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Textual Criticism and the False ‘Telephone’ Analogy

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The publication of Dr. Bart Ehrman’s latest book, Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why, has caused quite a bit of controversy, and I have responded to it, generally, in a previous post titled Scriptural Transmission, Inspiration, and Inerrancy. However, I began to develop in my response an argument against the often-heard comparison of scriptural textual transmission to the children’s game of Telephone which I think needs a bit more detail.

Actually, I came to the determination that I should elaborate on this subject when a student recently asked, “Doesn’t it seem that the way we got our Bible is a lot like the game of Telephone? How do we know that the message we have now is at all like how it started?” Ironically, this student was not at all familiar with Ehrman’s book, or the field of textual criticism, so it can be rightly concluded that it doesn’t take an eminent scholar to come up with such a theory. Rather, I would argue that the arguments used by scholars, like Ehrman, to conclude the unreliability of the Bible ultimately work against them.

Instead of retracing my previous article on this topic, let me summarize the issue in this way: Ehrman, who is rightly regarded as an expert in the field of Biblical textual criticism, argues in his latest book that due to errors and even intentional changes in the text from one copy to another, the present form of the Bible should not be trusted in its details nor considered a reliable source of theological doctrine. Like the game of telephone, what goes in does not come out without being distorted, if not changed completely. In fact, half the fun of the game tends to be the result of intentional changes rather than incidental ones; apparently such is also the case of the scribes responsible for duplicating Biblical manuscripts.

The particularly ‘bombshell-like’ examples of errors in the Biblical texts that Ehrman documents have already been discussed at length (again, in my previous post on this topic). As I, and many others, have shown, not only are these errors not new to anyone familiar with Biblical scholarship, they are never damaging to the Orthodox theological understanding of Christianity. While I admit that Ehrman delivers a sobering call to Christian scholarship and perhaps even the merited removal of some portions of text from the Bible, his conclusions are generally unfair and likely the result of a desire to come to them, rather than a true mandate.

The process of textual criticism, however, is certainly not like the game of telephone. In the game of telephone, there is no aspect which objectively preserves the initial message, except for the word of the first speaker. Thus, in a hypothetical circle of fifteen, player seven has no way of knowing whether the message whispered into his or her ear is at all like the original. In fact, player seven really has no way of knowing whether that message even resembles what player six received. However, such is not the case with the scriptural manuscripts. Like our modern Bibles, which footnote passages which vary from one manuscript family to another, even some of the early manuscripts contained such warnings! This would be like player seven passing on a message like, “Player six whispered the words ‘banana cheese steak’ into my ears, but I doubt their accuracy and suggest that they really meant banana cheesecake.” In other words, the scribes involved were not copying automatons, but were deeply involved in the process in a critical way. Of course, this does open the door for intentional theological alterations, which Ehrman certainly mentions, but as I will argue, these still do not lead to the conclusion that the resulting transmission of the scriptures cannot be trusted.

Our ability to discern errors in the transmission of the scriptures relies upon the availability of thousands of copies. (In fact, when confronted with daunting numbers of errors, keep in mind that one error in a manuscript duplicated possibly 100 times after results in a total of 100 errors. Really, in such cases only one error exists.) In fact, because certain early manuscripts were copied and lead to traceable ‘families’ of subsequent copies (think of a family tree of documents rather than people), we have a remarkably large amount of information with which to work to discern the probable original wording in the case where an error is found. In other words, the same process by which Ehrman has perceived individual errors and concluded unreliability in general should actually lead to the conclusion that the current version is likely to quite closely resemble the original.

When I answered the original question above, put forth by a student, I pointed out that the game of telephone is intentionally set up to produce distorted and entertaining results. In contrast, the process of textual transmission was one intentionally constructed out of pious stewardship and the awareness that without certain measures, the message of the Bible could be unintentionally (or even intentionally) changed. This responsibility was a tradition inherited from Jewish scribes, who, leaving no spaces between characters in their manuscripts, would produce a word count when finished and compare it to other results. If the count was off, the entire document would have to be checked and corrected. Unlike telephone, community measures were in place to prevent and catch errors. Similarly, Christian scribes would separate verified copies and establish new ‘family’ lines and even make marginal notes or comments in regard to questionable content. What has resulted is an ever-growing supply of copies that enable scholars to reconstruct what were likely the original versions of the scriptural documents. In many ways, comparing the many manuscript copies is like having them in transparency form and overlaying the various versions to see where variances are. Consequently, I would argue that as time passes and the process of discovering more copies and refining translations continues, the reliability of the Bible will only increase.

The Early Church and the Creedal Affirmation of Paul

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Like Jesus of Nazareth, Paul of Tarsus has been reinvented numerous times by theologians and historians alike, mostly in an effort to provide an explanation for the origin of the Christian movement other than the simplest or most obvious one provided by the testimony of the New Testament scriptures. Contrary to the well known theory of explanatory simplicity proposed by William of Ockham, such reconstructed “Pauls” tend to be based upon numerous assumptions that ultimately complicate the explanation itself and require that the most plausible evidence is rejected.

But, do we have any reason to believe that Paul of Tarsus, the late-coming Apostle of Jesus, was not who he claimed to be, or that the testimony of the New Testament is rife with contradictions in regards to his identity? My argument would be a simple “no,” given that the majority of historical information that is used by anyone even trying to reconstruct the life of Paul comes from the New Testament. In other words, historians, both religious and secular, rely upon the Bible as their primary source of information about the life of the Apostle Paul. To be sure, the New Testament does not provide a comprehensive biographical account of Paul, not because it is in some way incomplete or inadequate, but because it’s primary purpose is not to educate people about Paul, but to provide a testimony of God’s relationship with His people, especially in the culminating events surrounding the life of Jesus. However, many attempt to fill in the gaps in the life of Paul through traditional accounts that mention him, such as the writings of early church fathers like Clement, Eusebius, Gaius, and Bede, and other documents.

