Archive for July, 2012

It should come as no surprise that we have far fewer older manuscripts of the New Testament than we have more recent ones. This is true for at least three reasons.

The earliest manuscripts were written at a time when church organization was still somewhat fluid and Christianity was a suspect and, in some locations, an illegal religion. At this early period, copies would have been commissioned by either individual congregations or wealthy individuals, not a more universal church.

Also, the earliest manuscripts we have are written on papyrus, a cheaper and more readily available material than vellum or parchment. Unfortunately, papyrus is not as durable, so it is less likely to survive.

Finally, at the time these early papyrus manuscripts were written, there was no final canon, or authoritative listing of what books should or should not be included in what we have come to call the New Testament. Different  localities would have had access to different books, but few churches would have had them all.

In order to present this information as simply as possible, I am listing below some of the earliest manuscripts we have of the New Testament books. Scholars have given them the designation “p” and a number. The “p” indicates that the manuscript is written on papyrus. Please understand that much more could be said; however, I recognize that most people would have no interest in a more detailed discussion, at least at this time. Here then are some of the most ancient existing manuscripts of the New Testament.

Most Recent Discovery—In an earlier post, I talked about Daniel Wallace’s claim that additional manuscripts have been discovered, dating from the second century and even a fragment of the Gospel of Mark that actually goes back to the first century. I am excited about that and want to learn more about it. At the same time, all we have now is the claim itself. According to Dr. Wallace, the manuscripts are being evaluated, and more information will be revealed when available. Since these manuscripts have not yet been authenticated, we cannot at this time consider them. I will be thrilled if the claims prove to be true, but we must be honest and admit that, for the present, they cannot enter into our discussion.

P52—I wrote an earlier post, dealing specifically with this manuscript, because it is the earliest one we have. It is a small scrap that includes portions of John 18.31-33 on the front and John 18.37-38 on the reverse. It is generally dated to no later than AD 150, although some aspects of the writing would indicate that it may date from AD 117-138.

P64—This has turned out to be a quite controversial manuscript. Again, it is only a small fragment, containing Matthew 26.23 and Matthew 26.31. It is known as the Magdalen Papyrus because it is housed at Magdalen College (Nothing to do with Mary Magdalene. Sorry DaVinci Code fans). The controversy came because an expert in papyrology (someone who examines papyri), named Carsten Peter Thiede claimed that the manuscript dates from AD 70. I have read the book he wrote. While his arguments are intriguing, I have to admit I was not convinced. Unless some other evidence arises, I am sticking with the traditional date of AD 150-200 which still makes it an extremely early manuscript.

P46—This is the earliest manuscript we have of the letters of Paul and dates from @ AD 200. The order of the letters in the manuscript is interesting. They appear to have been written from the longest letter to the shortest, and the manuscript includes Hebrews which follows Romans. Part of the manuscript is missing, but it apparently did not include the Pastorals (1 and 2 Timothy and Titus), which perhaps is significant when dealing with the authorship of those books.

P66—Also dating from @ AD 200, this manuscript contains the Gospel of John.

P75—This is the earliest manuscript we have of the Gospel of Luke, and it also contains portions of the Gospel of John. It dates from the early 200s AD. There are those who claim that the doctrine of the divinity of Jesus only comes from after the Council of Nicaea in AD 325. The fictional scholar Leigh Teabing makes much of this in The DaVinci Code. This manuscript written at least 100 years before the Council of Nicaea refutes that view, because it begins “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the word was God” (John 1.1 NAS Updated Edition), just as our bibles read today. I am showing below the top portion of that very page from this manuscript. If you can read the ancient Greek uncial letters, you will see that the Greek reads exactly the same as our current bibles.

p75 @ AD 200

In the next post, I want to talk about the earliest essentially complete copies of the New Testament we possess. There is something very intriguing about that, and it relates to this manuscript. I am simply going to tease you with that, hoping it will make you want to read my next post.

