Let’s Look at the New Testament–How Was It Put Together?

We finished talking about the Old Testament. Now let’s take a look at the compilation of the New Testament. About the middle of the second century, a Christian writer, Justin Martyr, stated that on Sundays in the Christian worship assemblies the “memoirs of the apostles” were read together with the “writing of the prophets.” That meant that not long after the close of the apostolic age the New Testament writings, as well as the Old Testament, were being read generally among the churches. How did this happen so quickly?


During the life of Jesus, there was no thought of a New Testament. Early Christians used the Old Testament as their Bible. But within a few years after the death of Jesus, those who knew him or who were associated with those who knew him created letters and biographies that began to circulate in the churches. Paul’s letters were gathered into a single whole, the Gospels followed, and other writings came after. Almost all of these books were written within the first 30 years after the death and resurrection of Christ, although the Gospel of John in Revelation probably did not appear until somewhere around 90 A.D.


Writing methods changed slightly from the Old Testament period. For a while papyrus was used, but by the fourth century, parchment (stretched and dried animal skins) had displaced papyrus.  Because it is more durable, the vast majority of ancient New Testament manuscripts that survive today are written on parchment. Eventually the roll form of books on papyrus and parchment gave way to the codex, which was far more convenient to use. Sheets were placed together, folded in the middle and stitched, then opened in separate pages. The result was a book that could be easily read, easily referred to, and easily carried about. Christians, especially found this advantageous, because it allowed them to make one book for the four Gospels, another for Paul’s letters, and later one book for the entire Bible.


The Old Testament Canon

This introduction to the Old Testament gets us to the idea of Old Testament canon, which is a list of books that are accepted as inspired.


It was fairly well fixed by the time of Jesus. The last time the Hebrew canon was discussed seems to be at the Council of Jamnia in 98 A.D. Two books in particular, Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes, had apparently been considered Scripture for some time, but some features about each of these works may have troubled some rabbis. The key thing to remember is that no council of rabbis picked particular books to be part of the canon. Instead, the people over the centuries had acknowledged particular writings were divinely inspired.


In fact, each part of the Old Testament was admitted into the canon almost at once, and this Jewish Council of  Jamnia merely confirmed the books that were already widely accepted as canonical. It’s striking that by the time of Jesus so many different groups of people representing different Jewish backgrounds and nationalities had such a tight agreement about the Old Testament canon. Something else they agreed on was the closure of the canon. Jews believed that prophetic inspiration ceased with Malachi.


The Old Testament: Torah, Prophets, and Writings

Let’s keep on with a survey of how we got the Old Testament.


Every copy of the original text had to be written out by hand, which leads many people to believe there must be a lot of mistakes. But Jews had detailed rules to govern the copying of their scriptures. The size of the pages or scrolls to be used was carefully recorded. The size of columns, spaces between words and letters, even the color of ink to be used, and the clothing to be worn by the scribe were all laid out in great detail. The number of words and letters of each book of the Old Testament was counted; the scribe fixed the middle letter of each line and each book. When he was finished, the scribe would have to submit his manuscript for checking, and if it was in error at any point, it was ordered to be destroyed, which meant he had to start all over again.  Copying was a sacred undertaking, so the scribes were very careful as they went about this task.


The first section of the Old Testament, referred to as the Pentateuch or Torah, was credited to Moses – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. At one time, critics said it was impossible for him to be the author because writing had not been invented then, but things have changed as far as the history of writing is concerned. If it really was Moses that wrote these books, he did this in the 1400s B.C. since the Exodus is dated close to that time. The events prior to Moses’ birth as recorded in Exodus 1 could have come down to him in oral form or written records. Some people are very uncomfortable with the idea of oral history since they wonder if anyone could remember things well enough to get them correct. But ancient peoples memorized an amazing number of stories and poems. This first section of the Old Testament was accepted as sacred from early on.


Over the next 1000 years, people wrote down the history of Israel, the poetry of its musicians, the sayings of its wise people, and the good and bad news brought to Israel by its prophets. The second section of the Old Testament was called the Prophets, which are made up of historical books (Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings) and the prophetic books that we think of today (Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Isaiah, and the 12 minor prophets).  The third and final section was called the Writings, which included the wisdom books (Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, and Lamentations) plus the other historical books (Ruth, Daniel, Esther, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Chronicles). Some of these books were considered sacred almost as soon as they were written, such as Joshua and Samuel, but some took longer to accept because they took longer to complete, Psalms and Chronicles in particular.


More on the Old Testament and How We Got It

We are taking a look at how we got the Old Testament  as part of a survey of the Bible. Let’s continue.


Because all we have are copies, some may worry about how careful the Old Testament copyists were. We know that we make mistakes copying information. It might be interesting at this point to talk about how the Old Testament was physically written. Almost all of it was written in Hebrew, with the exception of a few small portions, which were written in Aramaic. Most writing material was papyrus, made from the inner bark of the papyrus plant that grew plentifully along the banks of the Nile River. It was easy to write on, easy to roll, and cheap to produce. The problem was that it was not strong or long-lasting.


