by Steven Chan
Given that the Bible, comprising 66 books, was written by about 40 different writers over a period of about 1,500 years (the earliest writings of the Old Testament was penned about 1,400 years before Christ was born), it is inevitable for one to wonder whether the Bible that we have today, comprised the complete collection of all the books inspired by God (2 Tim 3:15-17; 2 Pet 1:3)? Let’s consider the evidence – as collated from various sources.
- Was the art of “writing” already in existence when Moses wrote the book of the Law around 1,500 BC? It has been discovered that “writing” in clay tablets had already been in existence in Egypt and Mesopotamia in 3000 BC. So, Moses was able to write the first five books of the Old Testament.
- What kind of writing materials were available during the time of the composition of the books of the Old Testament and New Testament?
* The earliest writing materials was “stone”. The famous “Hammurabi Code” penned in 1750 BC by the king of Assyria was on erected on a stone pillar. The Siloam Inscription (700 BC) was written when Hezekiah had a tunnel constructed to convey water into Jerusalem (2 Kings 20:20; 2 Chron. 32:30).
Perhaps the most amazing discovery was that of the Moabite Stone (approx. 850 BC) which was written by King Mesha of Moab who wrote about his battle against Israel: “And I took from there the altar-hearths of Yahweh, and I dragged them before Chemosh. And the king of Israel built Jabaz and dwelt in it while he fought with me and Chemosh drove him out from before me. And I took from Moab two hundred men, all its chiefs, and I led them against Jahaz and took it to add unto Dibon.” This king was mentioned in 2 Kings 3. This discovery in Dhiban, Jordan (east of the Dead Sea), in 1868 ought to give us much assurance of the accuracy and authenticity of the bible records.
The earliest writing material mentioned in the Old Testament is stone, and on it was written the Ten Commandments:
“And when He had finished speaking with him upon Mount Sinai, He gave Moses the two tablets of the testimony, tablets of stone, written by the finger of God” (Ex. 31:18; cf. 34:1, 28; Deut. 10:1-5).
* Ink on Plaster: Moses had said to the Israelites, “So it shall be on the day when you shall cross the Jordan to the land which the LORD your God gives you, that you shall set up for yourself large stones, and coat them with lime and write on them all the words of this law…” (Deut 27:23). An Aramaic text (700 BC) from the plaster of a temple wall in the Jordan valley says, “This is the record of Balaam, son of Beor…” (Numbers 22-24).
* Clay: The most common writing material in Mesopotamia was clay. This was the kind of material referred to in Ezekiel 4:1 when the prophet was commanded to sketch a plan of Jerusalem on a brick: “You also, son of man, take a clay tablet and lay it before you, and portray on it a city, Jerusalem” (NKJV). It is said that clay tablets were so durable that a half million or more of them have survived to modern times. The chronicles of a number of kings mentioned in the Old Testament have been preserved on clay tablets: Assyrian King Sargon II (721 BC) and Sennacherib’s siege of Hezekiah in Jerusalem.
* Wood & Wax: The OT makes specific reference to writing on wooden rods and sticks (Num. 17:2-3; Ezek. 37:16-17).
* Metals: Gold as a writing surface was referred to in Exodus 28:36.
Excavation carried out between 1975 and 1995 on Ketef Hinnom (Hebrew for “shoulder of Hinnom”) a hill overlooking the Hinnom Valley, southwest of the Old City of Jerusalem uncovered two small silver scrolls/amulets worn around the neck contained scrolls with the priestly blessing of Numbers 6:24-26: “The Lord bless you and keep you; The Lord make His face shine upon you, and be gracious to you; The Lord lift up His countenance upon you, and give you peace.” The inscription in old Hebrew letters is from 600 BC and is the earliest known that contains the words of Scripture and pre-dates the texts found in the Dead Sea area by about 500 years. The word yhwh (the name of the Lord in Hebrew) appeared in writing for the first time ever. This discovery again furnished proof that the Bible record is accurate and successfully transmitted through the ages.
* Ostraca: Broken pottery was readily available and was used in antiquity like scrap paper. Archaeologists have uncovered about twenty-five or more of these broken pottery pieces with short passages of the NT inscribed on them.
* Papyrus: The earliest manuscripts of the New Testament were on papyrus, a plant found along the Nile River. Papyrus was used as a writing material in Egypt as early as 3500 B.C. The earliest extant (still in existence) copies of the New Testament were written on papyrus.
