For the next six weeks or so, I want to discuss three essential issues to understanding the Scriptures, how we got them, why they are authoritative, and if anything is missing. Regularly Christians deal with these issues in the world. People want to add new books they’ve found from antiquity, like the Gospel of Thomas. Everyone questions why we should do what the Bible says. And everyone is curious to know how we got the Bible, Christians and non-Christians alike. Let’s begin with how the Old Testament was made.
Living in the desert isn’t as fun as you might think it is. There’s no grass, nothing to do. But some Bedouin shepherds were traveling in the desert region known as Qumran nonetheless. Long ago in the times of Jesus, an isolationist movement known as the Essenes lived there. They had hundreds of documents stored away in a safe place.
These shepherds didn’t know ancient documents rested in the caves that would ensure their place in history. In 1947, these Bedouins discovered the ceramic pots and jars in which this Qumran community had kept copies of Israel’s Old Testament, among other works, in the Dead Sea Scrolls, dating back to the 200s BC. We’re still studying and cataloging these texts today!
This story comes directly out of the recorded history of the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Not much work is required to lose the works of the ancients to history. Besides natural decay of writing materials, there are a host of other problems. Throughout history, rulers opposed to the Bible have tried to burn it, confiscate it, and ban it.
As a pastor, people sometimes ask me how we received the Bible. How do we know we have all of God’s Word in our Bibles? Should we consider other ancient books? Do any books we have not fit? Protestants support 66 books of the Bible in two testaments, while the Roman Catholic Church includes some 14 or so other books.
In our fifth and sixth posts on our study of the Bible’s origins, I will discuss why some books are in and out. But first, how did the canon come about? We’re not talking about my muscle laden arms. Canon speaks of a rule or standard. So there became a standard to what books belonged in the collection we call the Bible today.
Let’s focus on the criteria for considering a book part of the Canon of Scripture. But will share some evidence for how God has preserved his Word. The ancients had standards for preserving written documents, and it’s amazing how God has gone to extra lengths to ensure that his Word would be with us forever.
Who decided which books would be in our Bible? Why are some authoritative while others are not? Let’s discuss the Old Testament in this first installment. There was one test for canonicity, accepting the book into the Canon of the Hebrew Scriptures, the Christian Old Testament. Where much indebted today to the Jews for their scrupulous care of the Old Testament. They preserved any book considered to be inspired with their lives and refused to alter it at all.
The Hebrew Bible doesn’t have any vowels. In the sixth century A.D., people couldn’t remember how to pronounce the words in the text. The Masorites, a group of scholars that bemoaned the loss of being able to properly read aloud God’s Word for lack of vowels, created a vowel system for pronunciation. All of the vowels went under, inside or above the original consonants, thereby not even changing the text itself!
Now that we know they preserved God’s Word, how did they know which books belonged? The only test for canonicity in the Old Testament was that it was written by a prophet. Some books tell you the author, like Moses for the Torah/Pentateuch or Samuel for the books of Samuel. Others are marked as written by a certain prophet. For instance, Ruth is believed to be written by Samuel because he would have been a contemporary following the Judges. These traditions are kept almost as well as the texts themselves.
In every discussion about which books should be included in the canon of the Old Testament, people discuss why they believe a book should or shouldn’t be included, but no one claims to have an authoritative answer. God is the one who authorized the canon. Church councils can meet and discuss canonicity but God dictates what belongs in his Word.
There are two complete manuscripts of the Old Testament text that give a reflection of what was in the autographs, the originals. The autographs are no longer with us, due to the age and decay of the materials they were written on. If this worries you, keep reading and I will explain why that’s not a bad thing.
Before the autographs faded into history, they were copied several times over from original languages and translated into other languages. The more copies, called manuscripts, we have, the more we can see mistakes by scholars who copied them. The two complete Old Testament manuscripts intact today are the Aleppo Codex (925 AD) and the Leningrad Codex (1008 AD). A codex is a book form of the text instead of a scroll, measuring around 10” x 30’.
The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls changed everything. They date back over 1000 years to around 280 A.D. they give much earlier manuscripts, well preserved because of the arid desert conditions and being 1300 feet under sea level. They contain all of the Old Testament books except Esther, as well as commentaries and nonbiblical scrolls.
Even though many have attempted to destroy God’s word and wipe it off of the planet, God has preserved it. It’s hard to destroy multiple copies of the Bible. They would have to track down every copy and destroy each one. This is how God has chosen to preserve his Word against history, decay, and destruction.
Multiple copies not only preserve his Word from destruction but also help us to know what the original contained. The earliest claims to an Old Testament canon originate before 200 BC. Most scholars point to a rabbinic council and 170 A.D. Rabbis joined together to discuss the books in contention. At the end of the Council, they reaffirmed the full canon as it stood. The only books in contention were Esther, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon. Next week we will discuss the New Testament manuscripts and how God has preserved the New Testament as well as the Old Testament. You can rest assured that the Old Testament is just as God wants it to be. As Isaiah said, God’s Word will never return empty (Isaiah 55:11). Leave a comment and tell us how these facts bolster your faith.