October 18, 2020
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
BIBLE 101: BETCHA DIDN’T KNOW
II Kings 2:23-25
The sixth in a series of six.
Once upon a time, a holy man went for a walk. This man was highly respected. He had lived a few years, and as is true with many older men, he no longer had hair on his head. As the saying goes, he was bald as a cue ball.
He walked past a gathering of young boys. Individually these boys were well behaved, but as a group they could be a holy terror. They pointed at the old man and giggled. They were saying things to each other that he couldn’t hear. Then they got up the nerve to say it out loud. They called him “baldhead.” They thought it was funny.
He didn’t. He was not amused. He called down God’s curse on these boys. At that very moment, out of the woods jumped two vicious, hungry bears. What happened next was hideous. This holy man kept walking as the bears tore these boys to pieces.
Where in the world did I find a story like that? I found it in the Bible. II Kings 2:23-25.
From there Elisha went up to Bethel. As he was walking along the road, some youths came out of the town and jeered at him. “Go on up, you baldhead!” they said. “Go on up, you baldhead!” He turned around, looked at them, and called down a curse on them in the name of the Lord. Then two bears came out of the woods and mauled 42 of the youths. And Elisha went on to Mount Carmel and from there returned to Samaria.
That is one story that the Bible storybook I got for Christmas when I was six years old does not include. And speaking of Christmas gifts, here is one possibility you might consider:
This is going to be the most unusual of the six sermons in this series. You’ve probably already figured that out. I’ve covered some basic Bible information in the previous five, but I’ve left a lot out. Today we’re going to have some fun. You’ve earned it. We’re going to look at a few tidbits of Bible trivia, mainly on the stranger side, like that opening story. But mixed in will be some basic Bible knowledge we haven’t gotten to yet. The main thing we’re going to spend some time on today is how it was determined which books belong in the Bible and which books don’t.
I think you already know that the Bible is the bestselling book of all time. Nothing else comes close. But did you know what nation leads the world in the production of Bibles? You can probably guess. China.
I demonstrated a few weeks ago that little trick of opening your Bible right in the middle. You know where you will probably be – somewhere in the book of Psalms. But here is something else that I think is real cool. The center chapter of the Bible is Psalm 118. Before Psalm 118, there are 594 chapters. After Psalm 118, there are 594 chapters. So you add the 594 chapters before and the 594 chapters after: 594 + 594 = 1,188. Take those four numbers: 1,1,8, and 8. Put them together and you get Psalm 118:8. And that is the central verse of the whole Bible!
So are you curious what the central verse of the whole Bible says? “It is better to trust in the Lord than to put confidence in man.” Which is basically the central message of the whole Bible.
I mentioned earlier in the series that quite a few Christian groups have doctrinal statements that say the Bible is without error in its “original writings.” So where do we find those “original writings”? None exist. The oldest scraps of papyrus or parchment that we do have are copies of copies of copies.
In 1947 a boy was looking for a lost goat near the Dead Sea. He was climbing on some cliffs and saw a cave that was difficult to get to. So he threw a rock into it, thinking the goat might be hiding there. Instead of hearing the bleating of a goat, he heard something break.
This was the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Scrolls of Bible books had been placed in large clay jars. The oldest dates to about 250 BC, which makes it the oldest manuscript we have by about 1,000 years. And here is what is fascinating about this discovery. When the Dead Sea Scrolls were compared with the 1,000 year older scrolls, they were found to be virtually word for word identical. Tremendous care has been taken over the centuries in preserving the Bible. Can you imagine having the job of re-copying all 1,189 chapters? There were those who had that job, and they took that job very seriously. They believed preserving the accuracy of God’s inspired Word was up to them.
I mentioned last week that the oldest English translation is the Tyndale Bible that dates to 1525.
There was actually an earlier English translation made by John Wycliffe, but it was condemned and the copies were burned. John Wycliffe would have been burned too, but he had already died. That didn’t stop his enemies from digging up his bones and burning them.
Since the Wycliffe Bible was destroyed, William Tyndale gets credit for the first English language Bible. He came along about 150 years later. The Gutenberg printing press had been invented by then, so his translation was able to be mass produced. He was a marked man in England, so he escaped to Germany and had his Bibles printed there. Copies were smuggled into England in bales of cotton. One angry bishop bought up as many Tyndale Bibles as he could get his hands on. He burned them all. William Tyndale took the money and he was able to more than replace the Bibles that were burned.
Wycliffe died before he could be put to death but Tyndale was not so lucky. He was tied to a stake, strangled, and then his dead body was burned.
You might be curious why it was so dangerous to print a Bible back then. This was before the Protestant Reformation. Church services were conducted in Latin. And since nobody knew Latin except the priest, they were in control of telling people what the Bible said and what the Bible meant. So to print a Bible in the language of the people, so they could read it for themselves, was a threat to the power of the priesthood.
Now some useless trivia, but I think this is funny. In 1631 a typesetter in England made a mistake. The King James translation of the Bible was being printed. By then they were no longer killing people who translated the Bible into English. People who bought from this one particular batch, and who actually read their Bible, were in for a surprise. They got to the Ten Commandments and instead of reading, “Thou shalt not commit adultery” they read, “Thou shalt commit adultery.” It’s called the “Wicked Bible.” I understand nine copies exist today, which makes them extremely valuable.
Now to the main thing I want to talk about. How was it determined which books belong in the Bible and which books don’t? It was a process. It took centuries. There is a lot of historical detail that I can’t go into because of time, but what I want to emphasize is that our Bible was not delivered straight from God in its finished, final form.
