The "harmony" of the Gospels
is the agreement of the four biblical Gospels.
The four New Testament Gospels are like the singers in a four-part choir.
They each have their distinct parts to sing, yet the parts combine to make a beautiful composition.
Each of the four Gospels gives testimony of Jesus from a slightly different perspective, but they all tell the same story. Thus, they are all in harmony with one another. There are also books that align the Gospel accounts chronologically which are called harmonies of the Gospels, and some Bibles have a reference section doing the same thing that is referred to as a harmony of the Gospels.
Matthew, Mark, and Luke are called the "synoptic" gospels, because they give a synopsis of most of the same events from the life of Jesus. John stands on its own, filling in gaps that the others leave out. Each one of these Gospels was written for a different audience and emphasizes different things about Jesus.
The Gospel of Matthew was written primarily for the Jews and emphasized how Jesus fulfilled the prophecies of a kingly Messiah. Mark was written primarily for Roman or Gentile Christians, so it includes few Old Testament prophecies and explains many Jewish words and customs. Jesus is portrayed in Mark as the Divine Servant. Luke was also written primarily for Gentile believers, as it also explains Jewish customs and uses Greek names. Luke set out to write an orderly narrative of the life of Jesus and presented Jesus as the Son of Man, emphasizing His full humanity. John’s Gospel emphasizes Jesus as the Son of God and includes more of Jesus’ revelations about Himself than any of the other Gospels. It also gives a much more detailed picture of the events during Jesus’ last days.
Some people have attempted to discredit the Bible by pointing out the inconsistencies in the Gospel narratives. They point out differences in the order in which the events are presented or minor details within those events. When the four accounts are placed side by side, we see that they do not all follow the same strict chronology. Much of the narrative in the Gospels is arranged in a topical order, where an event brings to mind a similar thought. This is the way most of us carry on conversations every day. The differences in minor details like the angels at Christ’s tomb (Matthew 28:5; Mark 16:5; Luke 24:4; John 20:12) are also answered by allowing the text to speak. The differences are complementary, not contradictory. New information is added, but it does not take away from the veracity of the old information.
Like the rest of Scripture, the four Gospels are a beautiful testimony of God’s revelation to man.
Imagine a tax collector (Matthew), an untrained Jewish lad with a history as a quitter (Mark), a Roman doctor (Luke), and a Jewish fisherman (John) all writing harmonious testimonies about the events in the life of Jesus. There is no way, without the intervention of God, that they could have written these amazingly accurate accounts (2 Timothy 3:16).
The historical references, the prophetic references, and the personal details all work together to compose one very detailed, very accurate picture of Jesus—the Messiah, the King, the Servant, and the Son of God.
Why did God give us 4 Gospels?
1) To give a more complete picture of Christ. While the entire Bible is inspired by God (2 Timothy 3:16), He used human authors with different backgrounds and personalities to accomplish His purposes through their writing. Each of the gospel authors had a distinct purpose behind his gospel and in carrying out those purposes, each emphasized different aspects of the person and ministry of Jesus Christ.
Matthew was writing to a Hebrew audience, and one of his purposes was to show from Jesus’ genealogy and fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies that He was the long-expected Messiah, and thus should be believed in. Matthew’s emphasis is that Jesus is the promised King, the “Son of David,” who would forever sit upon the throne of Israel (Matthew 9:27; 21:9).
Mark, a cousin of Barnabas (Colossians 4:10), was an eyewitness to the events in the life of Christ as well as being a friend of the apostle Peter. Mark wrote for a Gentile audience, as is brought out by his not including things important to Jewish readers (genealogies, Christ’s controversies with Jewish leaders of His day, frequent references to the Old Testament, etc.). Mark emphasizes Christ as the suffering Servant, the One who came not to be served, but to serve and give His life a ransom for many (Mark 10:45).
Luke, the “beloved physician” (Colossians 4:14 KJV), evangelist, and companion of the apostle Paul, wrote both the gospel of Luke and the Acts of the apostles. Luke is the only Gentile author of the New Testament. He has long been accepted as a diligent master historian by those who have used his writings in genealogical and historical studies. As a historian, he states that it is his intent to write down an orderly account of the life of Christ based on the reports of those who were eyewitnesses (Luke 1:1-4). Because he specifically wrote for the benefit of Theophilus, apparently a Gentile of some stature, his gospel was composed with a Gentile audience in mind, and his intent is to show that a Christian’s faith is based upon historically reliable and verifiable events. Luke often refers to Christ as the “Son of Man,” emphasizing His humanity, and he shares many details that are not found in the other gospel accounts.
The gospel of John, written by John the apostle, is distinct from the other three Gospels and contains much theological content in regard to the person of Christ and the meaning of faith. Matthew, Mark, and Luke are referred to as the “Synoptic Gospels” because of their similar styles and content and because they give a synopsis of the life of Christ. The gospel of John begins not with Jesus’ birth or earthly ministry but with the activity and characteristics of the Son of God before He became man (John 1:14). The gospel of John emphasizes the deity of Christ, as is seen in his use of such phrases as “the Word was God” (John 1:1), “the Savior of the World” (John 4:42), the “Son of God” (used repeatedly), and “Lord and...God” (John 20:28). In John’s gospel, Jesus also affirms His deity with several “I Am” statements; most notable among them is John 8:58, in which He states that “...before Abraham was, I Am” (compare to Exodus 3:13-14). But John also emphasizes the fact of Jesus’ humanity, desiring to show the error of a religious sect of his day, the Gnostics, who did not believe in Christ’s humanity. John’s gospel spells out his overall purpose for writing: “Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:30-31).
Thus, in having four distinct and yet equally accurate accounts of Christ, different aspects of His person and ministry are revealed. Each account becomes like a different-colored thread in a tapestry woven together to form a more complete picture of this One who is beyond description. And while we will never fully understand everything about Jesus Christ (John 20:30), through the four Gospels we can know enough of Him to appreciate who He is and what He has done for us so that we may have life through faith in Him.
2) To enable us to objectively verify the truthfulness of their accounts. The Bible, from earliest times, states that judgment in a court of law was not to be made against a person based on the testimony of a single eyewitness but that two or three as a minimum number were required (Deuteronomy 19:15). Even so, having different accounts of the person and earthly ministry of Jesus Christ enables us to assess the accuracy of the information we have concerning Him.
Simon Greenleaf, a well-known and accepted authority on what constitutes reliable evidence in a court of law, examined the four Gospels from a legal perspective. He noted that the type of eyewitness accounts given in the four Gospels—accounts which agree, but with each writer choosing to omit or add details different from the others—is typical of reliable, independent sources that would be accepted in a court of law as strong evidence. Had the Gospels contained exactly the same information with the same details written from the same perspective, it would indicate collusion, i.e., of there having been a time when the writers got together beforehand to “get their stories straight” in order to make their writings seem credible. The differences between the Gospels, even the apparent contradictions of details upon first examination, speak to the independent nature of the writings. Thus, the independent nature of the four Gospel accounts, agreeing in their information but differing in perspective, amount of detail, and which events were recorded, indicate that the record that we have of Christ’s life and ministry as presented in the Gospels is factual and reliable.
3) To reward those who are diligent seekers. Much can be gained by an individual study of each of the Gospels. But still more can be gained by comparing and contrasting the different accounts of specific events of Jesus’ ministry. For instance, in Matthew 14 we are given the account of the feeding of the 5000 and Jesus walking on the water. In Matthew 14:22 we are told that “Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowd.” One may ask, why did He do this? There is no apparent reason given in Matthew’s account. But when we combine it with the account in Mark 6, we see that the disciples had come back from casting out demons and healing people through the authority He had given them when He sent them out two-by-two. But they returned with “big heads,” forgetting their place and ready now to instruct Him (Matthew 14:15). So, in sending them off in the evening to go to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, Jesus reveals two things to them. As they struggle against the wind and waves in their own self-reliance until the early hours of the morning (Mark 6:48-50), they begin to see that 1) they can achieve nothing for God in their own ability and 2) nothing is impossible if they call upon Him and live in dependence upon His power. There are many passages containing similar “jewels” to be found by the diligent student of the Word of God who takes the time to compare Scripture with Scripture.
The "harmony" of the Gospels is the agreement of the four biblical Gospels. The four New Testament Gospels are like the singers in a four-part choir. They each have their distinct parts to sing, yet the parts combine to make a beautiful composition. Each of the four Gospels gives testimony of Jesus from a slightly different perspective, but they all tell the same story. Thus, they are all in harmony with one another. There are also books that align the Gospel accounts chronologically which are called harmonies of the Gospels, and some Bibles have a reference section doing the same thing that is referred to as a harmony of the Gospels.
Matthew, Mark, and Luke are called the "synoptic" gospels, because they give a synopsis of most of the same events from the life of Jesus. John stands on its own, filling in gaps that the others leave out. Each one of these Gospels was written for a different audience and emphasizes different things about Jesus. The Gospel of Matthew was written primarily for the Jews and emphasized how Jesus fulfilled the prophecies of a kingly Messiah. Mark was written primarily for Roman or Gentile Christians, so it includes few Old Testament prophecies and explains many Jewish words and customs. Jesus is portrayed in Mark as the Divine Servant. Luke was also written primarily for Gentile believers, as it also explains Jewish customs and uses Greek names. Luke set out to write an orderly narrative of the life of Jesus and presented Jesus as the Son of Man, emphasizing His full humanity. John’s Gospel emphasizes Jesus as the Son of God and includes more of Jesus’ revelations about Himself than any of the other Gospels. It also gives a much more detailed picture of the events during Jesus’ last days.
Some people have attempted to discredit the Bible by pointing out the inconsistencies in the Gospel narratives. They point out differences in the order in which the events are presented or minor details within those events. When the four accounts are placed side by side, we see that they do not all follow the same strict chronology. Much of the narrative in the Gospels is arranged in a topical order, where an event brings to mind a similar thought. This is the way most of us carry on conversations every day. The differences in minor details like the angels at Christ’s tomb (Matthew 28:5; Mark 16:5; Luke 24:4; John 20:12) are also answered by allowing the text to speak. The differences are complementary, not contradictory. New information is added, but it does not take away from the veracity of the old information.
