Posts tagged ‘Textual Criticism’

Has The Bible Been Corrupted?

Greek Bible 2This past weekend in worship and ABC, we discussed some of the biggest objections and obstacles that people present to trusting in Jesus.  One of the objections and obstacles I covered in ABC had to do with the reliability of Scripture.  Bart Ehrman, a skeptical scholar at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, explains why so many people call into question the Bible’s reliability:

Not only do we not have the originals [of the biblical manuscripts], we don’t have the first copies of the originals.  We don’t even have the copies of the copies of the originals, or the copies of the copies of the copies of the originals.  What we have are copies made later – much later.  In most instances, they are copies made centuries later.  And these copies all differ from one another, in many thousands of places…These copies differ from one another in so many places that we don’t even know how many differences there are.  Possibly it is easiest to put it in comparative terms:  there are more differences in our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament.[1]

Many people wonder if that which is recorded in the Bible is historically accurate.  Recently, popular news commentator Bill O’ Reilly called into question the historicity of the biblical stories of Adam and Eve and of Jonah, saying, “I was taught, in my Catholic school, that a lot of the stories in the Bible are allegorical.”[2]  Bart Ehrman takes it a step farther.  He not only questions if what is recorded in the Bible is historically accurate, he questions if what is recorded in the Bible was even supposed to be there at all!  He notes the many ancient copies we have of the Bible differ from each other, thereby undermining their veracity, at least in Ehrman’s eyes.  After all, if no two ancient manuscripts completely agree with each other, how can we know which manuscripts record what was actually written by Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, Peter, et al?

In their book Reinventing Jesus,[3] three biblical scholars make some helpful distinctions concerning the types of variants, or differences, that we find in ancient biblical manuscripts.  In order to understand what is truly going on with the differences we have between ancient copies of the Bible, it is worth it to review their categories.

Spelling Differences

The majority of the variants we have in the New Testament are either alternate spellings or misspellings of a given word.  For instance, the name John is in some manuscripts spelled Ioannes, while in other manuscripts, it is spelled Iaones.  One “n” or two?  It doesn’t really matter.  Regardless of how this name is spelled, we know to whom the manuscript is referring.

Differences That Do Not Affect Translation

There are some differences between ancient copies of the Bible that have no affect on how we read something in English.  For example, Greek allows for definite articles before proper names, but does not demand them.  Thus, instead of referring to “Mary,” a biblical Greek text may refer to “the Mary.”  Or, instead of referring to Jesus, a Greek text may read “the Jesus.”  Because Greek allows for but does not demand these definite articles, some ancient Greek texts contain the definite articles in front of names while others do not.  This, however, does not affect the translation or meaning of a given biblical text.  Rather, the decision to retain or forgo a definite article is merely a matter of style.

Meaningful Variants That Are Not Viable

There are some differences between ancient biblical copies that do indeed affect the meaning of a text, but one of the variant readings is simply not viable.  For instance, ancient versions of 1 Thessalonians 2:9 refer to “the gospel of God” while a late medieval manuscript of this same verse refers to “the gospel of Christ.”  Though the gospel is indeed Christ’s gospel, because only one late medieval manuscript has this reading while almost all other ancient manuscripts refer to “the gospel of God,” the reading that refers to the gospel of Christ simply isn’t viable.  Too many other texts militate against this reading.

Meaningful and Viable Variants

Finally, there are some variants between ancient biblical copies that both affect the meaning of a text and are viable.  Romans 5:1 has variants that read, “We have peace” as well as “Let us have peace.”  Scholars are split on which one is original.  But even if scholars are split on which one is original, both statements are theologically correct.  After all, we are both promised peace through Christ and commanded to be people of peace by Christ.

It is important to note that the variants which are both meaningful and viable make up only about one percent of all textual variants.  Moreover, even with the many, but small, differences in our many ancient biblical manuscripts, not one of these differences – even the meaningful and viable ones – compromises a biblical doctrine.  Throughout all of these manuscripts, doctrines like the Trinity, the divinity of Christ, and salvation by grace through faith are taught.  Indeed, Ehrman is finally forced to admit that the vast majority of variants in ancient biblical manuscripts are insignificant when he writes,  “Most of these differences are completely immaterial and insignificant.”[4]

So what does all this mean?  It means the text of the Bible we have is the text of the Bible as it has always been.  Thanks to the faithful and diligent efforts of many scribes and scholars over many centuries, the words of the apostles and prophets have been faithfully handed down from one generation to the next.  What we read now in the Bible is what the Christian Church has always believed, taught, and confessed.  Christ has preserved His Word from corruption by His grace.  Thanks be to God!


[1] Bart Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus (New York:  Harper Collins, 2005), 10.

[2] Melissa Barnhart, “Robert Jeffress Argues With Bill O’Reilly Over If Jonah, Adam and Eve Stories Are Real,” Christian Post (3.8.13).

