Since their inception the overwhelming majority of  New Testament books had, together with the Old Testament, a singular authority among early Christians. Doubt about a few remaining books (among others Revelation) was sorted out during the following three centuries. By the middle of the fourth century A.D. the authority of the New Testament books were expressed by the term canon, (from a Hebrew word meaning: reed, measurement). Towards the end of that century the North African Councils of  Hippo and Carthage recognized the canon of the whole New Testament as we have it today.

It is noteworthy that no general council in the early church ever authorized the books of the New Testament as canonical. They were  without major questioning received by the church and still have the same authority among present day believers.

To believe in the authority of the Bible as the very Word of God is not unreasonable. On the contrary, it accords with the internal evidence of these Scriptures. To understand their message they must be expounded according to their proper character.


The internal evidence of the Bible

Listen to the wonderful way in which Scripture commends itself:


All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God be complete, equipped for every good work ( 2 Tim 3:16-17).

This text is rich in content and needs closer explanation.

 a)    All scripture

These words refer to the canon of Old Testament books which were already finalized when Paul wrote these words. It cannot refer to the books of the New Testament because most of them were not even written at the time when Paul addressed these words to Timothy (by 65 A.D.) The Jews and the earliest Christians had one Bible in common – the Old Testament, to which the New Testament refers as ‘Moses and the prophets’, or ‘the law and the prophets’, or ‘the law, the prophets, and the psalms’. A very common New Testament expression that denotes the authority of the Old Testament is “it is written”.

As regards the unity of Scripture here seems to be a problem: the Old Testament’s authority as Word of God is sustained by the authority of the New Testament, while the latter has no such external proof for its authority. Neither is the New Testament referring to itself as Word of God.

However, the problem is easily solved by attending to the manifold ties that bind Old and New Testament together. Their relation is often qualified as promise and fulfilment. The prophecy of  Isaiah 40:3 regarding a voice crying in the wilderness is fulfilled in the coming of John the Baptist (Mk 1:3-4); the promise to David of an everlasting dynasty (2 Sam 7:16) is fulfilled in the angel’s announcement to Mary (Lk 1:32-33); what David said in the last verses of Psalm 16 is not applicable to himself but to Christ, who did not see corruption in the tomb (Acts 2:25-29). Here the words of David, the prophet (Acts 2:30) are fulfilled in the resurrection of Christ.

The author of the letter to the Hebrews begins by stressing the unity of God’s speech in the past and the present:

 In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world (Heb 1:1-2)

Apart from the relation of promise and fulfilment there are many other ties of which only a single one is further mentioned here: the identity in the self-revelation of God. The God of the covenant revealed his holy Name to Moses: “I am who I am”. A reflection of the glory of this Name is often seen in the Old Testament, e.g. “I am the LORD your God (cf. Ex 20:1; Lev 23:43; 26:2 etc). There is a further reflection of  this in Christ’s words: “I am the bread of life” (Jn 6:35); “I am the light of the world” (Jn 8:12). The situation is even more convincing when it is understood that acts ascribed to the God of the covenant in the Old Testament, like saving, for example, those who call upon his Name (Joel 2:32), is ascribed to Christ in the New Testament (Rom 10:13).

b) Inspired by God

The Greek word means ‘breathed by God’, or ‘produced by the breath of God’. The Latin translation (the Vulgate) reads ‘inspired by God’,  which is obviously not a happy one. Indeed, the Greek term contains the idea of blowing (Latin: spirare) but not of blowing into something (inspirare). What is said here of Scripture is said in Ps 33:6 of creation, namely that the host of heaven were made by the breath of his mouth.

The overwhelming idea portrayed by the Greek term is that Scripture, in spite of being written by men, has its origin in God. The same idea is underlined by 2 Pet 1:20-21:


First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by the inpulse of man, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.


The verb ‘moved’ (i.e. by the Holy Spirit) has strong overtones in Greek. It literally means ‘to be driven’. However, the Vulgate again translates “inspired by the Holy Spirit”, which is a far cry from the original.

Yet, seeing that ‘inspiration’ is an age-old term, embedded in ecclesiastical language, there is no other option but to use it. But then it must be used in its biblical sense. This proviso is necessary, for the term was misused and secularized, especially since the Romantic era of the 19th century when it was used by artists and for artists who deemed themselves a breed apart from ordinary people.

