Is the Bible the Word of God? – A Look at Textual Variants (Part 2)

Have you ever heard people say that the Bible is full of errors?  What do you think of this claim?  Are they right?

Last week we made the case that textual variants (or differences) should not be described as errors. The word “error” carries with it the idea of the wording being false, misleading, untrue, or corrupted.  Generally, most people would not take a spelling mishap as a justifiable reason to dismiss an entire work as inauthentic or corrupt especially given the fact that these copies were made by hand.  (See the illustration in Textual Variants Part 1). 

It is important to approach the text and multiple copies with an honest even-handed reasonable approach and let the evidence lead where it may.  If a copy proves to be corrupt, so be it.  If a copy confirms what is written, so be it.  It is important for people to understand that faith in the Bible does not rest on a shred of evidence, a thread of truth, a speculative hope or a mere wish that the text is true.  It would be most unreasonable to wish that the text is true and then go on to believe that it is true.  We must be able to differentiate fact from fiction.  Faith does not a rest on a preponderance of evidence.  That is, evidence that seems more likely than not.  Faith in the word of God isn’t a second guess or a wish based on unprovable assumptions. Rather, faith in the Bible rests on a mountain of evidence based upon millions of pages of data.

We must be clear that confidence in the Bible does not rest on a line of reasoning that assumes the word of God is true and then therefore believes it to be true.  This is circular and dishonest.   Creative writers abound and simply making a claim of Divine origin certainly does not establish Divine origin.  God allows his word to be tested.  The Bible says “Examine all things; hold fast to what is good” (1 Thess. 5:21, NET).  Examining the text itself is a worthwhile endeavor that increases faith for “every word of God proves true” (Prov. 30:5, ESV).

The study of variants is within a realm of larger study known as textual criticism.  Textual criticism is divided into higher criticism (also known as historical criticism) and lower criticism.  This higher and lower is not one of superior versus inferior methodology; rather it represents the angle with which the critic views the text.  Higher critics examine the text from a high birds-eye view where they examine the author and dating of a New Testament book.  Lower critics examine the text with a magnifying-glass-in-hand, looking at the precise wording of the text itself (Lightfoot 88).  A study of variants falls within the purview of a lower critic.

Bible translators are precise on types of variants that copyists or scribes make.  Sometimes a word might be copied twice, what is known as dittography. Sometimes if similarly spelled words were close in proximity in a line of text, the copyist might jump from one group of letters to the next omitting a portion of the text. This is known as homoeoarcton or homeoteleuton (Metzger xvii).   Hundreds of copies of each New Testament book give certainty that the Greek renderings and subsequent English wording are accurate and intact.

Consider the numbers for a moment.  Skeptics might be fond of pointing out that there are 400,000 variants while only 140,000 words in the New Testament.  That amounts to two or three variants for every word in the New Testament (Wallace 26).  People might wonder how the text could reasonably be trusted as authentic or credible when there are so many variants.  The answer to this rests in understanding these numbers in their context. 

First, understand there are so many variants because there are so many copies.  In fact the number of Greek manuscripts amounts to 5,600 and growing.  Second, understand that the New Testament is a document of history and has to be treated like one.  Consider the historicity of Homer’s Ilead  that dates from approximately 800 BC with 643 copies (McDowell 38).  Very few doubt the historicity of the Ilead, yet many dismiss the New Testament.  Comparatively speaking from a historical perspective, the New Testament has in excess of 20,000 handwritten manuscripts in languages such as Greek, Latic, Coptic, Syriac, Georgian, Gothic, Ethiopian and Armenian (Wallace 28).   Relatively, this equates to thousands of pages of data, thousands of pages that confirm the accuracy of the New Testament.  Third, understand that the New Testament rests on millions of pages of supporting data!   With 5,600 + Greek manuscripts (MSS), 20,000+ total MSS, with an average MSS with more than 450 pages, with hundreds of witnesses for every New Testament book, with 2.6 million pages of text and more than 1 million quotations of the New Testament by the church fathers, the New Testament among every work of human history stands on a mountain of historical evidence (Wallace 27-28).   

References:

Biblical Studies Press. The NET Bible First Edition; Bible. English. NET Bible.; The NET Bible. Biblical Studies Press, 2005. Print.

