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Archive for June, 2011

You have heard the question put in a variety of ways. Can we believe that the text of the Bible we have today accurately reflects what was originally written? Why are there so many footnotes in our Bibles that indicate that other manuscripts have different readings? Did the people whose names have been traditionally linked to specific books of the Bible really write them? Does it really matter?

These are huge questions, and the answers will take a multitude of posts to address. Even then, we shall probably not be able to cover all of the issues. Right now I would like to make two points before we even begin that long journey to discover the accuracy of the Bible. As so often happens, I find myself unable to take sides with either extreme of that debate, because I believe both extremes miss the point.

First of all, let me admit from the outset that we cannot say with certainty that we have for any book of the Bible the absolutely pure text that is identical with the autograph as originally written; nor are we likely to have it in the future. The reality is that the manuscripts do contain variant readings, as do any manuscripts copied by hand. We are going to talk at length about them, but for today, we must admit that they exist. The only way that we could arrive at an absolutely pure text for any book of the Bible is to discover the autograph, the original manuscript from which all the copies derive. That is almost certainly not going to occur for two reasons. More than likely the originals do not exist. They would have been written on vellum or even papyrus, and for the most part these materials do not last for two thousand years. Yes, I know about the Dead Sea Scrolls. We shall talk about them. But they are the exception, and even most of those are fragments. Also, how would we know if we did discover the original of any book of the Bible? There would likely be nothing to indicate that it was the original, so all we could say with certainty is that it comes from a date the original might have been written.

At the same time, I have little patience with the doomsayers, who tell us that the text of the Bible has been so corrupted that we can have no confidence in it. That simply is not true. Yes, variations exist, but for the most part they are insignificant. The Old Testament is somewhat harder to talk about, but let’s put it in perspective at least for the New Testament. The reality is that there is no real doubt about the text of 95% of the New Testament. So the questions arise about 5%. Of that 5% of the text that shows variant readings, 4% of those readings are absolutely insignificant, such things as spelling, different ways in Greek of saying the same thing (yes, that is common in Greek), how Greek words are to be divided (the earliest manuscripts do not have any word divisions). Can we see that things such as this make no difference? We can resolve the text on these matters without any real question.

So, now we are dealing with 1% of the text of the New Testament. Half of those variants can also be resolved fairly easily. Sometimes they are variants that we see in only one or two late manuscripts. Obviously, if two late manuscripts have one reading, but the others, especially the older manuscripts all have another reading, it is easy to determine what the original reading was likely to have been. We should also recognize that the vast majority of the variants have to do with words that have no real effect on the meaning of the text. Just one example is in Romans 1.1. Some manuscripts begin the letter with the words, “Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus.” Other manuscripts begin, “Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ.” Does this difference call into question the reliability of the text of Romans? Please! And the vast majority of the textual issues are just this insignificant or easily explained.

Having said this, let me be honest; there are textual variations that are significant for two reasons. They are significant, because they do make a difference in the way the text reads, and they are significant because we cannot be certain what the original text was. It would be foolish to deny this. In fact in future posts I want us to look at these. We will not do so now, because anyone reading this needs to have some tools to understand how these texts are evaluated. But there is one important point with which I wish to leave you today. Most of these questionable texts are significant primarily because they affect some favorite passages, such as the woman taken in adultery in John 7.53-8.11. Let me emphasize what is not at issue with any significant textual variation. None of these variations affect traditional Christian theology or doctrine in any meaningful way.

I have said before that I am reluctant to support extremes. Those who say that we can pick a particular text and be certain that it accurately reflects the original are in my view trying to find a certainty that is not available to us. On the other hand, those who tell us that the text of the Bible is hopelessly corrupted, are ignoring the evidence. Especially as regards the New Testament, I can tell you that you can read it with confidence that the Jesus portrayed there is the Jesus originally written about when the particular books were written. Given enough time we shall consider all of the passages that really do make a difference, and there are not that many. In conclusion, it is my conviction that while the exact text of the original will never be known with absolute certainty, you can read your Bible without concern for what you find there. I am convinced that is what the evidence supports. I will try to defend that in future posts.

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I will have another post in an hour or so. I know I had said that I would try to post every Tuesday, but as some of you know, the demands now are so chaotic that it will be impossible to keep to any kind of schedule. I do want to try to keep the posts, but they will have to take second place. All I can say now is that I will try to get a post approximately once a week. If I miss one, don’t worry. I’ll probably make it up the following week.

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Holy Ghost Greek?

It has long been recognized that the Greek of the New Testament is different from the classical Greek of Homer or even first century literary writings or inscriptions. During the nineteenth century attempts were made to explain the Greek of the New Testament.

