How We Got the Bible

A page from an ancient manuscript

In my efforts to better understand how the text of the Bible came to be as it is today, I’m currently reading a book entitled ‘How We Got the Bible’ by Neil R. Lightfoot. A passage I was reading today stood out, and I would like to share it, as I think it highlights a flaw in the thought of many Christians concerning God’s relationship with human beings.

In the ninth chapter of the book (p95), Lightfoot writes the following:

It is a fact that the New Testament text has been transmitted to us through the hands of copyists. It is also a fact that, since these hands were human, they were susceptible to the slips and faults of all human hands. It is not true, therefore, that God has guided the many different scribes in their tasks of copying the Sacred Scriptures. The Scriptures, although divine, have been handed down through the centuries by means of copies, just like any other ancient book. [emphasis added]

I find this reasoning to be problematic. If God was not involved in the process of scribes copying manuscripts, it is illogical to say that it is by God’s providence that we have the Bible in the form(s) it takes today. To take God out of the lives of the scribes is to remove God from the history of human activity and deny His ability to unfold the events of history in the way He chooses.

It would make much more sense to say that God is in sovereign control of His creation, and that He was in control of the copying process embarked upon by the scribes. That way, we can say with full confidence that when we are reading the Bible the words on the page are as God intended them to be.ย The fact that there are errors and contested readings is a part of God’s plan, as He doesn’t like humans to be perfect in every way all the time.

Theologians have a clear choice to consider. Either God is sovereign over creation and we can read the Bible knowing that we are reading the words God intended for us to read, or if we maintain that God was not guiding the scribes, as Lightfoot suggests, our confidence in reading evaporates and chance and circumstance necessarily come into the equation, depriving God of His sovereignty and depriving our modern Bibles of their authority.

Related post: God’s Grand Game
Related essay: An Almighty Predicament

41 Comments on “How We Got the Bible

  1. I have a copy of the Lightfoot book but haven’t referred to it much in a while. (I have two other, more recent works on scripture, inspiration, and canon that are more go-to books for me.) I’ll have to look this quotation up in its context, but I too see Lightfoot’s emphasized statement as overstated.

    I feel compelled to add here that the notion that the words themselves are inspired is but one theory. It is quite possible to view God as in control of scripture ((even more than I find Him to have been) without seeing the specific words as the crux. Although I devote a great deal of energy to exegesis of scripture, I am not of the opinion that scribal errors have much if anything to do with God, His intent, or His sovereignty. Dettinger well calls attention to the lack of real ipmact of the discrepancies that exist. I would state it a little differently, off the cuff here: God’s word is sure and reliable, but the scriptures manifest human influence in stylistic ways and also contain human errors, none of which are really consequential in the big picture.

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    • Steven, I have a 2nd ed. of the Lightfoot book which must be different from your edition. Try as I might, I cannot locate the quotation you provided. Could you provide chapter title and a couple of nearby headings? I’ll be interested to see whether/how this statement might have changed from edition to edition. Thanks.

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      • Hi Brian! It’s at the beginning of Chapter 9 which is entitled “Significance of Textual Variations”. I’m reading it on my Kindle, but the quotation begins at the bottom of p95 in this edition. Just checked and mine is the third edition.

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        • I have finally found the comparable section in the 2nd edition of Lightfoot. (It’s interesting that our interchange here amounts to a text-critical study of Lightfoot on top of the very topic of your post!) I had looked in my chapter 6, titled the same as your chapter 9, and beyond that, but neglected to look immediately before, at the end of chapter 5, “The Text of the New Testament.” Here is the statement from the earlier edition, pp. 65-66:

          “The New Testament books have been handed down to us by means of thousands of copies. Although God inspired the New Testament writers, he did not miraculously guide the hands of copyists. Textual or Lower Criticism seeks to counteract inevitable scribal errors and recover the true form of the text. Many mistakes in the manuscripts crept into the text unintentionally, and are difficult to detect. Other textual modifications were made intentionally, usually by a well-meaning scribe, and these do not stand out so clearly. . . .”

          I’ll leave it to you and your readers to draw any conclusions based on the revisions Dr. Lightfoot made in his 3rd edition. It seems to me that the later edition is more emphatic, using the term “fact’ and the expression “it is not true.” I quite like “susceptible to the slips and faults” in your edition, but I can imagine that that would have lodged negatively in your mind.