Like the rest of Scripture, the four Gospels are a beautiful testimony of God’s revelation to man. Imagine a tax collector (Matthew), an untrained Jewish lad with a history as a quitter (Mark), a Roman doctor (Luke), and a Jewish fisherman (John) all writing harmonious testimonies about the events in the life of Jesus. There is no way, without the intervention of God, that they could have written these amazingly accurate accounts (2 Timothy 3:16). The historical references, the prophetic references, and the personal details all work together to compose one very detailed, very accurate picture of Jesus—the Messiah, the King, the Servant, and the Son of God.
What are the Gospels? The Gospels refer to the four opening books of the New Testament. The name Gospels comes from the fact that these books record the life and teachings of Jesus Christ, whose message was the gospel of the Kingdom of God. The four Gospels are Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. In order for Christians to fully understand how to follow Christ, they must be familiar with how Christ lived and what He taught. That is why it is so important for Christians to study the Gospels.
The first four books of the New Testament are the four Gospels, which give the story of Jesus Christ’s life and His teachings. These books are:
What are the Gospels?
The word Gospels comes from the message that Jesus Christ preached, the gospel of the Kingdom of God(Mark 1:14-15). Gospel is translated from the Greek word euangelion, meaning “good news” and the apostles would not have used the word in the plural since there was only one true gospel. “The four records which traditionally stand in the forefront of the [New Testament] are, properly speaking, four records of the one gospel” (The New Bible Dictionary, 1982, “Gospels”).
The Gospels focus mostly on the 3½-year ministry of Jesus Christ and, especially, on the last week of His life. They give very little information about His life before age 30, and so they are not really intended as full biographies.
The writers told the stories about Jesus Christ’s ministry, miracles, actions and teachings for a purpose. These books are intended to teach the reader God’s message—the good news of God’s plan to set up the Kingdom of God on this earth and how we can be part of that plan. The Gospels are intended to convict us of our sins so we will repent and believe in Jesus Christ.
Matthew, Mark and Luke contain many of the same stories and teachings. Because they saw things from a similar perspective, their accounts are called the synoptic Gospels. Their accounts can easily be lined up in three columns for study. The Gospel of John has much less overlap with the other three Gospels. This is explained more in our article on the “Synoptic Gospels.”
Why four Gospels? Each of the Gospel writers had a different audience and purpose in mind. Though the writers may not have pictured their readers sitting down to compare and read the four Gospels together, God did have the bigger picture in mind.
Out of all the many narratives written (Luke 1:1) and out of the vast number of things Jesus did and taught (John 21:25), God chose to preserve these four accounts for our benefit.
Throughout the Bible God uses repetition for emphasis, and the story of His Son—our example, our Savior and our soon-coming King—is definitely worthy of the highest emphasis. Reading each Gospel separately will teach us a great deal about what is important to God and how we should live.
Harmonizing the four accounts is challenging and brings out questions about seeming differences. Much can be learned by comparing accounts, and none of the apparent discrepancies are insurmountable.
“Individual Gospels have their own characteristic ideas, images, settings, and emphases, while sharing a common core of material. As for alleged discrepancies among the accounts, we must remember not only that the story is told from four different perspectives, but also that as a traveling teacher and miracle worker Jesus said and did similar things in a series of different places. Even the parables may have been related differently as Jesus spoke to different audiences”
Though each writer recorded different perspectives, the whole process was guided by God’s inspiration through the Holy Spirit.
As Jesus Christ told His disciples, the Holy Spirit “will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all things that I said to you” (John 14:26).
The Bible tells us that Matthew was a tax collector. His profession was despised by his fellow Jews because publicans supported the Roman occupiers and because they frequently extorted additional money for themselves.
Jesus called Matthew to be one of His disciples and apostles, so Matthew left his previous profession and spent his full time traveling and learning from Jesus Christ. He was an eyewitness of the events he records.
Matthew’s Gospel shows a special emphasis on the fact that “Jesus is the Messiah foretold by Old Testament Prophets” (Henry H. Halley, Halley’s Bible Handbook, 1965, p. 413). Matthew quotes extensively from the Old Testament and “seems to have had Jewish readers particularly in mind.”
The Bible does not give Mark’s previous profession but mentions his work in preaching the gospel with Paul, Barnabas and Peter. Tradition says that Mark’s Gospel reflects Peter’s eyewitness testimony of Christ’s life.
Mark’s “emphasis on Jesus’ mighty and miraculous works makes this Gospel action-packed, fresh and vivid. … In general, Mark presents the miracle-working Jesus, not the teaching Jesus” (The Nelson Study Bible, p. 1636).
Luke was “the beloved physician” (Colossians 4:14) and companion of the apostle Paul. He had read many other accounts of Jesus’ life; but using interviews of eyewitnesses and careful research, he determined to write “an orderly account” for Theophilus, “that you may know the certainty of those things in which you were instructed” (Luke 1:3-4). Dr. Halley describes Luke’s special emphasis on Jesus’ humanity and His kindness to the weak, suffering and outcasts (p. 485).
At the end of his Gospel, Luke recorded Christ’s statement to the disciples explaining how the prophecies about Him in “the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms” had been and would be accurately completed (Luke 24:44-49).
John was a fisherman when Jesus called him to be a disciple and apostle. John focused his eyewitness account heavily on the last days and hours of Christ’s life.
The apostle John explained his reason for including the material he did in his Gospel: “And truly Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name” (John 20:30-31).
A call to action. The four Gospel writers did not intend their audiences to read their books for entertainment, or even just for information. They wrote to get a message across—a message of warning and of hope. The Gospels are a call to action.
As Jesus Christ summarized it: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe the gospel” (Mark 1:15).
Read more about this personal message from our Savior and King in our articles on “Repentance” and “Faith.”
One of the decisive proofs for the divine origin of the Bible is the prolific presence of predictive prophecy. Particularly impressive is the way God prompted numerous spokesmen to foreshadow New Testament events during the four millennia preceding Christ’s arrival on Earth. Not only did the Old Testament prophets predict that Jesus would be born and then die an atoning death, they also anticipated the establishment of the Church of Christ. What’s more, the 8th-century B.C. Messianic prophet Isaiah meticulously documented the fact that a “new name” would be given to the followers of Christ. This new name stands in stark contrast to the host of religious names and titles that mere humans have invented over the past 2,000 years. Nevertheless, God pre-planned in eternity to bestow upon the followers of Christ the name “Christian.”
So, how Is the Bible historically accurate?... Do we have the correct books in the Bible today?... Hasn't the Bible been changed by men over time?
As Christians, we believe the ultimate authority is the word of God. The Bible tells us that the Holy Spirit will lead us in all truth (John 16:13). It also affirms that God will preserve his Word, meaning his Word will supernaturally be kept pure (Psalm 12:6-7).
There are many things Christians can research, both in God's word and externally, to build a good case for the reliability of the Bible. Namely, canonization of the Bible, historical accuracy of the Bible, Messianic prophecies, and New Testament manuscripts.
Canonization of the Bible
One of the most important issues when it comes to the Bible is the number of books. Protestant Bibles contain 66 books. Whereas, Catholic Bibles hold 73 books, the Ethiopic Bible has 83. Who is correct? As Christians, we know the voice of God by the power and guidance of the Holy Spirit.
The issue of Canon, meaning: an authoritative list of books accepted as Holy Scripture, can be broken down into three categories:
The first is Community Determined (Roman Catholic Model), the second is Historically Determined (A Historical Investigation Exclusively), and third as Self Authenticating (Studying the content within the Bible).
The Self Authenticating Model, as Michael Kruger professor of New Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary calls it, should be the model Christians follow. It leaves no neutral ground for the skeptic and sets Jesus and his Word as the authority.
There are three questions we can ask when it comes to recognizing which books should be biblical canon.
1.) Apostolic Origin:
Was this book written by an apostle or an associate of an apostle?
When we review the list of books, can we connect any of the authors to the original apostles in the first century? This is important because it gives weight and trust to the book in question. If we have a book with an unknown writer, it should lead us to investigate this text a little more.
2.) Corporate Reception:
Was the early church receptive to this book in the 1st century?
If the book in question was rotating among the early church and accepted as the Word of God, it can be trusted. Origen, an early church father, produced a list of books in the New Testament by 250 A.D.
3.) Cross Reference:
Do these books agree with each other and with God’s voice?
This is important because if a book agrees with another book, we are able to see unity in Scripture. Many books found in the Catholic Bible contain historical errors and contradictions. This is important to note because God does not contradict himself (Numbers 23:19).
We don't pick and choose which books belong in the Bible; we recognize the voice of God by the power of the Holy Spirit. We look at the content within these books and build a reasonable case. We also ask important questions and allow God to lead us in the path of truth.
Historical Accuracy of the Bible
The Bible describes events and places throughout thousands of years of history. Many of these places and events are verified from Archaeology. Archaeology cannot prove if the Bible is the inspired word of God, but it can show us if things found in the Bible are true or false. By excavating biblical sites, archaeologists have proven many facts claimed in the word of God.
Example 1: Lysanias
Critics had a problem with Luke 3:1 where it speaks of "Lysanias" as being the governor/ruler of Abilene during the time of John the Baptist. This was counted as an "error" in the Bible until an inscription was found with the name "Lysanias" as a ruler in Abilene. This discovery introduced the theory of two rulers with the same name – one about 50 years prior to the one mentioned in Luke 13.
Example 2:The Hittites
Critics have claimed the Hittites (Genesis 15:20, Exodus 3:8, Joshua 1:4) were mythical people. But by the end of the 19th century, monuments were discovered by William Wright proving that these people did exist. The Bible was right once again.
Example 3: Pontius Pilate
Many scholars began to doubt the existence of Pontius Pilate throughout history. That all changed in 1961 when a piece of limestone stone was discovered that had inscribed the name "Pontius Pilate.” An Italian archaeologist, Dr. Antonio Frova, came across this discovery while excavating an ancient Roman theatre in Caesarea, Israel. In 2018, archaeologists also identified “a 2,000-year-old copper alloy ring bearing his name,” according to this New York Times article.
