In 1820, Thomas Jefferson created his Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth: Extracted Textually from the Gospels in Greek, Latin, French, and English. As the title states, Jefferson compiled some of the sayings and events in the Gospels that he believed were authentic to Jesus and threw out the “rubbish” (Pelikan 2005, 188). If this sounds familiar, it should. This notion of chopping up the Bible and finding “the authentic words of Jesus” is something the Jesus Seminar did in the 1980s.
In their massive tome, Five Gospels: What did Jesus Really Say? The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus, published in 1996, the Gospels were sifted through, the sayings of Jesus were voted on, and the outcome was very bleak. William Lane Craig (Reasonable Faith), in an article he wrote for his website criticizing the Jesus Seminar, states their view of Jesus as ” a sort of itinerant, social critic, the Jewish equivalent of a Greek cynic philosopher.” Interestingly, in Jefferson’ s situation, he had Latin and Greek texts, which means he could have found variants to base his dissecting of the Gospels, however, the Jesus Seminar did not use textual criticism (the science of comparing ancient documents together to come to a conclusion of what the original may have been), they used a non-canonical gospel, one based in a heresy, to decide what the authentic words of Jesus were. Unfortunately, this is what happens daily in pop-Christian criticizing circles. They take the English rendering of the Bible and decide, both inside the faith and outside the faith, whether there are contradictions or not. I am not saying this is wrong, however, there is no looking at the Hebrew and Aramaic texts for the Old Testament and the same for the Greek of the New Testament. R. C. Sproul (2009, xii) says it best: “If the Bible is unreliable in what it teaches…[then] the church is left to speculate and has nothing of value to speak to the world.” The reliability of the manuscripts behind the English Bible gives us the trust we can have in the teachings of God’s Word, making it possible for the Church to have value in speaking to the world today.
What the Skeptics are Teaching
Before we can get into the actual understanding of the manuscripts, what they are, and how they are used in translation, we need to first look at the arguments, used by textual critics (some are not textual critics, but historians and such) who are not believers, as well as those who are so-called Christian scholars.
One of the first things most non-Christian and liberal-leaning Christian scholars state about the Bible are the various variants (differences in the texts of the Hebrew and Greek manuscripts). Sometimes, these are considered contradictions. In one of Rob Bell’s (2017, 273-277) latest books, What is the Bible?, he states that the reasons for the contradictions is with the evolution of the thinking of God that, he assumes, happened in the Jewish communities. Bell (2017, 275) says “[o]ver time, peopled evolved in their thinking about God.” In this section of his book, Bell poses questions, which then he proceeds to answer (honestly, Bell is a very confusing author; he writes with very short sentences and almost in a bloglike fashion). Bell (2017, 276) attempts to answer the question of why there are contradictions by saying that it is better to look at them as not contradictions but as an evolution in thinking. Timothy Beal (2011, 104) talks about the various variants between most of the older manuscripts, not just the Greek but those in Latin, Syriac, and Coptic. Beal (2011, 104) does state, somewhat correctly, that some of the variants are not important, simply scribal errors, but that most are extremely important, made on purpose (this is where I disagree with him, as well as scholars like Daniel B. Wallace, and we will discuss this more in a bit). We will come back to the issue of the variants later, however, let us now turn to another argument posited by the skeptics and critics of the manuscripts to the Bible–we do not have the originals of the manuscripts.
