Bible Classes on Apologetics | The Old Testament Canon

A Bible with the Hebrew alphabet

Bible Classes on Apologetics | The Old Testament Canon

The Origin of the Old Testament Canon

Originally, the Bible came from, or was inspired by, God.

  • 2 Timothy 3:16-17 says that all scripture is inspired by God.
  • 2 Peter 1:20-21 says that holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit.
  • Hebrews 1:1-2 says that God spoke to the fathers by the prophets but now speaks to us through his Son.

But God gave his word through individual men in human language. It is said that the Bible was written by about forty different men over a period of about 1,500 years. Their situations varied: kinds and fishermen, rich and poor, Jew and Gentile, are represented among the writers. These writers had different backgrounds and different purposes in writing.

Circumstances of Writing

How did the writing of the Bible books take place?

Writing in ancient times dates back to the fourth millennium BC. The earliest forms of writing used pictographic (picture-writing) scripts. One form of such a script is found in Egypt and is known as hieroglyphic. Another kind of script developed in Mesopotamia: cuneiform, or wedge-shaped, writing.

Eventually a form of writing developed in which a symbol was used to stand for a sound; this was the first alphabetic writing, and it had obvious advantages over any form of pictographic writing. “The alphabet was invented somewhere in Syro-Palestine in the first half of the second millennium B.C.” and “the earliest undisputed examples of alphabetic writing date to the end of the Middle Bronze Age, ca. 1550 B.C.” (Harper’s Bible Dictionary, p. 1148).

Various kinds of writing materials were used in antiquity: stone, clay tablets, clay potsherds (broken pieces of clay pottery), wood or bark, metal (a copper scroll was found among the Dead Sea Scrolls), and leather. There is some mention in the Bible of almost all of these items being used to write on. Eventually papyrus became the main substance on which books were written. Papyrus is a plant from which was made a paper-like sheet. From the word “papyrus” we get the word “paper.”

Originally, when more than one sheet of papyrus (or leather) was needed for a book, the sheets of papyrus were stitched together and rolled up as a scroll. At a later date, different pages were bound together in book, or codex, form.

Of course, the Bible was not written originally in English. Most of the Old Testament was written in Hebrew. Some portions—basically a few chapters—were written in Aramaic. The New Testament was written originally in Greek. There are some Aramaic phrases even in the New Testament.

Transmission of the Text

For hundreds of years—until about AD 1450 when the printing press was invented by Gutenberg—the books of the Bible were copied by hand. In Bible times the men who copied the scriptures were known as scribes.

This kind of transmission makes it possible for errors to creep into the text and to be passed on to succeeding generations. Consider how difficult it would be for you to copy anything word for word and punctuation mark for punctuation mark without making a mistake. Then you would pass it on to someone else who would need to do the same. He would then pass it on, etc.

There are many variant readings of biblical passages. Our English Bibles are translated from a Greek text and a Hebrew text. But the Hebrew and Greek texts are derived from ancient manuscripts. The problem is that many of these manuscripts at different points disagree as to what should be the reading of a specific verse. You may be able to see variations in the original text in your English Bible, because in many Bibles there will be footnotes after disputed or questionable readings, saying something like, “Other ancient authorities read. . . .” The fact is that the ancient manuscripts testify to the existence of, probably, thousands of variations, or variant readings, or simply variants, in the Bible.

Should we, therefore, conclude that faulty transmission has given us a Bible that we cannot trust? Of course not! There are several reasons to conclude we can trust our Bibles despite textual variants.

The copyists were very careful about the making of copies

The Masoretes (a particular kind of Jewish scribes whose work is dated around AD 500), in particular, had detailed rules designed to prevent the transmission of errors. For instance, they would count the number of words and letters on a page and then determine what word and letter was in the very center of the page. After they had copied the page, they would count the number of words and letters on their copy and determine what was the central word and letter. If the two counts were not exactly the same, they would destroy the copy and start over. It is likely that other scribes at other times were equally careful, since they believed that they were dealing with the word of God.