Example 4: Isaiah and the Dead Sea Scrolls
The Dead Sea Scrolls was one of the greatest discoveries in modern times. Before this 1947 discovery, many skeptics questioned the copies of Isaiah in the Old Testament. Skeptics said the book had been changed and revised by men throughout the centuries. It wasn't until scholars dated the Great Isaiah Scroll (one of the original seven Dead Sea Scrolls found in 1947 in the caves of Qumran), that they discovered the book of Isaiah’s amazing accuracy. The Dead Sea Scrolls copy of Isaiah dates 1,000 years prior to the copy previously possessed.
Many religions have books that claim to be the truth, but only the Bible contains verified prophecies. Fulfilled prophecy is solid evidence that God is the divine author of The Bible.
Isaiah 7:14 says, "Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel." Centuries later, we read in Matthew 1:18,25 that Mary was indeed a virgin, yet she delivered Jesus into this world.
Not only was this child prophesied to be born from a virgin, but he was to come from Bethlehem, according to Micah 5:2. In Matthew 2:1 we discover that this exact prophecy happened, Jesus was born in Bethlehem.
The crucifixion was a major event in history, but is this a prophecy? Yes. In John 19:23-24 we get a picture of how Jesus was crucified: soldiers cast lots for his garments and pierced his hands. We see the same language and detail prophesied in Psalms 22 many centuries before the historical event.
New Testament Manuscripts
Critics always look for new ways to attack the New Testament and its reliability. Many say it’s not reliable as a historical document despite having over 5,600 Greek copies in possession today, which is more than we have of the work of Homer, Plato, Lucretius, and Aristotle.
In addition to this, the New Testament is about 99.5% textually pure. This means the variants are grammatical and minor that occurred in copy over time, but there has been no change in teaching or doctrine. This should give us confidence that we follow true teachings passed down by Jesus and the Apostles.
As Christians, we must believe the word of God and trust in God’s Spirit of truth to “guide you into all the truth” (John 16:13). Our foundation must start with this truth in mind. If we root our ultimate authority in history or external data, it can change or put us on shaky ground with a skeptic because it goes through human hands to determine what is reliable and what is not. As Christians, we must believe the ultimate authority is the word of God.
This article is adapted from the author’s free video series, “Is The Bible Really Complete?”
Edward Antonio is the Founder of Elevating Your Life and a student of theology and church history. He lives in Orange County, CA and is part of Harvest Christian Fellowship. Find him on Instagram at: https://www.instagram.com/mredwardantonio/ or answering Bible questions at: https://elevatingyourlife.org/.
THE BIBLE’S UNIQUE DESIGN
Ten Reasons to Trust the Bible –
The Bible has a “unique” design. Indeed, it is one-of-a-kind — like no other book that has ever been written. There is nothing like it and it has no equal. This can be seen in a number of ways:
1. It Was Fifteen Hundred Years in the Making
From the composition of the first biblical book until the last, a period of about fifteen hundred years elapsed. The Old Testament was written between 1400 and 400 B.C. The books of the New Testament were written from approximately A.D. 40 to A.D. 90.
Thus, we have about fifteen hundred years from the writing of the first book to the composition of the last book.
2. The Bible Was Written by Many Authors from Various Occupations
Thousands of years ago, God chose certain men to receive His divine Words and then record them for humanity. In total, over forty different human authors wrote the books of the Bible. These writers came from a variety of backgrounds and occupations.
These people included shepherds, Hosea and Amos, fishermen Peter and John, a former tax collector, Matthew, a doctor, Luke, and a military general, Joshua. At least four of the writers lived in the royal household: the kings, David and Solomon, a prime minister, Daniel, and a cupbearer, Nehemiah.
Only a few of them, such as Paul, Luke, Daniel and Moses, received the finest education of their time. In sum, each of these authors had unique experiences and each one of them was different in their character or makeup.
3. Scripture Was Written in Different Literary Forms with Different Writing Styles
The Bible consists of a number of different literary forms. Scripture is a collection of letters, sermons, laws, poetic descriptions, narratives of historical events, prayers, praise, practical sayings and the warnings of the prophets.
The sixty-six books also contain a wide array of writing styles that express the entire range of human emotions.
Therefore, what we find in the Bible is a wide range of literary forms as well as different literary ability on the part of the authors.
4. The Biblical Books Were Written upon Three Continents
The books of the Bible were composed upon three different continents—Africa, Asia and Europe. For example, the writings of Ezekiel were composed in Babylon (Asia); Moses wrote the first five books of the Bible in the Sinai desert (Africa); and the Apostle Paul wrote the letter to the believers in Philippi while in Rome (Europe).
5. Scripture Was Composed in Different Physical Circumstances
There were a variety of circumstances in which the Biblical books were composed. Moses, for example, wrote while leading the children of Israel through the wilderness. Jeremiah penned his book while in a dungeon in Israel. Ezekiel composed his work while a captive in Babylon.
The Apostle Paul wrote several of his letters while in a Roman prison. John the evangelist wrote the Book of Revelation while banished to the island of Patmos. Obviously, there was not one particular place or circumstance in which all of the biblical books were composed.
Though many other religions had a certain place where the ‘divine word’ was revealed, this is not the case with the Bible. The God of the Bible was able to reveal Himself in many different places and over an extended period of time.
6. Three Different Ancient Languages Were Employed in the Writing of Scripture
The Bible was written in three different ancient languages. The Old Testament was written mostly in Hebrew with some parts composed in Aramaic—a language similar to Hebrew. The New Testament was originally written in Greek.
7. There Are Many Different Subjects Covered in the Bible
The Bible also covers a variety of diverse subjects. Some of these subjects were historical, what has happened in history, while some of the subjects were prophetical, what will happen in the future. These subjects include such things as: the existence and nature of God, the creation of the universe, how human beings originated, the meaning of human existence, the purpose of our existence, the final destiny of humankind and the planet earth.
8. They Wrote about the Unknown Future
Many of the biblical writers wrote about events that were to happen in the future. These events were unknown to humans, but known to God. While not every biblical author addressed events in the future, many of them did. Therefore, the Bible is a book that contains a number of different predictions of future events from a variety of different writers.
9. The Biblical Writers Received Their Message in Different Ways
There is also the fact that the writers of Scripture received their messages in different ways. God directly told some writers what to say. Others were given their message in visions and dreams. Still others were given divine inspiration when they wrote.
And finally, there were others whom God directed to record historical events as well as God’s interpretation of the events. The point is this: the writers of Scripture received God’s Word in a number of different ways.
The writer to the Hebrews noted this when he wrote:
In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. (Hebrews 1:1-2)
God spoke at different times, in different ways and to different people.
10. Most Authors Did Not Know One Another
Because the Bible was written over a period of fifteen hundred years, most of the writers did not personally know the other writers of Scripture. Neither were they familiar with their writings. For example, the Old Testament authors would have been unfamiliar with the New Testament writers and writings. Indeed, it was not composed until 400 years after the Old Testament was completed.
Therefore, since most of the writers were separated from one another by both time and space, and were not personally acquainted with each another, there is no chance that they could have conspired together.
We Would Expect Chaos to Result from These Diverse CircumstancesHence, the Bible was written over a period of fifteen hundred years by forty different human authors from various backgrounds who wrote in different languages, upon different continents, in different circumstances, upon different subjects, including the unknown future, and in different literary forms. These authors, for the most part, did not know each other. With all of these contrasts, one would expect something chaotic and disjointed when their writings were assembled into one book.
The Amazing Thing: There Is One Unfolding Story in Scripture
Yet the Bible is a unity; one unfolding account from beginning to end in complete harmony and continuity.
The Old Testament is incomplete without the New Testament, and yet the New Testament does not make sense without the Old Testament. Together the two testaments give a harmonious account of the dealings of God with humanity without any contradiction. Jesus made this clear when He said the following:
Scripture cannot be broken. (John 10:35)
There is one system of teaching, and one plan of salvation.
Scripture Is Christ-CenteredThere is more. The main theme of the Bible is the Person of Jesus Christ. Both the Old and New Testaments testify to Jesus Christ as the Lord of Glory.
Jesus Himself told the religious rulers of His day that the Old Testament Scriptures spoke of Him.
The Gospel according to John records Jesus saying the following:
You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me... If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me. (John 5:39,46)According to Jesus, Old Testament history is His story.
He is the theme of the Old Testament.
On the day Jesus rose from the dead, He walked alongside two of His disciples on the road to Emmaus. During their conversation, the Bible records Jesus explaining how the Old Testament spoke of Him.
And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself. (Luke 24:27)The resurrected Christ explained that the Old Testament predicted His coming.
Later on that day, Jesus said the following to His disciples:
This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms. (Luke 24:44)
Thus, according to Jesus, the Hebrew Scripture is all about Him.
As we shall see, the evidence demonstrates Jesus’ claim to be true.
The Old Testament—Preparation for the Christ: the Promise of His ComingAfter the creation and fall of humanity, God promised to send a Savior. He established an elaborate system of sacrifices that looked forward to the coming of the Savior or Deliverer.
The Old Testament prepares for the coming of the promised Deliverer—also known as the Messiah. The prophet Isaiah spoke of this. He wrote:
A voice of one calling: “In the wilderness prepare the way for the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” (Isaiah 40:3)
The theme that runs throughout the entire Old Testament is the establishment of the kingdom of God through the reign of the Messiah. The Old Testament looks forward to His coming.
The Gospels’ Manifestation of the Christ: the Proof of His ComingThe gospels record the manifestation of the predicted Messiah. The New Testament testifies of the arrival of the One promised in the Old Testament.
We read John saying about Jesus:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God... The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:1,14)
The Messiah came as promised.
John the Baptist testified that Jesus was the One who would take away the sins of the world.
The Bible says:
The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29)
Jesus of Nazareth is indeed the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy regarding the promised Savior.
Acts—the Propagation of Jesus’ Message: His Message Goes Out to the Entire WorldThe Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth, came into the world as had been predicted in the Old Testament. However, Christ was not accepted by His people. The Bible tells us that Jesus died on a cross for the sins of the world and three days later rose from the dead. Forty days after His resurrection, He ascended into heaven.
