Part 8 – Bible Text and Canon

The document we call the Bible has a long history. In this video we will look at two important aspects of that history: Who wrote the books of the Bible, and How was the text of the biblical books preserved through the ages.

The Hebrew Bible

Modern biblical scholarship holds that the content of most books of the Hebrew Bible grew over centuries and underwent a long process of revision and editing before their final form was fixed. In this video we present a summary of how most scholars think the biblical books reached their present form.

Scholars assume that the books of the Hebrew Bible were written by mostly unknown writers between 800 and 200 BC. The Pentateuch and most of the historical books of the Hebrew Bible were compiled and composed from oral and written texts by scribes from the royal courts and the temple community of Jerusalem. 

The prophetic books go back to oral texts spoken by individual prophets. Scribes and followers of the prophets compiled their oracles and composed books from them. 

The wisdom schools were another source of the biblical books of Ancient Israel. These schools came into being from about 400 BC, when it became important in Israel to educate young people in the Torah and in wisdom philosophy.


So would you say that the books of the Hebrew Bible were produced by scribes, prophets and teachers?

Yes, that seems to be fairly correct, but we have to be careful with the word scribe. Scribes were not authors, but officials, who were asked to put into writing beliefs and hopes as well as political opinions held by the king and his court. Prophets were among the king’s advisors, so scribes could also be called upon to record prophetic vision.

So you are saying that the royal courts and the temple in Jerusalem were the cradle where the first biblical texts were born.

Yes, that it what most biblical scholars assume.

The first Israelite inhabitants of the land of Canaan were illiterate farmers and herdsmen. Their agricultural society could function quite well without reading and writing. Around the year 1000 bc the tribes of Israel merged into a state under the kings David and Solomon. The running of a state requires keeping records and correspondence, so literacy became a necessity.

One of the first writing systems was developed about 3000 bc by the Sumerians. They used a pointed reed to make impressions on soft clay tablets. This is called cuneiform script. Sometimes the same script was chiseled into stone surfaces. The famous stele of Hammurabi (1750 BC), for example, records the most important laws issued by that King; they are inscribed in cuneiform script. The complicated cuneiform writing system was used for centuries in Mesopotamia, until the time of the Assyrian Empire, about 750 BC.

The Egyptians designed a different system of writing, called hieroglyphics. It was based on small pictures representing objects, groups of sounds, and individual sounds. There were several hundred such hieroglyphic signs, and it would have been difficult to learn them all. This meant that only a few specially educated priests were able to write or read. The hieroglyphic writing system had been simplified for daily use into a script called “hieratic,” which was still not very easy to learn.


The signs used in writing systems can refer to sounds, to words, and to relations between words. Several groups in the Ancient Near East started to use signs solely for speech sounds, which made writing systems much easier to use. This was an important step in the development of the simple writing system we call the alphabet. The people of Ugarit had first developed an alphabetic writing system using the cuneiform symbols. The Phoenicians went a step further when they developed 22 symbols for the twenty two distinctive consonantal speech sounds of their language. By the year 1000 bc the alphabet was in use in all Phoenician city states. Through their extensive trading activities the Phoenicians spread the knowledge of the alphabet all over the Mediterranean world. Since it consisted of only 22 signs, the Phoenician alphabet was easy to learn. There were no signs for the vowel sounds, but the vowels could be filled in easily by the reader.

The spoken sounds of the Hebrew language were very similar to those in the Phoenician language, and the new alphabet was easily adapted to Hebrew. Thus, when the need for literacy emerged in the new kingdom of Israel, they adopted this alphabetic system. This allowed for an increase in literacy, which, however, remained quite limited for several generations.

Writing and reading began in Israel in the time of King Solomon, about 950 BC. The main writing surfaces were pieces of broken pottery, stone tablets, and sheets made of the papyrus plant. Longer texts were written on scrolls, which were made by sewing papyrus sheets together. Since papyrus is not very durable, no papyrus documents have been preserved from the time of Solomon. In fact archeologists have found no substantial evidence from that time for the use of writing. Consequently, we do not know what biblical texts were written down during Solomon’s reign, probably only some parts of books like Genesis and Exodus. There was obviously a need in Israel to write down the most important rules of law, as well as the most important customs and regulations of the culture. Also records of the past, such as stories of the ancestors that had existed in oral form for centuries, may have been written down at that time.

Scribes were actively employed both in Samaria, the capital of the powerful and prosperous Northern Kingdom, and in Jerusalem, the capital of the smaller Southern Kingdom. It was their job to record such things as inventories of goods, lists of wise sayings and people with debts, and also longer writings like legal documents. In the book of Proverbs (25:1) we read that the scribes of King Hezekiah added a number of proverbs to an already existing collection. Scribes were also asked to record legends of the heroic deeds of the ancestors.


Do we know which biblical texts were written in the northern kingdom and which were written in the southern kingdom?

No, but we do know of a highly significant event in the history of the text during the reign of Josiah, King of Judah.

What event was that?

The book of second Kings relates that priests doing repairs in the temple discovered a scroll, which the text calls “the book of the Law.”

Do we know what was in this scroll?

The biblical text doesn’t tell us much about its content. Many scholars hold that it was largely the book of Deuteronomy as we have it in our Bibles today.

Why would Deuteronomy be significant?

For centuries the people of Israel had sacrificed, both to Yahweh and to other gods, in many cult places around the country. The book of Deuteronomy required that sacrifices be done only in “the place which the Lord chooses for his name.”


Right. Most biblical scholars assume that the book of Deuteronomy and the books of Joshua and Judges, as well as the books of Samuel and Kings were all composed by scribes in Jerusalem during the reign of Josiah, as all these books reflect the same theological thought. For that reason these books have been called deuteronomistic books.

But not all biblical scholars agree that the Deuteronomistic books were composed by scribes at the court of King Josiah.

No, some attribute the various books to a single author.

When the elite of the people of Judah were deported to Babylon early in the 6th century bc, they probably took with them a good number of scrolls. We don’t know exactly which scrolls they were or what they contained, but the book of the Law (Deuteronomy) must have been among them. In Babylon the Jews did not construct a temple, and they did not sacrifice to the Lord. Studying and reciting holy text became an important religious duty, a kind of substitute for the sacrificial cult, and Babylon became an important center for the production of sacred books.

Some new text collections were compiled, most probably including the book of Leviticus, and added to existing collections of laws and traditions. It is likely that the Torah received a final editing by scribes from the priestly class living in Babylon. The Deuteronomistic material was also worked on in Babylon up until the death of the last King of Judah in exile in the early 6th century bc. Writings from different anonymous prophetic sources also emerged in exile. Some of these may have been incorporated into the book of Isaiah. The prophet Ezekiel lived and prophesied in Babylon.

A new situation arose after the Babylonian Empire fell to the Persians and Medes. The Persians allowed all peoples under their rule to organize public life in accordance with their own laws and customs. The ancient Kingdom of Judah became Yehud, a province of the Persian Empire where the Jewish people were allowed to live in accordance with the laws of their sacred books. For the Jews in exile in Babylon it was clear that the five books ascribed to Moses, the Torah, should serve as their basic law. These books were considered by the Jewish people to be inspired by God and for that reason to carry divine authority. The books of the Torah became the first canon of Scripture for the Jews. As such, it was the basis for all the other books and the standard by which they were measured.

Old Testament Canon

Between 539 and 440 BC several large groups of exiles returned from Babylon to the land of Israel, among them many priests. Ezra, who was a priest and a scribe and an important figure in the Babylonian Jewish community, went back with a group in 458 BC. He played an important role in the teaching of the Torah as the authority for all spheres of life in the province of Yehud. The royal dynasty of the line of David was not restored to power after the period of exile, but the high priest in Jerusalem became more and more a central authority in the land.

After the temple was rebuilt in 516 BC it became the religious center of the land. Certain books were placed in a special room and were treated as sacred objects. We do not know exactly which books, besides the Torah, were regarded as sacred at that time. Among other books already in existence were the Deuteronomistic historical books and a number of prophetic books.

Probably by around 200 bc general agreement had been reached as to which compositions rightly belonged in the canon of prophetic books. This canon consisted of the historical books, the Major Prophets, and the 12 Minor Prophets. The latter group also contained prophecies of some prophets like Haggai and Zechariah, who lived after the Babylonian exile. According to Jewish belief, prophecy ceased in Israel after these prophets, and the list of prophetic books could be closed.


Some books of the Hebrew Bible have prophetic elements but were not included among the prophets in the Jewish division of the Old Testament.

Which books do you have in mind?

Two good examples are the book of Psalms and the book of Daniel. Some of the Psalms, such as Psalm 2 and Psalm 110, are quoted in the New Testament as prophecies about Christ.

Yes, that’s true. Pre-Christian Judaism also saw prophetic elements in these same books. The book of Psalms was recognized early as Holy Scripture, but it was not originally a book of prophecy.

No, it served primarily as the hymnal for the temple ceremonies. Even so, in later times some of the Psalms were indeed interpreted as prophecy.

What about the book of Daniel?

Daniel was different from the ancient prophets. He interpreted dreams and earlier prophecies, but he did not speak the word of the Lord directly like Amos or Isaiah.

The study and interpretation of the sacred books inspired people to write new books, and some of these were eventually incorporated into the third canon of the Hebrew Bible, which is called the WRITINGS. These books are dependent on the canon of the Law and the prophets. The study of the books of the fathers―the Torah and prophets―became a holy duty for the Jewish people in the period of the second temple.

Literacy was widespread among the upper classes. New literary genres appeared, including apocalyptic literature and wisdom literature. By the time of Jesus more than a hundred such religious books had appeared, but very few of them were incorporated into the Hebrew Bible.

Some of these later writings are known as pseudepigrapha, which means that they appeared under the name of an authoritative figure from the past. The famous name was probably used because the writer understood himself to be writing in the spirit of the prophets of old. Most scholars consider certain books of the third canon to be pseudepigraphical.

The full canon of the Hebrew Bible was probably fixed even before the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD. Some of the Jewish leadership had come here to the town of Jamnia or Yavne shortly before the end of the war with Rome. The town had an academy for Torah study. After the war the Sanhedrin council met here and discussed and decided upon many subjects of great importance to the nation. One such subject was which books were to be considered holy, in other words, which books belonged to the canon for the Jewish people. In the end, the rabbis did not add any new books or agree to remove any they considered doubtful. The canon they had at the end of the discussion was the same one they had started with.

Arrangement of the Old Testament

The traditional Jewish arrangement of the Old Testament is into three parts. The first part is the five books of Moses, known as the Pentateuch or by its Hebrew name, Torah.

The second part is called the Prophets. This part itself has two sections. The first section contains six historical narratives and is known in Jewish tradition as the First Prophets or the Former Prophets. The second section of the Prophets consists of fifteen books in the names of the men who are supposed to have written them or spoken their message. This second section is sometimes called the Later Prophets. The books of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel are the longest and for that reason are sometimes called the Major Prophets. The other twelve writings in the Prophets are sometimes grouped together and called the Minor Prophets because of their short length.

The third part of the Hebrew Bible is known as the Writings. It includes everything else. The longest book in this part is Psalms, which could sometimes give its name to the whole. Among the Writings we find the historical books of Chronicles and the book of Daniel.

In most of our Bible translations the table of contents shows 39 books. However, in some cases the divisions between books are artificial. The two books of Samuel represent one writing, as do the books of Kings, the books of Chronicles, and probably the two books Ezra and Nehemiah.

In the Egyptian city of Alexandria, starting in the 3rd century BC, Jewish scholars made a translation of the Old Testament into Greek. This translation came to be known as the Septuagint. In addition to the books found in the Hebrew Bible, it included additional books that were not ultimately accepted as part of the Jewish canon. These extra books are called the “second canon,” or Deuterocanon. They are also called the Apocrypha. For the early Greek-speaking church the Septuagint was the official text. This meant that the Old Testament of the church included these extra books.

Setting the Old Testament text

We have seen that the canon of the Hebrew Bible was standardized sometime before 100 ad. However, the text itself was far from uniform. Hundreds of scrolls contained biblical books in different scripts, different forms of spelling, and even different states of editing. There was no single uniform text of the Hebrew Bible in use in Jewish communities either inside or outside Palestine.

Scholars of biblical Hebrew were not very aware of these wide variations in the text, until about 800 scrolls were discovered in 1947 in caves at Qumran near the Dead Sea. These scrolls belonged to a community of very religious Jews, among them many scribes, who had left Jerusalem around 150 BC and settled in the Judean desert to live a communal life. They had brought a number of scrolls with them from Jerusalem. The scribes made many copies of these scrolls and also wrote new books, such as scriptural commentaries and books expressing their own theology and life style. Out of the more than 800 scrolls discovered at Qumran, 190 contain books of the Bible. For most of these, only fragments of most of these have been recovered, but one scroll has the entire book of Isaiah. The only biblical books missing are Esther and Nehemiah. The books of Psalms, Deuteronomy, and Isaiah seem to have been especially important for the Qumran community, since many copies of each of these books were found.

The earliest Israelite writings used the Canaanite/Phoenician alphabet. Twelve biblical scrolls found in Qumran are written in this ancient script, which is sometimes called “paleo-Hebrew.” During the time of the Babylonian captivity Jewish scribes had begun to use the square Aramaic script. Variations on the same square script are still in use in printed Hebrew Bibles today.

[Dialogue: in Qumran]

Krijn: Ah, this is the Qumran scriptorium.

What is a scriptorium?

It was a place where scribes copied biblical texts.

How can we be sure this was a scriptorium?

Archaeologists found quite a few ink pots in this room.

Yes, that would mean that it was used for writing.

Over here is Cave 4, where a lot of scrolls were found. This was not a specific library but probably a geniza, which was a storage place for old scrolls that couldn’t be used any more.

So they found many biblical books there?


What material did the Qumran scribes actually use to write on?

Most of the scrolls were made of animal skin. One was made of thin, beaten copper. A few documents were written on papyrus.

Am I correct in assuming that no codices could have been found here?

That’s right. The codex is a bound book with many leaves written on both sides.

So a codex would hold much more text than a scroll.


When were codices first used?

Christians began to use the codex in the second century, because they wanted to include the entire sacred text in one volume.

I see. Jewish copyists did not begin to use the codex until the 8th century. Either way, it is clear that no codex could have been found here.

Why did the community members hide their scrolls in caves like this one, Cave 11?

They removed their books from the settlement and hid them in caves probably in order to save them from destruction. In fact, the community buildings were burned in the year 68 AD by the Romans during the Jewish revolt against Rome, but the scrolls survived.


We often see references in the literature to the library at Qumran. Is that an accurate description?

Dr. Pfann: The use of the term “the library at Qumran” is a little naïve. It was used in the first decades after the discovery of the scrolls as if everything was interconnected, regardless of what cave it came from. As if there was one large mass of manuscripts which once belonged to a single community. However, what we have today is actually not a picture of a single library. Today we would have to speak of libraries that were found in the cliffs, hidden libraries. But they were not intentionally left there so people could go back and forth retrieving books to read from. When they were attacked, when they were being pursued, the communities hid those libraries in the best way possible with the intent of returning to find them again.

Can you give an example of one such cave?

Dr. Pfann: We have several caves within the cliffs that represent priestly concerns of two separate communities. For example, the first cave that was found really is an Essene library from a priestly group. It held each of the key components, the interpretive books of their own community. It also held a number of liturgical works, which increases the likelihood that this was in fact a priestly library. Similar, but with a totally different form of doctrine, is what we find at Cave 11, a second cave from a much later period, from the time of the revolt from 66 to 70. Here we find different books, pseudepigraphic books. The Torah is still at the center, but now there is another form of doctrine. Here there are also clear indications of a priestly community but one that saw on the horizon the potential for a new, pure temple. These don’t seem to be connectecd to the other library at all.

Textual studies of biblical books in the Qumran scrolls show that there was no uniform, commonly accepted text of the Hebrew Bible in the time of Jesus. Instead, we need to speak of text families. Scribes like those at Qumran copied by hand from a mother text, and we can speak of the copies as sons or daughters of that mother text. A group of manuscripts all deriving from a particular manuscript is called a text family or a text tradition. For example, the Hebrew text from which the Septuagint Greek translation was made was from a different family from the Hebrew text used over the centuries by the Jewish communities in Israel and Babylonia. A particular manuscript might be damaged, or changes could be introduced―on purpose or by accident―by a scribe into a copy he was making. When that happened, later copies made from that changed manuscript would reflect those same changes.

Scribal errors

In a world without printing presses or photocopiers, all copying of documents was done by hand. If a scroll was worn out or damaged, scribes had to make a new copy letter by letter. The work of a scribe was tiring and tedious. It was hard on the back and hard on the eyes. It was easy to make mistakes, and it is not surprising that no two long manuscripts are exactly the same.

The most common type of scribal error in Hebrew texts is the confusion of letters that look similar. This could happen in the ancient Hebrew script for letters like heh and beth or heh and yod. It was even more common in the square Hebrew script.

The letters most commonly confused with each other were beth and kaf, heh and heth, daleth and resh, vav and yod, heh and tav, and ayin and tsadeh. Perhaps the most frequent confusion comes with the letters yod and vav in the words for he and she. A small change in the length of the middle letter changes he to she or she to he.

Another error was introduced when the scribe interchanged two or more letters in a word. For example, in Isa 32.19 the masoretic text has ha-`ir, the city. One of the scrolls of Isaiah found at Qumran has ha-ya`ar, the forest.

A third type of error can happen when the same or similar word appears twice in a short space. The eye of the tired scribe sometimes skipped over the words in between the two places. This is what happened at Isaiah 4.5-6 in one of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

After the canon of the Hebrew Bible had been determined and the text standardized near the end of the first century AD, scribes were no longer allowed to change the text in any way. Even though errors are unavoidable when copying a long text, the Jewish scribes did this with great care. Christian copyists preserved the Septuagint and other translations of the Old Testament, but it was only Jews who copied the Hebrew Bible.

The group who played the most important role in this process were families of scribes and rabbis from the city of Tiberias. They are called the Masoretes, from a Hebrew word meaning to “transmit” or “hand down.” Their job was to preserve the text, not only by making exact copies but also by guaranteeing that it was pronounced and interpreted correctly. They did this by adding vowel signs and accent marks to the consonantal text. They also counted the letters of each copy they made to ensure that they had not missed or added a letter. In addition to this they added notes called Masorah. These notes were mainly statistics indicating variations in spelling and how many times a word was spelled in a certain way. They sometimes also provide alternate readings to what is written in the text.

The work of adding vowel signs, accents, and notes to the text was carried out mostly between the eighth and the eleventh centuries in the city of Tiberias.

In the tenth century the Masoretes produced a codex that contained all books of the Hebrew Bible. This text became the standard text for the Jewish community. It was called the crown, as it was considered the crown on the work of the Masoretes. The codex consisted of 480 leaves of which only 295 have survived until today. The codex is known as the Aleppo Codex, as it was kept for a long time in the synagogue of the city of Aleppo in Syria. It is now on display in the Israel Museum.

The invention of printing changed the production and treatment of ancient biblical texts profoundly. It made it possible to produce many identical copies in a very short time. The first Hebrew Bibles were printed in the 15th century. The printers chose a manuscript of the Masoretic Text known the Ben Haim text. Later, however, they began to use the Codex Leningradensis, which was a complete text from the year 1009. The printed Masoretic Text became the standard text for the Jewish people, and it remains so until today. It is the base text for the Hebrew Bible published by the United Bible Societies.


The Masoretes were working almost a thousand years after the time of the Dead Sea Scrolls. How much did the Hebrew text change over the centuries?

Well, first of all, we need to remember that there was a variety of text traditions at Qumran itself.

You mean that they were not all copying from a standard text yet?

No, not at all. But one of the important text traditions there was indeed the same one to which the Masoretic text belonged.

