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Not One Jot, Not One Tittle
Be Strong, Stand Firm
What Price A Human Life?
“I Can't Breathe”
Praise the Lord, O My Soul
The Blood of Jesus
You'll Never Walk Alone
How Changed Are We?
A Sunday Morning's Meditation on Psalm 24


(Sunday, 20 September 2020)
by Ong Kok Bin


In Isaiah 55:10-11, Yahweh God makes a claim about his word. He compares it to rain and snow that “come down from heaven and do not return to it without watering the earth”. That is to say that as rain and snow fall down from the sky, they accomplish a particular work or purpose before they return to the sky in the form of water vapour, as we know it. This particular work or purpose is to water the plants, pertinently crop plants, which grow and flourish because of the abundance of water. They produce flowers, bear fruits and seeds, which then provide “seed for the sower and bread for the eater”. This, in brief, is what rain and snow accomplish; they enable plants to receive nourishment through the uptake of water from the soil. This nourishment is necessary for the production of food so vital to human and animal sustenance. Similarly, God's word when spoken will accomplish its intended purpose. Yahweh says:
     “So is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will
     accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.”

Matthew 5:17-20
Our text for discussion today is taken from Matthew 5:17-20, in which we read Jesus saying (as in the NKJV):
     “Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets.
     I did not come to destroy but to fulfil. For assuredly, I say to you,
     till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means
     pass from the law till all is fulfilled. Whoever therefore breaks one of the
     least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least
     in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them,
     he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I say to you, that unless
     your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees,
     you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.”

This saying is embedded in a discourse of Jesus, which is known to us as the Sermon on the Mount. In the structure of the Sermon, it forms a preface into a series of ethical admonitions in which Jesus offers his own understanding of the laws or commandments as found in the Law of Moses or the Torah. In this preface, Jesus makes one significant claim about himself vis-à-vis “the Law or the Prophets”, which in essence, is the Hebrew Bible and the Old Testament of our Bible. He says that he does not come “to destroy but to fulfil” what is revealed in “the Law or the Prophets”. He further asserts that not “one jot or one tittle” will “pass [disappear] from the law till all is fulfilled”. Jesus may be engaging in hyperbole or exaggerated language. But he is stating a truth concerning God's word: that it will not return to God until it has achieved its objective. That is to say, God's every word will be fulfilled without fail; even the smallest of the commandments. They will not return to God broken or corrupted.

The ‘jot’ refers to the yod (י) the smallest letter of the Hebrew alphabet. And the ‘tittle’ is a very small marking, “thorn-like”, or “horn-like”, which distinguishes almost similar looking letters of the Hebrew alphabet (e.g., dalet (ד) and resh (ר). It may also indicate care in writing or in reading a letter of the Hebrew alphabet. In mentioning the jot and the tittle, Jesus is referring to the written word of God. Though they be the smallest letters or markings in the written word, they shall not disappear until everything God has revealed is accomplished.

Recently, someone made a very insensitive remark that the Bible is corrupted. When called upon to retract the remark and to apologise for it, he refused. Instead, he said he was merely stating a fact and that Christians ought not to be offended by it.

Should we be offended? We should, when such a baseless attack was made on our holy book. Which religious group of faith would not be offended when others make disparaging remarks about their holy books or their tenets of faith? But before we go on the warpath against this particular individual, let us pause and make some reflections.

First, the individual is merely stating what he has been taught in his religion. He is not making a personal jaundiced statement. Since young, he has been conditioned to believe that the Bible has been compromised; in particular, the Torah, the Psalms and the Gospels.

Second, we can and need to take a leaf from our Lord Jesus Christ. While he was on earth, he suffered the most atrocious and heinous attack on his person and his work. He was accused of breaking the Sabbath law; of being the prince of demons (e.g., Matthew 12); of blaspheming (Mark 2:1-7; cf., John 8:54-59); and of so many other things. Jesus took all these in his stride. Sometimes, he would gently respond to the accusations and his accusers; sometimes, he would remain quiet (e.g., Mark 14:55-61). In the most severe attack against him, when he was hung on the cross, Scripture informs us:
     “When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no
     threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly”
(1 Peter 2:23).

Third, let us understand how the Bible came to us. When we fully understand how we got the Bible, we will know that our Bible, the holy book of the Christian faith, is not corrupted. In the short time that we have, I can only outline the main points to you; but I hope they will be sufficient to convince you that we have the unadulterated, uncorrupted word of God as it is found in the Bible.