Obviously, these few manuscripts cannot be used to prove that the original text has been preserved, because they are fragmentary and do not contain the entire New Testament. What they do reveal is that as far back as we can go the text is pretty much what we have today. Some scholars assert that over the centuries the text has been so corrupted that we have no way of knowing what the originals said. Based on these few manuscripts that are preserved, that viewpoint contains more assumption than fact. Yes, there are many variations in the text, and I want to discuss them in some detail at a later time; however, the evidence of the earliest manuscripts is that there have been no drastic changes to the text of the books of the New Testament from what was originally written. The burden of proof is I believe on the skeptics, because the manuscript evidence does not back up the view that the text has been dramatically altered.

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Today I want to present a problem, and I apologize if it may appear somewhat dry and academic. Actually, I have put it off for a long time, just for that reason. At the same time, the implications of the problem are substantial indeed. The answers have, over the centuries, affected the very faith of millions of people. We shall not answer the problem today. Instead, I simply want to outline the problem and show why we need to take some time to address it. I want to give a little time for the questions to sink in; then in subsequent posts we will look at them in some more detail, and hopefully come to some conclusions that can stand on a somewhat reliable foundation.

Lurking behind all we might say about the Bible is a question that is more and more frequently presented to us. It has been around in academic circles for a long time; however, in recent years it has become popularized in television documentaries. The question has to do with the reliability of the Bible we hold in our hands. Actually, there are a number of questions included in that one question.

How do we know that the books we include in our Bible are the ones that should be included? Actually, there is more than one answer to that question, because there are more than one “approved lists” accepted by various groups. This question is for a later time. I am not avoiding it, but we cannot discuss everything at once, and there is I believe a more fundamental issue with which we should begin.

Perhaps some of my earlier posts may have been troubling to some of you. I even admitted that there may be as many as 400,000 differences (the technical term is “variants”) among the manuscripts of the Bible. If that is so, how can we possibly trust that the text of the Bible we have now is anything like what was originally written? In fact, if you look at the TV documentaries, you may just find that question proposed. And there are legitimate textual scholars who do in fact maintain that the text has become so corrupted over the centuries that we cannot possibly know what it originally said.

I am convinced that we must start with what we know, which involves at least two areas—the text as we have it and the manuscripts from which that text is derived. The issue comes down to whether or not we can trust that the Bible we are reading (in whatever language or translation) substantially reflects what was originally written. If it does not, then our understanding of the Bible must change radically.

Can we accept the Bible if there is a question about any part of the text? This affects people whose views cover opposite ends of the spectrum, and we talked about it in the previous post regarding assumptions we sometimes bring to the Bible. It is the extremes (both conservatives and liberals) who have problems with textual variants. Those who insist that we must have absolute certainty for every reading in the Bible, see textual variants as a threat, because (according to this view) if we cannot be certain of even one word, the whole book is suspect. Bible skeptics sometimes employ similar arguments, asserting that all those textual variants demonstrate that the Biblical text is unreliable, and therefore of little value.

Here is my take on the subject, and what I hope to demonstrate over the next several posts. On the one hand, we do not and never will be able to determine the precise original reading for every verse of the Bible (even though only 5% of the text has any question at all about it). That is reality, and we simply have to be mature enough to accept that reality. On the other hand, those same manuscripts with all those textual variants overwhelmingly confirm the reliability of the text as a whole. In summary, we can have confidence in the Bibles we read.

Over the next several posts, I want to present in an elementary fashion what the ancient manuscripts reveal about the text of the Bible. This study will, of necessity, be somewhat abbreviated. We shall have to leave a huge amount of material untouched. However, I intend to present an overview of the evidence as honestly as I can. After we are done, I want to look at the most serious problems we have in the text, so that you can determine for yourself whether or not these variants compromise the integrity of the Bible. We shall not ignore anything or hide anything.

Finally, I would invite anyone reading this who may have a question or concern to let me know. Perhaps you have noticed footnotes in your Bibles that indicate some question about whether a particular word, phrase, or even a whole verse should be included. If there is a particular passage you want me to address, I will be happy to do so. If you have some other question, I shall attempt to answer it either directly, or include the answer in a post. This holds true for every post I write, but especially during this series. We shall begin that study in my next post.

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The short answer to the question posed in the title of today’s post would be, “very few.” Approaching the Bible with preconceptions of what it is, what we should find, and how it should be interpreted can be inherently dangerous. This is true in so many ways we shall probably not be able to cover all of them in this post.