One of the major arguments, as outlined above, is that we do not have the originals of the letters penned by Paul, Peter, or James, or the Gospels written by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. We do not even have the originals of the Torah written by Moses (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy). Because of this, many skeptics and critics see this as a huge problem. To them, this means we cannot be sure that what we have today as the manuscripts behind the Bible are faithful in their representation of the originals (also known as autographs, which comes from the German which translates, loosely, as written by the author). Bart Ehrman (2005, 4-5), an agnostic leaning atheist, New Testament scholar (who ironically began as a conservative Christian who studied at Moody Bible Institute, Wheaton College, and then received his MA and PhD from Princeton), in his book Misquoting Jesus, says that his changing from an evangelical believer to an agnostic began when he learned of the dilemma of not having the originals of the New Testament and the many variants within them. Ehrman (2005, 7) says that there were two seemingly problematic questions he kept having while he learned to study the original languages of the Bible (Hebrew and Greek, mostly the Greek). These two questions were spurred by the doctrine of inerrancy and plenary inspiration, which he had presupposed while studying at Wheaton (Ibid.). His questions were: “how does it help us to say that the Bible is the inerrant word of God if in fact [sic] we don’t have the words that God inerrantly inspired, but only the words copied by the scribes—sometimes correctly but sometimes (many times!) incorrectly? What good is it to say that the autographs (i.e., the originals) were inspired” (Ibid.). Ehrman (2005, 7) then goes on to state “[w]e don’t have the originals! We have only error-ridden copies, and the vast majority of these are centuries removed from the originals and different from them, evidently, in thousands of ways ” (emphasis not mine). After Ehrman (2005, 10) reached his time in Seminary at Princeton, he realized that there were errors in the Bible, which is ok because we don’t have the originals (Ehrman 2005, 10). However, he begins to answer his own questions with one point, simply, that for most of Christian history we have not had access to the originals and therefore, we cannot say with certainty that they inspired (Ibid.). Here is what Ehrman says, and this is the crux of his argument, this is the foundation to his understanding of the Bible; here is where atheists, skeptics, critics, and now, Muslims get their information for attempting to debunk the Bible as God’s holy word. Ehrman (2005, 10) says:
…the vast majority of Christians for the entire history of the church have not had access to the originals, making their inspiration somehting of a moot point. Not only do we not have the originals, we don’t have the first copies of the originals. We don’t even have copies of the copies of the originals, or copies of the copies of the copies of the originals. What we have are copies made later—much later. In most instances, they are copies made many centuries later. And these copies all differ from one another, in many thousands of places…these copies differ from one another in so many places that we don’t even know how many differences there are…there are more differences among our mansucripts than there are words in the New Testament.
Basically, Ehrman’s argument is this—since we don’t have the original manuscripts, we do not have the original words given by God. If we do not have these words, then God did not give them. If God did not give the words, then God did not preserve the words either. Therefore, God did not inspire the Bible (Ehrman 2005, 11). For Ehrman (2009, ix-xii), his coming to this knowledge was not about keeping to a doctrine, it was chasing the truth and for him, the truth is that God did not inspire the Bible, nor did He preserve it. Therefore, for Ehrman (2005, 12-15; 2009, ix-xii) the Bible is nothing more than another book, from history, that was written by humans, for humans, that helps to explain life (if this also sounds familiar, see anything written by Rob Bell on the Bible and the Christian faith).
How do we Answer the Critics and Skeptics in regards to their Arguments?
Honestly, it’s not easy to answer these guys. Most of them have studied, for years, in prestigious universities. To answer these arguments, we must first realize that there is nothing new under the sun. Basically, what is being lauded today as genius and, sometimes, as original, is really recycled attacks on the Bible.
In the second century, a Greek philosopher and writer, Celsus, wrote an attack on the belief of Christianity which included the Bible. He says
[i]t is clear to me that the writings of the christians [sic] are a lie, and that your fables are not well-enough constructed to conceal this monstrous fiction: I have heard that some of your interpreters…are on to the inconsistencies and, pen in hand, alter the originals writings, three, four and several more times over in order to be able to deny the contradictions in the face of criticism (Hoffman 1987, 37 quoted at http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/celsus3.html).
In the late third century, a Roman philosopher Porphyry wrote about the Christian Bible, saying,
If ye believed Moses, ye would have believed me, for he wrote concerning me.” He said it, but all the same nothing which Moses wrote has been preserved. For all his writings are said to have been burnt along with the temple. All that bears the name of Moses was written 1180 years afterwards, by Ezra and those of his time. And even if one were to concede that the writing is that of Moses, it cannot be shown that Christ was anywhere called God, or God the Word, or Creator. And pray who has spoken of Christ as crucified (Macarius, Apocriticus 3.3).
