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The Canon – Part 2: What does ‚the Bible‘ say about itself?

Von Christian

In the first part of this series we have already become aware that there are some important and interesting questions about ‘the Bible’. But before we look at historical facts or anything else, let’s first let the text of ‘the Bible’ itself speak. What do we learn from the text itself about what constitutes the Bible, how it came to be, and what was to happen in the centuries following its creation? Let’s start with a reference in the second letter to the Thessalonians:

Concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to him, we ask you, brothers and sisters, not to become easily unsettled or alarmed by the teaching allegedly from us—whether by a prophecy or by word of mouth or by letter—asserting that the day of the Lord has already come.

2 Thessalonians 2:1,2 NIV

According to the traditional view, this letter was written by Paul around the year 50 AD. The phrase “nor by a letter allegedly by us” raises a question: Couldn’t the believers in Thessalonica simply look in ‘their Bible’ and check whether the text was included as a letter? Obviously, they couldn’t. What we now call the Bible was just beginning to be written two decades after Jesus’ death. There was not yet a canon of Christian writings. So at that time, someone could come to the meeting with a letter and claim that it was from Paul, for example. Now, how could one verify whether that was supposed to be part of ‘the Bible’ or not? This question did not arise at all. Well then, was the question whether it was ‘genuine’? Not necessarily either. The crucial point was this:

The one who keeps God’s commands lives in him, and he in them. And this is how we know that he lives in us: We know it by the Spirit he gave us. Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, …

1 John 3:24 – 4:2 NIV

Fact is: There were already in the first century many orally transmitted reports, many letters and further texts, as already this verse shows. There was a need to check what was circulating. The crucial question was: Does this come from God? And that is the question that we must also ask ourselves today: Does what we read in ‘the Bible’ today come from God? Because as we have already seen in the last episode, there are many steps between the origin of the text and what we can read in our language today.

But already this verse shows us that still at the end of the first century there could not have been a closed canon of the Christian scriptures, in the sense that exclusively these texts were accepted as coming from God. And everything else as texts of false teachers and ‘apostates’ should be avoided. On the contrary. The texts were to be examined, which required reading or reading aloud and a comparison with the other scriptures. Even the Holy Spirit helped with this:

He gives one person the power to perform miracles, and another the ability to prophesy. He gives someone else the ability to discern whether a message is from the Spirit of God or from another spirit. Still another person is given the ability to speak in unknown languages, while another is given the ability to interpret what is being said.

1 Corinthians 12:10 NLT

Let’s compare this with the statement: God closely supervised the writing of the Bible and made sure that it has been preserved for us very precisely. What does this mean in concrete terms in the first century? Let’s put ourselves in the position of a believer, for example in Thessalonica, who is listening to a letter being read aloud in the church. As that believer, could you simply say to yourself, “This is God’s word, for he is closely monitoring the record of the Bible?” No, otherwise there would have been no need for the call to examine. So if there is such a certainty at all, it would have to have come later. But how and by whom?

Is there any Bible text that supports the idea that God would supervise the recording of the Bible in such a way that we would no longer need to check? Perhaps this Bible text comes to your mind.

All Scripture is God-breathed [(gr. theopneustos)] and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

2 Timothy 3:16,17 NIV

In accordance with the Greek text, the singular has been used here: All scripture is … This text might have come to your mind especially when you have read this – somewhat suggestive – translation:

All holy Scripture is inspired by God….

2 Timothy 3:16 New World Translation – German 2018

Won’t readers – in this case mostly Jehovah’s Witnesses – automatically think that ‘the Bible’ is meant here? Interestingly, the title of the current German translation of Jehovah’s Witnesses, in which 2 Timothy 3:16 is translated like this: The Bible. New World Translation. However, the German editions before that had the title New World Translation of the Scriptures. However, 2 Timothy 3:16 was rendered in it as, “All Scripture is inspired by God ….” So without the addition holy and in the singular. The title of the English edition is still New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures (plural), rendering the text as in the King James Version: “All Scripture is inspired of God …” While the title of the Bible contains the plural, the text contains the singular: All Scripture is inspired of God. Let someone else understand that …

But isn’t this already a good example that we don’t know exactly if what we read in ‘our Bible‘ “is from God” (1 John 4:2)? If, after all, different translations reflect different thoughts here. So let’s check like the Christians in the first century.

First of all, we must ask what is meant here by ‘all Scripture is inspired by God’ πᾶσα γραφὴ θεόπνευστος. Was the author of the Second Epistle to Timothy referring to the writings of the Jewish Bible, which had been completed centuries earlier? And what about the writings that were to come later, that is, that no one knew about yet? If so, this brings us to the question of the canon: what belongs as ‘inspired Scripture’ in the canon of Christian writings and what does not? Who decided that? According to what criteria? Did God have a plan a long time ago, virtually the book list of the Bible that were yet to be written? So what is meant by ‘all Scriptures’ or ‘all Scripture’? Who determines what belongs to Everything? And how could we know that? These questions are precisely not answered by the canon, but are one of the reasons for the creation of the canon – which took decades to centuries and – you’ll be surprised – may not necessarily have been completed to this day.

