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What Does ‘Scripture’ mean?

Hhow we are to interpret the word “scripture”?

So that we don’t get mired further in fruitless discussions, without knowing what is in the back of the minds of various participants, here is II Timothy 3:16 from various versions. First the revised Good News Bible, Australian usage text, 1994 (I use this mostly, because I have a lot of dealings with people for whom English is a second or third language – and in some cases even a fourth):

All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching the truth, rebuking error, correcting faults, and giving instruction for right living,

The marginal alternative reading is:

Every scripture inspired by God is also useful for teaching …

The NRSV (1989) reads:

All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,

The marginal alternative reading is the same as the GNB:

Every scripture inspired by God is also useful for teaching …

The New Jerusalem Bible (1985) reads:

All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for refuting error, for guiding people’s lives and teaching them to be upright.

There is no marginal alternative offered, but a note attached to the word “scripture” in the previous verse reads “Probably the OT. There is no sign that the NT writings were yet on the same level.”

The newest version I have, Today’s NIV (2005) reads:

All scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness,

This is the same as the NIV (1978) and there are no alternative renderings or note given.

I want to raise the question: What do we understand by the word “scripture” in I Timothy 3:16 ?

I have quoted a note in the margin of the NJB, and this seems to be the most widely accepted interpretation, among all varieties of Christians.

However I’m not convinced that all the OT was in mind here. There is ample evidence that the Torah (Pentateuch) and Prophets were accepted as “scripture”, from the frequent references to “the Law and the Prophets”. However the use of “prophets” almost certainly was that common among Jews of the day: The Former Prophets (Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings) and the Latter Prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the Twelve – Hosea to Malachi). The Torah had been accepted as “scripture” before the schism between the Jews and the Samaritans, and the Prologue to Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) speaks of the “prophets” in terms which leave little doubt that by the time the Greek translation of this was made the Prophets, too, were regarded as “scripture”.

From the number of times Psalms are quoted in the NT there is little doubt that they, too, were also regarded as “scripture”, though just which “psalms” were included is far from certain. The one verse which mentions the psalms in the same context as the Law and the Prophets, Luke 22:44 supplies further, though not absolutely conclusive, evidence here.

But when it comes to other books which are now contained the the Writings, the third section of the Jewish canon, things become, at least in my mind, much more vague and uncertain.

Five verses from Proverbs are quoted, none of them in the Gospels.

Two verses from Job are quoted, again not in the Gospels.

None of the Five Scrolls (Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther) are quoted in the NT.

Daniel 7:13 is the only verse from Daniel quoted. However I suspect that had the writers of the Gospels used modern typographical conventions, we would have footnotes to Matth. 24:30; 26:64, Mark 13:26; 14:62, and Luke 21:27 reading something like “See Daniel 7:13” or some similar form of reference. I suspect that in all these the words are not to be taken as spoken by Jesus.

And finally Ezra, Nehemiah, and the two books of Chronicles are not quoted.

In summary, from the third section of the Jewish Scriptures while there are plenty of quotations in the NT from Psalms – more than any other OT book – there are a negligible number of quotations from the remainder of this section.

So I was somewhat surprised to read that Jonathan Sarfati from Answers in Genesis takes this verse in Timothy to refer to not only the whole of the Jewish Canon, which was not finally settled until later, but also to virtually all the NT as well.

The article, on the True Origins site (I assume that it is also on the Answers in Genesis site but I didn’t search for it there) is entitled “D. Russell Humphreys’ Cosmology and the `Timothy Test’: A Reply”. The footer on the pages indicates that it is from CEN Tech, J, (Creation Ex Nihilo Technical Journal), vol. 11, no. 2, 1997, pages 195-198. The part which I wish to comment on is on page 195.

