Lecture 06: Introduction and first three questions
Course: Why We Trust Our Bible
Does anyone remember the blockbusting publishing event that happened ten years ago this year? It is hard to believe that it has been that long since Dan Brown hit the world with the Davinci Code. And strange things have happened in those ten years. In the metro-Denver area, there are religious studies professors that teach the unsuspecting, that the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD was all about the New Emperor Constantine, the first Roman Emperor to profess faith in Christ. He politicked to the point to get the books he wanted in the New Testament, whether or not they deserved to be there, which were put in. No one in the history of the world would have ever said that in any classroom prior to 2003 before Dan Brown made it up. The Council of Nicaea was about deciding on what the church was going to affirm about Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and the intricacies of the Trinity. And because one man ten years ago wrote a book of a fiction with Davinci Code in large words on the title with a sub-title in small letters plainly says a novel. So, because one man wrote a book of fiction ten years ago, people who are employed as university professors now teach fiction as fact. And when I travel and speak, I get ask how they decided on the books at the Council of Nicaea? It simply wasn’t a topic. What else has happened in the last ten years? Well, we found the gospel of Judas; it is actually a fragment of a document that only contains some stories related to the last week of Jesus’ life written toward the end of the second century. We had already known about by a second-century church father by the name of Irenaeus. But now we own a fragment of it and it turns Judah into a hero. One very dark Gnostic sect from the late 2nd century that basically took all of the negative characters of the Bible and turned them into heroes, but it doesn’t tell us of anything about the events of Jesus and his life.
Then you may remember the discovery channel and the discovery of Jesus’ family tomb that wasn’t. And only about a year ago, September this month; the internet was awash with the Gospel of Jesus’ wife. King, professor at Harvard University had found a small scrap of what appeared to be a 4th century Coptic, the language of ancient Egypt document with fragmentary pieces about Jesus. King, herself, made it very clear that even if this was authentic, all that it did was give us insight into what one Gnostic group 300 years after the life of Christ put forward and it was probably historically worthless in terms of what it taught about Jesus. But there was one line in it which could have been translated, ‘then Jesus said my wife,’ and then the text broke off. It was less than two weeks after that, a person by the name of Francis Watson, New Testament scholar at the University of Durham, England was able to piece together that this was a modern forgery taken little snippets of the ancient Gnostic Gospel of Thomas and putting these snippets together like pieces of a puzzle in a new order, but in the original context, the word for wife only meant woman; we few people heard about the aftermath. This was a radical claim; we just promote these radical claims! And you live in the Pacific Northwest. It is a great place to live but not if you are in the Bible belt. Denver is a great place to live but not if you are into meeting with lots of people who have a fair amount of Biblical literacy. We now rush to jump on the bandwagon that is whatever people say whether it is true or false, believing utterly by faith the most novel radical ardent guard claims about the beginning of Christianity, especially if they seem to help to debunk Christ and his claims. But when somebody presents sober documented truth, we become skeptical. This tells me that those people aren’t really interested in truth but in whatever that will reinforce their own prejudices. And of course, we do this in politics and in all kinds of walks of life.
1. The Ancient Texts
I want to present twelve simple points to you this morning, a good Biblical number; the number of apostles, the number of prophets. I want to present six to you and stop and take some questions and then go and eat more of that wonderful food. After that, I will come back and repeat the process. However, these twelve simply points are not well known to the populace in general and they are not very controversial. They are points that a wide slot of scholars, not just evangelical scholars are promoting but a broad cross-section of all but the very most liberal scholars would agree to. We will unpack each of them, somewhat. And I hope the end result that you will go away irrespective of what the next surprising internet discovery will be and say, there is good reason without ever presupposing Christian faith, at least for the core of this book, the part directly about Jesus and his biography, to take it seriously as recording reliable history.
We begin with the question of the ancient texts. Bart Ehrman, professor of New Testament at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill wrote a book that in 2006 was at the top of the charts of the New York Times bestseller list. How does a New Testament scholar do that? I would like to! It will never happen,
though. It was a book entitled, ‘Misquoting Jesus.’ That is one way that you write a popular book. You use a radical title that has nothing to do with the contents of the book. The book is not about anybody misquoting Jesus, except very indirectly. The book is about textual criticism and why would anyone want to read about that? It talks about the ways that manuscripts were copied by hand in the ancient world. It talks about two places in the New Testament where there are twelve verse excerpts. The longer ending of Mark 16, the story of the woman caught in adultery in John 7:53 where the more reliable manuscripts don’t have those stories. Anyone who has attended Bible College, seminary, or studied at BiblicalTraining.org or who have paid any attention to the footnotes will already be aware of this. So Ehrman basically covered accurate information about those two accounts, but sprung it in a way to leave the readers wondering how many other places in the Gospels or in the Bible might have evidence to suggest that other passages really don’t belong there? And then he wrote a chapter on much shorter textual variance that only affected a verse or two, but where it was obvious that a scribe made a change in the text that he was copying for some theological motivated reason. Maybe it was to try to glorify Jesus even more than was already there; perhaps concerned about Jesus being indignant in a certain text and so changed to a word that was spelled very similar that meant that Jesus has compassion. Again, he sprung it in a way that left the reader wondering how many more places that we don’t know about.