Before returning to heaven, Jesus told His disciples the following:
But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. (Acts 1:8)
They were instructed to tell others the gospel, or good news, of His death and resurrection. The propagation of the message of the risen Christ is recorded in the Book of Acts.
Paul—the Explanation of Jesus’ Coming: the Two Comings of Christ Explained
Why did the Christ, or Messiah, have to die when He came into the world?
Was this something that the Old Testament had predicted?
Yes, it was. In his letters, the Apostle Paul, gives the explanation of the two comings of Christ.
He wrote to the Colossians:
I have become its servant by the commission God gave me to present to you the word of God in its fullness-- the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the Lord’s people. To them God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. (Colossians 1:25-27)
The “mystery” or “sacred secret” has now been revealed. The Old Testament Scripture actually spoke of two different comings of Christ into the world. The Christ, or Messiah, would come the first time to die. Jesus fulfilled this prediction at His first coming. Scripture records how He died for the sins of the world but then rose from the dead three days later. Later He ascended into heaven.
However, our world will see Jesus again. Indeed, the Bible says that He will come a second time to the earth. The same Jesus who was crucified and rose from the dead will return to our earth to rule over it. This is what the Old Testament also predicted. The Apostle Paul was the man chosen by God to explain these two comings of Christ.
Paul emphasized that Christ now resides in those who believe in Jesus by means of the Holy Spirit. This promise is given to everyone who believes in Him. This includes Gentiles (non-Jews) as well as Jews.
Revelation—the Consummation of All Things in Christ: Jesus Christ Will ReturnFinally, we come to the Book of Revelation, which records Christ coming back to rule and reign upon the earth. The Bible says:
“Look, he is coming with the clouds,” and “every eye will see him, even those who pierced him”; and all peoples on earth “will mourn because of him.” So shall it be! Amen. (Revelation 1:7)
All things that have been predicted in the Old and New Testament will be consummated in the return of Jesus Christ.
To sum up, the Old Testament records the preparation for the coming of Christ while the Gospels record His coming or manifestation. The Book of Acts chronicles the propagation of the gospel (the good news) concerning Jesus Christ and the letters of Paul explain the two comings of Christ as well as the implications of the gospel for our lives. The Book of Revelation describes the Second Coming of Jesus Christ and the establishment of His eternal kingdom. Again, it is all about Him!
The Bible glorifies Jesus Christ and centers on Him. It provides one harmonious message from beginning to end, and this message is all about the Lord Jesus.
A Challenge to Duplicate the Unity of the Bible in Modern Times
Those who do not consider the harmony of the Bible as something amazing should accept the following challenge:
Locate twenty people, all living at the same time, who all speak the same language, who have the same amount of education and come from the same social background. Put them in separate rooms and ask them to write their opinion on only two controversial subjects, such as the nature and existence of God and the purpose of life here on earth.
Would you expect their writings to agree? Would you find one unfolding account from beginning to end with no contradictions or distortions? Not at all! You would expect to get about twenty different opinions.
Then how can we explain the unity of the Bible?
The Bible consists of forty authors, not twenty, writing over a fifteen hundred year time span, not writing at the same time, writing from different educational backgrounds, in different languages, from different cultures and writing on many different subjects (including the unknown future).
Yet, they write with complete unity and harmony. The way that the Scriptures have been composed argues against their unity, yet we find that there is an intelligent design throughout the pages of Scripture.
Conclusion: There Is One Author Who Is Behind All of the Books; God HimselfThe explanation that the Bible gives for its remarkable unity is that God has divinely inspired the process.
The one author of the books of the Bible is God the Holy Spirit. The Bible says the following:
All Scripture is God-breathed, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness. (2 Timothy 3:16)
The claim is that all Scripture is “God-breathed.” This means the authority of God is ultimately behind the composition of each book.
Peter wrote about how all of Scripture is divinely inspired. He said:
Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation of things. For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. (2 Peter 1:20-21)
Ultimately, the Scriptures are not of mere human origin.
Hence, the harmony of the Bible can be understood by realizing that the ultimate author behind the books is God. This fact puts the Bible in a class by itself.
It is evidence like this that led the great archaeologist, W. F. Albright, to make the following conclusions with respect to the Bible:
The Bible towers in content above all earlier religious literature; and it towers just as impressively over all subsequent literature in the direct simplicity of its message and... its appeal to men of all lands and times.
(W.F. Albright, The Christian Century, November, 1958)
Therefore, the unique design of the Bible is truly a wondrous thing. It is different from all other books that have ever been written. Throughout its pages, it clearly shows that an Intelligent Designer is behind each and every Book.
Summary – Reason 2
The Bible’s Unique DesignThe Bible has a unique makeup. It is different from any other book that has ever been composed. Over forty different authors wrote the various books over a period of fifteen hundred years. These authors came from all walks of life with different experiences, different levels of education and different personal makeup. They include fishermen, shepherds, a doctor and a former tax collector. These differences are reflected in their writing styles.
The biblical authors lived on three different continents—Africa, Asia and Europe. They also wrote under a number of different circumstances—including persecution and prison. The authors of Scripture wrote in three different languages—Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek. The Bible was written in a number of different literary forms such as narrative, poetry and law.
The writers of the various books cover many different topics such as the existence of God, the creation and purpose of humankind, the explanation for the origin of evil and the coming of the Savior. They also wrote about the unknown future.
In addition, the writers received their messages in a number of different ways including dreams, visions and direct revelation. Also, the writers of Scripture, for the most part, did not even know one another.
Yet when their writings are put together there is one harmonious account from beginning to end with Jesus Christ as the main character. What is the best explanation for this feature? It is the one that the Bible gives about itself—it is the Word of the living God.
In fact, Jesus Himself testified to the unity of the Scripture. He said that the Old Testament was all about Him. While it looked forward to His coming, the gospels record the fulfillment of these promises.
The Book of Acts records the message of Jesus going out to the world. The New Testament letters provide the explanation of the two comings of Christ while the Book of Revelation records the consummation of all things in Christ.
Consequently, when we examine the Scripture, we find clear evidence of intelligent design from beginning to end. This unique design of the Bible is a true wonder.
This set of visualizations started as a collaboration between Pastor Christoph Römhild and myself in October of 2007. He had put together a dataset of cross references found in the Bible (most often seen in study Bibles at the bottom or edges of the page, linking concepts, locations and people found in different parts of the text). Together, we struggled to find an elegant solution to render the data, 63,779 cross references in total. We set our sights on something more beautiful than functional. At the same time, we wanted a visualization that honored and revealed the complexity of the data at every level – as one leans in, smaller details should become visible. This ultimately led us to the multi-colored arc diagram you see below.
Jordan Peterson has used this graphic in his lecture series to talk about how the Bible can be thought of as "the first hyperlinked book".
The bar graph that runs along the bottom represents all of the chapters in the Bible, starting with Genesis 1 on the left. Books alternate in color between light and dark gray, with the first book of the Old and New Testaments in white. The length of each bar denotes the number of verses in that chapter (for instance, the longest bar is the longest chapter in the Bible, Psalm 119). Each of the 63,779 cross references found in the Bible are depicted by a single arc - the color corresponds to the distance between the two chapters, creating a rainbow-like effect.
Biblical Social Network (People and Places)
Soon after finishing the cross-references arc visualization, I set out to create a new data set derived from the Bible’s text. This time I wanted to better capture the story, most notably the people and places, and the interactions between them. I did this by building a list of biblical names (2619 in total) and parsing a digital copy of the King James Bible. Each time two names occurred in the same verse, a connection was created between them. This produced essentially a social network of people and places. Because such relationships had no ordering or structure (unlike the cross references), I used a spatial clustering algorithm I developed for one of my other projects. This process causes related entities and highly connected groups to coalesce. I themed the output like an old piece of parchment.
Additional details: Entities with less than 40 connections are drawn at an angle. Those with 40 or more connected entities are rendered horizontally - size is linearly proportional to the number of connections. The graph contains over 10,000 connections, too many to be useful and thus made purposely faint as not to overwhelm the piece. The names On, So, and No were excluded since they are both names and words (and I wasn't doing anything clever like named entity recognition when parsing the text).
Distribution of Biblical People and Places
With the biblical names list already compiled and a copy of the King James Bible sitting on my desktop, another visualization was inevitable. I settled on a classic distribution visualization, which shows where various people and places occur in the text. Much of the Bible is chronological, so there is a strong temporal ordering.
Visually, this is the entire Bible printed on a single piece of paper (you'll need to look at the high-res version to see it). Floating above the text are the people and places that appear in the Bible - more than 2,600 names in total. These are positioned according to their average location in the text. Faded lines are rendered to show where they occur. Additionally, font size is proportional to the number of occurrences in the text - the larger the name, the more frequently it appears. The names On, So, and No were excluded.
I've provided the visualization in three color themes. Additionally, because the graph is so dense, I've included two extra versions for people who really want to study it up close. These are simply splitting the content - the "All Names" version is the two combined. You really need to download the high resolution versions to see all of the detail.
Bible Cross References
340,000 cross references identify
commonalities between different parts of the Bible—chains of similar themes, words, events, or people.
Enter a Bible Verse to Search for
Cross References-Click Here: https://www.openbible.info/labs/cross-references/
One of the attributes of God is His rational nature. God is inherently logical, rational, and reasonable. He is a God of truth. He created humans in His own image, which includes this same rational nature. The human mind was created by God to function rationally. God’s communication to humanity presupposes this feature. The Bible was written in human language, and it was written in such a way that it assumes that its intended meanings may be understood correctly. In fact, within the Bible itself, beginning in the Old Testament, are found the hermeneutical principles by which the reader may understand the intended meanings. These principles are not “new” principles, developed by modern scholars, and unable to be known and utilized by ancient man. Rather, they were embedded in the Old Testament thousands of years ago for all who are willing to dig deeply enough into God’s Word to discover them.
This section summarizes six key principles apparent in the Old Testament that are indispensable to properly understanding the Bible. Many Bible passages demand that the reader of the Bible apply simple-but-necessary principles of interpretation in order to arrive at the meaning God intended.