So how much had that text changed?

The texts for many of the books had changed very little indeed. The complete Qumran text of Isaiah, for example, differs only in a very few minor details from the Masoretic text.

That is amazing. It means that over a thousand years the copyists must have preserved and transmitted the text with great care.

The original biblical writings were not divided into chapters and verses as we have them in our Bibles today. Even the text worked on by the Tiberias Masoretes did not yet have these divisions. It was only in the twelfth century that the English archbishop Langton divided his Latin Bible into chapters. The chapters were divided into verses by publishers late in the 15th century, when the Bible first began to appear in a number of European languages.

New Testament

The New Testament as we know it today has twenty-seven writings. These include four accounts of Jesus’ activities, teaching, death, and resurrection; a history of the spread of the gospel until about the year 62; an apocalyptical writing; and twenty-one letters. All of these writings were produced within a period of 100 years or less, starting around the year 50 AD. In general we can say that the New Testament books were written in the eastern half of the Roman Empire by leaders of the young church.

The letters of Paul were probably the earliest of the New Testament writings. We know quite a lot about Paul, who wrote letters to churches and individuals up until his death in Rome in about 64 AD. Many people in the churches to which Paul wrote were literate. Letters from Paul and other leading figures were not treated at first as sacred text, although they were highly prized and shared around and copied freely. Copies were sent to nearby churches.

Letter writing

Letters make up a high percentage of the books of the New Testament. An ancient letter was generally made up of three parts: an opening greeting, the body of the letter, and a closing. The opening normally contained first of all the name of the sender or senders, then the name of the recipient, and finally a special greeting. As an example, we may take the letter to Philemon. First of all Paul and Timothy identify themselves. Then they address three people, Philemon, Apphia, and Archippus as well as the church that meets in Philemon’s house. The special greeting in this letter is relatively long compared to the whole length.

The body of a letter contained the specific things which the sender wished to communicate.

The closing usually contained some kind of farewell formula and perhaps personal greetings to others as well as to the addressee of the letter. Paul gives Philemon a blessing of grace and also sends greetings by name from several men who are with him.

On occasion the closing also included the commending of someone to the recipient, usually the person who carried the letter between them.

The four gospels were produced separately, but some of them used the same sources or even used one of the other gospels. The gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke have much in common in their structure, their wording and their theology. This makes it possible to study them side by side. For this reason, these three writings are referred to as “synoptic gospels,” which means you can look at them together.

Unlike the Old Testament writings, NT documents were at first copied by non-professionals and in large numbers. The rapid spread of Christianity increased the need for manuscripts, as every local church wanted to have its own copies. Roman persecution of the Christians often resulted in widespread destruction of books, and this in turn created a need for more copies.

All of this led to a great variety of texts of NT writings. More than 5000 ancient manuscripts survive today for some portions of the NT. Their readings can vary widely. No single manuscript tradition is used as a base text for the Greek NT, as the Masoretic Text is for the Hebrew OT. New Testament scholars have to compare the many existing manuscripts for each of the twenty-seven books and decide for each verse or phrase which text most probably reflects the original. The result of this reconstruction is sometimes called a “critical text.” The critical text we now use is named after the scholars Nestlé and Aland. The same text is also printed as the United Bible Societies Greek NT. Because the best readings are selected, the NT Greek text is also called an “eclectic” text, from a word meaning “to choose.”

Greek manuscripts without spaces

All Greek manuscripts before the ninth century ad were written in capital letters, called majuscules. Unlike Hebrew manuscripts which have been discovered until now, Greek manuscripts frequently had no spaces between words. It is necessary for scholars to determine where words are to be divided. After the spaces are supplied, the capital letters are changed to small letters, and accent marks are added, giving us the text familiar to us from the New Testament. After the 9th century manuscripts were usually written in small or minuscule letters.

The earliest manuscript fragment of a New Testament text is known as “Papyrus, or P, 52.” It contains about five verses from the gospel of John chapter 18. Manuscript experts say P52 was written near the beginning of the second century.

The earliest manuscript of a substantial portion of the New Testament dates from about the year 200. It is also a papyrus, is designated P46, and contains all or parts of Hebrews and eight letters attributed to Paul.

The Christians of the first centuries of the church produced a great number of writings. Most of these, for instance the Gospel of Judas and the Gospel of Thomas, were never included in the canon of the New Testament. On the other hand, not all of the writings in our present-day New Testament were accepted in the earliest generations of church history. Some books, like 2nd Peter and the book of Revelation, were only recognized generally by the church more than 300 years after Jesus. It was not until the end of the fourth century that local church councils begin to list the 27 books as the canon of the Christian faith.

Several manuscripts of the New Testament deserve a special mention. Codex Sinaiticus dates from the fourth century. In its original form it contained all of the Greek NT, two apocryphal NT books, and all of the Old Testament in Greek. The production of a codex of that size was a major project. Skins of 365 large animals were needed to prepare the 730 parchment leaves. Four professional scribes copied texts from different sources, compared their copies, and then corrected each other’s work. There were Christian centers for copying manuscripts in Alexandria and Caesarea, but we do not know where Sinaiticus was produced. The codex was discovered by the German scholar Von Tischendorf in the library of the St Catherine monastery at the foot of Mount Sinai.


So the canon of the NT was not actually fixed until as late as the fourth century?

That’s right. Several ancient sources tell us that, and the Sinaiticus Codex confirms it. But we learn another significant thing from this important codex.

What is that?

It’s clear that the scribes still felt free to alter the text.

Alter it in what way?

For example, we know that some verses were added when this codex was produced.

Can you give an example?

Sure. The last verse of the gospel of John appears for the first time in this manuscript. Earlier manuscripts of John ended before this verse.

Also from the fourth century is the Codex Vaticanus. It too is in Greek. It originally contained the entire Bible, but a few pages are missing from each testament.

From the fifth century comes the Greek Codex Alexandrinus. It includes the entire Bible with a few pages missing. Alexandrinus presents a text that was widely used in the Byzantine Empire, and so it is also called the Byzantine text or the ecclesiastical text. It was the primary text used in the first printed New Testaments and consequently obtained the status of a standard text or “textus receptus.”

The Greek New Testament was first printed in Basel in 1516. The text itself was prepared by the Dutch scholar Erasmus to accompany a new Latin translation. Erasmus was in a hurry to meet the publisher’s deadline, and his Greek text was not intended as a scientific edition. When he could not find any manuscript with the last six verses of the book of Revelation, he made his own translation from Latin into Greek. This resulted in an error at Rev 22.19: Where the text should say “If anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away that person’s share in the tree of life …, Erasmus wrote “God will take away the person’s share in the book of life.” This error has stayed on until today in some translations.

The Text Of The Hebrew Bible

The History of the Transmission of the Hebrew Bible: Robert Bascom

Effect of Qumran on the History of the fixing of the text[1]

          Beginning in 1947, hundreds of manuscripts and fragments of manuscripts have been discovered in caves near the western shore of the Dead Sea near Khirbet Qumran. The evidence of these scrolls has affected the scholarly study of the Old Testament canon, the development of Hebrew and Aramaic dialects, ancient scribal practices, orthographies of biblical languages, and the history of early Judaism, not to mention their influence on various aspects of the study of the New Testament.[2] 

          What concerns us here, however, is that the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls has given scholars a chance to look behind the standardization of the Masoretic Text (MT) in a direct way for the first time.  Some aspects of the way that textual history has been understood have not changed.  For example, scholars still think that the writing of biblical materials began in about 1000 B.C.E., and that the MT was finally established by the 9th‑10th C.E.  In fact, most textual critics believe that the whole text of the Hebrew Bible had reached a high level of standardization by the second century C.E.  Most differences in the manuscripts of the MT consist of spelling differences and other small differences that have little effect on the meaning of the text.

          However, most scholars agree that our understanding of the history of the middle period, particularly from about 300 B.C.E. to 70 C.E., has had to be rewritten from scratch.  What has emerged is a four-stage history of textual transmission for which there is wide agreement in its major outlines among textual scholars of the Hebrew Bible.[3]   This four-stage history has been the basis for the text-critical project called The Hebrew Old Testament Text Project (HOTTP) under the direction of Dominique Barthélemy and sponsored by the United Bible Societies.  A five-volume preliminary report was published between 1976-1980.  Two of the five final volumes have been published in French under the title Critique Textuelle de L’Ancient Testament (CTAT).

Instability of the text

            The key factor for the new understanding of the middle period has been the discovery that the biblical texts found at Qumran do not show the same basic agreement in their texts as the manuscripts of the MT do.  Scholars call this lack of standardization “fluidity” of the text.  In other words, the Dead Sea Scrolls show the fluidity of the Hebrew texts present at Qumran in the pre‑70 C.E. period.[4]  Regarding the textual diversity at Qumran, Emmanuel Tov has even taken the radical position that the text forms known at Qumran should be seen as texts and not as text types.[5]

            But it was not just the text itself that was “fluid” in the pre-70 C.E. period.  In 1956 a Psalms Scroll was discovered in Cave 11 at Qumran, hence the name 11QPsa.  This scroll contains most of the last third of the Book of Psalms, but surprisingly, it also contains three psalms that were previously unknown, three psalms which are not in the MT but which were previously known from the Septuagint and Syriac, as well as several other noncanonical writings.[6]  James Sanders’ work on this 11Q Psalms scroll showed that at Qumran no distinction was made between noncanonical psalms and those that later became canonical within Judaism.  That is, there was canonical openness present at Qumran in this period.

          Prior to the Qumran discoveries, textual scholars frequently suggested that the Hebrew text contained errors and they proposed educated guesses, called conjectural emendations, about what the original text probably read.  The wealth of evidence presented by Qumran and its usefulness in evaluating other textual witnesses, especially the Septuagint (LXX), have apparently broken up the conjectural approach to text criticism of the Hebrew Bible taken in the last two centuries and put it on a firm manuscript evidence basis.  There are two major Hebrew Bible projects now underway, the Biblia hebraica quinta (fifth edition of the German Bible Society’s Biblia hebraica) and the Hebrew University Bible, which began publication in Jerusalem in 1965.[7]   Both of these projects agree that reconstruction of the text should be based on actual manuscripts and not on conjectural emendations.

Formation of textual families

          As a result of the discoveries at Qumran, Frank Moore Cross set out to answer three questions:  1) Why so many manuscript types at Qumran?  2) Why so few “families?”  3) Why did these “families” persist so long?  He assumed that texts and text families are fragile, and will disintegrate if left in close contact with other manuscripts of a different text family—either by mixing or by being swallowed up by them.[8]  Cross posited a “local texts” theory, in which he saw different textual traditions being perpetuated in different geographical regions.

          Shemaryahu Talmon, on the other hand, has suggested that sociology and history, not geography, provide the best answers to Cross’ questions.  Thus Talmon and others have seen the period of pre‑70 C.E. as one of textual pluralism and tolerance (cf. Sanders’ distinction between sacred story and sacred text) where manuscripts of different types could exist side by side.[9]  According to Talmon, mixing might well take place, but the “swallowing” would not occur until “sociologically integrated and definable” bodies (what Sanders calls “believing communities”) felt an identity crisis, and moved to exclude other textual possibilities while they excluded other sociological ones (the “heretics”).[10]

Development of the canon

          In spite of the apparent diversity reflected among the different scholars, there is really an amazing amount of agreement on all the major points regarding the history of the text of the Hebrew Bible.  First of all, most scholars see certain periods as significant for understanding developments that took place toward standardizing both the canon and the text of the Hebrew Bible. Furthermore Talmon, along with Barthelemy, Sanders, and Goshen-Gottstein are sensitive to the fact that while during the period 70‑135 C.E. the text was standardized, canonization itself was basically complete a century earlier.

          Barthelemy and Sanders present a more nuanced position in this regard.  Sanders notes that while the Pentateuch, as well as the Former Prophets, was canon by the 6th‑5th century B.C.E., the Latter Prophets did not attain this status until the 6th‑2nd B.C.E., and the Writings were left open until 70 C.E.  Thus canonization for Sanders took place in the response of Judaism to Persian and Hellenistic influences, and began the process of standardization as well, which in turn came to a rapid conclusion in 70‑135 C.E.  Thus each section of the Hebrew Bible was going through the inevitable overlapping sequential and interrelated processes of canonization and textual standardization.[11]

          It is Sanders who has done the most work in explaining the canonical processes behind this new textual history.  He agrees with Talmon that believing communities are responsible for textual transmission and history.  He agrees further that there is an apparent shift from “biblical” to “post‑biblical” ways of thinking about texts (a shift in ontology of text from sacred story to sacred text).  Under cultural pressure, first the Jewish and later the Christian communities found ways both to preserve their authoritative traditions and to keep them relevant.

Problems of textual criticism

          Text‑critically, the most important period is undoubtedly 300 B.C.E. to 70 C.E.  Here the manuscript evidence begins, and here the major transformations of the Hebrew Bible from sacred story to sacred text took place.  The rise of Rabbinical literature reflects the radical shift in ideas about text (and canon) that took place gradually from 550 B.C.E. to 70 C.E. but more rapidly from the first century B.C.E. to 70 C.E.

          Finally, the textual diversity in the pre‑70 C.E. period seems to extend back to the pre‑textual phase.  Thus the LXX may well reflect at certain points a literary redaction (not a textual corruption) different from that found in the MT.  Also the interpenetration of the phases of textual history makes it quite complex at times.  For example, there are cases of textual corruption and subsequent literary reintegration.  This is due to the overlapping processes in the different sections of the Bible.  Chronicles treats the Pentateuch quite carefully, but its rewrite of Kings is quite extensive and free.  Furthermore, later correction of Chronicles to agree with Kings was evidently not felt to be necessary (see the four gospels), perhaps because Kings/Chronicles was not fully canonical yet.

          The canonical processes which produced the biblical literature in the first place continued into the scribal phase as harmonization and textual leveling.[12]  Talmon sees these as a recurring processes, the result of identity crises which have a “decidedly integrating effect” on communities and their sacred traditions.  Sanders sees specifically in the case of the Hebrew Bible the sacred story-to-sacred text shift until only a few alterations were allowed under a textual scribal mentality.  Thus we can sometimes recover an earlier state of the text, while a yet earlier literary handling of the same problem would be beyond text‑critical reach, and would present itself as two divergent literary and textual traditions.

          It is here that canonical criticism can play a role, avoiding on the one hand a rejection of the canonical process which produced the biblical texts by going behind the latest layer to an “original” reading seen as the valid one (as some form critics have done) and also a rejection of a narrow and static view of canon which would assume not only the unique validity of one community’s canon but of its text as well.  The latter position does not recognize that accepting a certain community’s canonization of texts does not mean we accept all of that community’s textual standardization as well.

          Certain principles have emerged from the analysis of the changed situation which have guided biblical Hebrew text critics of late.  The first is a preference for empirical evidence.  This is in part because we now have more direct evidence; but also because, given the state of the text at Qumran, the best that text critics are able to do in many cases is to group text traditions which appear to go back as far as the beginning of canonization for that text. Thus in general terms, wherever possible, Hebrew manuscripts are usually preferred over the ancient versions, and both are preferred over conjecture, though of course each case must be treated on its own merits.

          Text critics of all types have for some time supposedly adhered to the principles of preferring the harder readings and the shorter readings, but the difficulty of the problems in the Hebrew Bible have caused many scholars to question the validity of these principles.  Recent text critical work has reaffirmed these principles in general, however, if they are taken together with other principles. 

          The most important new principle is that the text should be reconstructed within the period in which it came to be viewed as sacred scripture.  Thus following only the first two principles, one could easily reconstruct an “early” text of Jeremiah or parts of Samuel from Qumran Hebrew texts agreeing with LXX readings that are shorter than those in the MT.  The danger in this approach is that the Qumran texts put us far enough back in time as to cast doubt on the canonical status of the reconstructed text.  Or stated in other words, the earliest text is not necessarily the form of the text that came to be view as canonical.


            It should be noted from the outset that scholars at times have trouble distinguishing between text-critical and translational decisions.  For example, when a modern translation disagrees with the MT, is it really a text-critical decision (the translators have followed the LXX or some other ancient version), or have translators just made implicit information in the MT explicit?  The issue is a real one both in principle and in practice at many points.  As it turns out, scholars and translators often claim that their decisions not to follow the MT are the result of text-critical considerations, which are nearly always based on ancient translations, such as the LXX, Vulgate, or the Syriac.  But the decision to follow an ancient translation instead of the MT begs the text-critical question to a certain extent since the ancient versions may have been free in their translation of the MT.

            The problem for the text critic is that in the absence of concrete data to the contrary, he or she is just about forced to treat any significant variation in modern translations as text-critically motivated, not only because there is often (interestingly) already a variant reading or text of some kind to support the variation, but also because even in the absence of such, the difference between text-critical conjectures and modern translational adjustments are many times (at least for many people) simply the way in which one chooses to think about the problem.

                Sometimes modern translations follow the MT in a certain verse, but the way the MT is translated is more in agreement with the text of that verse in one of the ancient versions.  For example, the MT of Gen 9.9b-10 says

I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, from all those who came out of the ark unto every animal of the earth.

The final words “every animal of the earth” sounds at first like some animals escaped the flood.  That is, it sounds as if God is referring both to animals that came out of the ark and to animals that had remained on the earth.  The LXX omits “every animal of the earth,” and NRSV and NAB follow the LXX here.  NIV follows the MT but punctuates the text with a dash, suggesting that the words “every animal of the earth” is in apposition to what precedes.  NIV, therefore, has followed the MT but seems to have the same meaning as the LXX.

            The preliminary report of HOTTP, however, argues that the Hebrew prepositions “from” and “unto” (in italics in the translation above) indicate two separate categories: first the animals that came out of the ark and then those which live thereafter on the earth.  In the MT, God is expressing the permanence of the covenant by mentioning the beasts of the earth (and others) who go out of the ark and then repeating again the beasts of the earth (who will be the descendants of those going out of the ark).  This could actually be made quite clear in translation, as in FRCL and ITCL, which read “…those which came out of the ark and all those which will live in the future on earth.”  It may well turn out that these kinds of comments are the most interesting of all for translators.

            A well-known text-critical problem occurs at Gen 4.5.  There, almost all the modern translations have followed the LXX in adding “let us go out into the field” to the MT’s “Cain said to Abel his brother…”  This seems likely enough, since the MT seems to be missing what Cain said to Abel.  The Targums, however, go on with the missing speech and make it into a theological dispute, during which Cain finally blasphemes God and kills his brother.  This kind of progressive pattern from a small speech to a longer speech built on the small one makes some text critics suspect that the smaller one is either a condensation of the longer tradition or the longer one a development of the shorter.  However, recognizing that the Hebrew verb vayomer (“said”) can function in an absolute sense with the meaning “speak with,” the MT itself can be rendered “Cain spoke/was speaking with his brother Abel…”  There is, therefore, no need of the speech found in the LXX or the Targums to makes sense of the MT.

            As a matter of fact, text critics often favor the MT not for its sake, but because it usually represents the best manuscript tradition from the period in which the Hebrew Scriptures came to be considered authoritative.  In other words, the MT happens to be considered the best text most of the time given the rules of text criticism, but the rules were not created especially for it, and other texts are taken seriously, even surprisingly at times.  In 1 Sam 27.8  HOTTP, VP, and JB have “Telaim” with the LXX against MT’s “from ancient times,” which is followed by RSV, NIV, and TEV.  In I Sam. 13.15, HOTTP gives the LXX  an “A” rating against the MT.

