Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Changes in the Bible? (Part 2 of 2)

     There are only two brief passages in the whole New Testament that might be regarded as substantive textual variations, namely the last twelve verses of Mark’s Gospel and the account of the adulterous woman in John 7:53–8:11. To put this in perspective, if the average printed Bible consists of around 1,200 pages, these two paragraphs comprise less than half a page! Considering the volume and antiquity of the biblical writings and the countless number of times they have been hand-copied, recopied, and passed down through the centuries in the harshest of circumstances, the amount of variant readings is negligible.
     While only a comparative few manuscripts omit the verses in question or have the latter text positioned elsewhere, the overwhelming majority include them where they appear in nearly all standard English versions. The issue of textual disposition notwithstanding, everyone agrees that these two passages contain authentic information, bearing strong affinities to other Gospel accounts, and include no teaching or practice that is not taught elsewhere in the New Testament. Even so, the tenacity of these verses in avoiding complete omission from practically every standard Greek text and translation, despite overwhelming opposition, bears testimony to their apparent veracity (to be discussed in more detail in future articles).1
     The science of textual criticism is committed to the meticulous scrutinising of every variant reading and determining the precise wording of the biblical writings. The probability that the original text of the New Testament has been preserved is based on two significant factors: (1) the vast number of available manuscripts with which to work, and (2) the chronological proximity of these documents to the originals. Before consideration is given to the documentary evidence undergirding the books of the New Testament, what is available to corroborate other ancient literary works?
     The famous Iliad of Homer, after its initial oral transmission, was committed to writing sometime after Homer’s death in the 8th century BC and then edited to remove interpolations and copyist errors in the 6th century BC. The earliest extant fragments of this work date back to the 3rd century BC (about 500 years removed from the original), and the oldest complete copy is from the 10th century AD. In total there are 643 manuscripts of this epic poem (second only in attestation to the New Testament), with 764 disputed lines of text. Yet Homer’s Iliad is widely acclaimed as one of the greatest literary masterpieces of the western world.
     The Gallic Wars of Julius Caesar is preserved in only ten surviving manuscripts, the earliest of which is about nine centuries removed from the original. There are merely seven extant copies of Pliny’s Natural History, with a gap of around 750 years between the initial work and the oldest available manuscript. The History of Thucydides and the History of Herodotus are known from only eight copies each that are separated from the originals by approximately 1,300 years. And despite the scant textual evidence supporting these ancient works, one would be hard pressed to find a reputable historian, classicist, or even theologian who would dare question their historical value and credibility.  
     In comparison, the number of surviving manuscripts of the New Testament is exceedingly greater than that of any other ancient literary work. Not counting texts inscribed on potsherds and amulets, there are no less than 5,735 Greek New Testament manuscripts, the earliest of which date back to within decades of the originals. To this can be added the thousands of manuscripts translated into Syriac, Latin, and other languages, plus plethoric quotations from early ecclesiastical writers. The unique challenge of New Testament textual criticism is not the scarcity of the documentary evidence but the unparalleled quantity! As the late F. F. Bruce has pointedly observed, "if the New Testament were a collection of secular writings, their authenticity would generally be regarded as beyond all doubt" (New Testament Documents 10).
--Kevin L. Moore

Endnote:
    1 See The Ending of Mark Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.

Related Posts: Changes in the Bible? Part 1, Oral Transmission

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Changes in the Bible? (Part 1 of 2)

     It is commonly assumed that the Bible has been substantially altered over the centuries, and its current form is therefore vastly different from its original form. But the intentional wholesale corruption of the biblical text, as is sometimes alleged, is a twisted exaggeration void of factual support. Be that as it may, the accumulation of inadvertent changes is another matter. It is an undisputed fact that until the mid-15th century when the printing press was invented, biblical documents were copied by hand and human error naturally produced variants in the text. While this is also true of all other ancient writings, does it legitimize the blanket accusation that the holy scriptures have necessarily been distorted to the point that they are no longer trustworthy?
     With regard to the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament), the most significant changes merely affect the order of the respective books and how they are classified, yet the text itself has essentially remained intact. The Septuagint (LXX) is the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures produced in the 3rd–2nd centuries BC, and the Massoretic Text (MT) is the standard Hebrew canon that was revised, copied and distributed between the 7th and 10th centuries AD. While there is a handful of discernable differences between the LXX and the MT, the variations are not striking and do not significantly alter the sense of individual passages or have any affect on the overall message. And with the discovery in 1947-1956 of nearly a thousand biblical manuscripts among the Dead Sea Scrolls, we can be confident that the text of the Old Testament has been faithfully preserved. But how does this compare to the collection of New Testament writings?
     It has been estimated that among the surviving New Testament manuscripts there are between 200,000 and 400,000 variations. On the surface this may seem quite alarming until it is reasonably assessed from an informed perspective. The fact of the matter is, the vast majority of these variants are so trivial as to not even be translatable! For instance, the most common occurrence is an anomaly known as "the moveable nu," where a word sometimes ends with the letter nu (the thirteenth letter of the Greek alphabet) and sometimes it does not. Either way the word’s meaning is exactly the same and the sense of the passage is entirely unaffected. Nonetheless, it is still counted as a textual variant every time it appears in the multiplied thousands of pages of Greek manuscripts.
     Most other variations involve relatively minor details, such as spelling, reduplication, and word order. Is the Greek term for "believe" in John 19:35 spelt with one sigma or two? Is the Lord’s statement in Acts 26:14 also recounted in Acts 9:5 or not? Is Paul described as an apostle of "Jesus Christ" or of "Christ Jesus" in Ephesians 1:1? Text scholars devote their lives to addressing detailed questions like this, but at the end of the day the cardinal message of the New Testament is unscathed. Moreover, systematic theology further diminishes the supposed doctrinal significance of textual variants. For example, the question of whether or not the expression "nor the Son" appears in Matthew 24:36 is rendered moot by its inclusion in Mark 13:32. In other words, no fundamental doctrine of the Bible is in doubt because of textual uncertainty, and it is disingenuous to suggest otherwise.
--Kevin L. Moore

