How We Got Our Bible -- Part 7: How the New Testament Came About

Review:

 Last week we finished our very detailed study of how we got the Old Testament -- the languages used, and the primary source documents: The Septuagint and the Masoretic Texts.

I then described the modern versions that depend on the weaker sources, which include the King James and its direct descendants, the New King James and the American Standard Version.   And I pointed out that if you are going to use them for detailed word studies, you are at risk of researching the wrong root words.

We concluded with the two modern versions that most closely relate to the best known source documents and which are word by word translations.   Remember that there are three general translation methods for Biblical work:

  1. Word by word or literal translations.  Dave Westley made the point that there is no such thing as a true word by word translation, since many words do not have exact equivalents in another language.   But those translations that attempt to translate every word accurately are called literal, or word by word translations.
  2. Concept translations, or thought for thought translations, where the translators attempted to understand the idea or thought in the original language and then express that thought in the new language.
  3. Paraphrased translations, where the idea is expressed an a way that will make it more understandable, but no attempt is made to stay to the original words, or even to a thought by thought translation.

As you can guess, there are translations all the way from literal on the very conservative side of the scale to variations mixing the two or three styles of translation.   If you want a Bible that is easy to read, then the less rigorous translations are better.  If you want a research Bible, one that you can actually study the original language words from, you need a literal, word by word translation.

The most accurate of the word by word translations among our modern translations are the Revised Standard Version (RSV) of 1952, and the New American Standard Bible (NASB) or (NAS) of 1971.   They are actually descendants of the King James Bible, but have been improved and corrected to the best original texts.

Today's Lesson: The History of the New Testament:

Now letís turn our attention to the New Testament.  Letís get a feel for how it came about, and why we can depend on it as we have it today.

The Old Testament was written over a period of several thousand years.  The first evidence of starting to collect and record the writings is in the time of Ezra and Nehemiah. It was about 460 B.C. that formal chronicles started to be kept.  But before that, it is clear that many of the books of the Old Testament were in some form of recording.   Job is thought to be the earliest book written, and it is estimated to be a few thousand years earlier than Ezra and Nehemiah.   This extended time frame makes the information we have more subject to transcription error and of course the translation errors that we spent so much time on.

In contrast, the opposite is true of the New Testament.   When was the New Testament Written?   Between about 30 A.D. and 96 A.D.  The first three Gospels were written within only a few years of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.  They were each written by contemporaries of Jesus, and they were being circulated while many of the eye witnesses to the events were still alive and there to dispute any errors.   The 4th Gospel, John, was also written by a contemporary of Jesus, but probably several years later, perhaps around 65 A.D.

The letters of Paul were all written within about 20 years of the crucifixion -- again, subject therefore to critical analysis by people who were there with Jesus, alive at the time.

The latest book of the Old Testament may well be Revelation which many think was written around 95 or 96 A.D.

The important thing here is not exactly when each of the books was written, but that they were all written within a very short span of time.   They were being circulated and used by the early Christian gatherings while the authors were still alive and available for them to question, which they did.   In fact, some of the books of the New Testament quote and reference other books of the New Testament.  If any of the writers refuted anything in the books, they had ample real time opportunity to challenge it, and they did not.   And there were a lot of people alive while the books were being circulated, who would have had current knowledge of the events.   So we get a lot of confidence about the information in them, that is was accurately recorded.

Another important thing to realize is that within the books, New Testament Scripture is quoted parallel with, and given equal authority with the Old Testament Scriptures.   The New Testament writers considered the New Testament writings to have the same Word of God authority as the Old Testament.  And that also was not challenged.

The Source Language:

What language was the New Testament written in?   It was in Koine Greek, common Greek, not in Attic or the Classical Greek of Homer's Iliad, readable only by scholars.

The point here is that the writings were available to the common people to read.  If there were factual errors, anyone could have challenged them.  They were not in some secret priestly language hidden from full public disclosure.

History indicates that by early in the second century, early churches were using a group of these writings, virtually the same books as we have today, for study.   The exception to that are the books of 2nd Peter and the Book of James.  These two books are not referenced in the early correspondence of the Church leaders.   Different Churches quibbled about a few of the other books over the years.   The disputed books included 2nd & 3 John, James, Jude, Hebrews and Revelation.   Various of the early Churches also used some other books which were ultimately dropped.  We will get to that a little latter in this study.   There was no big council to decide what books to use.  The eyewitnesses used the ones that were real, the ones that accurately described the events.  The real canon of the New Testament was in use by the early church.

Manuscripts means hand-written:

Letís stop a minute and think about how the New Testament writers did this.  We sometimes forget the obstacles that were in their way.  They did not have word processors, at least like our computers.  They did not have copy machines, at least like we have.  They did not even have tape recorders in the first century.  Every document had to be hand written; every copy had to be hand copied, a very laborious manual chore, which is why they are called manuscripts.

