Has The Bible Been Miscopied?

December 28, 2017

Summary: Textual critics of several centuries ago embarked on a journey to evaluate the New Testament. At present, many are shocked to discover the results of that study which have brought an unheard of level of credibility and accuracy regarding biblical textual transmission. Click here to subscribe to future posts.

The Perfect Book? 

 

In his bestselling book, Misquoting Jesus, modern textual critic, Bart Ehrman, wrote the following: “There are clear reasons for thinking that, in fact, the Bible is not…inerrant…” [1] 

 

Ehrman is one of numerous scholars who radically question the integrity of scripture. His published work has carved him a reputation for being a tough minded critic of the faith. He has thoroughly challenged certain long standing views which hold the Bible as divinely authored. His rumpus allegations have brought him attention from a large Christian audience, wobbling in its faith.

 

Joining Ehrman are a host of other voices who hold the scriptures in similar derision. Noted popular author, Reza Aslan, for example, notoriously views the Bible as flawed. “The Bible” writes Aslan, “is replete with the most blatant and obvious errors and contradictions—just as one would expect from a document written by hundreds of hands across thousands of years…” [2]

 

Such accusations have grown common in our day. They are further presented with partial information. Scholarly sources, such as The New Interpreter's Bible Dictionary, are generally referenced to support these sad agendas. Example: “It is safe to say that there is not one sentence in the New Testament in which the [manuscript] tradition is wholly uniform.” [3] Such a salutary statement, though technically correct, is nonetheless destructive when read in isolation. 

 

All of this has brought on a massive erosion. Confidence towards the scriptures has sunken dangerously low. Churches are reeling from skeptical opinions which threaten to destroy the very foundations of our faith. For this reason, many today question: Can we be certain that our modern, printed Bibles bear any resemblance to their hand-written ancestors? Still others conclude that it is impossible to know whether the sacred texts have been accurately preserved.  

 

In light of such problems, what are Christians to think? Are the biblical texts really in a state of disarray? Have the sacred scriptures been guarded from corruption? Or does a thorough examination prove the opposite to be true? 

 

These and other questions are demanding our attention. They have set the stage for one of the most powerful inquests of our time. Will the sacred scriptures survive a narrow critique? Or will they rather crumble under the massive weight of modern thinking? In this article, we will seek to explore the subject of the general reliability of the Bible. And we will test the trustworthiness of the scriptures to see if they indeed be the very words of God. 

 

Examining the Text

 

We will thus begin by asking the question: Have the scriptures have been properly curated? This question seeks to know whether or not our sacred records have been reliably cared for. It genuinely inquires: Can we claim to know what the original author's intended to say? It further seeks to know whether our scriptures have been attended by a routine tradition of clear textual transmission. 

 

Centuries ago, such questions had no answer. But with advent of the modern-day science of textual criticism—everything has changed. Through examining differing copies in a given family of texts, scholars are able to spot tiny variations. These minor textual differences, often called “variants,” are then compared with one other in order to create our reconstructed texts. At times, a reconstruction will deliberately distort a given reading in order to remain true to an imagined, original text. 

 

Initially, this process can sound frightening to Christians. Many are disturbed by the thought of there being any textual differences! Why, they often wonder, if the Bible is truly inerrant, do we find any variants of any kind at all? 

 

Skeptics on the other hand are often driven to gloating. They feel vindicated to learn that the Bible has, in fact, changed. For it justifies their conclusions that the scriptures have been hopelessly distorted as they have passed from hand to hand to us across the distant ages.

 

In reality, however, both reactions are sorely mistaken. Neither fearing, nor gloating are condonable responses. Instead, both are a sign that the meaning of the data, in this case, has become horribly confused and grossly misinterpreted. Sadly, the fault here lies predominantly with the Christian—not the skeptic. It is largely due to his attempting to improve upon the concept of “inspiration.” In some cases, it is the result of deliberately tooling with the definition in order to include a level of scribal perfection which is quite frankly, impossible. 

 

Thankfully, the remedy to our problem, in this case, is very simple. Through consulting with an expert, scholarly panel, our opinions can be rightly straightened. However, doing so will require our willingness to allow our private views to be hammered into proper shape along the hard anvil of reality. Though at times painful for the Christian, the results are strengthened faith. Hearts become deepened in greater confidence towards the scriptures. Answers to various questions become presented which allow both the believer and the skeptic to see why the Bible is so unique. 