Muslims believe that about their holy book. They believe the Quran was dictated directly to Mohammed. Latter-day Saints believe that about their Book of Mormon. Joseph Smith found golden plates with God’s writing already on them.
But when it comes to the Bible (which Latter-day Saints also consider sacred scripture) it is a much longer story. And the story of the Old Testament and the New Testament are two different stories.
I mentioned last week that the Bible Jesus knew was the Old Testament we know. It was 24 scrolls, not 39 books, but it was the same content. And I also mentioned that about 100 years before Jesus the Septuagint was completed. This was a translation of the Old Testament from the original Hebrew into Greek. Greek was the language most people were using at that time.
As the Old Testament was being translated into Greek, there were some extra books that were considered for inclusion. They were officially rejected, but some Jews kept using them anyway. And when the Church began, some of the early Christians were using these same books. They were called “apocrypha” which means “hidden away.” There was debate about whether they should be included in the Christian Bible, and it was finally decided that seven of these apocryphal books did indeed have the authority of scripture.
Catholic Bibles still include these seven. That’s why they have 73 books. Protestants don’t include these seven. That’s why we have 66. And two of the seven are First and Second Maccabees, which leads us to some more Bible trivia.
The question is asked, “Is Hanukkah in the Bible?” The answer is, “It depends.” The story of Hanukkah is found in First and Second Maccabees, which is not in the Protestant Bible, and not in the Jewish Bible, but it is in the Catholic Bible.
And it is in the New Testament, sort of. John 10:22.
Then came the Feast of Dedication at Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was in the temple area walking in Solomon’s Colonnade.
Another name for the Feast of Dedication is Hanukkah.
Now the story about how it was determined which books belong in the New Testament. It was actually kind of a messy process. It took nearly 400 years. There were also apocryphal New Testament books that some thought should be included and others didn’t.
Interest in the New Testament apocrypha peaked a few years ago when Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code became a bestseller. It was pure fiction, but it fooled a lot of people. It claimed that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married and had a baby together and that the Roman Emperor was in on a plot to cover this up. People who had never heard of the New Testament apocrypha suddenly were interested in studying it.
Here is the real story. It’s quite a bit more boring, but I’ll do my best to make you think it’s interesting! The first books of the Bible to be written were Paul’s letters. They were widely read in churches and used to instruct new disciples. Then the four Gospels were written, with Mark being the first. These four were widely used and accepted long before some additional gospels started showing up.
It’s not hard to tell the real deal from the fakeries. For example, here is a verse from the Gospel of Thomas:
Jesus said, “Blessed is the lion which becomes man when consumed by man; and cursed is the man whom the lion consumes and the lion becomes man” (1:7).
And here are a few other random examples (taken from The Man from Nazareth, Harry Emerson Fosdick, pages 60 & 61):
- Dragons confront the Holy Family on their way to Egypt, but baby Jesus stands before them and they bow down and worship him.
- Jesus as a boy brings dead fish back to life.
- Jesus molds clay into the shape of a sparrow, and the clay sparrow flies away.
- A boy bumps into him and Jesus is so irritated he strikes the boy dead. When the parents complain, Jesus strikes them blind.
- A playmate of Jesus falls off a roof and dies. The parents blame Jesus. So Jesus brings the boy back to life, but just long enough for him to tell his parents it was an accident so Jesus is off the hook.
And my personal favorite:
- When Jesus is helping Joseph in his carpentry work, they occasionally cut boards to the wrong length. Jesus touches the boards to make them shorter – you can also do that with a saw – and also to make them longer. Even skilled woodworkers have not figured out how to do that.
The point is, apocryphal New Testament books do not sound at all like the books that made it into the Bible.
But it took a while for the list to become official. The technical word is “canon,” which means “rule” or “measuring stick.” Iranaeus wrote in AD 170 that there are only four Gospels given by God and that they are Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Iranaeus also was the first to use the term “New Testament.”
Two centuries later a bishop named Athanasius wrote an Easter letter to his churches is which he listed for the first time all 27 books that are in our New Testament. Here is what he wrote:
These are the springs of salvation, in order that he who is thirsty may fully refresh himself with the words contained in them. In them alone is the doctrine of piety proclaimed. Let no one add anything to them or take away from them.
If those last words sound familiar it may be because you remember similar words from the Book of Revelation.
I warn everyone who hears the word of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, and if anyone takes away from the words of this book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book (22:18-19).
Which is interesting because Martin Luther not only wanted to take away words from the Book of Revelation. He wanted to get rid of the whole book. In his opinion, it never should have been included in the Bible. This is the same Martin Luther who was successful in getting rid of those seven Old Testament books that Catholics still use but that Protestants do not.
Which brings us back to the point I made in the first sermon. And this seems a pretty good place to end this Bible 101 series. Some people say the Bible is entirely a human creation. God had nothing to do with it. And some people say the Bible is entirely a divine creation. Human beings had nothing to do with it. But the conclusion that makes most sense to me lies somewhere between these two.
The Bible is both human and divine. It was written by ignorant, fallible human beings. Which is why it includes stories like the one about those boy-eating bears. But those same ignorant, fallible human beings were also inspired by an all-knowing, all-loving God.
And so too the process of determining which books to include and which books to leave out. It was a long, messy, complicated, and very human process. But who can deny that God was at work through it all.
Because this is his book. And this is our book. This is the one book we cannot live without.
It is better, O God, far better, to trust in you than to put our confidence in ourselves. That is the verse at the center of the Bible. We’ve learned a few things about the Bible these past few weeks. There is still a lot to learn. There always will be. But God, if we learn nothing else, may we learn to trust you. You are trustworthy. You are faithful. You are good. You are great. And you have given us this book we call the Bible because you love us so much. In Jesus, Amen.