For 5 years I was the pastor of Trinity International Church in Strasbourg, France. I created this blog with those people in mind. In mid-November 2018 I will become the Senior Pastor of Word of Life Church in Coon Rapids, Minnesota. The focus of this blog will therefore shift, but I pray that people from the blogosphere will continue to find it helpful wherever they might be found.
The churches' websites includes recorded sermons for those who are interested. Click the links below to access them.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

How Reliable is my Bible?

"The Old and New Testament, inerrant as originally given, were verbally inspired by God and are a complete revelation of His will for the salvation of men. They constitute the divine and only rule of Christian faith and practice."

These words from our statement of faith point to the importance of Bible. As uniquely inspired by God, they are authoritative when it comes to the doctrine and practice of the Christian faith. There is one small problem: the phrase "as originally given." If we cannot go to Louvre or some other museum and view a highly guarded original, how can we be certain we have what was actually written? If we do not have the original copy of the Bible, is this item in our statement of faith even meaningful?

This question bothered me until I took a class from a rather unique New Testament professor. The class was excellent, but I was dumbfounded by the fact that the professor returned our papers without any comments other than giving us extremely large deductions for spelling errors or inconsistencies in how we abbreviated books of the bible. The actual content did not seem to matter to him, but a few spelling mistakes could warrant a paragraph-length exhortation about the importance of details. 

His approach was a mystery until he spent a couple days teaching us about his passion: textual criticism. Textual critics examine the differences in ancient manuscripts to determine which text was original. It requires expertise in Greek, the ability to pour over ancient handwritten manuscripts, an extraordinary attention to detail, and ruthless logical reasoning. I am sure that he had read hundreds of papers on the topics we were writing on and would have said something if we wrote something heretical, but he had trained his mind to look for details and inconsistencies. When he found one, he couldn't help but circle it in red.
Codex Sinaiticus 350AD

I am convinced, based on what I learned, that we have something so close to the original text that there is no reason to doubt what we hold in our hands as being what God intended.

I'd like to share with several things I learned about textual criticism and look at a couple of passages.

Key Thoughts.

The sheer number and agreement of existing manuscripts is breathtaking. 

Writing materials are notoriously perishable, yet we have over 5600 ancient manuscripts of the New Testament. These date back to within 100 years of their initially being written. They are 99.5% accurate, a truly amazing feat when you consider that these were copied by hand. By contrast, we have about 7 early manuscripts of Plato's work. The earliest copy is dated to 900AD, about 1200 years after Plato lived. We have 9 early copies of Euripides's work. The earliest is 1300 years after he lived. See what I mean? The manuscripts are so early, numerous, and simiar that the confidence level in them soars.

Almost all of the discrepancies can be called "copying errors."

The copyists were extremely careful but occasionally they made mistakes. There might be a spelling error or a word or line skipped. Most of the differences between manuscripts are this type of error. They are usually easy to spot and to explain. Importantly, there is not a single case where a doctrine is called into question by a copyist's mistake.

Textual Critics Use Common Sense Rules to Decide What Was Original.

When faced with a variation between the manuscripts, scholars need to figure out what is the best way to determine the original version. Here are some of the ideas that they use.
  • Give more weight to the older manuscripts. A manuscript dating from 400 is more likely the original than one dating from 1300.
  • The more manuscripts the better, but it is not a matter of "the variation with the most copies must be right." Instead, sort the manuscripts by region of origin. Manuscripts from Alexandria go this is pile, from Syria in this pile, etc. If the variant exists in only one of the piles, it is probably not original. Also, note the "quality of copying" in each pile. Is one area known to have a lot of mistakes or variations? Give those manuscripts a little less weight.
  • It is more likely that a scribe would intentionally add words than leave something out. While copyists sometimes would skip a word or line, there are also instances where they add a "clarifying" word or comment. Therefore, the shorter reading is generally given more weight.
  • The more difficult reading is best. There are exceptions, but the thought is that a scribe might try to make difficult grammar simple rather than take a simple phrase and make it complicated. 
  • The variation that matches the style of the writer is likely to be original. For example, Mark uses the term "Immediately" repeatedly. If a variation exists that says "Then after this" is uncharacteristic of Mark and is likely to be a change by a copyist. Often this seen in the gospels where there are parallel accounts and a copyist "borrows" a phrase from another gospel.
Comparing the thousands of manuscripts is painstaking work. Fortunately, the variations are relatively few, and they most can easily be diagnosed.
Papyrus 37 containing
Matthew 26:19-52
260 AD

