Several pieces of the New Testament have been discovered recently, that when properly vetted will comprise the oldest New Testament fragment of the Bible, and the earliest copies of several Pauline letters. The discovery of these ancient documents is exciting enough for anyone interested in ancient artifacts and Bible history, but this particular story is shaping up to be the New Testament equivalent of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which broke the record of the oldest surviving copies of Old Testament manuscripts by 900 years. In so doing they demonstrated very clearly the precision of ancient scribes in handing down the original text. (The methods used by scribes, particularly the Masoretes, will be covered in a future post—suffice it to say these people were extremely meticulous in quality control, and the Dead Sea Scrolls proved just how effective their methods were.)
Paper deteriorates over time due to chemical reactions with the atmosphere. This is particularly true of ancient papyrus, parchment and vellum, although there are tens of thousands of surviving specimens. When it comes to the Bible, there are far more documented copies than for any other ancient text. But the fact remains we do not have the original Biblical manuscripts—we only have copies.
Many skeptics have tried to prove that the Scriptures were changed—and therefore corrupted—as they were copied over time. In fact, even Josh McDowell set out many years ago to make an “intellectual joke” of Christianity by undermining the authority of the Scriptures. Working with this intention, Josh had two main questions on which he focused his research:
- Is what we have today in the Bible what was written down 2,000 years ago, and
- Was what was written down true?
Eventually Josh McDowell said, “I came to the conclusion that I can hold the Bible in my hand and say it is the word of God, it is true, and it is accurate historically.” His research is documented in a foundational work entitled New Evidence That Demands a Verdict.
“Textual criticism” is the discipline that attempts to determine the original wording of any document whose original no longer exists. Never heard of textual criticism? Sounds pretty boring doesn’t it? Turns out it is a big deal. A very big deal.
There are those who purport that the Bible was so corrupted by changes during the copying process over time that we no longer have reliable copies of the original documents. The implication is that if the text is corrupt, we can’t trust the Bible. And it would be hard to argue that point if in fact the Bible had been substantively corrupted in its transcription. We would then be left at best to make our own determinations about what parts are genuine and what parts we could or should overlook. (Actually, there are a lot of people doing that anyway—without thinking about textual corruption—but that’s another matter.)
But a main contention of this blog is that the Bible can stand up to scrutiny, so bring it on.
Let’s start with the obvious: there are problems with our current Bibles. Pick up a copy of the New International Version or English Standard Version, both meticulous translations, and you will find notes like these:
- “The earliest manuscripts and some other ancient witnesses do not have verses 9–20” (Mark, Chapter 16), and
- “The earliest manuscripts and many other ancient witnesses do not have John 7:53—8:11. A few manuscripts include these verses, wholly or in part, after John 7:36, John 21:25, Luke 21:38 or Luke 24:53.”
In attempting to produce the most accurate text, the translating committees and publishers took the most reliable ancient (mostly Greek) texts to translate from among many copies, which did not settle the matter of the definitive text in these two instances. But these are minor problems, and they don’t negate the original message of the entirety of Scripture. You can argue that these passages should be cut from the Bible, but nothing would be changed or lost by such deletions.
But before taking liberties with scissors, meet Dr. Daniel B. Wallace and the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts. Dr. Wallace and his colleagues have spent decades studying ancient manuscripts. They have developed intricate systems for comparing texts, and have some interesting conclusions about the accuracy of the Bibles we possess in the 21st century. You might be very surprised at their take on textual criticism, and its value in defending the veracity of Scripture. The Day of Discovery folks recently produced a three-part documentary on their work.
With that bit of introduction, read about Dr. Wallace’s exciting discoveries and all the press his work is generating. He has a lot to say about the accuracy of the Bible. He can quantify the textual variants, and you might be surprised to see how insignificant most of them are. And how they resolve discrepancies between manuscripts. Fortunately there’s a lot of evidence to work with in the thousands of manuscripts that are now catalogued. You might also be interested to discover how the correct text can be determined from the volume of copies. Don’t miss the radio interview in which he describes what is going on with the new discoveries and why he can’t rush to publish. It’s important to get it right. And that’s the point of this post.
March 25th, 2012 at 8:03 am
JP: “But a main contention of this blog is that the Bible CAN stand up to scrutiny, so bring it on.”
JP: “It’s important to get it right. And that’s the point of this post.”
Perfect premises; thank you for your steadfastness, John, especially these days…
March 25th, 2012 at 8:38 am
Funny you should make that comment. I actually thought about editing out the “so bring it on” statement because it sounds aggressive. I just hope it helps people appreciate that we don’t have to be defensive to defend the Bible.
March 25th, 2012 at 11:57 pm
I am liking the blog.
Textual criticism can become a really heady minefield. On the one hand, you’ve got the King-James-Only crowd that rejects the whole discipline of textual criticism as being anti-Christian. On the other hand you’ve got skeptics, like Bart Ehrman, who use textual criticism to argue that Holy Scripture can not be trusted.
Bart Ehrman is particularly distressing to me. Here is a really, smart guy who grew up on the milk of conservative evangelism only to totally discard it as he entered the professional academic mainstream. It is one thing to have a “New Atheist” like the late Christopher Hitchens, but it is another thing for someone like Ehrman who professed a belief in biblical inerrancy only to reject it later in life. This apostasy from former “insiders” does more to damage evangelical faith than any of the intellectual bombs thrown by atheists like Hitchens. How did we manage to lose Ehrman so spectacularly?
Yet Ehrman has hit upon the nerve by attacking via textual criticism. Sadly, most evangelicals have no response because we generally have no clue about some of the basics of textual criticism as represented by Dan Wallace and his colleagues.
But are we prepared to face some of the disturbing honesty that Dan Wallace challenges us with? I mean, the story of the woman caught in adultery is one of my favorites (John 7:53-8:11). I’m not so sure I really want to discard that from our bibles.
For those interested in this rather advanced topic, here is the best multimedia site that I have found that deals with the challenges presented by Bart Ehrman:
They now have video debate between Ehrman and Wallace!
March 26th, 2012 at 7:10 am
Thanks Clarke for such helpful comments. I do think the Wallace-Ehrman debate is helpful, and you are right about Textual Criticism being heady stuff. Actually I wish more people were interested. Most of us could stand to bone up on the facts, and they are so interesting. It’s fascinating to discover what people like Dan Wallace have done with their life’s work and how they can bring integrity to apologetics through painstaking and thoughtful research.
February 3rd, 2015 at 10:04 am
Ehrman knows the earliest disciples were illiterate. He references the work of a scholar who draws that conclusion to prove his point. The woman he refers to cannot know with certainty who could read and write 2,000 years ago.
February 4th, 2015 at 6:47 am
The difficulty with Ehrman is that he has a bias. He interprets the same evidence as other scholars (e.g Daniel Wallace and Bruce Metzger), but cannot resolve where it all leads. When he starts to invent conspiracy theories as skeptical conjecture he is doing no one any good, skeptic or believer. Conservative Christian scholars call him out on this, but others don’t. You have to wonder why.