Is the Bible Historically Reliable? Part I: The Importance of the Original Text

Today in some Christian circles the new intellectual trend is to not just to deny the incarnation or particular stories of scripture like the liberals of the early 20th century wanted to do; now we just throw it all out, because according to the professional, “the scriptures are unreliable.” Is that a valid way of thinking? Can we, in particular, trust the New Testament? Scholars like Dr. Bart Ehrman want to say no, “that is an absolutely ridiculous conclusion based on the evidence that we have.” With respect to the scholar that Dr. Ehrman is, I will strongly disagree with him, that the scriptures are not only reliable but they are historically validated. In other words they are externally and internally valid.

One of the most common critiques of the scriptures is there are variants in the text. These variants can be anything like spelling errors, different word order, or added words. This can seem troubling to most Christians. “If there are variants in the text how can I believe that the scriptures are inerrant?” That is a great question. Dr. Daniel Wallace of Dallas
Theological Seminary counts that we have approximately 300,000 variants between each text, some estimates 400,000. That is a large number and slightly scary, if we take it at face value. The encouraging thing is this, that ¾ of those variants are what is called a removable nu (ν). The letter nu (ν) is transliterated to the English N, so these variants would be the difference between “a airplane” or “an airplane.” This is an overwhelmingly large percentage that creates virtually no difference at all between the vast collection of manuscripts. This is clearly not an inerrancy issue like Dr. Ehrman claims it is, we are not arguing for the inspiration of the documents, but the scriptures, the authoritative words of God.

Now, there are about 100,000 variables left to look at. Approximately 24% of that number are grammatical issues that hold no bearing theologically. Less than 1% of all variables in the Greek New Testament manuscripts are what is called a “Viable difference.” These are differences that would possibly change the reading of a text. There are two primary examples of these “viable differences”. One of the most common viable differences is that scholars speculate 1 Corinthians is actually a conglomeration of 3 or 5 separate letters. Another common example is that the number of the beast in revelation is not 666, but 616. This comes from a reading of the earlier manuscripts we have. Much like these two examples, there are no instances where a viable difference would change the theology of any passage in scripture.

The reader at this point may ask, what is the point of giving out so many numbers and statistics about the original manuscripts. It also may seem slightly boring. If we are just crunching numbers than this can be boring; but what the numbers tell us is not boring at all. They tell us out of the almost 5,600 manuscripts we have of the New Testament in the original Greek, there are not enough viable differences to call into question the internal validity of the text. The differences we have in all our manuscripts are virtually meaningless, theologically speaking. We can be certain therefore that the scriptures we have now are the very words of the authorial words of God, as dictated by the human author. That is also without taking into account the 20,000 latin manuscripts and other various translations such as Coptic, Syriac, Arabic, Gothic, Hebrew and Aramaic.

Again, what that means is, we can trust the Bible for what it says. The words of the Scriptures are the words of God. Scholars and laymen alike undoubtedly believe the words of Homer, in his Iliad and The Odyssey, even though the earliest manuscripts we have are from 200 CE, which dates that manuscript about 900 years after it was written. That is the closest one to the original copy, out of all 10 manuscripts we hold. Even worse is the manuscript tradition of William Shakespear, nobody reads Hamlet and questions the integrity of the play, despite the fact that we do far more guess work with Shakespear’s rylands-p52plays then we do the New Testament. The earliest New Testament manuscript is P52, which contains a portion of the Gospel of John and is dated 117-138. This puts P52 almost 100 years out from the autograph. That is extraordinary considering the attestation of these events through manuscript tradition and church father’s quotations and allusions.

If we use these common examples and compare them, we soon realize that the Bible is not only historically reliable, but the most reliable account of the Jesus event. No other ancient book or text can make a similar claim, with quantity or quality of text like the New Testament.  Textually speaking that is a problem that scholars have to deal with honestly, if they want to take the New Testament to task.

That is a tremendous claim to historical validity for New Testament Scholars and believers. There is an overwhelming amount of the New Testament manuscripts. Therefore we can most certainly be confident we have the words that were written by Paul, John, Matthew, Peter, Luke and Mark. Men who God used to give us his holy word. In the next post we will talk about the task of Textual criticism and see how we come up with these numbers and the research that goes into it.


A Church Without Bibles

Matthew Barrett is the assistant professor of christian studies at California baptist university, the founder and executive editor at Credo Magazine has written a thoughtful post on the website yesterday. The whole idea is why have we thrown away our physical copy of the scripture. I had never thought about this topic with this amount of attention. Dr. Barrett brings some great points to our attention, in regards to having a physical copy of scripture. He has 5 major points, we will cover briefly.

1. Different Message,

2. Biblical Illiteracy in the Pew,

3. Flesh and Blood,

4. Visual Reminder,

5. Nonverbal Communication.

All five points that Dr. Barrett makes are really strong, but I think he two strongest points lay in 2 and 3. In point 2 he brings up the point that biblical literacy is going down, because the electronic text does not require people to know where the book is placed. Even more then not knowing where books of the bible are they don’t know the context of the chapter. This is a huge problem amongst many evangelicals today. I have noticed this as an increasing problem even at my own school. I address this topic earlier in the month in my post entitled The Fatality of “One-Text” Christinas How do we recalibrate the christian church in a “one-text christian” culture?