Principle 1: Absolute Truth Is AttainableAbsolute, objective truth exists and can be known. The human mind can come to a knowledge of that truth. The Old Testament everywhere assumes that humans can and must come to the knowledge of absolute truth. Solomon said to “buy the truth, and do not sell it, also wisdom and instruction and understanding” (Proverbs 23:23). Both Isaiah and Jeremiah affirmed that people can, and must, be taught in order to come to knowledge of those things that must be known (Isaiah 54:13; Jeremiah 31:34; cf. John 6:45; 7:17). Moses stressed to the Israelites that it would be absolutely imperative for them to teach their children those things that would be necessary to please God (Deuteronomy 6:1-9). Moses also explained that the purpose of the desert hardships was to make the Israelites “know that man shall not live by bread alone; but man lives by every word that proceeds from the mouth of the Lord” (Deuteronomy 8:3). If all of life is to be governed by the words that proceed from God, humans are capable of comprehending those words and coming to a correct understanding of what is required of them.
Moses further pointed out that “the secret things belong to the Lord our God, but those things which are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law” (Deuteronomy 29:29). Certainly, there are many things that humans cannot know—things far beyond our limited capability to understand (Romans 11:33). However, God has revealed certain truths that we are well capable of grasping, and that God expects us to comprehend. These truths “belong” to us. That is, they are directed to us, and we will be held accountable for our reaction to them. Sadly, many people dwell on matters that cannot be fully known, while they neglect those things for which they will be held responsible in eternity. No wonder God frequently issued warnings against being ignorant, uninformed, or resistant to knowing (Isaiah 1:3; 5:13; Jeremiah 9:6; Hosea 4:6).
Solomon observed that the words of God’s wisdom “are all plain to him who understands, and right to those who find knowledge” (Proverbs 8:9). His wisdom claims that “those who seek me diligently will find me” (Proverbs 8:17). Could Adam and Eve know whether it was permissible for them to eat the fruit (Genesis 3:1-3)? Could Cain know what sacrifice God expected (Genesis 4:5)? Could Moses know whether he should speak to or strike the rock (Numbers 20:8-11)? These instances demonstrate that the perennial problem with humanity is not the ability to come to knowledge of God’s Word; rather, the consistent problem is the will and the desire to conform. Many other passages leave no doubt that God has a body of truth that He has made available to mankind, and He expects every person to use mental faculties and cognitive powers to understand that truth.
Principle 2: Logical Reasoning Is RequiredThe Old Testament also conveys the idea that in order to arrive at God’s truth, correct reasoning must be employed. Isaiah quoted God’s statement to the nation: “Come now, and let us reason together” (1:18). God later said: “Put Me in remembrance; let us contend together; state your case, that you may be acquitted” (43:26). In his farewell address to the nation, Samuel declared: “Now therefore, stand still, that I may reason with you before the Lord” (1 Samuel 12:7). Solomon insisted that “the first one to plead his cause seems right, until his neighbor comes and examines him” (Proverbs 18:17). He also said, “the simple believes every word, but the prudent man considers well his steps” (Proverbs 14:15). We must use our God-given rationality to think clearly, accurately, and logically in our treatment of Scripture, as well as in sorting out the daily affairs of life. These passages teach that we both can, and must, ascertain the correct meaning of Scripture through the proper exercise of our reasoning powers.
Principle 3: Diligent Effort Must Be ExpendedThe task of learning what God wants us to know requires considerable effort. We must be willing to expend the time and trouble to carefully, prayerfully, and diligently analyze and examine God’s words. Moses underscored this principle in his remarks to the Israelites on the plains of Moab just prior to their entrance into the Land of Canaan. He described the task as requiring constant, consistent attention:
And these words which I command you today shall be in your heart; you shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates (Deuteronomy 6:6-9).
Solomon referred to the attentiveness required to remain true to God: “My son, keep your father’s command, and do not forsake the law of your mother. Bind them continually upon your heart; tie them around your neck. When you roam, they will lead you; when you sleep, they will keep you; and when you awake, they will speak with you” (Proverbs 6:20-22). This attentiveness must include an intense desire to pursue, know, and acquire truth—like the psalmist who wanted God’s laws so badly that he could almost taste them (Psalm 19:10). It was to be sought after more than fine gold (Psalm 19:10; 119:127). Most people are simply too busy, or unwilling, to expend effort to such an intensity. Life has too many distractions, and offers too many other interests. But the Bible makes clear that if we wish to understand God’s will for our lives, then arduous, persistent, aggressive effort is essential to know and do that will.
Principle 4: Beware of False InterpretationA fourth principle found in the Bible is that we must recognize that there are incorrect interpretations and that we are capable of distinguishing the correct from the incorrect. False teachers actually do exist who misrepresent God’s Word and deceive people with incorrect interpretations. God, through Jeremiah, warned the nation: “Do not listen to the words of the prophets who prophesy to you. They make you worthless; they speak a vision of their own heart, not from the mouth of the Lord” (Jeremiah 23:16). Think of the many con men and shysters throughout Bible history who sought to lead God’s people astray—from Pharaoh’s magicians (Exodus 7:11; 2 Timothy 3:8) and Ahab and Jezebel’s prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18:19), to Zedekiah (1 Kings 22:11,24) and Hananiah (Jeremiah 28). God expected people to see through their charades and their erroneous ideologies, and to recognize the pure Word of God.
So it is clear that the Old Testament warns of false interpretations and misrepresentations of God’s Word. In God’s sight, there is only the truth on the one hand, and various departures from that truth on the other hand. All people are required to distinguish between truth and error, and to cling to the truth. “To the law and to the testimony! If they do not speak according to this word, it is because there is no light in them” (Isaiah 8:20).
Principle 5: Remain Within Scriptural ParametersThe Bible also teaches that the interpreter must remain within the framework of Scripture, neither adding to nor subtracting from the written revelation. Moses declared in the long ago: “You shall not add to the word which I command you, neither shall you diminish ought from it, that you may keep the commandments of the Lord your God which I command you” (Deuteronomy 4:2; 12:32). Solomon said: “Every word of God is pure…add not to His words, least He reprove you, and you be found a liar” (Proverbs 30:5-6). Jeremiah urged: “Stand in the ways and see, and ask for the old paths, where the good way is, and walk in it” (Jeremiah 6:16). In other words, the individual is responsible for identifying the limits of God’s directives, and then confining himself to those directives. These passages make clear that God has defined the parameters of moral, spiritual, and religious truth for humanity. He expects us to confine ourselves to His instructions in our thinking and practice.
The Old Testament is riddled with instances of people failing to conform themselves precisely to the instructions given to them by God. Cain was neither an atheist nor a reprobate. He, in fact, was a religious individual who was willing to engage in religious worship. He was also to be commended for directing his worship behavior toward the right God. Nevertheless, his slight adjustment in the specifics of worship action evoked God’s displeasure (Genesis 4:5; 1 John 3:12). Nadab and Abihu were the right men, at the right time, at the right place, with the right censers, and the right incense. Yet by using the wrong fire, they were destroyed by God (Leviticus 10:1-2). King Saul was censured twice for his unauthorized actions (1 Samuel 13:11-13; 15:19-24). Uzzah was struck dead simply for touching the Ark of the Covenant, though his apparent motive was to protect the Ark (2 Samuel 6:7). David later identified the problem by saying it happened “because we did not consult Him (God) about the proper order” (1 Chronicles 15:13). God’s previous instructions on the matter were not followed as they should have been.
Remaining within the framework of Scripture requires a proper recognition of the role of the “silence” of the Scriptures. A misunderstanding occurs in two ways: (1) some reason that if the Bible is silent concerning a particular practice (and therefore does not explicitly condemn it), they are free to engage in that practice; (2) others reason that if the Bible does not mention a practice, then they are not free to engage in that practice. But neither of these viewpoints accounts adequately for the biblical picture.
The Bible may not expressly mention a given item, and yet authorize its use. For example, Noah was told to construct a boat, without being given all of the details about how to do so (Genesis 6:14). He was authorized to achieve the task using a variety of carpentry tools. God’s silence on this particular point therefore was permissive. On the other hand, God did not explicitly forbid using poplar, cedar, or ash. Rather, He specified “gopherwood.” God’s silence was therefore restrictive in this case.
Two further examples illustrate this principle. God did not explicitly forbid Nadab and Abihu from using fire from some other source than the one divinely specified. He simply told them what fire they were to use. Use of fire from any other source was an unauthorized act, meaning it had not received God’s prior approval. The text says that they “offered profane fire before the Lord, which He had not commanded them” (Leviticus 10:1). It was not that God had told them not to do so; it was that He had not told them to do it.
In like manner, when Joshua received instructions from God regarding the proper tactics to be used in conquering the city of Jericho, God spoke in a positive fashion, specifying what they were to do. He did not tell them what they were not to do. The instructions included the act of shouting when the trumpet was sounded (Joshua 6:3-5). However, Joshua—who obviously understood the principle of remaining within the confines of God’s instructions, and grasped the concept of restrictive silence—relayed God’s instructions to the nation by offering further clarification: “Now Joshua had commanded the people, saying, “You shall not shout or make any noise with your voice, nor shall a word proceed out of your mouth, until the day I say to you, ‘Shout!’ Then you shall shout” (Joshua 6:10-11). Joshua understood that things could be forbidden by God—not because He explicitly forbade them—but because He simply gave no authority to do them. With diligent and honest study, we, too, can settle questions of interpretation and authority.
Principle 6: Maintain a Receptive AttitudeThat brings us to a sixth principle for understanding the Bible. We must have the right mindset, the right attitude, a genuine desire to know the will of God, and an honest heart to accept the truth, no matter how difficult the demands of that truth might be. Solomon noted that “a wise man will hear and increase learning, and a man of understanding will attain wise counsel” (Proverbs 1:5). “Give instruction to a wise man, and he will be still wiser; teach a just man, and he will increase in learning” (Proverbs 9:9). These passages make clear that we cannot go to Scripture with the ulterior motive of getting our way or proving our position. We must be eager to learn from Scripture what the Lord intended for us to learn. We must not be like Jeremiah’s contemporaries who defiantly asserted: “We will not walk therein” and “We will not listen” (6:16-17).