Indeed, God inspired the Bible. For various reasons (e.g defense against heresies, or the influence of philosophical views) however, theologians were not content with this knowledge but tried to understand how inspiration took place. Various models or theories of inspiration were devised through the ages. During the sixteenth century there were some who regarded the Bible as a word for word dictate from heaven (mechanical inspiration) – a theory that could not explain, for instance, the fact that Isaiah’s style is very different from the way in which Amos wrote. During the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century the dualist theory appeared, splitting the Bible in two parts – the ordinary human historical sections and the Word of God, i.e. the words of Jesus and other ethical directives. This idea of ‘the word of God is in the Bible’ is shattered by the first four words of Paul: all scripture is inspired. A century later some held the opinion that it is not the Bible that is inspired but its human authors. They were witnesses of God’s revelation and experienced the animating and sanctifying power (dunamis) of the Spirit, by which they freely and spontaneously spoke and wrote. By shifting inspiration from Scripture to man, this dynamic theory leads to an under-estimation of the authority of the Word of God. It was the age of moralism, during which a minister could also preach on a fine text from Skakespeare or Goethe (who were only gradually less inspired than the biblical authors). The twentieth century presented us with man in the decisive here-and-now situation which demands him to choose and thereby realize himself (existentialism). In the Christian religion this world view moulds itself into the actualistic theory: not man is the free agent but God, who in his sovereignty can decide to speak to us his word here-and-now through the purely human words of Scripture. This view, which denies the permanent ’inspiredness’ of the Bible, is so blurred by philosophical presuppositions that nothing is left of Scripture’s  internal evidence. In traditional conservative circles the idea of organic inspiration is widely held: God used the various authors, each with his own gifts in his own time as ‘secretaries’ to take down what God said. In this way the difference in style and literary forms (e.g. history, poetry, prophecy) can be accommodated without detracting from the divine infusion. Though the organic theory acknowledges both the divine and human elements in the creation of the Bible, its position is precarious; it can be (and often is) bent either towards the mechanical inspiration or towards the dynamic theory.

It is worthwhile to note that each of these various theories holds some element of truth. There are indeed  dictated portions of Scripture, for instance the Ten Commandments (Ex 20) and the letters to the seven congregations (Rev 2-3). The dynamic theory has some justification in so far as the guidance of the Spirit, empowering them to witness freely (Acts 1:8) and in truth was promised to the disciples (Jn 16:12-14). Even the actualistic (or existential) theory has a bit of truth in its favour, for we all need the guidance of the Spirit to understand when we read the Bible; otherwise we all shall be like the Jews, having a veil over the face when they read the old covenant (2 Cor 3:14).

It is also worthwhile to keep in mind that by its many ways of self-attestation Scripture gives us so many glimpses of  God at work, but access to his work place is denied to us. The miracle of the inspiration of the Bible remains inexplicable to human reason. Suffice to say that the following popular but fallacious reasoning should never be allowed: ‘Where God works, man is idle; where man works, God is idle’. This frivolous reasoning rests upon the false assumption that man and God are equal competitors which in its turn reveals the audacity of man to try to trade in the sovereign living God for a home made idol. Against this reasoning God reveals his power:


          To whom then will you liken God,

Or what likeness compare with him? (Is 40:18)

Once more, and now more intense:


          To whom then will you compare me,

          That I should be like him?

          says the Holy One (Is 40:25).

To this the faithful should reply:


          Who is like thee, O LORD, among the gods?

          Who is like thee, majestic in holiness,

          terrible in glorious deeds, doing wonders? (Ex 15:11).

c) …that the man of God be complete

Scripture is not a volume which contains random data –neither ordinary nor scientific. It was given by God for a specific purpose (scopus) – to reveal his work in creation and redemption. Scripture reveals not only the Creator and his glory (Gen.1-2; Ps 19; Ps 104) but leads us as if by hand to the Redeemer. The Gospel is the power of God for salvation (Rom.1:16); it is profitable for teaching,… and for training in righteousness that the man of God be complete…Here the power of the Gospel is working as a means to renew man – a process that will only be finished on the new earth.

Furthermore, the word of God came to various men in their specific circumstances. When Joshua had the almost super-human task to lead Israel into Canaan God commanded him to be strong and promised to be with Joshua (Jos. 1:9). This promise “I will be with you” does not function as some kind of automatic shield, protecting careless and superstitious Christians against adversities. On the contrary, it was given to Joshua as an assurance in fulfilling his almost impossible task of leading the wandering tribes into the promised land, filled with people in possession of military hardware (chariots of iron) which made them practically invincible. Yet, the promise is still valid, not automatically, but for all who struggle for God’s kingdom against strong forces of evil. In a nutshell: God supports all those who call on his power in their struggle for the glory of his Name. It means that  the Word of God is dated but not outdated, unless a former institution as a shadow or type (e.g. the Old Testamental sacrificial cult) is superseded by a later reality or fulfilment, or aim (Christ as the sacrificial Lamb).

