Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Gotta Catch ’Em All?

A teen asks, “How can we know for sure that we have all the books of the Bible?”

That’s a very good question. But if I were to try to answer it as written, I’d have to ask the writer, “Which Bible do you mean?” The Hebrew Bible? The Catholic Bible? The Protestant Bible? The Orthodox Bible?

The word “Bible” comes from an old Greek word that means “book”, and in our culture merely describes a collection of ancient documents compiled by groups of men with religious affiliations over a period of a couple thousand years.

If we are being technical, they’re ALL Bibles.

For the Record

The Hebrew Bible, as affirmed by the Councils of Jamnia (two groups of Jewish rabbis) in A.D. 90 and 118, has 24 books total. These 24 books contain almost exactly the same content as the current English Protestant Old Testament, only we Protestants have organized that material into 39 books rather than 24. To this, Catholics, Protestants and Orthodox all add an identical number of New Testament books (27) written originally in Greek, but Catholics supplement their Old Testaments with seven further books whose status is often disputed. The Orthodox Old Testament contains all seven Catholic extras plus a further five that even the Catholics don’t acknowledge.

Wow. I got that all into a single paragraph. But you see the problem, I’m sure.

Overlooking Revelation

Still, I doubt very much that our curious teen friend is merely being technical, and all the above information is common knowledge. What his question really suggests to me is that he’s concerned we might be overlooking revelation from God, and he seems keen not to do that. For the record, I thoroughly agree about that: if God really said it, it’s important to someone, somewhere, at some point in history.

So let’s leave the word “Bible” out of it and ask instead, “How can we know for sure today that we have every bit of divine revelation God gave mankind?”

That’s an even better question. My short answer: We can’t. My slightly longer answer: We can’t, but that doesn’t matter one bit.

It Used to be a Lot Simpler ...

Let me try to explain that. Throughout history, God has always provided men and women with absolutely everything they needed to know to please him. In the Garden of Eden, that took the form of a single command: “Of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” That might not have provided Eve with all the information she craved, but it was sufficient for life and godliness so far as Eden was concerned.

In the next generation, God provided further information as to how he was to be approached by men who were now sinners. We have no idea how he did this: it may have been through symbols, types, dreams, lore, direct revelation that is not longer extant — who knows? What we do know is that Cain brought an offering to God and did not “do well”, whereas his brother Abel did. There was some kind of understanding already established between God and man about what it meant to “do well” when making an offering to God. Cain required no explanation from God. The problem was not that he didn’t know what a good offering was, the problem was that he refused to act on his understanding.

Revelation Sufficient to the Need

The same principle is seen in the lives of Enoch, Noah and Abraham, who are variously said to have “walked with God”, to have been “a righteous man, blameless in his generation” and to have been “called a friend of God”. All three statements presuppose God’s pleasure. Somehow, long before scripture was ever formally compiled and circulated, men were able to discern God’s will and do it. The revelation they had, by whatever means they had it, was sufficient to get the job done.

In Moses we see God’s will for his people expressed in written law. Compared to everything that had gone before, this new revelation was remarkably explicit and detailed, yet on the whole Israel fared worse with respect to obedience than did the patriarchs, many of whom somehow managed to please God without entering into formal legal contracts with him or having codes of conduct drafted for them. After this we have numerous incidents of direct revelation to the Old Testament prophets, and finally the coming of the Lord Jesus to perfectly express God’s will to mankind not just by teaching it but by living it out, though so far as we know, he wrote down not a single word of it.

Scrolls and Codices

So while the word of God went forth repeatedly throughout history in many different ways, at no point did godly men require a complete Bible as we know it today in order to live godly lives. Scrolls and later codices were preserved in tabernacles, temples and synagogues, the contents of which were made known to the faithful through repeated public readings. These documents were memorized by some and familiar to many, but were actually handled or studied by few. F.F. Bruce points out that the first fixed collection of New Testament books did not even exist until the second century A.D., when Marcion cobbled together Luke’s gospel, the Acts and ten of Paul’s letters.

Thus the average first century and second century churches made do with considerably less of the New Testament than we currently enjoy. Some had one letter or one gospel, some had another. We were roughly four thousand years into sacred history and several hundred years into church history before a New Testament as we know it today existed in any language at all, and almost 1600 years into church history before there existed a printed Bible that could begin to reach the mass of believers.

Yes, a handful of generations of Christians have enjoyed what we would like to think is the entirety of God’s revelation to mankind and it is doubtful any generation has possessed more of God’s word more accurately transmitted than we do.

The Missing Bits

But a survey of the New Testament turns up references to stories which appear to have been familiar to first century Christians yet do not exist in any modern translation of the Old Testament. Where in the Old Testament, for instance, does Michael the archangel dispute with the devil over the body of Moses?

Then there are the missing first century letters from apostles. Paul instructed the Colossians to read the letter from Laodicea. Maybe they did, maybe they didn’t, but one thing is sure: we can’t. Frank Viola makes the case that originally there were two other Pauline letters to Corinth. Not in my Bible there aren’t.

On top of that, there are numerous references in scripture to Old Testament books that no longer exist. These may or may not have been inspired: the Book of Jasher, the Book of the Wars of the Lord, the story of the prophet Iddo, and many others.

It is hard to argue with the fact that despite having a comparative glut of sacred reading material available to us, much teaching that may have been considered authoritative and God-given in the first century seems to be lost to us today.

Faith and a Superabundance of Evidence

Is this a problem? Not at all. Our faith does not consist in the number of ancient manuscript fragments scholars have been able to collect and translate, though that incredible abundance of sacred reading material is of great encouragement to us. Rather, our faith depends on having received the faithful testimony of the apostles about Jesus Christ, and, more importantly, having believed it and placed our trust in him. In that we are on very safe ground. Throughout history, God has always provided those who desired to know him and serve him with everything they needed to do so. He is not about to let us down now, though he does not always indulge our curiosity.

The books of the Bible and other New Testament writings are not like Pokémon: we do not have to “catch ’em all” to know God, to please him or to understand his message of salvation accurately.

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