Tag Archives: textual criticism

The Bible is Reliable… or Is That Just “Your” Interpretation?

Several churches in our community have been working through Explore God, a series of questions that seek to spark conversations about God. This past week’s question has been: “Is the Bible Reliable?” Lurking behind this question is often a different question, “Should we really take the Bible literally?”

My typical response is to ask a person, “What do you mean by literally?” Often, to take something “literally” means to read something in a very “plain” sense way. But “plain” according to whom?

Often the pushback I get is that the Bible is simply just a matter of one’s own interpretation. “That is just your interpretation, so why should I believe what you think about the Bible?

Here is the problem with that: It concedes the point that getting at the “plain” sense of the Bible is at least sometimes easier said than done. But it does not follow that Bible interpretation is always simply up for grabs, and therefore the Bible is necessarily unreliable.

What we need to be able to do is to understand the original context in which a particular text was written. It is the purpose and meaning that the original author had in mind, and not our own context, that should govern the interpretation of the Bible. As a result, the possibilities of how to interpret a text are necessarily limited to a certain range of potential meanings: a singular sense for a very clear text, and multiple senses for a difficult text. But with hard work and study, we can come to even a much clearer understanding of the most difficult texts.

Here is a good example of a difficult text, that cause some people to question the reliability of the Bible:

For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. (Matthew 12:40 ESV).

Here Jesus is drawing upon the story of Jonah and the great fish to explain His future crucifixion and ultimate resurrection. A plain, supposedly “literal” reading of the text reveals a problem.  If you take “three days and three nights” in a “plain” sense, it gives you 72 hours. But the standard understanding of Jesus’ death and resurrection is that He died on Good Friday and then rose on Sunday, about a 36 hour time period. Measured in hours, that timing is way off!

Well, there you go. The Bible is wrong here, and therefore is unreliable, and can not be trusted…. But is that a correct interpretation?

Now, there are folks who go to great lengths to show that the traditional interpretation of Jesus dying on Friday has been miscalculated by the church. Some contend that Jesus was crucified on Wednesday. Others contend that Jesus was crucified on Thursday.  Sure, you can pull all sorts of evidence together to try to support one of these alternative views, to make the “three days and three nights” work, as a way to defend and prove that the Bible is “literally true.”

But what if you are not convinced?

There is a much simpler solution to consider: Some scholars, like Andreas Köstenberger, suggest that we have evidence to demonstrate that the phrase “three days and three nights” is actually an old Semitic idiomatic expression, that is simply unfamiliar to modern English readers. Any portion of a 24-hour period of time could constitute “a day and a night.” So if Jesus died on a Friday and then rose from the grave on Sunday, that would give you “three days and three nights:” part of Friday, all of Saturday, and part of Sunday. Just because this idiom would be unusual to us does not rule out the possibility that Jesus and/or the biblical writers would have known about such idioms, or metaphors, and used them freely in the Bible.

In other words, when the original Scriptural writer employed so-called “literal” language to describe something, without metaphor or embellishment, we today should cling to interpreting the Bible in the same manner. But when the writer does intentionally use metaphorical or figurative language, to express God’s truth in Scripture, we should cling to interpreting the Bible, again, in the same manner, as in the original.

So, to say that “the Bible is reliable,” is not just a pious excuse for appealing to one’s own interpretation of the Bible. We can appeal to the evidence to build a strong case that the Bible, rightly interpreted, is indeed reliable…. and therefore, trustworthy.

Additional Resources:

Some say that the Bible is unreliable, because they argue that the copying process of the New Testament had so many errors, that we really do not know what the original New Testament even said! The following clip from the documentary “Fragments of Truth,” shows that such claims are wildly exaggerated, as one learns the story of one famous, 3rd century New Testament fragment, P45, which was discovered in Egypt, and currently now on display in Dublin, Ireland (Go here for a critical, yet fair review of the documentary).

Dr. Bill Mounce, a leading English Bible translator, for the ESV and NIV, makes the point that many people, including many Christians, misuse the word “literal” when it comes to describing Bible translations (see the following 7-minute video). For an in-depth look at what Dr. Mounce is saying, listen to this talk he gave recently at Liberty University (you will need to adjust your audio level).