From Oral to Written
God's word was initially in spoken form; as it were, “that [which] goes out from my mouth”. We read repeatedly, “God said”, or, “the Lord God commanded”, and so forth. The Hebrews writer categorically declares,
     “In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in
     various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son”
(Hebrews 1:1-2).

This spoken word of God, comprising his instructions and narratives of his acts and interventions in our human world, would be transmitted orally from one generation to the next.

In due course of time, what was oral came to be written down. Moses is credited as the first person to write anything; both within the Bible itself and according to strict Jewish tradition. Thus, within the Bible witness, he was called to write the memorial concerning Amalek (Exodus 17:14). Further, he wrote the words of the covenant made at Sinai (Exodus 24:4); the Ten Commandments (Exodus 34:27-28); the wilderness journeys of the Israelites (Numbers 33:2); the book of the law (Deuteronomy 31:9, 24); and the Song as found in Deuteronomy 32 (Deuteronomy 31:19-22). In strict Jewish tradition, Moses was the one that wrote the first five books of the Bible, the Pentateuch. Other Bible writers and the Lord Jesus himself, too, attest to this view (e.g., see Joshua 8:31-32; Judges 3:4; Malachi 4:4; Luke 24:44; John 7:19).

Others who came after Moses took the cue from him and they recorded in writing the revelations of God and his dealings with the Israelite people, book by book, author by author. In this way the Hebrew scripture, and what we Christians accept as the Old Testament, gradually came into form until all the books were collected into a single volume at about the time of Ezra (c. 400 BCE). The last of the Old Testament books to be written was Malachi. Josephus, the first-century Jewish historian, said that after Malachi, no other book was added to the Hebrew canon.

In 2 Timothy 3:16, where Paul mentions “All Scripture” (pasa graphe), he is referring to this body of Hebrew writings (graphe, ‘writings’), the revealed written word of God.

The New Testament, too, came into being gradually, albeit within a shorter frame of time (50-100 CE). The epistles, including Revelation, were of course, in written form from the very beginning. But the Gospels took the oral-to-written path as in the first narratives of the Old Testament. So, too, was the book of Acts. The teachings and the works of Jesus Christ were initially circulated through eye-witness accounts. But with the passage of time, it became necessary to preserve these eye-witness accounts in written form. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John took it upon themselves to write down these oral accounts of the works and teachings of the Lord Jesus. Luke, in particular, and who also wrote Acts, which is a history of the early church formation, said this:
     “Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled
     among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were
     eyewitnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully
     investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account
     for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you
     have been taught.”
(Luke 1:1-4).

John, too, gave his rationale for his writing of the Gospel that bears his name:
     “Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not
     recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the
     Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”

     (John 20:30-31).

So, we see that the writers of the books of the New Testament had been very purposeful and took every care to ensure that what they wrote is accurate and reflects the teachings and deeds of Jesus.

The Canon of the Bible
By canon of the Bible, we mean to say the list of books that go to make up the Bible. The question to ask is: How did the present books in the Bible make it into the list? We know that by the time of Jesus, the Old Testament canon was already solidly formed and settled. Jesus referred to this canon when he cited the three-fold division of the Hebrew Bible: “the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms (or, the Writings)” (Luke 24:44).

The New Testament canon was formalized before the turn of the fourth-century CE. In 367 CE, Athanasius published a list of twenty-seven books which we recognise today as the New Testament. In those early days, there were a number of other gospels and epistles written that did not make it into the New Testament list. Why were these excluded? And why were the present 27 included? The answer lies in two notions: authority and inspiration. The early church, through a process of consensus, considered each body of writing and looked for its content and authorship to determine its authority and whether it was inspired or not. Those books written by the apostles or those close to Jesus Christ in time and space would be considered as having authority and inspired. Those that were written by others generally unknown to the early church or more remote in time to the first century would be rejected, especially if they contained spurious or too far-fetched narratives. Thus, through this process of consensus amongst the early Christians, the New Testament gradually took shape and came to have the 27 books as we know them today.

Manuscripts and Textual Criticism
We do not have the original books of the Bible as they were first written. What we do have are copies of copies of the originals, technically known in textual criticism work as manuscripts (MSS). In the olden days, before the invention of printing, books of the Bible were hand-copied to produce multiple copies. Those responsible for copying the books were known as scribes. Trained and dedicated to their task, these scribes were determined and disciplined to produce copies of the books as accurately as possible. For example, a school of scribes centred in Tiberias and known as the Massoretes emerged about 500 BCE. They were noted for their innovation of a system of vowels and accents for the Hebrew text. They did this to preserve the Hebrew pronunciations because the Hebrew alphabet did not have any vowels but only consonants. To eliminate any scribal error, like unintentional additions or omissions, they devised an elaborate method of counting and numbering of the verses, words and letters of each book. They counted the number of times each letter was used in each book; they calculated the middle verse, the middle word and the middle letter of each book, etc. Through this strict regime of counting and numbering they preserved as accurately as humanly possible the books of the Old Testament. As a testament to their work, the Hebrew text of the Old Testament is often referred to as the Massoretic Text (MT).