Lightfood, Niel. How We Got the Bible. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2003. Print.

McDowell, Josh. The New Evidence That Demands a Verdict. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1999. Print.

Metzger, Bruce Manning, United Bible Societies. A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, Second Edition a Companion Volume to the United Bible Societies’ Greek New Testament (4th Rev. Ed.). London; New York: United Bible Societies, 1994. Print.

The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001. Print.

Wallace, Daniel, ed. Revisiting the Corruption of the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2011. Print.

Isn't the Bible Full of Errors? – A Look at Textual Variants (Part 1)

Have you ever heard people say that the Bible is full of errors?  What do you think about this claim?  Are they right?

Famous North Carolina Professor Bart Erhman is widely known for his popular books that spew doubt including Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why and Orthodox Corruption of the Scripture.   Erhman is a textual scholar trained at the feet of the late Bruce Metzger, one of the leading textual scholars of the New Testament.  Erhman’s works are wildly popular and cast all sort of doubt on the text of the Bible.  While many skeptics are philosophers or scientists, Bart Erhman is actually a New Testament Greek scholar.  His arguments do not go unanswered.   Daniel Wallace, also a Greek scholar, has answered Erhman in a book Revisiting the Corruption of the New Testament

Wallace states “Erhman is fond of saying, that that there are more variants in the MSS [manuscripts] that there are words in the NT [New Testament]” (20).  Wallace estimates that there are between 300,000 and 400,000 variants in the New Testament.  Earlier accounting estimate 200,000 variants.[1]  Variants are differences in the text from one copy to the next.  These can be differences of spelling or phrases.  These differences can be intentional or unintentional.  The broad number of variants is essentially an estimate offered by proofers of the original text.  If there is a spelling difference that occurs in 3,000 manuscripts or copies, they would count 3,000 variants.   The more manuscripts that are discovered over time the higher this number will go.  In the absence of the printing press, spell checkers and computers, it seems reasonable to expect people that hand copied the text to make spelling or wording mishaps.  But, should these variants be considered errors? 

Let’s put variants in perspective.  Consider one of the world’s bestselling books J.R. Tolkein’sThe Lord of the Rings.  Estimates run that there are 150 million copies in print.[2]  Let’s say for discussion that in 100 years from now someone collected 20 million copies and started comparing them.  In each successive printing historians or textual critics could probe the writing with questions. What was the precise date of this particular copy? Did the publisher redact (remove) or insert words?  Did the publisher correct spelling errors?  Were sentences changed or refined?  Are their insertions or deletion in the text?  How different are successive editions to the first printed edition?  A textual critic will attempt to answer these questions.

If, for example, the first printing had 10 spelling errors and they recovered 4 million first printings, this would count as 40 million variants.   With a number as large as 40 million we might think the work is corrupt, dismantled and unintelligible. This number on the surface seems inordinately large given that no humans were involved in the actual transcribing of each copy.  But, that’s not the case at all.  The number must be put in context.  We are talking about 10 spelling errors with multiple copies of that error.  There would be no reason to doubt that you had an original writing with this number of copies.  The point is that the message and wording are intact even if the spelling is not 100% accurate.

Let’s consider another example.  Consider if you discovered eight copies of Homer’s ancient writing knows as the Iliad (c. 800 B.C.).  What if copy one said “Let us ask some driest or prophet, or some reader of dreams . . . .”  Copy two read “Let us ask some priesl or prophet, or some reader of dreams . . . .” What if copies three through five read “Let us ask some priest or prophet, or some reader of dreams . . . .”  Would we have any looming doubt on what the actual rendering should be?  This is merely considering five copies.

We have to be careful that we don’t look at every textual variant as "errors" in the sense of being an obstacle to understanding.  The word “error” can mean false or misleading.  Also the word “error” sometimes casts doubt on the trustworthiness of the message or the message bearer.  Generally in modern language and communication we impart understanding with less than pin point precise English perfection.  We typically don’t become highly suspicious of one who writes “there” when meaning “they’re.”   We typically don’t dismiss people as liars, charlatans, or devils of the worst kind when they use “where” when meaning “wear.”   If we lend this courtesy in modern times, should the same courtesy be lent to ancient Biblical copyists who were copying by hand on parchments or animal skins? 

