Friday, May 12, 2017

How We Got the Bible by Neil Lightfoot (Book Review #12 of 2017)

How We Got the Bible: Revised and Expanded 3rd Edition

I was anticipating reading several different books covering the same topic, but this book offers such a detailed overview that I feel there is little need. I made over 300 notes and highlights, according to Google. It made me want to read other books to get the details on stories like the adventure of discovering the Siniatic codex in the 19th century, or Tyndale's martyrdom for helping make the Bible available in English. Lightfoot's work might also motivate you to learn koine Greek. I read this book as a 37 year old Christian, really I should have read it when I was 17 (although the most updated edition has the newest research). Since the Bible is of the utmost of importance to the believer, and the object that comes the most heavily under attack, this ought to be one of the first books a new Christian should read, or even a skeptical non-Christian who has misconceptions about forgeries and manuscript evidence. There is much more to this book, but here are some of my major takeaways:

Lightfoot first covers the progression of written text in the ancient world from tablets and pottery shards to papyrii, rolled forms, and codices. He explains the difference between the biblical uncials, miniscules, and papyrus fragments we have today. He gives a decent history of the most important complete manuscripts: Vatican (4th century), Siniatic, and Alexandrian (5th century), Ephraem palimpset manuscript, and Codex Bezae. He explains how they differ, how translators compare the various versions, and the intricacies of translating words that may be spelled the same in Greek or have one character difference. Many of these texts have only been made available since the late 1800s, with other fragments and papyrii discovered regularly, and Lightfoot explains how they certainly help modern translations be close to original autographs. Most fragments and manuscripts discovered can be placed in a "family tree" of manuscripts, even though no two manuscripts are exactly alike. There are still early manuscripts in Syriac, Armenian, and others being examined.

What is remarkable about the Bible, particularly the New Testament, is both the ubiquity of copies and how similar they are to one another, despite none being identical. While there may be more than 200,000 known scribal errors amongst the manuscripts and fragments, that is because there are over 20,000 such pieces including 5,300 manuscripts of a great many words and pages. There are no other works of history with nearly as many manuscript copies. That they are increasingly discovered of early dates and relatively distant places indicate the early writing of the originals. Arguments of 19th century for late dates of authorship have been undermined by the sheer number of discoveries and remarkable alikeness.

Lightfoot makes a comparison:
"The history of Thucydides, for example, which was written about 400 B.C., is available today on the basis of eight manuscripts, while the few books that remain of the Roman historian Tacitus (c. A.D. 100) have survived on the margin of two manuscripts. Copies of Thucydides are thus about 1,300 years later than the date of their original composition, yet no effort is made to discount these copies in spite of such a wide interval of time."

There is also a look at the "apocryphal" books, what they are, how they have been used in church history and more. Evidence suggests strongly that Shepherd of Hermas and other books may have been used in early church worship services while not being considered authoritative, similar to how a pastor might read portions of an extrabiblical book to assist with a sermon today.  I agree with Lightfoot that every Christian should read 1 Maccabees for help in understanding Palestinian geography and politics in Jesus' day. He explains clearly how the canon was formed and the reader can draw conclusions for himself about what did not happen, namely some group of men decided which books to keep and which to burn like skeptics might wrongly state.

The author gives a good treatment of how the Bible got to English. He details Jerome's Latin translation and its various issues and how that "official" version became the basis for other translations. How we got chapters and verses in the 12th century. How Tyndale was the first to translate the New Testament into English from available Greek manuscripts (Erasmus' third edition of the Greek). Lightfoot explains how earlier manuscript discoveries give strong evidence against the inclusion of a verse like 1 John 5:7, because only later manuscripts than ones mentioned above have that verse. Erasmus used what was available to him, as did Tyndale, as did later translators like the officially-sanctioned King James Version. Now we have even more available to us, and more non-koine Greek and Semitic-language finds and scholarship that have helped shed light on the meaning of koine-Greek words.

While I focus on the New Testament, the Hebrew Bible and the Septuagint's history is also a remarkable story in itself. Lightfoot explains what we know about various schools of Jewish scribes and how they would meticulously count the letters in a manuscript copy and re-check it to count its accuracy. He demonstrates what's so great about the Dead Sea Scrolls in that they thus far show that between the thousand years of the first available Hebrew manuscript little has changed from the first century and before.

I live in a town with several King-James-Only churches. I was interested to learn of how some of the earliest Calvinist Pilgrims in America clung to the Geneval Bible rather than the King James. Lightfoot gives examples of translation problems in all of the English translations he examines, and does not single out the King James for criticism. But after reading of the methods of literary criticism and translation I am baffled at how anyone could claim a 17th century English text as the only authoritative one. Lightfoot encourages readers to check out the foreword in the KJV that is often not reprinted today, where the translators give their official statement as to why the translation was necessary and show that, logically, further updates and translations would always be necessary as languages change and more scholarship is done on more recent manuscript finds.

This is a five star book, highly recommend.

No comments: