Lecture 36: Is What We Have Now What They Wrote?
Course: Textual Criticism
Lecture: Is What We Have Now What They Wrote?
A. Codex History
We have talked about the number of variants and the reason for those is the high number of manuscripts we have. We have compared this with classical literature. We have looked at the date of these manuscripts. A question from Dan Brown’s novel, has the Bible been re-translated so many times that we no longer know what it says? Part of the problem with this kind of view is that people suppose that if the ancient scribes did this when they did revisions, they must have copied out a manuscript and the old was burned. We have no evidence that Christian scribes or Jewish scribes ever destroyed manuscripts by burning them. If they were Christian scribes the most reverential thing was to burry those manuscripts. Put them in jars in caves like the Dead Sea Scrolls and next to cemeteries like the Nag Hammadi codices, documents that weren’t orthodox yet still mentioned the name of God. They would not burn these manuscripts. In looking at the Greek New Testament and looking at the King James Version of the Bible. It was done over four hundred years ago and the New Testament was based on seven Greek New Testament manuscripts, the oldest of those went back to the 10th or 11th century. Now, we have more than 5,800 Greek New Testament manuscripts, the oldest going back to the 2nd century. We have almost a thousand times as many manuscripts that go back almost a thousand years earlier compared to what the King James translators used. As time goes on, we are getting closer and closer to the original text, not farther and farther away. We still know those seven manuscripts that Erasmus used when he published his text; they are still around and we know where they are.
B. Codex Nature
What kind of variants are there? Over ninety-nine percent of the variants make virtually no difference at all. In my estimate, it is actually ninety-nine point seven five percent make virtually no difference at all. You can think about the differences in spelling. In the ancient world, they didn’t have dictionaries showing them how to spell and consequently, they are looking at the text being very creative spellers. My brother is a creative speller; one time he signed his own name on a check not spelling his own name correctly. The ancient world didn’t have people who spelled a particular way. Until Webster came up with a dictionary in the modern world, words were spelled many different ways in English. This is a very large kind of textual problem with over seventy percent involving spelling which doesn’t change a thing. The smallest group of variants is those that are both meaningful and viable; that means they have a good chance of being authentic. Viable means that they change the meaning of the text somehow. Yet, there are less than one percent of all textual variants that fit this group. The actual numbers come close to about a quarter of one percent. Out of four hundred thousand variants, that is about a thousand places in the New Testament which seems like a lot. But what do we mean by a meaningful and viable variant? Most of them are so trivial that it isn’t all that significant. John 4:1 is a meaningful and viable textual problem where you have, ‘when the Lord knew’ or ‘when Jesus knew.’ Which one is it? There isn’t a single manuscript that says anything other than these two examples. It is always the Lord or it is Jesus. This is considered a meaningful and viable variant.
C. Meaningful and Viable Variants
1. Mark 9:29
Mark 9:29 where you have the disciples coming back after doing an exorcism where it didn’t work. Jesus casts out the demon and they ask why they couldn’t do it. He says that this kind of demon cannot be cast out except by prayer and fasting. The words ‘and fasting’ are textual variants. The two choices are: it is by prayer or it is by prayer and fasting; some manuscripts show just prayer whereas some manuscripts have prayer and fasting. The older and more important manuscripts don’t have the words ‘prayer and fasting.’ You also discover in church history there was a time where fasting became more popular, so that kind of thing could have been easily added to a manuscript. If that is true, then this is the only place where Jesus says that certain kinds of demons are pesky or strong enough that you have to fast in order to cast them out. Scholars look at this and ask what the hard reading is. The harder reading would be just prayer for it is something that isn’t as elaborate in terms of what needs to be done. It is also the shorter reading. For myself, I would go with the shorter reading for I don’t think that the other is original. Nevertheless, this is a place that is a meaningful and viable variant.
2. Revelation 13:18
Revelation 13:18 is another variant. This talks about the number of the beast being 666 and everybody on the streets of America would know this number. If you were to Google this, you would see some really weird stuff by people who make so much of this. It is remarkable. Is this really the number of the beast? In 1841, Constantine Tischendorf visited the Paris library; he was in his mid-twenties and went there for the purpose of deciphering an old palimpsest manuscript; one that had been written on parchment and that text was scraped off centuries later with somebody writing over it. The manuscript is known as Codex Ephraemi Rescriptus that is it was rewritten over the top. Under this, there was the text of the New Testament and part of the Old Testament. So Tischendorf goes there in the 1840s and as he is working through this text which was very difficult to read; it took him two years to translate it and discipled ninety-nine percent of it. This manuscript has turned out to be the second most important and most reliable manuscript for the Book of Revelation. It is also known as Codex C from the 5th century. When Tischendorf got to Revelation 13:18, he noticed that at the bottom of the page the number of the beast was 616. That was different of course. Now Irenaeus back in the late 2nd century talked about manuscripts with the Book of Revelation and specifically about this textual problem. This was the only manuscript known to have the number 616, 5th century. But Irenaeus in that late 2nd century talked about it saying that he knew of some manuscripts that had 616 as a reading but wasn’t authentic; 666 is the correct reading which is in the more ancient manuscripts. That was roughly within a hundred years of when John actually wrote Revelation. We know that reading existed in the 2nd century, but because of what Irenaeus said about the reading of 616, it didn’t go any further. People didn’t want to record it anymore. So, to get through to a 5th-century manuscript was significant.
