24 Oct 2022

The “Bible” and the Early Church: A Few Things We May Not Know

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Bible, Books, Church History, Cool Stuff, Faith, King James Version, Psalms, Tobit

Today we will think about stuff that is rarely thought of in our churches, the Bible and early Christianity. Or what scholars call the material remains of Christianity. I pray it will be enjoyable and give some insight.

First. When we examine the material remains of early Christianity we can learn a great deal about the church itself. In this blog material remains refers to the physical manuscripts that were produced and preserved by early Christians. The manuscripts show us what early Christians were reading in their assemblies. Manuscripts were incredibly expensive in the ancient world. They were beyond the reach of all but the richest of the rich. So “books” were owned by communities and stored in a communal meeting place. We see this kind of reality among the Essenes of Qumran and the synagogue of Jesus in Luke 4. What the early Christians were reading helps us to understand what they said, what they believed and what they did.

Sometimes modern restorationists imagine the Bible sort of fell out of heaven as a PDF. But nothing is further from the truth. If we examine the early centuries, the second and third, several surprises face us about “the Bible.”

It no doubt will interest some to know that, of the Christian manuscripts (material remains of Christianity) that survive from this early period, the “Old Testament” book of Psalms exceeds all others significantly. Psalms survives in sixteen (16) manuscripts from the second and third century. For the sake of comparison the Gospel of Matthew has twelve (12) and Gospel of John has eleven (11). So we have more manuscripts of a book of the “Old Testament” than any book of the “New Testament” that was created and used by Christians. This is something very significant to reflect on.

The third most frequent text represented in Christian manuscripts surviving from that period is The Shepherd of Hermas which is represented by eleven (11) which ties with the Gospel of John. The Gospel of Mark has one (1). Paul’s Epistle to the Romans has four (4) and 1 Corinthians has two (2).

The importance of Psalms for the early church cannot be exaggerated. That the Shepherd of Hermas out strips all but 3 texts that make up our Bible today, is significant. But most today have never heard of this work that was widely regarded as Scripture in the second century. (Larry Hurtado’s Earliest Christian Artifacts: Manuscripts and Christian Origins is essential reading on this).

Second. Early Christian Greek manuscripts were written in scripto continua. That means that the writing is without breaks between words, sentences and paragraphs and without any punctuation. This means there are numerous “judgment calls” that our English Bible goes through before we ever lay eyes on it.

How one break up words, how one splits paragraphs, how one places a period or a question mark can have significant ramifications on the meaning of the text. For example, in the Churches of Christ we have all learned that “one who aspires to the office of a bishop” was a “faithful saying” (1 Tim 3.1). That is how many English translations read it anyway following the King James Version. But in the Greek New Testament “pistos ho logos” is part of the preceding paragraph and not about elders. So as 2.15-3.1 would read “but they will be saved through motherhood, if they continue to have faith and to be loving and holy, and sensible as well. This is a faithful saying.” Thus 3.1a belongs to 2.15.

In the rest of the Pastorals (1-2 Timothy and Titus) where a “faithful saying” occurs it is attached to salvation language. The only exception to this would be 1 Timothy 3.1. So where does the paragraph end and begin. I am grateful for the scholars who have agonized over these matters. Goodspeed’s American Translation is one version (not the only one) that reflects the paragraph breaks in the Greek New Testament.

Third. I was raised on the “Authorized Version” of the Bible (KJV). I worked at one place where the KJV was the only approved version to be read from the pulpit. Yet it surprises most to learn that the King James Version was never actually authorized.

There are official historical records to show that Matthew’s Bible, Cranmer’s Bible, and the Bishop’s Bible (1537, 1541, 1571) were officially “authorized.” But interestingly enough there are no such records for the 1611 King James Version. The phrase on the title page seems to have been added by the printer. (A great book on the KJV is Alister McGrath’s, In the Beginning: The Story of the King James Bible and How it Changed a Nation, Language, and a Culture).

Fourth. I was having a conversation with a person recently. This person was not aware that there were English translations prior to the King James Version nor did this person realize the KJV, right up front, confesses to be a revision of previous versions.