* Vellum or parchment: Goat or lamb skins processed to be written upon with ink. This process was perfected in the second century B.C. and became the dominant means of preserving the New Testament in the fourth century A.D.
* Paper was not used in the West until the twelfth century. Of the 5,400 known MSS of the New Testament, about 1,300 are written on paper. (Manuscripts or MSS refers to document written by hand rather than typed or printed). Before the invention of the printing press in 1462, all of the copies of the New Testament were done by hand.
- The Inspiration & Authority of the Bible Implies the Need for its Transmission through Copies. We have previously established that the Bible was given by inspiration of God (2 Tim 3:15-17; 2 Pet 1:20-21); That the writers claimed inspiration when they said/wrote “thus saith the Lord”; That the Jews in the Old Testament and the Christians in the New Testament acknowledged that these “inspired scriptures” were “authoritative” as their definitive “guide” (Isa 8:20; Matt 4:4); All will be judged by the word of God (John 12:48). This implies that the Word of God had to be written down, copied and passed down through the ages – otherwise how would all be able to know & obey it?
* Indeed, God said that it should be “Written down and Read”:
Exodus 24:3,7: “And Moses wrote all the words of the Lord… Then he took the Book of the Covenant and read in the hearing of the people. And they said, “All that the Lordhas said we will do, and be obedient.”
Deut 31:9-13: So Moses wrote this law and delivered it to the priests, the sons of Levi, who bore the ark of the covenant of the Lord, and to all the elders of Israel. 10 And Moses commanded them, saying: “At the end of every seven years, at the appointed time in the year of release, at the Feast of Tabernacles, 11 when all Israel comes to appear before the Lord your God in the place which He chooses, you shall read this law before all Israel in their hearing. 12 Gather the people together, men and women and little ones, and the stranger who is within your gates, that they may hear and that they may learn to fear the Lord your God and carefully observe all the words of this law, 13 and that their children, who have not known it, may hear and learn to fear the Lord your God as long as you live in the land which you cross the Jordan to possess.”
Deut 31:24-29: “So it was, when Moses had completed writing the words of this law in a book, when they were finished, 25 that Moses commanded the Levites, who bore the ark of the covenant of the Lord, saying: 26 “Take this Book of the Law, and put it beside the ark of the covenant (Deut 10:5– Ten Commandments kept in the Ark) of the Lord your God, that it may be there as a witness against you.”
Prophet Jeremiah was instructed by God to write down His Words: Jer 36:1-2,4: “Now it came to pass in the fourth year of Jehoiakim the son of Josiah, king of Judah, that this word came to Jeremiah from the Lord, saying: 2 “Take a scroll of a book and write on it all the words that I have spoken to you against Israel, against Judah, and against all the nations, from the day I spoke to you, from the days of Josiah even to this day…. Baruch wrote on a scroll of a book, at the instruction of Jeremiah, all the words of the Lord which He had spoken to him.”
Future Kings of Israel were required to make a Copy of the Law to be read all the days of their lives: Deut 17:18-19: “Also it shall be, when he sits on the throne of his kingdom, that he shall write for himself a copy of this law in a book, from the one before the priests, the Levites. 19 And it shall be with him, and he shall read it all the days of his life, that he may learn to fear the Lord his God and be careful to observe all the words of this law and these statutes”
So making copies of the Written Word of God was God’s Means of Transmission to future generations. The same process of verification of God’s true prophets were used by God’s people to accept “Inspired Scriptures” – they bear the marks of inspiration (Deut 18:19-22) or were of apostolic origin (John 14:26; 16:13; 1 Cor 2:6-16; 1 Thess 2:13; 1 John 4:1-6) and do not contradict apostolic teachings (Gal 1:8).
Paul warned against accepting writings that purported to be written by him but were in fact teaching erroneous doctrines: “Now, brethren, concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our gathering together to Him, we ask you, 2 not to be soon shaken in mind or troubled, either by spirit or by word or by letter, as if from us, as though the day of Christ[a] had come. 3 Let no one deceive you by any means.” (2 Thess 2:1-3a). The discovery of writings in the second century containing information that contradicts the apostolic writings of the New Testament – for example alleging that Jesus was not crucified or that Jesus did not come in the flesh – ought not to trouble us as the apostles in the first century had already forewarned us against such erroneous teachings (Matt 28:13; 1 John 4:3; 1 Tim 4:1).
