Behind the Book

2 Timothy 3:16-17


Have you ever wondered how the Bible came to be? Who wrote it; why some books made it in and others didn’t; how it made it from the handwritten manuscripts of the original authors to your beautiful leather-bound, gold-edged volume that is the largest selling book in all of human history?


A couple of years ago our Wednesday night Bible class did a study of that subject in pretty extensive detail. It was enlightening to see how we came to receive this remarkable book in the form it is in today. In spite of all the modern day critics who talk about lost books of the Bible and politically driven church councils that ramrodded their agendas and suppressed the truth, you can have confidence that the book you possess is the very Word of God, inspired by the Holy Spirit and exactly what God intended for us to read.


I want to take some time this morning to talk about the background behind the Bible. I’m not going to give you the whole load of information, but a small portion – enough that you will have a sense of the incredible story of how we got the Bible, and why we can have confidence in the Bible as being the very Word of God.


Let’s begin by talking a little bit about ancient books.


The oldest forms of writing were Sumerian cuniform tablets, followed by Egyptian hieroglyphics. They were inscribed or chiseled into stone or clay tablets, and we have examples of these that are over 5,000 years old. The writing we have is as diverse as warehouse inventory lists to the Code of Hammurabi or the Rosetta Stone. Ancient writers also used wood planks and leather hides to write upon and we have numerous examples of biblical writings recorded on all of these materials.


But perhaps the most common writing material in the ancient world was papyrus – a paper made from reeds that have been stripped and pressed together in sheets and dried. It was the common writing element for a thousand years, and there are thousands of surviving texts from the Bible upon this material. Depending on the value of what was written on it, you might find this papyrus rolled in scrolls or bound in books called codices.


If a writing was especially valuable, it might be written upon parchment or vellum, which is very fine sheepskin. If it was very common or ordinary, it might be written upon shards of pottery. The writing instruments would vary from chisels and styluses to quills or pens.


The Bible was written with every imaginable writing instrument on every possible writing surface and there are examples of all of them dating across a 3,000 year period of time.


But where and when did the Bible actually have its birth? We can’t circle a day on the calendar or precisely locate a spot on the map and say, “Here it began.” In fact, the Bible was written over a period of more than 1600 years by forty different writers in three different languages in different locations all across the Mediterranean world. It is in reality a collection of writings with a remarkable cohesiveness and unity of theme and content that would be impossible if not for the inspirational work of the Holy Spirit. The apostle Peter writes: Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation. For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. (2 Peter 1:20-21) The Bible, while written by human writers, is authored by God himself, inspired by his Holy Spirit. The apostle Paul writes of scripture: All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. (2 Tim 3:16-17)


At first, God communicated orally through people. He spoke directly to such men as Adam, Noah, Abraham and Joseph. The first person mentioned in the Bible as writing anything is Moses, who lived around 1500 B.C. The first five books of the Bible are attributed to him. Other biblical writers such as Joshua and Malachi and Jesus himself give unvarying support to Moses’ authorship of those books.


Later Joshua was said to have written words “in the book of the law of God.” This in turn became the practice of other men of God who wrote both history and prophecy and wisdom – Samuel, David, Solomon, Daniel, Nehemiah, Jeremiah, and each of the prophets.


In this way the OT scriptures grew gradually and came to be assembled into a collection about the time of Ezra around 400 B.C.  This collection was accepted and acknowledged as authoritative by all Jews. The Jewish historian Josephus, writing in the first century A.D. said that no book was added to the Hebrew scriptures after the time of Malachi.


So by the fifth century B.C. the OT part of the Bible was complete and contained all of the books that are in your Bible today. Were there other Jewish writings? Yes, but none that were considered worthy of scripture. You may have a section in your Bible between the Old and New Testaments called the Apocrypha. And they are useful and interesting writings, but they are not scripture and do not rise to the quality and content of the canonical books of the Bible. And there was never any question that they should be included.


The NT also came gradually into being, though over a shorter period of time – between 50 and 100 A.D.  These books were penned by different men to different churches and individuals. From the first, they were looked upon as distinctively authoritative writings, and thus received the same respect as OT scripture and were read in the public assemblies when the church met for worship. 


Paul wrote to the Thessalonian church: I charge you before the Lord to have this letter read to all the brothers. (1 Thess 5:27).  To the Colossians he wrote:

After this letter has been read to you, see that it is also read in the church of the Laodiceans and that you in turn read the letter from Laodicea. (Col 4:16)

Peter wrote concerning Paul’s letters: Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him. He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction. (2 Peter 3:15-16)


These letters of Paul, as well as letters from Peter and James and John and Jude and the letter to the Hebrews were collected and copied and distributed and read in churches, eventually being gathered with other writings such as the Gospels and Acts and lastly, the book of Revelation. And each of the writings in the NT filled a specific need in the church. 


