Wallace’s Review of Blomberg’s “Can we still believe the bible?”

24 Mar

Very helpful review from Dr. Dan Wallace:

Craig Blomberg, Distinguished Professor of New Testament at Denver Seminary, has written another outstanding volume. Blomberg is a committed evangelical, but not one with a closed mind. As he says in his preface about the environment of Denver Seminary (quoting Vernon Grounds, former president of the school), “Here is no unanchored liberalism—freedom to think without commitment. Here is no encrusted dogmatism—commitment without freedom to think. Here is a vibrant evangelicalism—commitment with freedom to think within the limits laid down by Scripture.” Blomberg’s writings have always emulated this philosophy. His research in the secondary literature is consistently of superb quality, and his discussions of problem passages and issues, especially in the Gospels, is always well informed. Rather than clutter the narrative with documentation, Blomberg has wisely used endnotes instead of footnotes (though I personally prefer footnotes, I understand that most readers see them as a distraction). This book has nearly 50 pages of endnotes, almost one fifth of the whole book. Blomberg knows his stuff.

I received a prepublication draft of the book, Can We Still Believe the Bible?, and was asked to blog about it. More specifically, I was asked to blog about the first chapter, “Aren’t the Copies of the Bible Hopelessly Corrupt?”

This first chapter addresses the number one apologetic issue of our time—Did the scribes get it right when they copied the scriptures? No longer is the main attack on the Christian faith framed in the question, Is the Bible true? It is now the preliminary question, How do you even know that the Bible you have in your hands accurately represents the original documents? History, as many ancients conceived of it, is circular rather than linear. In this case, that’s true: “Hath God said?” is the original attack on God’s word, way back in the Garden. We’ve come full circle once again.

In this chapter, Blomberg rightfully shows the misrepresentations of the situation by Bart Ehrman, in his book, Misquoting Jesus. For example, of the approximately 400,000 textual variants among New Testament manuscripts, many who read Misquoting Jesus get the impression that this one datum is enough to destroy the Christian faith. But the reality is that less than one percent of all variants are both meaningful and viable. And even Ehrman himself has admitted that no cardinal doctrine is jeopardized by these variants.

Blomberg lays out a compelling argument, with much nuance, about the reliability of the NT and OT manuscripts. His chapter on the text of the Bible is organized as follows:

  • Misleading the Masses
  • The Truth about Variants (New Testament, Old Testament)
  • Did Originals Originally Exist?
  • Comparative Data
  • Avoiding the Opposite Extreme
  • Conclusion

In the opening section, the author takes on Bart Ehrman’s wildly popular book, Misquoting Jesus. In characteristic fashion, Blomberg critiques both what Ehrman does and doesn’t say, doing all with wisdom and wit. He points out, for example, that virtually nothing in Misquoting Jesus is new to biblical scholars—both liberal and evangelical, and all stripes in between. Non-scholars, especially atheists and Muslim apologists, latched onto the book and made preposterous claims that lay Christians were unprepared for. Ignorance, in this case, is not bliss. Earlier in the chapter when Blomberg mentioned that there are as many as 400,000 textual variants among the manuscripts, he bemoans: “It is depressing to see how many people, believers and unbelievers alike, discover a statistic like this number of variants and ask no further questions. The skeptics sit back with smug satisfaction, while believers are aghast and wonder if they should give up their faith. Is the level of education and analytic thinking in our world today genuinely this low?” (13).

He then discusses the two major textual problems that Ehrman zeroes in on: Mark 16.9–20 and John 7.53–8.11. He makes the insightful comment that the probable inauthenticity of these passages is news to laypeople because they tend not to read the marginal notes in their Bibles and because “more and more people are reading the Bible in electronic form, and many electronic versions of the Bible don’t even include such notes” (15).

In passing, I’d like to make three comments about the ending of Mark’s Gospel:

  1. Blomberg says that there is no passage elsewhere in Mark that has nearly as many variants as 16.9–20 (p. 19). This may be true, but he doesn’t document the point. It has often been said about the pericope adulterae, but I’m not sure about the ending of Mark.
  2. Blomberg cites Travis Williams, “Bringing Method to the Madness: Examining the Style of the Longer Ending of Mark,” Bulletin of Biblical Review 20 (2010), to the effect that “the style of writing in the Greek significantly differs from the rest of Mark’s Gospel” (19). This article was first read at the southwest regional Evangelical Theological Society meeting shortly after Travis was an intern of mine. He did an outstanding job on the paper; hence, its publication in BBR. Since this publication another student of mine, Greg Sapaugh, wrote his doctoral dissertation at Dallas Seminary on “An Appraisal of the Intrinsic Probability of the Longer Endings of the Gospel of Mark” (2012). Both scholars came to the same conclusion: the language of Mark 16.9–20 is anomalous and almost surely was not written by the person who wrote Mark 1.1–16.8.
  3. When discussing whether the real ending of Mark’s Gospel was lost, Blomberg says, “The open end of a scroll was the most vulnerable part of a manuscript for damage; perhaps Mark literally got ‘ripped off’!” (20). He goes on to argue against this, seeing that Mark’s intention was to conclude his Gospel at v. 8. Although Blomberg is right to note that Mark was almost certainly written on a roll instead of a codex, he doesn’t mention the great difficulty that this poses for those who think that the real ending was lost. Ancient rolls were almost always rolled up for the next reader. Assuming that to be the case for Mark, the ending of the Gospel would be the most protected part.

Blomberg also highlights many of other major passages that Ehrman wrestles with, such as Mark 1.41, Heb 2.9, and Luke 22.43–44. In the process, he notes that of the two standard Greek New Testaments in use today—the Nestle-Aland text and the United Bible Societies’ text—the latter includes only the most important textual problems (1438 of them) and a perusal of these textual problems reveals that “the only disputed passages involving more than two verses in length” are Mark 16.9–20 and John 7.53–8.11 (18).

The author takes pains to introduce the discipline of textual criticism to lay readers. He discusses some of the major textual problems (or, rather, those with much emotional baggage because of their long history in the printed Bible) in the NT (including Matt 5.22; 6.13; Acts 8.37; and 1 John 5.7–8), patiently going through the evidence, showing that the wording in the KJV is spurious because it is poorly attested in the manuscript evidence and/or has strong internal evidence against it.

The question is then raised, Why are these passages (including the two 12-verse texts mentioned earlier, along with Luke 22.43–44) sometimes printed in our modern translations?

Read the rest

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