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Archive for the month “April, 2012”

Where did our Bible Come from? Part 7: Marcion

This is part of a series. You can go back and read parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6 if you feel like you’ve missed something.

Emerging from Conflict

Last time I established the window during which the New Testament went from non-existence to formal acknowledgement of the 27 books we know as the canon. There I framed this process largely in terms of a response to Gnosticism (I’ll have to do a posts on the Gnostics at some point). In the comments a former classmate of mine noted that this category of Gnosticism might not be very helpful. While I agree that we should avoid viewing it as a monolithic group, and we should avoid too much of a dualistic distinction between them and Christianity, at least historically, I nevertheless still feel it is a valid and useful category. However, what this revealed was a presupposition that I had neglected to state from the beginning of my dialogue on the New Testament.

While I believe that the canon was formed and began to function as authoritative for one set of reasons, I believe that the formal recognition of this canon by the Church was due to an entirely different set of reasons. Essentially, it is my contention that the Church developed a formal recognition of the biblical canon in response to conflict.

To a certain extent, this makes sense. Think of morality. There are certain things we just instinctually know are wrong, things that make the blood boil: like murder. However, there are other things that are only wrong insofar as they lead to other wrongs. For instance, there is nothing in traffic regulations that makes obeying them inherently good or disobeying them inherently bad. However, their function in keeping other individuals safe is what makes them appropriate rules. In the same way, the gospel is Christ Jesus. That is he is inherently the person (and God) whom you put your trust in, follow, rely upon for salvation, and look to as a source of authority. There is nothing in particular words on a page that make them in favor of that or against that. However, in distinction from traffic laws, what we consider Scripture is not arbitrary. There is this thing, we call it inspiration, that Scripture has and non-scripture doesn’t (and so maybe there is something to these words on a page). So we don’t create the Scripture (as with traffic laws), but we identify what is Scripture. However, there is no need to distinguish between the two on a day to day basis if there is nothing else pretending to hold the same claim as Scripture: namely that it points to Christ Jesus. Therefore, it is only in the presence of conflict, when other people suggested limiting, adding to, or changing the Scriptures in such a way that they no longer pointed to Christ, that it becomes necessary to come up with a rule (greek: kanon, it’s the same word that we use for canon of Scripture) for determining what will count as Scripture.

So, while Scripture itself, being inspired, is distinct from other claims to authority, it is only in the face of conflict that there is a need to distinguish between what is actually Scripture and everything else. In the last post, I mentioned the conflict between what I consider the orthodox church and the Gnostic pseudo-church. However, it is likely that a large chunk of the New Testament began to be recognized as canonical in large part due to a very early controversy. Specifically, I’m talking about Marcionism.

The Marcion Controversy

While Eusebius claims that Marcion was a Gnostic (I should really do that post), this seems incredibly unlikely because, given what we can reconstruct from his critics, he would have had little tolerance for many of their myths. Still, given some other aspects of Marcion it is possibly an understandable mistake.

Marcion started out as a Bishop in the early church. However, he began to teach, and advocate, a very specific limitation of the biblical canon. Marcion seemed to believe that the God of the Old Testament (YHWH) was not the same as the Father of Jesus. Instead, he argued that the Old Testament God was a wicked God, who was vengeful, demanded bloody sacrifice, created the material world (which he believed was evil), and generally angry. He believed that the true God was the “unknown” or “alien” God who was different from the Old Testament God. Jesus’ resurrection, according to Marcion, proved that the God of Jesus was superior to the Old Testament God and that is whom we follow.

While most of this comes from his critics, most notably Tertullian, my homeboy (not really), we nevertheless have good reason to believe it is accurate. This is, in part, because the dualistic understanding of the world, like the Gnostics after him, is rooted in religious Platonism that was common during this time. And the exact same controversy that happened with Marcion occurred again in the tenth and thirteenth century.

In order to make the evidence better fit his vision, Marcion compiled the first canon of what he considered Christian Scripture. In it he included a single Gospel, most likely Luke’s Gospel, heavily edited to remove Old Testament references and (it seems) any of the birth narratives. Then he included ten of Paul’s letters (not the pastorals), also heavily edited. The Old Testament was completely removed. As a result of his teaching and his decision to limit the canon to these books, Marcion was told to stop teaching these doctrines and stop promoting this far too limited canon. He refused and became one of the earliest heretics, subsequently pushed out of the mainline church (often called the “proto-orthodox” church because Orthodoxy came to be associated with adherence to the Nicene Creed which had yet to be written). Rather than keep quiet, though, Marcion instead established his own church against the Christian church, though it eventually dwindled and disappeared, with almost all evidence of its existence being removed.

Oh, and all of this happened before 160 (around the time Marcion died)! That’s incredibly early. Marcion was likely born around 85, during which time the New Testament had either just been written (by the most conservative accounts) or was still being written down. I say this now so you don’t get the idea that the Christian church was going around for centuries without any clear decisions on canon, some of the earliest decisions had be made almost immediately after the writing of the New Testament.

The Reaction

In what is an incredibly rare occurrence, I find myself in (qualified) agreement with Bart Ehrman, along with other scholars. The majority of scholarship argues (rightly I think) that the Marcionite Controversy was probably one the most, if not the most, significant moment for identifying the New Testament canon. Ehrman is again likely correct when he identifies the story, circulated by Epiphanius, of Marcion attempting to “seduce a virgin bride” prior to his excommunication not as Christian slander (as other scholars had argued), but as a metaphor for Marcion trying to seduce the church (the virgin Bride of Christ) (don’t get used to my agreeing with Ehrman, it’s not likely to happen again). What this reveals is that the majority of the church, and not just bishops but congregants too, recognized that there was something wrong not only with Marcion’s theology, but with his canon.

The church decided a few things as a result of this. First, the Old Testament could not be dispensed with. It was, instead, integral and foundational to the understanding of God. Jesus was not preaching about a different God than the one in the Old Testament, Jesus was the God of the Old Testament and in relation with that same God as Son to Father. Jesus, and Paul, quoted the Old Testament at length, not to dispute it, but to affirm it and use it authoritatively, the Old Testament could not be expunged.

Second, the Church decided that they need all four gospels, as they were written. No harmony of the gospels that unified them into a single document would be appropriate. Keep this in mind, incidentally, when people point out any supposed “discrepancies” between the four gospels. The early church was not ignorant of these, but they neither considered them genuine contradictions, nor particularly troubling. What was important, it seems, was that all four voices (Gospels) were permitted to speak.

Third, the Church felt the early canon beyond the Old Testament and the Gospels should include more than just the ten letters of Paul that Marcion noted (and, if it is correct he included things like the letter to the Laodecians, we might be able to surmise that some of the letters where either considered inauthentic or inappropriate for the New Testament canon). Thus, while the four Gospels and the Old Testament were accepted, the Church was still trying to identify what else could validly be considered Scripture. This process we’ll keep talking about in the next post(s).

Sidenote: I’m going to skip talking in depth about the Ebionites, who would be the polar opposite of Marcion. In short, the Ebionites believed Jesus was the Jewish Messiah, and that all of Judaic law still remained. Thus they were essentially Jewish with a few Christian elements. As such they accepted the Old Testament, an edited version of Matthew’s Gospel, parts of James and (possibly) Hebrews in an edited form. I am not going to talk about them in depth because 1) very little beyond that is actually known about them (this may be due to the fact that they were even earlier than Marcion), 2) they were never really Christian, and were more likely Jews who were pushed to Jewish fringe (yet failed to accept the full gospel, and 3) they were never large enough to create the same level of conflict that Marcion did. Finally, they were rejected for essentially the same reasons that Paul gives for rejecting the Judaizers (see the Galatians series on this blog for more on that).

Things to Keep in Mind Today

Today, although most Christians outright reject Marcionism in name, they nevertheless function as followers of Marcion. Two-thirds of the bible is Old Testament, and, within the New Testament, slightly less than a third was written by Paul. Why, then, does the preaching in most churches limit itself largely to Paul, and when it does deviate from that it remains mostly in the New Testament. If we accept the full canon of Scripture we should preach all of it (pastors), and read all of it (everyone).

Second, theologically we need to avoid Marcion thinking as well. The Old Testament God and covenant is not in conflict with the New Testament. It is the same God, and he covenants with his people in much the same way (though obviously the incarnation changes that in a radical manner). If we ever find ourselves setting up a dichotomy between a God of grace and a God of works, we have failed to read the bible properly. Let me be very clear: God has always been a God primarily of grace. This grace has never negated the requirement for good works. Instead, the grace of God should always be understood as the foundation for all good works. Good works are neither superfluous, nor the way we receive grace. Instead we receive grace and that has the result in us of good works and seeking to maintain continued relationship with God.