ConclusionThis extremely brief discussion of interpretation principles that are evident in the Old Testament is certainly not intended to be complete. But it shows how the Old Testament contains within itself principles by which its truth may be extracted. All accountable humans have it within their power to rise above their prejudices and presuppositions sufficiently to arrive at God’s truth—if they genuinely wish to do so. There is simply no such thing as “my interpretation” and “your interpretation.” There is only God’s interpretation and God’s meaning—and with diligent, rational study, we can arrive at the truth on any subject that is vital to our spiritual well-being.
Rather than shrug off the conflicting views and positions on various subjects, and rather than dismiss religious differences as hopeless, irresolvable, and irrelevant, we must be about the business of studying and searching God’s Book, cautiously refraining from misinterpreting and misusing Scripture. If we will give diligent and careful attention to the task with an honest heart that is receptive to the truth, we can be certain of our ability to come to the knowledge of God’s will. The Old Testament is an appropriate place to commence this quest.
I Met Messiah,
One For Israel
One could argue the invention of the book is the most important technological development in Christian history. What we today call a “book” is also referred to by the Latin word codex, or a series of pages bound together on one side. Although we take this innovation for granted today, it was, at one point, as cutting edge as the newest modern smartphone. Christianity’s readiness to embrace the new technology, along with Judaism’s apparent reticence to it, was among the most important reasons for the growth of the church and the spread of the Gospel in the early centuries of the Common Era. Since the term “Bible” means “book,” either in the form of a scroll or a codex, it is imperative that we consider the production of books in the ancient world in determining how, indeed, we got the Bible.
Before the Book...
The “book” in the form of the codex is a relatively recent development. Apparently invented by the Romans, none of the Old Testament characters ever saw a codex. Thus we should not imagine Moses, Isaiah, or Daniel reading a book as we would today. Other, less convenient writing mediums were used. By the time of the New Testament, however, the codex had made its way into the world. Consider various writing materials and mediums before the book, as we know it, was born.
earliest known writing material is the clay tablet. Typical of Assyria and Babylonia, wet clay tablets would be inscribed with a stylus and usually placed in the Sun to dry. The Bible only contains one reference to such a writing surface. Ezekiel, in Babylonian exile, is instructed, “You also, son of man, take a clay tablet and lay it before you, and portray on it a city, Jerusalem” (Ezekiel 4:1). Although Ezekiel is not being commanded to write words here, the process of drawing a picture is the same. The Hebrew word for “writing tablet” (levēnāh) is likely borrowed from an Akkadian word meaning “baked,” Akkadian being the language of the Assyrians and Babylonians. The same word describes dried bricks elsewhere used for building materials (e.g., Genesis 11:3; Exodus 1:14).
Israel had its own version of baked mud. Broken pieces of pottery, known by the Greek word ostraca, served as the ancient equivalent to scrap paper. Although the Bible never mentions ostraca as a writing surface, hundreds of ostraca have been discovered in Palestine from many periods of history. The “Samaria Ostraca” collection, probably dating no later than the eighth century B.C., includes over 100 documents relating to agriculture. The Lachish Letters, written in the early sixth century B.C. when Judea was under Babylonian attack, record communications between the strategic military fortresses in the midst of the Babylonian siege.
was readily available in ancient Israel. A heavy and durable material, stone was apparently the writing material for the earliest parts of the Scriptures (Exodus 32:19; Deuteronomy 9:17). Although no Scripture engraved in stone has survived from the Old Testament period, a number of secular inscriptions have survived, two of which mention the “house of David,” and date to the ninth century B.C. (the Tel Dan inscription and the Mesha inscription). In Figure 1, an artistic reconstruction of the Tel Dan inscription, I have highlighted the expressions “king of Israel” in line eight, and “house of David” in line nine.
Figure 1: Artist’s reconstruction of Tel Dan inscription. Credit: Wikimedia Commons (Creative Commons license)
Israelites also used plaster as a writing surface. Painted onto stone, the Israelites could inscribe the wet plaster with images and writing. This writing material had the advantage of being cheap and easy to erase. Of course, it was limited to indoor use. The Bible refers only once to this kind of medium (Deuteronomy 27:2-3), but many secular examples survive that are of interest to the student of the Bible. One was found in the Jordanian town of Tel Deir ‘Alla and dates to the late ninth century B.C. This plaster inscription mentions the biblical character “Balaam son of Beor” (cf. Numbers 22-24). Another, dating from around 800 B.C. from Kuntillet ‘Ajrud, raised an academic sensation because of its proposed translation, “To Yahweh of Teiman and to his Asherah.” This latter inscription provides archaeological support for what the Bible tells us: Israel worshipped the Lord alongside of other gods (Exodus 20:3; Judges 3:7; 2 Kings 21:7). Whether the reference to Asherah, a female goddess, represents the mistaken belief that God had a wife is disputed among scholars.
whereas the Mesopotamians preferred the clay tablet, the Greeks generally used the wax tablet. Two flat pieces of wood were held together on one side with a hinge or series of cords through drilled holes. The wooden pieces were slightly hollowed to receive a thin coat of wax which the author could inscribe with the desired message. The resulting product resembles in appearance a modern laptop computer (see Figure 2). It would be possible to adjoin several additional wooden plates so that the product began to take on an accordion shape. It is from this accordion-style series of tablets that we receive the word “codex,” and probably the concept as well. The wax tablet proved to be popular among students and note-takers alike because it could be quickly erased and reused.
Metal was occasionally used as a writing material. The earliest copy we possess of any part of the biblical text is found on two small silver scrolls that were discovered in a tomb dating to the late seventh century B.C. These scrolls contain the so-called “priestly blessing” (Numbers 6:23-26). Gold is mentioned as a writing material in Exodus 28:36 where God orders a plate to be worn by the High Priest engraved with “holy to the Lord.” This engraving, however, represents an exceptional case for an important spiritual office. Metal otherwise would have been impractical as a normal writing surface.
PapyrusPapyrus does not appear to have been common in ancient Israel, but the Bible does reference the papyrus plant twice (Job 8:11; 35:7). Interestingly, the Hebrew word translated “papyrus” (gōmeh) describes the boat made by the mother of Moses (Exodus 2:3), but the term is translated “bulrushes” in the New King James Version (cf. Isaiah 18:2 where the word is used in a similar context). An aquatic plant native to Egypt, papyrus became the dominant writing material in Egypt for centuries. Our first example is conventionally dated to around 3000 B.C., although the papyrus is, unfortunately, blank.
To manufacture a papyrus page, one starts by peeling away the papyrus bark to expose the pith. Then the pith is cut into uniform thin strips which are laid beside one another. A second identical layer is then placed horizontally across the vertical strips at a right angle. A light, wooden hammer pounds the two layers together until they merge to form a relatively durable page. Finally, the papyrus is dried and scrubbed with a pumice stone so as to create a smooth, light writing surface. Multiple pages are then glued together on one edge to form a continuous scroll.
Because the papyrus was native to Egypt, the first “Israelite” papyri that survive are the Elephantine papyri dating to the fifth century B.C. These documents reveal a Jewish community living on Elephantine Island in southern Egypt, but still retaining contact with the homeland. The community sent letters both to the Persian authorities and to the Jerusalem priests requesting permission to rebuild their Temple to the Lord and asking to observe the Passover.
The most durable and expensive writing surface in antiquity was parchment. Still used for valuable archival documents today (the Declaration of Independence is written on parchment), parchment is carefully produced from animal skins. “Vellum” is the term used to describe the best parchment in antiquity, and our finest manuscripts of the New Testament are written on this material. The rise of the codex is at least partially responsible for the popularity of parchment.
The production of parchment is extremely involved. After the skin was cut away from the animal, it was scraped to remove as much hair, epidermis, and flesh as possible. Then it was soaked in slaked lime for several days and re-scraped to remove any excess hair or flesh. The skin was soaked again in a bath of lime to cleanse it, after which it was stretched onto a wooden frame to dry. After a lengthy and repetitious process of wetting and scraping, the skin would then be smoothed with a pumice stone and whitened with chalk, yielding a smooth and durable writing surface. Paul mentions his “parchments,” probably referring to part of the Bible (2 Timothy 4:13). Such a copy would have been extremely valuable, and it is understandable why Paul would desire to possess such an object in the days leading up to his death.
Parchment was preferred to papyrus as time went on (especially by the fourth century A.D.). This was due to its strength, durability, versatility, and beauty.
As Colin Roberts and T.C. Skeat recognize,
even the strongest supporters of papyrus would not deny that parchment of good quality is the finest writing material ever devised by man. It is immensely strong, remains flexible indefinitely under normal conditions, does not deteriorate with age, and possesses a smooth, even surface which is both pleasant to the eye and provides unlimited scope for the finest writing and illumination.1
The Production and Cost of Books
The modern book industry is big business, generating over 27 billion dollars worldwide in 2013.2 The largest printing houses can produce over one million printed pages per day! Trade paperbacks can be widely purchased for less than a dollar, and specialized reference sets rarely exceed $500. Furthermore, over 84% of the world’s modern population is functionally literate.3 These figures stand in stark contrast to the reality in the ancient world.
First of all, the production of books is tremendously tedious. We have already spoken of the labor that would go into producing a single sheet of writing material. Then one has to locate a scribe, purchase the proper concoction of ink, and dictate the material. Then follows the “binding” in the case of a codex or rolling the sheets onto a wooden rod in the case of a scroll. Such a process yields one copy of one work, which was proofread before additional copies were made. The next step is to make multiple copies for dispersion. Dispersing copies is literally called “giving out” (ekdosis in Greek; editio in Latin, from which we derive the word “edition”), and is the equivalent to what we today call “publication.”
