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Reviews | God's Living Word

God’s Living Word: How the Bible came to us

Derek Banyard

Hardback or e-book (ePub)

224 pages

God’s Living Word: How the Bible came to us

The Testimony review (from March 1994)

Through many hands

ANY PUBLICATION about the history of the Bible will hold a special fascination for Christadelphians – the ‘people of the Book’. But when such a publication emanates from within our own community, and also fills a gap in our existing literature particularly well (as God’s Living Word does), then we have good reason to be pleased as well as keenly interested.

It is evident as soon as you pick it up that God’s Living Word has been a major project for both author and publishers, and the finished product certainly reflects great credit on all concerned from a technical point of view. But it is also very much more than simply a well-produced book. Originating in a series of six articles in The Christadelphian during 1988 under the title “How the Bible Came into our Life”, the text has been expanded into a full-length survey of the origin, transmission and translation of the Word of God. Now over 200 pages long, copiously illustrated and with many informative tables, nicely printed and attractively bound, with a useful bibliography and a comprehensive index, Brother Banyard’s study is an important publication on a key topic which has had surprisingly little coverage in the Brotherhood hitherto.

Only Brother Richard Purkis’ slender volume, The English Bible and its Origins, published by the short-lived Tamarisk Press in 1988, and a single chapter of Brother H. W. Hathaway’s all-too-little-known The Bible Today – And You, first published by the Dawn Book Supply in 1951, have covered any of the same ground. Yet the continuing demand among us for second-hand copies of non-Christadelphian books on the subject, like J. Paterson Smyth’s seriously outdated How We Got our Bible and Our Bible in the Making, clearly indicates that this is a topic of abiding interest to those in the Truth. It must therefore be a matter of gratification that we can henceforward turn to Brother Banyard’s work for a readable and highly-informative introduction to the ‘Book of Books’ and its formation and preservation through history under the providential hand of God.

A chronological approach, but …

Brother Banyard’s analysis of the available historical material takes a safe, and perhaps rather sedate, chronological approach, with the first chapter being called, unsurprisingly, ‘In the Beginning’, and the fourteenth, ‘The Twentieth Century’, with 6,000 years of the Bible’s history being covered en route.

It is pleasing to see, however, in a book which should also have a market outside the Brotherhood and which would be quite suitable to give to interested friends, that the occasional opportunity has not been shirked to explain the message and abiding value of the Word, as well as its form and development over time. ‘God’s Plan’ is a section which occurs right near the beginning of the book; ‘Reading and Understanding’ and ‘The Believer and his Bible’ are the closing chapters; and the presence of these elements prevents the inevitable historical emphasis of the book from assuming an over-academic aspect as the author pursues the long sequence of events which brought our Bible to us in its present form. As Brother John Morris observes in his foreword: “… this Book from God is not one merely to be wondered at: it is a Book which He has given ‘for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness …’”.

4,000 years in forty pages

Moses and the art of writing; the Law (Torah); the Prophets and the Writings – each of these topics is touched upon in the space of the first two disappointingly short, but nonetheless helpful, chapters. But it is when a third, shortish, chapter (“The New Testament Joins the Old”) brings the story quickly up to A.D. 70 that the reader begins to realise that the vast bulk of Brother Banyard’s study is going to concentrate on the history of the English Bible. Only one more chapter, of six pages, on the early versions, and then the focus moves swiftly on, in chapter 5, “Towards an English Bible”.

Yet if there might be grounds for feeling that 4,000 years of the Word of God have been rather too tightly packed into the first forty pages or so, any imbalance is compensated for by the quality of the presentation of the material. Fascinating illustrations throughout the extra-wide margins – including line drawings of clay tablets, hieroglyphics and pictograms, photographs and maps of key locations, full colour reproductions of relevant manuscripts, codices and inscriptions – all these jostle for space with well-chosen Scripture quotations and highly informative tables, including a full-length one giving details of other records referred to in the Old Testament, and another on the dating of the New Testament (in which the reviewer notes with interest the quite early date ‘tentatively’ assigned to the Gospel of John). There is so much here, as elsewhere, to divert and please the reader’s eye, that any brevity in the text can be easily forgotten.