            In some cases, the LXX demonstrably provides the harder reading.  Gen 11.31 is an example of this.  There the MT reads “they (Terah and Lot) went out with them” and the Syriac says “he (Terah) went out with them.”  The LXX, though, says that Terah “brought” them out.  But in Gen 12.1-4 and 15.7, it is God who commands Abram out of Ur and brings him out, not Terah.  It seems likely that the LXX preserves the oldest text, but the text was changed in order to avoid saying that it was Terah who brought Abram out of Ur.  Also the Exodus tradition (cf. Neh 9, Dan 9), which must have exerted a powerful influence on this text, has God acting on his own initiative to bring the people out.  God is the guide, leader, and protector for Israel and for Abraham, and thus Terah must be excluded from this role, as indeed he is in the MT and the Syraic.


Much of the issue in text criticism is simply whether we believe that scribes tend to simplify and explain or not.  In any case translators should let the text stand at a distance, and try to understand it first on its own terms (which were doubtless quite different from ours) and then decide what will be attempted in translation.  Ironically, we will take away in translation much of what we do in text criticism.  That may not be so bad.  That seems to be what even the ancient versions were doing much of the time.  It is far worse to mix text criticism and translation together or, worse yet, to allow our search for a good translation to determine what our textual decision will be. 


I.      Hebrew  The original language of the people of Israel was Hebrew, and most of the Old Testament is written in Hebrew.

II.     Aramaic  The Hebrew name for Syria is Aram, and the language of Syria was known as Aramaic. It is a language very much like Hebrew, but it is still a different language.

        Aramaic became the important international language of the Middle East during the years before the fall of Jerusalem. In Isaiah 36 (especially verses 11‑13), we seen an interesting example of the relationship of Hebrew and Aramaic in the days of King Hezekiah. Aramaic was the language for discussion with the foreigners, but Hebrew was the language that the ordinary people used.

        It seems that when the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem and carried many of the people of Judah away to Babylon, this was the beginning of the end of the Hebrew language. After this, the Aramaic language began to become more important in the land of Israel as well as in other areas. This continued over the years, and by the time of Jesus, Hebrew probably was not spoken any longer, except for religious purposes.  Proof of this language change can be found as early as Neh 8.8, where the book of the law (the Pentateuch) is read in Hebrew and translated orally on the spot into Aramaic so that the people can understand it.

                A few parts of the Old Testament are written in Aramaic: Ezra 4.7—6.18 and Dan 2.4—7.28, as well as a few scattered verses elsewhere. Unofficial versions of Old Testament materials were also translated into Aramaic to aid those who had to preach in the synagogues. These translations are called the Targums.

III.    Greek

        Alexander the Great was a mighty conqueror, who conquered all the countries from Greece to Egypt and India, including Syria, Israel and Persia. After he died, his territory was divided up between his generals. One of them was the first of the Ptolemy family, who ruled Egypt. Another was the first of the Seleucid family, who ruled Syria. From at least this time Greek became a very important language in this part of the world.

        These two families of kings‑‑‑the Ptolemies of Egypt and the Seleucids of Syria‑‑‑became very important for the history of the Jewish people between the Old and New Testaments. These kings were always fighting for control of the land between them, so there were many battles in the land of Israel. Sometimes Israel was ruled by Egypt, and sometimes it was ruled by Syria.

        Finally, one of the kings of Syria, named Antiochus Epiphanes, decided to try to destroy the Jewish religion. His soldiers went into the temple, where they were not allowed, and they even sacrificed a pig on the altar of the temple. They tried to force Jews to eat pig meat, and to do other things which were against their religion. The situation became so serious that finally a rebellion broke out, led by the family called the Maccabees. This rebellion was successful. They drove out the foreign army, and were able to win independence for themselves.

        The leader of the Jews during this time was the high priest. He was not only the religious leader of the country, but the political leader as well. The Jews remained independent for about one hundred years, until they were finally added to the Roman empire about 60 years before Jesus was born.

        Long before, at the time of the fall of Jerusalem, many Jews had gone to Egypt, and after this time the Jewish community in Egypt became very important. Like the Jews in other areas, they stopped using the Hebrew language. But for them the new language was Greek. These Jews wanted to be able to read the scriptures in a language they could understand, and they arranged to have the books of the Old Testament translated into Greek. This was a famous translation known today as the Septuagint.

        The Jewish community who used the Septuagint did not use only the books which had been translated from Hebrew. There were other religious books which had been written in Greek (or in Hebrew but passed on to us only in Greek), and some of these were added to the Septuagint as well. So from early days the Septuagint was quite different from the Hebrew scriptures.

IV.    The language of Jesus [15]

        By the time of Jesus, the language of Palestine (Galilee, Samaria, and Judea) was Aramaic. Jesus must have talked to his disciples and to the crowds in Aramaic. However, it seems likely that Jesus also used Greek, for example when he was speaking to Pilate. Although Latin was the true language of the Romans, Greek was the main language of the Roman Empire.

        In previous generations, some scholars believed that Mark’s gospel was written in Aramaic, and only later translated into Greek, and some believed that other portions of the New Testament were also originally written in Aramaic or Hebrew.  Such views are less common today, but it any case it is true that the only New Testament materials we have today are all in Greek. By the time the New Testament was being written, the Christian church had spread into many different areas and countries, and Greek was the language needed.

        This is extremely interesting because it means that for the most part we do not have any record of Jesus’ exact words. We have his words only in the Greek translation that the Gospel writers used. (There are a few cases of Aramaic words in the New Testament, such as Abba, “father” and ephphatha, “be opened.)  From the very beginning Christianity has been a religion which has used translation to give its scriptures to the believers. Christians who are involved in translation today are simply following in the footsteps of the first Gospel writers.

        This is true in another way, as well. When the New Testament writers wanted to quote from the Old Testament, they needed to write in Greek. There were basically three ways in which they did this. 1) They translated from the Hebrew (or Aramaic translations of the Hebrew) themselves. 2) They quoted from memory (from Hebrew or Aramaic or Greek sources). 3) They used the old Greek translation, the Septuagint.  It appears from the form of the quotations in the New Testament that the Septuagint was used as the basis for Old Testament quotations 60% or more of the time.

        When the Christian church wanted to agree on which books should be part of its own complete Bible, there was some disagreement, particularly about the Old Testament. Some people felt that only the Hebrew books should be included (these were the only books which were accepted by the Jews). Others felt that they should not lose the extra books and parts of books which had been included in the Septuagint. This disagreement was never settled among different groups of Christians, and it is still with us today. The Roman Catholic Church accepts the Hebrew books as the first part of the Old Testament, but they consider the material from Greek also to be a full part of the Old Testament (the second part, which they call the Deuterocanon). The Anglicans and some Protestant churches also use some or all of these books from the Greek, and they were included in most Protestant versions when they were first translated into the vernacular. However, other Protestant churches consider only the Hebrew books to be part of the Bible, and now most Protestant versions do not contain these books. The Orthodox churches have even more books they consider authoritative, and these vary as well from group to group of Orthodox believers.

                It is because of this that we now have two (and may soon have three) editions of many translations of the Bible. The shorter edition has only the books from the Hebrew Bible, and it is preferred by most Protestant Churches. The longer edition is mainly for the Catholics, but it is also used by some Lutherans and Anglicans. Orthodox churches, who have only recently begun working on modern translations, require yet another version.

Further Reading

Brotzman, Ellis R.  Old Testament Textual Criticism: A Practical Introduction.  Grand     Rapids: Baker, 1994.

Coogan, Michael D. and Pheme Perkins.  “Textual Criticism.”  Pages 460-66 in The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books (NRSV).  3d     edition.  Edited by Michael D. Coogan.  New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Fuller, Russell T.  “Text of the Old Testament.”  Pages 1289-92 in Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible.  Edited by David Noel Freedman.  Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000.

Goshen-Gottstein, Moshe H.  “Textual Criticism, Hebrew Bible.”  Pages 541-46 in vol. 2             of Dictionary of Biblical Interpretation.  Edited by John H. Hayes.  2 vols.     Nashville: Abingdon, 1999.

Jobes, Karen H. and Moisés Silva.  Invitation to the Septuagint.  Grand Rapids: Baker,     2000.

Khan, Geoffrey.  “The Hebrew Bible.”  Pp. 60-96 in The Oxford Illustrated History of the            Bible.  Edited by John Rogerson.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Klein, Ralph W.  Textual Criticism of the Old Testament: From the Septuagint to Qumran.            “Guides to Biblical Scholarship.”  Philadelphia: Fortress, 1974.

McCarter, P. Kyle, Jr.  Textual Criticism: Recovering the Text of the Hebrew Bible.          “Guides to Biblical Scholarship.”  Philadelphia: Fortress, 1986.

Peters, Melvin K.H.  “Septuagint.”  Pages 1093-1104 in vol. 5 of The Anchor Bible           Dictionary.  Edited by David Noel Freedman.  6 vols.  New York: Doubleday, 1992.

Scanlin, Harold.  The Dead Sea Scrolls & Modern Translations of the Old Testament.       Wheaton: Tyndale, 1993.

Tov, Emanuel.  Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible.  Second revised edition.     Minneapolis: Fortress /Assen: Van Gorcum, 2001.

_______.  “Textual Criticism (OT).”  Pages 393-412 in vol. 6 of The Anchor Bible            Dictionary.  Edited by David Noel Freedman.  6 vols.  New York: Doubleday, 1992.

Würthwein, Ernst.  The Text of the Old Testament.  2nd ed.  Translated by Errol F. Rhodes.           Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995.

                1 See the relevant pages regarding the Dead Sea Scrolls in chapter six on biblical archaeology by Edesio Sánchez.

                [2] See “The Scrolls and the Study of the New Testament,” in The Dead Sea Scrolls at Fifty (ed. Robert A. Kugler and Eileen M. Schuller; Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1999), 61-76.

                [3]  No attempt is made here to be comprehensive on the theoretical or methodological levels.  Even so, a brief recap of the present situation helps provide the context for the practical remarks.  Other useful background papers on this subject include Harold P. Scanlin, “What is the Canonical Shape of the Old Testament Text we Translate?” Issues in Bible Translation (UBS, 1988), 207-20; and Daniel C. Arichea, “Jeremiah and the Hebrew Old Testament Text Project” The Bible Translator 33 (1982):101-06.

                 [4]  Shemaryahu Talmon, “The Old Testament Text,” in The Cambridge History of the Bible, vol. 1, ed. by P.R. Ackroyd and C.F. Evans (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970), 159-99;  J. A. Sanders, “Text and Canon: Concepts and Method,” Journal of Biblical Literature 98 (1979):5-29.

                [5] “A Modern Textual Outlook Based on the Qumran Scrolls,” Hebrew Union College Annual 53 (1982):11-28.  More recently Tov has written “The textual reality of the Qumran texts does not attest to three groups of textual witnesses, but rather to a textual multiplicity, relating to all of Palestine to such an extent that one can almost speak in terms of an unlimited number of texts.”  Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001), 161.

             [6] An English translation of the text of 11QPsa may be found in Martin Abegg, Jr., Peter Flint, and Eugene Ulrich, The Dead Sea Scrolls Bible (San Francisco: Harper, 1999), 506-89.

                [7] Regarding these two projects, see Karen H. Jobes and Moisés Silva, Invitation to the Septuagint (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000), 317-8; Emanuel Tov, Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible, 371-78; and Ernst Würthwein, The Text of the Old Testament (2d ed.; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 43-44.

                 [8] Frank Moore Cross, “The Contribution of the Qumran Discoveries to the Study of the Biblical Text,” in Qumran and the History of the Biblical Text (ed. F. M. Cross and S. Talmon; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975), 284.

                 [9]  Sanders, for example, argues that the existence of 11Q Psalms along with the canonical Psalms scroll at Qumran shows that the same community was able to accept different forms of the same text.  Cross, on the other hand, insisted that if different manuscript traditions were at Qumran, they were there because someone from Egypt had brought a manuscript there.

                 [10]  Tov, of course rejects Cross’ limited families on the basis of his work on 11QPaleoLev.  This manuscript of Leviticus differs sufficiently from the manuscripts of other textual witnesses that Tov calls it a “non-aligned text.”  The existence of this manuscript as well as other non-aligned manuscripts at Qumran has convinced Tov that Cross’s classification of manuscripts into three local-texts is incorrect.  Tov, Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible, 116-17, 161-62.

                 [11]  J. A. Sanders, Torah and Canon (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1972).

                 [12]  This same dynamic has been at work as well in the history of biblical interpretation, including of course, the history of biblical translation.

                [13] See the articles on Aramaic (pp. 45-46) and Hebrew (pp. 271-273) by J. A. Emerton in The Oxford Companion to the Bible (ed. by B.M. Metzger and D. Coogan; New York: Oxford University Press, 1993).   Brief but useful articles may also be found by F.W. Dobbs-Allsopp, “Aramaic,” pp. 84-85; and Theodore J. Lewis, “Hebrew, Biblical,” pp. 564-7 in Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible (ed. David Noel Freedman; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000).

                [14]  This section was originally drafted by Norman Mundhenk and edited by the author.

[15] The question of what languages Jesus spoke has been discussed much in recent scholarly study.  For a good introduction to the issues and problems, see John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus (vol. 1; New York: Doubleday, 1991), 255-68.

The Text of the New Testament: Roger L. Omanson

Purpose of Textual Criticism

            Textual criticism of the New Testament is the study of biblical texts and ancient handwritten manuscripts.  The primary purpose of the study is to determine the exact text of the original writings (called “autographs”) before copyists made changes and errors in the handwritten copies of the New Testament writings.

            Note clearly that the above paragraph is not talking about the inspiration of the New Testament and is not dealing with the question of whether or not the original writings contained errors.  The original manuscripts do not exist.  All we have today are copies of copies.  The oldest manuscript of any part of the New Testament is a papyrus fragment containing just a few verses of the Gospel of John, and this fragment, called P52, dates to about A.D. 125.

            Whether or not it is possible to determine the exact text of the original writings and whether this should be the primary purpose of textual criticism are much debated issues.[1]  The papyrus manuscripts discovered in the first half of the twentieth century gave us manuscripts at least a century older than the Greek manuscripts known in the previous century.  For some scholars, called textual critics, these manuscripts provide the necessary evidence for recovering the original texts.  For others, the papyrus manuscripts take us back only to a form of the text that existed in the third century, but not necessarily to the original forms of the text, before errors and changes were made in the manuscripts.

The Materials and the Scribes

            Each of the original New Testament writings was handwritten in Greek sometime in the last half of the first century or early in the second century.  They were written on papyrus, a material made from the pith of the papyrus plant that was cut into thin strips and pressed together to form pages for writing.  Beginning around the fourth century, copies were made on parchment, a material made from animal skins.  Copies of these writings were expensive to produce, both because of the cost of the writing material and because of the amount of time required to handcopy a single book.  An average size parchment manuscript of the New Testament would have required the skins of at least fifty to sixty sheep or goats!

            The first Christian communities who had received the original writings probably made copies for Christians in nearby towns.  Perhaps when there were several Christian communities meeting in different houses in the same city (see Rom 16.5), each church wished to have its own gospel or letter from Paul.  As the first copies of these writings were made, the copyists, called scribes, did not regard these writings as holy scripture.  They were simply making a copy of a letter from Paul or Peter or of a Gospel written by some Christian like themselves.  This means that they sometimes made deliberate changes in addition to making mistakes.  Only gradually, in the second century, did Christians begin to think of these writings as scripture, in some sense equivalent to the Hebrew scriptures which the Church had received from Judaism.[2]

Greek manuscripts. The earliest manuscripts were written on papyrus, but beginning around the fourth century parchment was used until paper began to replace it in the twelfth century.  The kind of script used until the ninth century was the uncialor capital script.  Manuscripts written in this script are called uncials.  From the ninth century until the machine printing of the New Testament, the minuscule or cursive script was used.  Manuscripts written in this script are called minuscules.  The great majority of Greek manuscripts which still exist today are minuscule manuscripts (about 2,800), the greatest number dating from the eleventh to the fourteenth centuries.

            At the beginning of the 20th century, only nine papyri manuscripts were known to exist.  Today ninety-four papyrus manuscripts are known, though many are very fragmentary and contain only a few verses.  There are 274 uncial manuscripts, though only a little more than one-third of the surviving uncial manuscripts contain more than two leaves of text.  In the view of most textual critics, these Greek biblical manuscripts, especially the papyrus and the uncials, are of greatest importance in trying to recover what the writers of the New Testament originally wrote.

            There are some specialists who claim that the Greek biblical manuscripts do not take us back beyond a form of the text known in the third century.  According to their understanding, the earliest form of the New Testament text, and that closest to the original, can only be recovered through a careful study of the writings of the Church Fathers (see below) and a study of the ancient translations of the New Testament into Coptic, Syriac, and Latin.

Manuscripts in other languages. As early as the second century, the New Testament was translated into Syriac, Latin, and Coptic.  In the next few centuries translations were also made into other languages such as Gothic, Armenian, Ethiopic, and Georgian.  Of these translations, the Syriac, Latin, and Coptic are the most helpful for recovering the earliest form of the New Testament writings in Greek.  These translations are called versions or ancient versions.

Greek lectionary manuscripts. In addition to the more than 3,000 manuscripts mentioned above, approximately 2,200 lectionary manuscripts exist.  These are manuscripts which contain passages arranged according to their order as lessons appointed to be read during the church calendar year.

Writings of early Fathers of the Church. Prominent church leaders in the second to the fifth centuries, writing in either Greek or Latin, often quote verses from the New Testament.  These leaders are often called church fathers or simply the Fathers, and their writings are called “patristic” writings (from pater, Latin for “father”).  It is often difficult to know, however, whether they were actually quoting a verse word-for-word or only alluding to it.  And if they were quoting it, were they quoting it incorrectly from memory or from a written copy in front of them?  Further, the scribes sometimes changed the texts of the Fathers as they copied them, changing the words to agree with different words that the scribe knew.  So it is sometimes difficult to know what a Father originally wrote.

The Problem

            In not one single verse do all of these manuscripts agree (Greek manuscripts, including lectionary manuscripts, manuscripts in other languages, and quotations in the writings of the Church Fathers).  Most differences are not significant, consisting, for example, of misspelled words, or substitution of a word with a synonym.  Others are more important, such as omissions or additions of words, phrases, and entire verses.

            How can the textual critic decide what the authors originally wrote?  Should the textual critic follow the best one manuscript entirely, even though the best manuscript has obvious errors?  And how does one know which manuscript is the best?  Should the textual critic follow one particular group of manuscripts over another group?  Relying primarily on certain better manuscripts over others is called relying on external evidence (see below).  Relying on matters such as a New Testament writer’s style, vocabulary, and theology rather than on certain “better” manuscripts is called relying on internal evidence(see below).  Also part of internal evidence is trying to determine the kinds of changes scribes probably would have made; and this is called transcriptional probability.

            How did errors and changes occur over the centuries as these manuscripts were copied?  The answer to that question helps the textual critic establish certain criteria for arriving as closely as possible to the original text.

Intentional changes: As scribes made copies of the New Testament writings, they sometimes made changes in the text that they were copying.  Some changes were intentional in order to improve the style or grammar.  Other deliberate changes were made in order to make the text of one gospel agree with the text in another gospel or to make what Paul wrote in one letter agree with what he wrote in a different letter.  Compare, for example, the shorter text of 1 Thes 1.1 in NRSV (“Grace to you and peace”) to the longer text in KJV (“Grace be to you, and peace, from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ”).

            Compare, also, the Lord’s Prayer in Luke 11.2-4 in KJV and RSV.  Very early in the history of the church, the Gospel of Matthew became the most popular of the four Gospels; and the Lord’s Prayer in the form known from Matt 6.9-13 became the prayer most often quoted in the worship of the church.  Even though the wording of the Lord’s Prayer in Luke 11.2-4 was originally different from the same prayer in Matthew, an unknown scribe changed the form in Luke to make it agree with the more familiar form from the Gospelof Matthew.  This changed, longer form of the prayer in Luke is the form in the Textus Receptus (see below), which was followed by the KJV translation and by nearly all translations around the world until the twentieth century.  Nearly all modern translations (see, for example, RSV, NRSV, NIV, TEV) follow the shorter form of the Lord’s Prayer in Luke, that is, the form that is different from the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew.