One particular non-canonical account of Paul comes from a second-century Coptic document known as The Acts of Paul and Thecla. This apocryphal story describes Paul’s missionary travels and his relationship with a virgin girl named Thecla, who is miraculously delivered from persecution several times, presumably protected by God in reward for her purity. According to the story, Paul primarily preached on the virtues of chastity, which reflects the asceticism of some of the divergent Christian sects of the 2nd and 3rd centuries. It also includes the earliest physical description of Paul, who is described as short, stocky, bald and having a rather large nose. While there is good reason to reject the theological implications of the Thecla story, on the basis that it heavily contradicts earlier and better attested accounts, such as Paul’s own letters, it could be possible that Paul did in fact look as this document describes him. In other words, like other apocryphal works which likely contain bits of historical truth, they will not necessarily be helpful in creating a more accurate understanding of who Paul was and what he did.

Even factoring in the various apocryphal accounts of Paul, such as The Acts of Paul and Thecla, the character of Paul and his significance to the Christian faith does not dramatically change. Rather, incidental details are added, such as remarks about possible stops he made on his journeys, the circumstances of his death, and the location of his burial which most scholars and theologians would agree have little to no theological relevance. This means that alternative accounts of the identity and legacy of Paul, no matter how ‘reinforced’ by collected historical hints and snippets, are actually peculiar reinterpretations of the existing scriptural record on the basis of various political or religious presuppositions with an aim to discredit Christian orthodoxy.

The most typical conclusion of the many reinterpretations of Paul is that Christian doctrine, and in the most extreme cases the person of Jesus, is the creation of Paul for variously argued political reasons. These types of theories, however, are generally defended on the basis of ad hoc assumptions about the veracity of Paul’s statements in his letters. For example, one popular reconstruction comes from the late British scholar Hyam Maccoby, who alleges that Paul invented Christian doctrine by basing the legend of Jesus on the traditions of existing Pagan mystery religions. He comes to this conclusion by arguing that Paul was not a Pharisee, as he claimed to be, nor even a Jew familiar with Hebrew! Specifically, Maccoby argues that Paul’s statements in Romans 5:10, 5:17, 11:15, and 11:24 would not have been made by a Pharisee because they are not in doctrinal agreement with first century Orthodox Judaism. Of course, this claim is outright laughable since no scholar would argue that Paul is writing to defend the perspectives of a Pharisee- these passages are written in direct opposition to the Jewish messianic scheme. No, the validity of Paul’s identity as a Pharisee has little to do with Paul’s defense of Christ, nor are such passages valid in arguing against it. Actually, Maccoby’s entire theory begins and ends with the same presupposition- that the early Christians did not believe in the divinity of Christ, nor could such a belief be possible anyway. Therefore he concludes that Paul must have been a liar and a manipulator. This type of circular reasoning is typical in Pauline ‘reconstructions.’

Yet, on the basis of the historical reliability of the New Testament documents (see The Reliability of the New Testament Scriptures for a defense of this), I think that it is quite obvious that Paul is not the subversive figure that some scholars like Maccoby have made him out to be. While Paul is responsible for an enormous portion of the growth of the Christian church, and is without a doubt the most influential apostolic voice in the scriptures, it does not follow that Paul is the creator of Christian doctrine. Neither does his influence as a man merit the great suspicion with which some skeptical scholars approach his writings and the truth of Christianity at large, unless a predisposition towards conspiracy theories is considered valid scholarship.

Having little to hide, Paul freely admits the details of his conversion after Jesus’ death and resurrection, and the fact that he was well known as a former persecutor of Christians. Furthermore, Paul seems quite clear that he desired to use the influence he had for the sake of the Gospel, rather than to dictate or manipulate for personal gain. The evidence that his post-conversion life was one of great trials and suffering should speak for itself. Paul, in his letter to the Galatian church, speaks to the fact that though he had encountered the resurrected Jesus on the Damascus road, the details of the Gospel were provided to him by the apostles Peter and James, to whom he submitted and checked with in regards to doctrine. In his letter to the Corinthian church, he elaborates:

“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep; then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles. (1 Corinthians 15:3-8)”

This information, given to Paul by James and Peter, can be dated to at least 3 years after the death of Jesus, meaning that it preceded the writing of any Gospel and was taught and believed by the early church independent of any document! This again supports the conclusion that the incidentals of Jesus’ death, resurrection and post-resurrection appearances were not Pauline inventions, but facts shared and experienced by the entire Christian community and established as oral tradition before Paul’s conversion.

Paul clearly is not writing with the pretense that this information is unique to him. In fact, many of his letters include material that is now recognized as pre-established Christian hymns and creeds (see Rom. 1:3-4;1 Cor. 11:23 ff.;15:3-8; Phil. 2:6_11; Col.1:15-18;1 Tim. 3:16; 2 Tim. 2:8; see also John 1:1-18; 1 Peter 3:18-22; 1 John 4:2). New Testament linguistic scholars have discerned that the quality of the language used in these passages is different from what has been recognized as typical of Paul’s writings, suggesting he did not formulate the verses but was actually referring to them. Also, these passages show a remarkable simplicity in being translated from Paul’s Greek into Aramaic, the Hebrew dialect spoken by Jesus and His followers, suggesting that they originated in this language as part of the pre-Gospels Hebrew/Christian oral tradition. Specifically, the terms ‘delivered,’ and ‘received’ derive from Rabbinic oral tradition, presumably an integral part of the early Christian tradition as well. This is remarkably significant considering the fact that all of these passages clearly affirm the doctrines of the death, resurrection and divinity of Jesus.

Another compelling example comes again from Paul’s letter to the Corinthian church, which was a Greek-speaking community, in which he uses the Aramaic phrase ‘maranatha,’ which refers to Jesus as ‘God’ (mar)*(see Scott Pruett's comment below) and looks forward to his imminent return (anatha). This inclusion of an Aramaic phrase in addressing a Greek audience indicates that the Corinthians were familiar with the phrase and its religious significance prior to Paul’s writing them, which again shows the importance of the early establishment of an oral tradition prior to the writing of any documents.