Second, books were expensive. Each of the aforementioned steps costs money. Scribes charged by the line, and their fee represented the bulk of the cost of production. The Edict of Diocletian to fix prices (issued A.D. 301) states, “To a scribe for best writing, 25 denarii per 100 lines; for second quality writing, 20 denarii per 100 lines; to a notary for writing a petition or legal document, 10 denarii per 100 lines.”4 The fact that the emperor felt the need to fix prices indicates that inflation had run rampant in his day. Scribal fees in the first century would have been much less, but books were by no means cheap. Martial records that a high-quality book of approximately 40 pages (a total of ca. 120 lines) would cost five denarii, or nearly a week’s pay for a day laborer.5 Slightly later, Pliny the Younger (ca. A.D. 61-115) informs us that his uncle’s library of common books could have been sold for 400,000 sesterces (approximately 16,000 denarii).
As expensive as books were, money did not pile up in the lap of the author. No author of the early centuries of our era expected to receive substantial compensation for his writing. This was the business of booksellers. When Greek became the lingua franca of the classical world after the conquests of Alexander, the world witnessed the construction of a number of public libraries. These public collections spawned private libraries, which were guarded as precious treasures. Of course, book collectors required booksellers. We have the names of several from Rome who maintained prestigious bookstores from the first century B.C. through the second century A.D.: the Sosii brothers, Dorus, Tryphon, Quintus Pollius Valerianus, Secundus, and Atrectus.7
Most of these individuals would have been responsible for copying the books they sold. After all, librarius is a term both for “bookseller” and “copyist.” How they copied books we do not know. Some have imagined a lector (“reader”) surrounded by dozens of scribes taking down the text at his dictation, but no direct evidence of such large-scale production exists.8 In any case, it is true that booksellers were not responsible for books of the finest quality. Wealthy collectors and scholars preferred to keep slaves trained as scribes.9 The example of Cicero (106-43 B.C.) is exceptional, but his book distributer, Atticus, had a private scribal army sufficient to meet demand after Cicero’s death.
We should pause here to mention that the preceding paragraphs represent exceptional cases. Most people in the ancient world could not read, and most of those who did could not afford books. Public readings thus became an important element of informal public education. The desire on the part of pagans to learn about the Jews or Christians doubtless drove many to attend synagogues and, later, churches, where it seems the chief aim from the beginning was the reading of Scripture. Literate or not, all had the opportunity to be educated in the Word of God.
From Scroll to Codex...
Judaism preferred the scroll. The huge archive of Dead Sea Scrolls discovered in the 1940s and 1950s turned up over 1,000 scrolls of both biblical and non-biblical material. Not a single codex was found. Judaism’s preference for the scroll is based on a long-established tradition of understanding the original Scriptures to be written on scrolls. The Hebrew words, however, admit other possibilities. The term usually translated “write” (kātav) can also mean “inscribe,” and the term translated “scroll” or “book” can also mean “inscription.” The earliest evidence we have for the existence of scrolls does not predate the first millennium B.C., and thus we have no evidence placing the invention of the scroll to the time of the earliest biblical books. Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that Judaism adopted the scroll from a very early time, and used it exclusively, at least for biblical writings, throughout their ancient history.
The Christians, by contrast, seem to have adopted the codex at least by the second century, and probably as early as the first century A.D. This move stands in stark contrast to the general trend. Of all the books we possess from the second century A.D., scrolls still account for 90% of the whole! So Christians countered the book culture as it was then known. Even more important, since Christian copies of the Old Testament were made from Jewish ones, we must conclude that Christians conscientiously changed the medium of Scripturefrom scroll to codex. This would have been very much “against the grain.” So why did the Christians make the move?
The codex had a number of advantages, which explain its eventual triumph over the scroll in the fourth century A.D.:
Contrast the ancient reality with the contemporary one. Consider that you likely possess dozens if not hundreds of bound books in your home. You are probably not without access to a Bible in its complete form. How we got the Bible depends in large measure on the invention of the book, for the very word “Bible” (biblos) means “book.”
The Old Testament was written over a span of about 1,000 years by approximately 30 different authors (most of whom are anonymous) in at least three different countries (Egypt, Israel, and Babylon) in two different languages (Hebrew and Aramaic). We have nothing that any of the biblical authors personally wrote, nor do we even have a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy. In fact, we cannot know for certain how many steps removed our earliest manuscripts are from the originals. All of these facts pose serious challenges to those who wish to know what the Holy Spirit originally inspired (cf. 2 Timothy 3:16).
Sensing vulnerability, critics of the Bible continue to pound away at the anvil of skepticism. They deny the possibility of any knowledge of the original text of the Bible. They remind us that some literature (especially the Prophets) originated orally, and allege we cannot know how accurately it was written. We cannot know whether or not the Bible substantially changed over the course of its transmission through time. We cannot know whether some inspired books were lost (the Bible makes numerous references to books we no longer possess). Therefore, we cannot know what to believe. How do people of faith respond to such assertions?
Can we know with any degree of confidence that we have the Bible? Can we use the evidence available to reconstruct the text of the Old Testament? These simple questions involve complex answers. In this article we shall attempt to emphasize the challenges inherent in establishing the text of the Old Testament. We shall also argue that, despite these challenges, we can, indeed, have confidence in how we got the Old Testament.
The Manuscripts of the Old TestamentThe two great codices of the Hebrew Bible are the Aleppo Codex (10thcentury A.D.) and the Leningrad Codex (11th century A.D.). These both represent the Masoretic text type, and are excellent copies. The Masoretes were Jewish scholars and textual critics who sought to preserve the traditional pronunciation of the Hebrew text. This led them to develop a system of vowel “points” to assist in pronunciation. The value of their work is that they did not wish to change the consonantal writing of the text (Hebrew, even today, is not traditionally written with vowels). The system of ketiv (pronounced, k-TEEV) and qere (pronounced k-RAY), the former meaning “what is written” and the latter “what is read,” explains that the Masoretes recognized there were transcriptional errors in the Bible, but these were not to be read since most make no sense at all in Hebrew. The fact that the Masoretes were willing to preserve the text, even when they knew it contained copying mistakes, tells us how seriously they took their work. They viewed themselves as mere transmitters, like modern copy machines. They transmitted exactly what they received.
Although the Masoretes worked in the Middle Ages, most scholars believe the basic text with which the Masoretes worked had become standard by the first century A.D. In fact, of the biblical manuscripts discovered in the area of the Dead Sea (excluding the site of Qumran), all of them match the later Masoretic text. This should give us a great deal of confidence in the text of the Old Testament. At Qumran, the so-called “proto-Masoretic” text type is the most prominent, although a greater variation can be observed here than at other Judean desert sites. This points to the careful copying of the Hebrew Bible.
All English translations today are essentially reflections of the Masoretic Hebrew text, and, if the Dead Sea Scrolls are consulted at all, they are usually accounted for in the footnotes (see especially the RSV and ESV). This is due to the fragmentary nature of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the uncertainty of using the ancient translations (such as the Septuagint) as a means to reconstruct what the Hebrew might have said. While we would love to discover the original autograph of any biblical book, the closeness of most of our earliest biblical manuscripts to those of Medieval times furnishes us a reason to have confidence in the accuracy of the transmission of our Old Testament.
The Aleppo CodexThe Aleppo Codex has a fascinating history. It was carefully copied sometime in the early 10th century A.D., and contains what was then the recent refinement of Masoretic vowel points by Aaron ben Moses ben Asher (10th century A.D.), whom the Jews regard as the greatest of Masoretic grammarians. A book of great value, it was housed in Jerusalem during the First Crusade (A.D. 1096-1099) before it was taken by the Crusaders and held for ransom. Finally released undamaged, the Codex came to rest in Egypt for the next 200 years. After this it was apparently taken to Aleppo, Syria, where it was carefully guarded for the next 600 years. Even the great textual critic Paul Kahle, former editor of the standard academic edition, Biblia Hebraica, was denied access to the Codex.
After the United Nations resolved to form the modern State of Israel in 1947, anti-Jewish riots broke out in Syria, leading the Arab population of Aleppo to burn the Great Synagogue where the Codex was housed. After this point, the story becomes nebulous. What we know for certain is that the Codex was complete or nearly complete before the riot, and today, 196 of the original 491 pages are missing. Some allege that fire destroyed these pages, but those who have closely examined the Codex find little evidence of fire damage. Others allege that pages were intentionally torn from the Codex, perhaps in an effort to save as much as possible in the midst of a precarious situation. 118 of the 196 missing pages are from the Pentateuch (the oldest and holiest part of Scripture for the Jews), and a few individual leaves have emerged through the decades. This evidence suggests that concerned Jews did in fact tear pages from the Codex likely in an effort to save them. But whether these rescued pages will ever come to light is impossible to say.
The significance of the Aleppo Codex lies in its largely complete nature for many biblical books. 295 pages survive. Only 12 books are missing completely (Genesis–Numbers, Ecclesiastes, Lamentations, Esther, Daniel, Ezra-Nehemiah, Obadiah, Jonah and Haggai), although others are missing parts (Deuteronomy, 2 Kings, Psalms, Song of Songs, Jeremiah, Amos and Micah). Still, it is the best Masoretic manuscript in existence.
The Leningrad CodexThe early 11th century Leningrad Codex is today housed in St. Petersburg, Russia (“Leningrad” under the former Soviet Union). This copy, like the Aleppo Codex, belongs to the Ben Asher family of Masoretic Hebrew manuscripts, and serves as the basis for the standard Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia and the more recent Biblia Hebraica Quinta, the standard academic editions from which most modern Old Testament translations come. The Hebrew University Bible Project, on the other hand, has elected to utilize the Aleppo Codex as its primary base text. Although scholars generally regard the Aleppo Codex as more reliable, the two manuscripts are extremely similar. The Leningrad Codex holds the distinction of being the oldest complete Hebrew Bible known to exist, although it is not even 1,000 years old.
The Nash Papyrus
Figure 1. Nash Papyrus (late second century B.C.) (Wikimedia commons, public domain)We now turn from more or less complete copies of the Bible to fragments. Acquired in 1902, the Nash Papyrus (so named from Walter Llewellyn Nash who purchased it) dates to the late 2ndcentury B.C., and was the oldest copy of any part of the Old Testament text known before the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The manuscript is small, being about 5.5 inches tall and a little over 2 inches wide (see Figure 1). Only 24 lines are legible, and these represent the Ten Commandments and part of the Shema‘ (pronounced sh-MAH) extracted from Deuteronomy 5 and 6. Some have suggested the text was a phylactery due to its size (cf. Matthew 23:5).
