How God Preserved the Bible
Parts of the Bible are over 4,000 years old. Has it been handed down to us accurately? Do we have the complete Bible? How do we know? Can our modern sophistication allow us to believe that God preserved His own words as a great gift for all mankind?
Let’s look at how God preserved the Bible for us today. Having the Bible intact is a miracle far beyond any marvelous invention of current technology.
God saw to the preservation of the Bible through a process called canonization. Our English word canonization comes from the Greek word kanon, which means a straight edge or ruler. The books of the Bible that we use today have been canonized. This means that after a rigorous review, it has been determined that these books are Holy Scripture, or the inspired Word of God. This could not have been done without the use of explicit rules and standards. Unfortunately, we have lost the records of the specific standards. Yet, we can safely figure out at least four major rules that were used to canonize a book of the Bible as Scripture.
The Rules of Canonization
The first rule considers divine inspiration of a book. The Bible records that God specifically directed that certain books be written.
The clearest examples of this rule come from Moses and the other prophets: “And the Lord said unto Moses, Write this for a memorial in a book, and rehearse it in the ears of Joshua” (Exodus 17:14). “And the Lord said unto Moses, Write thou these words: for after the tenor of these words I have made a covenant with thee and with Israel” (Exodus 34:27). “Now therefore write ye this song for you, and teach it the children of Israel: put it in their mouths, that this song may be a witness for me against the children of Israel” (Deuteronomy 31:19). God commanded Isaiah to write down the prophecies given to him. Study Isaiah 30:8. This verse proves that God intended Isaiah to be read and understood far into the future. God also commanded Jeremiah to write down his message into a book (Jeremiah 30:1-2; 36:1-3). The verses in Jeremiah 36 also show that God has a message for all nations today.
The second rule looks into internal evidence within a book. Some books assert that they themselves or other books are Scripture. The book of Joshua confirms the first five books of the law are Scripture in Joshua 1:8. The book of Judges, written by the Prophet Samuel, also confirms Moses’s books as Scripture in Judges 3:1-4. Daniel confirmed that Moses’s and Jeremiah’s books were Scripture (Daniel 9:2, 11, 13). Peter confirmed that Paul’s writings were Scripture (2 Peter 3:16).
The third rule takes into account public action or recognition of the canonization of a book. In Israel and Judah, the priests publicly read and instructed out of the Bible. It was Moses who began the tradition. He commanded the Levites to read the Scriptures to the people. “And Moses wrote this law, and delivered it unto the priests the sons of Levi, which bare the ark of the covenant of the Lord, and unto all the elders of Israel. And Moses commanded them, saying, At the end of every seven years, in the solemnity of the year of release, in the feast of tabernacles, when all Israel is come to appear before the Lord thy God in the place which he shall choose, thou shalt read this law before all Israel in their hearing. Gather the people together, men, and women, and children, and thy stranger that is within thy gates, that they may hear, and that they may learn, and fear the Lord your God, and observe to do all the words of this law” (Deuteronomy 31:9-12). This public reading certified the books as Scripture.
Centuries after Moses, Ezra continued this same tradition by dutifully reading the books of the law at the Feast of Trumpets. “And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people; (for he was above all the people) and when he opened it, all the people stood up” (Nehemiah 8:5). The public reading of the Scriptures has been a tradition for millennia. Certainly, it was the case in Christ’s day. In fact, He personally participated in the custom. “And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up: and, as his custom was, he went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and stood up for to read” (Luke 4:16). You should also study scriptures such as Acts 13:15 and Acts 15:21. The Jews were passionate for their traditions. Paul and the other apostles carried on such customs into the true Church of God. The point here is that the people knew the Scriptures so well that it would have been nearly impossible to read a non-canonized book in a public service.
The fourth rule demands consistency and accuracy in doctrine within the books. The one truly amazing fact about the Bible is there is not one inconsistency or conflict in doctrine. There is one homogeneous doctrinal thread that runs throughout the Bible from Genesis through Revelation. This fact alone demonstrates that one divine mind orchestrated the writing of the Bible.
