Eric Wilson: Welcome. There are many who after leaving the organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses lose all faith in God and doubt that the Bible contains his word to guide us to life. This is so sad because the fact that men have misled us should not cause us to lose trust in our heavenly father. Still, it does happen all too often, so today I’ve asked James Penton who is an expert in religious history to discuss the origin of the Bible as we have it today, and why we can trust that its message is as true and faithful today as it was when originally penned.
So without further ado, I will introduce Prof. Penton.
James Penton: Today, I’m going to talk about problems of understanding what the Bible really is. For generations within the broad Protestant world, the Bible has been held in the highest regard why most believing Christians. Besides this, many have come to understand that the 66 books of the Protestant Bible are the word of God and our inerrant, and they often use second Timothy 3:16, 17 in which we read, “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, and for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works.”
But this does not say that the Bible is inerrant. Now, the Bible was not always regarded as the sole basis of authority by which Christians were to live. In fact, I remember as a boy in Western Canada seeing Roman Catholic posts, statements to the effect that, ‘the church gave us the Bible; the Bible did not give us the church.’
Thus it was that authority to translate and determine the meaning of texts within the Bible that was left entirely with the church of Rome and its pontiffs. Curiously, however, this position was not taken as dogma until after the outbreak of the Protestant Reformation at the Catholic Council of Trent. Thus, Protestant translations were outlawed in Catholic countries.
Martin Luther was the first one to accept all the material in the 24 books of the Hebrew Scriptures, although he arranged them differently than did the Jews and because he did not regard the 12 minor prophets as one book. Thus, on the basis of the ‘sola scriptura’, that is the ‘Scriptures alone doctrine’, Protestantism began to question many Catholic doctrines. But Luther himself had difficulty with certain books of the New Testament, especially the book of James, because it did not fit with his doctrine of salvation by faith alone, and for a time the book of Revelation. Nevertheless, Luther’s translation of the Bible into German established the basis for the translation of the Scriptures in other languages as well.
For example, Tindall was influenced by Luther and began the English translation of the Scriptures and laid the basis for later English translations, including the King James or Authorized Version. But let us take some time to deal with certain aspects of the history of the Bible prior to the Reformation that are not generally known.
First, we don’t know exactly why or by whom the Hebrew Bible was formerly canonized or what books were to be determined to be included within it. Although we have pretty good information that it was during the first century of the Christian era, it must be recognized however that much work in organizing it had been done shortly after the return of the Jews from Babylonian captivity, which took place in 539 BC or immediately thereafter. Much of the work of using certain books in the Jewish Bible is attributed to the priest and scribe Ezra who emphasized the use of the Torah or first five books of both the Jewish and Christian Bibles.
At this point we should recognize that beginning about 280 BC, the large Jewish expatriate population living in Alexandria, Egypt began to translate the Jewish Scriptures into Greek. After all, many of those Jews could no longer speak Hebrew or Aramaic both spoken in what is today Israel. The work that they produced came to be called the Septuagint version, which also came to be the most quoted version of the Scriptures in the new Christian New Testament, beside the books that were to become canonized in the Jewish Bible and later in the Protestant Bible. The translators of the Septuagint added some seven books that often do not appear in Protestant Bibles, but are regarded as deuterocanonical books and are therefore present in Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox Bibles. In fact, Orthodox clergymen and scholars often regarded the Septuagint Bible as superior to the Masoretic Hebrew text.
In the later half of the first millennium CE, groups of Jewish scribes known as the Masoretes created a system of signs to ensure proper pronunciation and recitation of the biblical text. They also attempted to standardize paragraph divisions and maintain proper reproduction of the text by future scribes by compiling lists of the Bible’s key orthographic and linguistic features. Two main schools, or families of the Masoretes, Ben Naphtoli and Ben Asher, created slightly different Masoretic texts. Ben Asher’s version prevailed and forms the basis of modern biblical texts. The oldest source of the Masoretic Text Bible is the Aleppo Codex Keter Aram Tzova from approximately 925 A.D. Although it is the closest text to the Ben Asher school of Masoretes, it is survived in an incomplete form, as it lacks almost all the Torah. The oldest complete source for the Masoretic text is the Codex Leningrad (B-19-A) Codex L from 1009 A.D.
