It is a matter altogether of uncertainty to us whether such of the writings as now appear under the name of the Old and New Testaments are in the same state in which those collectors say they found them, or whether they added, altered, abridged, or dressed them up…. they decided by vote which of the books out of the collection they had made should be the word of God, and which should not." (Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason. 18)
Unbelievers have always denied the authority of the Bible. Besides rejecting the fact the apostles and prophets were inspired of God, they also deny that we have any way of knowing how the Bible should read.
There are two separate questions we must answer to be sure we do indeed have the Bible. First, we must know the canon of Scripture. "Canon," from the Greek word "kanon," meaning "rule" (cf. Galatians 6:16), refers to the list of books which are authoritative, in other words, are inspired of God. The problem of canonicity is to determine which books actually belong in the Bible.
The other problem area is textual criticism. The word "criticism" does not mean a denial of Scripture. It means the attempt to determine the proper text of the books of the Bible. It is the study that tries to determine what the original manuscripts (the actual inspired documents that came from the apostles and prophets, known as "autographs") really said.
So we have one overall inquiry to solve: Do we really have the inspired Scriptures in our present Bibles? But this greater question is answered by solving two smaller but very important matters. What is the canon of Scripture? In other words, what books really belong in the Bible? And, what is the text of the Scriptures? Can we know that the words in our present Bibles represent the words the apostles and prophets actually wrote?
Let's study canonicity first. This study naturally divides itself into two categories: Old Testament canon and New Testament canon.
We will first study the Old Testament canon. How do we know that the thirty-nine books in our Old Testament really belong there and are the only books that belong there?
If we accept that Jesus is the Son of God, then whatever He says about any subject settles the matter. Although Jesus rejected most of the traditions of the Jews (Matthew 15:5-9), He accepted as the "commandment of God" the Scriptures the Jews recognized as comprising the Old Testament (Matthew 15:1-4). The Master broke the Scriptures in the Jewish Bible into three sections: "the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms" (Luke 24:44), the very threefold division of the Old Testament the Jews recognized, which included the same thirty-nine books we have in our Old Testaments.
Catholic Bibles today include several books not found in our Bibles. They are called the "Apocryphal" books. "Apocryphal" means "of doubtful authorship and authority." These books were never accepted as a part of the canon of Scripture by the Jews, none of them claim to be inspired of God, and they were even rejected by the great scholar Jerome, whose Latin translation of the Bible, the Vulgate, is the basis for Catholic versions of the Bible.
There is no reasonable basis for doubting that we have the inspired Scriptures and all the inspired Scriptures that preceded the New Testament in our Old Testament.
What about the New Testament? Jesus promised to send the Holy Spirit to His apostles to "guide" them "into all truth" (John 16:13-15). They did receive the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:1-4), and had "the treasure" of the inspired word of God "in earthen vessels." (2 Corinthians 4:7) In other words, the inspired Word was in inspired men.
But the apostles and prophets of the New Testament wrote this inspired message in books for the disciples to read (Ephesians 3:1-7). What the apostles and prophets wrote "is in truth, the word of God, which also effectively works in you who believe" (1 Thessalonians 2:13) The apostle Peter promised that "the word of God," "the gospel," is "incorruptible" and "lives and abides forever" (1 Peter 1:22-25).
Thus, even while the apostles were yet alive, their books were being circulated and saved (cf. Colossians 4:16) and were recognized as "Scripture" (2 Peter 3:14-16), that is, God's Word in written form.
By the end of the second century a list of inspired books, in other words a New Testament canon, had been drawn up by Irenaeus, who was a student of Polycarp, who was a student of the apostle John. The Muratorian fragment, from about the same date, likewise lists the New Testament canon. Origen in the third century and Eusebius and Athanasius in the fourth century provide lists of those books which were accepted as inspired of God.
Often people say the church gave us the Bible. This is not true. The Old Testament was complete four hundred years before the church was established. The New Testament was given to us by the apostles and prophets. The church simply recognized the New Testament in the same way a child recognizes its mother (cf. Galatians 4:21-31).
The twenty-seven books which comprise our New Testament stand with the thirty-nine Old Testament books to complete the canon of Scripture. Whereas the inspired Word of God was once in inspired men, it is now in an inspired book, the Bible.
Do we have the actual books that belong in the Bible and all those books? Without a doubt! The Bible was written a very long time ago.
How do we know its text has remained uncorrupted through the centuries, so that what we have is really accurate?
First, consider the Old Testament. The very attitude of Jesus toward the Old Testament settles the matter, so far as its transmission to his day.
