Recommended Resources: P.J. Williams on the Gospel’s Historical Reliability

Peter Williams is the Warden of Tyndale House at Cambridge University. He is a textual critic and Syriac scholar. This video is a lecture about how the peoples names used in the Gospels help us know how historically viable they are. It is an interesting and persuasive argument for the reliability of our four canonical gospels. Leave some comments, I love hearing your thoughts.


 

Recommended Resources are posts devoted to videos, blogs, articles, and sermons that have helped me think through some more difficult topics. This segment of the blog is to develop fodder for thoughtfulness in deeper content issues.

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.