Friday, December 2, 2011

The Gospel Truth - Lesson 6 - The Preservation of the Gospels

So far we have shown that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John wrote reliable histories of the life of Jesus. But some object that what they wrote has not been reliably preserved.

In some instances, the very meaning of the text is at stake, depending on how one resolves a textual problem: Was Jesus an angry man? Was he completely distraught in the face of death? Did he tell his disciples that they could drink poison without being harmed? Did he let an adulteress off the hook with nothing but a mild warning? Is the doctrine of the Trinity explicitly taught in the New Testament? Is Jesus actually called “the unique God” there? Does the New Testament indicate that even the Son of God himself does not know when the end will come? The questions go on and on, and all of them are related to how one resolves difficulties in the manuscript tradition as it has come down to us.  -Bart Erhman, Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why, p. 208 

In this lesson we will take a look at the text of the New Testament.

We Do Not Have the Original Books of the NT
We do not have the original books the gospels writers wrote (the autographs).  An early church father named Tertullian wrote in the year AD 180 that Paul’s original letters to some churches still existed, but that is no longer the case. We do not have the first copies of these books either.

Why? Time - the books were written on scrolls made out of papyrus, an early form of paper, most of which simply suffered from the ravages of time  Persecution – at difference periods of history the books of the NT were burned.

We Do Have Thousands of Copies of the NT
 There are three main types of texts that have been discovered:

A.  Greek manuscripts.
            1.  118 papyrus manuscripts of the NT.
2.  There are also 317 copies written on animal hide, in all capital letters, called uncials.
3. 2,877 copies written in a kind of cursive style, called minuscules.
4.  2,433 copies of the Greek NT collected in what are called lectionaries, anthologies of various different verses put together for reading in public worship.

All together, currently there are 5,745 manuscript copies of the Greek NT.

Comparison with other ancient documents:
  •             The Greek historian Heroditus lived and wrote about the year 450 BC. The earliest copies we have of his writings are dated 400 yrs from his lifetime, and there are only 75 copies.
  •      The Roman historian Livy lived and wrote at the start of the first century (AD 17), and yet it isn’t until 400 yrs later that we have an existing copy of his work, and there are only 27 copies of it.
  •       Tacitus and Suetonius were late first century / early second century historians, around the same time as the NT was written, and yet 650-700 years elapse between when they wrote the originals and the first copy we can find. There are only 3 copies of the work of Tacitus; Suetonius, over 200 copies.

B.  There are between 15 and 20 thousand of these ancient versions .

C.  Over a million quotations by early Christian writers.

There Are Variations Among These Copies, But Only 1% Are "Significant"

Types of variants: 

A.  Unintentional
1.  Alternate spelling. Sometimes John’s name is spelled with one N (the Greek letter nu), sometimes two. Just as in English we wouldn't say “a apple” but “an apple,” in Greek sometimes the letter N was added to the end of a word of the next began with a vowel. These kinds of spelling differences account for the vast a majority of NT variants.

Romans 5:1
“We (echomen) have peace with God”
“Let us (ech├Ámen) have peace with God”

1 Thessalonians 2:7
“But we were gentle (epioi) among you”
“We were little children (nepioi) among you”

2.  Many variants were just good old fashioned typos. A scribe might skip a word or line of text he was copying, or double a word or line. Or misread one letter. Let me show you some examples.

B.  Intentional

1.  To add clarity. 

In the middle of the gospel of Mark there is a huge section of text (Mark 6:31-8:26) which does not mention Jesus by name. It refers to him with pronouns of course, but not as Jesus or Christ. So to add clarity, sometimes scribes would change those pronouns to “Jesus” (I think there are about 5 cases of this).

Or in Phil. 1:14 Paul says that the brethren are more encouraged to “preach the word.” Some texts add “of God,” probably an intentional addition for the sake of clarity.

2.  To make statements more parallel.

In John 4 when Jesus asked the Samaritan woman to get her husband, the Bible says:

The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband.’”

In some of the manuscripts the word order in Jesus’ response is “No husband I have.”

3.  To correct a perceived theological error. 

We cannot discount the fact that some scribes may have felt like the text they were working with was incorrect, and altered it to be in alignment with what they perceived to be true. But this is why having so many manuscripts to choose from is so important - we can crosscheck them against each other and see where such potential corruptions exist. The classic example is the late addition of the statement about the Trinity reflected in the KJV of 1 John 5:7-8.

The practice of textual criticism seeks to recover the original text, using some basic rules:

1) Which reading is earlier? After all, the closer you get to the original source the better.

2)  Which reading is shorter? Since changes sometimes consisted of additions to clarify a text, the feeling is that the shorter the reading the more likely it is to be original.

3)  And, since the tendency would be to change the text to clarify it, historians ask which reading is harder? So in 1 Thess. 2:7 when Paul says either he was gentle to the Thessalonians or he was like a little child, on this basis you might prefer the reading “like little children,” since that one is harder to interpret (though not impossible).

Textual critics also prefer many manuscript to crosscheck, and manuscripts from a wide geographical area. The gospels meet all these criteria.

None of These Variations Affect Vital Faith or Practice
Just to drive home this point, let me show you three of the biggest significant variations in the NT manuscripts.

-Mark 16:9-20 The Longer Ending of Mark
-John 7:53-8:11 The Woman Caught in Adultery
-Acts 8:37 The Confession of the Eunuch

In none of these cases is there a major belief of Christianity at stake.

Bart Erhman’s examples:

-In Mark 1:41 when Jesus healed the leper was he “moved with pity” as most manuscripts say or “moved with anger”?

Erhman says that the original was unquestionably “anger,” but that this was changed to “pity” so Jesus wouldn’t look so human. And based on the principle that we should accept the more difficult reading, Erhman could be correct (as many scholars have suggested) that in this case Jesus was moved with anger. But that doesn’t mean this text was tampered with to make Jesus look less human. Two chapters later Mark 3:5 clearly says Jesus was angry,

-In Matt. 24:36 when Jesus talked about the day and hour of the end of heavens and earth He said, “But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only.” Erhman points out that some copies of this verse omitted “nor the Son”, and alleges that scribes eliminated “nor the Son” so Jesus’ divinity would not be questioned (if He is God how could there be something He doesn’t know).

And yet not one time in his six discussions of this text does Erhman mention that the parallel passage in Mark 13:22 clearly says “nor the Son”. So even if it was supposedly excised from Matthew, Mark unquestionably records that Jesus said “nor the Son.”

If someone like Bart Erhman shakes our faith, it is not his fault. It is our fault! It is our fault as preachers and teachers and elders for not doing a better job of explaining these issues, and it is our fault as Bible readers for ignoring all the notes and tools our Bibles gives us which explain these differences.

For More Information
If you would like to see pictures of thousands of manuscript fragments, check out this wonderful website:
The Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts

1 comment:

  1. Good work, Shane. I like this blog. I've now subscribed to it. Keep it up.