The New Testament didn’t drop out of heaven.

Rick Brannan with John D. Barry

It was written and reproduced by people who were following God’s will and the leading of His Spirit. And the people who wrote it were persecuted, beaten and murdered for their beliefs. Likewise, many people who copied New Testament books, used them, and stored them, did so knowing that they could die for possessing this holy text. Some Roman authorities were not too pleased to have a Jewish teacher called the Son of God instead of Caesar. And they also didn’t like people following His way and rule over the regulations they had put in place. Because of this, the Christian faith was often perceived as being anti-empire.

Yet we still have many ancient copies of the New Testament. Our oldest fragment is called P52 (papyrus fragment 52). It contains John 18:31–33 and 37–38. It dates from 100–125 AD, which is shorter than a lifetime after John would have died—which means it could be one of the first copies of John’s Gospel. In total, 93 papyri¹dating to the 5th century or earlier that contain sections of the New Testament have been discovered.

Our oldest nearly complete bibles, named Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus, date from the 4th century. A third nearly complete Bible, called Codex Alexandrinus, is from the 5th century. Another 69 manuscripts written on animal skins that date within the same chronological range are known to scholars. In total, 162 textual witnesses to the New Testament books produced in the 5th century or earlier have been discovered.

Let’s take a look at one New Testament book, the Gospel of John. Among the manuscripts noted above, 38 of them contain portions of the Gospel of John. By comparison, there are only three copies of the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas in its original language and only one of another Gnostic gospel, the Gospel of Mary. The infamous Gospel of Judas only has one translation (in Coptic) attesting its existence. It isn’t hard to figure out which gospels were more widely used and highly regarded.

Amount of 5th Century and before Copies of New Testament Books

The total tallies represent the amount of copies attesting to each book. Small fragments and whole books count the same. If a manuscript contains more than one book, it has been counted once for each book it contains.

Sources:

Aland, Barbara, Kurt Aland, Johannes Karavidopoulos, Carlo M. Martini, Bruce M. Metzger, eds. Novum Testamentum Graece, 27th ed. Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1998. Logos.com/NA27

Comfort, Philip W. and David P. Barrett, The Text of the Earliest New Testament Greek Manuscripts.Wheaton: Tyndale House, 2001. Logos.com/EarlyNewTestament

Institute for New Testament Textual Research, “Continuation of the list of manuscripts.” Accessed 7 Sept 2009. Online: http://www.uni-muenster.de/INTF/KgLSGII09_08_28-2.pdf 

Niese, Benedikt, David C. Noe, and Laura A. Marshall. Works of Flavius Josephus: Prefatory Material (English). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2008. Logos.com/JosephusApparatus

Robinson, James, ed., The Nag Hammadi Library in English, Fourth revised ed. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1996.Logos.com/NagHammadi

Robinson, James McConkey, Paul Hoffmann, and John S. Kloppenborg. The Critical Edition of Q : Synopsis Including the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, Mark and Thomas With English, German, and French Translations of Q and Thomas. Hermeneia—a Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible. Minneapolis; Leuven: Fortress Press; Peeters, 2000. Logos.com/Hermeneia

Von Tischendorf, Constantin, Caspar René Gregory and Ezra Abbot, eds. Novum Testamentum Graece: Apparatus Criticus. Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2005. Logos.com/TischendorfApparatus

Patrick Fore

Patrick Fore is an visual designer and photographer living with his family (Jaimi and Lucy) in beautiful Imperial Beach, California. When Patrick is not taking photos, you can find him working on a graphic design project for a client, or down at the beach.

Chapters & Verses: Who Needs Them?

Christopher R. Smith

My pastor shifted uncomfortably in the pulpit. He didn’t know how to begin his sermon. Finally he blurted out, “I can tell you one thing: the book of Acts was never meant to be preached through chapter-by-chapter!” He and his associate had been taking turns doing that, but their sermons had become disjointed, filled with digressions on “what we were talking about last time” and promises to “say more about this next week.” The chapters just weren’t lining up with the episodes in the narrative.