It should not surprise you that there were people especially trained to do the written recording -- what we might call stenographers, or scribes. The name for these people was Emanuencies.  Today we would call them a secretary, or a speechwriter, or an editor.  They had special writing skills, including shorthand!   The Greek term is Hyperetes, which literally means an under-rower or an assistant.  This term had a very specialized meaning.  It was a profession with special skills.

Something else happens in Second Timothy 4:13.  Paul mentions membranae, which is a Latin word translated into Greek.  It refers to a parchment notebook. Remember the oldest form of writing was on papyrus, which was in effect a form of paper. They took reeds and beat them and laid them down in two directions to make papyrus. Typically you wrote on one side only, where you're going with the grain. On the backside it was very rough, so it wasn't written on both sides.  They would take this papyrus and stitch them side-by-side into a scroll 20 or 30 feet long and roll it up.  That was the standard form of writing until this period.  The first century B.C. to the first century A.D. is where codices start showing up.  Where you have pages written on two sides stitched together on one edge to create sort of a book of pages, that is called a codex. Very quickly this became adopted because it was much smaller and more convenient -- easier to get to the page you want, and that sort of thing.

So codices were starting to show up, and Paul apparently asked Timothy to bring him his parchment notebook.  What was starting to change the technology was the fact that they were starting to use animal skins which could be stretched and smoothed, and they could be written on, on two sides.

Abbreviations:

Now something else that you think about when you think of their technology, and thatís abbreviations.  If you are going to talk about Deoxyribo-Nucleic Acid, or especially if you are going to have to write about it a lot, I am willing to bet that you would just write DNA. When we talk about DNA, we don't try to pronounce that long complicated word we just say DNA.

If we were going to talk a lot about the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, how often would we say that?  Once, maybe. From then on it would be NATO.  We indulge in abbreviations and acronyms.

It may surprise you to discover that our behavior in that regard follows a mathematical law.  A lexicographer in the '30s by the name of George Zipf discovered that if you take a large body of text and take the vocabulary in that text and count the number of times each word appears in rank order, the most frequent word first and then the second most frequent and so on, -- if you multiply the rank order by the number of occurrences, you form a constant, at least approximately so.  And that is called zips law.   It turns out that if you deviate from that you are spending more effort than you need to, so some mathematicians call it the principal of least effort.  It's a mathematical law.  It's also true of phonings, or sounds that we use as we start using things of an adequate frequency.  We find ways to compress them. It's just instinctive  It that turns out to be very important in cryptology, and in linguistics.

You may think that we have gone far afield from our subject of how the writers wrote the New Testament.   But the early manuscripts show that they are full of abbreviations for the more commonly used words, like God, Lord, Christ etc.   So not only did they have shorthand, but they made broad use of abbreviations to make their job of recording the events more feasible.

Reliability:

I have indicated that we are very confident of the text of our New Testament.  It would be reasonable to ask why.

  1. We have more than 6000 copies of the Greek New Testament, or portions of it. To put that into perspective, the most copies of any of the Greek classics that we have from antiquity is Homer's Iliad, and there only about 650 of those in existence.  We have 10 times that many copies or portions of copies of the Greek New Testament.  By those standards we have an enormous amount of documented historical copies of the Greek New Testament.
  2. The lapse of time that existed between the writing and the creation of the texts in classical Greek books approaches 1000 years.  The lapse for New Testament documents is less the lifetime of the writers.  See the difference? All of these things provide substantial confidence in what we have.
As you get into these documents let's highlight three codices that are considered by scholars to be the oldest complete copies of the Greek New Testament.  They all emerge originally from Alexandria.
  1. The oldest one is is Codex Vaticanus.  It has been in the Vatican library for a long time, at least since 1481, but was not made available to scholars until the middle of the 1800s.  Its dated about 325 A.D., and is regarded by many as one on the most reliable copies of the Greek New Testament.
  2. The next one is Codex Sinaiticus.  In about 1830, a German scholar discovered this one in Saint Catherine's monastery which is at the base of the traditional site of Mount Sinai, and that's why it is called the Codex Sinaiticus.  It has been dated just slightly after the Codex Vaticanus.  These are the two oldest manuscripts of the New Testament.
  3. A third one is called the Codex Alexandrinus. In about 1630 it was brought to England and was dated to the 400's and contains the entire New Testament.
Because these codices are the oldest complete copies of the Greek New Testament, they have tended to eclipse other sources as an authority.  They have recently become very controversial, for some reasons we will talk about.  Remember less than one percent of the New Testament is under competent dispute.  And of the passages under dispute none impact basic doctrine.  But there are valid controversies about the application of these three early manuscripts.

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Next week:

I will get into the "Scandal" of the New Testament, and we will learn how to judge New Testament Versions.   We will also trace the New Testament down to the modern English translations that we have today.