Pursuing Answers to Questions of Faith & Life

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Why it is Reasonable to Apply the Bible to Modern Life - Part 3

Is the biblical text we have reliable or has it been corrupted?

This is Part 3 in a series about the Relevance of the Bible to Modern Life.  Part 1 and Part 2 dealt with the fact that human nature hasn’t really changed since the days of the Bible, despite our new toys & technology.

This discussion sets aside the issues of Inspiration and the possibility of God accurately conveying His intent to human authors.  Many people who reject the idea that God effectively used human authors will conveniently say, “Even if He did, and that’s a big if, what has survived has been corrupted.”

The typical story goes that the Bible has been copied and recopied so many times that what we have today cannot possibly be accurate to what was originally written.

In relation to Jesus, the Gospels were written so long after the fact, stories were embellished and legendary materials and/or mythology entered into the text and so we have things like His miraculous feedings or healings, we have the Virgin birth, we have the resurrection.

Such critics claim none of these stories are actually historical.  If true, these are deal breaking issues. 

But are these charges accurate?  Are there reasons to think that what we have today is well preserved and very close to the original text? 

I would answer, Yes.

150 years ago the age of biblical Higher Criticism began its ascent.  The theories vastly undermined the trustworthiness of the Bible as the Word of God.  One of the things that contributed to the theory was the limited number of ancient manuscripts—especially those in the original languages like Koine Greek or Hebrew. 

Some of the earliest Hebrew manuscripts we had were around 800 AD, some 1200 years after the close of the Old Testament.  We had some Greek texts from the 300’s & 400’s but most Western scholarship was based on translations in Latin.

So after copying and recopying coupled with translating and retranslating, the academic world was convinced that the text we have could not possibly be anything close to the original text.  They proposed that even those “originals” were really compilations of various authors—edited and compiled together with no real connection to the names listed as the authors.

They were able to make this argument largely because of a lack of evidence.  That was then… this is now.

We actually have an abundance of manuscript evidence.  We now have more selections of the New Testament—over 5000 selections and fragments in Greek alone—than any other ancient document.   Here’s a comparison with a few important documents.
Date Written
Earliest Copy
Approx. Time btw. Original & first Copy
# of Copies
61-113 AD
850 AD
750 yrs
427-347 BC
900 AD
1200 yrs
480-425 BC
900 AD
1300 yrs
100-44 BC
900 AD
1000 yrs
Circa 100 AD
1100 AD
1000 yrs
384-322 BC
100 AD
1400 yrs
Homer (Iliad)
900 BC
400 BC
500 yrs
New Testament
45-100 AD
Circa 120 AD
Less than 100 yrs.
5600 in Greek + other languages & quotations

The NT has more manuscripts from dates closer to the original writing than any other ancient documents—from Aristotle, Julius Caesar, Homer’s Illiad and others that scholarship does not question. 

That is not accounting for the thousands of manuscripts in other languages like Syriac or Coptic.  Neither is that accounting for the quoting of the New Testament by the early church fathers—with which scholars estimate we could reconstruct the entire NT except for 11 verses. 

In other words, if scholars are going to dismiss the accuracy of the New Testament, they will have to throw out every other ancient document which cannot match the close proximity of copies and the sheer number.

We have almost too many documents—too much evidence about the New Testament because there are so many documents.  This high number of copies let us see the mistakes, blunders, edits and insertions.   Some site these variations as indicative of the unreliability problem.  But in most cases, the divergent texts are limited to certain geographical areas in the Mediterranean and can be compared to others where the same changes have not been made. 

In other words, they can be cross-checked for accuracy and increase our sense of reliability. 
Ron Rhodes gives an example of the kind of variations we typically see and their significance.

By practicing the science of textual criticism – comparing all the available manuscripts with each other – we can come to an assurance regarding what the original document must have said.

Let us suppose we have five manuscript copies of an original document that no longer exists. Each of the manuscript copies are different. Our goal is to compare the manuscript copies and ascertain what the original must have said. Here are the five copies:
Manuscript #1: Jesus Christ is the Savior of the whole worl.

Manuscript #2: Christ Jesus is the Savior of the whole world.

Manuscript #3: Jesus Christ s the Savior of the whole world.

Manuscript #4: Jesus Christ is th Savior of the whle world.

Manuscript #5: Jesus Christ is the Savor of the whole wrld.

Could you, by comparing the manuscript copies, ascertain what the original document said with a high degree of certainty that you are correct? Of course you could.

This illustration may be extremely simplistic, but a great majority of the 150,000 variants are solved by the above methodology.

By comparing the various manuscripts, all of which contain very minor differences like the above, it becomes fairly clear what the original must have said.

Most of the manuscript variations concern matters of spelling, word order, tenses, and the like; no single doctrine is affected by them in any way.

The earliest fragment we have of the New Testament is called the John Ryland fragment from the Gospel of John, dated to the second century--about 120 AD  (though there has been a recent announcement regarding a selection from the Gospel of Mark that may prove to be from the first century—we’ll see more of that announcement and intense scrutiny within the year). 

Given that John is considered to be the last gospel written, the most theologically oriented and thus considered the “most corrupted”—the fact that this fragment exists in Egypt a mere 20-30 years after the latest it could have been written—about 90 AD in modern day Turkey (allowing for transportation around the Med.) and you’re establishing the gospels written within the lifetime of the first apostles. 