Each of the Gospel writers wrote to a different audience: Matthew wrote a distinctively Jewish account of Jesus; Mark wrote from Peter’s accounts to a Roman audience; Luke, himself a Greek, wrote to a Greek audience; and John, writing in the closing years of the first century wrote a Gospel different from all the rest to the universal church. Each, though, wrote with the authority and inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Luke begins his Gospel: Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught. (Luke 1:1-4).


These writings were considered authoritative from the very beginning. It wasn’t in some fourth century church council where they were debated and voted upon. They had been the voice of scripture for three centuries already. 


Were there other ancient writings during this time? Yes. But they were different in character and quality, and certainly authority. There were letters from second century genuine church leaders such as Clement and Polycarp and Ignatius; there were heretical writings of the Gnostics such as the Gospels of Thomas and Mary (not “the” Thomas or Mary) among a dozen other very late and heretical writings. But none of them were ever considered scripture.  In fact by the early second century, lists of NT authoritative writings were being circulated including most of the books in our NT, and by the third century those lists contain all twenty-seven books that were universally accepted as the NT.


Our confidence in the Bible is supported by what we know about the early manuscript evidence for both the Old and New Testaments. In fact, there are over 8,000 ancient biblical manuscripts either in whole or in part that stand as witnesses to the Bible that you have in your hands this morning.


The majority of the Old Testament was written in Hebrew and a few passages are in Aramaic (the common tongue of ancient Israel). The process of copying scripture was scrupulous. The scribes who transcribed copies would count the letters and the words in each book and carefully proofread each passage. If it was missing a word or a letter, they would begin the page again. No mistakes were allowed and the intricate process ensured the accuracy of the transcription.


The complete manuscripts of the OT that survived the centuries are fairly late, from the tenth and eleventh centuries A.D. But in 1948, a discovery was made that was unparalleled. A shepherd boy who was searching for a lost goat stumbled upon a series of caves in the vicinity of the Dead Sea in Israel. In those caves were dozens and dozens of ancient jars containing old leather rolls with writing on them. Those scrolls eventually came to be known as the Dead Sea Scrolls, and what makes them so remarkable and important is that those scrolls, dating from the 1st and 2nd centuries B.C. contained numerous books of the OT, and those texts confirmed the accuracy of the much later texts that were already known. For example, the text of the 2nd century B.C. scroll of Isaiah was virtually identical to the later 10th century A.D. text of Isaiah. Twelve hundred years had passed, but the biblical text was virtually unchanged by scribal transmission.


The story of the NT manuscripts is just as amazing. The NT was written in Greek, the universal language of the first century world. Almost immediately after they were written, the various NT letters and the Gospels started to be copied and passed around among churches. Some of the earliest copies, at least portions of them, date from the early 2nd century. There is a scrap of the Gospel of John that is dated from 125 A.D. – less than three decades after John penned the original – and it was discovered all the way down in Egypt. Our earliest complete manuscripts date from the early fourth century – very early in terms of ancient manuscripts.


Compare that with other ancient writings, for example: The Histories of Tacitus, written about 100 A.D. has only two surviving copies, one from the 9th century and one from the 11th century. And of those, only four of his fourteen volumes survived – and yet no one questions the accuracy or the content of those volumes, while the NT has over 8,000 manuscripts, hundreds of them complete, dating from within a few years of the originals, and critics abound.


As you can imagine, someone who is copying a text will make some errors (they will switch a letter or omit a word, their eye will skip down a line, they will misspell a word) so human mistakes are inevitable.  And critics of the Bible will claim there are 200,000 errors in the NT. But what that number really says is that spread out over the 8,000 manuscripts of the NT are 200,000 slips of a pen or minor variants in the text.


But when we find those scribal errors in a text and compare them with the majority of the other texts available, those errors become obvious for what they are and are corrected in the final version that makes up our NT. When those errors occurred in the copying of the text they very, very rarely affected the meaning or understanding of the text. And so we can confidently say that the NT that is in our Bibles is virtually the same text that was within the original written manuscripts.


My intent with this lesson isn’t to make you experts in the Hebrew and Greek texts of the Bible, it is to give you confidence that the Bible you have is, without a doubt, the very Word of God that was inspired by the Holy Spirit and delivered down through the centuries so that you might have faith in God. 


Let me close with John’s purpose statement in his Gospel: “Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book.  But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” (John 20:30-31)


This book, while we can document its human authors and human transmission over the centuries is a result of divine inspiration and divine transmission to the text we have today. And it has one ultimate purpose – to bring you to faith and lead you to salvation.


I said at the beginning of this lesson that the Bible is the best-selling book in all of human history, but unfortunately it is also one of the least read.


I love a description I read a few years ago about getting the most out of your Bible. The South Central Bell Telephone Company put an advertisement in its phone book promoting the use of the yellow pages.  The ad said: Born to be battered: Underline it, circle things, write in the margins, turn down the page corners. The more you use it, the more valuable it gets to be.


The most tragic sight is a Bible that has been owned for many years and still looks new. Don’t let your Bible gather dust on the shelf. If this is the Word of God, it is not only the most important book ever written, it is the most important book you will ever read. Let it fill your life and guide your steps.