Scholars are honest.
Sometimes, there are variants that are difficult to decide which was the original. In this case, modern bibles make a note of it in a footnote. So when there is a question about the original, you will know about it. Here's the bottom line: no doctrine or essential tenet of the gospel is called into question by any of these variants!

Two Big Examples

Most of the variations are fairly mundane. Things like a misspelled word or the addition of "Amen" at the end of a prayer are easily seen as mistakes in copying and therefore not original. And even if "Amen" appears in a large number of manuscripts, the result is a footnote and not a major problem or cause for controversy. 

There are two examples where the integrity of these textual critics shines through. They tell us that a couple of well-known texts are not actually "in the Bible." They were not part of the original text. Let's take a look.

The Lord's Prayer

It has been recited around the world for centuries. One of the early discipleship books, called the Didache, suggested that believers pray it three times each day. Many believers are startled to discover that modern Bibles do not include the famous doxology "for yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory, forever, Amen" in Matthew 6:9-13.

Many ancient manuscripts contain the doxology, however, the earliest manuscripts do not. The earliest church fathers in commenting on the prayer do not include the doxology. As the liturgy of the church developed it was fitting to add a doxology to the end of the prayer for use in the worship service.

In deciding what was original, is much more likely that monks who typically did the copying would add the doxology as they copied the passage than it is that they would leave out something with which he would have been very familiar. Therefore, scholars believe that the doxology was probably not original. However, because there is the possibility that it was, the translators tell us that some manuscripts include the words. (Read this article for a more complete discussion).

The Woman Caught in Adultery
Perhaps an even more surprising example is the account of the woman caught in adultery in John 7:53-8:11). It is one of the best known and loved stories about Jesus. But should it be in the Bible?
Modern Bibles typically put it in double brackets and note that the earliest manuscripts do not contain the passage. That is only part of the story.

One manuscript from the 5th century contains the passage, and it is in a manuscript contains numerous copying errors. All the other early manuscripts do not include it. None of the early church fathers mention it when commenting on John 7-8. In fact, if you read John 7-8 it flows naturally without 7:53-8:11. 

When it does start showing up in the manuscripts, it does so in three other places in John (after 7:36; 7:44; and 21:25). It even shows up at the end of the gospel of Luke! The copyists often put marks around the story, indicating that they doubted its originality. Eventually, it settled into the spot that we are familiar with and over time the special marks were dropped. Medieval manuscripts include it and it was these manuscripts that were used to give us translations such as the King James Version.

Scholars believe that story of the woman caught in adultery was not part of the gospel of John. Therefore it should not be considered inspired or authoritative. The best explanation of the textual evidence is that the story was a widely circulated and true account of something that happened. As people talked about what Jesus did, this was one of the things they talked about. Eventually, a scribe added it to the written account, but put special marks around it indicating that it was not original. One hypothesis is that it was initially put at the end of the gospel with special marks around it. It was then later inserted in the narrative where it happened. (For more information read this article or this article.)

Final thoughts:

When one first considers that there are variations in the manuscripts, it is a little disconcerting. However, when you actually begin digging into the variations, what becomes astonishing is the uniformity of texts rather than the variations. These were copied for centuries with incredible skill and diligence! The fact that there are so many copies of nearly identical texts is nothing short of a miracle! 

The other thing that you notice is that the variations that exist do not add or subtract from the what we need to know or do. The story of the woman at the well does not give us any new doctrine. In fact, it probably became popular because it was an event in the life of Jesus that illustrated the biblical truths so vividly. 

The branch of biblical studies called textual criticism is important and I appreciate the scholars who labor to assure us that our translations are based on the best possible understanding of what was the original text. Because of their work, we can be assured that the Bible that we hold in our hands is the Word of God, divinely inspired and authoritative for our lives. 

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