Lastly, many critics remark that since Paul’s letters are the earliest Christian documents that we have, it is somewhat incriminating how little biographical information about Jesus they contain. Such skeptics conclude that this is because the information about Jesus contained in the four Gospels was mythological and developed over time. While I think that my above remarks refute this claim satisfactorily, I think it is also important to consider that most of Paul’s writing makes little sense outside of a scheme of the truth of Jesus’ death and resurrection. In fact, the communities to whom Paul wrote would not have needed any kind of ‘recap’ on the life of Jesus in these letters, as they were already part of established Christian church communities assembled on the basis of such truths about Jesus!

It was the judgment of the early Christian community that the teaching and words of Paul were not only consistent with the teaching of Christ, but inspired by the Spirit of God. While many scholars are free to reject that particular spiritual conclusion, the cumulative weight of the evidence affirms that Paul sincerely participated in the growth of a church based upon the historical events of the ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus. In fact, it seems likely that with or without Paul, the Gospel of Jesus would still have been preached.

The Claims of The DaVinci Code

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As there have been many requests for information regarding the claims of The DaVinci Code, I would like to direct readers to the following posts.

Claim: The four Gospels were chosen from 80 other gospels.
I discuss this claim in What About All the Other “Gospels?” Part 1

Claim: Jesus was married to Mary Magdelene and left the church in her charge.
I discuss this claim in What About All the Other "Gospels?" Part 2

Claim: Pre-Biblical documents tell the true story of Jesus and Mary and are located in Mary's tomb.
I discuss this claim in What About All the Other "Gospels?" Part 3

Claim: The New Testament scriptures are unreliable.
I discuss this claim in The Reliability of the New Testament Scriptures and A Survey of New Testament Documents and The God Who Wasn't There, Part 2

Claim: Leonardo's The Last Supper contains visual clues to the secret of Jesus' marriage to Mary Magdalene.
I discuss this claim in The Last Supper.

Some additional recommended resources:

Biblical scholar Dr. Craig Blomberg has done two excellent lectures related to the claims of The DaVinci Code, available for download here:
The DaVinci Code (Part 1): Was There a Plan to Suppress "Secret" Gospels?
The DaVinci Code (Part 2): Was There a Conspiracy to Concoct a Divine Jesus?

Also, Stand To Reason has produced a great 10-page PDF document addressing The DaVinci Code, available here:
http://www.str.org/site/DocServer/5-6_2006_SG.pdf?docID=961

CNN refutes The DaVinci Code!
Click here to read a decent article on CNN.com dealing with the credibility of the claims of The DaVinci Code.

CBS 60 Minutes debunks Priory of Sion!
Click here to read an article at cbsnews.com detailing the forged origin of Priory of Sion documents used by Dan Brown in his 'historical' research for The DaVinci Code (thanks BB for the link).

US News & World Report sets the record straight!
Click here to read an article at usnews.com generally outlining the historically incorrect claims of the DaVinci Code and the corrections to them.

Scriptural Transmission, Inspiration, and Inerrancy

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Imagine playing a typical game of ‘telephone,’ in which a phrase or sentence is whispered from one player to another until it reaches the original person who composed it. Often, the words have changed and the result is a hilarious illustration of how easily information can get lost in transmission. According to Bart Ehrman’s recent book, ‘Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why,’ the transmission of the Bible by scribes was comparable to a game of ‘telephone,’ (my analogy, not his) as the existence of scores of textual variants among the thousands of existing manuscripts leads Ehrman to the conclusion that the original meaning of the scriptures must be lost. Needless to say, such an allegation is likely to (and has) created controversy of ‘Dan Brownian’ proportions.

It should be initially pointed out that Dr. Ehrman’s reputation as a Biblical scholar and textual critic is exemplary, and his contributions to the study of the transmission of the scriptures are many. However, though he wields considerable authority in this area, his conclusion that the existence of variations in wording among manuscripts calls established Christian doctrines into question is quite overreaching. So, I do not want to suggest that my short article can simply dismiss Ehrman’s work as incorrect. Rather, I would like to examine several of the passages of scripture which he cites and then provide my own response as well as a brief note on the principles of inspiration and inerrancy.

Mark 16:9-20
It has been noted by New Testament scholars for the last century that the ending passage of the Gospel of Mark is absent from the earliest Greek, Latin, Syriac, Coptic, and Armenian manuscripts. Even subsequent copies reveal that the passage had been marked as questionable in its relationship to the original autograph. The writings of Clement of Alexandria and Origen seem to suggest that they were not aware of this passage, as it is not explicitly mentioned by either. However, later writings by Eusebius and Jerome indicate that they were aware of this passage’s absence from the earlier Greek manuscripts and subsequent addition. So, barring the discovery of an earlier manuscript, the current evidence seems to be in favor of a Gospel of Mark which ends prior to 16:9. Some, however, have argued that the final passage is authentic on the basis of a quote in Ireneaus’ Against Heresies of AD 180, which reads:

“Also, towards the conclusion of his gospel, Mark says, 'So then, after the Lord Jesus had spoken to them, he was received up into heaven and sits on the right hand of God.’”

Regardless of whether the passage is or is not ultimately authentic, the fact remains that some manuscripts contain it while others do not. Dr. Ehrman concludes that a variation of this nature calls the Christian traditions of inspiration and inerrancy into serious question. His expectation is that God would prevent such variations as the scriptures are reproduced. Since variations do, in fact, occur, we must be mistaken about the meaning of the scriptures and ultimately the very character of God. While Ehrman’s conclusions are based upon a presupposition regarding inspiration and innerancy which I will examine at the conclusion of this post, I would initially comment that to suggest that this is some sort of expose on the reliability of the scriptures is incorrect. Many Biblical scholars (his mentor Bruce Metzger included) examine the same data that Ehrman has and reach far different conclusions regarding the inspiration and Inerrancy of the Bible.