While Masoretic text of the Bible is an outstandingly careful work, it is not perfect. For example, in a very limited number of cases, there are meaningless translations and there are cases in which earlier Dead Sea biblical sources (discovered since World War II) agree more with the Septuagint than with the Masoretic text of the Jewish Bible. Furthermore, there are greater significant differences between the Masoretic text of the Bible and both the Septuagint Bible and the Samaritan Torah which differ in the lifespans of the pre-flood figures of Noah’s day given in the book of Genesis. So, who can tell which of these sources is the earliest and therefore the right one.
Certain things need to be taken into consideration concerning modern Bibles, in particular with regard to the Christian Greek Scriptures or New Testament. In the first place, it took the Christian church a long time to determine which books should be canonized or determined as proper works reflecting the nature of Christianity and also inspired. Note that a number of the books of the New Testament had a hard time in being recognized in Eastern Greek speaking parts of the Roman Empire, but after Christianity became legalized under Constantine, the New Testament was canonized as it exists today in the Western Roman Empire. That was by 382, but recognition of the canonization of the same list of books did not take place in the Eastern Roman Empire until after 600 A.D. However, it should be recognized that in general, the 27 books that were ultimately accepted as canonical, had long been accepted as reflecting the history and teachings of the early Christian church. For example, Origen (of Alexandria 184-253 CE) seems to have used all of the 27 books as Scriptures that were later officially canonized long before Christianity was legalized.
In the Eastern Empire, the Eastern Roman Empire, Greek remained the basic language for Christian Bibles and Christians, but in the western part of the empire which gradually fell into the hands of Germanic invaders, such as the Goths, Franks the Angles and Saxons, the use of Greek virtually disappeared. But Latin remained, and the primary Bible of the Western church was Jerome’s Latin Vulgate and the church of Rome opposed the translation of that work into any of the vernacular languages that were developing over the long centuries that are called the Middle Ages. The reason for that is that the church of Rome felt that the Bible might be used against the teachings of the church, if it fell into the hands of members of laity and members of many nations. And while there were rebellions against the church from the 11th century forward, most of them could be wiped out with the support of secular authorities.
Yet, one important Bible translation came into being in England. That was the Wycliffe translation (John Wycliffe Bible translations were done into Middle English circa 1382-1395) of the New Testament which was translated from the Latin. But it was outlawed in 1401 and those who used it were hunted down and killed. It was therefore only as a result of the Renaissance that the Bible began to become important in much of the Western European world, but it should be noted that certain happenings had to take place much earlier that were important to biblical translation and publication.
As for the written Greek language, about the year 850 A.D. a new type of Greek letters came into being, called “Greek minuscule. Before, the Greek books were written with unicals, something like ornate capital letters, and have no br between words and no punctuation; but with the introduction of the minuscule letters, words began to be separated and punctuation began to be introduced. Interestingly, much the same thing started to take place in Western Europe with the introduction of what was called “Carolingian minuscule.” So even today, Bible translators who want to check ancient Greek manuscripts are faced with the problem of how to punctuate the texts, but let us move on to the Renaissance, for it was at that time that a number of things took place.
First of all, there was a great awakening to the importance of ancient history, which included the study of classical Latin and a renewed interest in Greek and Hebrew. Thus, two important scholars came to the fore in the later 15th and early 16th centuries. These were Desiderius Erasmus and Johann Reuchlin. Both were Greek scholars and Reuchlin was also a Hebrew scholar; of the two, Erasmus was more important, for it was he who produced a number of recensions of the Greek New Testament, which could serve as the basis for new translations.
These recensions were revisions of text based on careful analyses of original Christian Greek biblical documents that served as a basis for many of the translations of the New Testament into various languages, especially German, English, French and Spanish. Not surprisingly, most of the translations were by Protestants. But as time went by, some were also by Catholics. Fortunately, all this was shortly after the development of the printing press and it therefore became easy to print many different translations of the Bible, and to distribute them widely.
Before moving on, I must note something else; that was that in the early 13th century Archbishop Stephen Langton of Magna Carta fame, introduced the practice of adding chapters to practically all Bible books. Then, when the English translations of the Bible took place, the earliest English translations of the Bible were based on those of the martyred Tyndale and Myles Coverdale. After Tyndale’s death, Coverdale continued the translation of the Scriptures which was called the Matthew Bible. In 1537, it was the first English Bible to be published legally. By that time, Henry VIII had removed England from the Catholic Church. Later, a copy of the Bishops’ Bible was printed and then came the Geneva Bible.