 

Testing The Scriptures

 

We’ll thus begin this process by delineating the concept of “inspiration.” It does not, as some say, include the idea that the biblical texts have never been altered. For according to one well known statement, signed by nearly 300 noted evangelical scholars, biblical inspiration should be understood as follows: “...inspiration, strictly speaking, applies only to the autographic text of Scripture...” [4] The document then goes on to note: “...in the providence of God [these texts] can be ascertained from available manuscripts with great accuracy.” [5] 

 

Now, notice that the concept of inspiration here is, in actuality, quite modest. It only pleads for a miracle in the case of the original texts. These scribal masterpieces, which were written by the biblical author’s themselves, are referred to in this document as the “autographic texts.” However, as the above statement shows, these signature editions are no longer available to us. They have crossed irretrievably into the hidden, distant past. They are now survived only by a large collection of handwritten copies, which are preserved for us in the form of numerous carefully lettered manuscripts. 

 

However, once again, this news should not trouble the Christian greatly. In fact, the absence of a signature text does little in advancing the cause for doubt. For our inability to collate our Bibles against these “ancient originals” does not warrant the conclusion that the Bible is therefore unknowable. This is true, in part, because our collection of Greek manuscripts is so large. One timely estimate, for example, numbered them at over 5,000. [6] This would mean that scholars have no less than 5,000 opportunities to redundantly show by experiment that the scriptures have been preserved. 

 

Cast Study: The Gospel of Philip

 

To illustrate why this is so, consider the extra-biblical Gospel of Phillip. The document contains the only surviving claim that Jesus had a girlfriend. The text was discovered in Egypt in 1945 and is believed to have been set down roughly in the 4th century A.D. Since the time of it’s discovery, however, no additional copies have been found. Moreover, the text itself is in very poor condition. We therefore possess only a single copy of the Gospel of Philip showing what the original author may have attempted to convey. 

 

For this reason, most scholars regard the text of “Philip” as uncertain. The reason why is that there is no way for us to properly test it’s claims. This is true because no additional copies have survived which allow us to know how accurately the text has been transmitted. Add just one additional copy, however, and the stakes become dramatically altered. Using the secondary text, our certainty about the first can be increased. For wherever the texts agree, showing identical words and phrases, our primary (or earliest) text is generally seen as more reliable. 

 

This therefore shows us a basic rule of thumb: The more copies we have, the easier it will be to recreate the original. For if we have five copies of “Philip” in which 90% of the text is identical, our reasons for believing Jesus had a girlfriend could conceivably increase. 

 

On the other hand, when we compare the manuscripts of the New Testament, we find that our surviving texts (roughly 5000 Greek editions) agree with 99.5% accuracy. [7] This shows us that we can be virtually certain that Jesus was indeed a Jewish (celibate) teacher who wrought and preached in the first-century. 

 

Remaining Arguments

 

What then is left for us to conclude regarding any outstanding skeptical objections? Only that our remaining 0.5% of textual variants are uninteresting. For even atheist Bible scholar, Bart Ehrman, admits that these scriptural textual variants are essentially, negligible. He writes: “Many of these differences are completely immaterial...[They] simply show us that [the] scribes...could spell no better than…people…today…” [8] Therefore, if even an atheist admits that these variants don’t altar doctrine, why, we might wonder, has this point figured so strongly into the debate? 

 

Well, the only answers skeptics give are based on faulty views of inspiration. Once again, it is Bart Ehrman who elucidates these phony problems the clearest. He writes: “… it would have been no more difficult for God to preserve the words of scripture than it would have been for him to inspire them in the first place.” [9] Ehrman thus concludes: “…if [God] didn't perform that miracle, there [seems] to be no reason to think that he performed the earlier miracle of inspiring [them].” [10] For this reason, Ehrman now travels across the country, speaking on his de-conversion, leading believers astray.

 

The problem with this argument however is that it overlooks the obvious—namely, that the scriptures have been preserved! In fact, the number of available manuscripts is so high so as to make the case for biblical trustworthiness difficult to object to. 

