Do we have what they wrote? Trusting the testimony of scripture (and other ancient writings)

18 Mar

I serve on a university committee which oversees the adoption of new courses.  One proposal before us was an entire course on the life and deeds of Alexander the Great.  The professors quickly adopted the course and wished they could sit in on it (sounded very interesting).  It never occurred to them, as it often does regarding the New Testament, to question the reliability of the manuscript evidence we have for Alexander the Great (his biography was written by just a couple of writers, Plutarch and Arrian, hundreds of years after his life).  No one will pause and ask, “Now how do we know he really said this or did that?”  But when it comes to Jesus and the New Testament, despite the dating of the gospels (within the lifetime of the eyewitnesses), number of authors, and voluminous number of manuscripts (thousands of copies of the Greek manuscripts alone compared to just handfuls for other ancient figures/writings), the verdict is guilty until proven innocent.  The double standard of skepticism is breathtaking.

Good book chapter on textual criticism of the New Testament here:

The following is an excerpt from Reinventing Jesus: What The Da Vinci Code and Other Novel Speculations Don’t Tell You (Kregel), co-authored by J. Ed Komoszewski, M. James Sawyer, and Daniel B. Wallace. Published in May, 2006, the book is widely available. You can find out more about this book at

When Constantine commissioned new versions of these documents, it enabled the custodians of orthodoxy to revise, edit, and rewrite their material as they saw fit, in accordance with their tenets. It was at this point that most of the crucial alterations in the New Testament were probably made and Jesus assumed the unique status he has enjoyed ever since. The importance of Constantine’s commission must not be underestimated. Of the five thousand extant early manuscript versions of the New Testament, not one predates the fourth century. The New Testament as it exists today is essentially a product of fourth-century editors and writers—custodians of orthodoxy, “adherents of the message,” with vested interests to protect.
                                                                                          Holy Blood, Holy Grail, 368-69


Pop culture has a way of promoting strange and bizarre myths about the Bible. The urban legends are then fueled by self-proclaimed authorities on the Internet or novels that make it onto New York’s Bestseller list. Meanwhile, biblical scholars tend to ignore these childish antics, since they know that there is no substance to them. Unfortunately, this leaves the layperson without a clue as to what’s really going on.

As an illustration of the sort of unfounded myth we’re talking about, Sir Leigh Teabing’s comments in Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code readily come to mind. He pontificates, “The Bible is a product of man, my dear. Not of God. The Bible did not fall magically from the clouds. Man created it as a historical record of tumultuous times, and it has evolved through countless translations, additions, and revisions. History has never had a definitive version of the book.”1 There is of course a grain of truth in all this. The Bible did not fall magically from the clouds. And the Bible had human authors. But to say that it has evolved through translations, additions, and revisions, with the implication that the original is no longer detectable is just plain silly. We discussed these issues in our first chapter on textual criticism, noting that this kind of myth involves unwarranted assumptions that are easily disproved by the manuscripts themselves. It plays on the experiences of everyone who has passed on information without recourse to the earlier sources (such as in the telephone game). But in the case of the NT, this is not valid: as time goes on, we are getting closer and closer to the wording of the original text because of the vast amounts of manuscripts—many of which are quite early—scholars continue to uncover.

But what about Teabing’s claim that Jesus’ divinity was not to be found in the NT manuscripts—that Constantine essentially invented this doctrine? We will address that specific issue toward the end of this chapter with concrete evidence that again shows how this kind of language is patently false and misleading.

What is really at stake when it comes to the text of the NT—when it comes to how accurately the copies were made? We have already noted four kinds of textual problems related to this issue, but it would be helpful to briefly list them again here.

  1. The largest amount of textual variants (well over half) involve spelling differences and nonsense readings that are easily detectable. These affect nothing of meaning in the text.
  2. The next largest group are those that do not affect translation or, if they do, involve synonyms. Variants such as “Christ Jesus” vs. “Jesus Christ” may entail a slightly different emphasis, but nothing of great consequence is involved.
  3. Then there are the meaningful variants that are not viable. That is, they simply have no plausibility of reflecting the wording of the original because the manuscripts in which they are found have a poor pedigree. This issue involves careful historical investigation and requires the scholar to take the transmission of the text seriously. We saw that Robert Price’s attempt to excise Luke 1:34 from the Bible belonged to the category of “meaningful but not viable.” In his case, there was absolutely no manuscript evidence on his side, only wishful thinking.
  4. Finally, the smallest category, comprising about 1% of all textual problems, involves those variants that are both meaningful and viable. Most NT scholars would say that these textual problems constitute much less than 1% of the total. But even assuming the more generous amount (by expanding on the scope of both “meaningful” and “viable”), even then not much theologically is affected.

Our objective in this chapter is to discuss this fourth kind of variant in more detail, to see whether the deity of Christ (as well as other cardinal beliefs) is impacted by these variants. We will first look at the possibility of “conjectural emendation”—variants that have no manuscripts in support of them. How many are there and how do scholars deal with them? Then, we will discuss which doctrines are affected by the variants. Finally, we will examine some of the early manuscripts to see what they have to say about the deity of Jesus Christ.

Read the rest

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