Challenge Response: The Collection of Books in the Bible Changed Until the Printing Press

Here's my response to this week's challenge:


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If you're a Christian, why do you worship the scriptures in their current Bible and not those that are left out? The Bible had a long history of changes before becoming the collection of books that Christians worship today. Entire books have been removed and added during the Bible's history, and entire generations of Christians have devoted their faith and lives to earlier versions of the Bible which contained various different collections of books and teachings. The Bible only became relatively consistent in its current form because of the 15th century invention of the printing press, which mass produced copies of the current collection of the books.

How do we respond? First, this article says multiple times that Christians worship scripture. Of course, Christians don't worship scripture, they worship God. We study the Bible, we interpret the Bible, we value the Bible as God's communication to us, but we do not bow down and worship the Bible. Second, there seems to be an assumption within this challenge that things are changing within the Bible up until the printing press and it was the printing press that solidified which books were in and which books were out. This is absolute nonsense. It's just foolishness.

Let's look just at the New Testament for a minute. The last time I spoke to Dan Wallace, who's one of the leading New Testament textual critics in the world, we had 5,839 New Testament manuscripts ranging from the 2nd century all the way to the printing press. Let's go right back to within the first three centuries of the originals, the autographs. We have 124 manuscripts in those first 300 years from the composition of the New Testament, and collectively that's the whole New Testament multiple times over. How did these early manuscripts compare with later manuscripts? Has there been considerable change? Dan Wallace says that the later manuscripts only add less than 2% of the material to the text, less than 2% change to the text of the New Testament over a 1,500-year transmission period. That's an extraordinary transmission history. We know what that other 2% is.

Third, the article asserts that entire books have been removed and added during the Bible's history. This is quite a claim, but the author doesn't say which books he's referring to. In one place on the webpage, he asserts that 20 gospels were around in the first 400 years of Christianity. Even if that's true, it doesn't mean that Christians thought these were authoritative or that any were considered on par with the four gospels we have in the New Testament. For instance, there's no evidence to say that the Gospel of Peter, which is 2nd century, or the Gospel of Philip, 3rd century, were added or removed to the canon of scripture. Why? Because no one thought these had apostolic authority. This actually goes to the fourth point. This challenge seems to have a faulty understanding of how the canon was assembled. It wasn't a bunch of guys with some authority who used that authority to pick the books they liked, like the Gospel of Mark or the Gospel of Thomas. No. Rather, it was the books with authority in themselves that just were the standard, that were the authority or the canon.

How did they know which gospels had authority? How did they know the four gospels were the real gospels? Here's an acronym I came up with to help answer this question. It uses the word real. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were R, recognized widely in the early church. The historical evidence shows that the early church was using these four gospels and ignoring and even condemning all the others. In fact, we don't have a single canonical list from the ancient world that says Matthew, Mark, Luke, and Thomas. It's always the four gospels without exception. They were E, the earliest gospels. These are the earliest gospels we have. As a matter of fact, there are no other 1st century books, except maybe First Clement, that even come close to competing with the 27 books of the New Testament. All of these other books come later.

They were A, apostolic, meaning they were written by eyewitnesses in the case of Matthew and John, and close companions of eyewitnesses in the case of Mark and Luke. Finally, they L, lacked embellishment. The other gospels include legendary and embellished stories, like walking and talking crosses. The four gospels read like real history. Once you actually understand the remarkable transmission of the Bible and how the canon was assembled, this challenge is easily answered.

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Tim Barnett