The Witness of Scripture: Work of Men, or Word of God?
- Thursday, May 08, 2008
In AD 160, Justin Martyr wrote that reading “the memoirs of the apostles” was a weekly custom for the assembly of believers. Theologian Ben Witherington cites the work of Martin Hengel and Harry Gamble showing that the four gospels and Paul’s writings were circulated together in codex (book) form in the early second century—further evidence that apostolic writings were accepted as Scripture by the early church.
Is What We Have What They Wrote?
Like all works of antiquity, there are no original autographs of the NT documents. That said, the NT enjoys manuscript support (copies of the autographs) far in excess of any other ancient literary work.
Consider that there are about 5,000 Greek manuscripts of the NT and 24,000 copies of portions thereof in existence. Not only is that level of support unparalleled for ancient works, but the time span between the originals and the first manuscripts is exceptionally short; within 100 years versus many centuries to millennia.
Also, the textual variation among the existing copies is extremely small. For all the hoopla over Bible contradictions, errors and inconsistencies, only about one-half of one percent of the Bible is under competent dispute—none of which affects any “material question of historic fact or of Christian faith and doctrine,” according to biblical scholar, F.F. Bruce.
Compare that with Homer’s Iliad, which has the next best manuscript support among ancient literature. For people of antiquity, Homer “was held in the highest esteem and quoted in defense of arguments pertaining to heaven, earth, and Hades,” writes Bruce Metzger. Like the Bible, Homer was memorized, served as school primers, and was allegorized and enhanced.
Yet there are only about 650 surviving copies of the Iliad, written over a thousand years after the original. Among those copies, there are over 100 times as many textual differences as the Bible. Matched up against the writing of the ancients, the transmission of the biblical narrative is in class of its own.
Added to that, the extra-biblical quotations of the early church fathers (second and third century) are so extensive, they could be used to reconstruct the entire NT.
The upshot is that there is high confidence that the Bible we have is what the authors wrote; but is what they wrote the Word of God? Let’s see.
Breaking News... Before it Happens!
One of the most intriguing features of the Written Word is prophecy. The Bible contains hundreds of prophecies written well in advance of the events they describe. But one prediction that is downright shocking in its precision, deals with the coming of the Messiah:
Know and understand this: From the issuing of the decree to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until the Anointed One, the ruler, comes, there will be seven 'sevens,' and sixty-two 'sevens.' It will be rebuilt with streets and a trench, but in times of trouble. After the sixty-two 'sevens,' the Anointed One will be cut off and will have nothing. (Daniel 9:25-26)
Time “zero” for this prediction is the decree to rebuild Jerusalem, issued by King Artaxerses in 445 BC. Given the Jewish idiom of “seven” as a week of years, or seven years, the prediction is that the Messiah will come as ruler in 69 (7 plus 62) “weeks,” or 483 years.
Correcting the Jewish year (which was based on 360 days) for a 365.25 day year, the period between the decree to rebuild Jerusalem and the arrival of the Messiah becomes 476 years.
The gospel of Luke states that, in the 15th year of Tiberius, Jesus began his public ministry. Tiberius became emperor when Augustus Caesar died in AD 14. Including the year he was enthroned, the 15th year of his reign occurred in AD 28.
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