What do you think: Do you sometimes find yourself slipping into the line of thinking of Marcion? What can be done to avoid this?

Where did our Bible come from? Part 6: The window for the development of the New Testament

If you’re just joining this series, I’m currently giving a rather lengthy answer to the question of how we ended up with the books that we consider the bible. Feel free to go to the home page and click back on the previous posts which introduce this concept, state why we don’t accept various other descriptions of canon, and gives some interesting tidbits about the development of the Old Testament. Today’s post now begins to talk about the New Testament. Once that is wrapped up, we’ll talk about the unity of the bible and then conclude with some final helpful tips.


While the process of the canonization of the Old Testament was complex, we unfortunately know very little about that process (the same cannot be said of the New Testament). The only things we could definitively say were that the Torah was considered canonical very early on, likely just after its completion, and that by the time of Jesus what Protestants accept as the Old Testament had begun to function canonically, even if a formal pronouncement of canon had not yet occurred. In fact the genuine need to declare a set of books as canonical to the exclusion of others did not seem to arise anywhere in a definitive state until the fourth century among Christians (while the Jewish council of Jamnia was earlier, it is unclear that it actually had authority over other Jewish communities). The criteria for canonization seemed to be less a matter of date of writing and more a matter of function. Recall that the “writings” (Kethubim) was likely the last collection canonized, yet it spans the largest period of time. Arguably, Job is the earliest book in all of the Old Testament and Chronicles is the most recent. Eventually the text of the Old Testament eventually began to function as authoritative, probably due to the other criteria mentioned last time, without having the official approval on it as authoritative. This indicates something that we need to keep in mind about the early church: the need for a canon was less important than the actual content of the gospel, namely Jesus Christ who was God incarnate, died in our place, and was raised from the dead conquering all evil in this world with a great sense of finality.

The need for a canon is felt

However, by the time of the fourth century a number of other “gospels” and dubious epistles had begun to appear. The Gnostic sect of Platonism, which had taken that dualistic philosophy and sought to add some rather grand religious concepts to it, had decided that it would attempt to assimilate Christianity. This decision, which, like many other religious decisions, was likely less formal and more gradual, resulted in them taking some themes from Christianity, such as a focus on Christ as God, an emphasis on the evils of sin and (as a result of sin) the world as it currently operated, and the suggestion that there is a higher truth to the world to which most of those in the world are blind. However, to these themes the Gnostics subtly added their own, twisted theology: themes like the suggestion that creation is inherently bad (rather than temporarily fallen), that Christ was not really human, that there were multiple gods, and that salvation was really a matter of attaining a secret knowledge and not commitment to Christ as one person of the single God. As a result of this, it became necessary for the church to distinguish itself from the Gnostics who were preaching an incorrect and dangerous gospel. Since the Gnostics were subtly using the same language and terminology of Christianity, the clearest, easiest, and quickest way to distinguish this false gospel from the true gospel was to lay out a specific canon that limited which writings would be considered authoritative.

Keep in mind that, much like the Old Testament, the council which formally stated the 27 books we know as the New Testament did not establish the canon, but merely recognize those writings that already functioned as canon for the early church, and had arguably been functioning as canon from a very early period. Nevertheless it will be helpful to know the absolute end date for the decision that marked which 27 books would compose the New Testament.

Upper Limit

The latest possible date for any church would be around 508 for the Syrian church, who had only formally accepted 22 of the 27 before this date. However, most of the Church had accepted the 27 books of the New Testament by the time of the councils of Hippo Regius (393) and Carthage (397). Before this, church fathers Jerome and Augustine had already listed these books as canonical, but the earliest complete list we have comes from a letter by Athanasius in 367. Usually this type of study lists the “Eusebian Canon” which is a collection from a letter by Eusebius from the very early 300s. However, Eusebius was never the most trustworthy source and even his letter does not list the full 27 (Revelation is not mentioned, nor is the letter we know as Hebrews (though a different Hebrew letter was mentioned)) and includes other books not considered canonical (like the Apocalypse of Peter). However, the overwhelming majority of the New Testament is part of a list dating around 200 called the “Muratorian Fragment.” It is only a fragment and references two Gospels (not written in the fragment, but likely Matthew and Mark), Luke John, Paul’s 13 letters, Jude, 1 & 2 John and the Apocalypse of John (Revelation) as being canonical. A little later, again in the 300s, Origen mentions essentially the full 27 books, but lists many of them as disputed (James, Hebrews, 2 & 3 John, 2 Peter, Jude). However, we do have a nice end date that suggests by the mid-300s, at the latest, the 27 books of the New Testament was essentially established.

Lower Limit

What about when the New Testament began to be written? We’ve established the upper limit on when these books were codified. What about the lower limit? The earliest of the written gospels is almost universally accepted to be Mark. While a handful date Mark as early as 50, it seems more likely that Mark was written sometime between the late 50s to the mid-60s. However, we have strong reason to believe that the  earliest New Testament writing is actually one of the Pauline epistles, very likely the first letter to the Thessalonians. While it could have been written as early as the late 40s, it is more likely to have been written sometime in the earl 50s. So, it is likely that by the 50s documents begin to emerge and be circulated that might be considered Scripture. It is also very likely that the writers of the New Testament understood that what they were writing was Scripture, a point that I’ll address in a later post. While we could also frame the question in terms of when the last New Testament book was written, that is a much more complicated, and less agreed upon, answer. Sometime between 70 and 150 the final New Testament book was written. Personally, I tend to set the dating for the final book as fairly early, with Revelation (generally, but not necessarily) considered the last book to be written by most, and the last book written prior to the close of the first century. The dating of Revelation essentially boils down to whether the persecution the church is undergoing would make more sense as that instigated by Nero, or the more sever, but later, persecution instigated by Domitian (since I accept an earlier date, I would lean toward Nero).


Nevertheless, we now have a window during which the New Testament went from unwritten to the authoritative 27 books we know today: from roughly 50-367. It seems the New Testament was both written, and considered authoritative, over a much briefer period of time than the Old Testament. While the Old Testament took shape over more than a millennium (if not two millennia), the New Testament took that same status over a matter of a couple centuries (if not merely a few decades). With that established, now we can begin to look more specifically at the development of this authority, starting with the Gospels, in the next post.

Where did our Bible come from? Part 5: Settling on the Old Testament Canon

This is part 5 of a series on the history of the biblical canon. Feel free to read parts 1, 2, 3, or 4 first.

Last time, I essentially argued that the canon of the Old Testament was not really established, as it used to be supposed, by the Jewish council of Jamnia. Instead, I suggested that Jamnia merely noted the collection of texts that had already begun to function authoritatively, or as the early phase of the biblical canon. I also noted that in order to talk about canon, we should probably talk about the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) in terms of the division the Jewish people gave to it: Torah (Law), Nabi’im (Prophets), and Kethubim (Writings).

When did it all become canonized

Unfortunately, because much of this history stretches back over a few thousand years, we can’t definitively state exactly when each part became part of the canon. It seems pretty clear that by the time of Josephus and the council of Jamnia there was a (more or less) assumed canon. After the rejection of the Jamnia theory, another possible suggestion was that each section (Law, Prophets, and Writings) became considered canonical independently. While this is probably the case, the first modern formulation of this theory gives a fairly late date to each process: it argues that the Law was canonical around 400BC, the Prophets around 200BC, and the Writings around 100BC. The problem is, all of those dates seem far too late. We have very good reason, actually, for suggesting a much earlier date than this.

First, it should be noted that as far as Christians are concerned, the primary criterion for Canonicity should be related (in some way) to Jesus Christ. It is certainly the case that Jesus himself refers to the “law and the prophets” numerous times throughout the gospel. While this may seem to leave the “writings” in an uncertain place, in Luke 24:44 Jesus does explicitly refer to the “law, prophets, and psalms” the latter of which we could take to mean the “writings” (since the formal approval of it as a category with that exact name might not have been until later). Therefore, while the formal council recognition of it as a category may not have occurred until later, all three categories at leastfunctioned as part of the canon, which is really what makes it a canon anyway.

For additional evidence, it should also be noted that while Jesus does not explicitly refer to the category by name, he nevertheless quotes from it throughout the gospels. This is true even of  the (what many consider very late) book of Daniel since he regularly refers to himself as the “son of man,” which is the preferred term for the universal ruler in the latter half of Daniel. So whatever else may be said about the Protestant Hebrew Bible, it at least seemed to function as authoritative in Jesus’ estimation, which should be adequate. Nevertheless, let’s look at this a bit more.