A few years ago I went to Paris to that library specifically to examine this manuscript and some others that were very important. I was able to look at this page and sure enough, there at the bottom of the page was 616 being the number of the beast. I also saw his notes in this manuscript where he put a table of contents in the front of the manuscript. You couldn’t do that today, to actually write on the manuscript. Until 1998, that was the only manuscript we knew of that had the reading 616. Then there were seventeen papyri manuscripts found at the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford University that were then published. Papyrus 115 was the earliest manuscript for this portion of Revelation; it was in twenty-six different pieces spread out over nine chapters. We have a postage stamp size piece of Revelation 13:18 saying that the number of the beast as being 616. Now, there were two manuscripts showing this. The value of this particular papyrus is still being debated. It would take hundreds of hours to consider this. Still, today, most scholars today would still say 666 is the number of the beast whereas 616 is the neighbor of the beast! This is a meaningful and viable variant. I have been a consultant for four different Bible translations and in my more carnal moments I think we should change it to 616 in Revelation 13:18. I don’t know of a single Bible college, theological seminary, theological institute, denomination, church or anything that provides this as their doctrinal statement. We believe in the virgin birth of Christ; we believe in the deity of Christ and in the bodily resurrection of Christ. We also believe in the trinity, not the number of the beast as being 666. It simply isn’t that important. It doesn’t affect any doctrine of the faith and that is the important point here.
D. The Deity of Christ
Back to Dan Brown talking about the Council of Nicaea in AD 325; some argue and believe that Jesus was viewed by his followers as a mortal prophet, a great and powerful man and a simple man none the less. They say that nobody thought of Jesus as divine until that moment. There are a number of people who do believe this. They also think that Emperor Constantine invented the deity of Christ at this council. Another early papyrus P66 dated about 175 AD, about 150 years older than council of Nicaea in AD 325. Starting with John chapter 1, it says that in the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. Every single manuscript we have says this in John 1:1. This is contained in every single manuscript ever discovered and we have over 5,800 manuscripts today. This is a key passage that can’t be questioned. Unless Constantine was about 200 years old, he was not at the Council of Nicaea, so it is kind of difficult to say that he invented the deity of Christ. This is an ounce of evidence that proves all that false presumption that tries to deny the Deity of Christ. In addition, there is not a single cardinal doctrine that is jeopardized by any textual variant. There may be some minor issues; for example, do I fast or just pray. This is a matter of orthopraxy not orthodoxy. The deity of Christ, the virgin birth and his bodily resurrection and the trinity; none of these are textually insecure.
E. We Have the Original New Testament as It was First Written
In Bart Ehrman’s misquoting Jesus, this book that has stood as the front piece of what atheist and Muslim and novelists are using to argue that the orthodox believers changed the doctrines of the Bible. Ehrman was ask in an appendix to his misquoting Jesus the very question that his book really raised in regards to what these people are really saying. In the hardcover book, this appendix wasn’t there but later a paperback version had this appendix in it. The editors of the book ask why do you believe that these core tenets of Christian Orthodoxy; these cardinal doctrines of the Christian faith to be in jeopardy based on the scribal errors you discovered in the Biblical manuscripts? The question isn’t asking whether he believes or not, it is asking why you believe. These editors who had edited his book Misquoting Jesus assumes that was what he had been saying. They are assuming that cardinal doctrines are affected by the variants. His response was this; essential Christian beliefs are not affected by textual variants in the manuscript tradition of the New Testament. This is Bart Ehrman saying that essential Christian beliefs are not affected by textual variances in the manuscript tradition of the New Testament. Tens of thousands of college students coming from Christian homes have left the faith and many others because of the writing of Bart Ehrman and other skeptics. Is that what they are saying; perhaps that is what they would like to say? But Ehrman is enough of an honest scholar to know that he really can’t say that. He has no basis for saying that. In all three debates with him, I always finish with this statement at the end which he has never refuted. Is what we have now, what they wrote then? There are indeed several places where we are not sure what the original is. But is what they wrote then what we have today? Yes, absolutely, even a skeptic like Bart Ehrman says yes, of course, the essentials are not touched by these textual variances. No essential doctrine of the Christian faith is jeopardized by any viable variant. You can rely on this.