Lest a false impression be given of these early chapters, though, it should be said that there is much of value in the text itself. Especially noteworthy, perhaps, are Brother Banyard’s comments on the formation of the canon of the Old Testament books (in chapter 2) and of the New (in chapter 4). In quoting and referring to the various pieces of evidence about the formation of our present New Testament (from Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp, Hegesippus, Justin Martyr, Melito, and the Muratorian Fragment), Brother Banyard makes the crucial, but often neglected point: “Beside the Old Testament, the early Christian’s Bible at first consisted of the separate writings of inspired men. The people immediately involved would know that the writings were genuine. This knowledge and conviction became the heritage of all true believers. The writings were used and copied with assurance.” And as he moves towards his fascinating account of subsequent editions and translations of the completed Bible, our author rightly makes no apology for speaking explicitly of the providential guiding hand of God in the unfolding process: “When the 27 books of the New Testament were added to the 39 books of the Old, these combined Scriptures became the basis of Christian teaching and the needs of other nations were met by appropriate translations. The process of editing and revising played an important part as God worked to ensure that, whatever the frailties of men, His Word might come to us in purity; and with power to fulfil its divine purpose”.

Towards the English Bible

The sixteen pages of Brother Banyard’s fifth chapter, which begin the principal thrust of his book, on the development of the Bible in English, are among the most interesting and well-written of all. The history of the Roman invasions of Britain, the work of Columba, Augustine and Bede, and of the monasteries of the Celtic Church, in spreading the influence of Christianity, is told with a lightness of touch which makes for enjoyable reading. Combined with beautiful illustrations of some of the best surviving Latin and Anglo-Saxon manuscripts of the Bible, the chapter prepares us well for the seminal contribution of John Wycliffe who, even if he had not earned our deep respect for his translation of the Bible into (fourteenth-century) English, would in any case have endeared himself to us by calling the pope Antichrist, and charging him with “simony, covetousness, ambition and tyranny”! And although the pope had his revenge by having Wycliffe’s bones dug up and burned over forty years after his death, at least Wycliffe’s efforts to begin the process of freeing the Bible from the stranglehold of the Roman priesthood and of the Latin Vulgate version were crowned with a measure of success, with many hundreds of (manuscript) Wycliffite versions being distributed by his faithful ‘Lollard’ followers. The first complete Bible in English had arrived, and, try as they might, the established authorities could no longer prevent its onward progress.

Growth and multiplication of the Word

It is hard for late-twentieth-century Western man, brought up to think of tolerance and freedom of thought and speech as basic requirements of a civilised society, to imagine an England in which the translation and reading of the Bible in English were grounds for the severest possible persecution by the established Church. Yet this was the England of Wycliffe, and still, over a century later, of Tyndale. From the promulgation of the Church’s “Constitutions of Oxford” in 1408 until their repeal in 1547, it was prohibited that anyone should “on his own authority translate any text of Holy Scripture into the English … under pain of the greater excommunication, until the translation itself shall have been approved”.

But if it is man who proposes, it is clearly God Who disposes. And nothing indicates the workings of the providential hand of God in the promulgation of His Word more clearly than the fact that it was in the very midst of such restrictions that the circumstances and influences which led to the explosion of that Word’s availability were being prepared and unfolded. The spread of Renaissance culture from fourteenth-century Italy, with its interest in scholarship of every kind (and especially in Hebrew and Greek language and literature); the invention of printing from moveable type in the 1450s and the publishing work of Caxton from the 1480s; the editorial labours of Erasmus on early manuscripts of the New Testament in the late fifteenth century; the religious revival of the Reformation in sixteenth-century Europe and, especially, the powerful advocacy of Luther for the translation and personal reading of the Scriptures – all these forces combined to wrest the Latin Bible from the stultifying control of Rome, and to place it, on a rapidly growing scale, in the hands of ordinary men and women. Luther’s prayer, “Would that this one book were in every language, in every hand, before the eyes, and in the ears and hearts of all men”, was matched in England by Tyndale’s noble ambition to enable the common ploughboy to know more of Scripture than his learned contemporaries.