 

For this reason, it is hard to understand what Ehrman finds objectionable. It seems that his main problem is that we don’t have the “autographic texts.” However, this gripe is so vastly impractical so as to be made utterly irrelevant to the work of textual criticism. For it is conceivably impossible for such signature texts to survive. Many of our oldest manuscripts are in fact, virtually disintegrated. With the exception of a handful of verses taken from 2nd century fragments, these ancient documents have become, by and large, untraceable. 

 

Therefore, it is surely right to conclude that this objection is meaningless. Moreover, our case for biblical accuracy is shown to be very strong. For all of our textual discoveries have consistently proven one thing, that the Bible has remained in tact; case in point—our closing example. 

 

Discovering The Ein-Gedi Scroll

 

In a September 2016 article published by National Geographic, young science writer, Michael Greshko, reported the following: “Computers decipher burnt scroll found in ancient holy ark.” [11]

 

The article describes the unveiling of a previously unknown member in the wider family of biblical evidences. The discovery was made through the use of groundbreaking computer technology, implemented by a team from the University of Kentucky. 

 

The story goes that the scroll was found in 1970. It was discovered in a fire scorched region of the Ein-Gedi. Israeli Antiquities Authorities were immediately contacted to take possession of the charred scroll in order to preserve it’s deteriorating remains. Remarking on the venture, project leader Brent Seales commented that many thought the scroll would be impossible to read. [12] But when the preliminary scans turned up several visible columns of Hebrew text, the team soon began to realize they were on the cusp of a major biblical archaeological find.

 

Providentially, the detailed images revealed the true identity of the scroll. It was a copy of the Book of Leviticus—the oldest ever found. According to one popular news source, the seared scroll contained approximately 35 lines of ancient Hebrew script. [13] Of the roughly 1,155 characters, not a single vowel was visible in the entire text, a feature most scholars today view as an indication that the scroll would necessarily predate the 9th century.

 

But a deeper examination would only increase the age of the scroll, a point which would serve to greatly enlarge the significance of the find. Michael Greshko noted that radiocarbon dating suggested that the scroll may be 1,800 years old. [14] In light of this, study coauthor, Michael Segal, said that the Ein-Gedi scroll (so named) is the most important biblical text from antiquity. [14] And world famous Hebrew scholar, Emanuel Tov, agreed, suggesting that the scroll is “identical” to later medieval biblical texts. [15] 

 

Emanuel Tov thus concluded his expert assessment by issuing the following remarkable statement: “The…stream of Judaism that used this…scroll in…the early centuries of our era was to continue using it until the late Middle Ages when printing was invented.” [16]

When printing was invented?

 

Wow.

 

Concluding Thoughts

 

In conclusion then, it is obvious that the Bible is truly a unique book. No other text from antiquity has been transmitted so accurately. Isn’t it therefore time for an unbelieving world to agree? You answer the question.

 

__________

End Notes: 

[1]. MisQuoting Jesus; Bart Ehrman; Harper SanFrancisco; 2005; pg. 14. 

[2]. Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth; Reza Aslan; Random house Publishing; 2014; pg. xix. 

[3]. The Interpreters Dictionary of the Bible, Abingdon Press, 1962 edition pg. 595

[4]. http://www.bible-researcher.com/chicago1.html. 

[5]. ibid. 

[6]. The New Evidence That Demands a Verdict; Josh McDowell; Thomas Nelson Publishers; Copyright 1999; pg. 34.

[7]. B. M. Metzger, "Recent Trends In The Textual Criticism Of The Iliad And The Mahabharata", Chapters In The History Of New Testament Textual Criticism, 1963, E. J. Brill: Leiden, pp. 142-154.

[8]. Misquoting Jesus; Bart D. Ehrman; Harper Collins Publishing; Copyright 2005; pgs 10-11. 

[9]. Misquoting Jesus; Bart D. Ehrman; Harper Collins Publishing; Copyright 2005; pg. 11.

[10]. ibid.

[11]. Computers Decipher Burnt Scroll Found in Ancient Holy Ark; Michael Greshko; National Geographic; September 21st, 2016. 

[12]. 1,700-Year-Old Dead Sea Scroll ‘Virtually Unwrapped,’ Revealing Text; Laura Geggel; Live Science; September 21st, 2016. 

[13]. ibid. 

[14]. Computers Decipher Burnt Scroll Found in Ancient Holy Ark; Michael Greshko; National Geographic; September 21st, 2016.

[15]. ibid. 

[16]. ibid.

 

 

  

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