Until about 600 years after the birth of Christ, Hebrew was never written with any indication of what vowels should be used. The Jews knew how to pronounce the words only by the way they learned them in the school or synagogue. By the 10th century A.D., Jewish Masoretes introduced the vowel points which were worked into Jewish letters. Before then Hebrew writing was unpunctuated and missing vowels as well as having no  space between the words. Isaiah 7:14 in English and without vowels, punctuation, or spacing would look something like this: THRFRTHLRDHMSLFWLLGVYSGNTHVRGNWLLBWTHCHLDNDWLLGVBRTHTSNNDWLLCLLHMMMNL. Hard to read, right?


By the way, that’s why we’re not sure about the sacred name for God  since it was written out without vowels– YHWH. That word has been called the Tetragrammaton (having four letters); the best guess is that it was pronounced “Yahweh.”


A Look at the Old Testament

Let’s start a new discussion here as we go through the Bible as literature, one that’s full of misunderstandings–how the Bible was put together. We’ll start with the Old Testament.


We aren’t sure when writing was first invented, but we do have some samples dating from around 3100 B.C. They come from Sumer, part of Mesopotamia. Egyptian writings from about the same time have also survived. The earliest copy of the Hebrew Scriptures, however, was written much later.


Until the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947, the oldest copy we had for the entire Old Testament in Hebrew had been produced about 1000 A.D. These scrolls contained all of the books of the Old Testament (except Esther) as well as other documents.  They had been written in the first century A.D., and their value is that they take us back almost 1000 years closer than before to the originals, which are no longer in existence. So it’s good to know that over 95% of them matched the Hebrew Old Testament as we have it today.


Scholars can reasonably claim that if 1000 years (the time of Jesus for the Dead Sea Scrolls to our previous oldest copy in 1000 A.D.) showed such detailed accuracy and care in copying the manuscripts, then we must allow the same accuracy, for example,  for the previous 600 years from Isaiah’s original manuscript to the Dead Sea Scrolls copy. Other ancient writings are trusted, even with similar gaps between creation and our earliest copies.


More on the Bible as Literature

We have been discussing the value of the Bible. In past blog posts we mentioned its great literature, worldly wisdom, literary inspirations, and its words and phrases that have entered our language. Let’s end this discussion on perhaps its most important characteristic–the Bible is the cornerstone book of the Western world. Think about what we value in our society – an emphasis on the individual, the elevation of women, freedoms and civil rights we enjoy, the development of science, the emphasis on laws, our morality, our economic system. All these owe their ascendancy in the West to the Bible.


In recent research 41 outstanding teachers said that knowledge of the Bible is crucial for a good education and provides an educational advantage. Another survey of leading figures at secular colleges said the Bible is the key book for high school students to know.


It might be good to end with several interesting quotations about the Bible. One person said, “The Bible is the learned man’s masterpiece, the ignorant man’s dictionary, the wise man’s directory.” William James, the famous psychologist, noted that “the Bible contains more exquisite beauty, more morality, more important history, and finer strains of poetry and eloquence than can be collected from all other books.” Reid Buckley, a person who trains professional speakers, claims that if someone doesn’t read the Bible, he/she is “irreparably ignorant and culturally deprived.”


Thanks to the Bible for much in our language today

So, last time we looked at several reasons the Bible still has importance in today’s society, even among those who don’t believe its spiritual message. It has great literature, useful wisdom, and literary references we need to understand much literature.


In addition, our language has been enriched by the Bible. Think about these phrases: the tower of Babel, an eye for an eye, the scapegoat, the promised land, the valley of the shadow of death, inherit the wind, feet of clay, my brother’s keeper, the straight and narrow, the handwriting on the wall, a house divided against itself cannot stand, a pearl of great price, the blind leading the blind, the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak, he who lives by the sword shall die by the sword, the meek shall inherit the earth, the salt of the earth, a city on a hill, turn the other cheek, oh ye of little faith, do unto others as you would have them do unto you, the good Samaritan, eat drink and be merry, the prodigal son, born again, doubting Thomas, a Damascus Road conversion, it is more blessed to give than to receive, the wages of sin, you reap what you sow. These all have their origins from biblical passages.


In addition, all sorts of common terms have come straight from the Bible – heaven, hell, angel, devil, Satan, atonement, Antichrist, Armageddon, apocalypse, babel, evangelist, mission, pagan, redeem, sabbath, testament, worship, Messiah, philistine, scapegoat.


These terms are even richer when used as allusions by many writers who expect their readers to pick up on the source for their works. Let’s continue next time with more reasons all should read the Bible.


Diving Into the Bible–Why Is It Important?

Let’s start by examining the importance of the Bible in today’s world. There are those who believe the Bible is only important for pious Christians and Jews who look at it for its theological significance. As a result, they don’t read it, and we end up with a biblically illiterate society. But the Bible has tremendous value beyond its theology.


