What Does the Scripture Say?
“What does the scripture say?” Is this a relevant question?
The fourth chapter of the book of Romans begins with a question. Was Abraham, the physical forefather of the Jewish people, found to be just before God due to his own efforts, e.g., the perfect keeping of divine law?
The implied answer is, “No.” Had the patriarch been justified on that basis, he would have had cause by which to “glory” (cf. Ephesians 2:9).
Then, in order to establish scriptural support for his own inspired argument and to demonstrate the continuity between the operation of God in ages past and the gospel plan of redemption, the apostle inquires, “What does the scripture say?” Paul cites Genesis 15:6, “And Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him for righteousness” (Romans 4:3).
For the purpose of this discussion, it is important to observe that the Lord’s apostle implies that there is authority inherent in “scripture.”
The terms “scripture” and “scriptures” are found a combined fifty-two times in the King James Version of the New Testament. On one occasion, the underlying Greek term is grammata, “writings” (2 Timothy 3:15; cf. ASV). Clearly this is a reference to the Old Testament body of divine literature, as evidenced by the adjective hiera, “holy, sacred,” signifying that which is of a “transcendent” nature (cf. Danker, et al., p. 470). Thayer noted that the writings are deemed to be “holy,” and thus are to be “devoutly revered” because they are “inspired of God” (p. 299; see v. 16).
In the remaining fifty-one instances of scripture or scriptures, the original Greek term is graphe (found thirty-one times in the singular, and twenty in the plural).
J. B. Lightfoot, one of England’s greatest Bible scholars of the mid-to-late 19th century, argued that when the singular form, graphe, is employed in the New Testament, it referred to a “particular passage” of Scripture (as in Romans 4:3, cited above). When the plural format, graphai, was used (as in John 5:39), it denoted the “sacred writings as a whole” (147-148).
Others dispute the generalization and think there are a few rare exceptions to this twofold classification (e.g., in Acts 8:32, where a “passage” or “place” within “scripture” appears to be distinguished from the whole).
While graphe or graphai generally are used of the Old Testament, the terms clearly, in principle, embrace the New Testament writings as well.
Paul combines citations from the book of Deuteronomy and the Gospel of Luke, in 1 Timothy 5:18, and characterizes both as “scripture.” Peter refers to Paul’s epistles as being in the same category as the “other scriptures” (2 Peter 3:16). The term “other” (loipas) suggests others “of the same category” (cf. Acts 2:37; Romans 1:13; 2 Corinthians 12:13; Galatians 2:13; Philippians 4:3). Hiebert says, “Clearly Peter accepted the Pauline epistles as having the same authoritative character as the rest of the sacred Scriptures” (175).
The important thing to remember is this. Whenever graphe or graphai were used in the New Testament, the words always took on the technical sense of an inspired writing, never being employed to denote a secular production (Balz, 261).
There is a kindred term in the Greek Testament that is also worthy of consideration at this point. The verbal form of graphe (scripture) is grapho (to write). The word is found in the sense of “it is written” some eighty-two times in the New Testament, sixty-nine of which refer to the Old Testament writings (Miller, 47).
Balz notes that the perfect tense form (the perfect signifying action in the past with continuing results) means, “it stands written”; it is used to express “the authority and present validity of what is written” (261). Professor Wallace cites the example of Romans 3:10, “as it is written, ‘There is none righteous, no not one’.” He paraphrases the text: “Although this scripture was written long ago, its authority is still binding on us” (576).
In light of the use of graphe (the noun), and some special uses of grapho (the verb) in the New Testament, the following clear fact emerges. Inspired literature is clearly distinguished from that which is not. Consider the following.
Paul cited contemporary works
Paul was quite familiar with the writings of the pagan literary figures of the antique world. He cited from the works of Epimenides (Acts 17:28a; Titus 1:12), Aratus or Cleanthes (Acts 17:28b), and Menander (1 Corinthians 15:33), in constructing several ad hominem arguments (involving the use of an adversary’s “source” to pressure him into conceding a point).
Yet, in not a single instance does the apostle refer to these illustrious secular sources as “scripture.”