After quoting II Timothy 3:15-17 from the NIV Sarfati comments:

It should be noted that: (1) The Greek word for `Scriptures’ in verse 15 is grammata, and must refer to the Old Testament alone, as these are the only Scriptures Timothy would have known from his childhood. (2) in verse 16, the word is graphe, which would include the Old Testament plus all the New Testament written by then (AD 63), that is, all the New Testament except II Peter, Hebrews, Jude, and John’s writings. As Paul’s writings were divinely inspired, this statement would apply even to the latter books.

The words “grammata” and “graphe” are in Greek in Sarfati, but I have quoted just the transliteration.

I am puzzled by this claim that “scripture” in verse 16 includes the NT. The history of the acceptance of writings as canonical is much more complicated than this, and Eusebius in his “History of the Church”, written ariund AD 320, records a number of disagreements over precisely which writings were to be considered as part of the inspired collection which later came to be known as the New Testament.

There are extant 4th and 5th century manuscripts of most of the New Testament which apparently make no distinction between what we now regard as canonical, and works which are not now included in the canon, much as various scrolls from Qumran contained Psalms from the usual 150 as well as other Psalms.

Guthrie’s commentary on the Pastoral Epistles (1957; in the Tyyndale Commentary series) devotes some space to the precise meanings of the words, but is unequivocal that only the OT is meant. On page 163 he writes, commenting on verse 16:

… graphe could mean any writing, but the uniform New Testament use of it with reference to Scripture (i.e. the Old Testament) determines its meaning here.

Can I address a question to Don here. What is his understanding of graphe in verse 16 ? Does it refer just to the Old Testament, which seems to be by far the most common interpretation among evangelical scholars, or does he take it to include all (or nearly all) of the New Testament as well ?

An answer to this could clarify some of the previous responses in which NT quotations from the OT were cited.

Guthrie, like most commentators, doesn’t even comment on the widespread use within the NT of quotations from the Septuagint which, in many cases, differ significantly from the Hebrew.


Ken Smith

I’ve just received (July 2008) this email correspondence on this topic, added here with Dr. Ken Smith’s blessing:

Penner, Scott wrote:

Mr. Smith:

I came across your article after doing a google search on 2 Tim 3.14-17.

I didn’t find a date on your article, but it is refreshing to learn someone is still questioning the interpretation of texts that most think are long settled.

I hope you don’t mind me sharing my thoughts on the text and asking for your response. Born into a conservative evangelical home, I was taught 2 Tim 3.16-17 from the womb, practically. Leaders in my church instructed us youngsters to interpret it as the entire Protestant canon.

I was always troubled by the presumption that somehow St Paul knew that what he was writing was “inspired” and would some day be a part of Holy Writ. The acceptable alternative was that St Paul was simply referring to the Hebrew Bible.

Today (I’m 37 now) I understand it differently. I can see how, by taking 2 Tim 3.16-17 out of its literary context, one naturally would associate “scripture” of v 16 with the OT. I submit, however, that St Paul is not referring to the OT at all, but to written stories about Jesus that were circulating in the Christian community from around 30 ad to 50 ad. Consider the two preceding verses (3.14-15). Paul (50 yrs old?) is writing a letter to a young man of maybe 20 yrs at most.

Timothy was probably born just before or just after Christ’s death. St Paul reminds young Timothy to remember the stories about Jesus he was taught, heard and read growing up. Those stories–about a divine man who promised eternal life to those who believed–made up the “sacred writings which are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (v15, Revised Standard Version). We know other documents were out there; the gospel writers consulted them in composing their books (eg. “Q,” etc.).

Again, St Paul’s “scripture” in v 16 is referencing the “sacred writings” of v 15, not the OT. The OT, and Saul/Paul knew it well, does not clearly “instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.”

Edifying stories, however, written by eyewitnesses and other believers do instruct for salvation through faith in Jesus.

This is not a commonly found belief, but one that seems more plausible than the conventional one prevalent in evangelical circles. Any thoughts?

Scott Penner
Colorado Springs, CO USA


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