According to a statement on the Internet, we have the following: The most popular translation (that is English translation) was the Geneva Bible 1556, first published in England in 1576 which had been made in Geneva by English Protestants living in exile during Bloody Mary’s persecution. Never authorized by the Crown, it was particularly popular among Puritans, but not among many more conservative clergymen. However, in 1611, The King James Bible was printed and published although it took some time to become popular or more popular than the Geneva Bible. However, it was a better translation for its beautiful English, its terseness, but it is outdated today because English has changed greatly since 1611. It was based on the few Greek and Hebrew sources that were then had; we have many more today and because some of many English words used in it are unknown to people in the 21st century.
Okay, I will follow with this presentation with the future discussion concerning modern translations and their problems, but right now I want to invite my colleague Eric Wilson to discuss some of the things I’ve presented in this short overview of the history of the Bible.
Eric Wilson: Okay Jim, you mentioned minuscule letters. What is a Greek minuscule?
James Penton: Well, the term minuscule really means lowercase, or small letters, rather than the big capital letters. And that’s true of the Greek; it’s also true of our own system of writing or printing.
Eric Wilson: You also mentioned recensions. What are recensions?
James Penton: Well, a recension, that’s a term that really people should learn if they’re interested in the history of the Bible. We know that we have none of the original manuscripts or writings that went into the Bible. We have copies of copies and the idea was to get back to the earliest copies that we have and perhaps, in a variety of forms that have come down to us, and there are schools of writing. In other words, minuscule writings or not minuscule writings, but rather uncial writings that appear in early Roman times, and this made it difficult to know exactly what writings were in the time of the apostles, let’s say, and so Erasmus of Rotterdam decided to make a recension. Now what was that? He gathered all of the known manuscripts from ancient times that were written in Greek, and went through them, studied them carefully and determined which was the best evidence for a particular text or Scripture. And he recognized that there were some scriptures that had come down in the Latin version, the version that had been used throughout hundreds of years in Western societies, and he found that there were instances that were not in the original manuscripts. So he studied these and created a recension; that is a work which was based on the best evidence that he had at that particular time, and he was able to eliminate or show that certain texts in the Latin were not correct. And it was a development which aided in the purifying of the biblical works, so that we get something closer to the original through recensions.
Now, since Erasmus’ time in the early 16th century, many, many more manuscripts and papyri (papyruses, if you will) have been discovered and we now know that his recension was not up-to-date and scholars have been working ever since really, to purify the scriptural accounts, such as Westcott and Hort in the 19th century and more recent recensions since that time. And so what we have is a picture of what the original biblical books were like, and those appear generally in the latest versions of the Bible. So, in a sense, because of recensions the Bible has been purified and is better than it was in Erasmus’ day and certainly better than it was in the Middle Ages.
Eric Wilson: Okay Jim, now can you give us an example of a recension? Perhaps one that cause people to believe in the Trinity, but has since been shown to be spurious.
James Penton: Yes, there are couple of these not only with respect to the Trinity. Perhaps one of the best ones, aside from that, is the account of the woman caught in adultery and who was brought forward to Jesus to judge her and he refused to do it. That account is either spurious or its sometimes called “a roaming or moving account,” which appears in different parts of the New Testament and, in particular, the Gospels; that’s one; and then there is what’s called the “Trinitarian comma,” and that is, there are three that bear witness in heaven, the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost or Holy Spirit. And that has been proven to be spurious or inaccurate, not in the original Bible.
Erasmus knew this and in the first two recensions that he produced, it didn’t appear and he was facing a great deal of upset from Catholic theologians and they didn’t want that to be taken out of the Scriptures; they wanted it in there, whether it should have been or not. And, finally, he broke down and said well if you can find a manuscript that shows that this was present, and they found a late manuscript and he put it in, in the third edition of his recension, and of course it was under pressure. He knew better, but at that time anyone who took a stand against the Catholic hierarchy or, for that matter, many Protestants, could end up of being burned at the stake. And Erasmus was too bright a man to recognize this and of course there were many who came to his defense. He was a very tactful individual who often moved from place to place, and he was very interested in purifying the Bible, and we have we owe a lot to Erasmus and now it’s really being recognized just how important his stance was.