Related Posts: Changes in the Bible? Part 2, Oral Transmission

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Oral Transmission of the Biblical Records

     One’s estimation of the Bible is strongly influenced by his/her perception of how its message has been transmitted. While both oral and written means of communication were utilized, how has the final product been affected in the process?
     If any of the biblical records were initially handed down as verbal instruction and not preserved in writing until decades after the fact, is the reliability of the information then contestable? To listen to some critics, you would think that oral tradition in antiquity was comparable to present-day teenagers playing the game of "Chinese whispers," "telephone," or "grapevine." One person whispers something to the next, who whispers what he/she thinks was said to the next person and so on, until the last one announces what is usually a distortion of the original message that bears little resemblance to what was initially spoken. Does this modern-day demonstration of cumulative error and the fallibility of human recall realistically illustrate how biblical teachings were passed on?
     It is important to consider the transmission of data from an ancient-oral-culture perspective rather than a contemporary-literary-culture perspective. Without the aid of modern recording devices, memory among the ancients was generally much sharper and more dependable than it tends to be today. Our current approach focuses primarily on written means of preserving information, with much less attention given to memorization and the amazing ability of a trained mind to accurately preserve large portions of material. Earlier civilizations, however, particularly the Jews (with their strong desire to preserve the oral Torah), carefully developed their minds along with various memory devices for the meticulous preservation of verbalized instruction. And the Jewish method of memorization provided a model for the early Christian community.
     In the earliest period of the Christian movement, the gospel story would have been repeated much the same way by the apostles and those who "continued steadfastly" in their teaching (Acts 2:42). When the multitude of disciples were forced to flee from Jerusalem and were scattered abroad disseminating this message (Acts 8:4), the same collection of statements would have comprised the nucleus of their preaching. Moreover, if supernatural governance is admitted, the Holy Spirit would have provided assistance not only through revelation and inspiration, but also by sharpening the memories of eyewitnesses (John 14:25-26).
     The eyewitnesses were still around while these oral traditions were circulating and would surely have guarded against significant variation. It is interesting to note that the highest percentage of literary agreement among the Synoptic Gospels is in sections where sayings of Jesus are recorded. Although most critical scholars are quick to assume literary dependence (when the oral-transmission argument does not suit their agenda), this more likely evinces precision in reporting and the extreme care of the early church to preserve the Lord’s teachings.
--Kevin L. Moore

Addendum: Another important consideration is the function of collective memory in antiquity. Social memory (remembering together) strengthens memory and recall. Each person would no doubt have his/her own unique perspective and recollections. When compared, there would naturally be variations, yet combined without distortion. When the Houston Chronicle and the Dallas Observer report on the same Cowboys vs. Texans football game, we would expect different presentations of the facts without distorting the facts. Both the similarities and the differences among the Gospel accounts, without compromising the integrity of the collective whole, are exactly what we would expect.