One interesting difference between the Nash Papyrus and the received Hebrew text is the former’s absence of “the house of slavery” in reference to Egypt (Deuteronomy 5:6). Some have alleged that, since the papyrus likely originated in Egypt, the scribe wished not to offend his homeland with such a reference, and so removed it. If the Nash Papyrus is a personal copy intended for private use, we might assume that the strict rules about the sanctity of every word of Scripture did not apply quite as strictly as it might for a synagogue copy (cf. Deuteronomy 8:3; Matthew 5:18). However, it is also possible (although less likely) that the parent-text (what the Germans call the Vorlage) did not contain these words and the scribe of the Nash Papyrus is copying what was in front of him.
The Silver Scrolls from Ketef HinnomIn 1979 two small, silver scrolls containing the Priestly Blessing (Numbers 6:23-26) were found in an excavation near Jerusalem. The larger of these texts measures just one inch in width and not quite four inches in length. The smaller is a half-inch in width and about an inch and a half in length. Despite their size, these texts, which date to the 7thcentury B.C., represent the oldest copies of any part of the biblical text we possess. Ironically, they seem to have been intended as amulets to ward off evil spirits (cf. Isaiah 3:20; Ezekiel 13:18,20).
The Dead Sea ScrollsThe oldest of the biblical manuscripts among the Dead Sea Scrolls date to the mid-3rd century B.C., and the latest date to the 1st century A.D. 4QExod–Levf (4Q17) and 4QSamb (4Q52) are the two oldest known to exist, and both date to the mid-3rd century B.C. The former probably once contained the entire Pentateuch, but now includes only five fragments totaling 259 words. The latter contains about 23 fragments and represents various sections of 1 Samuel 12-23. The Great Isaiah Scroll (1QIsaa) is the only one of the biblical Dead Sea Scrolls to survive in its entirety. Because of the fragmentary nature of the evidence, it is impossible to compile a complete Hebrew Bible from the Dead Sea Scrolls. So, while of tremendous value, our ability to apply what we learn from the Dead Sea Scrolls is limited.
The fragments that do exist offer a number of variant readings. While none of these variants alters the theology of the Old Testament, many of them are noteworthy. For example, traditional English translations set the height of Goliath at six cubits and a span, following the Masoretic Hebrew Text (1 Samuel 17:4). But the oldest Hebrew copy of the Goliath story of Samuel, 4QSama, agrees with the Septuagint that Goliath’s height was four cubits and a span. This drops the height of Goliath from about nine and a half feet to about six and a half feet! The oldest reading is perhaps the original reading.
Another example can be provided from the Great Isaiah Scroll. In Isaiah 53:11 1QIsaa agrees with the Septuagint, reading, “From the anguish of his soul he shall see light and be satisfied.” The Masoretic Hebrew, represented in most English translations, does not have the word “light.” It is uncertain whether the word “light” has been inserted into the Isaiah Scroll or removed from the Masoretic Hebrew. So, in this case, we cannot be certain what the original reading was.
There are a few occasions in which we know material is missing in the Masoretic Hebrew text. For example, Psalm 145 is an acrostic Psalm in which each line begins with the succeeding letter of the Hebrew alphabet (ד ,ג ,ב ,א, etc.). The problem is that the line beginning with the letter nun(נ) is missing. 11QPsa, the only Dead Sea Scrolls Psalms manuscript to cover Psalm 145, has the nun verse: “God is faithful in his words and gracious in all his works.” It just so happens again that the missing verse matches what was already preserved in the Septuagint long ago. There is no question the Septuagint and the Dead Sea Scrolls preserve the original reading.
I do not wish to give the impression that the Dead Sea Scrolls always agree with the Septuagint. In fact, Emanuel Tov states that no single Qumran manuscript can be regarded as the parent text of any book translated into its Septuagint Greek form. Rather, Tov offers the following statistics: of the Pentateuch, only 46 manuscripts provide a sufficient basis for analysis. Of these manuscripts, 27 (nearly 60%) clearly anticipate the later Masoretic Text, while only one generally matches the Septuagint. The remaining 18 cannot be aligned with any known textual tradition (39%). Of the remaining books of Scripture, 75 manuscripts are sufficient for analysis. Of these, 33 anticipate the Masoretic Text (44%) while only five reflect the text represented by the Septuagint. Among these manuscripts Tov regards 37 as unaligned (49%). In other words, manuscripts matching the later Masoretic text are dominant.
Of course, the various textual traditions are not as divergent as one might be led to believe by these statistics. Textual criticism is concerned with minute details such as the presence or absence of letters or the division of words. For example, “valley of the shadow of death” (Psalm 23:4) assumes the Hebrew צל מות, but the Hebrew text actually has צלמות, meaning “deathly darkness.” The difference in definition hangs on a single space in a word, and not on a different text! Another example would be the spelling of Moses as משה or מושה, or David as דוד or דויד. These spelling differences count as variants, but in no way change the meaning. It should also be stressed that statistical analyses, such as those cited above, tend to be highly subjective, and many others are bound to disagree. Further discoveries could substantially alter what we think we now know. Humility is always appropriate in the field of textual criticism. Still, the plurality of various Old Testament texts at Qumran seems to match a similar variety with Old Testament quotations in the New Testament. There was no “authorized version” of the Bible at the time of Jesus.
Textual Plurality and New Testament QuotationsWe have striven thus far to show the Hebrew Bible did not exist in one pristine form at the time of the New Testament. Were the New Testament authors aware of this situation? If so, how do they handle the textual variety? It seems clear that the New Testament authors both respected and utilized the textual variety in existence. The New Testament quotations sometimes match the Masoretic Hebrew exactly (e.g., Mark 14:23 ~ Isaiah 53:12), sometimes match the Septuagint exactly (e.g., Mark 7:6–7 ~ Isaiah 29:13), sometimes agree more with the Dead Sea Scrolls (e.g., Romans 15:10 ~ Deuteronomy 32:43 [= 4QDeutq), and sometimes match nothing else known (i.e., they are “unaligned” in scholarly parlance; e.g., Romans 1:17; Galatians 3:11 ~ Habakkuk 2:4).
There are times when the Greek translation is actually a clearer reflection of the Divine intent than the Hebrew original. For example, to refute the Sadducees, Jesus quotes the Septuagint form of Exodus 3:6: “‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ God is not the God of the dead, but of the living” (Matthew 22:32). The Hebrew language has no present tense verb, and thus the “I am” verb is missing in the Hebrew text of Exodus 3:6 (note the NKJV italicizes the word “am” in Exodus 3:6, indicating its absence in the Hebrew text). In order to leave no doubt about the meaning, Jesus cites the Greek form of the verse (which specifies the present tense).
There are other occasions when the New Testament authors might generalize a verse by altering it slightly. Paul’s quotations of Habakkuk 2:4 could fall into this category. The Masoretic Hebrew reads, “The just shall live by his faith,” which can be understood either as the faithfulness of the just man or the faithfulness of God. The Septuagint clarifies, “The just shall live by my faith,” unambiguously referring to God. The difference between the possessive pronouns “his” and “my” is just one stroke of one letter in Hebrew (“his” = ו and “my” = י). These letters are often confused in Hebrew manuscripts (to the sympathetic comfort of many elementary Hebrew students!), and it appears Paul here wishes both to eliminate the textual confusion and generalize the truth of the verse with the more abstract, “The just shall live by faith” (Romans 1:17; Galatians 3:11).
The way the New Testament authors used the various versions of the Scriptures is not unlike the way many preachers use English translations. I have heard the sermons of several who prefer the King James Version but switch to the American Standard Version when preaching on Psalm 119:160a. The former reads, “Thy word is true from the beginning,” while the latter states, “The sum of thy word is truth.” Since the Hebrew is ambiguous (literally, “the head of your word is true [or truth]”), either translation can be regarded as possible. But most would opt for the passage that “preaches” better or makes a clearer point. In the absence of certainty, perhaps it is not foolish to follow such a course, even though modern translators (and preachers!) do not have the benefit of inspiration. The bottom line is this: despite minor differences across the manuscripts, the Old Testament is remarkably—one might say providentially—preserved and transmitted.
ConclusionThe text of the Old Testament was both confirmed and complicated by the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Septuagint likewise supports the basic content of the traditional Hebrew, but also contains some differences that need not be overlooked. Modern translations of the Old Testament generally take into account all of the evidence, exercising their best judgment when it seems there may be a mistake in transmission of the Masoretic Hebrew. For example, Genesis 47:21 in the Masoretic text seems to have mistaken the letter daleth (ד) for resh (ר), an understandable mistake, as these letters are very similar in appearance. The RSV and ESV have elected to follow the ancient versions (Samaritan Pentateuch, Septuagint, and Latin Vulgate) while the KJV and ASV choose to translate the Masoretic Hebrew, in spite of its apparent mistake. Again, in 1 Samuel 1:24, almost all the modern versions read “three-year-old bull” as opposed to the KJV and NKJV which have “three bulls.” The KJV tradition follows the Masoretic Hebrew (even though it is difficult to imagine Hannah dragging three bulls to Shiloh!), while the modern versions follow 4QSama, the Septuagint, and the Syriac traditions. The oldest text makes better sense in this case.
The evidence suggests we should exercise good judgment in our reading of the Old Testament, as the New Testament authors seem to do. Only in a handful of cases are there differences in the textual traditions worth noting, and even then the differences concern minute details that, while important to textual critics, do not alter any major teaching of the Old Testament. It appears that God has provided us with an Old Testament text substantially accurate in all we need to know about His character and His will.
Critics who allege we cannot know the text of the Bible must resort to building mountains out of molehills. Let them produce one variant reading from the Old Testament that substantially alters a theological point affirmed by Jesus or the Apostles. The basic differences in the textual traditions of the Old Testament can be compared to the differences in English translations. While one person’s Bible might have a different word or phrase here and there, the substantial message of God’s Word remains the same.