            Other intentional changes were made to “improve” the theology in certain verses.  For example, Luke 2.41-43 says that when Jesus was twelve years old, he remained in Jerusalem after the festival of the Passover instead of returning home with the group of travelers.  The best manuscripts say in verse 43 that he remained without “his parents” knowing it.  Since Joseph was not Jesus’ biological father, a scribe changed “his parents” to “Joseph and his mother,” probably to protect the doctrine of the virgin birth of Jesus.  KJV has “Joseph and his mother,” following the Textus Receptus, but most recent translations follow the better manuscripts and say “his parents” (NRSV, REB, NAB, NJB).

Unintentional changes: Other changes were unintentional, caused by faulty reading or faulty memory.  The scribes made mistakes because their eyes sometimes skipped over a single letter, a single word, or sometimes even a whole line, and a word or several words were accidentally omitted.  Other times they misread the text and copied the wrong letter or wrong word or mistakenly repeated a word or several words.

            Sometimes several scribes worked together in the same room, each making a copy as someone else read a text aloud.  Occasionally scribes heard incorrectly and wrote the wrong word.  For example, the second half of 1 John 1.4 in KJV says, “that your joy may be full.”  Nearly all modern translations, however, say, “that our joy may be full.”  In Greek, the plural pronouns uJmw’n (your) and hJmw’n (our) consist of four letters each, and only the first letter is different.  But in speech, these two different words were later pronounced the same.  Since both “your” and “our” make good sense in the context, some scribes apparently wrote one word and others scribes wrote the other.  The editors of the fourth edition of the United Bible Societies Greek New Testament (1993; see below) print the word hJmw’n (our) in the text and give an “A” evaluation, meaning that they are certain that the original manuscript of 1 John said “our.”

            Numerous factors such as cold weather, poor lighting, poor eyesight, and fatigue caused the scribes to make mistakes.  Sometimes the manuscript that was being copied had been partially damaged and was missing lines at the top or bottom of a page, or insects had damaged some part of a page.  If the page had become wet, the ink may have become smeared and the scribe had to guess at what was originally written.

            As the scribes made changes, both intentional and unintentional, more and more manuscripts with differences among them came into existence.  Sometimes the scribes had access to several manuscripts and became aware of these differences as they compared the manuscripts.  Some would choose the reading of one manuscript over that of another.  Other scribes would keep both readings by combining two or more different readings.

            Some manuscripts were copied directly from one other manuscript.  Others were copied from two or more different manuscripts as scribes compared readings in different manuscripts, and still others were “corrected” by other manuscripts.  As numerous copies were made, families or text types (see below) began to develop.

            Luke 24.53. This verse presents a good example of the fact that sometimes when scribes found one word in one manuscript and a different word in another manuscript, they kept both readings.  KJV says, “and were continually in the temple, praising and blessing God.”  NIV says, “And they stayed continually in the temple, praising God.”  The oldest and best manuscripts say only “praising God.”  One Greek uncial manuscript and a number of Latin manuscripts say, “blessing God.”  This second reading (blessing God) probably arose by mistake as a scribe wrote “blessing” instead of “praising.”  Later a scribe who knew both readings included them both in the manuscript he was copying, and this new reading became the reading found in the Byzantine text (see below) manuscripts.

            Textual critics use the technical term variant readingsto refer to different readings which occur in the same place in a given verse.  In the above example, “praising,” “blessing,” and “praising and blessing” are each a variant reading.  No exact count has been made of all known variant readings among existing manuscripts of the New Testament writings, but one well-known textual critic estimates that there are as many as 300,000.

Principles for Deciding on Original Readings

Text Types. Through careful examination of hundreds of manuscripts and thousands of scribal errors, textual critics have developed criteria for sorting out which manuscripts and groups of manuscripts seem most reliable, recognizing that all have errors (note again that textual critics are not dealing with any original manuscripts; they study only copies of copies).  Most manuscripts can be loosely grouped into one of three families, also called text types.  When certain manuscripts keep agreeing by having the same variant reading in passages where manuscripts have two or more variant readings, called a unit of variation, they are said to belong to the same text type.  A helpful reference chart which groups manuscripts according to century and text type may be found on pages 159-62 in Kurt and Barbara Aland’s The Text of the New Testament.

The Alexandrian text type, represented by most of the papyrus manuscripts and several uncial manuscripts of the fourth and fifth centuries, is considered by most scholars today to be the form of the text closest to the original writings.  The manuscripts that have this text type are considered to be the best manuscripts, though, of course, even these manuscripts are not identical to each other in every verse; and they all have errors in them.

The manuscripts comprising the “Western Text Type” may occasionally preserve the correct reading when the other text types do not.  This form of the text appears to have been created as the result of rather free changes in the manuscript tradition as copyists made numerous changes.  The quotations in many of the early Church Fathers reflect the Western type of text.  And the manuscripts of the Old Latin and the Vulgate likewise reflect this type of text.

The Byzantine Text Type, found in about eighty percent of the minuscule manuscripts and in nearly all lectionary manuscripts, is considered the least valuable group of manuscripts, although a few scholars disagree with this claim, as will be noted below.  Looking back at variant readings mentioned earlier in this chapter, the following readings are found in the Byzantine text manuscripts:

  • “grace and peace from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ” in1 Thes 1.1;
  •  the longer form of the Lord’s Prayer in Luke 11.2-4;
  •  Joseph and his mother” in Luke 2.43;
  •  “your joy” in 1 John 1.4;
  •  “praising and blessing” in Luke 24.53.

Guidelines for choosing among different readings.  The guidelines or principles, also called “canons,” developed by textual critics to establish the best reading fall into two categories: external evidence and internal evidence.

            (1) External evidence. (a) The oldest manuscripts are more likely to preserve the original reading.  (b) A variant reading known in widely separated geographical areas is more likely original than one known only in one geographical area.  (c) A reading supported by a vast majority of existing manuscripts is not necessarily the best reading since these manuscripts may all come from a common ancestor.  Manuscripts, therefore, must be “weighed” (evaluated) and not just counted to see how many support certain variants.

            (2) Internal evidence. (a) The shorter reading is more likely original.  In most cases, scribes added words to the text rather than omitted words.  Recent studies, however, have begun to challenge this long held canon.  (b) The more difficult-to-understand reading should be followed since scribes usually altered a difficult text to make it easier, rather than vice versa.  (c) The reading which best fits the writer’s style and vocabulary is more likely original.  (d) Similarly, the reading that best fits the context is to be preferred. 

            Numerous other guidelines could be mentioned, as well as qualifications of these guidelines already listed.  Such rules guide textual critics as they seek to determine what a writer originally wrote.  Of course, such methodology is part science and part art.  Some scholars base their decisions more heavily on external evidence; some more heavily on internal evidence.  Most textual critics today acknowledge the need to keep considerations of both internal and external evidence in balance.

History of the Greek New Testament Text

Prior to Printing.  For the first three centuries A.D., scribes made numerous changes in the text of the Greek New Testament since they were not yet subject to strict controls to ensure accurate copying.  As the scribes in the early centuries made copies from other copies, some manuscripts began having the same changes and errors, that is, the same variant readings, found in other manuscripts.  Some manuscripts, for example, contained in Matt 6.13 the words “for yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen,” and other manuscripts did not.  In this way certain manuscripts came to share the same variant readings as other manuscripts.  These similarities among some manuscripts, which other manuscripts do not have, allow textual critics to classify or group manuscripts into the different text types.  Textual mixture occurred also as scribes “corrected” manuscripts by using other manuscripts that had different readings, that is, by using manuscripts of different text types.  As Christians gradually came to regard these writings as sacred scripture, scribes had less freedom to change the text as they made copies.

            By the year A.D. 200, Latin manuscripts were being used in the western part of the Roman Empire, Coptic manuscripts in Egypt, and Syriac manuscripts in Syria.  Greek continued to be used mainly in the eastern part of the Roman Empire.  Indeed more than 8,000 manuscripts of the Latin Vulgate exist today, far more than all the known Greek manuscripts.  By the end of the seventh century, the New Testament was being read in Greek in only one small part of the church—the Greek Orthodox Church, with its dominant patriarchate in the city of Constantinople.  The form of the Greek text used there was the Byzantine text type (see above).  Other areas of the world that had once read the New Testament in Greek were now using New Testaments translated into local languages.  For example, Greek manuscripts of the Alexandrian text type that had formerly been used in Egypt were now replaced by translations in various dialects of Coptic. By the time the printing press was invented, the only form of the New Testament in Greek that was still being used was the Byzantine text.

            This last point needs to be underlined.  Some scholars today still claim that since the Greek manuscripts of the Byzantine text type so far outnumber Greek manuscripts of the Alexandrian text type, the Byzantine text type must be closer to the original writings.  The argument is that God would not have allowed the correct readings to be preserved in a text type that has fewer Greek manuscripts than another text type does.  This argument ignores the historical changes in which local languages replaced Greek in most parts of the Roman Empire, and it also reflects a naive idea of how God relates to the world.

The Printed Greek New Testament.  The first printed Greek New Testament was edited by the Dutch humanist Erasmus and printed by the Swiss printer Froben of Basel in 1516.  Erasmus used the six handwritten Greek manuscripts available to him, most from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries; and not surprisingly, all but one contained the Byzantine text.  This printed text, based on manuscripts of the Byzantine type text, went through various editions with minor changes over the next one hundred years, coming to be known as the textus receptus (Latin for “received text”), commonly abbreviated as TR.

            During the next two hundred years, two major developments took place with regard to the Textus Receptus.  First, the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were a time in which scholars in England and Germany began comparing the texts of known hand-written manuscripts with the text of the Textus Receptus and collecting variant readings, that is, readings which differed from those in the Textus Receptus.  Several editions of the Textus Receptus were printed with variant readings in the margins.  Increasingly scholars began to believe that in many verses the Textus Receptus did not contain exactly what the New Testament writers had originally written.

            Second, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries scholars began formulating critical rules or canons (as noted above) which in the end led to the rejection or overthrow of the Textus Receptus in the late nineteenth century.

            (Before continuing, it should be clearly stated what is meant when it is said that the Textus Receptus was “rejected” or “overthrown.”  Though there are several thousand differences between the Textus Receptus and modern printed critical editions of the New Testament (see below), most of these differences are not significant.  And in most verses, the Textus Receptus agrees with modern editions of the Greek New Testament.  Differ-ences of spelling, differences in verb tenses, use of different words which have the same meaning–these and most other differences are not very important as far as the message of the New Testament is concerned.  No major doctrine of the Christian faith is affected because of textual differences.)

            The British and European scholars Lachmann, Tischendorf, Mill, Bentley, Wettstein, Semler, and Griesbach all played important roles in the overthrow of the Textus Receptus.  But the individuals most directly responsible were two British scholars: F.J.A. Hort and B.F. Westcott, who published The New Testament in the Original Greek in two volumes in 1881.  They based their text mainly on manuscripts of the Alexandrian text type and rejected the Byzantine text as of no value in recovering the original text.

            In the twentieth century, Greek New Testaments were edited by both Roman Catholic (Vogels, Bover, and Merk) and Protestant scholars.  The seven editions most used in the first half of the twentieth century were those edited by the following scholars:

(1) Tischendorf, 1841; 8th ed., 1869-72; (2) Westcott-Hort, 1881; (3) von Soden, 1902-13; (4) Vogels, 1920; 4th ed., 1955; (5) Bover, 1943; 6th ed., 1981; (6) Nestle-Aland, 1898; 27th ed., 1993; and (7) Merk, 1933; 11th ed., 1992. 

A comparison of these seven editions reveals that those of von Soden, Vogels, Merk, and Bover more often agree with the readings in the Byzantine text than do those of Tischendorf, Westcott-Hort, and Nestle-Aland, which stand closer to the manuscripts that make up the Alexandrian text.  Despite these differences, however, “in nearly two-thirds of the New Testament text the seven editions of the Greek New Testament…are in complete accord, with no differences other than in orthographical [spelling] details.”[3]

Present State of Affairs.  A small number of scholars continue to argue that the Byzantine text is closest to the original writings.   Z.C. Hodges and A.L. Farstad, who reject the methods and conclusions of Westcott and Hort, have edited The Greek New Testament According to the Majority Text (1982), a text based on the Byzantine text tradition.  Most of the manuscripts in this tradition are cursive manuscripts copied between the eleventh and the fifteenth centuries; and they correspond to the manuscripts that the Alands designate as Category V in The Text of the New Testament (revised edition, pages 159-162).  This text differs from the UBS Greek New Testament about three to four times a page for most of the New Testament, with more differences in the book of Revelation.  Hodges and Farstad’s edition of the Greek New Testament contains two critical apparatuses (see below): the first indicates differences within the Byzantine manuscripts themselves; the second, differences between the majority text which Hodges and Farstad have printed and the text printed in Nestle-Aland26 and UBS3.

            Most New Testament scholars disagree with both the assumptions and the methodology used by Hodges and Farstad.[4]  The Alands, therefore, are correct in claiming, “It can probably be assumed that anyone working with the Greek New Testament today is using a copy of the United Bible Societies’ Greek New Testament in its third edition (GNT3, 1975 [the fourth edition was published in 1993]) or the twenty-sixth edition of the Nestle-Aland Novum Testamentum Graece (N-A26, 1979).” [5]

            The value of the Western text is still debated.  Among French textual critics this form of the text has been valued more highly than among scholars in the German and English-speaking worlds.  This greater regard for the Western text may be noted in the textual decisions reflected in the Bible de Jérusalem and in the English New Jerusalem Bible.

            (1) GNT4 and N-A27  These two Greek New Testaments, edited by an internation-al team of scholars, have exactly the same text, differing only rarely in matters of punctua-tion, spelling, and paragraphing.  The fourth edition of the United Bibles Societies Greek New Testament, published in 1993, is intended for use by Bible translators around the world, while the N-A27 edition is intended for students, teachers, and expositors of the New Testament.  Both have an extensive critical apparatus at the bottom of each page, citing by standard letters and numbers which manuscripts have which variant readings.  The N-A27 contains far more variants, while the UBS GNT4 prints only those variants in the Greek manuscripts that are important for translators.

            For example, Nestle-Aland27 indicates that the words ejn !Efevsw/ (“in Ephesus”) in Ephesians 1.1 are missing in the following manuscripts: papyrus manuscript P46 (early 3rd century); the uncial manuscripts a (Sinaiticus, 4th cent.), B (Vaticanus, 4th cent.); the minuscule manuscripts 6 (13th cent.) and 1739 (10th cent.).  Nestle-Aland also indicates that other manuscripts in Greek, Latin, Syriac, and Coptic include “in Ephesus” in the text.  Since this variant reading is important for translators, the UBS Greek New Testament also includes this variant in the critical apparatus.  Both the Nestle-Aland text and the UBS text include “in Ephesus” within brackets, indicating that the editors have serious doubt whether the words are original.

            (2) Modern translations.  Readers of modern English translations will find such notes as the following at the bottom of pages:

                        Other ancient authorities lack…

                        Other ancient authorities add…

                        Some early manuscripts…

                        Some manuscripts…

                        Some witnesses read…

            These notes indicate that the translators have followed one group of manuscripts rather than another group where differences exist in the manuscripts.  Compare the translation of Matt 27.17 in KJV (“Barabbas, or Jesus which is called Christ”) and in NRSV (“Jesus Barabbas or Jesus who is called the Messiah?”).  Probably some scribe did not think that a criminal such as Barabbas could have had the same name as the Lord Jesus, so he omitted the name “Jesus” from the text when he copied it.  Many modern translations in other major languages also follow those manuscripts that say “Jesus Barabbas” (so, for example, FRCL, GECL, TOB).

            The KJV translation of Matt 27.17 was based on the Textus Receptus (see above), a text-form which most scholars today regard as inferior since it is basically the same as the Byzantine form of the text (see above).  Most scholarly translations in English today such as RSV, NRSV, REB, and TEV are based on older and better manuscripts than those used in the KJV tradition.  And since both the Nestle-Aland and the UBS editions of the Greek New Testament are based on those same manuscripts, there are few differences between modern English translations and these two editions of the Greek New Testament.  Yet because textual critics and translators vary from verse to verse in how they balance both external evidence and internal evidence (see above), minor differences will continue to exist both in different printed editions of the Greek New Testament and in translations into English and other languages.

The Critical Apparatus in the UBS Greek New Testament4

            The practice of textual criticism requires a good knowledge of ancient languages, of early church history, of biblical interpretation, and of ancient manuscripts.  Few people have such knowledge.  Faced with both the vast number of variant readings in the critical apparatus of a printed Greek New Testament and the confusing lists of manuscripts that support each variant, most translators are overwhelmed.  Yet even though no one expects translators to be expert textual critics, translators do need to have some understanding of this field of study.

            Translators of the New Testament very quickly discover differences among the English translations which they are using to help understand the meaning of the text.  Those who read Spanish, Portuguese, or some other language will discover differences in translations in those languages also.  As noted above, some of these differences exist because translators have followed different Greek texts.  To say the least, most translators find these differences very confusing and frustrating.  If they do not read Greek, which translations should they follow when the English translations have followed different variant readings, as in Matt 27.17?  Should they follow KJV?  Or NRSV?  Or a Roman Catholic translation such as NAB?  If they read Greek, which edition of the printed Greek New Testament should they follow?  The UBS Greek New Testament?  The tenth edition of Merk’s Novum Testamentum Graece Et Latine (1984)?  And what should they do if the Greek New Testament that they are using accepts a different variant from that found in the English translations most widely used in the area of the receptor language?

            2 Thes 2.13. For example, in Greek the word ajparch;n (“first fruits”) is spelled almost exactly like the two Greek words ajp! ajrch'” (“from the beginning”).  Since the oldest Greek manuscripts have no divisions between words, scribes easily confused one of these words for the other.  In 2 Thes 2.13 some manuscripts say “because God has chosen you from the beginning for salvation” (followed by NIV, REB, and NJB ); and some say “because God has chosen you as the first fruits for salvation” (followed by NRSV, NAB).  The UBS Greek New Testament prints the word “the first fruits” in the text and places “from the beginning” in the textual apparatus as a variant.

            Acts 8.37. Another example: some manuscripts of Acts contain the following words after 8.36: “And Philip said, `If you believe with all your heart, you may.’  And he replied, `I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God (followed by KJV).  These words form verse 37.  Most newer translations (NRSV, REB, NAB, NJB, NIV, NLT) do not have these words in the text.  As the note in NJB states, “V. 37, omitted here, is a very ancient gloss preserved in the Western text and suggested by the baptismal liturgy.”

            Eph 1.1. Or to take one final example: as already stated above, the words “in Ephesus” are missing in some of the oldest and best manuscripts.  The editors of the fourth edition of the United Bible Societies Greek New Testament include the words in brackets in the text and give a “C” evaluation, indicating considerable doubt that these words are original.  The following solutions are found in English translations: (1) Include the words “in Ephesus” with no note to indicate that they are missing in some manuscripts (KJV).  (2) Include the words in Ephesus in the text and indicate in a note that “Other ancient authorities lack in Ephesus” (NRSV, similarly NIV).  (3) Omit the words “in Ephesus” with a note explaining why (so NJB).

