By Ian Hodge
Being a pastor, I have a great interest in Biblical studies. One of the most interesting areas of study for me is how the Christian Bible came together, and what records we have of the transmission of the texts that make up the Christian Bible. Since there is a fair amount of misinformation out there, as well as a fair amount of misunderstanding of the evidence available, I thought I would take a few minutes to brighten your day with some nerdy facts about the Bible that you likely have on your shelf. After all, by most counts the Bible is the most widely printed book in history!
Myth #1: How can we know what the Bible originally said? It’s been translated so many times!
Actually, your English Bible has only been translated once. This is because we have ancient manuscripts of the Bible (or more usually, parts of the Bible) in the languages they were originally written in. The Old Testament was written almost entirely in Hebrew, and the New Testament almost entirely in Greek. Modern day translations of the Bible into English are made directly from this pool of manuscripts.
Myth #2: Okay, what I really meant is how can we know what the Bible really said, there are so many different manuscripts!
The first thing to note is that the Bible is unusual among ancient literature in how many manuscripts have survived, and in how ancient the surviving manuscripts are. Compare Aristotle’s writings to the Bible – the earliest copy of Aristotle we have dates to about 1,400 years after Aristotle lived, and we only have 5 copies. The New Testament, on the other hand, has about 5,300 copies in ancient Greek alone, and some of those copies are separated from the original by less than 100 years!
Now there are many points of disagreement between these manuscripts, but the vast majority of these are things like “Christ Jesus” being reversed to “Jesus Christ.” In all, there are about 50 variant readings of significance, and of these none affect any significant Christian doctrine.
Myth #3: Fine, but Constantine is the one who put the New Testament together at Nicea anyway to hold his empire together, not out of any religious concern.
Constantine is a pretty polarizing figure both inside and outside of Christianity. However, this description of his role at Nicea is more conspiracy theory than historical research. Constantine did indeed call and encourage the council, but there is no evidence that he made any contribution to recognizing New Testament books as canonical. Further, as Bruce Metzger argues in The Canon of the New Testament: Its Origin, Development, and Significance, there was already widespread agreement throughout most of the Christian church as to what books were authoritative and which were of secondary importance. Again, clearly recorded by the church historian Eusebius living in the 3rd to 4th centuries, books cemented in the New Testament canon were identified as those somehow connected to the original Apostles.
For more information, starting with a more critical position, you might take a look at Bart Ehrman’s book “The Corruption of the New Testament,” but make sure you follow up with Dan Wallace’s book “Revisiting the Corruption of the New Testament.”
Ian Hodge is pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Lemon Cove. He may be reached by calling 559-597-2249.
Prays Together is a rotating column between the pastors of the First Presbyterian Church of Exeter, Church of Christ of Exeter, Nazarene Church of Exeter, Church of God of Exeter, the New Life Assembly of God and Rocky Hill Community Church as well as the Lemon Cove Presbyterian Church.
This column is not a news article but the opinion of the writer and does not reflect the views of The Foothills Sun-Gazette newspaper.