Dan Wallace, who is the premier American evangelical textual critic, has said and I think this is reasonable, that we almost certainly have the original Greek of the New Testament in the many documents from antiquity that have preserved it. The only trouble is, we don’t always know which document has it for a given verse; yet, it is there somewhere. Perhaps the most damaging claim that Ehrman has made which has troubled Christians because they haven’t learn how to ask questions about statistics. So, he says that some scholars estimate that there are two hundred thousand, three hundred thousand or even four hundred thousand textual variants in the ancient New Testament manuscripts; more than there are words in the New Testament. Well, if you don’t know how to analyze statistics, then every word is suspect, and some are doubly suspect. I hope you would ask some questions about statistics like that. Dan Wallace suspects the real number is much closer to two hundred thousand but for the sake of argument, let’s say that is was four hundred thousand. How many manuscripts are those variants distributed among, would be a reasonable question. There are over 5700 Greek text from pre-Gutenberg printing press era. The oldest is a scrap from a fragment of a few verses of the Gospel of John going back to the first quarter of the 2nd century, perhaps within a generation in which John wrote his text. By the end of the 2nd and 3rd centuries, we have over a hundred documents, some of which are copies of the entire texts of New Testament books. Some of which were beginning to put collections of Gospel texts together. By the 4th century, we have entire New Testaments and then the 5th century and each successive century, the numbers explode. And that is just in ancient Greek! If you count translations into other languages of the ancient world, if you count lectionaries, books that had selected texts for reading each week in the early church and if you count quotations from the early church fathers, we are talking about over twenty-five thousand ancient manuscripts. If you take the smaller figure of two hundred thousand, it works out to be eight per manuscript or double it and you would get sixteen.
But someone should ask the question, are the majority like those two that have been clearly identified? No, the vast majority are simply spelling variants and the vast majority of those have to do with various words in ancient Greek that might be spelled with or without the letter ‘n’ on the end of the word. The Greek grammarians called this a movable ‘nu’. Perhaps somewhere around twelve to fourteen hundred footnotes depending on the addition in the various additions of the United Bible Society; the Greek New Testament that has gone through four major additions and minor corrected versions of each addition are significant enough to affect the content of the text in enough of an interesting way that they are printed in the footnotes in the modern additions of the Greek New Testament that Bible College and Seminary students often study. You can see what they are in an average English translation like the NIV, the ESV, the NAS. There tend to be about three or four hundred of the ones that are really interesting. So, unlike my students who don’t always read footnotes, if you pay attention to the small print at the bottom of the page when it says, ‘some manuscripts say this’ or ‘other manuscripts say that.’ You don’t have to be wondering whether or not something is lurking somewhere. The scholars are showing you what they know. Only about two dozen affect a verse or more and only two, the one at the end of Mark and the woman caught in adultery affect more than a couple of verses. But less than one percent of the New Testament is represented in those twelve to fourteen hundred footnotes in the United Bible Society’s Greek New Testament. There are no doctrines or ethical mandates or models of how believers should live. There are no prayers or prophecies or proverbs or nothing that defines what Christianity is about that depend on any disputed text. There are always undisputed texts that teach the same thing. And one of the remarkable things that Dan Wallace accomplished in some of his debates with Bart Ehrman was to get in the paperback revised edition of misquoting Jesus tucked away in an appendix, Ehrman acknowledges all of this.
So what does textual criticism prove? Let’s not claim too much for this. Saying that we have the extraordinary ability, better than for any other ancient manuscript for which typically, even in the best-case scenario, there are only hundreds of copies and usually are in single or at best double digits. And those Gnostic texts, typically we have one manuscript in really good shape, like the Gospel of Thomas, we have four. Three of them are very fragmentary. But all that textual criticism can demonstrate is, we can go back and reconstruct with a high degree of likelihood what a writer wrote. That, by itself, doesn’t prove that a word of it is true. Sometimes people get mixed up on that, they say that we have all these texts and that is important. If we didn’t think we could reconstruct what Mathew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, and the others wrote then the question of whether what they wrote is true isn’t nearly as significant. Because we are not even sure that we are dealing with what they wrote. It is very significant to say that we know what the original text said, but we need to move on the other criteria if we are going to assess their true claim. So there are eleven more points to cover but I will not go into as much detail as this one.