The Gospel Coalition has a bunch of interesting videos that explore this common objection, “That’s Just Your Interpretation” (Don Carson, Al Mohler, Robert Smith Jr., Ligon Duncan, and a panel discussion, with Russell Moore, Mika Edmondson, and Ligon Duncan).

 

 


Fragments of Truth

Interested in the integrity of biblical manuscripts? Don’t miss this one-night-only showing on April 24th, 2018.

Local showings: https://www.fathomevents.com/events/fragments-of-truth

Buy your tickets through the above link (they are going fast).

HT: Dave Rudy


Erasmus and His Revolutionary Greek New Testament

Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466-1536), by Holbein. Influential scholar of medieval Christian humanism (credit: Wikipedia)

As we remember the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s nailing of his Ninety-Five Theses, to the Wittenberg church door, we must not forget the contribution of Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam. Without Erasmus’ breakthrough in the study of the New Testament, Luther’s protest against indulgences might never have happened.

Erasmus, an illegitimate son of a Dutch priest, was a well educated young man, when his mother died. His guardians stole his inheritance, and thus, poverty forced him to enter monastic life.  It was a terrible experience, and he hated being a monk.

Historian Diarmaid MacCulloch believes that Erasmus had a same-sex, physical attraction to a fellow monk, and the frustration and moral anguish that this caused, prompted him to find some way out of the monastery. Erasmus was unusually gifted with languages, and he was able to receive a special papal dispensation, to relieve him from his monastic vows. Instead, he was able to focus all of his energies as a single man into scholarship. He became an author, widely read throughout Europe, largely due to the new invention of movable type in printing.

Adagia (1500) was a collection of ancient Latin and Greek proverbs, including memorable phrases like “to walk the tightrope,” “a necessary evil,” and “to sleep on it.” In Praise of Folly (1511) was an attack on superstitious religiosity among medieval Europeans, satirically describing various excesses of the veneration of saints and Mary, and the bizarre collections of relics. For example, did milk really ooze out of the marbled, statued breasts of the Holy Virgin, in shrines across Europe? Erasmus contemptuously thought this to be utterly ridiculous.

The last page of Erasmus’ Greek New Testament. The Dutch scholar had no Greek access to the last six verses in the final chapter or Revelation, so he had to back-translate those verses from the Latin into the Greek.

Erasmus considered himself to be a humanist scholar, in the sense of wanting to recover the classics. In those days, humanism was a Christian movement. The humanist mantra during this medieval period was the Latin, ad fontes, or “back to the sources.” Erasmus’ greatest achievement, with respect to the coming Protestant Reformation, was his work on developing an authoritative Greek text of the New Testament.

Prior to the age of Erasmus, the ancient Greek sources standing behind the official Latin translation of the Bible for Western Christians, the Vulgate, were obscured in complete disarray. A Spanish project to reconstruct the original text of the Bible, the Complutensian Polyglot Bible, was underway, and it inspired Erasmus to work on the New Testament. Delays in the Spanish project soon gave Erasmus the opportunity to step forward, and make his mark on history.

When he completed the first edition of Novum Instrumentum omne (1516), it became a best seller among scholars all throughout Europe. Erasmus’ work, through successive editions, was pioneering in the field of textual criticism, the study of the original text of the Bible. Novum Instrumentum omne became the basis for the textus receptus, the Greek text that nearly a century later guided the King James Version translators for the English Bible.