A crucial role

Of William Tyndale (1494?-1536) it can certainly be said, “Cometh the hour, cometh the man”; and Tyndale’s vital contribution to the development of the Bible in English is recognised by Brother Banyard to the extent of devoting to him one of the longest chapters of God’s Living Word. Nor is this mere hagiography, for Tyndale’s role is shown to have been crucial. Beginning with the study of the writings of John Colet and Erasmus (whose Manual of a Christian Soldier Tyndale translated into English in his early twenties), Tyndale subsequently “dedicated himself to bringing the Word of God in current English to the people at large”. Not counting the cost, or sparing himself, Tyndale gave up a comfortable living in England, and spent the rest of his life as a fugitive and an exile on the Continent, translating the whole of the New Testament direct from the Greek manuscripts which were available to him, and having his work secretly printed and smuggled into England. Accused by the Catholic Church of producing a New Testament which was “erroneous and dangerous, containing 3,000 errors”, Tyndale had to endure the burning of as many copies of his works as Bishop Tunstall, Sir Thomas More and Henry VIII’s agents could lay their hands on. Not even the excommunication of the king by the pope in 1535 could turn the tide of opposition to Tyndale’s labours, for Henry continued to punish ‘heretics’ against the Catholic doctrine, of which he was now the sponsor and defender. So, for a while at least, Henry’s advisers continued to maintain that “By circulating the Scriptures you will raise the nation against the King”! By October 1536 Tyndale had been tried, condemned and executed as a heretic in Antwerp, with his translation of the Old Testament still sadly incomplete.

Yet Tyndale’s legacy lived (and still lives) on. For if Erasmus, through his scholarly work on ancient Bible manuscripts, was responsible, according to d’Aubigné, for presenting the Word of God to ‘the learned’, it was Tyndale above all who, in the overriding providence of God, gave that word to ‘the people’. For nearly eighty years after his death Tyndale’s trail-blazing translation of the New Testament (and many parts of the Old) was to provide the basis of most of the English Bibles which followed his. And when King James’s Authorised Version appeared in 1611, many of Tyndale’s finest turns of phrase were incorporated (though without acknowledgement) in that finest of all Bible versions. So when today we read, and enjoy, the aesthetic and technical quality of such expressions as, “With God all things are possible”, “In Him we live and move and have our being”, “Be not weary in well doing”, “Ye are the salt of the earth”, “The powers that be”, “Let brotherly love continue”, and many, many more of Tyndale’s phrases, we should perhaps pause for thought, and be grateful for the skill and dedication of one who literally gave his life for such a noble work.

A mine of information

Such, then, is the flavour of Brother Banyard’s study – a narrative of events, a cocktail of key anecdotes, of thumbnail sketches, and of biographical and historical insights. With chapters on the “Perilous Times” of the sixteenth century, on the production of the 1611 version, on the profusion of versions prior to the Revised Version of 1881-5 (including reference to the work of the Bible Society and the Oxford and Cambridge University Presses), on the accumulation of manuscripts and the work of the 1881 Revisers, on the more recent discoveries of early Biblical manuscripts (like the Dead Sea Scrolls) and the various twentieth-century translations, God’s Living Word becomes a deep mine of information of every sort, which ought to find a place on every Bible reader’s reference shelves.

A typical example of the book’s broad utility is the double-page table, in the chapter on “The Twentieth Century”, setting out various features of sixteen of the currently available English Bible versions. This enables the reader at a glance to compare and contrast what each version has (or does not have) to offer. Supplemented by many sensible and balanced comments about most of these versions in the final chapter of the text, this aspect of God’s Living Word alone would make it a valuable addition to Christadelphian literature.

Concluded by a telling reminder of the personal aspect of the Bible’s message of salvation (“God has spoken in His Word, and we who are privileged to know it will one day be called to testify to the effect it has had upon our lives”), Brother Banyard’s book is a rounded and wholesome presentation of the history of the medium by which that all-important message has been brought, by the mercy of God, into the lives and hearts of so many.

REG CARR

(Originally published in the March 1994 edition of The Testimony Magazine (pages 91-94), and is reproduced by kind permission.)

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