John 7:53-8:11
Like the above mentioned passage from the Gospel of Mark, the Pericope De Adultera is not found in the earliest manuscript copies of the Gospel of John. St. Augustine wrote of the omission of this passage, suggesting that scribes made an editorial decision based upon the fear that the story was too lenient upon adultery. Again like the Markan verses, absence of commentary on this passage from writers such as Tertullian and Cyprian seems to indicate that they did not know of it. In fact, many scholars point out that Origen’s commentary on this portion of the Gospel of John mentions every verse except those from the passage between 7:53 and 8:11, leading to the conclusion that he, too, had not been aware of it. Though we may be safe in concluding that the passage should not be considered a part of the autograph, some still suggest that the narrative is a true representation of Jesus. Bruce Metzger elaborates on this, affirming that the periscope can be non-canonical and still true:

“When one adds to this impressive and diversified list of external evidence the consideration that the style and vocabulary of the pericope differ noticeably from the rest of the Fourth Gospel (see any critical commentary), and that it interrupts the sequence of 7.52 and 8.12 ff., the case against its being of Johannine authorship appears to be conclusive. At the same time the account has all the earmarks of historical veracity. It is obviously a piece of oral tradition which circulated in certain parts of the Western church and which was subsequently incorporated into various manuscripts at various places. Most copyists apparently thought that it would interrupt John's narrative least if it were inserted after 7.52 (D E F G H K M U G P 28 700 892 al). Others placed it after 7.36 (ms. 225) or after 7.44 (several Georgian mss.) or after 21.25 (1 565 1076 1570 1582 armmss) or after Luke 21.38 (f13). Significantly enough, in many of the witnesses which contain the passage it is marked with asterisks or obeli, indicating that, though the scribes included the account, they were aware that it lacked satisfactory credentials (Bruce Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament).”

It seems quite clear that these two passages, especially the Pericope de Adultera, do not belong in the Bible, though they affirm true things about the character of Jesus and even things He was likely to have done. Biblical scholarship has traditionally affirmed that canonicity is not measured by the veracity of the content of certain books, but by the affirmation of the Holy Spirit. For example, Jude 14-15 quotes from the Book of Enoch, though this book has not been considered part of the canon. The passage, which reads, “Behold, the Lord came with his holy myriads, to execute judgment on all, and to convict all the ungodly of all their ungodly deeds which they have committed in such an ungodly way, and of all the harsh things which ungodly sinners spoke against him,” certainly does not affirm anything necessarily contrary to scripture, yet its veracity does not necessarily qualify it as scripture itself. Additionally, Old Testament apocryphal books like 1 and 2 Maccabees which likely contain accurate historical accounts of the inter-testamental period also contain heretical teachings. Specifically, 2 Macabbees contains passages which affirm suicide, prayers for the dead, Purgatorial suffering as well as the possibility of being granted salvation after death.

Dr. Ehrman is correct in asserting that passages which are unauthentic or spurious should not be considered scripture regardless of our fondness for them or their veracity. However, the fact that some of these passages do remain does not lead to the conclusion that, like a domino effect, the rest of Scripture is dubious as well.

The inspiration of scripture is not at risk due to these variations. Inspiration should be understood as the intentional use of human authors by the Holy Spirit of God in the writing of scripture, such that it contained the exact message He desires. The inspiration was in the production of the autographs, not in the production of copies of the autographs. To suggest that flawed copies indicates a flawed source is without logical basis. In fact, the entire process of reconstructing the autographs by the outstandingly large amount of manuscript attestation we do have has produced a Bible of overwhelming accuracy, and in so doing affirms the emphasis on the inspiration of the autograph, rather than the copies. Even Ehrman agrees here.

Inerrancy, on the other hand, is the conclusion that scripture inspired by God is essentially true. Inerrancy does not mean that copies of the inspired autographs of scripture will be grammatically perfect or even consistent. Yet, it does suggest that the message of God will be both preserved and uncorrupted such that it is accessible to all. This is a crucial point which has major ramifications on the process of reproduction. If inerrancy meant the perfection of the words themselves, rather than the message, then the Word of God would be untranslatable. Such is the dilemma of Islam, where the Koran itself is seen as the ultimate miracle of God, perfect in essence and language. To even interact with the one miracle, the Muslim must understand Arabic, while those that read translations are prohibited from commentary as the act of translation itself is seen as a corrupting agent to the miracle. Yet, this is not the case for the Christian claim of inerrancy of scripture. In fact, the commission of Christ relies upon the ability of His Word to be translated into other languages and even paraphrased by teachers. Thus, the inerrancy of scripture is in the message, rather than the words, or even the sentences, chapters or books.

We should certainly be motivated to have a Bible that is as close to a perfect reproduction of the autographs as possible. To do so means that passages such as the two mentioned here should probably be removed (though it is only fair to mention that virtually every existing modern translation indicates clearly the verses which are varied among the source manuscripts, either by separating the text, footnotes, or other visual cues). However, and this is a big however, the existence of non-authentic passages, even within our latest versions of the Bible, do nothing more to discredit the inspiration and inerrancy of scripture as entire books that were determined as non-canonical, such as the Old and New Testament Apocrypha.

But the more important point is that while inspiration and inerrancy are integral to the Christian faith, they are not principles which override the philosophical grounding of Christian theism, nor the historical grounding of the life, ministry, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. As Dr. Ehrman himself agrees, along with the majority of New Testament scholars, our modern Bible is overwhelmingly reliable as a witness to the original autographs and as a historical account of the time of Christ and the early church. I can only postulate that his incorrect conception of inspiration and inerrancy have led him to prioritize such ideas over the testimony of historical record.

What About All the Other “Gospels?” Part 3

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After looking at the Gnostic “other gospels” in light of the recent media attention, as well as in terms of their historical and theological validity, I want to examine one last issue that is often mentioned within the context of the discussion. This concerns the hypothetical “Q” document, supposed by some scholars to be the source of information to which the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke refer.

Suggested by the German scholar Friedrich Schleiermacher in 1832, the “Q” hypothesis (named for the German word Quelle, or “source”) was proposed to account for the parallels between Matthew and Luke’s writings of the sayings of Jesus. Some 250 verses of both Gospels show parallels, in that they have particular similarities that are not found in the Gospel of Mark, which scholars suggest is due to an actual document having pre-existed the Gospels and served as their source. Schleiermacher was prompted to take up this study after encountering the writing of Papias of Hierapolis, who wrote, “Matthew compiled the oracles of the Lord in a Hebrew manner of speech.” It had previously been interpreted that Papias meant that Matthew had written in Hebrew, but Schleiermacher interpreted this quote to mean that there was a document previous to Matthew.