What jolted scholars is that Erasmus’ Greek text revealed that various errors had crept into the official Latin Vulgate. Some of these errors that Erasmus exposed had potentially explosive theological implications. Here is a sample:

  • The Vulgate used the word sacramentum to describe marriage in Ephesians 5:31-32. Erasmus thought the Greek musterion simply meant “mystery.” Perhaps, marriage was not really a “sacrament” after all?
  • For Matthew 4:17, the Vulgate read, “Do penance, for the Kingdom of God is at hand.” Erasmus thought that the word “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand,” was closer to the original Greek text.
  • Medieval theologians had argued that the Virgin Mary was a reservoir of grace, that could be tapped into as necessary. The Vulgate had read the angel Gabriel’s declaration to Mary, in Luke 1:28 as “the one who is full of grace.” Erasmus, on the other hand, had it as “the one who has found favor.”
  • Then there was the whole controversy of the Comma Johanneum, in 1 John 5:7-8, that has been discussed before here at Veracity.
Luther Discovers Erasmus

The inwardly conflicted, German theology professor, Martin Luther, bought his copy of Erasmus’ work, shortly after it was published. Luther was immediately amazed and absorbed the work of the Dutch humanist. The lack of a clear theology from the Bible, to support the medieval practice of granting indulgences, stood out for Martin Luther. For if “doing penance” was central to the doctrine of indulgences, and “do penance” was not in the Bible, as Erasmus showed in Matthew 4:17, then the theology of Rome was in serious trouble. By the end of the following year, 1517, Luther’s protest against the “sale of indulgences” would spark the beginnings of the Protestant Reformation.

However, despite Luther’s debt to the work of Erasmus, the great scholar of the Netherlands would never go as far as Luther did in seeking reforms within the medieval church. Luther soon came to believe that the entire edifice of Papal Rome’s theology was built on a crumbling foundation, contrary to the teaching of Scripture. Erasmus, on the other hand, only believed that the actual practices of Christian piety, as derived from the Roman church, were being abused. He did not think that the undergirding theology of the Church had been corrupted.

Some had their suspicions of Erasmus, but throughout his whole life, this influential scholar remained in good standing with the church of Rome, despite his criticisms of excesses in various devotional practices. Erasmus would never embrace the revolutionary spirit of a Martin Luther.

Erasmus eventually came into head to head conflict with Martin Luther over the issue of predestination, Erasmus affirming a higher place for human free will, in cooperating with the grace of God, than what Luther would allow. But the Wittenberg reformer severely rebuked the Dutch humanist, thus breaking the cordiality of their relationship.

But it is difficult to imagine how Martin Luther might have gone as far as he did, without the scholarly work of Erasmus to support him. For that reason, Erasmus remains a central figure in the history of the 16th century Reformation, one of the greatest Bible scholars in the history of the Christian movement. That is pretty remarkable for someone, born out of wedlock, who was cheated out of his inheritance, and who wrestled with same-sex desire.

This blog post inspired by reading Alister McGrath’s Reformation Thought and Diarmaid MacCulloch’s The Reformation: A History.


The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald… and Textual Criticism

Forty years ago today, the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald sank during an early November, severe winter storm on Lake Superior. All 29 of the Fitzgerald’s crew were lost.

As a kid in middle school, I fell in love with Gordon Lightfoot’s song telling the haunting story of the tragedy. I pretty much had the whole song memorized. I still get goose-bumps every time Lightfoot gets to the part where he sings:

When suppertime came the old cook came on deck
Sayin’ “Fellas, it’s too rough t’feed ya.”
At seven P.M. a main hatchway caved in; he said,
“Fellas, it’s bin good t’know ya!”
The captain wired in he had water comin’ in
and the good ship and crew was in peril.
And later that night when ‘is lights went outta sight
came the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.

In my mind, I envision water breaking through that main hatchway, taking the ship down into the icy, cold lake. I get the chills just thinking about it.

The problem is that you have to allow Lightfoot some artistic license in his telling of the story. The fact is, we simply do not know what the “old cook” said, nor did the ship captain after that wire anything about “water comin’ in.” Earlier that fateful afternoon, huge waves had already broken over the deck of the “Fitz,” causing substantial damage, resulting in a “bad list” and the loss of both radar units. The last radio transmission to a neighboring ship was, “We are holding our own.” Some twenty minutes later, after 7 P.M., the ship went down.

Lightfoot’s imaginary speech from the cook makes no substantial alteration to the basic story. In fact, it aptly summarizes the desperate situation the crew were facing. However, what is potentially significant, is that detail about, “At seven P.M. a main hatchway caved in.”