Richard Rothe, a German theologian, saw in the New Testament evidence of a spiritual influence. He suggested that the New Testament employed what he called “Holy Ghost Greek,” a special language used by the Holy Spirit for imparting the Christian message. While few people accept this theory today, I perceive similarities to it in the attempts by some Christians to see hidden symbols and meanings in the Bible. The latest version is the so-called Bible Code. While this attempt to find hidden messages in the bible has been applied to the Hebrew text of the Torah, it relies on the belief that the Bible is really a book of symbols, and that one cannot understand it unless one understands the symbols necessary to decode it. This view seems almost a throwback to the Gnostics of the first three centuries. The belief is that the Bible is a mass of symbols and codes, and only those specially trained or instructed can possibly understand it.

The Bible certainly employs symbols. They are everywhere; from baptism to the elements of the Lord’s Supper, and even the apocalyptic nature of Revelation. But the symbols are not there to confuse, but to enlighten. Baptism illustrates the gospel message and its power to cleanse us. The bread and the wine help us to understand the meaning of Jesus’ death. Even Revelation is meant to enlighten. It employs a literary form which first and second century readers would have understood, including the symbolic imagery. So I take as a starting point that the Biblical writers intended their work to be understood, and a “Holy Ghost Greek” would not lend itself to being readily understood.

In 1863 Bishop Lightfoot suggested another explanation for the Greek of the New Testament. He said, “If we could only uncover letters that ordinary people wrote to each other without any thought of being literary, we should have the greatest possible help for the understanding of the language of the New Testament generally.” [F. F. Bruce, The Books and the Parchments, (Westwood, NJ: Fleming H. Revell Co., 1963), 63)]. And this is precisely what happened. From the 1880s papyrus documents, dating from the first century were discovered in ancient rubbish dumps in Egypt. These were not literary documents, but letters, receipts, inventory lists, etc. They were found to be strikingly similar to the Greek of the New Testament. Indeed, some of these non-literary papyri have actually helped us understand some of the language of the New Testament.

Just one example is the word “arabbon” found in Ephesians 1.14. The NRSV translation reads, “this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory.” The King James translates the word as “earnest,” which isn’t too bad, because it hints at the idea of earnest money, a phrase seldom used today, but understood in earlier times. The ESV translates the word as “guarantee.” The NIV uses a phrase, “deposit guaranteeing.” The NRSV quoted above uses the word “pledge.” But in this instance I prefer the HCSB which translates the word “arabbon” in a way we can all understand and which is used in those non-literary documents discovered in Egypt. The HCSB translates it simply as “down payment.” The first part of the verse refers to the Holy Spirit with the promise, “He is the down payment of our inheritance.” It isn’t earthshaking theology, but it emphasizes the truth that we need not create grandiose language to render the Biblical text in an understandable form.

So we now know that most of the New Testament is nothing more (or less) than the language of the common people, written so that the average Greek reader in the first century would have understood it. For this reason the language of the New Testament is referred to as Koine (or “common”) Greek. I can understand that it may be comforting to look to the Bible for exalted language and mystical symbols. How much more should it say about God that He chooses to express Himself through ordinary people, writing to ordinary people, in ordinary language meant to be easily understood? I do not want God to speak in “Holy Ghost Greek” any more than I want Him to speak in “Holy Ghost English.” I am more comforted when I can understand the message.

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This is a day early, because it might be hard to do a post later this week.

You may have heard that all of the books comprising our New Testament were written in Greek. While I suspect that is true, the issue is a bit more complex than that.

Our oldest manuscripts of every book in the New Testament are indeed written in Greek, and it is likely that this reflects the originals or “autographs” as well. We need to dig further, however, to understand the whole picture.

The possibility exists that there may be an exception. We have a few fragments of writing from a man named Papias, who was Bishop of Hierapolis in Asia Minor during the first half of the second century. Sometime around AD 130 (give or take ten years) Papias wrote a five volume work entitled Expositions of the Sayings of the Lord. Unfortunately, only fragments of this work remain, and it is difficult to evaluate with any certainty.

For our purposes the most significant surviving fragment we have from Papias is a cryptic statement that “Matthew composed the oracles in the Hebrew language and each person interpreted them as best he could.” This sentence lends itself to a variety of interpretations, and various writers have indeed interpreted it differently. Is Papias saying that Matthew originally wrote his gospel in Hebrew, and that it was subsequently translated into Greek, or should his words be interpreted differently? Another question is how reliable is Papias? Some, including some of the other church fathers (specifically Irenaeus) have interpreted part of what Papias said as indicating that Papias actually knew some of the apostles, particularly John. I am inclined to interpret his writing as indicating that he did indeed know people who had known the apostles, but that he probably did not know any of the apostles personally.

Here is what we know. If Matthew was originally written in Hebrew, that is not reflected in our earliest manuscripts. This of course is not conclusive. Is it possible that Matthew wrote something (perhaps a collection of sayings of Jesus) and that someone else took that and converted it into the Greek gospel that has been transmitted to us? Or is it possible that Papias has been misinterpreted or is simply mistaken? Since we cannot say for certain, obviously any of these answers is possible.