          The crux of the matter as you presented it, I suppose, rests in a view of the divine will opposite human will. It seems to me that one who subscribes to your general view will be required to think, since the scribal errors obviously exist, that God specifically wanted them to be th ere. Then one would logically ask why God would legislate that there be such errors instead of miraculously preserving ancient papyri and leather texts, etc. I am more comfortable suggesting that God simply created a human environment in which such *minor* errors would naturally occur as believers sought to transmit faith through scripting.

          Here, I would like to interject the thesis of Dr. Gary D. Collier in his book Scripture Canon & Inspiration (available on Amazon): “The Bible is an act of faith, by people of faith, in pursuit of a conversation with God.”

          I feel compelled to add here, for a couple of your readers who might see this, that an anti-academic bent will not well serve those who are intellectually honest. Sure, some authors have sensationalized or exaggerated things to sell books. Some do not hold to any sort of biblical faith, even while they teach in schools of theology or the like, and I find that more sad for those individuals than for the rest of us. If we are honest and ethical, though, we will not trash all scholarship because of the missteps of some.

          At the end of my Lightfoot edition’s chapter 5, about 15 lines down from the statements above, Lightfoot affirms, “Text Criticism is a sound science.” What I know of TC tells me his affirmation is on target. That doesn’t mean Lightfoot’s wording can’t be off base at times, and it doesn’t mean that text critics won’t have jumped to a false conclusion here or there through the years. (Incidentally, I started to quote “sound science” from memory, and I had “solid science” in my head instead of “sound science.” That would have been a copyist error, but it would not have altered the meaning.) What we have is impressively well-attested texts, but we can still learn from the likes of new discoveries of ancient fragments, continuing research into text “families,” and new insights that connect things.

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          • Hi Brian,

            The crux of the matter as you presented it, I suppose, rests in a view of the divine will opposite human will. It seems to me that one who subscribes to your general view will be required to think, since the scribal errors obviously exist, that God specifically wanted them to be there. Then one would logically ask why God would legislate that there be such errors instead of miraculously preserving ancient papyri and leather texts, etc. I am more comfortable suggesting that God simply created a human environment in which such *minor* errors would naturally occur as believers sought to transmit faith through scripting.

            I believe God is unfolding a plan for humanity over thousands of years, and that human error is a part of God’s plan. The reason I included the link to my ‘God’s Grand Game’ post at the end of the article is so people can take a more in depth look at this perspective, if they are interested. If, as you suggest, God merely created an ‘environment’ where errors may or may not occur, this seems to me to totally deprive the text of authority โ€“ it makes the text of human creation, rather than divine creation.

            Many thanks!

            Steven

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  2. Hi Steven. I think it’s good that you are willing to read things that might challenge your faith. In some cases, I have even slightly shifted my perspective when reading challenges to my beliefs. I read your testimony page, and found that we humans are much more alike than we realize. While I didn’t lose any of my parents, I had similar experiences growing up as you did, and I’m a generation ahead of you (in a different country, too). My parents divorced after I grew up and married, so I saw a lot of discord in the home. I also went on my own spiritual quests. What I found, is that like you, seeking enlightenment whilst struggling with emotional issues is like trying to get a camel through the eye of a needle (I’m sure you get the reference). Once I got therapy and started to clear away the emotional muck, I was able to retain more philosophical and spiritual understanding. It also helps, that as a teenager, I had a profound spiritual experience that I can always remember to help get me back on track when I slide off.

    Thank you for coming over and liking my post today.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Lori! That’s amazing how we have had such similar experiences. Thank you for reading my testimony! And thank you for reading this post and leaving a comment. I’ve subscribed to your blog so will look forward to future posts ๐Ÿ™‚ Peace and blessings, Steven

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      • Thank you, Steven. My blog isn’t so much faith based, although I’ve touched on that on occasion. But, I do like to write about philosophy, introspection and self-awareness.
        Have a great weekend.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Oh don’t worry, I follow blogs about everything from food to music to metaphysics. Will look forward to learning more about your areas of interest! Have a great weekend too ๐Ÿ™‚

          Liked by 1 person

  3. This is a really bizarre notion to me. Why did God decide only to guide the hands of those writing the manuscripts, but not those copying them? So strange. Why would only the manuscripts themselves be given by some miraculous act of preservation, but not the copies? Again, very strange.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Joe! Yes it does seem strange, I agree. My understanding is that God doesn’t dip in and out of creation, but is in sovereign control of all events. But Lightfoot, who I quoted, and many Christians, would seemingly disagree.

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