[1] See pg. 160 of Geisler, Norman and Ron Brooks.  When Skeptics Ask.  Grand Rapids, Baker Books, 1990.  Print.   See pg. 96 of Lightfoot, Neil.  How We Got the Bible.  Grand Rapids, Baker Books, 2003.

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_best-selling_books, accessed 6-22-16.  

Does the Bible Die on the Deathbed of a Thousand Qualifications?

The hungry, curious and critical mind needs solid evidence to draw valid and sound conclusions.  In a world with so many different religions, drawing a conclusion that the Bible is Divine can be done with careful thought and consideration.  The critics and objectors often reject this conclusion, but we want to carefully listen to their criticism and consider the objections.   The Bible is true and shines against the unrelenting criticism.  Watching the Bible stand against criticism can strengthen one's faith.

For some the Bible dies on the death bed of a thousand qualifications.  If one thousand qualifications were met, some critics would want one thousand and one qualifications met.  In the study of logic there is a fallacy (a false belief) known as “death by a thousand qualifications.”  This is observed “when a term is used to define something but then there are so many qualifications to the definition as to render the original term meaningless.”[1]   For some the Bible is rejected because so many criticisms are hurled at it and people don’t honestly consider answers to the criticism.  When the criticism is answered, the answer is often thought not good enough. 

The Bible states that there are those who are “always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth” (2 Timothy 3:7).  This text shows the knowledge-heart-will connection in the Bible.  For some people the evidence for the Bible will never be sufficient. Why?  For them the Bible dies on a death of a thousand qualifications.  For these, if multiple witnesses confirm the same account they might want one more witness.

This insatiable skeptical attitude was apparent when Jesus was crucified. 

39 And those who passed by derided him, wagging their heads 40 and saying, “You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.”  41 So also the chief priests, with the scribes and elders, mocked him, saying,  42 “He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him.  43 He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he desires him. For he said, 'I am the Son of God.’”  (emphasis mine, Matthew 27:39-42).

For these individuals to be satisfied with Jesus being the Son of God he should have subjected himself to their notion that he come down from the cross.  For them the countless healings, miracles, virtuous teachings, making and fulfilling multiples prophecies was not enough.  In their estimation and judgment Jesus should have done precisely what they expected.  To do less, in their minds, was evident that Jesus was not the Son of God.  

Do you see the problem?  The problem was not evidence or the lack of available information and subsequently being informed.  Rather the problem was heart disease and a human will that derided an innocent God dying precisely for them.  God help them in their unbelief!

 The availability of evidence or the amount of evidence or the multiple lines of evidence or all the various categories of evidence contained in the Bible will not necessarily make a person care about the gospel.   The heart must listen and care about what it hears (Rom. 10:17).

So, what Biblical evidence would convince you that God’s word is literally breathed out by God and profitable for every good work (2 Tim. 3:16)?  Some will never concede to this conclusion.  Others, like Thomas set the bar high.  Thomas would never believe unless he placed his finger into the mark of the nails and into Jesus’s side (John 20:25).  Jesus consented and urged him “Do not disbelieve, but believe.”   Thomas responded “My Lord and my God” (John 20:28).   Jesus replied “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29).

The words of the Bible are written so that all will believe (John 20:31).  Some will never believe because God to them must meet seemingly a thousand qualifications (cf. Acts 28:28). Some when confronted with Divine evidence will be like Abraham who was “fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised” (Rom. 4:19). Some will have the boldness of Peter who confidently affirmed to the Gentiles that Jesus’s life of miracles and good works showed that God was with him (Acts 10:38). Some will be like Nicodemus who recognized that no one could do miraculous signs unless God was with him (John 3:1-2ff).  Some will understand that to deny a Divine inference (conclusion) is most unreasonable (John 9:31-32).

One can be a thoughtful, curious, inquisitive, and hungry student of the Bible.  One can weigh the evidence and arrive at Divine conclusion for the Bible.  It is a book beyond mere human invention for so many reasons.  May we be like the Jews who marveled at Christ’s words and be sincere enough to thank God for having revealed himself to us through his word (John 7:15-18).

