I wrote recently on the character of Scripture, prompted by a statement made by Marty Solomon in Episode #82 of the BEMA Podcast, focusing on the question: Does inspiration mean accuracy? The idea that Scripture is inspired by God comes from 2 Timothy 3:16:
“All Scripture is inspired by God and beneficial for teaching, for rebuke, for correction, for training in righteousness….”2 Timothy 3:16 (NASB)
This statement from Paul is one of the few comments on the character of Scripture in the Bible. In this article, I want to focus on other comments on Scripture in the New Testament.
You might be surprised to know that Peter cross-references Paul. Peter recognizes Paul’s letters and lumps them in with “other Scriptures”. (2 Peter 3:15-16 ESV) The recognition by Peter that Paul’s writings are “scripture” is highly significant because Jesus said Peter was the “rock” on which Jesus would build his church. (Matt. 16:18) If Peter considered Paul’s writings “scripture”, we should too.
Paul cross references Luke in his first letter to Timothy. Paul quotes “the Scripture”, saying “’Do not keep an ox from eating as it treads out the grain.’ And in another place, ‘Those who work deserve their pay!’” (1 Timothy 5:18 NLT) The first quotation is from Deuteronomy 25:4. The second is from Luke 10:7 (NRSV). Thus, Paul quotes Luke’s Gospel, as Scripture in the same vein as Deuteronomy.
This discussion, though, begs the question: what is Scripture? Obviously Peter thought Paul’s letters were Scripture, and Paul thought Luke was Scripture. Most of Scripture in that time would have been what we call the Old Testament. There was no “New Testament”, so what else is Scripture?
Many misconceptions abound. People claim that books were removed from the Bible. People claim that a group of church fathers got together and determined what should be in the New Testament. These claims are false. They have no basis in the historical record.
The truth is more complicated, and the NT canon developed more organically than what is popularly believed. The writings of the NT developed from the texts that were considered authoritative throughout the early church.
We may think of Christianity being controlled centrally from Rome, but that didn’t happen until the 4th Century. Before that, churches were scattered all over the Roman Empire and beyond. Various centers of influence existed, including Rome, Alexandria (Northern Africa), Caesarea (the Levant), Antioch (Syria), Lyons (France) and other places, but the top down authority of Rome (and Constantinople) developed much later.
The writings that make up the existing New Testament were shared and circulated throughout a wide area, wherever churches took root. Opinions were shared, and a consensus grew based primarily on the authorship (apostolic connection) and message (consistency with the teachings of Jesus).
Many of those writings were accepted very early by a majority of people, and others gained acceptance later by consensus. (See The Formation of the New Testament Canon) Many other writings were considered helpful, but not Scripture, and some writings were considered heretical. Late writings (turning up after the apostles were gone in the 2nd Century and later) were categorically excluded.
Eusebius of Caesarea was one of the first people to attempt a summary of authoritative writings. The 22 “books” he identified in the 3rd Century are nearly identical to the canon we have today, minus a few and plus a few. The consensus was close to settled at that time.
The first person to name all 27 writings exactly as they are known today was Athanasius in Northern Africa in his Festal Letter written A.D. 367. The same canon was accepted by the rest of Christendom at the African synods of Hippo Regius (A.D. 393) and Carthage (A.D. 397 and 419). (Not the Council of Nicaea as the popular myth goes!)
In between the 1st Century and the early 5th Century when the canon was officially settled, other lists were offered by various sources. Bruce Metzger, the Princeton Theologian, says, “The slowness of determining the final limits of the canon is testimony to the care and vigilance of early Christians in receiving books purporting to be apostolic.”
Metzger notes that “the chief criterion for acceptance of particular writings as sacred, authoritative, and worthy of being read in services of worship was apostolic authorship”. The early church focused on the source or authority – connection to the apostles who knew Jesus. They also measured them by the known message of Jesus, as preserved by those apostles.
Keep in mind that the apostles lived on after Jesus. Peter died in 64 AD during the reign of Nero in Rome according to contemporary, extra-biblical sources. John, the Apostle, died in 100 AD according to reports preserved from multiple sources.
Thus, the apostles, the closest people to Jesus, lived on 30 to 70 years after Jesus died. They were the standard by which the authority of contemporary writings were judged.
Determining (or accepting) what is Scripture is only a beginning, though. How we view Scripture and interact with it is where the real rubber meets the road. In my last article, I wrestled with what it means that Scripture is inspired, suggesting that accuracy is not necessarily the key component. I will dig a little deeper in the rest of this article.