Did someone forget to properly secure the hatchway? Was the hatch cover faulty? Was there human error involved?

It can make a difference.

Subsequent expeditions to the ship have since proven that there was no human error related to the ship’s demise. For the families of loved ones who were lost that evening, this knowledge absolves the crew of any wrongdoing on their part. When Lightfoot learned of the new evidence in 2010, he promised to alter the potentially offending lyric in future performances from:

At seven P.M. a main hatchway caved in; he said…

To a more accurate:

At 7 p.m. it grew dark, it was then he said…

Hatchways Caving In, as a Lesson for Christians When Reading Their Bibles

This could be a bit of a stretch for some, but in my mind, the story of the Edmund Fitzgerald tells us a lot about how Christians can better understand their Bibles, believe it or not.

Just like me with the Gordon Lightfoot song, people can often grow up with certain pictures in their mind about different passages of the Bible. An idea or image can easily stick in our head, when if you look at things a little more closely, in light of new evidence, it would require some changes to how we mentally represent something that the Bible says.

Here is a good example: in the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible, 1 John 5:7-8 reads like this:

For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one. And there are three that bear witness in earth, the Spirit, and the water, and the blood: and these three agree in one.

I put the middle phrase in bold, because if you compare the same passage with the English Standard Version (ESV), it reads quite differently:

For there are three that testify: the Spirit and the water and the blood; and these three agree.

As with all modern translations, the explicit reference to the Trinity has been removed. This is not a glitch. Nor is it a conspiracy. This decision by modern translators is founded on good, historical evidence.

In the field of textual criticism, scholars work with ancient documents that have been copied and recopied over the centuries, in order to try to arrive at what is most probably the best and most accurate original reading of the text involved. This particular case, known by scholars as the Comma Johanneum, is famous in that there are no ancient copies of the New Testament that include this explicit reference to the Trinity. At best, the earliest we find any reference to the Comma Johanneum is about the 4th or 5th century A.D., and that was from a church homily, not a copy of the New Testament, according to textual scholar, Dan Wallace. The added phrase only appears rarely in medieval copies of the New Testament, mostly being found in Latin texts by the 15th century. The lack of clear, ancient evidence supporting the existence of this phrase casts serious doubts on it historical authenticity. Since Christian faith is founded on history, scholars are obligated to treat the scriptural text with a respect for history.

Codex Sinaiticus is one of the oldest copies of the New Testament discovered by scholars within the past two centuries. In this excerpt from I John 5:7-9, it lacks the explicit reference to the Trinity, the Comma Johanneum, that made its way into the King James Bible in 1611. The colored text reads, "There are three witness bearers, the Spirit and the water and the blood." (image credit: "CODEX SINAITICUS 1 John 5:7- 8 Comma Johanneum" by Pvasiliadis - Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons)

Codex Sinaiticus is one of the oldest copies of the New Testament discovered by scholars within the past two centuries. In this excerpt from I John 5:7-9, it lacks the explicit reference to the Trinity, the Comma Johanneum, that made its way into the King James Bible in 1611. The colored text reads, “There are three witness bearers, the Spirit and the water and the blood.”
(image credit: “CODEX SINAITICUS 1 John 5:7- 8 Comma Johanneum” by Pvasiliadis – Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons)

But once you get accustomed to a particular rendering, it becomes difficult to break old habits of thinking. Most scholars today agree with the great, late medieval textual critic, Erasmus of Rotterdam, who attempted to give Christians in the 16th century an improved, accurate text of the Bible. Erasmus suspected that a Latin copyist inserted the extra words into 1 John 5:7, probably with good intent, but nonetheless, it was not original to the text. So, Erasmus removed the phrase from his publication of the Greek New Testament.

