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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
Posted on Sun, May 31, 2015
by John Roberts