It does seem pretty clear that the law was considered canonical from a very early period of time. At the absolute latest, one would have to acknowledge that by the time of Josiah, it had already begun to function as canonical. But there is reason to think that it functioned as canon before that time. Even during the writing of the Torah, allowances were made for it to be kept in the tabernacle (and later temple) including how it was to be handled (in the ark of the covenant). Throughout virtually all of Israel’s history, there was an understanding that the Law was different from other writings (indeed other law codes). This was not something made by man only, but something that God had directly inspired, seen most clearly by the dictation he gives at Mt Sinai. While God does intervene in the other sections of the Hebrew Bible, though, it is never in as direct a manner as it was in the Law. For this reason, the law is elevated in Judaism above other writings, the same way that the Gospel is (at least implicitly) elevated in the Christian Church. It forms the heart of the community because it is there that we first have an encounter with God that is more direct than at any other point in history. In Judaism it is through the law that the Hebrew and God meet, in Christianity it is through the incarnation of Jesus that God comes and meets all of us (Jew and Gentile). Ultimately, however, beyond the Torah we have no clear date for when the rest of it functioned as canon. Any type of dating (beyond giving an end date) amounts almost entirely to guess work. What we might be able to talk about, though, is the more fundamental question of why it is considered canonical.

Criteria for the Hebrew Canon

While a myriad of possible criteria for canonicity, none of which were ever formally stated, have been suggested, many can be rejected outright. The limitation to Hebrew is inadequate because large sections of Daniel, and various bits of Ezra were written in Aramaic which, although related, is nevertheless an entirely distinct language (it’s related to Hebrew in roughly the same way German is related to English, which is to say it is an etymological relation, not a practical one). It was also suggested that only books thought to be composed prior to the events in Ezra would be considered Canonical. While this is promising, it is not clear that this would be a valid criteria as it is entirely possible that Malachi (and possibly a few others) were written later than Ezra. Really the single criteria suggested from a Scholarly standpoint again has to do with how the text functioned:

Only those texts that were regularly read and used within the Jewish religious community were considered (ultimately) to be canonical. This is why Esther, though it does not explicitly mention God, is nevertheless canonical: it was read during Purim (note: it is readily acknowledged by virtually all Jewish scholars that even though God is not mentioned, he is nevertheless present throughout the book, and this may have been a rhetorical device). Thus, by the time of Jesus, it seems that each of these sections were regularly read, recited, and studied in the Jewish community. However, while that may be the primary scholarly criteria accepted for canonicity, I do not think it should be the only criteria. I’d like to suggest two more criteria for canonicity of the Old Testament (which I think would also apply to the New Testament): historical accuracy, and a response to revelation.

First, historical accuracy. By this I mean to say that the books in the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible, accurately reflect the history they are attempting to depict. While this has been disputed at various times by a number of scholars, archaeological evidence has nevertheless shown the bible to be remarkably accurate. For instance, for a long time it was assumed that David was nothing more than a mythological king, something like the tales of King Arthur in Anglo-Saxon legends. There may have been a David, so the statement goes, but he could not have been as successful as he is portrayed. That was a popular theory until, however, numerous archaeological findings both in Israel in and in the countries that would have surrounded Israel confirmed that there was, in fact, a highly successful King David who ruled the territory explicitly mentioned in the bible.

All of this seems to make sense, of course, if you read the bible in detail next to the pseudo-history of other Ancient Near Eastern cultures. Each of these other groups tended to portray their leaders in incredibly glowing terms. Never did their king lose a battle, he always decided to retreat because it wasn’t worth his time. Never did their king commit any egregious errors, but was always a model. Of course they were exhibiting a strong cultural bias. The same cannot be said for the histories recorded in the Old Testament. No one is perfect and everyone, even the model of Kings in David, makes large blunders. The hero of the Old Testament is no culture nor any man, but is God, therefore there was no need to mask the errors their kings committed or the massive failures Israel had at the hands of their enemies (numerous times).

This question of historical accuracy, though, is likely one of the primary reasons why Protestants and (I think) many Jews rejected the later Greek books that are contained in the Apocrypha. Why else would the Jewish people exclude 1 Maccabees, which describes one of Israel’s greatest victories that was celebrated at Hanukkah at least as early as the time of Jesus (if not earlier). However, it is almost universally acknowledged that the history of almost all of the Apocrypha is inaccurate, and that has no place in Christian Scripture.

The second criteria I’d like to add has to do with the reason for writing. Ultimately, I believe that the whole bible was written as a response to the revelation of God in history. While it may function as revelation (by showing us something about God), and is inspired in its composition, it is that it was written following a radical experience of God that makes it part of canon. While the Psalms may not reflect any specific event, they are nevertheless tied to a specific historical event and written as a result of that event. While we continue to experience God today, I think that it is nevertheless in a distinctly different manner than was the case in the Old Testament (more on that in a later post). This, really, is the hallmark of Scripture, and so I’ll reserve some of my comments until later.

To summarize, then, we know that Jesus considered what we know as the Old Testament to be authoritative, and that, coupled with its function in the early Jewish community, its historical accuracy, and the divine impetus that led to its writing are why the Old Testament can be considered Scripture or part of the Canon. Unfortunately many of the specifics beyond this are lost to history, but we have good reason to accept these books as canonical based upon these criteria. Next post: the New Testament.

Where did our bible come from? Part 4: Introducing the Old Testament

Ok, now that we’ve determined that we are talking about the bible as it is understood and accepted by the majority of Protestant Christians (for what the excludes and why click here), let’s look at the process of how we actually got to the bible we use today. The major division of the bible, into Old and New Testament, is a helpful dividing two because both sections came about, and were “canonized,” in very different ways. For the sake of historical continuity, let’s talk first about the Old Testament. Now there is an easy answer to where the Old Testament came from, which is both very likely to be wrong and not particularly helpful, and a more complicated answer which, I promise, we will get to next time (sorry)

The Old Theory of the Hebrew Canon

The old theory of the canonization of the Hebrew Bible is that this was decided at the Jewish Council of Jamnia, which was called following the fall of Jerusalem and destruction of the temple by the Romans in AD 70. Most scholars date the council as roughly occurring over a period of time roughly between AD 75- 117. The statement produced at Jamnia concerning Scripture likely occurred around AD90. According to the old theory, the council declared that what we now know as the Old Testament would be the Hebrew Bible out of a need to have a defined Scripture to work in the synagogue (which would take a place of prominence after the destruction of the temple), and out of a desire to prevent the still fairly new Christian church from adding their books (what we know as the New Testament) to it.

While it may have some element of truth to it, this theory was eventually challenged in the 19th century, and the more strongly in the 20th century. There are three main reasons to reject this theory:

1) The council of Jamnia did not give an absolute ruling, but a recommendation. Very little that Jamnia produced could be considered binding on other communities

2) The recommendation of the council seems to have been based upon the general feeling of the Jewish community at the time. In other words, what the council recommended had already begun to function as canon.

3) It seems that the process of canonization actually took place more gradually than as a singular event.

(Sidenote: some have tried to point to the group of books that Josephus referred as having canonical authority, but considering the reference in Josephus is even later than Jamnia, this doesn’t seem particularly helpful).

Second, it is not particularly helpful for the Christian Church to understand canonization as the result of a single declarative statement, particularly one that may have, at least in part, have been motivated by a desire to exclude that very Church. For Protestants, if a single council can create a canon, it seems odd that we would reject a Christian council (which suggested the Roman Catholic Canon) in favor of this Jewish council. Further, if it is our contention that the canon of the bible was determined by divine providence (i.e. that it is God who decided which books were in the bible), then it seems unlikely that a human council would do much more than affirm what was already canon, or at the most be the final stone in a long process of canon building. In order to get at the historical development of the Old Testament canon, then, we need to look first at the structure of that canon.