There was a good reason for my pastor’s frustration. Chapters and verses in the New Testament were never intended to guide preaching or devotional reading. They were introduced so that reference works could be created. Chapters were added by Stephen Langton at the University of Paris around 1200 so passages could be cited in commentaries. Verses were put in around 1550 by Robert Estienne, a French scholar and printer who was working on a concordance to the Greek New Testament.

Chapters are designed to be about the same length. But the stories, oracles, poems and discussions that make up biblical books are of many different lengths. Chapters typically cut longer units into pieces. They add to the confusion by combining shorter units. In 1 Corinthians Paul discusses twelve different topics. His longer discussions have been cut up into chapters 1–4, 8–10 and 12–14. Shorter discussions are combined in chapters 6, 7, 11 and 16. Only two chapters (5 and 15) correspond accurately with a single discussion. This example shows why, in most cases, it’s difficult to make sense of a biblical book when reading or preaching through it chapter-by-chapter.

But if we eliminate chapter and verse numbers, won’t we be cast adrift on a sea of unorganized type? Isn’t something better than nothing?

Actually, the alternative isn’t nothing. Far from it. The biblical authors built natural structures right into the text of their works. We can learn to recognize these structures and follow them as we read, study and preach. The biblical books follow the conventions of the literary genres of their day. And the biblical authors often reinforce these outlines by repeating key phrases. Paul typically begins a new discussion in 1 Corinthians with “now concerning” (peri de, περι δε). At the end of each major section in Acts, Luke writes something like “the word of God grew and multiplied.”

Second John has a natural literary structure. Following the letter-writing practices of his day, John begins with his own name, then the recipient’s name, followed by a good wish. In the main body of the letter, he urges obedience and warns against false teachers. He conventionally closes by wishing for a reunion and sending greetings.

When compared with 3 John, 2 John shows how arbitrary verse divisions can be. The two letters end the same way. In 2 John, “reunion” and “greetings” each constitute one verse. But in 3 John, only the first part of “reunion” is found in verse 13; the second part is combined with “greetings” in verse 14!

When we consider a slightly longer letter such as Colossians, we see how chapter divisions are just as badly placed.

Paul has not met the Colossians. So he expands his opening section to explain, in a prayer, that he knows them through a mutual friend named Epaphras. He gives the essentials of his gospel and describes his struggle on behalf of the Gentiles. In the main body, he offers correction, followed by instruction. He ends the letter with personal greetings. The break between chapters 1 and 2 cuts off a small part of the opening section and groups it with the main body.

The break between chapters 2 and 3 is more reasonable. It comes between the two major themes. But the division between chapters 3 and 4 is ridiculous. It actually breaks up a sub-section of a sub-section. Why was a chapter break put there? Perhaps to give prominence to the command, “Masters, provide your slaves with what is right and fair.” But certainly not to reflect the natural literary outline of the letter.

The Medieval imposition of chapters and verses on the biblical text inevitably leads to confusion. It’s unfortunate that a chapter-by-chapter approach is practically our default mode for expository preaching, home Bible studies, and devotional reading.

But there are alternatives. Using Bible software we can cut and paste without chapters and verses, or view the Bible text without paragraph divisions. In some printed versions, such as The New English Bible, the numbers are moved to the margins. The Books of The Bible from the International Bible Society presents the biblical text visually according to its natural literary outline. The text appears in a single column, with larger and smaller sections set off by white space of varying widths. Chapter and verse numbers are removed entirely from the text. (A traditional chapter and verse range is provided at the bottom of each page.) An introduction to each book describes how it is structured.

With resources like these, it’s safe to preach through Acts again—not chapter-by-chapter, but literary section by literary section.


Patrick Fore

Patrick Fore is an visual designer and photographer living with his family (Jaimi and Lucy) in beautiful Imperial Beach, California. When Patrick is not taking photos, you can find him working on a graphic design project for a client, or down at the beach.