The care with which the scribes copied the scriptures is evident from the Dead Sea Scrolls, which were discovered in the Qumran caves in 1947. These scrolls include complete copies of a number of books from the Hebrew Bible (most notably, Isaiah) which date back, perhaps, to 100 BC. Before these scrolls were found, the earliest copies of the Hebrew Bible date, perhaps, back to AD 900. Thus, the Dead Sea Scrolls provide a witness to the text of some of the Old Testament 1,000 years older than any previously known.

And yet there are hardly any differences between the Dead Sea Scrolls and the later manuscripts! After a thousand years of copying by hand, the text had not been noticeably corrupted! Such careful copying means that you can place a great deal of trust in your Bible.

There are many witnesses to the original text of the books of the Bible

The original text of any Bible book is called the autograph. None of the autographs of the books of the Bible are available to us.

How then do we know what the original texts of the Bible books said? There is a well-developed branch of study known as textual criticism which has as its aim the recovery of the original, or at least the best, text.

Textual criticism is accomplished by considering the textual evidence, which mainly consists of manuscripts (copies of the book in the original language) and ancient versions (copies of the book in other languages). If a question arises as to the original reading of a particular passage, the textual critic applies some universally accepted rules or standards to determine which of the variants should be chosen as the most likely reading of the original text. For the New Testament, there are many witnesses (literally thousands) to the original text, and many of these are quite early—dating back to the fourth century AD or even earlier.

There are not as many witnesses to the correct text of the Old Testament. The major evidence is provided by the Masoretic Text, the text of the Hebrew Bible as standardized in the first millennium by the Masoretic Scribes. The earliest copies of the Masoretic Text date to about AD 900.

Among the other witnesses to the Old Testament as the Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible made, perhaps, in the third century BC, and the Dead Sea scrolls, which include Hebrew manuscripts of several bible books dating back to the first and second century BC.

There are, in any case, enough witnesses to the original text of the Bible that scholars have spoken of it as being the best attested literary work from antiquity.

The word of the textual critics has tended to confirm the essential accuracy of the Hebrew and Greek texts

As the textual critics have worked with various witnesses to the text of the Old and New Testaments, there findings have not tended to be revolutionary. Rather, the more they study the ancient manuscripts and the nature of the variants, the more they are inclined to respect the text they began with—in Old Testament studies, that would be the Masoretic Text.

Thus, after a century or more of critical study, the Hebrew text of the Old Testament and the Greek text of the New Testament are thought to be essentially the same as when they were first written. One liberal scholar, for instance, said that if Paul were to come back to life today and read the Greek texts of his epistles, he would say, “Yes, that’s what I wrote.” And scholars agree that the more discoveries that are made with regard to the Old Testament text, the more the Masoretic text proves to be accurate.

The nature of the variant readings in the Hebrew and Greek texts tends to produce confidence in the transmission process

For instance, although there are many variants in the witnesses to the text of the New Testament, most of them have to do with minor matters—such as spelling and word order—which make no difference to the meaning of the text.

Even those which do affect meaning do not affect any essential doctrine. The English reader can check this for himself by noting that a number of verses in the New Testament are left out of some versions. E.g., Mark 16:9-20; John 8:1-11; Acts 8:37.

This means that there is a question, based on the witnesses to the Greek text, as to whether these particular verses were in the books as the books were originally written. The question regarding some of these verses is a matter of intense debate.

However, even if these verses are rejected as belonging to the autograph copies no major doctrine of the New Testament is affected. For example, if Acts 8:37 is left out (as I think it should be), there are still other New Testament passages which teach the importance of being willing to confess faith in Christ.


Another question that emerges is whether or not we have the correct books in the Bible. The question arises because:

  1. Other books were being written at the same time that the Scriptures were being produced (see Luke 1:1ff).
  2. Some other writings are accepted as inspired and authoritative by other people who profess Christianity.

In particular, the Roman Catholic Church has a number of books in its Bible—the Old Testament—which are not found in our Bibles. We call these the apocrypha (a word that means “hidden”). Roman Catholics themselves do not regard these books as an “apocrypha;” to them, they are simply a part of the Scriptures. Catholics use the term “Deuterocanonical”—which means “Second Canon.”