The variants selected.  Realizing that translators need help in making sense of the hundreds of variant readings included in printed editions of the Greek New Testament and in the different translations in receptor languages, the United Bible Societies published an edition of the Greek New Testament in 1966, edited by five internationally recognized textual scholars.  Many variant readings in the hand-written manuscripts are valuable for under-standing the reasons that scribes made changes, but most of the variants are not significant for translators.  Misspelled words in Greek manuscripts, for example, are not important for translators.  The editors of the UBS Greek New Testament selected the variants that seemed important for translators, that is, the variants that represent a real difference in meaning.

            The textual apparatus in the fourth edition (1993) of the UBS Greek New Testament has been considerably revised.  Some variants found in the third edition of 1975 were omitted from the fourth edition because the variants did not really have different meanings when translated.  For example, whether Paul wrote in Rom 15.23 “I have been longing for many years to visit you” or “I have been longing for a long time to visit you” makes no difference for translators, since the meaning is the same.  So this variant, and others like it, have been omitted from the 1993 edition.  Some variants not included in the first three editions of the UBS Greek New Testament have been added to the fourth edition.

Evaluation of variants and recommendations for translators.  In addition to selecting significant variant readings, the editors of the UBS Greek New Testament have evaluated those readings from {A} to {D}. with an {A} evaluation indicating certainty that the printed text represents the original text, and a {D} evaluation indicating that the editors had a very high degree of doubt concerning the correct text.  In the fourth edition (1993), the editors most often use evaluations from {A} to {C}, only rarely giving a {D} evaluation.

            Now is the time to answer the questions posed above: which translations should translators follow when some translations accept the reading in certain Greek manuscripts and others follow Greek manuscripts with a different reading?  Or what should translators do when translations disagree with the printed text of the Greek New Testament that they are using?

            The recommended solution is simply this: translators are encouraged to follow the text printed in the UBS Greek New Testament when the editors have given an {A} or a {B} evaluation to the words printed in the text.  Even when English translations such as KJV have followed a different variant from that printed in the text of the UBS Greek New Testament, translators should follow the UBS text when the editors give an {A} or a {B} evaluation to the variant that they have included in the text.  Remember that KJV is based on a group of manuscripts, the Byzantine text type, that most textual critics consider to be the least reliable manuscripts.

            The editors have given a {C} or a {D} evaluation to readings about which they are uncertain.  Translators should feel more freedom to translate the variant readings that are in the critical apparatus and not in the text where the editors have indicated strong doubt concerning the original reading.  The editors of the fourth edition of the UBS Greek New Testament represent Roman Catholics, Protestants, and Greek Orthodox, so translators may have confidence that the text printed in the UBS Greek New Testament does not represent the bias or prejudice of a particular denomination or confessional group.

Practical examples.  Let’s look at a few variant readings and consider the choices that translators should make.

            (1) 1 Cor 13.3. Some manuscripts say, (a) “if I hand my body over to be burned” and others say (b) “if I hand my body over in order to boast.”  In Greek, the difference between the two verbs consists of a difference in spelling of one letter only.  The editors of the fourth edition of the UBS Greek New Testament include the words “in order to boast” in the text (with a “C” evaluation) and place the variant reading “in order to be burned” in the textual apparatus.  English language translations are rather evenly divided.  Some say “in order to be burned” (so REB, NJB, CEV, NIV “to the flames”).  NRSV, NAB, NLT follow the reading in the UBS Greek New Testament.  Since the editors of the UBS Greek New Testament give a {C} evaluation to the reading in their text (“in order to boast”), translators may decide to follow the reading “in order to burn.”

            (2) Matt 27.16-17. The UBS Greek New Testament prints the name “Jesus Barabbas,” placing the name “Barabbas” between brackets and giving a {C} evaluation.  With such uncertainty by the specialists, translators are free to follow those manuscripts that say “Jesus” or those that say “Jesus Barabbas.”  Unlike the situation in 1 Cor 13.3 above in which most English translations agree, here in Matt 27.16-17 the major English translations are divided.  (1) NIV omits the name “Jesus” and do not even mention the textual problem in a note.  (2) NJB omits the name “Jesus” and indicates in a note that some manuscripts have “Jesus Barabbas.” (3) CEV and NRSV (also REB) include the name “Jesus” CEV with a note stating that “Here and in verse 17 many manuscripts have Barrabas,” and NRSV (similarly REB) with a note saying that “Other ancient authorities lack Jesus” and (4) NBE includes the name “Jesus” with no textual note.  Whichever reading translators follow in the receptor language, they should probably include a note indicating that some manuscripts have the name “Jesus” and others say, “Jesus Barabbas.”

Final Comments

            For translators who can read English, there is a companion volume to the UBS Greek New Testament, which explains the reasons that the editors decided to print certain variants in the text and to include others in the textual apparatus.  The second edition of this volume, entitled A Textual Commentary on the New Testament, was published by the United Bible Societies in 1994 (first edition in 1971) and was edited by Bruce M. Metzger, one of the editors of the UBS Greek New Testament.  Translators who cannot read English are encouraged to consult major scholarly commentaries on individual books of the New Testament when they are trying to decide which variant reading to follow.

Further Reading

  1. Greek New Testaments

Aland, Barbara et al., eds.  The Greek New Testament. 4th rev. ed. Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft/United Bible Societies, 1993.

Nestle, E. and K. Aland, eds.  Novum Testamentum Graece. 27th ed.  Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1993.

Hodges, Zane and A.L Farstad.  The Greek New Testament According to the Majority       Text.  2d ed.  Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1985.

Tasker, R.V.G.  The Greek New Testament Being the Text Translated in The New English Bible 1961.  Oxford: University Press, 1964.

  • Books and Articles

Aland, Kurt.  “Textual Criticism, New Testament.” Rev. by Beate Köster. Pages 546-551             in vol. 2 of Dictionary of Biblical Interpretation.  Edited by John H. Hayes.  2 vols.  Nashville: Abingdon, 1999.

Aland, Kurt, and Barbara Aland.  The Text of the New Testament: An Introduction to the Critical Editions and to the Theory and Practice of Modern Textual Criticism.          2d ed.  Translated by Erroll F. Rhodes.  Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989.

Birdsall, J. Neville.  “Versions, Ancient (Survey).”  Pages 787-93 in vol. 6 of The Anchor Bible Dictionary.  Edited by David Noel Freedman.  6 vols. New York: Doubleday, 1992.

Brown, Raymond E.  “Greek Text of the New Testament.”  Pages 1104-09 in The New Jerome Biblical Commentary.  Edited by R.E. Brown et al.  Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1990.

Ehrman, Bart D.  “Text of the New Testament.”  Pages 1292-95 in Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible.  Edited by David Noel Freedman.  Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000.

Ehrman, Bart D., and Michael W. Holmes, eds.  The Text of the New Testament in             Contemporary Research: Essays on the “Status Questionis.”  Grand Rapids:          Eerdmans, 1995.

Elliott, Keith and Ian Moir.  Manuscripts and the Text of the New Testament: An Intro-duction for English Readers.  Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1995.

Epp, Eldon Jay.  “Ancient Texts and Versions of the New Testament.”  Pages 1-11 in vol.             8 of The New Interpreter’s Bible.  Edited by Leander E. Keck.  Nashville:             Abingdon, 1995.

_______.  “Textual Criticism (NT).”  Pages 412-35 in vol. 6 of The Anchor Bible Dictionary.  Edited by David Noel Freedman.  6 vols.  New York: Doubleday,       1992.

_______.  “Textual Criticism.”  Pages 75-126 in The New Testament and Its Modern Interpreters.  Edited by E.J. Epp and G.W. MacRae.  Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1989.

_______.  “Western Text.” Pages 909-12 in vol. 6 of The Anchor Bible Dictionary.  Edited by David Noel Freedman.  6 vols.  New York: Doubleday, 1992.

Gamble, Harry Y.  “Codex.”  Pages 1067-69 in vol. 1 of The Anchor Bible Dictionary.  Edited by David Noel Freedman.  6 vols.  New York: Doubleday, 1992.  The same entry includes brief entries by various scholars on the following manuscripts of the NT: Alexandrinus (A), Bezae Cantabrigiensis (D 06), Claromontanus (D 06), Ephraimi Rescriptus (C), Sinaiticus (a), Vaticanus (B), and Washingtonianus (W).

Greenlee, J. Harold.  Introduction to New Testament Textual Criticism.  Rev. ed.  Peabody, Mass: Hendrickson, 1995.

Metzger, Bruce M.  The Early Versions of the New Testament. Their Origin, Trans-          mission, and Limitations.  Oxford: Clarendon, 1977.

_______.  Manuscripts of the Greek Bible. An Introduction to Greek Palaeography.          New York: Oxford University Press, 1981.

_______.  A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament. 2d ed.  New York:           United Bible Societies, 1994.

_______.  The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restor-ation.  3d, enlarged ed.  New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Parker, David.  “The New Testament.”  Pp. 110-33 in The Oxford Illustrated History of the Bible.  Edited by John Rogerson.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

[1] Kent D. Clarke presents the issues and argues that the goal of textual criticism should be to recover the original text in “Original Text or Canonical Text? Questioning the Shape of the New Testament Text We Translate” in Translating the Bible: Problems and Prospects (ed. Stanley E. Porter and Richard S. Hess; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1999), 281-322.  For a different point of view, see David C. Parker, The Living Text of the Gospels (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), esp. pp. 3-7, 207-13.  See also the essays in New Testament Textual Criticism, Exegesis and Church History: A Discussion of Method (ed. B. Aland and J.Delobel; Kampen: Pharos, 1994); and Eldon J. Epp, “The Multivalence of the Term ‘Original Text’ in New Testament Textual Criticism,” Harvard Theological Review 92 (3, 1999):245-81.

[2] See chapter 9 by Plutarco Bonilla on “The Canon of the New Testament.”

[3] Kurt and Barbara Aland, The Text of the New Testament (rev. ed.; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), 29.

[4] See J.K. Elliott’s review of The Greek New Testament according to the Majority Text in The Bible Translator 34 (July 1983):340-44.

[5] Kurt and Barbara Aland, The Text of the New Testament, (1st English edition, 1987), 218.



Early in its history, the Christian church felt the need to identify the writings that God had used to communicate his will to mankind. This need arose from the belief that if God has broken the silence of the ages to enter into dialogue with mankind, there must be a way to know for sure where that revelation could be found. The canon of the Bible establishes which books have been considered by believers to be inspired by God in transmitting his divine revelation to us. Thus, the canon draws the line between that which is divine and that which is human; through it, the revelation of God is presented in written form.

            According to Judeo-Christian tradition, the canon serves a threefold purpose. Firstly, it defines and preserves revelation and sets it apart from the commentaries on it. Secondly, it prevents changes or alterations from being made to the written revelation. And finally, it affords believers an opportunity to study God’s revelation and live according to its tenets and principles.

            In order to properly understand the canon, Christians must realize how important the theology of inspiration was to the apostles and the early believers. Being persuaded that certain books had been written under inspiration from God, these believers selected and used those which they recognized as having ethical authority to guide their lives and their decision making. These books nurtured the faith of the community, helped the believers in their reflections and discussions on theological and practical matters, and provided them with a yardstick for living. Once they acknowledged that a book was inspired, the believers would include it in the canon, thus raising it to the category of divine revelation.

            The Greek word kanon is derived from a Semitic word that meant “reed” or “cane.” The meaning of the word changed over time, and eventually, it was used to refer to the “measuring reed” or “measuring rod” that was used by carpenters and bricklayers. That is the meaning of the Hebrew word qaneh, which appears in Ezek 40.3,5. The Greek word was translated as “canon” in Latin and English. It was also used metaphorically to refer to the standards or patterns that were used for rules and measurements.[1]

            From the second century of the Christian era onward, the word kanon was used to refer to the “rules of faith”[2], to religious regulations (in the plural form, i.e., “church canons”)[3] and to the established, invariable portions of the liturgy. During the Middle Ages, the legal books of the church were called the “canons.” The Catholic Church also uses the word “canon” to refer to its list of saints, and thus, “canonization” is the term used to refer to the Church’s rulings on the special reverence due to certain individuals who had lived godly lives of Christian service.

            During the fourth century, the word “canon” was used to refer not only to the rules of faith but to the Scriptures themselves. Thus, the “canon” of the Bible is the list of books that lay down rules for Christians to live by and which are therefore included in the collections that comprise the Old and New Testaments. The word “canon” was probably used with this specific meaning for the first time in 367 A.D. by Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria.[4] By the end of the fourth century, as attested to by the writings of Gregory, Priscillian, Rufinus, Saint Augustine, and Saint Jerome, this was the common meaning of the word in both the Eastern and the Western churches.[5]

The Canon of the Hebrew Bible

            In the gospels, Jesus used the Hebrew Scriptures to confirm his mission, his teachings and his works (see Mark 1.14, Luke 12.32). Continuing with that hermeneutic tradition, the early believers used the Hebrew texts–and, in particular, the Greek translations of the Hebrew—in their theological discussions and in developing their doctrines and teachings. Thus, from its inception, the Church had access to a number of very important religious writings.

            The use that Jesus made of the book of Isaiah (61.1-2), as recorded in Luke 4.18-19, is especially significant. After reading the passage, the Lord said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4.21). This passage in Luke shows that the early Christians took a Christological approach to the interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures. From the Christian point of view, the primary purpose of the Jewish Scriptures was to confirm the messianic nature of Jesus of Nazareth (Luke 24.27). Thus, the Hebrew Bible became the first Christian Bible. Over time, the Church began to refer to these Scriptures as the “Old Testament,” so as to emphasize the newness of the revelation of Christ and his mission.[6]

            The Hebrew Bible consists of 24 books[7] grouped into three main sections:[8]  (1) The first section, known as the Torah (Law), includes the so-called “five books of Moses”: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.  (2)      The second section, known as the Nebi’im, (Prophets), is subdivided into two groups: (a) the early prophets: Joshua, Judges, Kings, and Samuel, and (b) the latter prophets: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the Book of Twelve.[9]  (3) The third section of the Hebrew Bible, the Ketubim (Writings), includes eleven books: Psalms, Proverbs, and Job; a group of five books known as the Megilot (Scrolls) –Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes and Esther—and finally, Daniel, Ezra-Nehemiah, and Chronicles.

            The initials of the words Torah, Nebi’im, and Ketubim form the Hebrew word Tanak. This is the name the Jews use to refer to the Hebrew Bible, our Old Testament.

            The 24 books of the Hebrew Bible are identical to the 39 books that make up the Old Testament of the so-called “Protestant” Bible, that is, the Bible that does not include the deutero-canonical books. The reason for the difference in the total number of books in the Hebrew and the Protestant Bibles is that in the latter, each of the twelve minor prophets is counted separately, and the books of Samuel, Kings, Chronicles, and Ezra-Nehemiah are each divided into two parts.[10]

The Canonization Process

            The traditionally accepted theory[11] that the different sections of the Hebrew canon represent the three stages of its development has been discredited. Although such an argument may seem logical and reasonable, it is not substantiated either by the Old Testament or by any other ancient Jewish document.

            According to this theory, the Torah was the first section of the Hebrew Bible to be recognized as canonical. This is said to have happened after the Jews returned to Judah at the end of the Babylonian exile (around the fifth century B.C.). The next part to be added to the canon, possibly towards the end of the third century B.C., was the Nebi’im. Finally, the last section of the Hebrew Bible, the Ketubim, was included at the end of the first century A.D., at the conclusion of the so-called Council of Jamnia.[12]

            The authority of certain parts of the Hebrew Scriptures is recognized in the Old Testament (Exo 24.3-7, Deut 31.26, 2 Kgs 23.1-3, Neh 8.1—9.38). However, the fact that certain texts were accepted as the Word of God does not mean that the Jewish community regarded them as a closed body of writings that were to be used as the basis for their religious and social development. Some of the prophets also recognized the validity and authority of previous prophetic messages (cf. Jer 7.25 and Ezek 38.17). Nevertheless, several centuries passed before the idea of gathering the prophetic utterances and messages into an actual body of writings took hold. The first reference to such a collection of writings is probably Dan 9.2, which alludes to Jeremiah’s prophecy concerning the duration of the Babylonian exile, which Daniel found in the “Scriptures” (Jer 25.11-14).

            The three-way division of the Hebrew canon is recognized in a number of different documents. The BabylonianTalmud[13] accepts the religious authority and inspiration of the 24 books of the Jewish Scriptures. It also discusses the order in which the books are placed.

            In his foreword to the translation of Ecclesiasticus[14], also known as the TheWisdomofJesusbenSirach, ben Sirach’s grandson, who translated the book, states that his grandfather “had devoted himself especially to the reading of the Law and the Prophets and the other books of our ancestors” (NRSV).  If the “other books of our ancestors” were the Ketubim, this would mean that the traditional arrangement of the books of the Hebrew Bible was recognized as early as 132 B.C.

            The New Testament also contains references to the three-part division of the Hebrew Bible. In Luke’s account of the resurrection, Jesus reminded his disciples in Jerusalem of what was written about him in “the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms” (Luke 24.44). It should be noted that the Psalms are the first book in the Ketubim, the third section of the Hebrew Bible. Other New Testament references to the Jewish Scriptures mention “the Law and the Prophets” (Matt 7.12; Rom 3.21) or “the Law” (John 10.34; 1 Cor 14.21).

            The discovery of numerous manuscripts near the Dead Sea has contributed a great deal to the study and understanding of what the canon meant to the Jews during the first century B.C. and the first century A.D. The Dead Sea manuscripts include copies of every book of the Bible, with the possible exception of Esther.[15] Although most of the Biblical texts were found only in fragmentary form, several of them have been preserved almost in their entirety.

            Unfortunately, the Qumranites left no written documentation that might indicate which of the books in their libraries were considered part of the canon. After a careful analysis of the texts and of the commentaries to them, it can be said with some degree of certainty that the Qumran canon included the Torah, the Nebi’im and the Psalms (possibly some additional psalms as well). It also included the books of Daniel and Job.[16]

            By the beginning of the Christian era, the various Jewish groups had probably reached some basic agreement as to which books should be recognized as authoritative. As far as the Jewish canon is concerned, the most likely hypothesis is that 24 or 22 books of the Tanak (the Torah, the Nebi’im and the Ketubim) were considered sacred, but that the final list of authoritative books was not developed until the late second or early third century of the Christian era.

            It is very difficult to determine exactly what criteria were used to establish the canonicity of a book; some scholars have speculated that legal content and divine inspiration were among the standards applied. Others, however, have held that acceptance or rejection of a particular writing depended on whether or not it celebrated or revealed the manifestation of God, and that this was the quality that made a book suitable for use in worship.[17]

The Septuagint: the Greek Canon

            As a result of the exile of Israel in Babylon, Jewish communities were established in several regions of the known world.[18] In Alexandria, the capital of the Ptolemaic kingdom,[19] this Jewish presence grew over time.

            After several generations, the Jews of Alexandria adopted Greek as their working language, using Hebrew only for religious purposes. They soon found it necessary, in order to meet the religious needs of their community, to translate the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek. The Torah (or Pentateuch, as it was known in Greek) was translated first, and the Prophets and the other Scriptures followed.

            According to a Jewish legend, of which there are several versions,[20] 70 (or 72) elders were taken to Alexandria from Jerusalem for the purpose of translating the Hebrew text into Greek. This legend gave rise to the term “Septuagint” (LXX), the name by which the Greek translation of the Old Testament is usually known.

            The legend is alluded to and expanded upon in a document known as the Letter of Aristeas. This letter tells how the elders of Israel finished translating the Pentateuch in only 72 days. It also states that they produced the Greek version through a process of comparison, discussions and meetings.[21]

            Later embellishments of the legend in Christian and Jewish circles included the claim that the elders, working separately, had produced 72 identical versions. Philo of Alexandria, the famous Jewish philosopher, writes that the translators worked independently and produced the same Greek text, word for word.[22]

            Although Philo and Josephus speak only of the Torah or Pentateuch being translated into Greek, Christian writers added to the legend of the Septuagint the claim that it included the translation of the entire Old Testament, including books that were not a part of the Hebrew Scriptures. Pseudo-Justin, who lived in the third century A.D., went so far as to say that he had personally seen the cells in which the individual Septuagint translators had worked, separated from each other.[23] These additions to the ancient Jewish legend show that the Septuagint was held in high regard by the Christian church.