The hypothesis has a particular presupposition of Markan priority, meaning that the Gospel of Mark was written first, to account for the similarities. However, if Matthew was actually written first, the hypothesis has little basis to be defended. Some advocates of the “Q” hypothesis reason that the format of the “Gospel of Thomas” (see What about Other “Gospels?” Part 1) shows that a purely sayings-based document has historical precedent. However this relies upon the assumption that such a format would precede the narrative accounts found in the canonical Gospels, which, given the later date of “Thomas” is not necessarily the case.

Interestingly, an expert character in Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code suggests,

Also rumored to be a part of the treasury [of supposed documents hidden in the tomb of Mary Magdalene] is the legendary “Q” document, a manuscript that even the Vatican admits they believe exists. Allegedly, it is a book of Jesus’ teachings, possibly written in his own hand…Another explosive document believed to be in the treasury is a manuscript called the ‘Magdalene Diaries,’ Mary Magdalene’s personal account of her relationship with Christ, His crucifixion, and her time in France.”

To be fair, Brown’s book is, after all, a fictional work, making his completely unfounded suggestion of the existence of a diary written by Mary Magdalene (completely without historical credence) ignorable. However, Brown does open the book with a note explaining that all descriptions of documents within the book are accurate. For the record, however, though the “Q” document is an existing hypothesis and the basis of valid scholarship, no scholar has ever suggested that there is any reason to think it would have been written by Christ himself.

Contrary to the claims of the mostly Gnostic “gospels” I have examined in my previous two posts, the existence of “Q” would not actually cause any theological or historical problems. In fact, it was common for certain able followers of a Rabbi at the time to take notes of his teachings so that they may commit to memory and deliver to others what they had learned. If “Q” did exist, I would assume that it would have been on the level of such notes, since no copy of it has survived nor has it been explicitly referred to by any other early documents. However, we have no tangible evidence for either position, so “Q” must remain a hypothesis until we do.

What About All the Other “Gospels?” Part 2

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In the general discussion of documents in my last post, I briefly mentioned two specific manuscripts that are of interest in the study of apocryphal gospels. In fact, these two books, the “Gospel of Philip,” and the “Gospel of Mary,” have frequently been cited by liberal Biblical scholars and Gnostic scholars alike in argumentation for the diversity of Christian thinking in the first century. They even play a significant role in the most recent and popular of such speculative work, The DaVinci Code, leading author Dan Brown’s characters to conclude that Jesus had been married to Mary Magdalene and left the church in her charge.

The “Gospel of Philip,” discovered among the documents of the Nag Hammadi library, is like the “Gospel of Thomas” in that it is primarily comprised of sayings or teachings of Christ rather than being a narrative or story. These sayings, which include “Truth is the mother, knowledge the father,” and “it is not possible for anyone to see anything of the things that actually exist unless he becomes like them… You saw the Spirit, you became Spirit. You saw the Christ, you became Christ. You saw the Father, you shall become Father,” are widely considered to be extremely Gnostic in character. However, this particular “gospel” is most often cited as introducing the proposition that Jesus had been married to Mary Magdalene.

Though the document has sustained damage which makes deciphering some of its text a challenge, the passage in question reads: “And the companion of the…Mary Magdalene…more than…the disciples…kiss her…on her…” Some scholars, however, have filled in the gaps, inferring that the passage perhaps read like this: “And the companion of the Savior is Mary Magdalene. Christ loved her more than all the disciples and used to kiss her often on her mouth.” Dan Brown’s professorial expert character argues specifically that the Aramaic word used for ‘companion’ always means ‘spouse,’ therefore there can be no question that the two were married. Unfortunately, the only existing copy of this manuscript was written in Coptic, not Aramaic! Though many Gnostic texts tend to have earlier versions in Greek, scholars have never found any in the Aramaic language. Supposing, however, that this document was in some way credible, despite being quite late (3rd century AD), the notion that Magdalene was a simply companion of Christ is thoroughly Biblical. She is often mentioned among the various women accompanying Christ in his travels. Even the notion that they might exchange a kiss is not necessarily scandalous as greeting one another with a ‘holy kiss’ was commonplace among first century Christians. After a closer look, it seems that the marriage conclusion is quite unlikely.

Like the “Gospel of Philip,” the “Gospel of Mary” is another Coptic apocryphal text, discovered in 1896 within a larger manuscript known as the Akhmim Codex. Also like “Philip,” this text is the only existing Coptic version, though it is missing portions of its content. Again, the most common inference from this text is a bit of a departure from what is actually there, as some scholars claim it teaches that Jesus left Mary Magdalene, not Peter, in charge of the church.

The passage most often referred to reads:

And Peter said, ‘Did the Savior really speak with a woman without our knowledge? Are we to turn about and all listen to her? Did He prefer her to us?’ And Levi answered, ‘Peter, you’ve always been hot-tempered. Now I see you contending against the woman like an adversary. If the Savior made her worthy, who are you indeed to reject her? Surely the Savior knows her very well. That is why He loved her more than us.’”

I see nothing in this passage that presents a convincing argument for Mary’s charge. However, several other facts call the very legitimacy of scholarship surrounding this manuscript into question. As I mentioned earlier, many Gnostic texts had prior versions written in Greek, the “Gospel of Mary” included. In fact, the earlier Greek manuscript copy exists in two portions surviving from the 3rd century AD, but it ends prior to this particular passage! Additionally, though this book is often referred to as the “Gospel of Mary Magdalene,” the name Magdalene appears nowhere in the text. For all we know, this book could refer to any number of Marys, Jesus’ mother included (though, in all fairness, its Gnostic origin makes it likely that Magdalene was intended). Needless to say, the actual document’s relationship to Mary would be in name only, as it was written long after the first century.