However, inasmuch as the scribes or copyists were diligent in their work, errors in copying did happen. As Neil Lightfoot observes:
     “no human hand is so exact or eye so sharp as to preclude the possibility of error.
     So errors were made; errors were copied; and errors were mixed in with the pure text.”1

These errors were either intentional or unintentional. Most of the errors belong to the second group and they are largely inconsequential, like spelling errors, repetition of a word, or a missing word or group of words in the text. They can be easily detected and rectified. Intentional errors came about not through any desire on the part of the copyists to change the text, but to ‘correct’ what they perceived to be errors in the text. These errors are more problematic but not completely insolvable.

The task of restoring the texts of the Bible to their originals rests upon a group of Bible scholars known as textual critics. Their task, though arduous, has been helped by the great number of manuscripts and other witnesses of the Bible, such as the early versions or translations (like the Syriac, Arabic and Latin versions), the lectionaries (selected passages of the Bible copied for reading in church services), and citations of scriptures in the writings of the early Church Fathers.2 Through critical and analytical comparative studies of texts or passages found in the manuscripts and the other witnesses, these textual critics were able to eliminate the errors and determine which variant reading was the best or original reading.

Today, textual critics are confident that they have restored both the texts of the Old and New Testaments to the originals as they first appeared to the communities of faith throughout the various times. This confidence is borne out by newer discoveries of manuscripts and other witnesses in the course of the last century. The discoveries serve only to confirm what we have in the texts of the Bible; the most notable of which are the Dead Sea Scrolls found in 1948. In complete scrolls or small fragments, they contain either entire books or passages or partial verses of almost every book in the Old Testament, save for the book of Esther. Together, they attest to the accuracy of the Old Testament texts as we have them today; principally, the book of Isaiah.

We return to our text of the day, pertinently, to what Jesus said:
     “Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy
     but to fulfil. For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one
     tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled.”

Contextually, Jesus is re-citing the Isaiah principle that God's word will not return to him empty until it has accomplished the purpose for which it was first spoken. In this respect, the Law and the Prophets speak of the coming of the Prophet-Christ (see Deuteronomy 18:18; Isaiah 53; Acts 3:17-23; cf. John 5:39, 46), and which was fulfilled with the coming of Jesus Christ. But more is to come and fulfilled, such as the Second Coming of Christ and the resurrection of all the dead, for which we await in hope.

But secondarily, since Jesus mentioned the jot (yod) and the tittle, two notations in the written Hebrew text, we can safely infer that Jesus was also saying that the Law or the Prophets, in their written form, will not be destroyed or corrupted; no, not one jot; not one tittle even.

The Bible is not corrupted and can never be corrupted for the simple fact that it is the word of God even though it is mediated through human hands. The apostle Peter says as much to this effect:
     “And so we have the prophetic word confirmed, which you do well to heed as a light that
     shines in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts;
     knowing this first, that no prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation, for
     prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved
     by the Holy Spirit.”
(2 Peter 1:19-21, NKJV).

The apostle Paul attests to this God-inspired aspect of Scripture:
     “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting
     and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for
     every good work.”
(2 Timothy 3:16-17, NIVUK).

What is God-breathed or God-inspired cannot be corrupted at the hands of human beings. There is a stern warning placed strategically at the end of the book of Revelation, the last book of the Bible:
     “I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this scroll: if anyone adds
     anything to them, God will add to that person the plagues described in this scroll. And if
     anyone takes words away from this scroll of prophecy, God will take away from that
     person any share in the tree of life and in the Holy City, which are described in
     this scroll.”
(Revelation 22:18-19, NIVUK).

Finally, there is a word of warning within Scripture itself to all, whether believers or unbelievers alike, concerning the word of God:
     “For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword,
     it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts
     and attitudes of the heart. Nothing in all creation is hidden from God's sight.
     Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give
(Hebrews 4:12-13, NIVUK).tiny

1Neil R. Lightfoot, How We Got the Bible (Austin: R. B. Sweet Co., 1962), p. 28.
2These numbered several thousand, either in almost complete books or small fragments, which far surpass the number of witnesses for any other book of antiquity.

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