[3] J. Ed Komoskewski, M. James Sawyer & Daniel B. Wallace, Reinventing Jesus:  How Contemporary Skeptics Miss the Really Jesus and Mislead Popular Culture (Grand Rapids:  Kregel Publications, 2006), 53-63.

[4] Bart Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus, 10.

March 18, 2013 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

The Exodus Belongs To Jesus

“The Israelites Leaving Egypt” by David Roberts (1830)

One of the things for which I am deeply grateful is the hard work of New Testament textual scholars who search out and study ancient copies of biblical manuscripts, comparing and contrasting their little differences, in order to try to discern what the oldest, best, and, hopefully, original reading of a biblical text may have been.  The standard for wading through the myriad of texts out there for pastors and scholars alike is the Nestle-Aland Novum Testamentum Graece.  Your English Bible, if it is of recent translation, is more than likely based on this Greek text.

When I was in seminary, Nestle-Aland’s Greek New Testament was on its twenty-seventh edition.  Recently, the twenty-eighth addition hit the presses.  And though there are many notable changes and improvements, one change rises above the rest.  It is in Jude 5.  The NIV translates the verse this way:  “I want to remind you that the Lord delivered His people out of Egypt, but later destroyed those who did not believe.”  Here, Jude hearkens back to God’s rescue of His people out of Egypt as well as their unfortunate subsequent destruction because of their rebellion.  He references the exodus to warn his readers against those “who change the grace of our God into a license for immorality and deny Jesus Christ our only Sovereign and Lord” (Jude 4).

Interestingly, there has been a fair amount of dispute over the text of Jude 5.  The NIV translates it according to the preferred reading of Nestle-Aland’s twenty-seventh edition.  But the twenty-eighth edition makes an important change:  “I want to remind you that Jesus delivered His people out of Egypt.”  Rather than having “the Lord,” a title for God generically, deliver His people out of Egypt as the NIV translates it, the twenty-eighth edition of Nestle-Aland says this verse should read that it was Jesus specifically who led the people out of Egypt.  Bruce Metzger, a world renowned textual scholar, notes that “critical principles seem to require the adoption of ‘Jesus,’ which admittedly is the best attested reading among Greek and versional witnesses.”[1]

The change from “the Lord” to “Jesus” is of inestimable significance, for it gives us an important window into the way first century Christians understood God’s work in Christ.  Christ was no one new when He was born in Bethlehem; rather, He was older than creation itself.  Indeed, He was active in creation itself (cf. John 1:1-3).  And He has been active throughout the course of redemptive history, long before His incarnation.

Thus, wherever there is rescue, wherever there is salvation, wherever there is freedom, wherever there is hope – be that in the Old Testament or in the New Testament – there is Christ.  Christ is present and active throughout all of Scripture.  Christ led the charge out of slavery in Egypt for the Israelites and He leads the charge out of slavery in sin for us.  Jude 5 says so.


[1] Bruce Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the New Testament, 3rd ed. (New York:  United Bible Societies, 1971), 726.

November 26, 2012 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

“For Thine Is the Kingdom and the Power and the Glory” – Where Did That Come From?

“Sermon on the Mount” by Carl Heinrich Bloch

This past weekend in worship, we studied the most famous prayer of all time:  the Lord’s Prayer.  Jesus offers this model prayer as part of His Sermon on the Mount:

This, then, is how you should pray: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be Your name, Your kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us today our daily bread. Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.  And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.” (Matthew 6:9-13)

Whenever I teach on the Lord’s Prayer, someone inevitably notices that, in Matthew’s account, the doxology often included in traditional versions of this prayer – “For Thine is the kingdom and the power and glory, forever and ever.  Amen” – is missing.  Where did it go?

Interestingly, the old King James Version includes the doxology because the Greek manuscripts from which the translators of that day were working incoporated it.  As biblical textual criticism has advanced over the past four hundred years, however, we have learned that the doxology is absent from the most ancient and significant manuscripts of the Bible, including Sinaiticus and Vaticanus, both from the fourth century, and is also omitted in early patristic commentaries on the Lord’s Prayer including those of Tertullian, Origen, and Cyprian.[1]  Thus, these words are not included in more modern translations with the understanding that they were probably not a part of the original biblical text.

It is important to understand that the exclusion of the doxology as part of the biblical text does not mean that it is errant or inappropriate to the prayer.  Quite the contrary.  It reflects the spirit of 1 Chronicles 29:11: “Yours, O Lord, is the greatness and the power and the glory and the majesty and the splendor, for everything in heaven and earth is Yours.”  Moreover, the doxology has been included as a liturgical strophe from the earliest days of the Christian Church.  The Didache, a manual of church practice from the turn of the second century, includes a truncated version of the doxology: “For Yours is the power and the glory for ever.”  The Didache goes on to encourage the faithful to pray the Lord’s Prayer three times a day.[2]  Christians, then, were speaking these words from the earliest days of the church…a lot!