Started With Moses
Canonization began with Moses and ended with the Apostle John. Others have also played a significant role in canonizing the Scriptures. It is accepted that several of the prophets collected and compiled portions of the Old Testament. Jewish traditions tell us Samuel assembled the book of Judges. It is evident Samuel added to the book of Deuteronomy: 1 Samuel 10:25 shows that God directed Samuel to write into a book the laws concerning the establishment of the monarchy; what we have left of that book is found in Deuteronomy 17:14-20. It is also believed that Isaiah and Jeremiah most likely compiled 1 and 2 Kings. Sections from Isaiah and Jeremiah are repeated verbatim in Kings.
The men most responsible for the canonization of what we know as the Old Testament today were Ezra, Nehemiah and the body of priests and elders known as the Great Assembly. This great assembly consisted of 120 men of whom Ezra was the chief. Among its members are said to have been Daniel and his three friends, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. They pulled together all of God’s revelation to that point into one complete book. At that time, the Old Testament was preserved on 22 scrolls.
When the King James Old Testament was established, it was separated into 39 books and reorganized into three basic classifications of law, history and poetry. This was not a correct structuring of the true text. Essentially, translators chopped up the Bible, introducing confusion.
Originally, the three divisions into which these scrolls were put were the Law, the Prophets and the Psalms, or Writings. These three divisions of the Old Testament are known as the tripartite. Jesus Christ confirmed that the Old Testament was complete in these three divisions. Just after His resurrection He told the disciples, “These are the words which I spake unto you, while I was yet with you, that all things must be fulfilled, which were written in the law of Moses, and in the prophets, and in the psalms, concerning me” (Luke 24:44).
Isaiah prophesied that the true Church of God would be used to complete the canon of God’s revelation to all mankind. He wrote: “Bind up the testimony, seal the law among my disciples” (Isaiah 8:16). The apostles Peter and Paul had a part in finalizing the New Testament. We know that Paul worked to protect a set of parchments. “The cloak that I left at Troas with Carpus, when thou comest, bring with thee, and the books, but especially the parchments” (2 Timothy 4:13). The parchments were obviously the originals of Paul’s letters that we have today. It was Peter that certified Paul’s epistles as Scripture. He wrote this about Paul’s letters: “As also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things; in which are some things hard to be understood, which they that are unlearned and unstable wrest, as they do also the other scriptures, unto their own destruction” (2 Peter 3:16).
It was up to the Apostle John to complete the canonization of the Bible by finalizing the New Testament. His Gospel, letters and the book of Revelation were the last and final books to be added to the Bible. John states this at the very end of his Gospel: “And there are also many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written. Amen” (John 21:25). John was very aware of the Gospel accounts of Matthew, Mark and Luke. Jesus Christ inspired John to write his Gospel in a unique way that gives more depth about Jesus Christ’s message brought from God the Father. Then at the end of his Gospel, John states definitively that there would be no other Gospels in the canon. He adds the word Amen to add a ring of finality to that section of the Bible. He makes a similar statement at the end of Revelation. He writes, “For I testify unto every man that heareth the words of the prophecy of this book, If any man shall add unto these things, God shall add unto him the plagues that are written in this book: And if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book” (Revelation 22:18-19).
God the Father and Jesus Christ used John to write the Bible’s most comprehensive prophetic book—Revelation. This book coordinates the timing of all Bible prophecy. Here it is clear that John knew that this book completed God’s revelation to mankind. He warned that no man was to add to or take away from the prophecy in Revelation: Anyone who did would be cursed. John’s statements show that we have the complete Bible.
The New Testament has 27 books, organized into four sections: the Gospels, Acts, the Epistles and Revelation.
How the Bible Was Preserved
The history of how the Bible has been preserved is truly miraculous and inspiring. Many painstaking hours have been employed to ensure that the Scriptures have been preserved accurately. Many men have given their lives to preserve the Bible. No other books from antiquity have been so guarded.
From the Bible’s very beginning, God saw to its protection. Although we don’t know much about the most ancient times, Jewish tradition tells us that Noah preserved and protected the genealogical records given to us in Genesis 5. The first formal record of the charge to protect the Bible doesn’t appear until the time of Moses. He charged the Levites with the task: “And it came to pass, when Moses had made an end of writing the words of this law in a book, until they were finished, that Moses commanded the Levites, which bare the ark of the covenant of the Lord, saying, Take this book of the law, and put it in the side of the ark of the covenant of the Lord your God, that it may be there for a witness against thee” (Deuteronomy 31:24-26). Moses commanded the Levites to keep the books he had completed under God’s inspiration right with the ark of the covenant. The ark was the national symbol of the nation’s covenant with God. On the lid of the ark was the mercy seat, a representation of God’s throne. Keeping the Scriptures with the ark demonstrated to the people that the books were the very Word of God and should be closely guarded, respected and—even more—obeyed!