Structure of the Old Testament

The first thing I need to say about this structure is that the Old Testament should not be divided in the way that it usually is among Christians. This division, into to early history, law, later history, psalms and wisdom literature, and prophets (including Daniel), as well as the specific ordering of books is based upon the Septuagint, not the Hebrew understanding of Canon. The Septuagint (sometimes written LXX for 70, the number of days and scribes it supposedly took to translate) is the earliest translation of any major religious text. Following the exile of Judah to Babylon, a number of Jews did not return to ancient Israel. To further complicate matters, soon after the return from exile, Alexander the Great conquered much of what we consider the Ancient Western World and even more Jews spread further throughout this empire. As a result, many of the Jews no longer spoke Hebrew as their primary language, but instead spoke the common language of Greek. In order to accommodate the Jews spread out, the Hebrew bible was translated into Greek. The order of the Hebrew Bible was slightly changed (to the order in English bibles) and a few non-Hebrew books were added (most of which would be the apocrypha), but this was, nonetheless, likely the bible read by Jews, and even early Christians, outside of Israel. However, I would argue that the Jews of the Greek diaspora who translated the Hebrew bible into Greek had to have some reason for translating the books that they did. It will be my contention that the Hebrew canon was largely set prior to this translation effort. Since I’m assuming that the Jewish people were working with some sort of canon prior to their translation, so let’s look at that structure.

The Hebrew Bible is divided into three major sections: the Torah (or Law), the Nabi’im (or Prophets), and the Kethubim (or Writings). Together they are collectively referred to as the TaNaKh. The Torah is comprised of the first five books of the bible (Genesis through Deuteronomy). The Nabi’im are divided between the former prophets, Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings, and the latter prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the Book of the Twelve (what many call the “minor prophets”). All the other books are included in the Kethubim. It is notable that the Kethubim includes Ruth, Esther, Chronicles and Daniel. While this may impact interpretation of one part of the canon in relation to each other, which I won’t take time now to talk about,* [see * at end for brief word about why this division may be in place] I want to primarily discuss how this impacts their function in Ancient Israel.

The question of function, interestingly, seems to be how we come about with a canon of Scripture. Once a text begins to function in an authoritative way, it can be considered part of the canon of Scripture. This is the same whether we are talking about the Old Testament or the New Testament. Although we could leave the answer to the question at that, this fails to answer the more fundamental question of why did the text begin to function as authoritative in the community of God. The question of why is a bit more complicated than what, and by addressing this question that we can begin, finally, to talk about the process of canonization (next time).

Apologies for how long and drawn out this seems to be, but I’m trying to give a very thorough answer. (Honestly when I started this I thought I’d do 4 posts max, guess that was wrong).

Question: Do you like this methodical approach, or would you rather just see me give a quicker answer? Once I finish this little series, are there any other questions you want me to look at?


*How thinking of the Old Testament in the Hebrew categories might affect interpretation: While things like Chronicles, Ruth and Esther seem to fit well with this Old Testament Category of “History” and Daniel seems to fit very well with the “Prophets,” this distinction is based entirely upon the content of these books. The former prophets, together with Chronicles, Ruth and Esther have mostly historical content. Daniel has a content we would consider prophetic. However, the Hebrew categorization seems to work best in light of their function (I’ll be talking about that a lot next time).

While the Torah has its own unique function, it is really the way the prophets function that seems to be the distinguishing factor (because the Kethubim/Writings, while they tend to be mostly poetry and post-exilic writings, nevertheless seems to function like a catch-all category).

The one thing the prophets seem concerned with is the preservation and adherence to covenant, which the Torah first laid out. Thus the former prophets address the gradual fulfillment of that promise (which meets its height in David prior to his fall with Bathsheba), and the latter prophets are concerned with calling Israel back to the terms of the covenant while also addressing how, in light of various external factors, God will preserve Israel. In contrast to that, both Ruth and Esther seem concerned with those groups who are beyond Israel, both their inclusion (Ruth) and Jewish relationships as a result of Exile (Esther). Chronicles, rather than having the focus entirely upon Israel, sets the Israel history in a global context involving other nations. Finally, while the beginning of Daniel is almost indistinguishable from other forms of prophecy (especially the idea of Israel as “unique”), the latter half of Daniel is concerned with events that stretch far beyond the scope of Israel. While Isaiah (and some of the other prophets) address this to a certain extent, in those prophets it is still done from the perspective of Israel. In Daniel, the perspective unique to Israel is subsumed in the idea of a “Global” history. Those are just my thoughts though.

Bonus Question: Could categorizing the bible according to the Hebrew manner change how you read the Old Testament?

Where did our Bible come from? Part 3: Defining which Bible we’ll use

Disclaimer: This is really long compared to some of my posts, so you might not want to read it all in one sitting (it’s right around 3,000 words). I decided to keep the length so that I could go ahead and get on with answering the other parts of the question in my next post.


Having discussed, briefly, the overarching direction this mini-series will take, and having addressed why a KJV-only attitude is misguided. Today’s post will focus on some of the other versions available for what constitutes the bible and why I reject these. To reiterate, it is important, at the outset, to define exactly what it is we mean by the bible before we get into the detail of determining how we got the present form of our (the Protestant) bible. That being the case, let’s first look at one of the more controversial versions that is related to yesterday’s KJV-only view.

The Joseph Smith Translation (or the Mormon Version) of the Bible

Joseph Smith, for those who are unaware, is the primary founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS). While it is debatable to what extent this constitutes a Christian church, they nevertheless both claim to be Christian and claim to use the bible. However, there are two separate issues involved with the Mormon understanding of Canon, or Scripture. The first is specifically what the LDS church considers canonical, and the second is how they treat what the Christian church (non-Mormons) consider canonical.

For Mormons, there are four holy books, not the one. These four books are the Bible, which I will discuss their view on below, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrines and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price. The Book of Mormon is “another testament of Jesus Christ” according to their theology and, according to their theology, was translated by Joseph Smith using divinely given viewing method from golden tablets written in Ancient Reformed Egyptian and found by him through the instructions he as given in an vision by the angel Moroni. It details what happened, according to the LDS church, to the “lost tribes” of Israel. The Doctrines and Covenants contains what is essentially the history of the LDS church, and the Pearl of Great Price contains some additional books (or parts of books) of the bible that are the result of Joseph Smith’s Translation (again see below), which do not appear for any other bible, as well as some other creedal statements. While the Doctrines of Covenant and the Pearl of Great Price have a certain amount of authority, they are not near the level of the Bible and Book of Mormon, so I’ll leave those to one side, particularly since their authority rests almost entirely on the assumptions the LDS church makes about the Bible, the Book of Mormon and the other main source of authority: the current prophet.

The role of the prophet for the LDS church is essentially the same as it is for the Pope in the Roman Catholic Church. However, in general the prophet for the LDS church has been more active and, at some points, has radically changed the doctrinal position of the LDS church. There are some inherent problems with resting authority almost entirely in one person, but it is also the case that the assumptions about the Book of Mormon are integral for the authority of the prophet.

If you haven’t caught on yet, the Book of Mormon really is the supreme authority for the LDS. While most Mormons don’t believe there is any contradiction between the Bible and the Book of Mormon, in general they also believe that the Book of Mormon is nevertheless more complete and more doctrinally clear than the Bible and so it has the highest authority. While I’m not intending this series to “debunk” other ideas of Scripture, I cannot in good conscience simply let this lie. There are some severe problems with the Book of Mormon, both its claims and the way in which it was formed.

First, the Book of Mormon’s formation is highly dubious. Leaving aside the fact that there never has been observed the language Ancient Reformed Egyptian and that all evidence for these plates has been removed from our world, the very assumption behind it as a holy book is highly questionable. The assumption is that a single person could find, accurately translate and promote accurate history that seems to contradict everything else we know about history. The Bible that the Christian Church uses (the non-Mormon church) was composed by a variety of persons over millennia and was accepted as having authority as part of a canon over an equally lengthy and gradual process (and all of this attended by a perfect God). Further the translation work was done collectively, not as individuals, thus allowing every translation to have some built in checks against a single person’s error. By vesting the authority of their primary religious text and its translation is a single (fallible) human, the LDS church takes what appears to be an outrageous position that very few other religions would take (sidenote: yes I am aware this position of reliance upon a single figure for a sacred text is remarkably close to that of Islam, and I think that is equally problematic for that religion as well). Not only this, but Joseph Smith’s idea of history contradicts the work of numerous other historians. In contrast to that, the Bible from which I am operating has found widespread verification of the historical events it describes. Simply put, we know the Bible is historically accurate, while we have every reason to doubt the historicity of the Book of Mormon. But what about their use of the Bible?

For the most part the mainline LDS Bible is the same as the bible Protestants use. However, there are some notable differences (and some more significant differences with the second largest LDS group the Reformed LDS (RLDS)) between the two. First, after completing the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith began “translating” the bible. There are a few problems with both the translation itself and the assumptions Smith made. Smith had assumed that after a variety of English translation, each one had been corrupted because (in his view) they were each based on the previous English translation. That is simply not the case. Every major English translation (not paraphrases), from the early Tyndale all the way to present day English Standard Version were translated independently from the Greek and Hebrew, languages that Joseph Smith did not even know, nor make an effort to learn until long after he began his “translation” work. Nevertheless he created what amounts to a “corrected” version of the KJV. While the RLDS uses this text exclusively, the LDS uses it primarily as a secondary text, except for a few points where they overtly prefer Joseph Smith’s work. While this may seem minor it has two primary problems.