However, a number of people who were so accustomed to the phrase demanded that Erasmus put it back. They complained that removing the phrase was an attack on the doctrine of the Trinity, as it is the only place in the King James Version of the Bible where there is an explicit reference to the Trinity. But when read in context, this passage is not necessarily meant by the New Testament author to teach the Trinity so directly, though one could allegorize the three-fold nature of the Godhead from these verses. The Trinity can be readily defended implicitly by examining other verses in the Bible. Removing the phrase does not take away anything regarding the biblical doctrine of the Trinity. Erasmus was aiming for the accuracy of that particular text, but others were more concerned about maintaining the traditional rendering that stuck in their minds and their imagination.

Erasmus caved  into the pressure and reinserted the phrase in later editions of his Greek New Testament. The King James Version of the Bible, translated in 1611, is based on Erasmus’ later editions of the Greek New Testament, which is why the KJV preserves the phrase.

Now, I probably will never get accustomed to Lightfoot’s new rendering of the Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald song, though the new alteration is surely more accurate. Likewise, many people who grew up reading the KJV have become quite attached to the Comma Johanneum.  So, I understand why some might complain about the changes found in modern translations of the Bible.

But think about those families who lost loved ones on the Fitzgerald. Lightfoot’s new rendering clearly preserves the honor of that crew that went down with the ship, in a way that the older, more popular version that I heard on the radio in the 1970s left unresolved. Likewise, when we read our Bibles, we should be more concerned about accuracy than trying to preserve the cherished memories of our Bible imagination.

Here, Gordon Lightfoot discusses why he changed the lyrics:


Responding to Textual Criticism

VilifyWhen someone confronts us in a particularly offensive manner or strikes at a deeply held conviction or belief, most of us have a natural inclination to fight back. Unfortunately, we have a tendency to let anger and emotions get the better of us.

Like it or not, we live in a world where there is little tolerance for people who think differently. From a purely cultural perspective, we are far less apt to listen and empathize than we are to attack and vilify. To win is to vanquish our enemies. Or is it?

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. If anyone wants to sue you and take away your tunic, let him have your cloak also. And whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two. Give to him who asks you, and from him who wants to borrow from you do not turn away. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brethren only, what do you do more than others? Do not even the tax collectors do so?”
Matthew 5:38-47, NKJV

In our Personal Discipleship class we have been studying contemporary challenges to the Christian faith. One of the more prominent challengers is Bart Ehrman, a popular skeptic who calls himself an agnostic, but who more accurately fits the mold of an angry, deconverted Christian. (Ehrman has a big beef with God over the problem of evil and suffering.) His books achieve best-seller status, and he is quoted by atheists and skeptics as an authority on the unreliability of the Bible. He is revered by friend and foe alike for his skill in textual criticism. His research is largely undisputed, but his premises and conclusions are highly biased. Nevertheless, he strikes a chord with those seeking to discredit the trustworthiness of the Bible.

While it’s very difficult for some to listen to abrasive skepticism, it is encouraging to see how rigorous scholarship can turn back the skeptic’s wrath. Well-articulated truth is a powerful antidote to skepticism, particularly when it follows the apologetic ethic of gentleness and respect. Here is a debate you can buy (sorry, there is no good quality video currently being served online) between Ehrman and Dan Wallace on the reliability of the text of the New Testament. It was at the time the largest debate ever held on the reliability of the New Testament text. (For some interesting background, see the video in this post.)

Wallace Ehrman Debate
Dan Wallace is amazing in this debate. He is honest, well-informed, learned, respectful, humorous, and makes a convincing case for the reliability of the New Testament text. His response to Bart Ehrman is a model of what Jesus preached in the Sermon on the Mount (quoted above). Wallace’s response is not angry—although he is deeply concerned about the effects of Bart Ehrman’s influence on our culture. Wallace has the proper response to textual skepticism. He doesn’t vilify Bart Ehrman—he doesn’t need to. It is amazing what we can do when we take the time to study the facts and respond in obedience, with an appreciation of the right ethics.

And finally, for those following our Personal Discipleship class or otherwise interested in Textual Criticism, here are the class notes.

Personal Discipleship Class-Week 7
Click on the images inside this file to link to the online resources. (You may need to adjust your browser settings to allow the links to work, or open it in iBooks, or save it to your desktop and open it with Acrobat Reader.)

HT: Daniel B. Wallace, Marion Paine


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