To acknowledge the aim (scopus) of Scripture prevents two distorted views; on the one hand that Scripture is a compilation of  equally important abstract, ‘timeless’ truths, on the other hand that Scripture is an expression of Israel’s faith that has become obsolete.

The witnesses

In Deut. 19:15 a prescription is given of how to proceed in a court of law:


A single witness shall not prevail against a man for any  crime or for any wrong in connection with any offence that he has committed; only on the evidence of two witnesses, or of three witnesses, shall a charge be sustained.


This stipulation was taken seriously by the New Testament authors. Even Christ himself  prescribes this procedure in handling an obdurate, unrepentant brother:


But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses (Mt 18:16).

It is of cardinal importance to note that this stipulation was self-evident in New Testament times and that the Gospels were evidence, given by witnesses who saw and heard what Jesus did, what he said, and what happened to him.

Matthew relates the transfiguration on the mountain as follows:


And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James and John his brother, and led them up to a high mountain apart. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his garments became white as light (Mt 17:1-2).

Here were three persons who witnessed the transfiguration. Later, in his second letter Peter precisely testifies to what happened on the mountain:

For when he received honour and glory from God the Father and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,” we heard this voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain (2 Pet 1:17-18).

John, for his part, can reiterate this in his first letter:That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life… (1 Jn 1:1).

Two women testify that the tomb was empty (Mt 28:1ff.); three women recount the words of the angels at the empty tomb (Lk 24:10); Christ appeared to two of the disciples on their way to Emmaus (Lk 24: 13 ff.). There were many others who could testify that Christ was alive. Paul writes (1 Cor 15:5-8) that the risen Christ appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom are still alive … Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Lastly of all ... he appeared also to me.

Think about an imaginary court case. There are three or four witnesses who give verbatim the same evidence. The judge would most probably become suspicious of collusion to fabricate evidence, and would terminate the case. Yet in the real life situation modern critics raise suspicion about the truth of the Bible because the four evangelists differ on minor points in their evidence. Some even deny authorship of the Gospels to the evangelists whose name they bear. This shows to what extent the New Testament as evidence of witnesses is misjudged. This is done in spite of the assurance that Peter gives his readers (2 Pet 1:16):


For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eye-witnesses of his majesty.


There is one aspect of the apostolic evidence which is of special importance – their assertion that God himself testified about his Son. At the baptism of Jesus were three witnesses: John the Baptist, the Spirit descending upon Jesus in the form of a dove, and the voice from heaven (Mt 3:16-17; Mt.17:5).

Concerning the stipulation of multiple witnesses there is a postscript. On 23 August 334 Constantine the Great, having been converted to Christianity, issued the following decree:


In a similar manner we sanctioned that no judge should allow the testimony of only one person to be admitted in any case whatever. We now manifestly sanction that the testimony of only one witness shall not be heard at all, even though such witness should be resplendent with the honour of the glorious senate.


What God had taught the Jews about justice, has become part of Roman law, later of Roman-Dutch law and thus part and parcel of an almost universal sense of justice.

The text  

The New Testament is written in Greek, called koiné dialectos, which means ‘the common language’. Since the conquests of Alexander the Great (about 330 B.C.) which put the whole civilized world of those times under the political rule of Greece, a common Greek language developed, which was necessary for communication between the various parts of the empire. Even when Rome acquired supreme military power, the Koiné remained the  commonly used language of the Roman empire.

Two factors should be kept in mind to understand the New Testament text. Firstly, that Jesus as well as the eye-witnesses of his ministry were Aramaic-speaking Palestinians. It stands to reason that the oldest collection of words and deeds of Jesus were transmitted among the Jews in Aramaic. However, after Stephen was stoned (Acts 7) a violent persecution arose against the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem, causing their dispersion. With them the Gospel spread to the heathen world. To communicate the Good News, a translation of the message into Greek became a prerequisite. To meet this need  the Gospels were written in the Greek Koiné. Consequently there is an Aramaic ‘flavour’ in the words of Jesus as reported in all the Gospels, and Aramaic expressions are particularly pronounced in Mark’s Gospel.

