Who preserved the Bible manuscripts we have today?
Who preserved the Bible manuscripts that we use today? The simplest answer would be the ancient Jewish and Christian faith communities. They decided that particular books had a binding authority on the community of faith. These books became a part of a canon of Scripture. S. Z. Leiman states, "A canonical book is a book accepted by Jews as authoritative for religious practice and/or doctrine, and whose authority is binding upon the Jewish people for all generations."1 Canonical books are God-given and people of faith feel compelled to obey them.
The Hebrew Canon - One can divide the Hebrew canon into three sections: the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings. Jesus referred to the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms in Luke 24:44 in reference to His ministry. From its very beginning, the church used these Scriptures inherited from their Jewish roots. "Every OT book except Esther, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, Ezra, Nehemiah, Obadiah, Nahum, and Zephaniah is quoted in the NT."2 The New Testament, therefore, uses a "canonical body of literature that approximates the OT [Old Testament]."3
The Dead Sea Scrolls - The Dead Sea Scrolls exist today as the result of the copying of Scriptures by the Essenes, a Jewish community of faith, existing from the middle of the second century B.C. until A.D. 68. Thirty-eight of the thirty-nine Old Testament books were included in these texts.
The Septuagint - As Hebrew died out as a living language, Old Testament books were translated into other spoken languages, the most important of which was the Greek, called the Septuagint. The widespread belief is that Jews living in Egypt preserved these books. Some believe that the Jews closed their canon in A.D. 90 because of a rabbinical counsel held in Jamnia. Historical records show that the early New Testament Church and first-century Jews did not differ over the Hebrew canon.
The Gospels and Paul's Letters - By the middle of the second century A.D., Paul's letters and the four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) were widely circulated and read in the churches. Some books were disputed during this time, such as James, Hebrews, 2nd Peter through 3rd John, and Revelation. As a result of the pulling away of some from the church under the teachings of Marcion, who renounced the Old Testament, efforts were made to define what the authoritative writings were in a more exact way.
The New Testament - In the first two centuries A.D. all twenty-seven books were accepted. In the third and fourth centuries, there was a period of intense debate over the "apostles" portion of the writings and commonly valued writings like the Apocalypse of Peter. These debates helped to give a clearer determination of the limits of the canon. Two major Eastern Church fathers are prominent in these discussions: Origen, theologian and biblical scholar, and Eusebius, bishop of Caesarea.
A series of church councils helped to solidify the canon in the fourth century. In the Western church, Augustine argued for "no more and no less" than the twenty-seven books of the New Testament. This carried the day at three councils held in northern Africa from A.D. 393-419.
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