Counting The Ten Commandments

One of the most enduring elements of the Bible and the Judaeo-Christian worldview within Western culture is the Decalogue, the Ten Commandments. Even if one can’t recite them all, most people have seen the fiery finger of God etch the commandments into two stone tablets as Moses—for many of us, Charlton Heston—watches in awe.

It seems to go without saying that the list of the Ten Commandments is something that Judaism and Christianity have always agreed upon. Well, that is not exactly true.

Historically speaking, Jews and Christians—and even denominations within Christianity—have disagreed on exactly how the Ten Commandments should be listed and expressed. In fact, how to precisely spell out the commandments was an issue of considerable importance during the Protestant Reformation. The difference concerns how many commands are to be found in the first six verses and last two verses of Exod 20:2-17, the initial listing of the commandments received by Moses at Sinai.¹ The chart below illustrates the disagreements.

One point of context is required before we can understand the thinking behind the differences in the listing and expression of the commandments. Any listing of the commandments must result in a total of ten, because three other passages of Scripture fix the number of commandments at ten. Exodus 34:28, Deut 4:13, and Deut 10:4 each clearly tell us that God gave Moses ʿasereth hadvarim (“ten words”; “ten statements”) at Sinai.

Interestingly, the Jewish tradition treats the statement in Exod 20:2 (compare Deut 5:6) as a command when the wording has no imperative force to it at all. This latitude arises from the fact that the Hebrew text of the Old Testament exclusively uses ʿasereth hadvarim (“ten words”) instead of ʿasereth hamitsvot (“ten commandments”) with respect to the contents of Exod 20 and Deut 5. After regarding Exod 20:2 as the first “word” of the ten, verses 3-6 are then thematically understood as speaking to a single prohibition: making idols for worship.

There are actually three imperative statements in this group of verses (“You shall have no other gods before me”; “You shall not make for yourself a carved image”; “You shall not bow down to them or serve them”), but to consider them as separate commands would move the total beyond ten.

Christian perceptions of Exod 20 are not rooted in the Hebrew terminology ʿasereth hadvarim (“ten words”), and so Christian formulations do not regard verse one as the first point of the Decalogue. As a result, all of Exod 20:2-6 is considered the starting point, and the imperative wording (“You shall not”) prompted the “commandment” terminology so widely known and used today.

Patrick Fore

Patrick Fore is an visual designer and photographer living with his family (Jaimi and Lucy) in beautiful Imperial Beach, California. When Patrick is not taking photos, you can find him working on a graphic design project for a client, or down at the beach.

What's In Your Bible

Vincent Setterholm

Jews and Christians throughout the centuries have produced bibles that vary in content and organization. This chart is a sampling of the different bibles used today.

Protestant Reformers like Martin Luther doubted the canonicity* of the Apocrypha*, but when Luther prepared his translation of the Bible into German, he did not remove the Apocrypha; he simply moved those books to an appendix. This tradition continues in many European bibles.

The English were the first group of people to remove the Apocrypha altogether. In 1599, an edition of the Geneva Bible was published without the Apocrypha. In 1615, during the reign of King James the First, George Abbot, the Archbishop of Canterbury, declared the penalty for printing a Bible without the Apocrypha to be a year in prison! But over the next three centuries the growing influence of Puritans and Presbyterians over the populace, the government, and the British and Foreign Bible Society led to a strong tradition of printing bibles containing only 66 books.

The situation today reflects this bifurcation. The bibles used by many European Protestants, as well as the Anglican Church, still include the Apocrypha. Most other English-speaking Protestant churches have bibles without the Apocrypha.

Patrick Fore

Patrick Fore is an visual designer and photographer living with his family (Jaimi and Lucy) in beautiful Imperial Beach, California. When Patrick is not taking photos, you can find him working on a graphic design project for a client, or down at the beach.