Secondly, the influence of the Septuagint, the Greek version of the Old Testament (± 150 B.C.) should not be overlooked. By the half of the first century A.D. the Septuagint was claimed by the early Christians as their Bible. Most New Testament quotations of the Old Testament are given according to the Septuagint (usually abbreviated as LXX). The LXX text can sometimes be quite different from the Hebrew of the Old Testament (cf. for instance Ps.40:6-8 with its LXX quotation in Heb 10:5-7).

The earliest writings of the New Testament are a number of letters written by the Apostle Paul to churches where he spread the Gospel and to the faithful in the imperial capital which he intended to visit. Gradually other letters, most by the Apostles themselves, were treasured by the churches which had received them and gained a wider circulation. To this the first three Gospels were added, probably before 70 A.D, while the writings of John (the Gospel and Revelation) were the last to be added (c. 90-96 A.D.).

The transmission of the text

It is sad that Christians who should put their trust in God alone, are prone to superstition. Veneration of saints is still flourishing and there are hundreds of ‘holy’ places in Christian countries were people bow before a lifeless statue or touch a splinter of wood, purporting to come from the cross. Little imagination is required to form an idea of what would have happened if the autographs were still extant. It is possible that God in his wisdom has ordained that  the autograph be lost  in order to avoid bibliolatry (veneration of the Bible instead of the living God), thereby protecting man against himself.

There is also a more mundane reason for the loss of the original copies of the books of the New Testament – the non-durable quality of the material on which it was written. Papyrus, made from the papyrus plant growing  abundantly in the Nile-delta,  was quite fragile and easily spoilt by damp. There was no way in which a papyrus manuscript could last for thousands of years. That is why we have only fragments of early manuscripts written on papyrus, and what we have were predominantly preserved under the dry desert sand of Egypt and the Arabic peninsula.

Three texts of the New Testament refer to the authority of Paul’s epistles.  In his letter to the Colossians (4:16) Paul writes:


And when this letter has been read among you, have it read also in the church of `the Laodiceans; and see that you read also the letter to La-odicea.

A similar command is given in his first letter to the Thessalonians (5:27):


          I adjure you by the Lord that this letter be read to all the brethren.


In his turn Peter clearly describes Paul’s letters authoritative (2 Pet.3:15-16):


And count the forbearance of our Lord as salvation. So also our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, speaking of this as he does  in all his letters. There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures.

To have Paul’s letters read in other churches implied that these letters should be copied. In fact Peter’s assurance that Paul’s letters are on a par with the other scriptures  (which could hardly mean anything else but the Old Testament) made the Pauline letters a treasure to the early churches. Obviously, to copy Paul’s letters (later the other letters, then the gospels as they were written) became an ordinary, yet indispensable, activity of the early churches, resulting in hundreds (later even thousands) papyrus manuscripts of the books of the New Testament.

Parchment, a much more durable and space-saving material was coming into use. It was made from specially prepared animal hides, writable on both sides, and the pages were folded once and laid into each other. The result was something much more like our books and these parchment manuscripts are called codices. There is an indication that parchments (most probably notebooks) were already used by Paul. In his second letter to Timothy (circa 65 A.D.) Paul asks: When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus in Troas, also the books, and above all the parchments  (4:13).

The last word is a curious one – membranas, the Greek transcription of a Latin term, meaning a parchment notebook. There was only a small step from the small notebook to the larger book; from the membrana to the codex. Parchment, though more durable, was expensive and initially rarely used by the Christians, many of whom were poor (1 Cor 1:26). While the earliest copy of a papyrus fragment dates back towards the early part of the second century (or even the last years of the first century), codices start to appear in the third century, the oldest codex dating from about 250 A.D. When Christianity became an accepted religion in the fourth century, a few important codices appeared, one of which contains the whole New Testament.

Needless to say that copying Bible books was a continual task of the churches and finally came to an end during the 16th century. By then the printing of books was well on its way and Erasmus has published his edition of the New Testament in 1516. Keeping in mind that scribes and copyists copied sometimes hardly legible papyrus rolls on fresh rolls, often under life-threatening circumstances during the persecutions of the first three centuries, it is almost miraculous that the uncertainties in the New Testament text concern only about  0.5% of the total. Nowhere in the New Testament is the doctrine ever at stake. Discrepancies are mostly restricted to a letter, sometimes to a word, rarely to a sentences or a pericope.

Textual criticism (totally different from Biblical crticism) is a specialized theological science comparing the more than 5 000 manuscripts that we have today in order to get as near as possible to the autograph. Papyrus fragments are identified by means of a capital P plus a number – the lower the number, the earlier the fragment, e.g. P45 or P66 – while codices are denoted by capital letters in Latin, Greek and even Hebrew, for example, A, B, D, L etc. The evidence of all the manuscripts is convincing: we can be assured that we have the Word of God to read.