This question concerns the canon. The word “canon” originally means a “reed;” later it came to mean a standard by which something was measured or evaluated; now in a religious context it means the list of books in the Bible which are accepted as authoritative because they are inspired.

How do we know what books belong in the canon? The real question is: Which books were inspired and so accepted by the church as authoritative? Because such books were, for the most part, from the first regarded as inspired and authoritative, they were accepted as part of the canon.

These contrasts with what some others believe about the canon. They believe that sometime, maybe in the fourth century AD, some kind of council made a final decision about which books were to be in the canon and which were not to be included. But we do not believe that the ruling of the church in the third or fourth century made these books canonical. Rather, the council ruling merely recognized what had been accepted as a fact for centuries.

Nevertheless, there are some criteria which our canonical books meet, but which the apocryphal books do not meet. The chief of these is the question: Were these books accepted by the Jews and the early church as canonical? Thus, the main reason to reject the Apocrypha is that there is no reason to believe that it was ever accepted by the Jews as a part of the Hebrew Bible or by the church of the first century as a part of their Scriptures. The Apocrypha of the Catholic Church is never quoted in the New Testament.

English Versions

A version is a translation. The fact that our English Bibles are called versions reminds us that the Bible was not written originally in English but in other languages that required it to be translated into English. The Old Testament was translated into other languages, most notably Greek, in the Septuagint. After the writing of the New Testament, the entire Bible was translated into a number of languages.

One of these translations was the Latin Vulgate, a translation into Latin, made by Jerome in the fourth century AD. This was the Bible of the Roman Catholic Church during the Middle Ages. Although some part of the Bible were translated into English earlier, the first complete translation of the English Bible was made by Wycliffe and completed about AD 1384.

Probably the most influential of the early English translations was Tyndale’s translation of the New Testament (along with parts of the Old Testament) which was completed about AD 1529. It has had more influence on succeeding translations than any other. Almost every English version since is indebted to Tyndale’s translation in some way or other. Unlike Wycliffe’s version, which was translated from the Latin Vulgate, Tyndale’s translation was made from the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures.

Other English versions followed:

  • 1535—Cloverdale’s Bible.
  • 1537—Matthew’s Bible.
  • 1539—Great Bible.
  • 1557-1560—Geneva Bible.
  • 1568—Bishop’s Bible.

The King James Version was completed in 1611 by a committee of scholars. It is sometimes called the Authorized Version, but it was “authorized” only in the sense that it was authorized to be read in the Church of England. Obviously, it was not the first English version. In fact, it can be thought of as a revised version itself. It took into account the earlier English versions and compared them to the original text.

After a period of time, the King James Version became the most popular English Version and remained so through the twentieth century. It is universally regarded as great literature.

However, in the nineteenth century the feeling arose that the King James Version needed to be revised. At least two things suggested a need for this revision.

The changes which had occurred in the English language

For instance, the English word “conversation” which is found in the King James Version meant something quite different in 1611 than it means today. Then it translated a word which today is better translated “manner of life.”

The discovery of new manuscripts, which made possible a more accurate Hebrew and Greek text from which to translate the Bible into English

For example, there are three major manuscripts which have had the greatest influence in the formation of the Greek text on which the English New Testament is based.

  • The Vatican Codex, which dates from around AD 350.
  • The Sinai Codex, which dates from about AD 375.
  • The Alexandrian Codex, which goes back to about AD 425.

But none of these manuscripts had been found or was available to the translators of the New Testament when the King James Version was translated. It’s interesting that the more recent the translation is, in a sense, the older it may be—at least from this standpoint: It has the opportunity to take into account more and better and older manuscripts than did earlier versions.

Consequently, the King James Version was revised. The English Revised Version was published about 1885, and a very similar version, the American Standard Version, was published about 1901. Other English translations followed.

How should someone choose a translation to use? A number of suggestions have been offered. The main criterion for judging between translations cannot be whether or not it differs from the King James Version. The main criterion for judging a translation must be whether or not it accurately conveys the meaning of the original Hebrew and Greek text.

This sermon was originally preached by Dr. Justin Imel, Sr., at Church of Christ Deer Park in Deer Park, Texas.

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