[1] http://www.mongryl.com/logical.fallacies.html, accessed 8-3-2016. 

Is the Bible the Word of God? How Do Miracles Establish that the Bible is From God?

Some people dismiss the Bible because of miracles recorded in its pages.   They dismiss the possibility of miracles on a couple of different grounds. One reason is based upon preconceived bias or mere assumptions.  Honest minds want to draw conclusions based upon a fair hearing of the evidence.  Some people dismiss the possibility of past miracles outright before allowing a fair hearing of them. 

Another reason people reject miracles is based upon a commitment to naturalistic principles.  Some people reason from their own personal experience and since they do not observe miracles on a regular, repeatable or consistent basis, they reason that miracles have never occurred.  This is a big logical leap.  One may confidently say they haven’t observed a miracle, but to say miracles never have occurred takes much more evidence than personal experience or the experience of a select group of people.  Just one miracle happening at just one moment of time in the world’s history would prove this belief to be false.  This belief and rejection of miracles is often rooted in the principle of uniformitarianism—the concept or belief that the origin or development of all things can be explained exclusively in terms of natural laws or processes operating today or “the present is the key to the past”(Ruffner 290).  Yet experience teaches us that what is ordinarily observed is peppered with irregularities like a man landing on the moon or Princess Diana dying in such a rare and irregular manner.

How would one respond to this rejection?  First, a commitment to natural explanations demands a source for nature.  If there are natural laws, then there must be a natural law giver.  Second, what is observed consistently in nature is only a portion of what is observed naturally.  There are observable phenomenon (irregularities, oddities or anomalies) that are readily observed such as volcano eruptions, earth quakes, tsunamis, meteor showers, or tornadoes.  Scientists try to predict these events with regularity but their occurrence is littered with uncertainty as to timing.  These events prove that natural regularities or a normal order of things has exceptions (cf. 2 Peter 3:4).  If these natural phenomenon are willingly accepted, why then do people rule out the possibility of supernatural exceptions to natural processes in the past? Shouldn’t one allow at least the possibility for the supernatural?              

People offer other objections to miracles.  They might allege – you believe the Bible is true because it contains miracles and you believe miracles are true because they are in the Bible.  This is circular, they would argue.  However, there is more to proving Divine inspiration of the Bible than these two elements.  The Bible is a collection of witness accounts confirming miracles.  It’s not merely one witness confirming a miracle but often many witnesses to the same event.  A miracle proves to be a supernatural act of God either by God intervening or interrupting the natural course of events (Geisler 48). “A miracle is something which would never have happened had nature, as it were, been left to its own devices” (Geisler 44).  As Geisler points out “Natural law describes naturally caused regularities; a miracle is a supernaturally caused singularity”(44).

In the Bible there is not only one miracle attested to by many witnesses, but there is one Christ attested to by many miracles (cf. Heb. 2:3-4, John 3:2, John 20:30-31).  Consider the miracle of Jesus’s resurrection.  Matthew records the initial witness testimony of Mary Magdalene, another Mary and the eleven at Galilee (Matt. 28:1,9).  Paul records the first hand witness of Peter (Cephas), the twelve, five hundred brothers, James, all the Apostles, and Paul himself (1 Cor. 15:5-8).  This resurrected Jesus also was confirmed by multiple miracles prior to his death, including: turning water to wine (John 2:9), feeding the 5,000 (Mark 6:30-44), and calming a storm (Matt. 8:23-27) among many others.

Rudolf Bultman one of the staunchest critics of the New Testament noted the following.  He stated “The Christian fellowship was convinced that Jesus had done miracles and they told many stories of miracles about him.  Most of these stories contained in the gospels are legendary or are at least dressed up with legend.  But, there can be no doubt that Jesus did such deeds, which were, in his and his contemporaries’ understanding, miracles; this is to say, events that were the result of supernatural divine causality.  Doubtless he healed the sick and cast out demons” (Strobel 68 quoting Craig quoting Rudolf Bultmann, Jesus (Berlin, 1926), 159).   If even this critic can concede to the truth of past miracles, maybe other fair minded individuals will do the same.