There were numerous major translations before the KJV (authorized ones as we just noted). The most important was William Tyndale’s whose work is incorporated virtually en mass in the 1611 revision. Here is a list of the major translations prior to 1611 in English.

1] John Wycliffe (1380)

2] Tyndale’s NT and portions of the “OT” (1526-34)

3] Myles Coverdale (1535)

4] Matthew’s (1537)

5] Taverner’s (1539)

6] Great Bible (1539)

7] Geneva (1560)

8] Bishop’s (1568)

9] Douai-Rheims (1582 & 1609)

Fifth. In 1892, an indefatigable lady name Agnes Smith Lewis, along with her sister Margaret, made yet another trip to the desert of Sinai to St. Catherine’s Monastery. They had already made the hazardous journey several times. On this trip, Lewis make the “discovery” of a lifetime. She found in a dark closet a palimpsest manuscript of the four Gospels written in Syriac. It has since been called Syriac Sinaiticus and is the oldest copy of the Gospels in that language.

These two sisters were adventurous “Bible hunters.” What may surprise many today is that without formal training these two ladies could run circles around many PhDs today. They could read the Syriac in their sleep. The Syriac Gospels were a major discovery in the history of the New Testament scholarship. (The story of these female Indiana Jones’s can be read in Janet Soskice’s wonderful, The Sisters of Sinai: How Two Lady Adventurers Discovered the Hidden Gospels.

E, J. Goodspeed’s New Testament: An American Translation. Note how 1 Timothy 3.1 is with the paragraph ending with 2.15. The paragraph break is in 3.1b.

Sixth. The first Bible printed in America was John Elliot’s translation into the Algonquin Indian language in 1663. The language has since died out and only a few specialists can actually read it today. (If you ever find a copy on eBay it is probably worth a considerable amount of money (like hundreds of thousands of dollars).

Seventh. The Scriptures in the ancient world were read orally and in a communal context. In the Dead Sea Scrolls “edition” of the book of Jonah at what we call chapter 4.3, where Jonah expresses his “death wish,” there is a pause for the reader to impress upon the listeners the utterly shocking statement by Jonah. In the Masoretic text of Jonah, the text preserves a setumah, also indicating the ancient practice of pausing in hushed dismay at this point of the story. A powerful rhetorical device for hearing scripture and letting that portion sink in … in silence.

Eighth. The first complete English Bible made, the Wycliffe Bible, came with a lengthy Preface. This Preface, written by John Purvey most likely, is aimed to help “symple men of wit” to read, hear and live the Book of God. The most recommended book of all the books for the common Englishman of the day was Tobit. This book is profitable to “symple puple to maken hem … to take wyues in drede of god, for loue of children and not al for foul lust …”

And finally …

Ninth. The Gilgamesh Epic was known in Israel during the time of King David. We know this today because portions of the Epic that have been unearthed by archeologists at Megiddo. It may be that this Epic, which was sort of an Ancient Near East “Bible,” sheds light on expectations of kings and the hunger for a meaningful life in the ancient world. Placing the adventures of Samson, David, Solomon in that world sometimes can be illuminating. (See Andrew George’s translation, The Epic of Gilgamesh in the Penguin Classics series).

Read. Pray. Seek the Lord.

2 Responses to “The “Bible” and the Early Church: A Few Things We May Not Know”

  1. JT Says:

    Thanks Bobby. “Material remains”…never heard of that. One more notch in the belt confirming why well-read, godly scholars are needed!

    In trying to improve my understanding of the Word I rightly give attention to how translators can, and have, differed in their assignment of words and their meanings. Yet, you’ve reminded me that placement and punctuation are equally important many times in determining what the original language really may have been communicating.


  2. A. Ruth Miller Says:

    If the law is now written on our hearts and the Spirit indwells, why are we pursuing a written word in the first place?

    NO LONGER will a person teach their neighbor, right?

    Doctrine comes from the love of God that indwells. Against such there is no written law.

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