Yet, in general, it was the Jewish people who were especially commissioned by God to protect the Bible. Notice what Paul states: “What advantage then hath the Jew? Or what profit is there of circumcision? Much every way: chiefly, because that unto them were committed the oracles of God” (Romans 3:1-2). God knew that false prophets, teachers and even writers would come along and claim to be prophesying, teaching or writing for God (Jeremiah 23:32). So God had to inspire His people to preserve what had been given. The Jews have done their job well. A detailed and closely guarded system of copying was developed to preserve the texts as originally written.
Professionals known as scribes were highly trained at writing new copies of the text as the rolls wore out from use. It was the job of the scribes to preserve the Word of God from generation to generation. The Pharisees were responsible for the oral reading of the Scriptures in public services. Jesus Christ recognized that the scribes had authority over the Scriptures (Matthew 23:2-3). He also promised that what had been written would continue to be preserved until His Second Coming (Matthew 5:18).
The Neglected Scrolls
Unknowingly, King Josiah of Judah played a significant role in the preservation of the Old Testament. His grandfather Manasseh was the most evil king in Judah. He promoted idol worship far worse than any one of the evil kings in Israel—even Ahab. Manasseh turned the people completely away from God and God’s Word. Josiah set about to make major reforms in the land. He eliminated idolatry from Jerusalem and Judah. Yet it was not until the 18th year of his reign that the book of the law was found in the temple (2 Kings 22:8-13). Hilkiah the high priest found the Scriptures during the renovation of the temple. The faithful priest presented and read the books to the king. Josiah was thunderstruck by what he heard. He knew that to spare the nation any more trouble, a great education program had to be instituted. The Word of God had to be taught to every man, woman and child in the nation.
Notice what Clarke’s Commentary has to say about Josiah: “And if the king and the high priest, who were both men of eminent piety, were without this part of the Holy Scripture, it can scarcely be thought that anyone else then had it. But so religious a prince as King Josiah could not leave this long unremedied. By his orders copies were written out from this original; and search being made for all the other parts of Holy Scripture … and thenceforth copies of the whole became multiplied among the people; all those who were desirous of knowing the laws of their God, either writing them out themselves, or procuring others to do it for them; … [the sacred writings] were got into private hands, who carried them with them into captivity. That Daniel had a copy with him in Babylon is certain, for he quotes the law, and also makes mention of the prophecies of the Prophet Jeremiah, which he could not do had he never seen them.”
The Babylonian captivity had not only destroyed the nation of Judah and the city of Jerusalem with the holy temple, it also wiped out the central depository of God’s revelation. By the decree of the Persian King Cyrus, Zerubbabel and a contingent of Jews returned to Jerusalem and rebuilt the temple (2 Chronicles 36:22-23; Ezra 1:1-2). Yet, after Zerubbabel’s death, the Jews began degenerating in their zeal for God’s way of life. Even the temple began to fall into disrepair. Ezra was well trained in God’s law. He desired to revive God’s way of life in Jerusalem. God directed Ezra to do just that. In fact, we have Ezra most to thank for the preservation of our Old Testament. “This Ezra went up from Babylon; and he was a ready scribe in the law of Moses, which the Lord God of Israel had given: and the king granted him all his request, according to the hand of the Lord his God upon him. … For Ezra had prepared his heart to seek the law of the Lord, and to do it, and to teach in Israel statutes and judgments” (Ezra 7:6, 10). Ezra returned to Jerusalem, beautified the temple and established the proper order of worship. Nehemiah, as governor, fully supported his reforms. Because Josiah had made sure that multiple copies of the Scripture scrolls existed, Ezra collected all the scattered rolls that could be found and, inspired by the Holy Spirit, worked with the Great Assembly in putting the books into a proper order.
Ezra took on a very important responsibility to make sure we had the properly inspired canon of the Scriptures. He got “together as many copies of the sacred writings as he could, and out of them all to set forth a correct edition … he took care of the following particulars: First, he corrected all the errors that had crept into these copies …. Secondly, he … disposed them in their proper order; and settled the canon of Scripture for his time” (Clarke’s Commentary). Ezra the priest placed the authorized scrolls in the temple. The priests were again put in charge of the scrolls.
