published his Triumphus Bibliorum Sacrorum seu Encyclopaedia Biblica, at Frankfurt.
The first concordances were somewhat like a modern topical concordance in that they grouped parallel or related passages, rather than listing verses in which a particular word is used. Each group of passages constituted a concordantia. The first producer of a concordance may have been Anthony of Padua in the 12th century, who drew up his Concordantiae Morales on the basis of the Vulgate. The first concordance on the complete English Bible was that of John Marbek in 1550. Four years before that the first concordance of the Greek New Testament was published at Basel, the work of Sixtus Birk, also known as Xystus Betuleius. Isaac Nathan ben Kalonymous of Arles completed the first concordance of the Hebrew Old Testament in 1448.
One ingenious aid to the study of the Gospels, which still appears in the Nestle text, was the system devised by Eusebius of Caesarea. It was a system of cross references, based on the Gospel harmony of Ammonius of Alexandria. Ammonius divided the Gospel of Matthew into 355 sections, Mark into 236, Luke into 342 and John in 232. The number of each Ammonian section appears in the inner margin of the Nestle text. In order to enable the reader to see parallels and compare the various gospel accounts, Eusebius drew up ten tables or lists, called canons. The first contained the numbers of all the sections common to all four Gospels, arranged in parallel columns. The second, third, and fourth tables gave the sections common to three Gospels. Tables 5 through 9 gave those which are common to two, and the 10th gave those contained in only one Gospel. These "Canons of Eusebius" are to be found on pages 33-37 of the introductory material in Nestle.
Continued in Part II