1) The changes have no basis in anything other than offering support for Joseph Smith’s theology. In other words it was a post facto (after the fact) translation. Anytime your translation is made expressly to offer support for a preconceived theology, rather than act as the basis for your theology, its objectivity (and thus validity) should be questioned.

2) The second issue is the same as what was addressed in the last post. Simply put, there should not be an assumption that the KJV is in any sense “inspired.” Many Mormons will be quick to point out that though Joseph Smith’s “corrected” version of the KJV is seen as somehow “inspired” they do not mean “inspired” in the same sense that non-Mormons use the term. Rather than be a reason to accept the Joseph Smith version, though, this should give us all the more reason to reject it as it undermines the very idea of inspiration and any authority (at all) that comes from it. But I’ve gone on for long enough about the Mormons.

New World Translation/Watchtower Translation (The Jehovah’s Witness Bible/NWT)

The NWT used almost exclusively by Jehovah’s Witnesses (JW) is highly problematic. While non-JW scholar Bruce Metzger notes that in many places the translators show that they are “well-equipped,” he nevertheless criticizes many of its renderings as “intellectually dishonest.” We could nitpick about the rendering of “cross” as “stake” (even though that makes little sense given the verbal form of “crucify” for which there are no other options) and that the divine name should be said closer to Yahweh, not Jehovah (a misunderstanding of how the Hebrew vowels work), but by far the most controversial passage is the rendering of John 1:1. While most translations read something like “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” The NWT renders it “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was a God.” While the change is subtle, it reveals the underlying assumption of Jehovah’s witnesses: namely that they are anti-Trinitarian and Jesus, rather than being co-eternal with the Father, was the unique creation of Jehovah. While the standard reading of John 1:1 would seem to prohibit such a thought, the NWT seems to endorse it. The problem is, that is a common 1st or 2nd year Greek mistake, but not one that should happen with biblical scholars (hence Metzger’s allegation of “intellectual dishonesty”). [For those interested, this involves a fairly common ‘anarthrous’ use of the article indicating a true predicate nominative, meaning that the English indefinite article “a” is not a valid rendering]. Further, the general lack of transparency regarding the translators (all names were withheld, even from each other) seems to cast suspicion on its use. As such, no other major group outside of the JW seems consider the NWT a valid translation. Therefore, it is also to be rejected.

Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches

While the bible used by the Roman Catholic Church (RCC) and Eastern Orthodox Churches (EOC) is, for the most part, virtually the same as the bible used by Protestants, there are some key differences that stem from their understanding of the Scripture itself. These understandings go back to the understanding of authority in each group and some of the specific differences related to the Bible are due to some facts of history. Also while the bible of various EOCs and the RCC differs slightly, in drawing the distinction between their bible and the one used by Protestants some very similar things can be said. However, first let’s briefly distinguish the EOCs from the RCC.

While today there are a variety of (minor) doctrinal distinctions between the EOCs and the RCC, most of these can be traced back, largely, to a single distinction. The primary distinction is an understanding of where authority comes from. The RCC argues that the primary source of authority, like the EOC, is the Church. For both groups this means tradition, particularly the church fathers, and the bible, though its authority is derived, to large extent, from the Church and not inherent in it (as it is for most Protestants). The main distinction between the RCC and the EOCs is that the principle modern day expression of that authority in the RCC is the Pope, but for the EOCs it tends to be slightly more democratic and focused upon various patriarchs (what we might call bishops). Thus it is a difference between a single person with various advisors (RCC) and a small group of leaders, who also have advisors (EOC). While in the RCC the authority is more absolute than in EOCs, it is also used less frequently. In both groups, though, the bible is the bible as it is used and accepted in the Church.

Since for both the RCC and EOCs the bible is not inherently authoritative, but derives its authority from the Church, the general attitude toward the bible is that it is a received text. Hence the bible that the church uses is, for them, the most accurate bible and there is little need to talk about some lost original in the same sense as in fiercely conservative Protestantism. This also means that the bible includes some works in addition to the Old and New Testament accepted by Protestants: what is usually termed (even by those in the RCC now) the “apocrypha.” While this section differs between some EOCs and from the RCC, they are very similar. However, while I suspect it functions the same way in the EOC as in the RCC, I do not know this, and so will limit my following comments to the RCC only.

The RCC “apocrypha” does not hold the same authority as the rest of the bible. The proper term for this collection is actually the “deutero-canon” or second canon. It is meant as a supplement and to have a secondary status to the rest of the bible. Nevertheless, it does hold significant authority (much moreso than for any Protestant), though in general the bible is not the absolute authority, only the church is. The bible is merely part of the church and so, while it may have more authority than other sources of tradition, it is nevertheless a single voice among others.

There are some assumptions about inspiration and humanity that Protestants hold to which prevent them from accepting this view, and instead hold the bible as the sole supreme visible expression of authority on earth (as opposed to one among many voices). But I will need to reserve those comments until towards the end of this series. However, the practical implication of this view of the “apocrypha” mean that Protestants have a lot in common with RCC and EOC members in their daily use of the bible, and as a result their understanding of many doctrines are similar (i.e. all believe in salvation through Jesus, who was God incarnate, and the Trinity).

The historical fact of the where the apocrypha/deutero-canon came from is that it initially appeared as part of the Greek translation of the Jewish Bible (the LXX) which became the Christian Old Testament. It is in that sense a “received” text. Its historicity, however, is very doubtful, for most of it there are no early Hebrew Manuscripts, and it was rejected by early Jews as canonical, despite containing information about one of their more important Jewish festivals: Hannukah. It is for all of these reasons that Protestants, who do not operate on a “received” text basis in the same way as the RCC and EOCs do, but instead argue for a “critical” text. I’ll get to what that means in a later post.

“Other” non-Protestant Bibles

I will only briefly say something about these “other” bibles. I am not really concerned in this series with books from other religions that make no claims on the Christian bible, but there is a surprisingly large group of those who are “spiritual, but not religious” who want to make some claim about the bible, and a second group of expressly “non-religious” people who make yet another claim.

The first group, those “spiritual, but not religious” either want to claim the bible is one among many perfectly valid religious texts, or want to add many additional documents to the bible. The first group does not respect the message implicit and explicit in the bible. Simply put, the Christian Bible is exclusive. You cannot say it is equally valid to other religious texts without saying that all such texts are invalid. That option is not available. The Old Testament makes an exclusive claim about the chosen nature of Israel alone, with YHWH alone as their God. The New Testament makes an exclusive claim about the fulfillment of YHWH’s promises exclusively through Jesus who is the exclusive means of gentile inclusion in the people of God.

Those who want to include other pseudo-Christian literature in the bible also fail to understand what those manuscripts imply. Leaving aside their considerably later dating compared to the New Testament, many of these (mostly Gnostic) manuscripts are problematic. These are things that comprise the “Other” bible, or the claim the Christian faith was edited and chosen at a council (again that is not an honest description of how the Scripture work or were chosen). These other texts are meant to be non-sensical for the most part. Many of the extra gospels are difficult to read precisely because they were meant to be hard to read. They weren’t meant to be uplifting spiritually, but to induce a state of confusion and bewilderment in the reader. Those that weren’t this way are so fundamentally contradictory to the Christian Bible that they can in no way be held together. As such the “spiritual” understanding of the bible should also be rejected.

I will also say a brief word about the Atheist Bible. This was put out by noted atheist A.C. Grayling as the atheist alternative to an influential book like the KJV bible. While it some great excerpts from literature, it was a categorical flop and shouldn’t really be considered anywhere near the same level as the Christian bible. On a practical level, although Grayling did not compose anything new, he failed to note what sources exactly he was cutting and pasting from (which is essentially plagiarism). Second, it was really poorly constructed and some found it entirely unreadable. Finally, it displayed Grayling’s fundamental misunderstanding of what the Bible is and how it works. It doesn’t just inspire emotionally and intellectually. The Bible is a call that demands a response. This is the reason it is so much more powerful than other works of literature. This is why it has been studied and continued to influence us.


