This article is part of the 5 Myths series.
History’s Most Important Book
When it comes to books, none is more famous than the Bible. It’s the most sold, most translated, and arguably the most influential book in history. As a result, it occupies a vaulted place in our shared cultural conscience. When American presidents want to raise their rhetoric or filmmakers want to add gravitas, they reach for a biblical reference. Even today, as the Bible’s cultural authority waxes in the West, everyone knows something about the Bible.
As with anything of historical importance, the Bible has accumulated its share of mythical distortions in the popular mind. Many of these swirl around its origins. Maybe this is because the Bible’s origins span such a long time or because our culture is primed to distrust authority. Whatever the cause, these are five myths found both inside and outside the church about the history of history’s most important book.
Myth #1: The books were chosen by a church council.
This first myth may originate as far back as the 17th century, but it took hold of contemporary minds when it became a plot point in The Da Vinci Code. Whether it takes the form of the Council of Nicaea voting on the books in 325 AD or emperor Constantine himself hand-picking them, the common thread in this myth is that the Bible was finally settled by a one-time act of fiat. While it makes for a tidy explanation, there is no historical warrant for it. There was no vote on the canon at Nicaea, and Constantine never decreed what books belonged in the Bible.
What did happen, in brief, is that Christians relied heavily on Jewish precedent for the Old Testament and apostolic authority for the New Testament. If a book was used by the Jews or came with apostolic authority, it was accepted. In both cases, a large core of books was accepted widely and early with debates lingering for other books at the edges. For the Old Testament, the Dead Sea Scrolls, Jewish writers, and the New Testament itself suggest a core canon of Pentateuch, Prophets, Psalms, and Proverbs by the end of the first century. Books like Esther and Ecclesiastes took a bit longer to be recognized. For the New Testament, the four Gospels, Acts, Paul’s letters (including Hebrews), and most of the so-called Catholic Epistles (James through Jude) were fairly settled by the end of the third century with the shorter Catholic Letters (2 Peter, 2–3 John, and Jude) and Revelation taking longer. Other books like The Shepherd were eventually rejected, despite their popularity, as being written too late to have an apostle’s authority attached. By the fourth century, with Athanasius, we find a canon list that looks very similar to the modern Protestant Bible.
What was not fully decided in this period, at least in the Western church, was the question of the Apocryphal (or Deuterocanonical) books. The issue with these would not be resolved until the Reformation when the Reformers followed Jerome in rejecting them because they were never part of the Jewish canon, and the Roman Catholic church accepting them on the basis of their long use by Christians. Those decisions are still reflected today in the difference between Protestant and Roman Catholic Bibles.
Myth #2: The original text is lost.
If it took centuries for the canon to settle, the time it took to copy the Bible was even longer. Today, many think this long period was so haphazard and uncontrolled that we no longer know what the biblical authors said. The Dilbert cartoon creator Scott Adams summed up his understanding, saying that “among the document experts, no one has a clue what the original books of the Bible said. The first copies no longer exist.”
Adams is right in one respect. We no longer have the originals of any book of the Bible. The same is true for virtually every literary work from antiquity. But it doesn’t follow from this that we have no idea what the original books said. The reason is that biblical text was copied so many times and usually with care and attention. As a result, comparing the huge number of copies we have to one another allows us to identify where scribes did make mistakes or where insertions were made. Once identified, they can be corrected. The results leave little doubt about the original text in most cases.
To put it concretely, the most thorough edition of Mark’s Gospel was published last year. It’s based on several hundred Greek manuscripts plus the evidence of early versions and citations from the church fathers. Out of some 5,600 places where the editors had to make a decision, they were left with only 126 where they were torn between multiple options—and none rise to any great significance for interpretation. To say that these experts have “no clue” what the original text of Mark is would be absurd.
Myth #3: Jewish scribes had zero tolerance for mistakes.
If uncertainty is one myth, there is an opposing one that thinks the Old Testament scribes were so scrupulous that, if they made a single mistake, they would throw their manuscript away and start all over. In speaking at churches, we often ask our audiences how many have heard this before and, every time, a dozen or so hands go up. Fortunately, this myth can be corrected with a single photograph. The Great Isaiah Scroll is probably the most famous of the Dead Sea Scrolls and shows that the scribe made mistakes typical of all scribes. What he did not do was start all over. This can be seen clearly from his corrections written sometimes between lines and sometimes in the margin. Overall, the Great Isaiah Scroll is a careful copy that agrees closely with the much later Hebrew Masoretic Text behind our English Bibles. But not all the Dead Sea Scrolls reflect such close alignment with the later text and we need to be careful to acknowledge both.
The Bible has such a rich history because so many have given their energy, their ingenuity, and even their lives so that we have it today.
Where this popular myth has some basis is that later Jews did write about the importance of being meticulous in copying. The eleventh-century Jewish scholar Rashi, for example, pointed out that omitting the first letter of a word could leave the reader with “God is dead” (meth) instead of “God is faithful” (’emeth). Because of this danger, later Talmudic texts gave strict rules for copying. But these strict rules were much later than the Dead Sea Scrolls and certainly shouldn’t be projected onto all biblical scribes of all times. None of this means we shouldn’t admire their work. Even stripped of the mythology, scribes are definitely the unsung heroes of the Bible’s history.
Myth #4: Translation debates are new.
If the canonizing and copying of the Bible happened over hundreds of years, so did its translation. The process began even before the New Testament documents were written with a Greek translation of the Old Testament known as the Septuagint. Christians followed precedent and the Bible was translated into Latin, Syriac, and Coptic by the fifth century with other translations coming later. These early translators faced all the same types of challenges that modern translators do.
When Jerome revised the Latin Bible in the fourth century, he debated the merits of a word-for-word approach versus a more sense-for-sense one, and he advocated for the latter. But not everyone agreed. The Jewish revisers of the Septuagint often moved in the other direction. One Syriac translator in the seventh century was so concerned to reflect the Greek for his readers that he sometimes invented new Syriac words to do it. Theology was often in the background of these debates just as it is today. The translation of Isaiah 7:14 (“virgin” vs. “young woman”) created a stir in the second century as it would again with the Revised Standard Version in the twentieth. The fact that modern debates aren’t new doesn’t mean they’re not important, but it does put them in perspective.
Myth #5: The Catholic church outlawed Bible translation.
A final myth about translation is that the Roman Catholic church completely outlawed Bible translation. Like other myths, this one has a grain of truth to it. In England, vernacular translations were outlawed after the work of John Wycliffe and his followers in the fourteenth century. By the time of William Tyndale, one-hundred and fifty years later, these laws were still in effect. He faced strong opposition to his own translation work and was eventually arrested and killed. But the opposition to vernacular translation was not the same throughout Europe. When Luther finished his German New Testament in 1522, there were already more than a dozen Bibles in German. French and Italian also had their own. Though Catholics were often nervous about translation, the opposition was never universal or absolute. When the Council of Trent gave its decree on the Bible in 1546, it neither prohibited nor encouraged translation. The prelates couldn’t agree. So, they punted and said nothing. Even in English, Catholics could only resist Bible translation for so long, publishing a complete English Bible in 1609, two years before the King James Bible.
If the Bible’s history has sometimes been misunderstood, the good news is that the truth is better than the fiction. The Bible has such a rich history because so many have given their energy, their ingenuity, and even their lives so that we have it today. When we peel away the fabrications, we find a story that inspires Christians to read it, to love it, and to live it. One thing the Bible’s history teaches us never to do is take it for granted.
John D. Meade and Peter J. Gurry are the authors of Scribes and Scripture: The Amazing Story of How We Got the Bible.
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