Septuagint contained Apocryphal books
During the New Testament period, the common Bible for both Grecian Jews and Christians was the Greek translation of the Old Testament, known as the Septuagint (often designated as LXX). As one scholar has noted: “For many generations the LXX was the ‘authorized’ version of the Greek-speaking Jews and Christians who had no recourse to the Hebrew” (Soderlund, 401).
Now the fact of the matter is, the Septuagint also contained the Apocryphal books of the ancient Jewish era. These were documents that could not pass the test required of an “inspired” treatise.
Professor Henry Harman has pointed out that these Apocryphal documents were even “bound up” with the inspired writings in the LXX editions — a fact that led many of the “church fathers” to ascribe a sacred aura to these strictly human productions (58).
Apocrypha never quoted or referred to as scripture
But here is the amazing thing. Though the New Testament writers quoted from, or referred to, the Old Testament scriptures some 295 times, “there is not one explicit citation” from any of the Apocryphal books in the New Testament documents (Pache, 97), much less are they ever given the designation “scripture.”
This is forceful evidence that the “scriptures” stood in a class by themselves — quite aloof from the uninspired literature of contemporary authors.
The “Essence” of Scripture
For those who are familiar with the evidence, it is hardly necessary to argue extensively the fact that Christ himself, and his inspired penmen, acknowledged and respected the divine authority of the Old Testament scriptures. A couple of examples should suffice to illustrate the point.
When Jesus debated with the Sadducees regarding the doctrine of the bodily resurrection (which they denied), he declared that a part of their problem was that they knew not “the scriptures” (Matthew 22:29). Immediately thereafter he cited Exodus 3:6, asking, “have you not read that which was spoken by God?” (v. 31).
The “reading” came from that which was “spoken,” and the author was God! Could an affirmation of the divine origin of the scriptures be plainer —and from no less an authority than the Lord himself?
In the ninth chapter of his letter to the saints in Rome, Paul argues the case for the sovereignty of God (i.e., his right to exercise authority and to exert his will) in the unfolding plan of human redemption. The apostle mentions several Old Testament persons that Jehovah used, consistent with their characters and wills, to implement the messianic mission. In a display of divine power, the Lord even used Pharaoh to this end.
In this connection, note this passage: “For the scripture says to Pharaoh, ‘For this very purpose I did raise you up, that I might show in you my power, and that my name might be published abroad in all the earth’” (Romans 9:17).
The quotation is from Exodus 9:16. But here is the thrilling thing. Though the apostle represents the “scripture” as speaking, the Old Testament record is explicit that the declaration was from Jehovah (Exodus 9:13). Clearly Paul is asserting that when the scripture speaks, such represents a communication of God.
As Cottrell comments, the phrase “‘Scripture says’ is essentially the same as ‘God says’” (97). [Note: A similar usage, where scripture is personified as the voice of God, is found in Galatians 3:8.]
With reference to any religious issue, therefore, the prime question ought always to echo Paul’s sentiment: “What does the scripture say?” For it will be by the Lord’s words that we will be judged on the final day of Earth’s history (John 12:48).
Scripture was not humanly fashioned; rather, men spoke [wrote] from God, being borne along by the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:20-21).
- Balz, Horst & Schneider, Gerhard. 1990. Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, Vol. 1.
- Cottrell, Jack. 1998. Romans. Vol. 2. Joplin, Mo: College Press.
- Danker, F. W., et al. 2000. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago.
- Harman, Henry M. 1878. Introduction to the Study of the Holy Scriptures. New York. NY: Eaton & Mains.
- Hiebert, D. Edmond. 1989. Second Peter and Jude. Greenville, SC: Unusual Publications.
- Lightfoot, J. B. 1957. The Epistle of St. Paul to the Galatians. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
- Miller, H. S. 1952. General Biblical Introduction. Houghton, NY: Word-Bearer Press.
- Pache, Rene. 1969. The Inspiration and Authority of Scripture. Chicago, IL: Moody.
- Soderlund, S. K. 1988. “Septuagint,” The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia — Revised. Vol. 4. G.W. Bromiley, Ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
- Thayer, J. H. 1958. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark.
- Wallace, Daniel B. 1996. Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.