Ok, this has been a bit lengthy (and slightly piecemeal), but I have, I hope, at least begun to point out why it is that I am rejected all versions except for the protestant version of the Christian Bible: namely the Old and New Testament without apocrypha. In the next few posts, I will talk about the how and why we accept this particular version of the bible. First up: the Old Testament.

Question: Are there other considerations I should have looked at? Do you think I’ve been fair in my assessments?

Where did our Bible Come from? Part 2: The KJV only position and its problems

Disclaimer: This post is slightly more negative than I generally like. However, this group is so vocal and so antithetical to the entire process of historical investigation that is required for the present investigation that their position needs to be addressed. Also, in addressing some of the problems with the position a few ideas can be introduced about textual criticism that can then be developed later on. I apologize for singling out a single group like this, but it seems appropriate at the time.

The Different Options

On Friday of last week, I gave a really brief introduction to what would be the next several posts. Today I’m going to try to tackle a few of the different options for which bible is which. I’m actually going to reserve my comments on the “Protestant Bible” until the end because that is the version that I accept and will be the assumed version for the posts that follow. Still, as promised, I’m first going to look at the King James Only group, including its problems. Tomorrow I’ll look at a few of the other groups. (I’m spending so much time on this first group because they tend to be very vocal and much more firmly committed to their position than others).

King James Bible Only

According to most advocates of this school of thought, God preserved the majority of manuscripts in Greek to be used as the basis for translation into the height of the English Language (King James English). They continue to argue that the English language has steadily been moving towards the lingua franca (common language) of the world and will eventually be spoken by almost everyone. Further, they tend to implicitly or explicitly argue that not only is the divine text inspired, but the translation work was as well. Therefore, advocates of the “King James only” approach suggest that the translators made no errors, the texts they translated from were perfectly preserved and that the King James Bible is now the only valid bible (the Greek and Hebrew are no longer acceptable either). Further they tend to argue that only the 1611 version of the KJV is acceptable, which simply follows the logic that they had previously argued from. This does have the advantage of not focusing on the “autographs,” the original manuscripts that we not only don’t have, but will likely never have, and avoiding dealing with a different language (for English speakers anyway). Of the minority within the KJV-only group who do allow for examination of the Greek, only the “textus receptus” (Latin for “received text”) is acceptable since that was the version the 1611 translators were working from. We’ll talk about that term “textus receptus ” tomorrow. Before that, I’m going to address why this group has some insurmountable problems that mean it should be rejected despite the advantages it may offer. I’m not saying the King James Bible is not a good version. I am, however, saying that they have no right to claim it is the only acceptable version, nor do I think they are right to say it is even the best available version (Sidenote: I don’t think any version can really claim to be the “best” in the sense that the KJV-only people would use the term. Every version has its strengths and weaknesses and some may be better along one criterion, but another better along a different criterion).

The claim that the translators of the King James Bible were inspired by God in the same way the authors of Scripture were is problematic for a few reasons. First, this claim contrasts with the history of the events between the creation of the bible and the KJV translation. The human authors of the bible experienced God’s presence in a radical and profound way. Whether that was through the observation of his direct interaction with the world through his mighty historical acts (as was the case with the Old Testament), or through direct conversation with God incarnate in Christ and as a result of his Resurrection (as was the case with the New Testament), the biblical writers had met God and seen his power. As a result of this, they could not help but write some of it down and what this interaction meant. This writing process was, according to more conservative (like my own) views, attended by the Holy Spirit who “inspired” the human writer and worked in partnership with the author to create a divine-human text. The translators of the King James Bible had no analogous situation. They did not experience the profound presence of God in the same way and the catalyst for their translation was not this encounter. Instead it was an order of a human king, who paid them to have it translated. This does not mean that the KJV was not important nor that this translation was not a remarkable feat (it was both important and remarkable). It does, however, mean that this was not a response to God’s direct intervention in history, but a response to a king. Now, it may have been a divinely ordained response, or even sacred in its practice, but it did not have the character of direct divine intervention that the creation of the bible did. We need to be clear not to conflate human effort with divine providence.

Second, the claim of KJV-only people that the bible is free from error in translation is simply untrue. The most glaring example is the translation of the divine name. While “Jehovah” had been standard accepted practice for the divine name, and has some relation to the Latin usage of the divine name, “Jehovah” actually comes from a gross misunderstanding of the Hebrew text. The initial Hebrew of the bible was written (mostly) without the vowels present. As time went on, though, certain Jewish groups wanted to ensure that when the bible was read aloud, it was pronounced correctly, even by those who were still fairly young (since bar-mitzvahs (and much later bat-mitzvahs occur around 13, even though often formal education was not yet complete) who read it. Thus, the Masorites (who had been preserving the text), sought to add vowel points to the Hebrew bible. Since the lines themselves were considered sacred, the vowel points were added above and below the text itself. The divine name, YHWH, was not pronounced (and still isn’t) in Jewish circles, and instead the substitute word for “lord” was pronounced upon arriving at it “adonai” (if the text referred to Lord YHWH, the word “elohim” was used). Thus the vowel points were put in for “adonai” around the word YHWH. Thus even though the divine name was likely pronounced Yahweh, a non-Jew who had a basic understanding of Hebrew would read it Yahovah (or Jehovah). This is a fairly minor error, but is one so prevalent (and only one example) that it is difficult to maintain both the inerrancy of the text and the inspiration of the translators in the sense that KJV-only advocates want to take it.

Third, KJV-only advocates assume that the majority, or “received” text, is the only correct text of the Greek. This simply ignores the history of the text. While this jumps ahead a little to talk about textual criticism, it’s important for understanding the problems with the KJV-only position. According to the logic of KJV-only advocates, God would have preserved his divine text through the majority of manuscripts so that they were correctly translated. Otherwise, it could have been “meddled” in some way. Textual criticism, though, runs completely counter to this view. New Testament textual criticism notes that historically, as time went on the Christian religion grew less persecuted and gained in popularity. As it gained in popularity, it would have been more likely that copies of the New Testament could be made in mass quantities. Since this was prior to the introduction of the printing press to the West, this copying was done by hand. Also as time went on, the older manuscripts were more likely to be lost or to degrade in some way. The result is that 1) the majority of the manuscripts available were relatively recent and not from the first few centuries of the church. 2) The majority of the manuscripts also differed from the older manuscripts in a few (largely minor) areas. This latter point is likely because scribes (being human) had a tendency over time to mishear things (if copying from a reader), misread things (especially since the older scripts had no punctuation or spacing), tended to try to clear up discrepancies (either thinking they were benefiting the reader, or on the assumption that the text had already been poorly copied), and tended to add comments which would often, inadvertently, find their ways into the text. Bruce Metzger (who I mentioned last time), astutely notes that once one of these errors occurred, it was incredibly unlikely that a later copyist would change it. Therefore, the later manuscripts (which are the majority) are actually more likely to be different from the original than the earlier manuscripts (which makes sense, since there is a smaller gap of time, errors would be less likely to occur).

Incidentally, this difference in text is the source of the KJV-only crowds strongest objection to other versions of the bible. Please note, the overwhelming majority of these differences are so minor as to be trivial, but to most KJV-only advocates I’ve encountered, they are anything but minor. After having preaching out of an NIV bible (at the pastor’s suggestion) in a rural church, I was confronted once by a group of KJV-only advocates. I was newly married and my wife and I were having lunch with members of the church (most of whom were extremely positive) when they sprung it on me. They pulled out a sheet of “omissions” that non-KJV versions had. Some of these seemed ridiculous, like the difference between “He went” and “And he arose and went,” but to this small group, they were incredibly serious. I want to assure the non-KJV only readers that what they consider serious is actually not. There are no doctrinal points found in any of these supposed “omissions” that should in any way impact one’s faith in any major way that are not found (often more clearly) elsewhere in the bible. I suppose that this is a large part of the reason why I am spending so much time on this group.

Fourth, many KJV-only advocates also claim this is the first English Bible. That’s simply untrue. There were many versions of the bible in English prior to the KJV. The two most popular were the Wycliffe Bible and the Tyndale Bible. While the Wycliffe Bible was an English translation from the Latin, and due to its popularity, along with the (then) rebellious nature of Wycliffe and his followers resulted in a ban on English language bibles. Nevertheless, William Tyndale undertook what is likely the first English translation of the Bible from the Greek and Hebrew, having been influenced by Erasmus, the pioneer in both Greek-Hebrew studies and textual criticism (more on him tomorrow). In many ways, Tyndale’s version (which was likely done in collaboration with others) is superior to the KJV version, if a bit crude at other times. The popularity of the KJV version is due less to divine providence, and more to its endorsement by the King as the first “authorized version” of the English bible, thus relegating Tyndale’s translation to obscurity.