What first-century authors meant by ’scriptures’ becomes clear in texts like this:

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures

1 Corinthians 15:3-4 NIV

When Paul speaks of having handed down something that he had also received, he hardly means by ’the Scriptures’ his own or those of others in the New Testament – which at that time were often not even written. He argues that his message was already in the Old Testament.

Maybe you also thought of this text.

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. Petrus 1:20,21 NIV

What is meant here by ‘the Scriptures’ γραφῆς? And let us also not overlook the specific reference to ‚prophecy of …’. If we assume that Peter wrote the second letter of Peter, we can let the latter explain it himself:

In those days Peter stood up among the believers (a group numbering about a hundred and twenty) and said, “Brothers and sisters, the Scripture had to be fulfilled in which the Holy Spirit spoke long ago through David concerning Judas, who served as guide for those who arrested Jesus.

Acts 1:15,16 NIV

This statement of Peter was also confirmed by Paul in his letter to the Romans:

For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through the endurance taught in the Scriptures and the encouragement they provide we might have hope.

Romans 15:4 NIV

So for Peter and Paul ‘the holy scriptures’ were the text of the Jewish Bible. But didn’t even Jesus say that at least these would not pass away?

For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.

Matthew 5:18 ESV

This text must also be read carefully. Neither is it about the whole Jewish Bible nor the text itself. It is about THE LAW (nomou νόμου) and not the scriptures, and about the fulfillment of what is said in it.

Incidentally, even 1 Peter 1:24, 25, where Peter quotes Isaiah 40:8, is not a promise that the text of the Bible will stand:

For, “All people are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord endures forever.” 

The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God endures forever.”

1 Peter 1:24, 25; Isaiah 40:8 NIV

So here Peter himself explains again what is meant. Even though this text is the only one quoted in the Watchtower (2017 September pp. 18-22) to prove that „he did he guarantee that it would survive,“ (paragraph 14) as it says at the end of the whole article without further justification. At least at the beginning, when 1 Peter 1:24, 25 is used, it is admitted: “That verse does not specifically refer to the Bible as we know it; yet, the inspired words apply by extension to the Bible’s message.” Nevertheless, this verse is the only one repeatedly quoted in the Watchtower organization’s literature on this subject. In the same way as usual: Taken out of context and linked to the book of the Bible in the quotation.

The text in 2 Peter 1:21, which we have already considered, goes even further, by the way. The chapter ends here – but the chapter division came more than a thousand years later. We will have to talk about that in this series as well. So let’s just read on for now:

But there were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them—bringing swift destruction on themselves. 

2 Peter 2:1 NIV

And these teachers also produced their writings. So this was the situation in which the text of ‘the Bible’ came into being and had to be preserved. Was there a danger that texts were not only interpreted differently but also changed? Apparently so:

I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.

Revelation 22:18, 19 ESV

Some also call the Bible ‘the word of God’ or ‘God’s word’. Is it not at least said of it that it remains?

And we keep on thanking God, because, when you accepted the word of The God that you heard from us, you didn’t accept it as the word of men, but just as it truthfully is… The word of God – which is at work in you believers.

1 Thessalonians 2:13 2001 Translation

First of all, it is interesting that it is said that they heard the ‘Word of God’ – not read it. And then accepted it. And then it worked in the believers. So in this text no book is meant either.

So, is there any biblical text that supports the claim that God and Jesus directed the creation and transmission of ‘the Bible’ in such a way that it should be available to us completely accurate and unadulterated? Did you read anywhere in the Gospels that Jesus instructed his disciples to write down his words? I haven’t found one in the New Testament. But maybe someone can point me to it in a comment. But if there are no such texts, we should not claim that about the Bible or God or Jesus and oblige them. Otherwise, one day they might ask us: why do you say such things? Why do you complain that it was not so? Where did I ever promise you that?

First century believers were repeatedly told to check everything to see if it was from God. They could not just pick up ‘their Bible’ and have a perfect, reliable text that contained only exactly what God had written down for them.

On the other hand, we have seen that Peter and Paul understood by ‘scriptures’ the text of the Jewish Bible. And this text was still well enough handed down, so that from it was quoted to proclaim the gospel.

Let us return once again to the statement about the Bible that we talked about in the first part of this series. There we have to delete a first part of the sentence:

“The Bible is God’s Word, the Holy Scriptures, fully inspired by God and thus containing exactly what God intended. It has been preserved for us to this day exactly as the Bible itself says so, every book, paragraph, sentence, word, comma and period.”

Don’t panic about it now. We will look at other statements in the course of the series that only offer a deceptive hold. And replace these with solid statements. After all, the scriptures do contain some interesting statements about themselves, as we will see in the next part.

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