* The Books of the Old Testament were accepted as “inspired and authoritative” throughout the generations.
+ 1 Kings 2:3 (about 960 B.C.) — About 400 years after Moses wrote the Law, David charged Solomon to keep God’s commands as written in the law of Moses;
+ 2 Chronicles 34:14-19,29-31 (about 605 B.C.) — About 800 years after Moses wrote the Law, Josiah found Moses’ book of the law and he restored the worship and service of God by performing the commands he found written therein;
+ Nehemiah 8:1-3,8 (about 450 B.C.) — Perhaps some 900 years or more after Moses wrote the Law, the people of Israel again re-established the service of God in Palestine after reading the book of the Law.
Clearly, the providential working of God had ensured that the Word of God was faithfully and accurately copied and passed down the generations of God’s people.
- The Need for Translation so that all may read and know the Law of God.
The earliest translation of the Scriptures was the Septuagint (also known as the LXX). It is a translation of the Hebrew Bible into the Greek language. The name “Septuagint” comes from the Latin word for seventy. The tradition is that 70 (or 72) Jewish scholars were the translators behind the Septuagint. The Septuagint was translated in the third and second centuries B.C. in Alexandria, Egypt when Greece governed Israel. By the 2nd and 1st centuries B.C., most people in Israel spoke Greek as their primary language. So, the Scriptures were translated into the Greek language so that the people could read them.
- Jesus and the Apostles quoted from the Old Testament Scriptures in Greek (the Septuagint – LXX) – implying their acceptance of the Septuagint translation as “accurate & authoritative”.
Jesus, the apostles, eminent Jewish historians and early church fathers accepted the Hebrew canon of 22 books of the Old Testament (i.e. equivalent to our 39 books).
* It was noted that “Jesus Christ and God-inspired New Testament penmen quoted from, or alluded to, the writings and events of the Old Testament profusely. In fact, some 1,000 quotations or allusions from thirty-five of the thirty-nine Old Testament books are found in the New Testament record. And yet, significantly, not once was any of these apocryphal books quoted or even explicitly referred to by the Lord, or by any New Testament writer”. Noted scholar Emile Schurer argued that this is really remarkable since most of the New Testament habitually quoted from the LXX (Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1894, Vol. I, 99).
* Flavius Josephus, the first-century Jewish historian, wrote (c. A.D. 90) of twenty-two books “which contain the records of all the past times; which are justly believed to be divine….” Five of these were written by Moses (the Torah), thirteen books were written between Moses and Artaxerxes, King of Persia (the Prophets and part of the Writings using a different order and enumeration), and four books contained hymns and moral precepts (Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon) [Against Apion, 1:38-40]. By combining several Old Testament narratives into a “book,” the thirty-nine of our current editions become the twenty-two alluded to by Josephus.
He wrote: “We have not an innumerable multitude of books among us, disagreeing from and contradicting one another, but only twenty-two books, which contain the records of all the past times; which are justly believed to be divine…” (Against Apion 1.8).
Josephus considered everything written after the time of Artaxerxes to be non-canonical, because prophetic messages had ceased. It is highly probable, since Josephus was a historian, that this was not his own idea, but reflected an earlier Jewish tradition (see Bruce, 1988, pp. 32-34)
* Around A.D. 90, a group of Jewish rabbis gathered at Jamnia in western Judea to discuss the established canon. Testing for books that “defile the hands” (i.e., were prophetically inspired), they debated including certain apocryphal books and removing some disputed books. However, the conclusion was that only the books that comprised the Hebrew Bible were the inspired, canonical books (Bruce, pp. 34-36; McDowell and Wilson, 1993, p. 37).
* The Jewish Talmud referred to the same 39 books of the Old Testament as canonical: “The Talmud is a collection of Hebrew oral law (the Mishna) along with transcribed scholarly discussions and commentary (the Gemara). The Mishna was written in the second century A.D., and the Gemara was added later (see Bass, 2003). While the Talmud was completed after the first century, it contained the oral traditions from the post-exilic Jews. Tractate Baba Bathra contained the divisions of the Hebrew Scriptures (the Law, Prophets, and Hagiographa) with their contents, along with the traditional authors of each. The books listed match the books of our Old Testament—nothing added or taken from them (Rodkinson, 1918, V:43-46). The most interesting evidence concerning the Hebrew canon comes from tractate Sanhedrin: “The rabbis taught: Since the death of the last prophets, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi, the Holy Spirit has left Israel…” (Rodkinson VII/VIII:24). Thus, Jewish oral tradition held that Malachi was the last inspired book of the Old Testament.”