            The Jewish legend of the Septuagint provides some important historical data. The Pentateuch was the first section to be translated; this work began around the middle of the third century B.C.  It may be assumed that it was done in Alexandria, the home of the largest Jewish community of the Diaspora.

            The order of the books contained in the Septuagint manuscripts is different from that of the Hebrew Scriptures. A comparative chart of the two versions is included at the end of this chapter. It may be that the order followed in the Septuagint reveals the Christian influence on the canon.[24] The Greek canon was not established by the Jews of Alexandria, but by the Christians.[25]

            The additional books that appear in the Septuagint are known under different names in different Christian circles. Most Protestants call this section of the Septuagint the “Apocrypha”;[26] the Catholic Church refers to it as the “deuterocanonical” books.[27] To the Catholic community, “apocryphal” books are those that were not included in either the Hebrew or the Greek canon; Protestants refer to these as the “pseudepigraphical” writings.[28]

            The deuterocanonical books are as follows: Tobit, Judith, Wisdom, Ecclesiasticus (Wisdom of Jesus Son of Sirach), Baruch, 1 and 2 Maccabees, Dan 3.24-90; 13;14, and Esther 10.4-16, 24. Most of these texts have been preserved only in Greek manuscripts.[29] 

The Greek Old Testament

            The Septuagint made it possible for Greek-speaking Jews in the Diaspora and in Palestine to have access to the sacred writings of their ancestors in a language they could understand. The Greek text also gave non-Jews an opportunity to study the Hebrew Scriptures (Acts 8.26-40).

            The Christian church benefited greatly from the Septuagint translation, which it used as its holy book, referring to it as the “Old Testament.”[30] The Greek text enabled the Christians to see a relationship between Jesus’ message and certain significant messianic passages (Acts 7; 8). It served as a literary resource from which to quote the Hebrew canon in discussions with Jews (Acts 13.17-37; 17.2-3), and it played a fundamental role in the preaching of the gospel to the pagans (Acts 14.8-18; 17.16-32).

            The New Testament shows how systematically the early believers used the Septuagint in education, preaching and apologetics (cf. Rom 8.20 and Eccl 1.2; 12.8 LXX).[31] The Christian Scriptures also include quotations and references to the deuterocanonical texts that were added in the Septuagint (cf. Rom 1.18-32 and Wis 12-14; cf. Rom 2.1-11 and Wis 11-15; cf. Heb 11.35b-38 and 2 Macc 6.18-7.41 and 4 Macc 5.3-18.24). The New Testament also contains references to book that are not even in the Septuagint (cf. Jude 14-16 and 1 Enoch 1.9).[32]

            The widespread use of the Septuagint by the early Christians caused the Jewish community eventually to refuse to recognize this Greek translation as an acceptable version of the Hebrew Scriptures. In theological discussions about the birth of Jesus, Christians would quote the Greek text of Isaiah in such a way as to indicate that a “virgin,” rather than “a young woman,” would “conceive and bear a son” (cf. Matt 1.23 and Isa 7.14 LXX). Moreover, some manuscripts of the Septuagint contain Christian additions to the Old Testament texts (for example, Psa 13; 95).[33]

            When theological discussions between Jews and Christians called for strict exegetical analysis, the Septuagint (parts of which reflected a free translation style and which, moreover, was based on an ancient Hebrew text) was relegated and condemned in Jewish circles. This rejection by the Jews may explain why most manuscripts of the Septuagint are still kept by Christian groups.[34]

            When the Jewish community rejected the Septuagint, a substitute Greek translation was needed. The new Greek translations of the Hebrew Scriptures included the versions produced by Aquila and Symmachus and the revision by Theodotion. These Greek translations are included in Origen’s Hexapla.[35]

            Aquila, who was a disciple of the great rabbi Akiba, produced a highly literal version of the Hebrew texts.[36] Although the vocabulary he used shows his mastery of Greek, the translation is extremely literal and follows the linguistic structures of the Hebrew text much too closely. Perhaps for this very reason, Aquila’s Greek translation replaced the Septuagint and was very popular in Jewish circles by 130 A.D.

            The translation by Symmachus (c. 170 A.D.)[37] is not only faithful to the Hebrew text, but also handles the Greek very well. According to Eusebius and Saint Jerome, Symmachus was an Ebionite Christian Jew.[38]

            According to church tradition,[39] Theodotion was a proselyte who revised an existing Greek translation on the basis of the Hebrew texts. Some scholars believe that the revised translation was the Septuagint; others, however, hold the view that Theodotion used an earlier text.[40]

The Church and the Canon

            After the New Testament period, the church continued using the Septuagint in homilies, reflections, and theological discussions. Many of the Christian writers of the period freely used the Septuagint and quoted the books that were not included in the Hebrew canon.

            Towards the end of the fourth century, the Western church agreed on a set number of Old Testament books, including some of the deuterocanonical books that appear in the Septuagint. The Eastern theologians, on the other hand, followed the Hebrew canon of Scriptures. Both Origen and Athanasius insisted that the canon should only include the 22 books of the Jewish canon, and Saint Jerome, through his translation known as the Latin Vulgate, disseminated the Hebrew canon in the Western church.[41]

            Throughout its history, the church has issued a number of statements concerning the canon of Scriptures. At first, these statements were generally issued in the form of disciplinary decrees;[42] subsequently, in the Council of Trent, a direct, dogmatic approach was adopted.

            The Council of Trent was convened in 1545 in a context of considerable controversy with reformed groups in Europe.[43] One of the issues it considered was that of the relationship between Scripture and tradition and its importance in transmitting the Christian faith.

            The question of the canon was discussed in full at the Council of Trent, and a decree was issued listing the books that belonged in the body of Scriptures, i.e., the books that believers were to consider authoritative in matters of dogma and morality.[44] The Latin Vulgate was given official status, and believers were instructed to interpret Scriptures according to the tradition of the Church, not their own individual opinions. Moreover, the Council accepted both the protocanonical and the deuterocanonical books, in the Vulgate translation, [45] as having equal religious and moral authority.

            The reformers had always had serious doubts and reservations about the deutero-canonical books. They eventually rejected them, after much controversy and confrontation with the Catholics.[46]

            In his translation of 1534, Luther grouped the deuterocanonical books together and placed them in a separate section between the two Testaments. He included a note indicating that the books were “apocryphal” and that although they were useful and beneficial, they were not Holy Writ.[47] The Zurich Bible (1527-1529), on which Zwingli collaborated, relegated the deutero-canonical books to the end of the volume, since the publishers did not consider them canonical. The Olivetan Bible (1534-1535), which contains a prologue by John Calvin, included the deuterocanonical books as a separate section, apart from the books of the canon. In its Gallican and Belgian Confessions, the Reformed Church did not mention the deuterocanonical books. Over time, Lutheran statements paid less and less attention to the deuterocanonical books.

            The situation in England was similar to that of the rest of the Reformed groups in Europe. The Wycliffe Bible (1382) included only the Hebrew canon. Although the Coverdale Bible (1535) included the deuterocanonical books, the 39 Articles of the Church of England[48] state that those books should not be used as a basis for any doctrine. The King James Version (1611) included the deuterocanonical books between the two Testaments.[49]

            The Spanish translation by Casiodoro de Reina (published in Basel in 1569) included the deuterocanonical books in the same order in which they appear in the Septuagint. The subsequent revision by Cipriano de Valera (published in Amsterdam in 1602) placed the deutero-canonical books between the Testaments.

            The authors of the Westminster Confession (1648) reacted to the Council of Trent and the Catholic-Protestant disputes by affirming the canon of the Hebrew Scriptures. In the statement on the canon, the Confession indicates that the deuterocanonical books, which it identifies as the “Apocrypha,” are not inspired and do not belong in the canon of Scriptures; hence, they are not authoritative for the church. It also indicates that they are to be read strictly as human writings.[50] The Christian communities that adopted the Westminster Confession thus had a clear definition of the canon.

            The post-Reformation Christian communities took three different approaches to the issue of whether or not to accept the apocryphal or deuterocanonical writings. (1) The deutero-canonical books were kept in the Bible, but in a separate section, with a note indicating that those books did not have the same authority as the rest of Scripture; (2) based on the stance taken by the Council of Trent, both the deuterocanonical and the protocanonical books were included in the Bible and considered equally authoritative; (3) based on the Westminster Confession, the Bible included only the Hebrew canon, which contains the only books that are recognized as authoritative.[51]

            In 1826, after much discussion on theological and administrative matters, the British and Foreign Bible Society decided to publish the Bible with only the Hebrew canon of the Old Testament.[52]  The America Bible Society soon followed the same decision. The Reina-Valera version was first published without the deuterocanonical books in 1850.[53]

            Today, the Christian churches have moved beyond many of the difficulties about the apocryphal or deuterocanonical books that had separated them for centuries. Controversy and hostility have given way to dialogue and inter-confessional cooperation. Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant groups are working together on Bible translation and publishing efforts.[54] Far from being an obstacle to dialogue and cooperation among believers, the deuterocanonical literature is seen as an important resource for the study of the history, customs and religious views which prevailed during the period preceding the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth and the apostolic activities of the early Christians.

            In recent years, the United Bible Societies have also been publishing new translations done by churches in Eastern Europe.[55]  Since the canons of the Orthodox Churches differ from both Protestant and Roman Catholic Churches, it has been necessary to prepare new policy guidelines for use in translation projects involving cooperation with Orthodox Churches.  The canon of the Greek Orthodox Church includes the same deuterocanonical books as the Roman Catholic Church, plus the Prayer of Manasseh, Psalm 151, 1 Esdras (see the appendix at the end of this chapter), 3 Maccabees, and 4 Maccabees (in an appendix).  The canon of the Slavonic Orthodox Church includes the same books as the Roman Catholic Church plus Prayer of Manasseh, Psalm 151, 2 and 3 Esdras (see the appendix at the end of this chapter), and 3 Maccabees.[56] 

            The Ethiopic Orthodox Church has the largest canon.  It includes all of the books in the listed in the previous paragraph plus Jubilees and 1 Enoch.[57] 

Jewish and Christian canons of the Scriptures

Hebrew Bible (HB)Septuagint (LXX)Vulgate (Vlg)
Torah:   Genesis   Exodus   Leviticus   Numbers   Deuteronomy   Nebi’im:   Early Prophets:     Joshua     Judges     Samuel (1 & 2)     Kings (1 & 2)   Latter Prophets:     Isaiah     Jeremiah     Ezekiel   The Twelve:     (=Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Nahum, Micah, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi)Pentateuch:   Genesis   Exodus   Leviticus   Numbers   Deuteronomy   Historical books:   Joshua   Judges   Ruth   Kingdoms:     Samuel (1 & 2)     Kings (1 & 2)     Chronicles (1 & 2)   Esdras (2)     *1 Esdras     2 Esdras (=Ezra & Nehemiah)   Esther     *(with Greek additions)   *Judith   *Tobit   Maccabees (4)[58]     *Maccabees (1 & 2)     III, IV MaccabeesPentateuch:   Genesis   Exodus   Leviticus   Numbers   Deuteronomy   Historical books:   Joshua   Judges   Ruth   Samuel (1 & 2)   Kings (1 & 2)   Chronicles (1 & 2)   1 Ezra (=Ezra)   2 Ezra (=Nehemiah)   3 Ezra (= 1 Esdras)   **4 Ezra (= 2 Esdras)   Tobit   Judith   Esther  Maccabees (1 & 2)  
Ketubim: Writings   Psalms   Job   Proverbs   Ruth   Song of Songs   Qohelet (=Ecclesiastes)   Lamentations   Esther   Daniel 1-12   Ezra-Nehemiah   Chronicles (1 & 2)Poetic books:   Psalms[59]   **Odes   Proverbs   Ecclesiastes (=Qohelet)   Song of Songs   Job   *Wisdom of Solomon   *Wisdom of Jesus ben Sirach (=Sirach)   **Psalms of SolomonPoetic books:   Job   Psalms   Proverbs   Ecclesiastes (=Qohelet)   Song of Songs   Wisdom   Ecclesiasticus (=Sirach)
*Deuterocanonical books or Apocrypha **Pseudepigraphical writingsProphetic books:   The Twelve: (=Hosea, Amos, Micah…)   Isaiah   Jeremiah   *Baruch 1-5   Lamentations   Epistle of Jeremiah (=Baruch 6)   Ezekiel    *Susannah (=Daniel 13)   Daniel 1-12[60]   * Bel and the Dragon (=Daniel 14)  Prophetic books:   Isaiah   Jeremiah   Lamentations   Baruch 1-6     Ezekiel     Daniel 1-14     The Twelve: (=Hosea, Joel, Amos…)


Several writings are associated with Ezra and Nehemiah, and readers can be easily confused by the names.  English translations such as NRSV include the following four: (1) Ezra, (2) Nehemiah, (3) 1 Esdras, and (4) 2 Esdras.  The book of Ezra is called 2 Esdras in the Septuagint, 1 Ezra in the Vulgate, and 1 Esdras in the Slavonic Bible.  Nehemiah is called 2 Esdras in the Septuagint, 2 Ezra in the Vulgate, and Nehemiah in the Slavonic Bible.  1 Esdras, which is not in the Hebrew Bible, is called 1 Esdras in the Septuagint, 3 Ezra in the Vulgate, and 2 Esdras in the Slavonic Bible.  2 Esdras, which is not in the Hebrew Bible or the Septuagint, is called 4 Ezra in the Vulgate and 3 Esdras in the Slavonic Bible.  The following chart will help clarify the situation.

Ezra2 Esdras1 Ezra1 Esdras
Nehemiah2 Esdras2 EzraNehemiah
1 Esdras1 Esdras3 Ezra2 Esdras
2 EsdrasNot included4 Ezra3 Esdras

Further Reading

Báez-Camargo, Gonzalo. Breve Historia del Canon Bíblico. Mexico: Sociedades Bíblicas Unidas, 1980.

Beckwith, Roger T.  “Canon of the Hebrew Bible and the Old Testament.”  Pages 100-102 in The Oxford Companion to the Bible.  Edited by Bruce M. Metzger and Michael D. Coogan.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.

_______.  The Old Testament Canon of the New Testament Church.  Grand Rapids:          Eerdmans, 1985.

Brettler, Marc Z., and Pheme Perkins.  “The Canons of the Bible.”  Pages 453-60 in The New      Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books (NRSV).  3d            edition.  Edited by Michael D. Coogan.  New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Brown, Raymond E. and Raymond F. Collins, “Canonicity.”  Pages 1034-43 in The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1990.

Burke, David G., “The Bible Societies and the Deuterocanon As Scripture.”  Pages 223-40 in       Current Trends in Scripture Translation.  “UBS Bulletin 182/183.” United Bible    Societies, 1997.

Constantelos, Demetrios J.  “Eastern Orthodoxy and the Bible.”  Pages 174-6 in The Oxford Companion to the Bible.  Edited by Bruce M. Metzger and Michael D. Coogan.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Meurer, Siegfried, ed.  The Apocrypha in Ecumenical Perspective. “UBS Monograph Series,        No. 6.  Trans. Paul Elllingworth.  Reading, U.K.; New York: United Bible Societies,        1991.

Metzger, Bruce M.  “Bible.”  Pages 78-80 in The Oxford Companion to the Bible.  Edited by Bruce M. Metzger and Michael D. Coogan.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Rüger, Hans Peter. “The Old Testament Canon,” The Bible Translator 40 (July 1989): 301-8.

Sanders, James A.  “Canon (Hebrew).”  Pages 837-52 in vol. 1 of The Anchor Bible Dictionary.  Edited by David Noel Freedman.  6 vols.  New York: Doubleday, 1992.

Sundberg, A.C.  The Old Testament of the Early Church: A Study of Canon.  Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1964.

Trebolle Barrere, Julio.  The Jewish Bible and the Christian Bible: An Introduction to the History            of the Bible.  Trans. Wilfred G.E. Watson.  Leiden: Brill; Grand Rapids, Michigan:         Eerdmans, 1998.

[1]In Alexandria, the word “canon” was used to refer to the collection of classic works that served as literary models. Cicero, Pliny and Epictetus used the word to describe specific sets of rules or measurements.  See Hermann Wolfgang Beyer, “kanwvn,” TDNT  vol. 3:596-97. 

[2]The Church fathers used the word kanon to refer to the “rule of tradition” (Clement of Rome), the “rule of faith” (Eusebius of Caesarea), the “rule of truth” (Irenaeus) and the “rule of the Church” (Clement of Alexandria and Origen).  See Beyer, “kanwvn,” 600-1.

[3]This usage explains why the members of religious communities living under the vita canonica (the established ecclesiastical order) are called “canons.”

[4]F.F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1988), 17.

[5]R.E. Brown and R. F. Collins, “Canonicity,” in The New Jerome Biblical Commentary (ed. Raymond E. Brown, et al.  Englewood Cliffs, N.J: Prentice Hall, 1990), 1036.

[6]Bruce, The Canon of Scripture, 28, 63-67.

[7]When Ruth is combined with Judges, and Lamentations with Jeremiah, the number of books in the Hebrew Bible comes to 22, the number of letters in the Hebrew alphabet. This explains why Jewish literature refers to the Hebrew canon as containing 22 books.

[8] For a concise discussion regarding the slightly different order of books in Hebrew manuscripts and printed editions of the Hebrew Bible, see Nahum M. Sarna, “Order of Books in the Hebrew Bible,” in The Oxford Companion to the Bible (ed. by B.M. Metzger and D. Coogan; New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 98-100.

[9]The Book of Twelve is also known as the Minor Prophets, in reference to the length of the writings, not their quality or importance.

[10] In the first volume of his treatise Contra Apion, the Jewish historian Josephus alludes to 22 books that tell the history of the Jewish people. These texts are the same as the 24 books of the Hebrew Bible, although they appear in a slightly different order. The first section includes the five books of Moses. The second one groups together 13 books, possibly because five books –Job, Esther, Daniel, Chronicles and Ezra-Nehemiah—were added to the eight included in the traditional grouping. The four books comprising the last section may be Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs. Josephus, Contra Apion, 1.38-41.

[11] This theory was popularized by H.E. Ryle in 1892; see Bruce, The Canon of Scripture, 36.

[12] After the destruction of the Temple and the fall of the Jewish community in Jerusalem in 70 A.D., a group of Jews led by rabbi Johanan ben Zaccai gathered in a community in western Judaea known as Jamnia (or Jabneh). The main purpose of the group was to discuss the reorganization of Jewish life without the religious, political and social institutions associated with the Temple. The rabbis who met at Jamnia did not change the Jewish canon; they simply reviewed the tradition that had been handed down to them. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture, 34-36; J.P. Lewis, “What do we mean by Jabneh?” JBR 32 (1964):125-32; R.T. Beckwith, The Old Testament Canon of the New Testament Church (London: 1985), 278-81.

[13] Baba Bathra, 14b-15a.

[14] The prologue to this work, which is included among the deuterocanonical books, may have been written after the author’s grandson emigrated from Palestine to Alexandria in 132 B.C.

[15] The fact that the book of Esther is missing from the documents found so far at the Dead Sea may be just a matter of chance. On the other hand, it may reflect the Qumran community’s view of this book: it does not mention the name of God, it emphasizes the feast of Purim, and it reflects a certain sympathy for the ideals of Judah Maccabeus, which were not shared by the Qumranites. Brown and Collins, “Canonicity,” 1041.