Eric Wilson: The big question, do you feel the differences between the Masoretic text and the Septuagint, not to mention other ancient manuscripts, invalidate the Bible as God’s word? Well, let me say this to start out with. I don’t like the expression which is used in churches and by ordinary folk to the effect that the Bible is God’s word. Why do I object to this? Because the Scriptures never call themselves “God’s word.” I believe that God’s word appears in the Scriptures, but it has to be remembered that much of the Scriptures has nothing to do with God directly, and is an historical account of what happened to the kings of Israel, and so forth, and we also have the devil speaking and also many false prophets speaking in the Bible, and to call the Bible as a whole “God’s Word” is, I think, mistaken; and there are some outstanding scholars who agree with that. But what I do agree with is that these are the Holy Scriptures, the holy writings that give us a picture of mankind over time, and I think that’s very, very important.
Now does the fact that there are things in the Bible that seem one to contradict the other, does that destroy our understanding of this series of books? I don’t think so. We have to look at the context of every quotation from the Bible and see if it contradicts so seriously, or that they contradict one another so seriously, that it causes us to lose faith in the Bible. I don’t think that’s the case. I think that we have to look at the context and always determine what the context is saying at a given time. And often there are fairly easy answers to the problem. Secondly, I believe that the Bible shows a change over the centuries. What do I mean by this? Well, there is a school of thought which is referred to as “salvation history.” In German, it’s called heilsgeschichte and that term is often used by scholars even in English. And what it means is that the Bible is an unfolding account of God’s will.
God found people as they were in any given society. For instance, the Israelites were called upon to enter the promised land of Canaan and destroy the people that were living there. Now, if we come to Christianity, early Christianity, the Christians did not believe in taking up the sword or fighting militarily for several centuries. It was only after Christianity was really legalized by the Roman Empire that they began to participate in military endeavors and became as harsh as anyone. Before that, they were pacifistic. The early Christians acted in a very different way from what David and Joshua, and others had acted, in fighting with the pagan communities around about and in Canaan itself. So, God permitted that and often we have to stand back and say, “well what are you all about God?” Well, God answers this in the book of Job when he says: Look I created all of these things (I’m paraphrasing here), and you weren’t around, and if I allow someone to be put to death, I can also bring that person back from the grave, and that person can re-stand in future. And Christian Scriptures indicate that that will happen. There will be a general resurrection.
So, we can’t always question God’s point of view in these things because we don’t understand, but we see this unraveling or moving from very basic concepts in the Old Testament or the Hebrew Scriptures to the prophets, and ultimately to the New Testament, which gives us the understanding of what Jesus of Nazareth was all about.
I have deep faith in these things, so there are ways that we can look at the Bible, which makes it comprehensible as expressing God’s will and his divine plan of salvation for mankind in the world. Also, we have to recognize something else, Luther stressed a literal interpretation of the Bible. That’s going a bit far because the Bible is a book of metaphors. In the first place, we don’t know what heaven is like. We can’t reach into heaven, and even though there are a good many materialists who say, “well, this is all there is, and there’s nothing beyond,” well, maybe we’re like the little Indian fakiers who were blind Indian fakiers and who were holding on to various different parts of the elephant. They couldn’t see the elephant as a whole because they didn’t have the ability, and there are those today who say well humankind is incapable of understanding everything. I think that’s true, and therefore we’re served in the Bible by one metaphor after another. And what this is, the will of God is explained in symbols that we can understand, human symbols and physical symbols, that we can understand; and therefore, we can reach out and understand God’s will through these metaphors and symbols. And I think that there’s a lot of that that is necessary to understand what the Bible is and what God’s will is; and we’re all imperfect.
I don’t think I have the key to all of the truths that are in the Bible, and I don’t think any other man does. And people are very presumptuous when they think that they have God’s immediate direction to tell what the truth is, and it’s unfortunate that both the great churches and many sectarian movements within Christendom try to impose their theology and their doctrines on others. After all, the Scripture in one place says that we have no need of teachers. We can, if we attempt to learn patiently and understand God’s will through Christ, we can get a picture. Although not a perfect one because we’re far from perfect, but nonetheless, there are truths there that we can apply in our lives and should do. And if we do that, we can have great respect for the Bible.
Eric Wilson: Thank you Jim for sharing these interesting facts and insights with us.
Jim Penton: Thank you very much Eric, and I’m so glad to be here and work with you in a message for many, many people who are hurting for biblical truths and the truth of God’s love, and of Christ’s love, and the importance of our Lord Jesus Christ, for all of us. We may have different understandings from others, but God will ultimately reveal all of these things and as the apostle Paul said, we see in a glass darkly, but then we will understand or know all.