The subject of other “gospels” is sure to attract interest (and sell books, in the case of The DaVinci Code) while subversively introducing Gnostic Christianity as authoritative and/or authentic. However, only a small amount of investigation reveals the truth and affirms the exclusion of Gnostic apocryphal works from the scriptural canon. Ironically, the “Gospel of Mary” includes another quote, this time from Andrew, who says “Say what you think concerning what she [Magdalene] said. For I do not believe that the Savior said this. For certainly these teachings are of other ideas.” I am convinced that we can safely agree with Andrew and trust the Word of God which has been preserved for us from the very beginning!

What About All the Other “Gospels?” Part 1

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As the recent release of the so-called “Gospel of Judas” seems to suggest, many skeptics and scholars today allege that in addition to the four Gospels found in the contemporary New Testament, many other gospels were written and yet withheld from the canon for various sinister reasons. In fact, in his book ‘The DaVinci Code,’ Dan Brown suggests (by way of one of his ‘expert’ characters) that more than eighty gospels were considered for inclusion in the New Testament! I would like to briefly examine the veracity of this claim and suggest that, in reality, the number of other documents that could even be (mistakenly) construed as a legitimate gospel is roughly half the total Brown suggests.

Contrary to the popular suggestion of “gospel” rivalry during the growth of the early church, no other gospels were even suggested by first-hand authors for inclusion in the canon, or even by followers of such supposed authors. Only two gospels were mentioned in a favorable light during the time prior to the establishment of the canon, though not judged for canonicity. They include the “Gospel of the Hebrews” and the “Gospel of Thomas.” The “Gospel of the Hebrews” has actually never been found, though it is mentioned among the apostolic fathers’ literature and was said to resemble the Gospel of Matthew. The “Gospel of Thomas,” found among the Nag Hammadi literature, is a compilation of sayings of Jesus rather than a documentary account of His ministry. While a portion, perhaps a third, of the recorded sayings resemble those of the canonical Gospels, the remaining are Gnostic in nature and do not conform to the teachings of Christ as recorded by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Interestingly, the Jesus Seminar, a collective of radical liberal Biblical scholars, included “Thomas” as the fifth Gospel in their famous study which sought to prove that little of the words attributed to Jesus actually came from Him. In the case of “Hebrews,” there is no physical evidence allowing for even a debate as to whether it should have been included within the canon; the consensus of the early church is apparent from its lack of preservation. In the case of “Thomas,” its late date and obvious Gnostic corruption set it outside of the body of literature produced within the first century and among the followers who were directly connected to Christ, making the possibility of inspiration or even canonical qualification a non-issue.

During the second and third centuries of church growth, unorthodox teachers began to assemble groups based upon heretical teachings and recommend the use of spurious literature. Three so-called “gospels” tended to be referred to in such instances. They included the “Gospel of Peter,” “A Different Matthew” and, again, the “Gospel of Thomas.” These documents, as I wrote earlier, were written well after the time of the names associated with them, meaning that the authorship was forged. Additionally, like “Thomas,” these documents were thoroughly indicative of Gnostic corruption. In fact, I briefly examined the a passage from the “Gospel of Peter” in my previous post, “The Historical Resurrection of Jesus, Part 2 (The Empty Tomb),” which showed the remarkably strong influence of mythic symbolism and religious iconography that would not have been present in an early document (see that post for more and a quote from a passage recounting the resurrection of Christ).

There are another nine remaining documents, of which fragments still remain, which bear the name “gospel,” though for similar reasons to the three mentioned above, are apocryphal. These include, the “Gospel of Truth,” “Gospel of Philip,” “Gospel of the Egyptians,” “Gospel of Mary,” “Gospel of Bartholomew,” “The Apocryphon of James,” “The Ascent of James,” the “infancy” “Gospel of Thomas,” and the “Gospel of Nicodemus.” Again, these documents are today, and were at the time of the early church, rejected on the basis of spurious and late authorship, as well as corrupted and Gnostic-influenced doctrinal teaching. In the interest of time and space, I will discuss the “Gospel of Philip,” and the “Gospel of Mary” in more detail in a forthcoming post.

Roughly six or seven additional fragments were found among the documents at Oxyrhychus, which I mentioned in my previous post, “A Survey of New Testament Documents,” that contained duplicate accounts of Jesus’ miracles found in the New Testament Gospels, though they seem to originally be from separate documents. These fragments, however, present nothing controversial, nor do they include extra-Biblical teaching that would have been suppressed. The possible seventh document is of a bit more interest, though it is difficult to even call it a document. In 1958, scholar Morton Smith visited an Egyptian monastery where he claims to have viewed a letter from Clement of Alexandria, who lived around AD 200. Smith said that this letter contained a quote from a distorted version of the Gospel of Mark, which Clement was endeavoring to refute. The quote mentions a young man who visits Jesus in the night wearing nothing but a linen garment, and is “taught the secrets of the kingdom” until the morning. Sadly, it is this quote, having never been verified by one shred of evidence beyond Smith’s verbal account, which leads some to outrageously infer that Jesus was a homosexual. Clearly, and even if it were genuine, the passage overtly contains nothing of the sort. Smith did return to the monastery once more to take photographs of the document, which were reportedly last seen in 1973. Since then, some scholars have attempted to suggest that this “distortion” of the Gospel of Mark was actually the original, of which the Biblical Gospel of Mark was a distortion! Not only is there no evidence to verify that the ancient letter of Clement actually exists, there is no existing evidence to corroborate the supposed distortion of Mark nor the hypothesis that the New Testament Gospel of Mark was a later version of the one cited by Clement. For skeptics, the pre-Mark “gospel” may just be wishful thinking. Finally, among ancient documents, scholars have found twenty-eight other references to texts simply called “gospels,” though none of these have ever been found or corroborated by additional sources.

It appears that, despite the frequent claims of skeptics, the allegation of numerous “gospels” that competed for canonical inclusion is quite incorrect. In fact, the cumulative total of all the documents I have cited here (including the supposed distorted “Gospel of Mark”) is 48 documents. This, by the way, is roughly half the number suggested by Dan Brown. This data is ultimately convincing that the suggestion that there were eighty other “gospels” is quite disingenuous.