The next point he makes is an interesting one, but very thought provoking. Dr. Barrett sums up his brief thoughts on this point this way.

as physical beings who gather together as an assembly in a tangible place. We see with our own eyes a standing, breathing minister preach about a God who is, yes, invisible, but is really with us as Lord of space and time. This God has made himself known by sending his own Son in flesh and blood.”

This applies with beautiful harmony to the Bible. Some people may criticize this position and label it as anachronistic, but i think there is a lot to be said about realizing the embodiment of all things. A visible copy of the scriptures can be more beneficial to the body of christ than we realize. There is no reason to become dogmatic on the position it is merely trying to be thoughtful in all areas. Dr. Barrett does a wonderful job of carrying that tone in his post. I would encourage any reader to go and check out his blog, it was very helpful.

The Fatality of “One-Text” Christians

It is my understanding that a defense of the faith transcends every area of study and every area of life. There are implications in relationships, culture and professional living, and ramifications if we ignore the opportunity to defend our faith. Thankfully apologetics is not a specialized field for scientists and philosophers who evangelize to academics. We see weaved in the scriptures that apologetics is a gift from God. In Christ, the Father has given us all wisdom and knowledge needed to defend his faith, in the active work of the Holy Spirit; in the life of the spiritual and the natural man.

He has given all this in the scriptures, this is how we know our faith and defend it. This is where apologetics seems to get sticky or out of reach. Not that we are all not professional scientists or have an advanced degree in philosophy, its we have lost touch with our bibles and the historic faith that has given life to the church for 2000 years. There was a particular way of thinking that Cornelius Van Til addressed, he called these people “one-text Christians.” In David Powlison’s article on the same topic he brings the reader to more clear examples of exactly what this looks like.

“The negative meaning of “proof-texting” describes when a passage is pulled out of its context, meaning, and purpose, and is used improperly. Grotesque examples are easy to come up with. some people use the Bible as a magic book of guidance (the equivalent of a deck of Christian tarot cards): “When I was deciding where to move, I flipped my Bible open and pointed, and my finger landed on Revelation 2:7, so I moved to Philadelphia.” Or Scripture is viewed as an exhaustive encyclopedia containing all knowledge: “In Psalm 102:4, the Bible teaches us about anorexia, and shows that anorexia is God’s judgement on a person.” Or a scriptural narrative is wrenched to presumably teach a normative message: “Just as Nehemiah first explored the broken-down walls of Jerusalem so counselors should first explore the brokenness and pain of counselees,” or “The 10 unfaithful spies suffered from low self-esteem because they felt like grasshoppers compared to the people in the land of Canaan.” (I’m not making up any of these examples!)”

It becomes increasingly apparent what kind of issues derive from this type of biblical and theological undergirding. The bible was not written in some existential abstraction, which is being assumed by the pragmatist. Instead the bible was written as a systematized whole, it is a unified narrative depicting redemptive history. God does not begin particular motifs for individual passages and end them with no conclusion. The bible is not in contingency with itself, in fact the scriptures are beautifully and perfectly in cohesion and harmony. This is been largely misunderstood by most church goers today.

When we take passages of scripture out of their historical, theological and literary context it becomes a very individualized hermeneutic. This is a neo-bartian way of thinking about scripture. The bible does not become God’s word once it is preached or read. Meaning is not derived once we come to the text as though we are the first to read/interpret it. This type of incarnational reading makes the reader ultimately authoritative, which is clearly not the case, or else Paul would never have got away with saying the scriptures were God breathed. That is exactly what is assumed when we say things like “God has a wonderful plan for your life so eat, drink and be merry for we will never die.” A good long look into Jeremiah 29:11 we will shortly realize that God is also promising that his understanding of prosperity comes from an immense amount of judgement and torment, and even after that his prosperity is a life with him.

I fear that modern evangelical paradigms have lent themselves over to this foolish thinking, and willingly. That the Bible is in submission to my life, to help me, instead of realizing its the revelation of God himself, so we know how to live, not to live better. The bible does not lend itself to be bent and molded to my life in order to justify my political preference or even my education pursuits. It is so that the Christian, the regenerate man, the one bought by the blood of the spotless lamb, may indeed glorify God and enjoy him forever!

How does this tangent considering “one-text Christians” have to do with apologetics, where we began our conversation? If we do not have a systemized understanding of Christianity that is historic and orthodox then our defense will be anything other than faithful. It is not by polite suggestion that Peter tells us to make a defense for the faith that is within us, it’s an imperative that assumes we know the system. If we treat the bible like a doctrinal buffet in order to comfort our soul, then our defense will be just as confusing to our audience as it is in our own mind. The scriptures are not in contention with itself, it is a holistic story of the triune God making covenant with the sinful creation.

Question: What is thy only comfort in life and death?

Answer: That I with body and soul, both in life and death, am not my own, but belong unto my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ; who, with his precious blood, has fully satisfied for all my sins, and delivered me from all the power of the devil; and so preserves me that without the will of my heavenly Father, not a hair can fall from my head; yea, that all things must be subservient to my salvation, and therefore, by his Holy Spirit, He also assures me of eternal life, and makes me sincerely willing and ready, henceforth, to live unto him.