The bottom line for Matthew is that the oldest manuscripts we possess are in Greek, just like all the other books in our New Testament. This is what we have, so nothing can be accomplished by looking elsewhere. If we should discover evidence that there was an earlier version of Matthew in Hebrew, that would be exciting. It would not affect my faith in the slightest.

One other factor to consider in the language of the New Testament is the extent to which Jewish thought and language can be found in the books of the New Testament. I feel perhaps least qualified to talk authoritatively about this, but it deserves to be mentioned.

There are indications in some of the New Testament books that the authors were Jewish, but writing for Gentile audiences who might not be familiar with Jewish customs or language. For instance, there are passages in which the writer writes an Aramaic or Hebrew word, and then gives the Greek equivalent, presumable because he knew that most of his readers would not know the Aramaic or Hebrew language. Here are just a few examples.

Matthew 27.46 – “Eli, Eli, llama, sabachthani.”
It is interesting that Matthew gives the Hebrew, then gives a Greek translation, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Mark records the Aramaic, “Eloi,” instead of the Hebrew “Eli, but he also provides a Greek translation, although he uses different Greek words to express the translation. This would indicate that both gospels were written for people who might not know Hebrew or Aramaic. So they would at least be aware that some of the readers would have a Gentile (or Greek) background.

Mark has two other Aramaic expressions worth mentioning. Mark 5.41 has the phrase “talitha koum,” which means “little girl, get up.” Mark 7.34 uses the expression, “ephphatha,” or “be opened.” These are indications that Jesus normally spoke Aramaic, although He would probably have known Greek as well. Again, Mark provides Greek translations for both expressions.

So, I believe we can be fairly certain of two things. First, the books of the New Testament, at least in the form we have them, were originally written in Greek. At the same time, it is good to recognize the Jewish background we find there.

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Galatians 4.4 reads, “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law.” (ESV). When Christians talk about “the fullness of time,” we sometimes refer to such factors as the spread of Greek culture and particularly the Greek language, as well as the Pax Romana and the development of Roman roads, transportation, and trade. While all of these certainly facilitated the spread of Christianity, one other factor that is not as frequently mentioned was perhaps at least as important. Before we talk about it, let’s consider some background.

The Old Testament was originally written at a time when most books were copied on scrolls, although other forms of writing were still in use. Some examples of other media for writing are stone (Exodus 24.12), clay tablets (Ezekiel 4.1), or whitewashed wooden tablets (Habakkuk 2.2). I believe it is likely that most of the books of the New Testament were also originally written on scrolls, because during the first century AD the scroll was still the most common form for writing. This was soon to change.

During the period in which most of the New Testament was written, a new medium for writing came into use which was to revolutionize communication in the ancient world. It was every bit as significant as the invention of the printing press or the computer. During the late first and into the second century, the scroll began to be replaced by what is called the codex (plural “codices”). The word “codex” is simply a fancy term to describe what we refer to as a book, writing on multiple pages, bound together at the spine.

There are numerous advantages to the codex. It is hard to find your place in a scroll. You have to unwind the scroll on one end and wind it on the other until you find the passage for which you are looking. Compare that to simply flipping pages. I think you will agree that is a much easier method. Also, the book form allows for writing on both sides of the page. This resulted in books being much cheaper to produce, so more copies could be made and spread in greater quantities. Now a person did not have to be immensely wealthy to own a book (just somewhat well off).

Despite this new format, as I suggested earlier, I suspect that most of the books of the New Testament were originally written on scrolls. I have two reasons for believing this to be the case. First, if we accept traditional dating for most of the books of the New Testament, they would have been written before or just after the codex began to be used. Also, it took awhile for the codex to catch on. Initially, the codex was not considered quite legitimate for serious writing. Tradition still goes a long way. Even today, the official version of the Torah read in Jewish temples must be handwritten on a scroll on vellum or parchment. I suspect the early church also had a period of adjusting to the new format.

At the same time we cannot be dogmatic about saying the books of the New Testament were originally written on scrolls. While we have a few manuscripts of portions of the New Testament that date to the second century (at least one that goes back to the first half of the second century), we do not possess a single Greek manuscript written on a scroll. Even so, I suspect the codex was just too new for the original autographs of the New Testament, but I would certainly not argue the point.

So, why was the development of the codex so significant for the New Testament? Here is what we know. This change from scroll to book occurred during or shortly after the time in which the books of the New Testament were first written. It is even possible that the change was at least partially due to the rise of Christianity, as Christians became “people of the book.” We cannot say for sure to what extent Christianity contributed to the rise of the codex or book form, but we can be certain that early Christian writers and copyists took advantage of this new form of writing to spread the Christian message throughout the ancient world. As I mentioned earlier, every single Greek manuscript we have of any portion of the New Testament was written in codex form.

So, the next time you pick up a good book (another vanishing form in our technological world), consider that a revolution in communication occurred just as the New Testament was being written, and the world has not been the same since.

Next week, we shall talk about the language in which all of the New Testament books were written. Or were they?

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