First, let’s start with the Greek word that Paul used that is translated as “inspired”: θεόπνευστος, ον (theopneustos). This Greek word is derived from two Greek root words: theós, meaning “God”, and pnéō, meaning “breathe out”. Thus, “God-breathed” is a literal translation. Since God is not a created being that has a body or literally breaths, the phrase is figurative (allegorical).
The Greek word is translated “spirit” (as in the Holy Spirit) is πνεῦμα, ατος, τό (pneuma) means, literally, wind, breath, spirit. Jesus said the disciples would be given the Holy Spirit (pneuma) who “will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.” (John 14:26)
The idea that Scripture is “God-breathed” alludes to this promise from Jesus that the Holy Spirit (the breath, wind, spirit of God) would bring to mind to the apostles the things Jesus said and would teach them. This is the full meaning of what Paul meant when he said Scripture was God-breathed (inspired by God).
Does God-breathed mean Scripture is word-for-word accurate and incapable of error? I don’t think it does. Paul could have said just that, but he didn’t.
Judging by the process through which the cannon developed, inspiration seems to have been more closely associated with the source (from which the apostles) and harmony with what Jesus said. While we should be able to assume a certain accuracy and reliability to what they communicated, no one claimed the apostles transcribed dictation from God.
Breath or wind (spirit) conveys a different idea than dictation and transcription. It doesn’t suggest verbatim communication. Indeed, These descriptions go back in time to what God said before Jesus through the prophets:
“And I will give them one heart, and a new spirit I will put within them. I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh….”
“For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”
Instead of speaking through prophets, however, God became flesh in the person of Jesus and spoke directly to those who would listen and follow. Perhaps, God did it this way to ensure that His words were understood more accurately and completely. Jesus, who is described as the very Word of God (John 1:1-3), said,
“For I have not spoken on my own, but the Father himself who sent me has given me a command to say everything I have said.”John 12:49 (CSB)
The apostles didn’t always understand what he was saying during the three years leading up to his death on the cross, but Luke tells us that Jesus spent 40 days with the apostles after his death and spoke to them about the kingdom of God. (Acts 1:3) He explained how the Old Testament Scripture spoke of him from Moses through all the Prophets. (Luke 24:27)
Thus, Jesus shared directly to the apostles and other disciples during his life, and he spent weeks with them after his death and resurrection sharing more completely with them. Then, the apostles were left with the Holy Spirit to teach them and remind them of the things Jesus said.
After all of that, we should expect for them to have a good idea of what God conveyed to them through Jesus and the Holy Spirit. We can fairly assume they had a good understanding of what was communicated to them.
Does this mean that the NT writings are a verbatim, word for word transcript of all that Jesus said? Did Jesus always use the same words? Did he always say things exactly the same way?
What language did Jesus use? Aramaic? Hebrew? Greek? If Jesus spoke in Aramaic, are his words still Scripture in Hebrew? If he spoke in Aramaic and Hebrew, are his words still Scripture in Greek? I say, yes! Peter said Paul’s writings, which were in Greek, are Scripture.
If Jesus said something in Aramaic or Hebrew, does it translate directly, 100%, word for word into Greek? Does it translate the same way into Latin? Or English? or Syriac, Coptic or any other language?
Is it still Scripture today translated into dozens of English translations and dozens and dozens of languages? I would say, yes!
God said He would give us a new heart and new spirit and “write” His law on our hearts. Jesus could have chiseled his words into stone like Moses did with the Ten Commandments, but he didn’t do that.
Jesus spent three years with the apostles before his death, forty days with them after his resurrection, and gave them His Holy Spirit to teach them and remind them of what he said. In this way, the apostles internalized what Jesus said. I believe this is what the prophets meant when they said God would “write His law on their new hearts”.
The experience Jesus described as being born again, and the experience that is described in Acts as people receiving the message and being confirmed by manifestations of the Holy Spirit is consistent with the idea of receiving new hearts from God – hearts of flesh and not hearts of stone. This is what God promised.
This reality is available to all believers who have responded to God’s offer of forgiveness for sin and who have surrendered their hearts and lives to God in Christ. God still gives His Holy Spirit to us to teach us and remind us, with the aid of Scripture which has been written down and preserved for us.
If God wanted rote obedience, He would have given us a rulebook etched in stone to follow. He did that once, but it wasn’t enough. It wasn’t what God was ultimately aiming for. The Law was only a shadow of the real plan, which is for people to become like God, to become like Him in character, as He works in us, in our hearts, to form us into new creations.