But what about to our day? Two facts, the almost fanatical devotion of the Jewish scribes and the abundance of manuscript evidence, give us unswerving confidence in the textual integrity of the Old Testament.
Dr. Neil R. Lightfoot, in his book How We Got the Bible, describes the incredible, meticulous care with which the Jewish scribes (copyists) made sure that they accurately passed on from generation to generation the inspired text (pages 69-76). Probably no other copyists in history have been as devoted to accurately preserving a document.
Furthermore, consider the abundance and value of manuscript evidence. Manuscripts are handwritten copies of documents. All ancient writing comes down to us in manuscript form, and the text of these documents is determined by these manuscripts. Various rules determine which manuscripts are most valuable in determining what the text of an ancient document really is, but probably the most important measure of a manuscript's value is its age. How close to the original document is it in age? Obviously, the older the manuscript the better.
Our Old Testaments are translations of the Massoretic Text, a standard Hebrew text handed down by some very careful scribes known as Massoretes. The oldest manuscripts of this text date to about 1000 AD. But there are manuscripts of translations of this Hebrew text into other languages that date back to about the fourth or fifth century after Christ. Furthermore, since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, ancient Hebrew manuscripts found in caves close to the Dead Sea in 1948, we have Hebrew manuscripts of portions of the Old Testament that were written before the time Jesus walked on the earth. For example, there is a manuscript of the book of Isaiah that dates to about 200 BC. Thus, there is overwhelming proof of the accuracy of the Old Testament text.
The New Testament
The New Testament has even stronger confirmation. Codex Sinaiticus, which contains all the New Testament books in Greek, was written less than two hundred fifty years after the last apostle died. The Codex Vaticanus, which contains most of both the Old and New Testaments in Greek, was written only about two hundred to two hundred fifty years after the deaths of the apostles. The Codex Alexandrinus dates to about three hundred years after the first century.
There are now more than 5,300 known Greek manuscripts of the New Testament. Add over 10,000 Latin Vulgate and at least 9,300 other early versions (MSS) and we have more than 24,000 manuscript copies of portions of the New Testament in existence today." (Josh McDowell, Evidence That Demands a Verdict, 39)
There is now even a fragment of the Gospel of John that dates to the beginning of the Second Century, just a few years after the Apostle John died and a century earlier than unfriendly critics of the Bible claimed the book was written!
How good is our New Testament text?
For Caesar's Gallic War (composed between 58 and 50 B.C.) there are several extant MSS (manuscripts – K.S.), but only nine or ten are good, and the oldest is some 900 years later than Caesar's day. (F.F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable?, 16). If scholars accept the text of Caesar's Gallic Wars, and they do, how reasonable is it to reject the text of the New Testament?
But what about variant (differing) readings between the many manuscripts?
"The proportion of words virtually accepted on all hands as raised above doubt is very great, not less, on a rough computation, than seven-eighths of the whole. The remaining eighth therefore, formed in great part by changes of order and other comparative trivialities, constitutes the whole area of criticism. . . .the amount of what can in any sense be called substantial variation is but a small fraction of the residuary variation, and can hardly form more than a thousandth part of the entire text" (B.F. Westcott and F.J.A. Hort, The New Testament in the Original Greek, pages 2-3). And Westcott and Hort, scholars of the last part of the nineteenth century, are generally considered to be among the toughest critics of the biblical text.
How accurate is the text of our Bibles? Our century has seen no greater authority in this field of New Testament criticism than Sir Frederic Kenyon, who died in August 1952, and we may take his words to heart with confidence:
"It is reassuring at the end to find that the general result of all these discoveries and all this study is to strengthen the proof of the authenticity of the Scriptures, and our conviction that we have in our hands, in substantial integrity, the verifiable Word of God."
"The interval then between the dates of the original composition and the earliest extant evidence becomes so small as to be in fact negligible, and the last foundation for any doubt that the Scriptures have come down to us substantially as they were written has now been removed. Both the authenticity and the general integrity of the books of the New Testament may be regarded as finally established."'(F.F. Bruce, The Books and the Parchments, 189-190).
Is the text of our Bible accurate? Definitely!
Do we really have the inspired Scriptures in our present Bibles? The answer must be a resounding, "Yes!"
The Lord through His divine providence has kept His promise and has preserved His Word for us in the Bible. When you read your Bible from a good, standard, English translation, rest assured you are reading the Scriptures, the inspired Word of God. You can and should have confidence in your Bible.
"All flesh is as grass,
And all the glory of man as the flower of the grass.
The grass withers,
And its flower falls away,
But the word of the Lord endures forever."
Now this is the word which by the gospel was preached to you. (1 Peter 1:22-23)
By – Keith Sharp, via Think on These Things