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Archive for September, 2012

Undoubtedly everyone has heard of the manuscript which has been interpreted to say that Jesus was married. I dealt with that at some length in my previous post. Without going into a long list of sources, let me simply relate that a growing number of experts are questioning the manuscript’s authenticity. Even this situation has become dependent on rumors. One is that the Harvard Theological Review has refused to publish the paper relating to the manuscript. Is that true? I have not yet been able to confirm or refute that rumor. At least one other expert has determined that while the papyrus itself is likely ancient, the writing is probably a modern forgery. Is all this true? At this point, it is anybody’s guess.

Perhaps the lesson to be learned is that scholarship should not be pursued like the six o-clock news, in which the goal is to “scoop” the other broadcasters. Another example of this rush to judgment might be the announcement by Daniel Wallace of the discovery of what appear to be six second century manuscripts and one first century fragment of the Gospel of Mark. While Dr. Wallace has wisely not published anything relating to these finds pending authentication, it might have been wiser had he not even mentioned their existence, until that authentication process was complete.

Our technological world has made it too easy and too convenient to obtain information. I fear we have not sufficiently developed the critical and analytical skills to absorb and evaluate that information profitably. In this instance those who would wish the manuscript to be a forgery and those who would wish it to be genuine have both indicated their willingness to make judgments before all the evidence is in. To the extent that my post may have contributed to that, I express my regrets.

The lesson to be learned is simple. Whatever our biases or preconceptions, we must allow the experts to do their work without pressure or expecting certain results. After the experts have expressed their conclusions, there will be plenty of opportunity for all of us to weigh in. That is appropriate, but only when we have a solid basis for doing so.

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Perhaps you saw the segment on the Today show, discussing a fragment of papyrus which purports to say that Jesus was married.  I have decided to put my two cents in since others appear to be doing so (in my mind prematurely).

The discovery was announced by Dr. Karen King of Harvard Divinity School.  She admits that the announcement is somewhat premature; however, she decided to release the information, because the discovery had already leaked out, and she was concerned that the publicity might be even more sensational than it already is.

There are a number of concerns about the manuscript itself. First of all, is the question of what archaeologists call “provenance.” We do not know where the manuscript was found or even by whom. Provenance has been a hotly debated topic that was brought up for instance with the “James Ossuary.” When scholars and scientists do not know the setting in which an artifact was discovered, it becomes more difficult to date and authenticate it.

And this is another problem with the early release of this information. Although the preliminary evidence leans toward the manuscript being authentic, that is not certain at this time. Everyone needs to wait until all testing is completed before drawing final conclusions.

Another problem with the manuscript is its small size, smaller than a business card. It has eight lines of text, actually not even eight lines, because the fragment contains only portions of eight lines, not nearly enough to provide complete sentences or context.

The manuscript is written in Coptic, which is a form of Egyptian written with Greek letters. The controversial part of the text is a portion that apparently can be translated, “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife …’ .” Another portion reads, “She will be able to be my disciple.”

If this sounds like very little upon which to base the view that Jesus was married, you are agreeing with what most scholars have said so far. Even Dr. King emphasizes that the manuscript is not evidence that Jesus was married. Rather she sees it as being part of a discussion among early Christian groups concerning marriage and celibacy.

The manuscript has been tentatively dated to the fourth century, which would make it 200-300 years after the canonical books of the New Testament, although Dr. King believes it may have been a copy of an earlier second century work. It appears likely that this manuscript may fit into the teachings of the Gnostics, an early offshoot of Christianity. Their philosophical beginnings can be detected in some books of the New Testament, but they did not really develop until the second century and became more prominent in the third and fourth centuries. Some similarities have been made to the Gnostic gospels of Mary, and Philip. There also appear to be similarities to the Gospel of Thomas, which may or may not be Gnostic.

When we put all this together, we have an early document that may have been written when the question of marriage and celibacy was being discussed. At this point, few if any scholars, including Dr. King, are suggesting that this manuscript is in any way historical or that it provides information about Jesus that should cause us to rethink the accounts in the canonical gospels.

If I were wise, I would stop with the previous paragraph, but I feel compelled to bring up an issue that may disturb some people. As I said, there is no evidence that this manuscript should be taken as evidence that Jesus was married. That appears to be extremely unlikely, and this manuscript does not make it more likely that Jesus was married.

But would it matter if Jesus were married? It seems that some Christians would be horrified if that were true. But why should that be? Would Jesus being married indicate that He was somehow less spiritual for that? What would be the source for this attitude? Throughout the centuries, there has been an ascetic strain in Christianity that seems to believe that a celibate Christian is somehow more spiritual than a married Christian.  I emphatically do not share this view. As someone who feels strongly about the sanctity of marriage and the family, I reject the notion that marriage is somehow an inferior relationship. Although there is no substantive evidence that Jesus was married, it is perhaps significant that His first miracle, described in John chapter 2, occurred during a wedding feast He attended at Cana. Much has been said about upholding traditional marriage. Perhaps we should begin that by examining our own views of marriage and spirituality. To be blunt about it, marriage, and specifically sexuality within marriage, is not less spiritual than celibacy, and we should not act as if it is.