2. Who Wrote the Gospels?
What does a classical historian do with an ancient text to try to analyze its historical trustworthiness? Very early on the second question is to do with knowing who wrote the texts. What do we know about those individuals? Were they in a position to know and accurately narrate what happened. The authorship of the four Gospels: Mark, a companion of Peter and Paul and whose name appears at the end of 1st Peter. He is probably most famous for having abandoned for some unstated reason; Paul and Barnabas, halfway through their first missionary journey in the Book of Acts. Whatever the reason was, Paul didn’t think that it was a good enough reason and thus got into a fairly big debate with Barnabas which eventuated in parting company and went their separate ways with Barnabas taking Mark and Paul taking some new travel companions. But even in the later letters of Paul, we see references in the closing greetings to Mark that paint him in a good light. So whatever the reason was, they were reconciled. Luke appears a couple of times, again at the end of Paul’s letters, spoken of in King James English as his beloved physician. In modern language it would be like his favorite doctor. Matthew, the one of the twelve disciples, who was a former tax collector and remember that tax collectors were not impersonal people; they were the Jews who had sold out to Rome for money, who annually with a Roman Soldier by their side to enforce things and if necessary went door to door to make sure that you paid to the hated occupying enemy government. It was not a job to make friends and influence people in Jewish circles. And then there was John, he is the one good guy, the one well know person, the beloved disciple, one of the inner group of the three lead apostles.
Let’s reflex on these people for a moment. If you were making up a fictitious account about Jesus and wanting to gain credibility, which is what the later Gnostic writers did, who would you attribute a Gospel to? We don’t have to guess, we can look at what the later apocryphal and Gnostic gospels did; they
picked people like James, Peter, Mary, Bartholomew; Nicodemus, the most famous one, the twelve apostles; Mary, mother of Jesus. The leading Jewish rabbi, those tradition says became one of Jesus’ followers. Perhaps he was already a secret follower during Jesus’ lifetime. Rather, you would pick respectful and well-known people; he wouldn’t pick someone primarily known for deserting Paul or one who had been a tax collector, or barely heard of, just because he appeared in greetings at the end of a couple of letters. You could have picked John, but he is the only one of the four that you probably would have picked. But not everybody agrees with those four names. Strictly speaking, the Gospels are anonymous. The titles that are in our modern English tradition probably weren’t there initially; it is not too likely that if Mark was the first Gospel written as most scholars think. He came along and titled it, the Gospel according to me, I mean Mark and then later Matthew decided to use exactly the same kind of title but only with a different name. It was probably when they were brought together as a fourfold collection! That is was important to distinguish which one was written by whom and so there was a standard form for the titles. There is nothing in the Gospels of what we see in Paul’s letters of what we now call chapter 1, verse 1. There is a name of somebody who wrote it. So, many scholars for a variety of reasons which you can learn in Bible College or Seminary have said no, it wasn’t Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John; it was anonymous disciples, perhaps closely related to those four individuals.
3. When Were the Gospels Written?
So we have to couple the second points with a third point in regards to when the Gospels were written. And here, there is agreement that these are 1st-century sources. Jesus was most likely crucified in 30 AD; a few people would say 33 AD. We can create two columns in this case: more conservative scholars would date Mark in the late ’50s or early ’60s. Matthew and Luke, just a little bit later into the ’60s with John in the late ’80s or ’90s. And the more liberal consensus tend to be that Mark is right around the time of the destruction of Jerusalem by Rome in AD 70, Matthew and Luke, probably in the 80’s and John probably in the ’90s. There are some significant debates there. We could go into that but it would be boring. What both columns of dates have in common should not escape our attention. They are both 1st-century dates that are within sixty years of the events narrated. Sixty years seems like a long time; even thirty or twenty plus years is a long time for things to get called slanted. But this is the ancient Mediterranean world; this is a world that is not print-based like our paper and digital world. This is a world that was accustomed to passing along sacred tradition, epic stories, personal genealogies, community tradition by word of mouth, sometimes for centuries. Even when written biographies and histories appeared; it was very common for three or four hundred years to have elapsed between the original events and the oldest existing writers, although they talked about having referenced other sources. Take a character like Alexander the Great for Alexander’s oldest biographers, Arrian and Plutarch from the later 1st and early 2nd century talk about consulting earlier written sources, talk about traveling to the communities where Alexander’s conquests took place, talking to people who had preserved traditions of what had happened. And from their works, modern textbooks of western civilization; modern biographies of Alexander are able to reconstruct with remarkable detail his exploits. And he died in 323 BC; so thirty to sixty years is a remarkable short period of time in comparison.