More than likely, this doxology began as a response of the people, gathered for worship, to the words of the Lord in this prayer.  It is much like, at the end of a Scripture lesson in worship today, the reader will sometimes conclude, “This is the Word of the Lord” and the people will sometimes respond, “Thanks be to God.”  The doxology, then, was a way for those assembled to praise God for the prayer His Son had given them.  With time, however, the liturgical function of this doxology was forgotten and people began to assume that the words were part of the prayer itself.

We, along with many others, continue to pray these words because, finally, they are a statement of faith in the heavenly Father to whom we are praying.  We believe that the reason He can bring His kingdom to pass, give us our daily bread, forgive our trespasses, and deliver us from the evil one is because the Kingdom, power, and glory are at His disposal to do with as He wishes.  And His wish, as we delightedly learn from the Lord’s Prayer, is to bless and save us.  And so, we continue to praise God with this doxology and pray as Christ has taught us.


[1] See Bruce Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (London:  United Bible Societies, 1971), 16-17.

[2] Didache, Chapter 8, “Concerning Fasting and Prayer.”

August 6, 2012 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Weekend Extra – The End?

Mark’s account of Jesus’ resurrection is my favorite of all the Gospel accounts.  I know that John’s account holds a special place in the hearts of many, perhaps because, at least in the many Easter services I’ve attended, it always seems to be the appointed Gospel lesson for the day.  And no doubt the picture it paints of Peter running to the tomb and finding it empty and his companion John seeing and believing is gripping and exciting, but nevertheless, Mark’s account holds a special place in my heart, mainly because of how it ends:  “Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.  The End” (Mark 16:8).

Well, “The End” is not actually in the Greek text, and that’s part of the problem.  Because with an ending like this, many in the early church thought, “Surely there must be a better, more appropriate ending than three women, scared out of their wits, fleeing from an empty tomb where they have just encountered a young man dressed in white!”  And so, in most Bibles, there is Mark 16:9-20, appropriately culminating with Jesus’ great commission in verse 16, His ascension into heaven in verse 19, and then a strange line about snake handling in between these verses.  But don’t worry, that verse about snake handling probably wasn’t in the original, divinely inspired text.  Whew!  Am I a glad about that one!

If you’ll notice, after verse 8 in most Bibles, you’ll find a notation:  “The earliest manuscripts and some other ancient witnesses do not have Mark 16:9–20.”  In other words, even though Mark’s gospel wraps up nicely with Jesus’ great commission and ascension in verses 16 and 19 respectively, the earliest manuscripts of Mark end with wary women.  This leads textual critical scholar Bruce Metzger to comment on verses 9-20, “The section was added by someone who knew a form of Mark that ended abruptly with verse 8 and who wished to supply a more appropriate conclusion” (Bruce Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, 105).  It is important to note that Metzger also explains that verses 9-20 have a long storied history in the Church, first being attested to by Irenaeus and Tatian’s Diatessaron in the second century.  Thus, though these verses were probably not written by the Evangelist himself, they did not come long after him.

But even with all this in mind, I kind of like that we seem to have nothing more of Mark’s Gospel after verse 8.  After all, if I found a missing body and a supernatural looking guy in white hanging out in Jesus’ tomb, I think I’d be scared too!  And yet, we all know that the women shouldn’t have been scared.  After all, Jesus had foretold His death and resurrection time and time again (cf. Mark 8:31, 10:33-34).  The women should have known better.

But then again, so should we.  For we, like the women, have the promise – and the fulfillment – of a risen Savior!  We, like the women, can say with the young man in the tomb, “Christ is risen!”  And just as the young man told the women that Jesus was going ahead of them into Galilee where they would see Him (Mark 16:7), Jesus tells us that He goes ahead of us as our Good Shepherd, leading us through this life, and even into the next (cf. John 10:4).  So why in the world do we worry?  Why in the world do we fret?  For what reason in the world do we have to be afraid?

Perhaps we are more like the women than we care to admit.  For we have the same message as the women:  “Christ is risen!”  But we also have the same response:  We are trembling, bewildered, and afraid.

But we don’t have to be.  For Jesus, as our Good Shepherd, invites us, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32).  Fear may mark the end of Mark’s Gospel, but it does not have to mark the end of our lives.   For Jesus’ gospel in and through our lives is still being written.

So, of what are you afraid?  Your finances?  Your future?  A person?  Perhaps even your eternity?  Remember that the message of Easter is not only, “Christ is risen,” but also, “Do not be alarmed” (Mark 16:6).  For we serve and follow a living Lord who can take care of and take away our fears.  I hope you’ll let Him.  Because although verse 8 may be a good place for a Gospel to end, it’s never a good place for a life to end.

Want to learn more on this passage? Go to
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April 25, 2011 at 5:15 am Leave a comment


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