First, it is a repository of some of the world’s best literature. Think of just the stories that are in the Bible – Noah and the Flood, Abraham and Isaac, David and Goliath, the ministry of Jesus, the missionary trips of Paul. In addition, some of its poetry ranks with the best the world has produced. A portion of Isaiah is inscribed at the United Nations headquarters in New York City. The Bible has parables, history, letters, tragedies, and comedies throughout its pages.


Secondly, the Bible contains a lot of worldly wisdom. Take the book of Proverbs. Verses there discuss the value of relationships, money and financial wisdom, success in dealing with time constraints, the role of parents, the best way to deal with criticisms, the types of friends to have, and other practical advice. It’s no wonder that many people go through one chapter of Proverbs a day. By the end of the month, they have finished the book and gained wisdom.


The Bible is also the source of many literary inspirations. Think about the opening three words of Moby Dick: “Call me Ishmael.” We will understand the character in the book so much better if we recognize the name Ishmael from the book of Genesis. Ernest Hemingway had a book called The Sun Also Rises, which takes its title from a passage in Ecclesiastes. One scholar claimed that Shakespeare had 1300 allusions to the Bible in his works. Other writers who were influenced by the Bible include John Milton, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, C. S. Lewis, Flannery O’Connor, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Leo Tolstoy, T. S. Eliot, Emily Dickinson, and too many others to name. Of course, music, sculpture, painting, and other fine arts owe much to the Bible.


We’ll cover more on the importance of the Bible in the next post.


A new year for me

I am starting another year of teaching. Of course, this is now a part-time job, so there’s so much less pressure. I’d like to continue with my blog (on vacation for some time). Maybe for the next few months I can write about the Bible as literature since that was my favorite class to teach. I’d love to have a chance to teach it again, so I want to keep up by blogging on it. Here goes the first of many blogs on the Bible as literature.

Having taught a survey course in Biblical literature at Palomar College for a number of years, I have seen the need for some introductory material to help students understand many things: the culture of Biblical times, geography of the areas discussed, key names/places/events, an historical outline to be able to place the events in perspective, introductions to each book of the Bible, literary terms, and other important elements.  We are in a culture that has become Biblically illiterate, unfortunately.

So, in a series of blog posts, I’d like to share the kind of material I have gone over with my past classes. I will cover several key areas: the importance of the Bible, the history of the Bible itself, the history of the Bible world (very brief!), the geography of the Bible world, how to read the Bible, introductions for each book of the Bible, and literary devices found in the Bible.


Continuing to look at Total Truth

I have been going through the book by Nancy Pearcey called Total Truth. Since the concept of truth has become so confusing in our society today, I think it’s worthwhile to cover her material.


In the next section of Nancy Pearcey’s  book, Total Truth, she deals specifically with Darwinism.  She believes that so much of what is wrong today in American society goes back to how we see the beginning of life on earth.  The Christian perspective is that God created everything; the Darwinian view says matter randomly assembled itself without any overall design or plan.  The crucial thing to realize is what Darwinism does for the concept of truth. If evolution is true, than both religion and philosophical absolutes (goodness, truth, and beauty) are false.


She begins by showing how limited the evidence for Darwinian evolution really is.  First, evolutionists trot out the idea of Darwin’s finches, showing the beak size differs according to the habitats where they live.  However, this is nothing but a cyclical fluctuation; the birds were not on the road to evolving into a new kind of bird.  Beak size either grew or went back to a smaller size depending on the amount of rainfall.  This was cyclical, not heading anywhere.


The same thing applies to resistance of bacteria and viruses to antibiotics.  Once the drugs are removed, the changes reverse.  Then there are fruit flies — exposed to radiation, they produce many mutations.  After fifty years of bombarding fruit flies with radiation, scientists have not managed to turn them into any kind of new insect or even a new and improved fruit fly.


The third case involves peppered moths in England.  Supposedly, dark moths survived in England rather than light colored moths because of soot which during the Industrial Revolution darkened tree trunks where the moths perched.  The lighter colored moths were easier for birds to pick off.  This has been touted as the showcase example of natural selection.  Oops – it can now be revealed that the moths don’t actually perch on tree trunks in the wild.  But what about all the pictures of them doing so in textbooks?  Actually, scientists glued those moths onto the tree trunks.  Perhaps the most famous fake was a well-known exhibit of vertebrate embryos lined up side-by-side — fish, amphibian, reptile, bird, and human.  The point of the illustration is to show how similar all the embryos are, suggesting common ancestry.  It turns out the creator of this, Ernst Haeckel, fudged his sketches, making them look far more similar than they really are.  Scientists in his time, more than 100 years ago, already knew these illustrations were fakes, yet only recently have they publicly been talking about them.  Strangely enough, these illustrations still show up in biology textbooks.


OK, enough for now. More on Darwin in the next blog post.