Atheist Antony Flew stated: “There’s a much greater richness of manuscripts for all the major early Christian documents than there is for, say, the plays of Aeschylus or Sophocles or the works of Aristotle. But of course, that’s not evidence about Jesus, but very good authority for the accuracy of the text that is printed in translation in the New Testament

Here’s some more evidence about the copying process.  They did take it seriously.

If you’ve heard of the Dead Sea Scrolls you should know that they were an amazing discovery back in 1947.  The manuscripts were in Hebrew and pushed back our earliest copy of Old Testament Hebrew manuscripts by 1000+ years in some cases.  Most famously is the complete scroll of Isaiah that is about 24 feet long.  It has its own museum called, the Shrine of the Book.  Scholars are able to compare documents with 1700 years worth of copying and recopying between them and assess the differences.

What they have found is a remarkable consistency—roughly 95% of the text is the same over 1000 years of copying.  I don’t think Xerox could do that well.  The other 5% are mostly misspellings or word-order switches.  No significant doctrine is altered or contradicted by any of these changes.

That is astounding and should put to rest the notion that the copying process automatically ruins the reliability.

What about the idea that the New Testament was written so long after the events? 

Scholarship reflects a spectrum much like politics with a Liberal and Conservative wing.  Most scholars agree that Paul began his writing in the late 40’s and early 50’s (keeping in mind Jesus’ crucifixion occurred around 33 AD).  Most scholars tend to follow the idea called Markan Priority—which believes that since Mark is the shortest Gospel, it must have been written first (I don’t find this compelling, by the way).  Liberals and Conservatives differ on the dates with conservatives arguing mid 50’s for Mark and liberals mid/late 60’s.  Extreme liberal scholars deny any Gospel was written in the first century but that has proven a harder position to defend given that early church fathers in the late first century (90’s AD) were quoting extensively from them.  It’s hard to quote a document that doesn’t exist.

So Mark was written somewhere between 20-30 years after the events it describes.  That may seem like a long time, but for its day, that was quick—far too quick for legendary material to enter the story.  This is also within the lifetime of eyewitnesses who could confirm or deny what they saw.  After all in the year 2021, I’ll still be able to refute someone who says space aliens destroyed the World Trade Center.

That is one point that Paul makes in his statement from 1 Corinthians 15:3-8—“For I passed on to you as most important what I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that He was buried, that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that He appeared to •Cephas, then to the Twelve. 6 Then He appeared to over 500 brothers at one time; most of them are still alive, but some have fallen •asleep. 7 Then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8 Last of all, as to one abnormally born, He also appeared to me.”

This statement was taught to Paul during the time shortly after his conversion and can be reasonably dated to within 5 years of the Crucifixion and Resurrection.  Notice what is already part of the “story”:
  • Jesus died – they weren’t stupid and Romans were very good at it
  • The theological reason – for our sins
  •  Jesus was raised on the third day
  •  All “according to the Scriptures” – thus believed the events to be fulfilling Old Testament Prophecy
  • Numerous eyewitness accounts of Jesus appearing to them
One new argument to show the Gospels were written by eyewitnesses makes use of Name Frequency.  I highly recommend watching the video on the link. 

Lastly, I will post the words from a minister named, Voddie Baucham and I would recommend you watching the sermon.  He bases this statement on the text of 2 Peter 1:16-21

“I choose to believe the Bible because it is a reliable collection of historical documents written down by eyewitnesses during the lifetime of other eyewitnesses. They report [of] supernatural events that took place in fulfillment of specific prophecies and claimed that their writing are divine rather than human in origin.”

Voddie Baucham – Why I Believe the Bible - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5ZNXMJGYNG8

Since I believe that the Bible is accurate and reliable and because I believe it speaks accurately to the human condition, and most importantly because I believe the Bible has a divine rather than merely human origin; I believe it is very reasonable to apply what it says to modern life despite the fact that it is “so old” or in spite of the fact that we have advanced so much since those days.

I believe the Bible describes our sinful condition and also describes the cure.  I believe the Bible is God’s love letter to us—recording Him trying to reach out to us and save us from our biggest problems, sin and death.   For example:

It speaks to modern families; it defines marriage and calls upon parents to champion the education of their children.  It speaks to how we should relate to governments and calls us to work to change society for the better through the power of the Gospel.  It shows us how to handle our money, our jobs and our time; encourages us to avoid laziness and work hard even when the boss is not watching.  It teaches us to break the cycles of retaliation and violence.  It calls us to personally care for the poor and those in need rather than pass the buck to another agency.  It challenges us to avoid harmful behavior—that harms anyone, including ourselves by taking care of our body.  It calls us to be responsible with our resources and not go into debt.  

The Bible gives us our purpose, identifies the fundamental value of all human beings, invites us to a great adventure and calls us to a glorious future with our Creator.

You may not want to apply the Bible to your life, you may have many reasons.  But do not be foolish enough to think that it is unreasonable to include the Bible in modern discussions.

For Further Reading:


1 comment:

Taft said...

Great work on a very important topic! Without His light we are blind.

Here is a video on archeological evidence supporting the Torah.
45 minutes