Geisler, Norman. Systematic Theology. Vol. One. Minneapolis: Bethany, 2002. Print.

Ruffner, Roelf. "The Doctrine of Uniformitarianism." In the Beginning: Christian Evidence and Apologetics. Ed. Hicks, Tommy. Lubbock: Hicks Publications, 2000. Print.

Strobel, Lee. The Case for Faith. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005. Print. 

How Does One Test the Bible?

Does God want man to examine and see for himself if the Bible is the word of God?  How might one go about testing the validity of the claims of the Bible?  We have been examining over the last few weeks ways to examine the Bible.  One can examine the Bible from many angles: forensic, historical, legal, scientific, archeological, and mathematical or logically and philosophically.  If the Bible is inspired and the word of God it would pass with flying colors in these areas.

One might be encouraged to know that God encourages the examination of His identity and the truthfulness of his word (Mark 1:22, John 3:2, Acts 17:27). The Bible says “test everything; hold fast what is good” (1 Thess. 5:21).  Making informed decision as one handles this evidences is paramount.  Testing everything would include examining and verifying the validity of God’s identity and his word.  As one considers the evidence and moves toward making an informed decision, one will be faced with an either or option.  Either God exists or he doesn’t.  Either the Bible is the word of God or it isn’t.  Joshua who became the valiant leader of Israel pushed Israel to make a decision.  He urged them to choose either the gods of their fathers, the gods of the Amorites or the Lord (Josh. 24:15).  They proclaimed “No, but we will serve the Lord” (Josh. 24:20).

Consider the nature of truth and how that applies to the Bible.  When something is false it dies off and comes to nothing.  What is false is fruitless, of little merit, of no help and of no value in advancing virtue for the human race.  If the testimony in the Bible concerning Christ was false it would be expected to die off and come to nothing.  That’s what happens to lies.  They get exposed.  Gamaliel pointed this out in Acts 5.  If the Apostle’s actions and teachings were false their teaching would be exposed as false, be fruitless and misleading.  Their teaching would come to nothing.  However, if it is true and from God, there is nothing that man could do to overturn it (Acts 5:34-39).  In fact, the resistant Jews would be found to be opposing God (Acts 5:39).

In arguing a case for the Bible, Dick Sztanyo goes through several proofs.  First, one must establish a clear definition of the Bible.  Second, one must prove that God exists.  Third, one must understand that there are necessary conditions for the truthfulness that are distinguished from sufficient conditions for truth.  Necessary conditions are negative tests for truthfulness.  Consider archeology, history or the preservation of scripture.  Because something is proven to come down to us historically intact, does not necessarily prove it be true or Divine.  Necessary conditions are minimal requirements for accuracy.  Sztanyo points out that this information “can disprove, but not prove”; they “can corroborate, but not confirm” (215).  One would expect, at least, the Bible to prove reliable when it comes to history or archeology. Many necessary conditions of truth are external to the Bible text itself. Sufficient conditions, on the other hand, are positive tests for truth.  These largely deal with evidence internal to the text.  Conditions that are both necessary and sufficient include miracles and “predictive prophecy, unity of theme and purpose beyond human explanation, and scientific foreknowledge”(222).  One could travel down a delightful path examining all the evidence that proves the Bible to be inspired. 

An honest mind also wants to consider the implications if the Bible is false.  Paul was a balanced thinker and entertained this possibility in 1 Cor. 15.  If Christ isn’t raised from the dead, then: (1) Paul’s preaching and faith was vain, (2) he was misrepresenting God, (3) his faith was futile and he was still in his sins, (4) his hope in Christ was only in this life, (5) Christians are most to be pitied, and (6) let man eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow he dies (1 Cor. 15:14-32).  However, since Christ is Risen man’s faith is solidified.  His hope is maintained.  Abundant life and salvation are in full view. 

Can man know if the Bible is divine?  Certainly.  One is free to examine the Bible for all its worth.  The Bible proves itself to be a book of Divine origin.   All of the evidence collected together make a solid case.  First Thessalonians 2:13 states “And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers.”   You can confidently reach the same conclusion.

Sztanyo, Dick. Graceful Reason. Vienna: Warren Christian Apologetics Center, 2012. Print.