[16] Although some fragments of the deuterocanonical books have been found at Qumran (the Epistle of Jeremiah, Tobit and Ecclesiasticus), as well as fragments of some pseudepigraphical writings (for example, Book of Jubilees and Enoch), it is very hard to determine whether or not they were recognized as having the same authority as the “Biblical” books; Bruce, The Canon of Scripture, 39-40; Brown and Collins, “Canonicity,” 1041.

[17] Brown and Collins, “Canonicity,” 1040.

[18] For information on the Jewish Diaspora, see John Bright, A History of Israel (3rd ed.; Philadelphia: Westminster, 1981).

[19] Founded by Alexander the Great in 331 B.C.

[20] Ernst Würthwein, The Text of the Old Testament: An Introduction to the Biblia Hebraica (Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans, 1979), 49-53.

[21] See R. James H. Shutt, “Aristeas, Letter of,” ABD 1:380-82; and G. Zuntz, “Aristeas,” IDB 1:219-21.

[22] Philo, Life of Moses, 2.37.

[23] Quoted by Würthwein, The Text of the Old Testament, 50.

[24] Würthwein, 51-68.

[25] The story of the earliest attempts at developing the canon sheds light on the problems and theological disagreements that arose between Jews and Christians during the second century. Both Justinian and Tertullian were aware of the differences between the Hebrew texts and the Greek translation. The Western Church later accepted a set number of Old Testament books, including the deuterocanonical writings, while Eastern theologians favored the canon developed by the Jews.  Brown and Collins, “Canonicity,” 1041; Bruce, The Canon of Scripture, 68-97.

[26] The basic meaning of the Greek word apokrypha is “hidden things,” specifically, “hidden” or “secret” books. In the Jewish community, the term had no pejorative implications; it was used to refer to books that had to be removed because they were damaged. The word took on a negative connotation within the Christian community because of the disputes and conflicts with heretics. The Gnostic books and the writings of mystery religions were considered “apocryphal”; since such books were often heretical (from the Christian point of view), the term “apocryphal” became a synonym of “heretical,” “false” or “corrupted.”

[27] Sixtus of Sienna, in 1556, may have been the first person to use the terms “protocanonical” and “deutero-canonical” to designate two categories of writings in the Old and New Testament.  Bruce, The Canon of Scripture, 105.

[28] James H. Charlesworth, “Pseudepigrapha, OT,” ABD 5:537-40.

[29] For a concise textual history of the deuterocanonical writings, see Philip Davies, “The Apocrypha,” in The Oxford Illustrated History of the Bible (ed. John Rogerson; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 98-109.

[30] Melito of Sardis (ca. 170) used the expression “Old Testament” to identify the Jewish Scriptures; Eusebius, Church History, 4.26. Later on, Tertullian (ca. 200) referred to the Christian Scriptures as the “New Testament.” Bruce, The Canon of Scripture, 84-86; Brown and Collins, “Canonicity,” 1050.

[31] The 1979 edition of the New Testament in Greek by Nestle-Aland (pp. 897-904) includes a list of quotations from the Old Testament that appear in the New Testament. The list identifies quotations and references to the Septuagint and to other Greek versions of the Old Testament. See also, Robert C. Bratcher, ed., Old Testament Quotations in the New Testament (London: UBS, 1967).

[32] Bruce, The Canon of Scripture, 48-52.

[33] Würthwein, The Text of the Old Testament, 53.

[34] Bruce, The Canon of Scripture, 45-46.

[35] Origen was a Christian theologian in Alexandria who, between 230 and 240 A.D., compiled several texts from the Hebrew Scriptures in parallel columns. The order of the versions in the Hexapla is: (1) the Hebrew text; (2) the Greek transliteration of the Hebrew text; (3) Aquila; (4) Symmachus; (5) the Septuagint; (6) Theodotion.

[36] Würthwein, The Text of the Old Testament, 53; Bruce, The Canon of Scripture, 53.

[37] Würthwein, 53-4.

[38] According to Epiphanius, Symmachus was a Samaritan who had converted to Judaism.

[39] Würthwein, The Text of the Old Testament, 54.

[40] Leonard J. Greenspoon, “Theodotion, Theodotion’s version,” ABD 6:447-48.

[41] Brown and Collins, “Canonicity,” 1042.

[42] Among others, the following councils made important statements on the canon: the Council of Laodicea (c. 360), the Council of Rome (c. 382) and the Council of Florence (1442). A. Paul, 52-54.

[43] See Kenneth Scott Latourette, A History of Christianity (New York: Harper & Row, 1953), 866-71.

[44] This decree is particularly important from the historical standpoint, since in his prefaces to the New Testament (1522), Luther had rejected the deuterocanonical books and questioned the inspiration of Hebrews, James, Jude and Revelation.  See Werner Georg Kümmel, The New Testament: The History of the Investigation of Its Problems (Nashville: Abingdon, 1972), 23-26.

[45] Many copies of the Vulgate include 1 and 2 Esdras and the Prayer of Manasses; however, these were not accepted by the Council.

[46] This summary of the reformers’ approach to the issue of the canon is based on Brown and Collins, “Canonicity,” 1042-43.

[47] For a more detailed discussion of Luther’s use of the apocrypha, see Klaus Dietrich Fricke, “The Apocrypha in the Luther Bible,” in The Apocrypha in Ecumenical Perspective (ed. by Siegfried Meurer; Reading, England: United Bible Societies, 1991), 46-87.

[48] Bruce, The Canon of Scripture, 105-6.

[49] Owen Chadwick, “The Significance of the Deuterocanonical Writings in the Anglican Tradition,” in The Apocrypha in Ecumenical Perspective, 116-28.

[50] Bruce, The Canon of Scripture, 109-11; Brown and Collins, “Canonicity,” 1043.

[51] Wilhelm H. Neuser, “The Reformed Churches and the Old Testament Apocrypha,” in The Apocrypha in Ecumenical Perspective, 88-115.

[52] Bruce, The Canon of Scripture, 111-14.

[53] Báez-Camargo, 77.

[54] Regarding the Roman Catholic Church, see Guidelines for Interconfessional Cooperation in Translating the Bible.   (Revised ed.; Rome: Vatican Polyglot Press, 1987).

            [55] See The Walls Get Broken Down: Bible Society Work in Central and Eastern Europe and the Former Soviet Union.  (“UBS Bulletin 166/167”; United Bible Societies, 1993).  For a most helpful statement of the basic features of how the Bible is understood and used in the Orthodox Churches, see George Bebawi, “The Bible in the Eastern Churches,” in The Oxford Illustrated History of the Bible, 242-55.

[56] For a good discussion of the various Old Testament canons in the different Orthodox churches, see Hans Peter Rüger, “The Extent of the Old Testament Canon,” in The Apocrypha in Ecumenical Perspective, 151-60.

[57] See Rüger, “The Extent of the Old Testament Canon,” 155; and G.A. Mikre-Sellassie, “The Bible and Its Canon in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, The Bible Translator 44 (January 1993):111-23.

[58] The basic content of the books of Maccabees is as follows: 1 Macc tells of the persecution and resistance of the Jews between 175 and 164 B.C., from a Maccabean perspective; 2 Macc includes part of the same story of persecution and resistance, but from the viewpoint of the Pharisees; 3 Macc describes the threat to the Jewish community in Alexandria around 221-203 B.C.; 4 Macc presents a pious meditation on the martyrdom described in 2 Macc. These books are included as an appendix at the end of the Septuagint.

[59] The book of Psalms includes an additional psalm that does not appear in the Hebrew canon, i.e., Psalm 151, of which copies exist in both Greek and Hebrew. See J.S. Sanders, The Psalms Scroll of Qumram Cave 11. Discoveries in the Judean Desert (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1965).

[60] The book of Daniel includes several Greek additions: the story of Susannah, the story of Bel and the Dragon and a prayer of confession and praise consisting of 68 verses between verses 23-24 of the third chapter.



 The Bible is the holy book of Christianity

            Christians throughout the centuries have turned to the pages of the Bible to quench their spiritual thirst. This book is praised by Christians and despised by its detractors. It has been translated into many languages and banned for its dangerous content. Organizations such as the Scripture Union have printed and distributed millions of copies; at the same time, peoples and regimes who view it as a formidable enemy have conducted cruel searches aimed at destroying it. Millions of disciples of Jesus Christ and worshippers of the Most High God have studied it with perseverance and enthusiasm, while many others who call themselves Christians have left it abandoned in dusty corners of their homes or offices. The Bible has ridden out every storm. And day by day, more and more people turn to its pages, longing to find in them the message of hope that they have not been able to find in theories or ideologies, in science or religious institutions, in political activism or in that passionate commitment to hedonistic activism which is so widespread in this desperate world.

Religions and their sacred texts

            Religious sentiment is a nearly universal experience. As one scholar wrote long ago, one could travel throughout the world and find that many peoples have not built theaters or coliseums, others have failed to develop some or all of the arts, and still others lack some of the institutions that exist among their contemporaries. And yet, as Plutarch, the second-century philosopher and historian pointed out, there is not a single people group that does not in some way express religious feelings, no matter how primitive those feelings or their expression may be.

            Holy books are an expression of that religious sentiment, particularly in the case of religions that have achieved some degree of development. A holy book is a collection of all the texts that a given religious community holds to be of particular interest and value and to which it attributes a degree of authority not shared by any other text. This explains the existence of the Vedas, the Book of the Dead, the Koran, the Book of Mormon and the writings of Russell. Each religious community has a unique explanation of the origin and meaning of its own particular collection of holy books.[1]

            It could be no different with Christendom. On the one hand, it has inherited a collection of sacred books from Judaism – the Hebrew Bible – which, over time, came to be called “the Old Testament” by Christians.[2] On the other hand, the Christian experience has produced a series of texts which have also been included among those that Christians hold to be especially important and authoritative.

Textual History: How the Texts Were Transmitted and How the Canon Was Developed

How was the New Testament canon developed?[3]

            It obviously did not come into being just because somebody decided to gather into a single volume a number of writings –of different length and content—and then declared them to be holy just because he thought that was a good idea.  Neither did God happen to whisper in someone’s ear, dictating one by one the whole list of books that should be included in the New Testament.  No, the New Testament came into being through a very different process – one that was much more complex, rich and interesting. And there were obstacles along the way.

            First of all, it should be borne in mind that there is a very strong link between the history of the New Testament canon and that of its text. Though neither process can be pinpointed and identified as such, considering them separately can only be detrimental to one or the other.[4]

            As is widely known, the New Testament texts are occasional in nature; each text was written for a specific occasion or series of occasions. Thus, these texts were not written simply because their authors suddenly felt like writing and got the brilliant idea that it would be “nice” to put their thoughts down on paper. Quite the opposite is true. It was not unusual for the authors of the biblical books to feel great distress as they wrote, wishing they did not have to write what they were writing. Indeed, that was sometimes the case with the apostle Paul. Just listen to his heart in the following words: “For I wrote you out of much distress and anguish of heart and with many tears, not to cause you pain, but to let you know the abundant love that I have for you… For even if I made you sorry with my letter, I do not regret it (though I did regret it)…” (2 Cor 2.4; 7.8a). [5]

            Many different occasions or circumstances moved the various authors of the New Testament to put their thoughts, words of exhortation, hopes and prayers down on papyrus (the paper of that time). The New Testament includes a wide variety of materials – there are sermons (or homilies), stories told by Jesus (that is what the parables are, and Jesus was a consummate, peerless storyteller), accounts of events, prayers, words of exhortation, prophetic and apocalyptic visions, polemical writings, personal letters, poetic passages… In each case, the nature of the text was determined by the particular problem or situation the author wanted to address and by the specific characteristics of his readers.

            Needless to say, many texts of the types mentioned above may also be found in the Hebrew Bible, which, in a sense, served as a model for the New Testament writers. To this model they added their own creativity, as well as certain details which were characteristic of the time period during which the New Testament was formed.[6] There is, however, a fundamental difference between the literary output of the early Christian community and the writings which it inherited from Judaism. Let us take a look at this difference:

            When Paul, Peter, John, or Jude, to name a few examples, sat down to write, either by their own hand or through a secretary, as was Paul’s custom, they did so in response to the specific situation they were facing at that moment: quarrels among the brethren, immorality in the congregation, the introduction into the Christian community of strange ideas that negated the efficacy of the work of Jesus Christ and of faith, joy at the faithfulness of the brethren and their expressions of love, the need for encouragement in times of trial and difficulty … or some other situation. And these church authorities, having sought God’s guidance, wrote in their capacity as such: as apostles, bishops (in the New Testament sense), pastors and leaders of the Christian community in the dispersion.

            When they wrote, they did not even dream that what they were producing had, or would eventually have, the authority of the sacred texts that were being read in the synagogues and at the meetings of the early Christians. It is safe to say that, with the possible exception of Revelation (which is unique), there is no indication in the New Testament that its authors believed that what they were writing would become part of “the Scriptures.”[7] However, given the source of these writings, the authority of their authors and the fact that these texts were considered to be trustworthy eyewitness accounts of “the events that have been fulfilled among us” (Luke 1.1), the Christian communities not only preserved and re-read the texts they had received directly, but also began to produce a large number of copies and to distribute them among many other sister communities.[8] Little by little, Christians began to recognize those texts as possessing special authority[9] with regard to the life of the Church. In doing so, they were acknowledging that divine inspiration had played a part in the creation of the texts, and they then proceeded to develop a corresponding body of doctrine.[10]

Up to now, we have been referring to New Testament books that were written, for the most part, “in one piece.” The situation becomes more complicated in the case of texts like the gospels, which were written following a different process.  Clearly, there were no stenographers following Jesus around, writing down everything he said and taught, with a view to “sitting down to write a book” later on.

From the spoken to the written word

            The first stage in passing on the material that makes up the four gospels is known as the “oral tradition.” The apostles and the other disciples of Jesus told their new brethren in the faith everything they could remember about their experiences with their Lord and Savior.

            It was not long before written collections of the sayings of Jesus were gathered.[11] The fact that the sayings of our Lord that appear in the canonical gospels sometimes seem rather detached from their literary context may be the result of their having been taken from one of these collections.

            From the texts that have reached us and the testimonies of some of the early writers, we know that the followers of Jesus and his apostles also compiled other collections of sacred writings, at later dates. Among such collections, the writings of Paul seem to have been very popular.[12]

            When the authors of the New Testament gospels drafted the final versions of those texts,[13] they used whatever materials were available to them and even sought out additional information on their own. This is clear from Luke’s own statement at the beginning of his gospel.

            The four gospel writers were not the only ones to write works belonging to the genre we call “gospels.” Likewise, Luke was the not the only one to write a book like Acts, nor were the New Testament epistles the only Christian epistles to circulate in the ancient world, nor is our book of Revelation the only Christian book of that type to be written in ancient times.

            What do we mean by this?  We simply mean that, given the nature of Christianity, its expansion and the diversity that existed among Christians during the first few centuries of the Christian era (keeping in mind that there were movements that claimed to be Christian, though they deviated from Christian doctrine), many people wrote “gospels,” “books of Acts,” “epistles,” and “Revelations.”[14] It was not long before the church began to discriminate among such writings, although in some cases that was not an easy task.

            In the period immediately following the lifetime of the apostles, there were also Christians –some of whom, like Ignatius, bishop of Antioch, or Justin, known as “the Martyr” or “the Philosopher,” had sealed the authenticity of their testimony and their life with their own blood—who wrote very important works, either for the defense of the faith or the edification of the believers. Some of these writings were highly valued by many Christian communities, where they were read with true reverence and respect. Works such as the First Epistle of Clement of Rome to the Corinthians, the Epistle of Barnabas, the Shepherd of Hermas and the Didache came to be regarded by many Christians and their communities as canonical works, i.e., sacred writings invested with authority for the church.

The Canon

The situation within the church

            From the first century onward –and the New Testament writings bear witness to this—Christian leaders had to deal with problems involving not only the practical aspects of life among the believers, both as individuals and as a community (questions concerning morality and personal relationships), but also with doctrinal deviations resulting from wrong interpretations or even willful distortions of the gospel message. The struggle of those early Christian writers is apparent in several books of the New Testament.

            Over time these conflicts increased and intensified. The rapid growth of Christianity contributed to the problem, as did other factors, such as the following: the natural process whereby Christianity was transformed from being a movement imbued with idealism and vision into an institution that had to expend a considerable amount of energy in dealing with internal issues (not the least of which had to do with its own administration) and looking out for its own survival; its transition from being a persecuted community to one that was initially tolerated, then protected and finally absorbed into the structures of political power and itself a potential persecutor[15] (in other words, the transition from Christianity to Christendom); the incorporation into the new faith, during the first few centuries of the Christian era, of many people who, prior to their conversion, had been firmly molded after the pattern of the dominant, non-Christian Hellenistic culture; the lack of ideological and technical (as well as lexicographical) tools that would enable believers to delve deeper into and express their understanding of their faith; the availability of ideological, technical and lexicographical tools within the social and cultural context of the prevailing Hellenistic culture (especially in the eastern church, where the earliest stage of Christian theology was developed); the introduction into Christianity (especially during Constantine’s reign) of a large number of people who joined the church for “non-theological” reasons without having experienced a genuine conversion.

            Doctrinal controversies then surfaced, some of which involved all of Christendom. Not all such controversies aroused the same interest, of course (some were limited to a single region), nor were they all equally important. But from the beginning, Christians realized that they urgently needed their own corpus of sacred texts which could be used as a point of reference, a source and a parameter for decisions on doctrine. In other words, it became necessary to lay down a canon.

            As might be expected, the awareness of this need was not something that burst out in Christian circles all of a sudden. Moreover, as noted above, the early Christians came to believe that certain books which are currently not included in our New Testament actually were part of the canon. Realizing this is fundamental to an understanding of the present situation within Christianity as a whole, since not all Christians accept the same group of books as canonical.

We have already mentioned some of the books that were cited as authoritative sources by Christian writers. In this regard, we need to broaden our understanding of that early period. Those same Christians, including the authors of the books that make up the New Testament, felt free to refer, in their own works, to certain writings that were not part of the Old Testament canon that is now accepted by most Protestant churches. In fact, the New Testament itself contains references to texts or stories that appear in the deutero-canonical books; what is more, some of the so-called pseudepigraphical (or apocryphal) [16] books are used as serious sources, not merely as a literary device.

            This free use of such sources, as well as the fact that the holy books used by the early Christian community were the ones it had received from Judaism, explains why the first lists of new books accepted by the church include some that seem strange to us today… while others that are accepted as canonical by all the Christian communities of our time were left out. Let us take a brief look at the following facts:

Acceptance of books and recognition of authority

            The writings of the apostles and other followers of Jesus (especially most of the writings that were later included in the collection we call the New Testament) were warmly received almost from the beginning and became a source of authority for Christian writers in the years that followed. When we read the writings of the Apostolic Fathers,[17] we sense the presence of the Apostolic teachings as they are found in the books currently included in the canon. Those writings contain quotations from all the books in the New Testament, except Philemon, 2 John and 3 John. There are only a few references to 2 Peter, James and Jude.

            Given their content, the authority with which the authors speak, and their proximity, in time and subject matter, to the teachings of the Apostles, some of the treatises written by the Apostolic Fathers –which are fundamentally pastoral in nature—enjoyed great acceptance and prestige. Even though they were based on the teachings that had been passed on by the disciples of Jesus (hence their frequent use of quotations from the works of the disciples), these writings soon began to be mentioned as equally authoritative, and the members of the Christian community read them as if they were part of the “Christian scriptures.”