Have you ever read or heard of someone who lost their faith, because of what they learned from an advanced study of the Bible? Make no mistake; that has happened, and I am well aware of most of the issues that could result in a loss of faith. At the same time, I have become convinced that it is not generally the facts discovered about the Bible that result in a loss of faith. In most instances, I believe that occurs when we discover that the facts of the Bible do not conform to the preconceptions which we bring to it.

Let’s look at just one possibility. If you simply assume that you can go to a museum somewhere and read the original manuscript of the gospel of John, and then you read a book about the history of the Bible (or even this blog),  then you are going to be challenged when you learn that the original disappeared in antiquity, and we must rely on manuscripts that are copies of copies of copies of copies, dating from the third century at the earliest, and that our first substantially complete New Testament manuscripts were written in the fourth century. Should this be a challenge to our faith? Only if our faith is based on the assumption that the original must be preserved. What we find is that the manuscript evidence for the New Testament is what we should expect. Actually, the manuscripts of the New Testament provide a treasure trove with which no other literature from the ancient world can compare.

One of the assumptions we should bring to the Bible is the recognition that it is literature, actually a wide range of types of literature. On the most elementary level, the Bible contains examples of prose and poetry. Common sense should tell us that poetry in any language cannot be interpreted literally to the same degree as prose. Poetry, by definition, uses symbol, hyperbole, metaphor, simile, and other types of fanciful language to appeal as much to the heart as to the intellect. We should not read the Psalms in the same way we read the book of Acts. And while we are talking about this subject, we should recognize that apocalyptic literature was a specific literary form in the ancient world that employed grotesque imagery and accounts of great celestial battles with which to present its message. Those who attempt to interpret the book of Revelation literally simply reveal their ignorance of this type of literature. I feel confident in saying that the Christians who first read that book would not have seen it as a literal description of the end times. So, we should ask ourselves what type of literature we are reading before we attempt to interpret it.

We should also read the Bible with the understanding that it was written to give a message first to the people alive when it was originally written. This does not mean the Bible has no meaning for us today. On the contrary, we can and should seek its message for us. However, we should also be aware of the danger of misinterpreting the Bible if we do not understand the culture in which a particular part of the Bible was written.

Let’s consider just one example, and that is the account of creation in Genesis 1. I do not pretend to be a physicist, but just to illustrate the point, let’s also assume for a moment that what physicists refer to as “the Big Bang” represents a fairly accurate description of the physiological processes that took place when the universe was created. God chooses to reveal His role in the creation of the universe to Semitic people living in the ancient world. He could not talk about the scientific aspects of the Big Bang, because these people would not have understood the concepts involved. They would not even have possessed the vocabulary with which to describe it. The truth is God could not do much better in describing it to me, since I am not a physicist either. At the same time, if God revealed the origin of the universe to someone with a PhD in physics, He might employ mathematical formulas as much as words. By saying, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” God revealed the essential point of creation, that He is transcendent (above the universe that is His creation), and that the universe we inhabit was the result of a divine plan. That is as true today as it was when first written.

So, we should approach the Bible, prepared to accept what we find there, rather than anticipating that it will always confirm what we already believe about it. People sometimes are disturbed by notes in our Bibles, explaining that certain manuscripts include or omit words, phrases, or even entire verses. In future posts I want to talk about what are called “textual variants,” but for now understand that they are the inevitable result of copying anything by hand, as the Bible was for hundreds of years. They are not the product of some “liberal conspiracy” to undermine faith in the Bible, and they should not affect our faith.

And this brings me to my final admonition. I hope you have come to understand that I have a deep reverence for the Bible. Why else would I have spent over forty years studying it? At the same time, my faith is not and should not be in the Bible. The Bible can become an idol just as easily as any number of things. The Bible is a tool to reveal the mind and heart of God. It is not God Himself. We should approach it with humility and respect, but not worship. The Bible can be a powerful servant; it does not serve as an effective god.

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Daniel B. Wallace

Executive Director of CSNTM & Senior Research Professor of NT Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary

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