Now, I’ve gone on a bit too long again to talk about the other options, but I have, I hope, shown the problems with a KJV-only approach and why most Christians reject that approach. I have also given only the briefest introduction to biblical criticism, which I may try to extend at some point in this series. Tomorrow I’ll talk about some of the other options for which version of the bible we use.

Question: Have you ever had any experiences with KJV-only advocates? What were your thoughts? Is there something I’ve addressed incorrectly? Are there other questions you’d like to see addressed in this blog?

Where did our Bible come from? Part 1: An Introduction

My previous (Unannounced) Mini-Hiatus

So you may have noticed that I took a few days off from blogging following Resurrection Sunday because, quite frankly, I was a little worn out and couldn’t keep my energy level up well enough to do my work at school, be a good father, and keep posting at the pace I had finished during the last two weeks of Lent. So I took a break from the blog for a few days (Monday’s post was a “non-post”) and am feeling refreshed. I don’t know if I’ll go back to posting every weekday, but I probably won’t be doing a 6 post a day type thing (at least not of the length I was posting) until I get settled into a full time job after completing my current studies, whenever and wherever that may be. Enough about me, let’s look at today’s post:

Question-Answer Time

I’m answering a question over the course of the next few posts. Here is the question from my friend in Birmingham, Chris: “Lately I’ve been attempting to locate resources on the actual history of the bible. By that I mean biblical development, selection of content, writing, etc.” I’ve decided to expand that a bit to really look at the substance of what our bible is, why it’s different from other “bibles” and include a history of the bible. Chris mentioned that it might be helpful to have a few sources to which he (or others) could refer as well. I’m going to have to come up with a list later on in this mini-series of posts. For now I will offer one recommendation, with a caveat, and one warning.

First the standard book on the history of the New Testament is The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration by Bruce M. Metzger, New Testament Scholar and textual criticism expert. Metzger is pretty conservative with regard to his support of the New Testament and the book does a good job laying out his theory (which is widely accepted now) of the history of the New Testament (about which there is more controversy than the Old Testament). However, some readers find it a bit too technical at times. That being the case, I’ll have to see if I come across any other studies that are more geared toward the “laity” (i.e. those with no background in textual criticism of Greek) or if I can find a source about the whole bible’s history (if you know of one, please recommend it in the comments).

The warning I have is to avoid anything by Bart Ehrman. The reason I issue this warning is threefold. First, his books are readily available and carried in a number of bookstores, from independents to the bigger chains like Barnes and Noble and in the popular religious section of Amazon.com. One his most popular titles to date is Misquoting Jesus which is terrible on both theological and (on some level) scholarly points. Second, Erhman does not respect the bible at all. He grew up an evangelical Christian and even studied under Metzger, but eventually became an agnostic and operates from the assumption that those purporting to be orthodox in the history of the early church actually actively altered the biblical text (a claim for which he has incredibly flimsy support). Third, his popular works tend to be a dangerous mix of good and bad scholarship. In particular Misquoting Jesus offers a good introduction to textual criticism on one level, but is not of a high enough scholarly level to allow the reader to address the “problems” Ehrman brings up later in the book. Further the overwhelming majority of support he gives for his position on these “problems” is from himself. That’s just bad scholarship and even in a popular book there is no excuse for that (and he should know better). Self-citation in a book that has the pretense of a scholarly rigorous study (even if written popularly) should only be used sparingly because it’s not really arguing a point beyond your own previous study. So that’s what I’ll say about that. Onward to the substance of the question

Answering the Question part 1: An Introduction

Well there are a few options for answering this question. The first one is to say that we have the bible in its present form because of divine providence. God wanted us to have the bible as it is now and that settles it. While it’s not wrong to say that God preserved his holy Word throughout history, it’s not necessarily the whole story either. The truth is that the bible is not only a divine document, but a human document: it’s both. As such it was produced by God, but in the context of a partnership with people. While that statement assumes something about the nature of inspiration (namely that the human authors were more than mere scribes), it nevertheless seems to find support from God’s actions throughout the history of Israel and the early Church. Our God (YHWH) is a God who delights in making our efforts part of his overarching plan.

In order to fully answer the question of how we arrived at the bible we currently have from the human side, we need to do a number of things. First we need to define which bible it is we are talking about, things like its structure, division, etc. Second, we need to look at the historical acceptance of various books over time, along with the resulting rejection of others. This latter half will need to be divided between Old Testament and New Testament because the reasons we have arrived at each section, while they share certain commonalities, were arrived at from completely different historical situations. Further, we also need to say a brief word about textual criticism, sometimes termed “lower criticism” of the bible.

Since this post is already pretty long, I’m going to try to lay out specifically what the different options are for what we accept as the bible to be addressed in subsequent posts. Next week I’ll continue to look at “defining” what we mean by the bible, including examining each of these different options (given below) before looking at the historical process of what we now call “canonization” of Scripture. So we’ll be looking at, over the course of a few posts these different options: the King James Version only advocates; the Roman Catholic version of the bible; the versions used by the various Eastern Orthodox Churches; the protestant version of the bible; the Jehovah’s witness version; the Mormon version; and the “spiritualism” movement version. I’ve chosen to limit my discussion to these groups because 1) it could just too unwieldy if I open it up to too many other groups and 2) many of the versions I have chosen not to include are either a) not used by anyone alive today or b) do not share the same basic presuppositions about the bible that most of these other groups do (i.e. I’m not going to talk about the “Atheist Bible” except to give a brief statement towards the end of the “spiritualism” section). With that said, the next post will begin with a look at the (arguably) smallest group, who is also one of the most vocal, particularly in the American Southeast: the KJV only group, if there that doesn’t go on for too long, we may look at some of the other groups as well.

Question to you: Have you found any resource particularly useful in doing this kind of thing? Any recommendations to use or avoid? Do you have a favorite version of the bible? What other questions would you like to see addressed in this blog?

This month’s article up at Soul Fusion Magazine

Ok so this isn’t technically a blogpost. This is my shameless self-promotion of my other project (although, to be fair, I’m not getting paid for either one). If you are unaware, one additional project I have is as a monthly columnist for Soul Fusion Magazine. This month’s article can be found here. And I’ve included an excerpt below. Unsurprisingly, it’s also about the significance of the resurrection. There’s no comment section there, so if you want to comment, feel free to do so on this blog. Enjoy:

The Sign of Jonah, the Future, and Today

In the Gospels, there are three references to the “sign of Jonah” made by Jesus, two in Matthew, once in Luke. The people, upon seeing the miraculous power of Jesus or his ability to teach as one with authority, demand that they receive some sign from heaven; this, after miracles and great teaching with authority. After all these things they demand a further confirmation. “How can we know this is true?” They ask. And Jesus tells them that the only sign they will get is the sign of Jonah.

In each of those contexts, Jesus declares that this sign is an eschatological (end times) sign, one linked with the end of the world, or the judgment day. In each of those contexts Jesus declares that those who were not part of the God’s chosen people, those who were gentile, will rise up and condemn the children of Abraham at the last day. The sign of… Continue Reading

A Different Kind of…Everything

He is Risen!

This holy week I’ve been talking about how the events marked during this week change everything. Jesus instituted a different kind of revolution, a different kind of covenant relationship, and revealed himself as a different kind of king. The resurrection confirmed all of these things, and so much more. The resurrection, it turns out, changes everything.

I’m not going to take the time to argue about the historical veracity of the resurrection of Jesus. Those arguments have been made and will continue to be made. I will say a brief word about it, though (apologies if I get too technical, I’ll try to resist). Personally, I like the arguments for the historicity of the resurrection made by Wolfhart Pannenberg, but considering I’m doing my thesis work on him I’m probably not impartial. Nevertheless, Pannenberg seems to really understand the historical impact that the resurrection makes, and he makes two statements about it. First, the veracity of the Christian faith rises or falls with genuineness of the historical event of Jesus’ bodily resurrection. Second, the resurrection of Jesus is the most historically verifiable event in all of history. Why is it thrown into question, then? Pannenberg astutely notes that the problem is not the evidence for the resurrection. Where the actual point of disagreement lies, whether acknowledged or not, is in the presuppositions. Simply put, there is a built in bias against the resurrection because it is assumed a priori (prior to any evidence) that people simply do not rise from the dead. If you have that as your starting point, then no amount of evidence will convince of the truth of Jesus’ resurrection. This, it seems, may have been the primary problem with the Jewish leaders and the resurrection.

