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Reformed Literature
A Presbyterian Internet Journal

The NT Documents

Are they reliable?

F. F. Bruce

This book was very popular in the 1950s and 60s, so much so that my copy is the 16th reprint and is in the 5th edition. Before I review the book I would also note that it is an historical observation that there were more sound biblical scholars publishing books in that particular period than today.  Sadly, our current generation lacks the academics, such as F. F. Bruce, E. J. Young and K. Kitchen, who are looking at biblical history and documents from a reformed viewpoint.

Bruce, was the Rylands Professor of Biblical Exegesis at Manchester University, and is a well respected name in Reformed circles. I picked up this book aware of his reputation and was surprised to find that I did not agree with all of its contents. I think there are some chapters which are excellent and are worth buying the book, just to be able to read. However, there are other chapters that may reflect a scholarly opinion, either then or now, that I just cant find it in myself to agree with and ones that I think are not necessary conclusions on the basis of the evidence.

On the positive side, there is a chapter on the writings of Luke where he disagrees with the view of the Tubingen school (which says that Luke’s work was a 2nd century production) that marshalls a delightful array of proofs to support Lukan authorship. In this chapter he has drawn on the work of Sir William Ramsey who started with the heretical view and the sheer force of evidence brought him to the correct view in favour of Luke. Bruce cites Ramsey’s conclusions that Luke is an historian of the first rank that manages to tell a range of events and give them each their due importance. What is particularly impressive is the use of the correct terms by Luke. He usually refers to Greece throughout the Acts, which was its popular ethnic name. However, when he refers to Gallio (Acts 18:12) he gives him his correct Roman title of ‘proconsul of Achaia’. Greece was a senatorial province from 27BC to 15AD and again from 44AD, with Gallio the brother of Seneca being installed in July 51AD. Luke is repleat with detail, giving the names of Emporers, Roman governors, the leading Jewish figures and various vassal kings. All this affords the scholar the real chance to test his accuracy and he overcomes the test with ease. Bruce remarks that the accuracy of Luke’s use of the titles in use across the empire bears a similarity to the ease with which an Oxford don can speak of the Provost of Oriel, the Master of Balliol, the Rector of Exeter, the President of Magdalen, all of which are a bit bewildering to someone who is a bit less familiar with the situation on the ground.

In defence of the historicity of Scripture he talks about the wealth of New Testament ancient documents. Caesar’s Gallic War (58 to 50BC) has very few ancient copies and the oldest is 900 years later than Caesar’s day. He points to the loss of documents throughout the ages, citing Tacitus Histories, Tacitus Annals, Livy’s History all of which have lost significant portions of their manuscript whole. The History of Thucydides (460-400BC) has an earliest copy from 900AD, the same is true for Herodotus (488-428BC). Yet no classical scholar would listen to the argument that doubts their authorship or authenticity because the earliest manuscript copies of their writings are over 1,300 years younger than the original.

At the same time, despite these many positives there are a few times that I was left uncomfortable with some of Bruce’s conclusions. He is not clear on the gospels being written in the order that they appear within the Bible. He follows the hypothesis that Mark and Luke wrote first,  then Matthew and finally, John. This critical approach leads him to postulate Mark was written and used as a source for Luke and Matthew. This allows for a further document called Q that deals with other material that is common to both of Luke and Matthew. He adds to this with proto-Luke and on and on. I have got to say this seems utterly flawed, the theory is fine if we assume that all four authors are writing in total isolation and have no cross flow of ideas and accounts. It is nonsense to think that Matthew, Luke and John would not be hearing on a regular basis the preaching of Peter and the other apostles before the gospels were ever written, and Mark was the close friend of Peter.

Bruce then delves into the canon and raises some interesting questions around the finalisation of the canon and the exclusion of Gnostic works in the Synod of Nicea. Altogether, it forms and interesting and worthwhile read.