It has been said to me by one Quaker minister, that she “sees no reason to doubt the literal truth of all the scriptures.” I haven’t had the opportunity to talk any with her about all of this, but I have some questions that it made me think about. Most of them have to do with the fundamental Quaker premise that Jesus Christ has come to teach his people himself, and how we can be led astray if we put our primary trust in an outward guide. The question of just what, exactly, constitutes "all of the Scriptures" is one that we don't often ask, and that we should, because it's central to this question. It's important, if for no other reason than the unarguable fact that the Bibles read by the first generations of Friends were much longer than the ones we use today, and included many, many pages of history, apocalypse, and wisdom literature than do the ones on most Quaker bookshelves.
Today, when we say ”all the scriptures,” do we mean all the books of the Bible that were declared canonical by the 4th century Roman Catholics at Nicaea, and still used by them today for official Christian doctrine? Or by Athanasius? Or in the Muratorian Fragment? Although there are about 14 disputed Old Testament Apocryphal or Deuterocanonical Books, Martin Luther followed Jerome and declared them unscriptural. The King James Authorized Version of the Bible generally included them in its printings up to the mid-19th century, and some are still part of the various Orthodox and today’s Roman Catholic canons. This is important, because the King James Bible that George Fox carried with him and studied into the night in hollow trees was a different animal than the one you buy in your local Christian bookstore today. George's Bible contained the Book of Tobit, and 2 Esdras, and 1 and 2 Macabbees, and a dozen others. To my knowledge, nobody has ever collated the text of the Apocrypha with the writings of Fox. There are countless allusions, figures of speech, and direct quotes in his writings to the currently canonical books, and I would like to know just how much of the Apocrypha was quoted by Fox as well. Modern Friends are woefully ignorant of those books, and there is no reason to expect an allusion to them to be noticed by a modern editor.
Back to the Apocrypha itself, the Protestant Puritans discounted them because they wanted to return to what they thought were the original Hebrew scriptures, but the second and third century church Fathers had had long arguments over their inclusion with the Jews of their time that I don’t know were ever addressed adequately by Puritan theologians, and the original Hebrew scriptures haven’t survived. The New testament epistles and such that quote Scripture almost always quote the Greek Version (with a dozen allusions specifically to the Apocrypha). The Eastern Orthodox Christians and the Syriatic Coptics and Ethiopian Orthodox Churches by 692 AD accepted only four of the seven main Apocryphal books, leaving out both 1 and 2 Maccabees, and the Book of Baruch. The Russian Orthodox Church has its own list. There are lengthy apocryphal sections within Esther and Daniel. So, if we say ”all the scriptures,” do we mean to include these as essential, or do we leave them out? It's important, because if worshipping God requires that we recognize a specific canon, then we have to decide whether we are talking about the canon of the Jews, the canon of the primitive Christians, the canon of the modern Protestants, the canon of the Roman Catholics, or the canon of the Eastern and Syriatic Orthodox churches. If God and the canon are inseparable, then we have to decide which is correct, and which are false.
One minor type of problem appears in Jude. In my KJV, Jude 9 refers to the contention between the devil and the Archangel Michael about the body of Moses. This is a reference to the apocalyptic Book of the Assumption of Moses, which does not appear in either the Apocryphal or non-Apocryphal books of any modern canon. I haven’t read it, and don’t know whether it should be included with ”all of the scriptures” or not. It is quoted in accepted canonical scriptures as being true, although Jude itself was not considered inspired by many early Christians. One of my commentaries suggests that the Assumption of Moses should be considered ”partly inspired,” with only that the quoted section being the inspired part. What should I do? Should I study all or only part of it? Should we all only read the section quoted in Jude, or read the whole book, but only believe part of it? Some Catholic theologians believed that originally uninspired writings can become inspired later, if the Holy Ghost decides to make use of them at a later date. Might that apply here? What might that mean for the definition of “all the scriptures?” Hard questions.
