Crossway | 2022 | 272 pages (paperback) | $19.99
For the first decade of my life, I worshiped in an independent Baptist church in Smyrna, Georgia. I owe much to that church. It is, after all, where I came to profess Christ as my Savior and was baptized. But its doctrine of Scripture sowed the seed for many a spiritual crisis later in life. This doctrine centered on the Authorized King James Version, their only approved English Bible. I recall a panel from a “Chick tract” (evangelical gospel tracts first produced by Jack Chick in the 1960s), which the church kept stocked by the exit, depicting the pope, a textual critic, and Satan presenting a copy of the NIV and saying in unison: “We hope you like our Bible!” Clearly, anyone who read a Bible other than the KJV was under demonic, Catholic, and (the horror!) academic influence!
While my experience was somewhat unusual, misconceptions about the Bible and its history abound. John D. Meade and Peter J. Gurry’s Scribes and Scripture: The Amazing Story of How We Got the Bible corrects many of these by presenting a surprisingly comprehensive but readable introduction to the history of the Bible with strong academic grounding and a pastoral heart.
God’s Providence and the Bible
For years, I tensed when I read about the abundance of scribal errors in manuscript traditions or typos in print editions (such as the infamous “Wicked” Bible, a 1631 printing of the KJV, which left out the “not” in Exodus 20:14, “Thou shalt not commit adultery”—the printer was fined £300, or the equivalent of $90,000 today [202–3]). I realized the root of my uneasiness was a misguided biblicism: I had taken the doctrine of divine inspiration (which I still profess, but now in a more traditional sense) to mean that a set of texts had been imbued with the divine attribute of immutability. Thus human errors as inevitable as typos undermined the Bible’s status as God’s inspired word. This notion would have earned me a polite smile from any early church father, who would have understood that alterations, though bothersome, were an unavoidable byproduct of copying and thus of a book’s survival.
It’s impossible to speak of the preservation of the Bible’s textual integrity over the centuries without reference to divine providence. In Scribes and Scripture, Meade and Gurry do just this: They employ a Reformed historiography. This rejects a double account of history that attempts to trace where God’s work ends and our human work begins. Rather, God works within history; his love and will are suffused throughout. Meade and Gurry write,
If God’s providence is over all, couldn’t he work through the formation of alphabets, the writings of canon lists, and even the work of sleepy scribes and the inconsistencies of Bible translators? Of course he could. There is no reason to let human activity preclude the divine. There is every reason not to. Providence is not a zero-sum game. (227)
This historiography is not intended to naturalize the reality of divine revelation, as though there were no distinction between God’s acts and those of his creatures. Meade and Gurry are clear that revelation is a discrete event and that God takes the initiative. The Holy Spirit inspired a few men to write (or, as more often happened, to dictate to a scribe), but the dissemination, copying, revision, criticism, and translation of that text unfolds as would be expected of any text. The Bible, as a book, is not magical. It is never absolutely safe from destruction, loss, error, or corruption. Its survival is not a given; only when we recognize this can we appreciate the doctrine of providence.
Perhaps it is most useful to think of the Bible as a divine charge. Its centrality in Christian worship, thought, and devotion called for enormous ingenuity, expense, sacrifice, and tedium (and often luck!) to stave off the forces of war, flood, fire, persecution, mold, insects, and mice. Even regular everyday use eventually destroys a manuscript. (Which is why some behemoths like the Codex Amiatinus survive: they simply were too large to be handled frequently.) The church holds the Scriptures in trust as divine deposits it is expected to preserve for future generations of believers. Their survival is a credit to the faithfulness of countless Christians, and the church must never rest from this toil.
Starting with the title, a clarification is already in order: What is “the Bible” that is the subject of “the amazing story”? In the end, Meade and Gurry mean the Bible most familiar to their readers: the Protestant English Bible, an anthology of sixty-six authoritative books. This Bible is both recent and ancient. Recent, because while it has been available in English for over seven centuries—even longer if you count Old English versions (189–90)—it has been printed with exclusively sixty-six books for about two. (An 1885 revision of the Authorized Version was the first to exclude the Apocrypha, which had been included in prior editions as an appendix.) Ancient, because it traces its roots, as all modern Christian Bibles do, to the apostolic preaching of the earliest Christian centuries. The book is organized in three sections: Text, Canon, and Translation. Three chapters comprise each section.
The first section opens with the development of early scribal publishing technologies and practices, including a brief account of Christianity’s favoritism for the codex (i.e., a manuscript book) at the time it was beginning to compete with the scroll. The codex permitted scribal-critical innovations the scroll could not. The premier example is Origen’s Hexapla, a comparative edition of the Bible that included five different translations side-by-side in six columns: the Hebrew, a transliteration of the Hebrew with Greek letters, the Septuagint, and three other Greek versions (i.e., Aquila, Symmachus, and Theodotion) in circulation at the time among the churches. Origen found that comparing manuscripts helped identify and resolve scribal errors and spurious interpolations. It also helped establish which readings had a stronger consensus among the churches. Such a grand polyglot Bible would not have been possible with the scroll.
The remainder of the section discusses the actual copying of the Old and New Testaments in antiquity. Here, Meade and Gurry argue for the need for textual criticism, which they define as “a discipline that seeks to recover the original wording of an ancient book by examining the remaining ancient copies of that book” (50). If that means establishing the precise shape of the texts of the New Testament writings as they appeared exactly from the hands of their authors and scribes before any copies were made, then the story of the past century of scholarship is one of failure. But if it means relying on the tools of textual criticism to help us establish even earlier and even more reliable forms of the biblical text, then it has been a tremendous success in bolstering our confidence in the trustworthiness of God’s word. While we will always need to rely on the received traditions of the church, textual criticism remains useful and, if we consider scholars like Origen and Jerome, nothing new for the church to practice. Meade and Gurry supply an excellent introduction to the basics of textual criticism, including introducing key terms (e.g., “textual witness”) and some of the counterintuitive facts of the discipline (e.g., a manuscript with the earliest date may not reflect the earliest version of a text; sometimes, later manuscripts or translations are better witnesses).
The second section, “Canon,” covers a lot of old ground but in an organized and readable way. It sets out to clarify common misconceptions of the development of the canon as those popularized by Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. Namely, the canon was not decided by imperial fiat by Constantine at the Council of Nicaea in 325. Nor was it an item ever addressed by an early ecclesial council. Rather, the formation of the canon was gradual and involved the whole body of churches in concert. Some books were widely recognized as authoritative at an early point, such as the Gospels, and the “Gospel canon” was just as quickly closed to exclude all but the four: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Acts and the Pauline Epistles were soon to follow, so a core New Testament canon was settled before the late second century. The Old Testament as well was mostly settled by the first century.
Thus the church always had an authoritative canon of some form. But other books took longer to be canonized, some of which floated in and out of favor for centuries. In fact, it wasn’t until the Reformation era that the church was compelled to decide exactly the borders of the canon (131). The concept of a “closed canon,” therefore, has a late appearance in church history. Yet, as Meade and Gurry take pains to make clear, no single scholar, theologian, priest, mystic, or teacher took it upon themselves to decide this: “No one person or personality—not even Luther!—could determine the canon’s boundaries. The canon of Scripture has always been a matter related to the great majority of churches having recognized the books in which God spoke through his prophets and apostles” (163). In a word, the canon is a “catholic” enterprise.
The bulk of this section is dedicated to the history of the English Bible—from Wycliffe to Tyndale, Coverdale, the Geneva edition, the KJV, and beyond—and the contributions each translation made to the final shape of the modern Bibles in our pews. It concludes with a wonderfully helpful chapter accounting for the abundance of translations available and the benefits each offers. This final chapter is necessary reading for anyone wondering which translation to own. It depends, of course, why you want to read it.
Though Meade and Gurry do not give this point great attention, another key takeaway in this section is that translation work has featured in the history of the Bible since its beginning. English just happens to be a latecomer to the history of Bible translation: Bibles were already available in other vernacular languages like German, Italian, and French by the time Wycliffe put pen to paper. Part of the resistance was that the English language at this time was underdeveloped. It had produced no great works of philosophy, poetry, science, or theology like other vernaculars had done. A common argument was that English simply didn’t have a vocabulary expansive enough to convey the Bible’s teachings. So, when John Wycliffe set out to translate the Latin Vulgate into English for the first time, he relied on neologism. He coined many new words, “including anathema, godly, unbeliever, and zealous” (192) to make up for English’s deficiency. Thus Bible translation work enriches the language in which it happens.
In the KJV-only tradition of my youth, divine providence was often invoked to bypass consideration of the historical dynamics that shaped the Bible. Meade and Gurry, however, are almost pastoral in their history writing. Readers will come away with an appreciation of the historical, social, cultural, technological, and theological factors that shaped the Bible. They will find it harder to believe that the sixty-six-book English Bible was inevitable. Some histories of the Bible treat the result of historical processes as though it should have been the obvious result all along. Thus the sixty-six-book English Bible, or a version of it, is treated as the ideal form, and every “other” Bible before this (or existing alongside it) was mere preamble or an early draft, not the living and active word of God in its own right.
Yet, the reader will also say, this contemporary English Bible is good and has important reasons for being the shape it happens to be. It is a boon to the church, the central witness of the earliest apostolic preaching for the English-speaking world, and sufficient for all faith and growth in godliness. Meade and Gurry do the important work of showing that we should not take our modern Bibles for granted. They are gifts given by God and preserved by the saints of the church. Recognizing this yields gratitude and praise, and we will all hold our Bibles a little more dearly.
Blake Adams (MA, Wheaton College) is an editor, a writer, and a trained historian. His research interests include early Christian history, ascetical theology, and exegesis. He serves as lead sacristan at Church of the Resurrection in Wheaton, Illinois. Follow him on Substack at https://readreligiously.substack.com/ or Twitter @BlaketheObscure.