Related Posts: Biblical Inspiration in Perspective

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Biblical Inspiration in Perspective

     The Bible doctrine of divine inspiration affirms that all scripture is theopneustos, lit. "breathed out of God" (2 Timothy 3:16), including the very logois ("words") of scripture (1 Corinthians 2:12-13). However, this should not be misconstrued as some sort of mechanical dictation whereby the Lord personally selected each syllable and then coerced the writers to place that exact terminology in the biblical text without the possibility of any other expressions being chosen. The subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle variations among the Synoptic Gospels suggest otherwise. For example, in the standard Greek text of the parallel Gospel accounts of Jesus’ statement about a camel going through the eye of a "needle," recorded in Matthew 19:24, Mark 10:25, and Luke 18:25, both Matthew and Mark use the term hraphis (an ordinary sewing needle), whereas Luke the physician uses the word belonÄ“ (a surgeon’s needle). Either way the lesson is the same (translated into Greek from Jesus’ Aramaic speech), but it is uniquely conveyed by the respective evangelists. 
     The plural "words" in 1 Corinthians 2:13 refers to the collectivity of words that constitute the whole message (cf. 1:18), not necessarily an isolated focus on each individual term. A single word is of little communicative value without the sentence, paragraph, and surrounding context in which it is employed. Paul and his apostolic colleagues propagated the same religious teaching and acquired it from the same divine source (1:23; 2:6-16), although each used his own unique approach, temperament, vocabulary (word-choice), and presentation style to effectively communicate the inspired message (cf. 2:1-5; 3:5).
     It is important to note the fundamental distinction between "inspiration" and "revelation." Revelation is the means through which God imparts facts and truths previously unknown, i.e. from God to man. Inspiration is the means through which God ensures that facts and truths are inerrantly conveyed, i.e. from God through man. For instance, Luke did not receive through divine revelation the information he recounted in Acts 16:11-17, because he personally witnessed and experienced these events. Nevertheless, divine inspiration ensured that he recalled and reported these things correctly. While the contents of the book of Revelation were received by John through revelation (1:1-3), it was inspiration that guaranteed the accuracy of his written testimony (1:10-11).
     The Bible should not be perceived as an atomistic revelation of each separate word but as a holistic inspiration of all the words collectively. This does not suggest that an individual word is without significance, since the main point of an argument may be centered on the tense of a verb (cf. Matthew 22:31-32) or the numerical value of a noun (cf. Galatians 3:16). The point is, a single term does not stand alone in the communicatory process but is part of a broader context of meaning. This is consistent with, and an attempt to clarify, what is often referred to as "verbal plenary inspiration."
     The will of God has been disclosed through human penmen, each of whom utilized his own personality, background, resources, language, and writing style, while supernatural governance ensured that no mistakes were made in the process and that the words chosen were in accordance with what the Godhead wanted communicated. Since all scripture is divinely inspired, all scripture is necessarily infallible and inerrant. In short, the Bible professes to be the word of God transcribed in the words of inspired men. Either this lofty assertion is true or it is not. There is no middle ground. The legitimacy of the Christian faith is inseparable from the accuracy, reliability, and historicity of the biblical record.
--Kevin L. Moore

Related Posts: The Bible in Perspective, Oral Transmission

Monday, 2 January 2012

The Bible in Perspective

     At least since the time of Celsus, a 2nd-century opponent of the Christian movement, antagonists have been levelling vehement assaults against the Bible. From the works of Baruch Spinoza, Voltaire, and Thomas Paine in the 17th and 18th centuries, to more recent attacks by the likes of agnostic professor Bart Ehrman and Muslim scholar Ahmed Deedat, the same contemptible arguments have been reworked, recycled, and repeated. And when highly educated, articulate, and sometimes provocative disputants present their case, it can sound quite convincing to those who are unaware of the other side of the discussion.
     I can’t read people’s minds and am not very adept at discerning motives, so my purpose is not an attempt to explain why skeptics dismiss, reject, or outright deny the self-claims of the Bible with respect to its divine origin. Irrespective of the position one takes, comprehension of the true state of affairs will always be obstructed by faulty assumptions and misinformation. Let’s be honest. No one approaches the biblical text with a completely blank tablet, and one’s deep-seated presuppositions inevitably affect how the scriptures are evaluated. Whether espoused in ignorance, with intentional deception, or as a genuine attempt to grapple with the relevant issues, how do popular challenges to the Bible’s integrity measure up against the facts?
     A major concern is what standard we are using to get the clearest sense of what the Bible is and what it teaches. Definitions can be slippery, as different words and concepts often mean different things to different people. If, for example, a Bible-believer talks about "the ark" that was sizeable enough to accommodate eight people and a host of animals (Genesis 7:7-8), and a critic then asks how "the ark" could have been small enough to be transported by just two men (2 Samuel 15:29), an uninformed observer will be confused and misled. Consequently sound reasoning and intelligible communication are undermined, as clarity gives way to misunderstanding.
     If an English-speaker really wants to learn French, to which source would be in his/her best interest to turn – a linguist who has a keen interest in language-acquisition and a thorough knowledge of French, or someone who knows comparatively little French and is adverse to learning a new tongue? When a truth-seeker genuinely desires to know anything about the scriptures, why turn to a skeptic who has no respect for the sacred text and has never read it to learn but only to find fault? Should not the Bible be judged on its own merits rather than the misconceptions of those who maintain a predisposition against it?
--Kevin L. Moore

Related Posts: Biblical Inspiration in Perspective