In the original 1611 Authorized Version, Jesus himself refers to the Apocrypha twice--once in his reference to "vain prayers and repetitions," and then when he longs to gather Jerusalem "like a hen gathers her chicks." If Jesus was knowledgeable of the Hebrew Scriptures (a reasonable assumption) then he was also knowledgable of the Greek Scriptures containing these references, wouldn't you think? What did Jesus think of the Apocrypha?
Another more important type of problem appears in 1 John. Much doctrine in non-Quaker traditions centers around the Trinity of ”the three that testify in heaven: the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit, and these three are one.” (1 John 5:7--Authorized Version). William Penn himself defended the Quaker views of the Trinity by asserting that they believed in ”the three that bare record in heaven,” in his ”Testimony to the Truth of God” (section VIII), in my 1829 reprint of that work. Modern commentaries on the King James point out that this passage (the ”Johannine Commae”) never appeared in any Greek New Testament prior to the likely-forged 1520 version submitted to Erasmus to influence this very question. It doesn’t appear in any pre-800 AD versions of the Latin Vulgate, and appears to be a passage that was unknown to Christian writers for hundreds of years. Mid-20th century Roman Catholic polyglot bibles print it as a historical part of the Vulgate, but omit it from the Greek version on the opposite page. At the 1870’s First Vatican Council it was declared inspired, but at the Second Vatican Council in 1968 it was declared uninspired. Does its inspiration therefore come and go depending on Papal authority, or on which language the scripture is read in (Greek or English), or does it mean that this verse on the Trinity represents an uninspired spurious or accidental addition to the original inspired Scripture? If the latter, then the King James version would be only partly inspired, and my NIV, ESV, and Jehovah’s Witness New World Translation (all of which which leave out the reference) would presumably be completely inspired, at least regarding the traditional doctrine of the Trinity. With the King James, there is no way to check on the translator’s original manuscripts, because they didn’t retain their working copies and kept no records of what they were. Which version is the literally true one? If scripture is essential, then it is essential that we know. Otherwise we are likely to believe something that God didn’t inspire and doesn’t intend for us to obey.
Perhaps all the Comma variants are literally true, and the late addition of the ”the three that bear record” is a recent divinely-inspired addition to the briefer original. (One of my Protestant commentaries says this is what we should accept.) If this is true, then the canon cannot be considered to be closed. (Take your pick about which one you think is the right one to start with). This is consistent with early Quaker thought, and might make the most sense because other newly-discovered documents such as the Nag Hammadi and Dead Sea Scrolls might have inspired portions for us to consider today.
To solve these historical discrepancies on "all the Scriptures," we might check by going back to some of the earliest Greek copies of the New Testament Scriptures. There are about 20 major ones, and about 5500 other manuscript versions from three or four main textual traditions. One of the most important for clarifying ancient Christian scripture is the Codex Sinaiticus, the 4th century uncial Bible discovered in an Egyptian monastery in the 1840’s. It is one of the oldest and most complete versions of the Bible existing and might be assumed to be a collection closer to the original, inspired writings. But in addition to the Old Testament Deuterocanonical works, the Sinaiticus also includes the New Testament Epistle of Barnabas and the Shepherd of Hermas, which nobody today thinks of as inspired, although the scribes who penned the Sinaiticus seem to have thought so. Do we then follow their judgement about which books were inspired scripture, and which were false? If we do, it seems to me that we all should come up with copies of Barnabas and the Shepherd to study. If we don’t, then do we also ignore the rest of the Sinaiticus and the contributions it has made to clarifying Scripture in the Bibles on our bookshelves over the last 150 years, which are substantial? If we are to believe all the Scriptures, then we must decide which writings to call ”the Scriptures.”
With respect to the oldest Hebrew readings of the Bible, the very, very old Book of Job in the Hebrew contains 400 more lines in it than the Greek version (the Septuagint) of the second century BC. Along with the Hebrew text, this is the one that Jerome translated into the Latin Vulgate, which with about seven arguably poor Greek manuscripts was used as a base for Erasmus’s Greek New Testament and later Stephanus’s Textus Recepticus of about 1550. The latter was was used as a partial base for the Authorized Version in 1611, and also as the foundation for my Roman Catholic Jerusalem Bible. Are the missing 400 lines in all these non-Hebrew Bibles inspired Scripture? If so, should we use a modern translation of the original Hebrew Tanach when reading Job, and ignore all the Greek, Old Latin, Armenian, Syriac, and Coptic Bibles written in the last 2100 years, not to mention the Gallic, Old English, German, Spanish, and Italian versions?