The Church Fathers

            The period immediately following that of the Apostolic Fathers is known as the period of the Church Fathers. Some scholars divide this period into three stages (not necessarily in chronological order), as follows: the stage of apologetics (the apologist Fathers), the stage of polemics and the stage of science. It was during this period that doctrinal problems became more serious, as a result of both external attacks from the enemies of Christianity and internal difficulties arising from a healthy desire to gain a deeper knowledge of the faith and a better understanding of its teachings. The latter aspect, in fact, represented an effort to increasingly reduce the scope of the mystery, i.e., to try to “explain” everything that could be explained, even while acknowledging the existence of mysteries and miracles. For example, having accepted that the Incarnation did occur and that it was a miraculous event, scholars tried to explain how the two natures (human and divine) came together in the person of Jesus. A similar effort was made with respect to the individual and the will, and with the doctrine of the Trinity.

            There were many such instances and many solutions were proposed. Unfortunately, given the new relationship between Christianity and the Roman Empire, political interests were not absent from theological controversy.[18]  It is not surprising, therefore, that this period should have produced such a rich literature, which covered the whole range of conflicting theological viewpoints.[19]


            During the second century, a person about whom very little is known appeared on the scene: Marcion. Apparently he was excommunicated from the church by his own father (who must, therefore, have been a bishop). He then became a member of the Christian community in Rome, which also expelled him (probably around A.D. 144).  He was influenced by non-Christian teachings. Believing that the God of the Old Testament was not the true God, he rejected all the books of the Hebrew Bible. At that time, the church had not yet established a canon, and it can well be argued that Marcion was the first to define a canon of Christian books. In his view, the canon consisted of the Gospel of Luke, ten of the Pauline epistles (all but the pastoral letters; Hebrews did not count). Marcion cut out certain portions even of the books he accepted, since he felt that the church had manipulated and perverted the texts.

            Marcion’s action was very significant. Many Christian writers attacked him, and he was excommunicated in A.D. 144.  But in a way, his boldness set in motion a process that eventually led to the definition of a “closed” canon. The controversy surrounding the Gnostics’ claims about their secret traditions and the opposition to Marcion’s choosing and correcting certain texts and rejecting the Hebrew Scriptures helped strengthen the believers’ awareness of the special status of those writings that were considered to be apostolic, based on the fact that they were accepted by the main churches and bearing in mind the internal criteria of seriousness and orthodoxy.[21]

            By A.D. 200, the idea of the canon had been accepted, and a good part of its contents had been compiled; nevertheless, there was still no consensus as to the total number of books it included. This is quite evident in the questions raised and the discrepancies that are apparent among the lists that were drawn up in the different parts of the world where Christianity had developed.


            Before the end of the second century, Tatian, who had been a disciple of Justin Martyr, wrote his Diatessaron (c. A.D. 170), which is a harmony of the four gospels. This means that by that time, those four gospels were the ones that were considered canonical.

The Muratorian Fragment[23]

            In 1740 the Italian antique dealer and theologian Ludovico Antonio Muratori discovered a seventh or eighth century manuscript written in Latin, which contained an incomplete list of the books of the New Testament.  Until recently, scholars have dated the list to the late second or early third century, but an increasing number of scholars today date the fragment to the fourth century.  The fragment is known as the Muratorian Fragment.[24]

            The Muratorian Fragment lists as acceptable 22 of the books that are included in our version of the canon of the New Testament. It does not include Hebrews, James, 1 and 2 Peter, or 3 John. Two other books are added: the Apocalypse of Peter and the Wisdom of Solomon. The Fragment also includes a list of works which, for one reason or another, were rejected by the church.


            The great Origen (who died around A.D. 254) included in his list of accepted books 21 of the 27 books of the current canon. He also referred to other writings, including the Didache and the Epistle of Barnabas, as “scripture.” As texts that were not unanimously accepted, he listed the following: Hebrews, James, Jude, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, and a number of other books, including the Gospel of Peter and the Acts of Paul.[26]

Eusebius of Caesarea[27]

            In his Church History, Eusebius of Caesarea presents a summarized description of the situation prevailing in the early fourth century with regard to the status of the holy books of Christendom. The Father of Church History says:

In the first place should be put the holy tetrad of the Gospels.  To them follows the writings of the Acts of the Apostles.  After this should be reckoned the Epistles of Paul.  Following them the Epistle of John called the first, and in the same way should be recognized the Epistle of Peter.  In addition to these should be put, if it seem desirable, the Revelation of John, the arguments concerning which we will expound at the proper time.  These belong to the Recognized Books [homologoumena].  Of the Disputed Books [antilegomena] which are nevertheless known to most are the Epistle called of James, that of Jude, the second Epistle of Peter, and the so-called second and third Epistles of John which may be the work of the evangelist or of some other with the same name.  Among the books which are not genuine [notha], must be reckoned […] And in addition, as I said, the Revelation of John, if this view prevail.  For, as I said, some reject it, but others count it among the Recognized Books.[28]


            What do we learn from all this?  First of all, we learn that the acceptance and recognition of the authority of certain texts came about through a natural process within the Christian communities themselves. It was not the result of a deliberate decision handed down through the ranks or issued by a council. The Christian communities accepted the messages (e.g., epistles) sent by the apostles and other church leaders with joy, respect and even reverence, and they accepted them as authoritative. They read them and re-read them and shared them with other sister communities. With missionary zeal,[29] the church soon started copying those texts and distributing them among the new communities that grew up throughout the Roman Empire and beyond its borders.

            In the second place, we learn that other Christian writers, preachers, and theologians used these writings and quoted them often, in their effort to better understand Christian teachings and share them with their readers.

            Thirdly, another set of books that were also accepted as authoritative began to be compiled. The work of compilation was not a uniform process throughout the countries in which there was a Christian presence. For different reasons, some books were accepted by some communities but not by others. Consequently, no single identical list of “canonical” books was in use everywhere.

            Fourth, this phenomenon was not limited to a matter of differences among the group of books we now accept as canonical. Not only were some of these books rejected by some communities, but other books that were not in the list were accepted, sometimes by those same communities.

            Fifth, the second- and third-century lists to which modern scholars have access generally reflect the position of the Christian groups that developed them (or to which the compilers belonged). For example, the Muratorian “canon” (that is, the list of books appearing in the Muratorian Fragment) is probably the “canon” of the Christian community in Rome.

            Sixth, except for the “canons” developed in communities outside the church (for example, the Marcionite church), the different lists were produced within a specific framework.

            Seventh, it was not until the fourth century that decisions on the composition of the canon were made by councils. In the beginning, councils met only at the local or regional level. It was much later that such matters were taken up at the general or ecumenical councils.

            Eighth, the councils confirmed the trend of the preceding centuries, and little by little, a consensus developed that led most Christian churches to close the canon at 27 books. From the fourth century onward, the councils published lists of the books that made up the New Testament. Some of the books that had been considered “dubious” were eventually included in the canon. Others were left out forever. Sometimes the religious situation in a given region would determine the final decision as to whether or not a given book was accepted. For example, in the East it took longer for the Apocalypse of John to be accepted because that book was used by some people to support ideas that were considered heterodox. Furthermore, doubts remained, and still do, regarding Paul’s authorship of Hebrews (or Peter’s authorship of 2 Peter). Nevertheless, the 27 canonical books are the ones that were accepted, and still are, by the great majority of Christians.

            It is important to remember that the definitive canon of the New Testament did not come into being as a result of decisions handed down by councils. The councils merely recognized and ratified what was already happening in the many Christian communities that made up the universal church.

            As Christians, we should thank God for giving us these very special books which make up “the Book” and turn to it to find his word, receive inspiration and correction, and better understand his will.

            “…you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching the truth, rebuking error, correcting faults, and giving instruction for right living, so that the person who serves God may be fully qualified and equipped to do every kind of good deed.” (2 Tim 3.15-17, TEV).

Further Reading

Barton, John.  Holy Writings, Sacred Text: The Canon in Early Christianity.  Louisville:   Westminster John Knox, 1997.

Beckwith, Roger T.  “Canon of the Bible.” Pages 161-4 in vol. 1 of Dictionary of Biblical             Interpretation.  Edited by John H. Hayes.  2 vols.  Nashville: Abingdon, 1999.

Brown, Raymond E. and Raymond F. Collins, “Canonicity.”  Pages 1043-54 in The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1990.

Du Toi, Andrew B. “Canon, New Testament.”  Pages 102-4 in The Oxford Companion to the       Bible.              Edited by Bruce M. Metzger.  New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Gamble, Harry Y.  “Canon (New Testament).”  Pages 852-61 in vol. 1 of The Anchor Bible          Dictionary.  Edited by David Noel Freedman.  6 vols.  New York: Doubleday, 1992.

Gamble, Harry.  The New Testament Canon: Its Making and Meaning.  Philadelphia: Fortress      Press, 1985.

Metzger, Bruce M.  The Canon of the New Testament: Its Origin, Development and Significance.              Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987.

Trebolle Barrere, Julio.  The Jewish Bible and the Christian Bible: An Introduction to the History            of the Bible.  Trans. Wilfred G.E. Watson.  Leiden: Brill; Grand Rapids, Michigan:         Eerdmans, 1998.

[1]For more information on holy books and world religions, see Harold Coward’s interesting study, Sacred Word and Sacred Text (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1988).  Some authors have pointed out that at least eighteen religions, from the religion of ancient Egypt to the Mormon Church (early nineteenth century), hold certain books to be “Holy Scripture.” On this subject, see the article “Scripture” on p. 979 in Merriam-Webster’s Encyclopedia of World’s Religions (ed. by Wendy Doniger; Springfield, Mass.: Merriam-Webster, 1999). 

[2]It should be borne in mind that our Old Testament is autonomous, i.e., it stands on its own, even though we Christians find its fulfillment in the New Testament. Hence, it is more appropriate to call this group of books The Hebrew Bible, thereby acknowledging that we are neither the “owners” nor the sole depositaries of that sacred text.

[3]As this chapter is preceded by another one dealing with the Old Testament canon, the reader may refer to that chapter for an explanation of the meaning of the word “canon” and its use in the Christian context. For additional information, see Philip Vielhauer, Geschichte der urchristlichen Literatur (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1975), 775-77 (“Das Problem der Kanonsbildung”).

[4]The first few paragraphs of chapter 7, “The Text of the New Testament,” in this book briefly describe part of the process by which the text of the New Testament took shape. In this chapter, we have added a few additional details on the subject which, we hope, will give the reader a better idea of the close relationship that exists between the writing and dissemination of the sacred text and the development of the canon. Indeed, neither one can be properly understood without a correct understanding of the other.

[5]Other texts are also worth mentioning, including some whose tone reveals the author’s anguish and concern, or his anger. See, for example: Gal 3.1-5; 4.11-20; Col 2.1,4; 2 Thess 2.1-2. Unless otherwise stated, the Bible passages quoted in this chapter are from the New Revised Standard Version.

[6]The most obvious example is the so-called “gospel genre,” which was born with Christianity and is therefore characteristic of it. The epistolary genre is another example. Although there are some letters in the Old Testament (e.g., Ezra 4.11b-16; 4.17b-22; 5.7-17, and 7.12-26), in the New Testament they constitute a specific literary genre — one that was already well developed by the time the New Testament was written.

[7]It seems that the Gnostics may have been the first to treat certain New Testament writings as “Scriptures.”

[8]See chapter 21 in this book, “Spanish Translations of the Bible,” and our statement there regarding the reasons for the rapid emergence of translations of the New Testament.

                [9]There are some instances in the New Testament, such as 1 Tim 5.18, in which passages from the Gospels (Luke 10.7) are quoted along with passages from the Old Testament (Deut 25.4). Similarly, in 2 Peter 3.15-16, Peter refers to Paul’s writings.

                [10]The development of the doctrine of inspiration has played a very important role in church history. Although the subject goes beyond the scope of this article, it should be noted that there is a difference between inspiration and authority. As to authority, moreover, a distinction must also be made between the authority that a text has in its own right and the authority that is vested in it by the Christian community through its acceptance and use of that particular text. There is no contradiction in such a distinction. The question of intrinsic authority is a theological one; the matter of recognition must be viewed in the context of the development of the first-century Christian communities.

[11]The discoveries at Nag Hammadi (1945) made available to us a large and extremely valuable library. There has been much discussion concerning the nature of the texts found there, and some views on the matter which may have been adopted too hastily are currently being reconsidered. For example, scholars now believe that not all the texts discovered there are gnostic (most obviously, book VI of Plato’s Republic), and that it is quite likely that the community to which the library belonged was not a gnostic one either. In any event, the important point here is that a gospel that appears to have gnostic leanings was found there (according to some authors, although others reject the classification of this gospel as gnostic). The text in question, which is known as the Gospel of Thomas, consists of a collection of sayings attributed to Jesus. On this subject, see James H. Charlesworth’s, Jesus within Judaism (N.Y.: Doubleday, 1988), especially chapter 4, “Jesus, the Nag Hammadi Codices, and Josephus.” For English translations of the Gospel of Thomas, see those by H. Koester and T.O. Lambdin in The Nag Hammadi Library in English (3rd edition, ed. by James M. Robinson; San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988), 124-38 and by Ron Cameron in The Other Gospels (ed. by Ron Cameron; Philadelphia: Westminster, 1982), 23-37.

[12]Reference is made to “the epistles of Paul” in First Epistle to the Corinthians, by Clement of Rome; Epistle to the Ephesians, by Ignatius; and Epistle of Polycarp to the Philippians. In the New Testament, 2 Peter 3.15 also mentions Paul’s writings. (Polycarp’s epistle also mentions a collection of letters written by Ignatius, bishop of Antioch and martyr.)

[13]It should be recalled that none of the four gospels name the authors. The gospels were attributed to the four “evangelists,” several years after they were written, by the oral tradition which was written down beginning in the third century.

[14]For further information on these topics, see Julio Trebolle Barrera, The Jewish Bible and the Christian Bible: An Introduction to the History of the Bible (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998). Pages 246-51 include a list of the canonical and non-canonical (or apocryphal) writings, organized according to genre (gospels, books of Acts and so on), followed by a brief description of the non-canonical works. A list of “Christian inserts,” writings of the Apostolic Fathers and several doctrinal or moral treatises are also included.  See also Dennis R. MacDonald, “Apocryphal New Testament,” in HarperCollins Bible Dictionary (ed. Paul J. Achtemeier; San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1996), 42-43.

[15]One might even say that this was the route followed by Paul, but in reverse. Having first been a persecutor, Paul became a victim of persecution. This was part of his “conversion.” The church, on the other hand, went from being persecuted to becoming the persecutor. Might we not call this its “unconversion”?

[16]The two terms (deutero-canonical and apocryphal) should not be considered identical. Unfortunately, there has been no agreement on the use of these terms, which has changed over time, especially in the Protestant tradition. In fact, the meaning of the word “apocryphal” itself has changed, and it now has a derogatory connotation, at least in popular evangelical circles.  With regard to the New Testament allusions and references to some of these books, see “Index of allusions and verbal parallels,” in The Greek New Testament. Fourth revised edition. Edited by Barbara Aland, Kurt Aland, Johannes Karavidopoulos, Carlo M. Martini and Bruce M. Metzger (Stuttgart, Germany: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, United Bible Societies, 1993), 891-901. One hundred sixteen of these New Testament “allusions and verbal parallels” from deutero-canonical and apocryphal books (or apocryphal and pseudepigraphical, according to the terminology most often used among Protestants) are listed on pages 900-01. Three (or possibly four) instances of New Testament references to “other writings” from the ancient world are also cited.

[17]This is the name given to the group of Christian writers and texts that appeared on the scene during the period immediately following that of the Apostles. The names of many of the authors of those works are known to us; other writings from this period remain anonymous. Among others, the following were included among the Apostolic Fathers: Clement of Rome, the Didache, Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp of Smyrna, Papias of Hierapolis, the Epistle of Barnabas, The Shepherd of Hermas and the Epistle (or Discourse) to Diognetus. For the texts and information on those works, see The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations of Their Writings (second ed. J.B. Lightfoot and J.R. Harmer, editors and translators; M.W. Homes, ed. and reviser; Grand Rapids: Baker, 1992).  See also William R. Schoedel, “Apostolic Fathers,” ABD 1:313-6; and pp. 79-80 in Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible (ed. David Noel Freedman: Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000).

[18] Perhaps the most dramatic instance is that of Athanasius, who experienced in his own life the vicissitudes of the interference of political power in doctrinal discussions among Christians. It should be noted, moreover, that for a long time the emperor was the only person who had authority to convene councils. See Justo L. González, A History of Christian Thought, Vol. I. From the Beginnings to the Council of Chalcedon (rev. ed.; Nashville: Abingdon, 1987).  One remarkable aspect of the early councils is the strong role played by the emperor: he convened the councils, established the agenda, confirmed the decisions; in ratifying conciliar decisions, he elevated them to the status of imperial law, since citizens were required to profess orthodox faith, and those who opposed it were turned over to the secular authorities.

[19] Sadly, too, many works by authors who were considered heterodox were later destroyed, as well as some anti-Christian writings by “pagan” authors. The disappearance of the books of Porphyrius (second half of the third century) is particularly regrettable.

[20] See John J. Clabeaux, “Marcion,” ABD 4:514-16.

[21] See, in Philip Vielhauer, Geschichte der urchristlichen Literatur, 781-86, a description of the hypotheses that have been put forth to explain the formation of the New Testament canon.

[22] See O.C. Edwards, Jr., “Tatian,” ABD 6:335-36; and J.H. Hayes, “Tatian,” in Dictionary of Biblical Interpretation, vol. 2 (ed. John H. Hayes; Nashville: Abingdon, 1999), 534.

[23] See Gregory Allen Robbins, “Muratorian Fragment,” ABD 4:928-29.

[24] For the history of this fragment, its possible interpretations and its significance, as well as the problems encountered in attempting to date it, see chapter 12, entitled “The Muratorian Fragment,” in F.F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1988).

[25] See C.P. Hammond Bammel, “Origen,” in Dictionary of Biblical Interpretation, vol. 2, 225-26.

[26] Eusebius of Caesarea, The Ecclesiastical History, vol. 2 (trans. by J.E.L. Oulton; Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1973), VI, 25, 3-14; and F.F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture, 192-95.

[27] See M.J. Hollerich, “Eusebius of Caesarea,” in Dictionary of Biblical Interpretation, vol. 1, 356-57.

[28] Eusebius, The Ecclesiastical History, vol. 1 (trans. by Kirsopp Lake; Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1949), III, 25,1-4. The spurious writings (notha) comprise a number of books that are also disputed, such as Acts of Paul, the so-called Shepherd and the Apocalypse of Peter, among others. Eusebius also mentions other books that “have spread heresy,” and adds, “To none of these has any who belonged to the succession of the orthodox ever thought it right to refer in his writings.” He refers to these same books as “forgeries of heretics” (haireticwn andrwn anaplasmata) and as “wicked and impious” (atopa kai dyssebj) (III, 25,4 and 6-7).

[29] See chapter 21 on “Spanish Translations of the Bible” in this book.


Session 1:       The canon of the Hebrew Bible

Readings:        Script, pages 1-5 (up to “Setting the Old Testament text”)

Discover the Bible, Chapter 8.

a. Write a summary of the history of the formation of the canon of the Hebrew Bible.

b. Describe the way the books of the Hebrew Bible are arranged, and compare this with the arrangement in the translation in your language.

Session 2:       Qumran and the formation of the Masoretic Text

Readings:        Script, pages 5-9

Discover the Bible, Chapter 6.

a. Explain the importance of the Qumran findings for an understanding of the history of the text of the Hebrew Bible.

b. The Masoretic text of the Hebrew Bible is a traditional text, and not a critical text. Explain!  

Session 3: Text and canon of the New Testament

Readings:        Script, pages 9-11

Discover the Bible, Chapters 7 and 9.

a. Write a brief summary of the development of the text and the formation of the canon of the New Testament (50-100 words).

b. The text of the UBS Greek New Testament is a critical text. What does this mean?