Drawing Appropriate Conclusions from the Gospel of Judas

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It was reported today in a New York Times article of the discovery of a 4th century manuscript copy entitled the Gospel of Judas. Bound to encite much controversy, this Gospel claims to relate “the secret account of the revelation that Jesus spoke in conversation with Judas Iscariot during a week, three days before he celebrated Passover.” The account indicates that Jesus asked Judas to betray him for the purposes of his spiritual plan, saying “…you [Judas] will exceed all of them. For you will sacrifice the man that clothes me.”

I would initially venture to comment that most news media will be either prone to make subtle yet inflammatory statements in regards to the impact of the document for the purposes of readership, or likely to draw inaccurate conclusions themselves based upon a misunderstanding of both Gnosticism and Christian Orthodoxy. But before we are quick to draw conclusions from the reporting that has already occurred among the news media, let’s consider a few points that will clarify the context of the Gospel of Judas.

This document does not recount the ministry and passion of Christ, as do the other Gospels, but singles out a particular doctrinal point. It is qualitatively different.
This should raise eyebrows given the availability of antecedent and better attested accounts of Jesus that are primarily documentary rather than theological. Liberal scholar Elaine Pagels stated, in reference to the Gospel of Judas, “These discoveries are exploding the myth of a monolithic religion, and demonstrating how diverse — and fascinating — the early Christian movement really was,” as if to say that Christian orthodoxy would be anachronistic to the time. This is a patently incorrect and intentionally misleading comment. In fact, scholars initially based their entire search for this document based upon a reference to it in Against Heresies, written in AD 180 by Ireneus, the Bishop of Lyons. Such a treatise would not have been written had orthodoxy not been a significant concern at the time. Ireneus points out that Gnostic Gospels are distortions of an established doctrine, not authentic teachings.

The Gospel of Judas is distinctly Gnostic and speaks little in reference to Christian Orthodoxy.
In addressing the Cainites, the sect responsible for the Gospel of Judas, Ireneus writes that they: “stated that Cain owes his existence to the highest power, while Esau, Korak, the Sodomites and all other men are dependants of each other… They believe that Judas the Betrayer was fully informed of these things and that only he (sic) understanding the truth like no one else fulfilled the secret of betrayal that confused all things, both in heaven and on earth. They invented their own history called the Gospel of Judas. (A.H. I.31.1)” Elsewhere, Ireneus quotes the document: “You will be cursed by the other generations — and you will come to rule over them…You will exceed all of them. For you will sacrifice the man that clothes me.”

Themes such as the inherent evil of physical matter and the unlocking of secret knowledge through ritual and relationships are typical of Gnostic thinking, and are often found in the apocryphal works of the 3rd and 4th century, not in the Christian literature of the 1st century. Sadly, Judas did not receive the rulership supposedly promised by Jesus, as it was reported by multiple earlier accounts that he took his own life in grief.

Incorrect Conclusions
In its article, the New York Times states: “As the findings have trickled down to churches and universities, they have produced a new generation of Christians who now regard the Bible not as the literal word of God, but as a product of historical and political forces that determined which texts should be included in the canon, and which edited out.” I find this to be one of the most troubling aspects of the entire story. Not only is it an underhanded misrepresentation of the current state of the church, it is flatly incorrect in its suggestion regarding the formulation of the canon. While I won’t delve into this subject too deeply, I would like to quickly dispel some confusion regarding the canon.

The council of Nicea, convened in AD 325, was made possible by the freedom granted to Christians by Constantine of Rome. The purpose of this meeting was not to choose the accepted books of the Bible, but to resolve a doctrinal dispute regarding the nature of Christ. In fact, the canon was formed more as a process of excluding heretical teachings as they surfaced, rather than one of selecting from a large group of available scriptures. The Times has overreached in its assessment of the ‘new generation of Christians,’ as it is not the majority thinking of the church, nor is the claim of Biblical errancy and political maneuverings new!

In response to the unveiling of the Gospel of Judas, James M. Robinson, expert in Coptic and Egyptian texts and Professor Emeritus at Claremont (Calif.) Graduate University said, “Does it go back to Judas? No…There are a lot of second-, third- and fourth-century gospels attributed to various apostles. We don’t really assume they give us any first century information.” His statement is a succinct way of pointing out the shortcomings of this document: it’s distance from its subject (both Jesus and Judas), its origin with a sect known to be heretical over a century prior to this manuscript, and its divergence from orthodox teaching, which leaves it suited much more to Gnosticism than Christianity.

A Survey of New Testament Documents

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The reliability of the New Testament is a value indicative of the fantastic catalogue of manuscripts that have been preserved and kept since the beginning of the church at the time of Christ. For the record, and as an addendum to my previous post, I would like to briefly survey some of the most important and ancient manuscripts from among the many available to scholars today.

As I mentioned in my previous post, we depend upon copies of the original scriptural documents, or autographs, as none of them still exist. Now, before this statement fills us with doubt or skepticism regarding the integrity of the message translated from one document to another, it is helpful to keep in mind that no autographs exist of many sources which we depend upon to reconstruct the history and culture of ancient civilization. In other words, the absence of autographs is common and not a mortal blow to the endeavor of discovering the original words or meaning of many ancient documents. Consequently, the more manuscript copies are available, especially those close in proximity to the writing of the original, the more accurate the reconstruction can be. For more on how this principle establishes the reliability of the New Testament documents, see my previous post.