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Neil Lightfoot

Dr. Neil Lightfoot, professor of New Testament at Abilene Christian University, died today, September 18, 2012. Dr. Lightfoot is best remembered for his book, How We Got the Bible, perhaps the most readable basic text for the study of the history of the Bible. Dr. Lightfoot was 82.

While I never had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Lightfoot, his influence on me cannot be overstated. I first read How We Got the Bible  as a freshman in college in 1965. More than any other single influence, this book sparked the interest in the origin and transmission of the Bible text which has remained with me for over 45 years. He will never know how much he influenced me and so many others as well.

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A previous post contained information regarding a few of the earliest manuscripts of the New Testament. As I said then, the few discussed were selected because they were in some ways the most significant of the earliest manuscripts. Of course, all of them contained only portions of the New Testament. A couple of the earliest were mere scraps of papyrus with a few verses, all that remained from what were originally larger manuscripts. Others, were longer, but even these did not contain the entire Bible or even the entire New Testament, partially because they come from a time when the New Testament canon was not yet finalized.

Today I want us to come forward in time to look at the earliest essentially complete Bibles. We shall see that even at this stage, nothing is cut and dry. And once again, I shall only talk about three manuscripts out of several we could consider. I have selected for consideration the three manuscripts which most scholars agree are the most important of what were originally essentially complete Bibles. There are a number of others. Books are available should you wish to do further study.

All three of these manuscripts share some characteristics in common. All of them are written on vellum or parchment, which made them much more expensive to produce. They would likely have been commissioned by either a government or a wealthy church. These manuscripts come from a time not long after Christianity became the official religion of Rome, so it is possible the Roman government paid for them. All three manuscripts are written in Greek (which means the Old Testament is the Septuagint, the Greek translation discussed in an earlier post). All three are written with Greek letters called uncials. That means they are written in all capital letters, and there is no spacing between words, and they do not employ any punctuation. They do make use of something called “Nomina Sacra” which we may discuss at a later date. Finally, all three manuscripts include (or originally included) the Old Testament, the New Testament, and the Apocrypha.

Codex Vaticanus — This manuscript dates from @ AD 325-350, and it gets its name because it has been in the Vatican library since at least the 1400s. The wallpaper for this blog is in fact derived from a photograph of one page of the Codex Vaticanus. Some portions are missing, so it is impossible to be certain as to what the Vaticanus originally included. Missing from the Apocrypha are the Prayer of Manasseh and the Books of Maccabees. From the New Testament, the manuscript lacks the Pastoral Epistles (1 & 2 Timothy and Titus), Philemon, and the book of Revelation. Because the ending is missing we cannot be certain whether these books were originally included or if others were included which are now lost.

A previous post mentioned a manuscript designated as p75 which was copied @ AD 200 and contains the earliest copy of the Gospel of Luke and portions of the Gospel of John. The text of these books in the Codex Vaticanus is so similar to p75 that some scholars believe that p75 was actually the manuscript the scribe used to copy these books to the Codex Vaticanus. If so, it is also possible that p75 originally contained all four gospels and that the Vaticanus represents the text of these gospels from AD 200 as well. This would place our text of the gospels back to around 100-150 years of the originals. Of course this is only supposition, but it is intriguing to consider.

Codex Sinaiticus — This manuscript gets its name, because it was discovered in 1859 at the Monastery of Saint Catherine at the foot of Mount Sinai. There is a marvelous story behind that discovery, but time does not permit. Here is a picture of the Sinaiticus.

Codex Sinaiticus
@ AD 350-375

You can see how similar it is to the Vaticanus. This is because it was written about the same time (@ AD 350-375). Apparently it originally contained all of the Old Testament, but much of it is missing. It contains the entire New Testament as well as two books that are not in our New Testament — The Epistle of Barnabas and a portion of The Shepherd of Hermas. The Sinaiticus is in the British Museum in London.

Codex Alexandrinus — Although this manuscript dates somewhat later (AD 400-450), it is still an important witness to the early text of the New Testament. It is also kept in the British Museum, and the writing is very similar to the Vaticanus and the Sinaiticus. Only 10 leaves are missing from the Old Testament, but more are missing from the New Testament.

These three manuscripts are important, because they are the earliest examples of what Christians today would call “the Bible.” The manuscripts are also important for New Testament studies, because they share textual similarities. In other words, the three oldest Bibles we have agree in many areas about which there are textual questions. This is so significant, that whenever these three manuscripts agree about a reading, scholars quite often accept their reading even if a majority of other manuscripts have different readings. That may appear strange, but when we study textual variations, I hope to demonstrate why that is an appropriate position to take.

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