The reading of the text

One reads to understand what is read. There are guidelines, called hermeneutical rules, that help us in this process of understanding. Hermeneutics dates from the the 17th century, meaning either the art (theory) of translation or the art (theory) of explanation. The term gained importance during the next centuries to become lopsided in the 20th century by stressing, not the message of the Bible but the process of human understanding.

The faithful can understand the central message of the Bible without any hermeneutics.Yet hermeneutics can be an auxiliary to exegesis or the explanation of the Bible, illuminating the more difficult passages.

Hermeneutical rules are applicable to all written texts – also to the Biblical text. Yet the Bible is unique in being the word of God. This necessitates some extra considerations, of which a few are mentioned here:

Firstly, the iternal evidence of the Bible should be taken seriously. This prohibits modern theology’s view that the Bible is simply a human document containing the story of Israel’s faith. Influenced by Darwin’s theory of evolution the Bible is then preferably seen as the story of the ‘evolution’ of the faith of the Jews from a primitive polytheism to an ethical monotheism. Part of this picture was the erroneous view (now largely discarded) that Moses could not write and had no part in the five books attributed to him.

Secondly, every part of the Bible should be understood as part of the complete Bible. As the living God he revealed his love for this world in Jesus Christ (Jn 3:16). Two concepts (among others) are obvious in his self-revelation, namely ‘life’ and ‘love’. This, for instance, forbids on the one hand to argue a case for euthanasia because of kings Saul’s morbidity (1 Sam 31) plus the exaggerated report of the Amalekite to David (2 Sam 1:1-10). It also forbids, on the other hand, to stress the love of God as his exclusive essence; in this way his righteousness would be denied and the suffering of Christ would become redundant. The Jews themselves gave another striking example of this type of false reasoning. Having received the command to love the neighbour, they inferred that they must hate their enemies! (Mt 5:43).

Thirdly, each text must be explained in its immediate context, in the context of the chapter and in the context of the book in which it is written. This implies that the reader must have a feeling for the ‘drift’ or intention of that specific book.

Closely connected to this point is the fourth: that every book must be explained according to its character. The New Testament contains Gospels, letters and an apocalyptic writing, John’s Revelation. Apocalyptic writings cannot be expounded literally; numbers, and even colours can have symbolic meaning. On the other hand, it is impossible to understand Revelation without a biblical context. Once on this road in direction of the Old Testament, the exegete is astonished to find how much of it is woven into the texture of Revelation. To mention just one example: the fall of Babylon (Rev 18) is prefigured by God’s judgment over the capital of the Babylonian empire (Jer 51). Babylon is the city of trade, of riches, of materialism, of temptation of pride – a perennial symbol of enmity against God. The similarity extends even to detail, for instance the command to leave Babylon (Jer 51:6 and Rev 18:4). The Gospels as eye-witness evidence, and the letters as apostolic exposition of the meaning of  the incarnation must be understood literally, except where allegory presents itself, as in Gal 4. The seemingly pious precedure of looking for the ‘deeper spiritual meaning’ in every text, current in the church since Origen (184-253 A.D.) is a futile exercise that robbs Scripture of  its historical dimension and transforms it into a timeless case book of ethical examples. The gate of Sodom, for instance, where Lot was sitting, may not be transposed to ‘the gates of Sodom’, meaning dancing halls, brothels and gambling holes, where Satan rules. Sodom was a specific city in antiquity, and in its gate where Lot was sitting two angels appeared (Gen 19:1).

Fifthly, the history of  revelation must be taken into account, which entails that the later revelation (e.g. Christ’s words about monogamy) has priority above the former (e.g Abraham’s polygamy). God has finally spoken to us by his Son (Heb 1:1).

Lastly, the aim of the Bible is God’s revelation in his Son and not the dissemination of sundry data. The Sermon on the Mount describes how believers should live under the rule of God (in the kingdom of God) and not how governments should behave towards their subjects. On the other hand, while God reveals himself as God of the covenant, marriage and the family becomes the building-block of the church. This truth and what is demanded in the fifth Commandment is of fundamental importance to sociology. Likewise the eighth commandment has a bearing on economy.


Two texts written by John can serve as a summary of this introduction. The first underscores the aim of the Gospel, the second the veracity of the apostolic evidence.


Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name (20:30-31).


This is the disciple who is bearing witness to these things, and who has written these things; and we know that his testimony is true. (21:24).