A BOOK FOR EVERY LIBRARY
A book review by Dr. Herbert Samworth of Neil R. Lightfoot, How We Got the Bible, third edition, revised and expanded, Baker Books, 2003
When one reads a review of a book, he frequently meets such words as multum in parvo, a book that belongs in every library, or a book that provides a good starting place. Seldom do books live up to such enthusiastic commendations, but such is not the case for the book under review. How We Got the Bible does indeed justify the use of such words.
The book is the third edition of what can be considered a minor classic. Minor in this case is used because of the relatively few people who are acquainted with it. Originally written to provide a brief and lucid introduction to the process of how the Bible came to us, the third edition improves on that basic purpose. Its two hundred and twenty pages contain a myriad of facts about the formation and transmission of the Scriptures.
Included in the book are chapters that deal with the history of ancient books, the manuscripts of both the Greek New Testament and the Hebrew Old Testament, canonicity, and other topics of interest. Dr. Lightfoot has brought his book up to date with inclusion of information about the Dead Sea Scrolls, the significance of textual variants of the New Testament, a lucid account of textual criticism, and additional information.
It is important to note that this is a book about the Bible. It does not deal with the message or interpretation of the Biblical message, but how the Word of God has been transmitted to us over the course of centuries. Dr. Lightfoot wears his learning lightly because he possesses the ability to write about such controversial topics as the importance of the Alexandrian manuscripts, the science of textual criticism, and recent English translations in a lucid and straightforward manner.
There are several reasons why this book, in the opinion of the reviewer, is valuable.
The first is that it contains a comprehensive, yet concise, overview of how the Bible was transmitted to us. He begins with the obvious, but often forgotten, fact that the Scriptures originally were given in the Hebrew and Greek languages and they were given in manuscript form. For those who live in the 21st century and are only familiar with the printed texts of Scripture in their vernacular language, this produces a salutary effect. It forces one to begin in the past and work toward the present rather than starting with a popular vernacular version of the Bible and work one’s way into the past.
A second benefit is the ability of Dr. Lightfoot to communicate in understandable English. The study of the origins of the Scripture can be quite technical and it is easy to get bogged down in the complexity of its transmission. Dr. Lightfoot’s arrangement of material provides a good framework to carry us along the process.
A third value to the book is that it does not shirk facing some of the difficult issues. Because we do not have the original manuscripts of the Biblical books and because no one manuscript agrees exactly with another, we must face the difficult question of textual variants to determine the Biblical text. The author marshals his evidence from a variety of sources. He talks about the discoveries of New Testament manuscripts such as the Alexandrian, represented by the Sinaiticus and the Vaticanus, which were unknown to the first editors of the printed Greek New Testament. He demonstrates convincingly that they aid in the attempt to ascertain the original text and not to distort it. He also shows how the discovery of the Papyri (New Testament texts preserved on papyrus) has made a substantial contribution to the study of the text of the New Testament.
All too often newer translations of the Scriptures into English have engendered more controversy than edification. There are those who claim these new translations compromise the Scriptures by the use of a different text type of the Greek New Testament. A reading of the chapters in Dr. Lightfoot’s book dealing with this subject will go a long way in putting such fears to rest. Textual criticism, when done properly, can only bolster our confidence in God’s sovereign providence over the textual accuracy of His Word. He has promised to preserve it and the historical evidence amply demonstrates this.
We began our review of the book by quoting a number of cant phrases dealing with the value of the book. Hopefully the reader will be satisfied that the book is indeed worthy of such commendations.
As a final note, Dr. Lightfoot joins others with a similar surname in his contribution to the Word of God. In the 17th century, Dr. John Lightfoot was the foremost Hebraist of his day and a member of the Westminster Assembly. Portions of his work on Biblical studies remain in print three hundred and fifty years later. In the 19th century, another Lightfoot, Joseph Barber Lightfoot, authored commentaries on the Pauline epistles that have set a standard for sober interpretation seldom equaled today. It is a joy to add the name of Dr. Neil Lightfoot to the illustrious company of Lightfoots who have made significant contributions to the understanding of God’s Word.