Whether it’s answering the questions of young inquisitive minds, skeptical classmates, or hostile strangers, sooner or later we’re all forced to reckon with how we got the Bible, how its books were chosen, and whether we can trust it today.
We don’t become Christians or “get saved” when able to answer questions, but having answers is a good reminder that our faith in not a blind leap in the dark. In answering both the curious and the critics we heed Peter’s call to give an intelligible defense for our faith (1 Pet. 3:15).
I corresponded with Timothy Paul Jones, professor of Christian family ministry at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, about his new book (and accompanying group study DVD) How We Got the Bible. With guides for both leaders and participants, six 30-minute DVD sessions, a reference handbook, and more, the entire kit is a useful resource for parents, church leaders, and educators.
“My interest in how we got the Bible began when I couldn’t find the Textus Receptus,” you write. Would you mind sharing that story?
I grew up in churches where the King James Version (KJV) was seen as the sole reliable rendering of the Scriptures. According to what I was told, God’s Word had been perfectly preserved with no variants in a mystical manuscript known as “Textus Receptus.” The KJV translators supposedly worked from this perfect text when they translated the Bible. Sometime in the 19th century, though, liberal scholars began using corrupted manuscripts to change the Bible. Every translation completed after the KJV in 1611 was—I was told—a product of this liberal assault.
When I started thinking in college about the origins of the Bible, I decided to learn more about the Textus Receptus. One of my first tasks was to determine where this manuscript was kept today. Once I began looking for it, many of my assumptions about Scripture started to crumble.
What I discovered first was that the Textus Receptus wasn’t actually an ancient manuscript at all. The phrase “Textus Receptus” described an entire succession of printed Greek New Testaments that could be traced back to a text published in 1516 by Erasmus—and not one of these editions agreed absolutely word-for-word since Erasmus and others made changes between each edition. Then, there was the fact that the phrase “Textus Receptus” hadn’t even been applied to this family of Greek New Testaments until 1633—22 years after the King James Version was published!
In the end, I left behind my trust in the supremacy of one single version of the Bible—but I ended up believing more than ever in the truths that the Bible taught. I never did find that one fabled manuscript that preserved every syllable of Scripture without a single variant. What I found instead were thousands of manuscripts that, taken together, have preserved the Word of God sufficiently for us to trust and to follow Jesus Christ.
What I’ve developed in How We Got the Bible is the type of resource I needed back then when I was struggling to figure out the origins of Scripture. My plan was to produce a book that was honest about the many difficulties in the biblical manuscripts—but I also wanted readers to understand why these differences should never distract us from total trust in the inspiration and inerrancy of the Scriptures.
You open your book by asking, “What’s so special about the Bible?” How would you answer that question in 100 words or less?
The Bible is special because of its truth, its testimony, and its purpose. Its words testify with complete truthfulness to God’s revelation of his glory in the Lord Jesus Christ; the purpose of these words is to transform the lives of people in a redeemed community that participates in God’s present reign and provides a foretaste of his future reign. The words of Scripture are inerrant in their inspiration, sufficient in their preservation, and life-transforming when their application is based on sound interpretation and the Holy Spirit’s illumination.
If you want an even shorter summary of what’s so special about the Bible, I would appeal to a couple of sentences Clement of Rome wrote in the late first century, just a few decades after the earthly life of Christ: “The Scriptures are true and given by the Holy Spirit. You know that nothing unrighteous or counterfeit is written in them.”
In writing and compiling this study, what most affected you about God’s Word?
While I was working on How We Got the Bible, I was in an e-mail dialogue with a couple of very sharp and well-read atheists. Echoes of their questions were constantly in my mind as I wrote. When I wrote the fourth chapter—“Can We Trust the New Testament?”—I was honestly asking myself that question: Are the claims made in the Gospels really trustworthy? I’ve read the Church Fathers many times, but as I returned again to the fragments from Papias, the works of Irenaeus, the writings preserved by Eusebius, and so many others I was convinced more deeply than ever that all of this does in fact fit together historically. The testimonies in the Gospels are traceable to eyewitnesses of the risen Lord Jesus, and there’s robust evidence for the reliability of their claims. “It fits the lock,” G. K. Chesterton observed in The Everlasting Man. “This is the sort of truth that is hard to explain because it is a fact, but it is a fact to which we can call witnesses.” And indeed we can.
I was also struck afresh by the deep and continuing need for more non-English Bible translations. The fourth-century church father Athanasius once said something to the effect that the Scriptures “are the fountain of salvation, and anyone who thirsts can be satisfied with the living words that they speak.” Yet more than 1,800 people groups—well over 100 million people—lack any such “fountain of salvation” since they don’t possess even one word of Scripture in their language. I pray God will raise up an overwhelming tide of students who study the biblical languages and invest their lives in translating these words into the languages of those who have no access to his Word.
Some might consider this study of canon and manuscripts as something left to the theologians. I’m guessing you think it’s important that every Christian have a working knowledge of how God gave his Word and how it’s come to us today. If so, why is it important?
It seems to me the popularity of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code marked the crossing of a threshold in popular culture. The bestseller itself wasn’t the cause, of course. It was, after all, a mediocre thriller that regurgitated claims made many times before. What The Da Vinci Code did was articulate a skeptical view of the history of the canon for a popular audience—and at a particular moment that struck a chord in the culture. A couple of years afterward, Bart Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus did much the same for the copying of Scripture. As a pastor, I suddenly had youth group leaders asking how accurately the Bible had been copied and Sunday School teachers wondering whether Emperor Constantine really chose the books and why so many Gospels were cut out. Though such questions provide wonderful opportunities for discipleship, if someone lacks awareness of the history of the canon they also provide an open window for unbelief. In today’s culture, at least a basic knowledge of canon formation has become essential for anyone whose worldview is based on the Scriptures. Without this knowledge, Christians are incapable of defending with clarity and conviction what we believe about the Scriptures. That basic knowledge is what I’ve tried to provide in a very simple format in How We Got the Bible.
At the end of the six-week study, what do you want people to walk away with?
After someone reads the book and views the six video sessions, I want them to know that whenever they gather with brothers and sisters who trust the truth of Scripture they stand in a succession of faithfulness that stretches all the way back to the apostles. Trust in the absolute truthfulness of Scripture isn’t a recent innovation; it’s woven deeply throughout every fiber of the faith that’s been passed down through the ages.
I also pray that those who read this book begin to breathe a prayer of thanksgiving each time they open their Bibles. I want them to recall the thousands of men and women who risked their lives to copy these words and to bring them into the English language, and I want this sense of gratitude to drive people to love the Scriptures more.