The apocryphal books were written after Malachi and did not bear the marks of inspiration. The 39 books of the Old Testament are unquestionably inspired & authoritative: –
+ It is clear from the evidence that the Jewish people accepted the thirty-nine Old Testament books as their canon—no more, no less.
+ Josephus said that Malachi, as the last inspired author, completed the canon of Hebrew Scripture.
+ The rabbis at Jamnia, who had access to apocryphal writings, did not include them in the canon of Scripture.
+ Moreover, the ancient oral tradition of the Jews (the Talmud) held that the thirty-nine books in our Old Testament are the only Scriptures
+ The first official adoption of the Apocrypha by the Roman Catholic Church came at the Council of Trent in 1546, over 1,500 years after the books were written.
- What about the New Testament books?
* There are over 5,000 Greek manuscripts of the New Testament available to us today.
* Over 2,200 Lectionaries (Books used in worship that cite the Bible).
* Ancient Versions – 9,000 manuscripts (largely due to the advance of the Roman religion that spread the Latin Vulgate throughout Europe).
* Church “Fathers” – ca. 36,000 citations – scholars say that all but four verses of the entire New Testament text could be reconstructed from the citations of the early Church Fathers alone!
- The list of books in the New Testament that were accepted as “inspired and authoritative” (canonical) was evident by the 3rd century: –
* In 332 A.D. Bishop Eusebius of Caesarea was ordered by Constantine to create 50 volumes “on prepared parchment” of the Holy Scriptures. Eusebius wrote thus: “Since we are dealing with this subject it is proper to sum up the writings of the New Testament which have been already mentioned. First then must be put the holy quaternion of the Gospels; following them the Acts of the Apostles. After this must be reckoned the epistles of Paul; next in order the extant former epistle of John, and likewise the epistle of Peter, must be maintained. After them is to be placed, if it really seems proper, the Apocalypse of John, concerning which we shall give the different opinions at the proper time. These then belong among the accepted writings.” (Eusebius, Book 3, Chapter 25). The 27 books of the New Testament were accepted as inspired and authoritative.
* Athanasius (c. 296-373 A.D.) – Bishop of Alexandria wrote: “Again it is not tedious to speak of the [books] of the New Testament. These are, the four Gospels, according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Afterwards, the Acts of the Apostles and Epistles (called Catholic), seven, viz. of James, one; of Peter, two; of John, three; after these, one of Jude. In addition, there are fourteen Epistles of Paul, written in this order. The first, to the Romans; then two to the Corinthians; after these, to the Galatians; next, to the Ephesians; then to the Philippians; then to the Colossians; after these, two to the Thessalonians, and that to the Hebrews; and again, two to Timothy; one to Titus; and lastly, that to Philemon. And besides, the Revelation of John.” … “In these alone is proclaimed the doctrine of godliness. Let no man add to these, neither let him take ought from these.” (Athanasius, “Festal Letter 39”) AD 367
- F F Bruce, an expert in the New Testament documents highlighted this important point: “One thing must be emphatically stated. The New Testament books did not become authoritative for the Church because they were formally included in a canonical list; on the contrary, the Church included them in her canon because she already regarded them as divinely inspired, recognizing their innate worth and generally apostolic authority, direct or indirect”.
- What about “books” mentioned in the Old Testament that are allegedly “missing”? These books are “missing” in the sense that no one has any copy of these books even though inspired writers referred to them in their writings. Does this mean that some “inspired writings” of the Old Testament are missing? Not so.
Just because a writer referred to a book does not in itself imply that it was an “inspired” book – just as it was noted that Paul quoted Epimenides and Aratus in Acts 17, and quoted Epimenides again in Titus 1:12. Also, sometimes books are referred to by different names and so it is possible that the books referred are among the 39 books. Furthermore Jesus and the apostles did not raise any concern about the so-called “missing books” when they were quoting from the Scriptures then.
- We can be assured that we have the Bible as given by God through His Inspired Writers. The number of MSS & the testimonies of early church fathers gives us much assurance that no inspired writings were left out.