5 Myths about How We Got the Bible
Written by Peter J. Gurry and John D. Meade |
Tuesday, March 7, 2023
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.
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.”