The manuscript that many scholars estimate is closest to the autographs, classified as P46 (otherwise referred to as the Chester Beatty Papyrus II, after its owner), contains all of the Pauline pastoral epistles, and has been dated at the end of the first century. If this dating is correct, it places P46 within twenty to thirty years of Paul’s original letters and would be the largest and oldest collection of New Testament manuscripts currently in our possession. The next document in chronological order, referred to as P52, is dated around 110-125 AD and contains John 18, verses 31-34 and 37-38. This document is a fragment to say the least, but it was part of a larger manuscript copy of the Gospel of John, produced within twenty to thirty years of the original. The following are a selection of some of the other important New Testament papyri:

The Oxyrhychus Papyri
This group of documents was literally recovered from the ancient garbage dumps of Egypt! In 1898, archaeologists Grenfell and Hunt discovered the site in Oxyrhychus, Egypt, which included an enormous amount of written information, including legal documents, literature, business receipts, and letters, as well as over 35 New Testament manuscripts. Many of these manuscripts were fragments of larger works. Included were P1, containing Matthew 1, P5, containing John 1 and 16, P13, containing Hebrews 2-5 and 10-12, and P22, containing John 15-16.

The Chester Beatty Papyri
This collection of documents was found and purchased from an Egyptian dealer in the 1930’s, and bears the name of its owner. As I mentioned above, two of its manuscripts, P46 and P52, are recognized for their age and proximity to the autographs. In addition to those two, P45, which contains portions of the Gospels and Acts and P47, which contains Revelation 9-17, are included.

The Bodmer Papyri
Also named for its owner, M. Martin Bodmer, and purchased from an Egyptian dealer through the 1950’s and 1960’s, this collection includes P66, from 175 AD and containing the majority of the Gospel of John, P72, of the third century and containing both 1 and 2 Peter and Jude, and P75, from 200 AD containing portions of Luke 3 through John 15.

Codex Sinaiticus
This manuscript is a complete edition of the New Testament. It was discovered by Constantin vo Tischendorf in a monastery located near Mount Sinai. It is dated around 350 AD.

Codex Vaticanus
Preserved in the library of the Vatican since 1481, this manuscript was not available for examination until the mid-1800’s! It has been dated prior to Codex Sinaiticus, and includes the entire Old Testament and the New Testament through Hebrews 9:15 in Greek. Still today, Vaticanus is considered one of the most reliable sources of the autograph text.

Codex Alexandrinus
This manuscript is dated in the 5th century and contains almost the entire New Testament. Scholars emphasize its reliability especially in regards to the Pauline epistles and the book of Revelation.

Codex Ephraemi Rescriptus
Also from the 5th century, this particular manuscript is quite interesting. The document itself is a palimpsest, or one which has been written over previously written and erased writing. Ephraemi Rescriptus was restored by Tischendorf using a process of chemical recovery which revealed the New Testament text beneath a collection of the sermons of Ephraemi.

Codex Bezae
Named after the man who discovered it, Theodore Beza, this manuscript contains the Gospels and Acts and is from the 5th century AD.

Codex Washingtonianus
Another 5th century manuscript and also known as the Freer Gospels (named for its owner, Charles Freer), Washingtonianus includes all four Gospels and is preserved in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

The Reliability of the New Testament Scriptures

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My last four posts were primarily concerned with making a case for the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth as an actual historical event. Were I a skeptic in regards to this topic, my questions in response would most likely resemble these: “On what basis should I consider the scriptures themselves to be historically reliable? Since when do religious texts qualify as historical sources?

Historical reliability of any ancient textual source is determined on the basis of several criteria. The first area I would like to focus on is referred to as the ‘Bibliographical Test,’ which determines how many manuscript copies we have of the document in question, and how far removed such documents are in time from the originals. I think that this test is easily understood when we compare the New Testament’s manuscript attestation to that of other accepted ancient sources of historical information. First, let’s look at what we do have (please bear with me in the details) in terms of New Testament manuscripts.

There are approximately 5,000 Greek manuscripts that contain either the entire New Testament or portions of it. In addition, 8,000 Vulgate (Latin) manuscripts and 350 Syriac (Christian Aramaic) manuscripts remain in existence. Besides these, which amount to over 13,000 documents, almost the entire New Testament could be reproduced from references or citations contained in the works of the early church fathers alone. In fact, prior to the Council of Nicea, which convened in 325 AD, the church fathers had cumulatively cited New Testament scriptures over 32,000 times! The dates of these various manuscripts range from early in the second century (100’s AD) to the time of the Reformation. The earliest of them include the John Rylands manuscript of 120 AD, which contains a few verses from the Gospel of John, the Chester Beatty Papyrii of 200 AD, which contains large portions of the New Testament, and Codex Sinaiticus of 350 AD, which contains virtually the entire New Testament. Most scholars agree that the four gospels and the epistles of Paul and Peter were certainly written prior to 90 AD. (In fact, it is likely that the gospel of Mark was written within two decades of the crucifixion, and some of Paul’s letters even earlier than Mark! More on this in an upcoming post…) From these facts, we can conclude that the space between the autographs (or original manuscripts) and our earliest sources begins at approximately several decades.

In comparison, many of the most well known articles of ancient literature and history do not fare as well. For example, there are approximately 650 existing manuscripts of Homer’s Illiad; the tragedies of Euripides, only 330 manuscripts. Yet, these two are the largest in number among all other ancient Greek literature! As I mentioned above, the lapse in time between the existing Biblical manuscripts and the original autographs varies between 20 to 100 years. However, the lapse between the existing manuscripts of these ancient Greek documents and their autographs varies between 800 to 1000 years!

To say that the historical attestation of the New Testament documents is remarkably robust would be a considerable understatement. Really, it is quite unparalleled! Many other ancient works, like the Greek classics mentioned above, retain their academic and cultural significance with virtually no question yet pale in comparison when assessed on the basis of historical attestation and the ‘Bibliographical Test.’ This is not to say that these sources are thus inherently suspect, but it does show that the New Testament, while often considered suspect, not only satisfies bibliographic criteria but far surpasses the expectations a historian might have.

The value of this information is considerable as it allows us to conclude that the contemporary scriptures used by the Christian church are virtually unchanged and undistorted from their original form. Not only is this a profound testimony to the many skeptics who are prone to assume the intentional manipulation of the scriptures for the purposes of control and power, it also affirms the resilience and incorruptibility one aught to expect of a document claiming to be the word of God.

Written by Christopher Butler

April 4, 2006 at 9:11 pm