To be clear, it is not that, aside from the relatively small group of Sadducees, the Jewish leaders denied that a resurrection would ever take place. Instead most Jews in the first century fully expected a resurrection of the dead to occur. They simply expected it to be an eschatological resurrection, one that Jesus himself preached. In fact, this may have been behind the early church’s anticipation that the end of the world was about to occur. If Jesus had been raised from the dead, along with certain other people, then the early church seemed to draw the conclusion that they were in the last days. This is also why it came as something of a shock when members of the congregation started to die and not immediately come back to life. What Pannenberg argues, though, is that the resurrection of Jesus is actually an eschatological event., despite the continuation of history long after it. In short, he says that at the resurrection, God interrupted the flow of time and brought the end of the world into the midst of our history. At the resurrection we see a glimpse of the world’s end, and it is overwhelming. The resurrection, then, means a number of things a few of which we can immediately identify and I will discuss, from this and from the gospel accounts.

He is Risen Indeed!

1) The resurrection changes death. While it is still appropriate to mourn for those who have died and to long to see them again, for the Christian, this mourning takes on a different meaning. In some ways mourning for a deceased loved one is more powerful and meaningful for the Christian, and in other ways it less brudensome for the Christian than the non-Christian. For the committed atheistic materialist, they may mourn for a loss, but their sorrow can only be selfish in nature (if they deny this, then they are not committed to materialism). In materialism there is no value in the person objectively, only in the value that the mourner perceives them to have selfishly. For the Christian, however, because a person’s death is not the end, it is appropriate and can be unselfish to mourn their death. Why? Because they are not temporary, but eternal, and they are valued by an eternal God. This can only mean that every person has objective value. Thus we can mourn out of a sense of longing, but in an appropriate manner (such as someone may long for justice or some other objectively valuable thing). And this longing will one day be fulfilled and so the sorrow felt at death is also somehow less burdensome.

On the flip side, our mourning isn’t as burdensome as the non-Christian because death does not have the same finality that it does for those outside the faith. As Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians 15, we do not mourn as those without hope. Instead death is “swallowed up in victory” and has lost its sting. This is very powerfully put, I think, in the final line of John Donne’s poem “Death be not Proud.”  Donne has said that despite the fact that death has many weapons in its arsenal and all people succumb to it, death is temporary. He concludes his meditation with the line: “And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.” There will come a day when death is no more and all will be life.

2) The resurrection changes life. Jesus said he came that we would have life and have it abundantly. This is a life that begins in the here and now. This isn’t for “someday” yet to come, but now. The truth is, until you meet Christ you are already dead. The majority of the world is walking around not living. They have not yet grasped the life that is truly life. They are still dead in the trespasses and sins, without freedom and without hope. But in Christ, who allows us to truly love, we are able to move from death to life. This is only possible because our deaths are somehow thrown on to his death. By uniting ourselves to Christ in his death, so we are united with him in his rising again. And that resurrected life begins now. We put to death our sinful nature, that binds and traps us, and put on the holiness that only comes from a resurrected and living God. The resurrection changes life here and now.

3) The resurrection changes the world. If the resurrection is the entrance of God’s future into the midst of human history, then the very nature of time is turned all around. That means that God’s future, is not only assured already, but is in some way already here. The kingdom of God has already been established. The time of us meeting God and having him as the light of our city is now. God in Christ has risen victorious over the grave not only to assure us of a final victory, but to actually win that final victory. As Jesus said multiple times “a time is coming and is now here.” The reign of Satan, death, and all kinds of evil is over. The reign of God has begun, and with it his transforming power. The resurrection is a call to take part in that transformation of the world and to tell others about its impact.

While the death of Christ may be met with somberness and quietness appropriate a personal encounter, the resurrection is too public to be ignored. The gospel account of Matthew leads directly into a commissioning. King Jesus is sending out his ambassadors into the uttermost parts of the world. There are given a single task: make disciples. It is an interesting juxtaposition to put the language of a royal commissioning up against the term “disciples.” Jesus does not say “make subjects” on one extreme or “make believers” on the other. He declares that true resurrection power is found only for the disciple, the one who follows, not merely agrees with a statement of facts, but one who does so willingly, not because they are somehow forced into it. This is the way that King Jesus will change the world, through his disciples. And it is a different kind of war, not one that tries to subjugate others, but seeks them as a friend to journey and learn alongside us as we follow Jesus. This is how the world is changed: through the church, through you and me, through the resurrection, and finally by the return of the resurrected Jesus. This is because Jesus, through the resurrection, changes everything. This post has only begun to scratch the surface of the lasting impact because Jesus’ resurrection is the point on which all history turns and on the other side of it we can see a different kind of everything.

What do you think? What other things does the resurrection change? Has the power of the resurrection been present in your life?

A Different Kind of King

This is part 3 of a series of posts for Holy week. Part 1 is here and part 2 is here. Part 4 will appear on Resurrection Sunday.

Jesus life had a clear trajectory, particularly from the moment he started his ministry. It was not going to end well, at least not according to how the world defines success. You say and do the kind of things Jesus was saying and doing without expecting some type of response. And that’s exactly what Jesus expected to happen. He was not the meek and mild cuddly type of person, but boldly went about with determination to change everything. And in the moment that he appeared a total failure, victory had already been won.

Jesus set about to begin a revolution. That’s what the incarnation is all about: it’s a holy and sacred invasion. An invasion, though, isn’t for the sake of observation, or teaching or learning. An invasion is in order to win a victory. Jesus was bringing about a revolution against this present evil age. He came to replace the kingdoms of this world with the reign of God, the Kingdom of God. This idea of the reign of God had been hinted at throughout the history of Israel. Abraham followed God, but God worked through the father of many to bring about his rule. God was in charge, but indirectly so. Moses acted as the voice of God filling the role of both prophet and leader, but there was no real king yet. Even though God was to be their king, the people of Israel rejected that rule and so Saul, and then later David, was made king. God was in charge, but acted through the proxy of a physical king. Then the Exile happened, followed by the reign of numerous other figures. God remained sovereign over all of it, but did not act as the direct king. By the time Jesus was born there was a complex system of ruling authorities: the Roman oppressors who dictated the day to day justice, taxes and military; the Herodian kings who were nothing more than a Roman mouthpiece dressed up to look slightly more Jewish; the Jewish leaders and the various clans, whether Scribes, Pharisee, Sadducee, or other members of the Sanhedrin still jealously guarded the religious rule. Jesus came in and began to upset all of this authority.

He challenged the Herodians. When he stood before Herod, who demanded a miracle or answer to his question, Jesus said nothing. By doing so, Jesus refused to acknowledge any authority that Herod had claimed. He challenged the Roman leaders. When brought before Pilot, he remains silent only to affirm that he is, indeed, the King of the Jews; a claim that even Pilot finds difficult to deny. He challenged the religious leaders. When they questioned him, Jesus also remained silent, up to a point. Things begin to shift when they ask him if he is the Son of God. Upon that question, Jesus responds by affirming it is as they say and then referring to Daniel 7. Two images are given there of this figure, who is clearly meant to understood as YHWH, the God of Israel. The first is of judgment against the rulers and the authorities: those who have misused their place and not given honor to God. Jesus flips the tables on the Sanhedrin. They think they are judgment of him, but Jesus responds that they have only condemned themselves. The second image is of a kingdom that will be established and have no end. That, in fact, is the very reason Jesus came to this earth. His Kingdom would be established.

And so, in response to these claims and actions of Jesus, he is led away to be crucified. Yet on the cross, Jesus brings to mind the victory that is being won. He cites Psalm 22 as proof of this impending victory. Note the subtle shift that happens though. In the Psalm, David says that the mocking of other people is “He trusts in the LORD, Let the LORD rescue him.” The mocking that Jesus receives, though, is “He saved others, but he can’t save himself.” The speaker has shifted. It is no longer someone else needing a rescue. Instead it is the rescuer, God himself, nailed to the cross feeling forsaken. God in our place, taking our death, taking on our forsakennes. Out of Jesus’ forsakenness, though, comes final victory. After Jesus cries out in agony and dies, victory is won. Notice the shift in tone at the end of Psalm 22. David remarks that God will not be far from him and, to the contrary, will establish an eternal and everlasting kingdom. At the moment of Jesus’ death the temple curtain, the last symbol of the separation between man and God, was torn in two. Out of the forsaken cry of Jesus comes our reconciliation with God. And from his death Jesus establishes his eternal kingdom. What looked like defeat was actually victory. What looked like a death of a peasant was the crowning of a king; a different kind of king. Everything was getting ready to change.

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