Perhaps we could, but except for the fragmentary Dead Sea Scrolls, no actual Hebrew manuscripts exist today that are older than the Masoritic text, written around the 7th century AD. Listen carefully: Our base manuscripts of the “incomplete” Greek Septuagint translation of Job are therefore older than the oldest existing copies of the possibly more “complete” Hebrew text. Which is the inspired version of Job for us to trust for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, and for instruction in righteousness? To be safe we should perhaps have copies of them all, so that we can sift through the decisions made for us by believers and unbelievers through the centuries about what to them constituted ”all the scriptures.”
The complications that I've mentioned are the small tip of a very large iceberg. There is no such thing as a single Bible, in Hebrew, Greek, or otherwise. In 1707, John Mill catalogued every Greek text of the New Testament that he could obtain, in his Greek New Testament. He listed over 30,000 variant readings among the miscellaneous text traditions that might be roughly categorized as Western, Alexandrian, and Byzantine. These are not just Greek synonyms with more than one definition in translation, but genuine variant words and passages that don’t say the same thing:
- The Gospel of Mark has four different endings that are not at all the same, and all pre-date the closing of the canon, and are therefore all “officially” inspired by God.
- In other manuscripts, “No-one knows the Son but the Father,” but in others the text “No-one know the Father but the Son” is omitted.
- The advice of Jesus to sit down at the table in a lower room rather than an upper does not appear in 99 percent of all ancient Bibles-only the ”wild” Beza text and allies contain it.
- The story of the woman caught in adultery appears variously in either John or Luke.
- What happened to Saul on the road to Damascus isn’t the same from manuscript to manuscript.
- Even in your current Bible, whatever translation or printing it is, the text that Pontius Pilate had affixed to the top of the cross is different in all four Gospels, as well as in the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas.
- Was Jesus facetiously robed by the Jewish priests, or by Pilate, and where? Your own Bible tells the story both ways. Look it up.
- How many times did the rooster crow, and exactly where was Peter when he heard it? One classic analysis maintains that to account for all the differences, Peter has to warm himself at the fire and repeat almost the same conversations eight different times.
- Stephen is said to have quoted Jeremiah before the court, but it was really Zechariah, and did he know, or is it a typo?
The variants go on and on. Presumably the original ancient writers were inspired by God to write a piece of Holy Scripture. And they may have written the same piece more than once, to send off to different destinations. But none of those original scrolls or codices still survive, so all we are left with are copies of copies of copies, with various numbers of errors, omissions, additions, harmonizations, emendations, and occasional outright forgeries, too. Some mistakes are obvious, but many more are not. Nobody anymore knows what the original inspired scripture really said. We can only trust in the guesses of the editors. But is the educated guess of some medieval or modern divinity professor good enough to base our salvation on? If all scripture is essential for salvation, then we have to take that choice.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses (bless their sincerity!) print three of the four endings of Mark in their Bibles, so you can see them all and make up your own mind. The original King James prints variant readings in the margins as ”Or...” but modern condensed KJV bibles often mix up synonyms and variant texts in their edited marginal notes. The NIV or RSV annotated Bibles use footnotes extensively to point out variant tests (not just variant translations). Most Bible publishers leave all the alternates out and give a false picture of consistency for their particular choice.
Believing the Scriptures to be essential requires either a lifetime of scholarship merely to establish a starting text, or requires us to base our faith on the judgments of people we have never met who follow religious traditions we do not accept. God is not easily captured within the pages of a book. Without the Holy Ghost helping us through this mess, we end up basing our religion on long-dead and very fallible human authorities we are forced to trust, like it or not. With the Holy Ghost helping us to understand the Scriptures, then I believe that the difficulties fall away, and the meaning of God’s words become clear.