These standard copies remained intact until the buildings were destroyed by Titus in a.d. 70. All the synagogues in the first century maintained the same canon of Scripture. All scrolls agreed with the divine canon deposited in the temple archives.
It is now the responsibility of the true Church of God to protect the Scriptures as handed down to us, just as it was of the Old Testament “church in the wilderness” (Acts 7:38).
A Complete Bible
The Old Testament canon, with its various books and divisions, was the model used for the canonization of the New Testament. God always used men to canonize various books.
When the Jews in the New Testament refused the message of Christ, God raised up the apostles to go into the Greek world to have His New Testament Scriptures preserved for us. Realize that the Old Testament was written basically in Hebrew with some Aramaic, while the New Testament was written in Greek. The Greeks, not the Jews, were given the New Testament to preserve. However, God used the apostles to make the decision as to which books the Greek world would preserve.
When the New Testament is placed side by side with the Old Testament, the Bible is complete with seven divisions: the Law, Prophets, Psalms, Gospels, Acts, Epistles and Revelation. Seven is the number of completion throughout the Bible. The number seven has made its mark in the canonization of both the Old and New Testaments. Here is how.
The complete Old Testament is actually comprised of 22 scrolls (books), categorized under three divisions.
The Law included five books—Genesis through Deuteronomy.
The Prophets were organized in a special way. The books of Joshua through 2 Kings, excluding Ruth, are known as former prophets and were written on two scrolls. Joshua and Judges shared one scroll. 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings shared one scroll. The 12 minor prophets were also written on one scroll. Adding in Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel there are a total of seven books.
The Writings total 10 books. The books included are Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther, Ezra/Nehemiah (one book) and 1 and 2 Chronicles (one book).
Together with the 27 books of the New Testament, there are actually 49 books of the Bible. The number 49 is a significant number that carries divine meaning. This number is seven times seven, showing absolute completion. The seven divisions of the Bible and the number of books is no accident. They are clearly there by design to show that the revelation of God is complete with 49 books.
Apocrypha Not Canonized
The 14 books of the Apocrypha have not been canonized. These books should not be considered Scripture. Controversy about these books raged for centuries before they were accepted as a part of the Roman Catholic Bible. Following the example of Rome, many Protestant sects include the Apocrypha in their Bibles. One article about the Bible states: “The addition of Apocryphal books to the Old Testament did not begin until about a.d. 80. Numerous spurious books were gradually introduced into the inspired canon. No two copies of the earliest Catholic Bibles agree as to which Apocryphal books were to be added. It was not until a.d. 397, at the council of Carthage, that Augustine, the Canaanite bishop from Hippo in North Africa, led the council of Carthage to generally approve seven Apocryphal books. As late as a.d. 363 at the Council of Laodicea, the Greek Church rejected the Apocryphal books as a whole. And the Roman Catholic scholar Jerome, who translated the Latin Vulgate version, rejected the Apocrypha and made his translation from the Hebrew Old Testament directly. It was not until the Council of Trent that the Apocrypha were declared equal to the books of the Bible. At the Council of Trent on April 8, 1546, those who rejected the Apocrypha were declared to be ‘anathema of Christ’!” (Herman L. Hoeh, “Do We Have the Complete Bible?,” 1974).
Recognize that these books are inconsistent with Bible doctrine. Jesus Christ and the apostles never quoted from them. The addition of these books to the Bible was based on the authority of men—not of God.
Other ancient books referred to in the Bible are “source documents,” such as the book of Jasher (2 Samuel 1:18), as we wrote in last month’s Trumpet (“The Critics Vs. Moses”). Bible writers occasionally cited sources, as we cite the sources of our research in our literature (whether secular or Scripture). This does not mean that these sources should have been canonized. Even Paul quoted poets and philosophers in his letters, not intending that these be counted as the Word of God (Acts 17:28; Titus 1:12-13).
The Bible is truly one of the most valuable things a human being can possess. It is a living miracle that will greatly enrich your life. Although the Bible may have several translation deficiencies, it is not a flawed book. Not one book of the Bible has been lost. Not one book is missing. The books of the Bible are correct as you find them in the King James Version. Paul taught Timothy, “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works” (2 Timothy 3:16). The Bible is the only true spiritual guide on Earth. Every man, woman and child needs the information contained within its pages.