If that sounds familiar, as well, then it is because modern scholastics still hold to this view today. Modern academia believes the Torah to have been either written, or finalized, in the return from Exile by Ezra or some other scholar. With the Enlightenment and its redheaded step-child Romanticism, many fanciful ideas in regards to the Bible were put forward. One of them, a child of Romanticism, Walter Bauer argued that there were many different types of Christianities during the early church, which, basically, battled over which faith was to be the correct one. Bauer believed that some of the heretical sects of Christianity were most likely earlier than those of the orthodox one (Wasserman 2012, 326-327). All of these arguments seem to actually be absurd when you look at the evidence. So, again, how do we answer their arguments? Daniel B. Wallace gives some great advice in this area.
Basically, we have more copies of the New Testament than any other material of the ancient and classical period (Wallace 2012). Wallace (2012) also states that we can answer with the relative dating of the New Testament (this just means how close we can date the earliest copies with the events they speak of or to their actual written time period). Next, Wallace (2008) also argues for the understanding of the various variants in the manuscripts. Finally, Wallace (2008) states we can know for sure what this means in regards to the manuscripts themselves and our faith.
With confidence, we can know that we have “an embarrassment of riches” (Wallace 2008). Basically, we have too many copies, which is a problem worth having. Just in the Greek, we have roughly more than 5,700 copies to compare (Ibid.). If Greek wasn’t enough, we know that the New Testament, alone, was copied (a lot), early on, into various local languages (Ibid.). To date, we have about 20,000-25,000 various copies in Latin, Coptic, Syrian, Georgian, Armenian, Arabic, and Gothic (Ibid.). Not to mention the overwhelming amount of quotes, in their entirety, of the New Testament by the early Church Fathers, that’s about a million quotes; that means we could basically reproduce the entire New Testament if we only had their quotes and no other copies (Ibid.). This is just the tip of the iceberg. We will spend the rest of the next post touching on the arguments surrounding the manuscripts and how to best answer them.
Helpful Links on the Battle over the Bible
That is a great place to start because its a discussion in regards to the canonicity of the Bible between Dr. James White and Dr. Michael Kruger.
This next video is a wonderful instruction on how the early church used and saw the Bible by Dr. Michael Kruger.
Next, this is a bit more popular level, making it more understandable, plus the videos are very short. Matt Whitman, the host of Ten Minute Bible Hour, has a complete series on the Bible called the Nuts and Bolts of the Bible. I linked the first video below, however, I highly suggest you watch all 22 videos (you know, when you can).
Lastly, this is a great video, extremely long coming in at just over three hours. This video is a debate over the original texts of the New Testament between Dr. Bart Ehrman and Dr. Daniel B. Wallace.
The Bearded Scholar
Beal, Timothy. 2011. Rise and Fall of the Bible: The Unexpected History of an Accidental Book. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Bell, Rob. 2017. What is the Bible?: How an Ancient Library of Poems, Letters, and Stories can Transform the Way You Think and Feel About Everything. New York: Harper One.
Craig, W. 2018. “Presuppositions and Pretensions of the Jesus Seminar.” Reasonable Faith. Reasonablefaith.org. Available at: https://www.reasonablefaith.org/writings/popular-writings/jesus-of-nazareth/presuppositions-and-pretensions-of-the-jesus-seminar/ Accessed 23 Jun. 2018.
Ehrman, Bart D. 2009. Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (and Why We Don’t Know About Them). New York: Harper One.
________. 2005. Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why. New York: Harper San Francisco.
Pelikan, Jaroslav. 2005Whose Bible is it?: A History of the Scriptures Through the Ages. New York: Vikings.
Sproul, R. C. 2009. Can I Trust the Bible? Vol. 2. Lake Mary, FL: Reformation Trust Publishing.
Wallace, Daniel B. 2012. “Bart Ehrman Blog and the Reliability of the New Testament Text.” Daniel B. Wallace, Daniel B. Wallace, May 1, 2012, https://danielbwallace.com/2012/05/01/the-bart-ehrman-blog-and-the-reliability-of-the-new-testament-text/.
________. 2008. “Reliability of the New Testament Manuscripts.” In ESV Study Bible. Wheaton, IL: Crossway.
Wasserman, Tommy. 2012. “Misquoting Manuscripts?: The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture Revisited.” In Making of Christianity: Conflicts, Contacts, and Constructions: Essays in Honor of Bengt Holmberg. Edited by Magnus Zetterholm and Samuel Byrskog. 325-350. Coniectanea Biblica: New Testament Series 47; Winona Lake, Eisenbrauns.