Sunday, January 20, 2019
Matthew 5:17-18 “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. 18 For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished."
Introduction: Building bridges
How would you make the case for the Bible being the Word of God? Skeptics make fun of Christians for viewing their Bibles as "Divinely inspired" or "inerrant". Objections abound. Critics will note that other religions also claim their respective holy books to be "Divinely inspired" and "inerrant" (Mormonism and its "Book of Mormon" or Islam and its "Quran"). Others will point out alleged contradictions in the Bible (without often-time referencing specific examples). More serious critics will bring attention to the differences (i.e. variants) between ancient copies of the hand-written manuscripts of the Old and New Testaments. In the face of all these objections, what is a Christian to do?
In this post I want to briefly outline an argument "to" inerrancy rather than an argument "from" inerrancy. That is, this post will begin to demonstrate how Christians arrive at the conclusion that the Old and New Testament books comprise a collection of sacred, Divinely inspired books that were originally revealed as inerrant and infallible documents.
Think of the metaphor of building a bridge as we span to the idea of Biblical inerrancy. We will base this post on Jesus words from Matthew 5:17-18 and utilize four key ideas:
3. Jesus' teaching
Today's post will focus on the first of these ideas.
The words we find in the Old and New Testament books are preserved in all our copies and translations.
Whenever we discuss the history of the Biblical text, we need to first establish whether or not we have the original wording of the documents comprising our Bibles. The discipline of textual criticism aims to study every known copy and ancient translation of the Old and New Testament manuscripts to recover the original wording of those documents.
The impressive case of preservation in the Old Testament text
The Old Testament was originally revealed in Hebrew, with several chapters in Daniel and scattered words or phrases elsewhere composed in Aramaic (totaling 2% of the Hebrew Bible). In all of the Old Testament's original 22 documents (the Hebrew Bible had 22 documents, with the same contents comprising the 39 books in our English Bibles, with some of the books sub-divided into different volumes, such as 1 & 2 Kings, thus accounting for the differences). We find 419,687 words per the commonly available critical edition of the Hebrew Bible - Biblia Hebraica Stuttgarnsia (BHS). When I say the phrase "critical edition", I mean those editions which present a representative text as found in all the available ancient manuscripts, with listings of the differences or variations within those copies. The history of the Old Testament text includes roughly 3,000 copies or manuscripts of the Old Testament from the Middle ages. With the discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls in 1947, scholars established the extraordinary preservation of the Old testament's wording to an average of over 95% to the Medieval Hebrew Manuscripts, even though both sets of copies are 1,000 years separated from one another. Whenever we consider the ancient translations of the Old Testament (such as the Greek Septuagint, Aramaic Targums), the text of the Old Testament evidences an incredible array of witnesses (see the picture below of the 11th century Leningrad Codex).
Other sources by which scholars assess the Old Testament text include studies in pottery, inscriptions and archaeological excavations of other cultures having contact with the ancient Jewish people.
The meticulous copying of the Hebrew text and the study of all the ancient sources reveal over 95% certainty of the wording in known manuscripts as being what would had been in the original manuscripts or autographs. Such fidelity between the copies and translations is unprecedented in the ancient world. Textual criticism of other religious texts (such as the Hindu Upanishads or Quran) yield a 90% certainty, with far less manuscript evidence with which to compare. So why does what we've considered thus far matter to you? Quite simply, the Old Testament text, in terms of its wording, is with us, with no major doctrine or teaching lost.
The even more impressive state of preservation of the New Testament text
In as much as the Old Testament's text's preservation is impressive, the New Testament's textual situation is even more extraordinary. The 27 New Testament books that comprise our New Testaments contain a total of 138,162 words per the standard critical edition of the Nestle-Aland 28th edition Greek New Testament. We have over 15,000 ancient manuscripts of various translations (such as Latin, Coptic, Syriac) and 5,800 Greek manuscripts spanning from within 50 years of the original manuscripts to the 16th century (see, for instance, the picture below of the 5th century Codex Siniaticus).
The level of certainty we have about the original wording of the New Testament is 99.9%, meaning, that for every thousand words, there might be one word with which scholars quibble about the original wording. Even still, not a single one of these differences or variants calls into question a major doctrine of the Christian faith. As theologian Wayne Grudem notes in his Systematic Theology:1
"For most practical purposes, then, the current published scholarly texts of the Hebrew Old Testament and Greek New Testament are the same as the original manuscripts. Thus, when we say that the original manuscripts were inerrant, we are also implying that over 99 percent of the words in our present manuscripts are also inerrant, for they are exact copies of the originals. Furthermore, we know where the uncertain readings are (for where there are no textual variants we have no reason to expect faulty copying of the original). Thus, our present manuscripts are for most purposes the same as the original manuscripts, and the doctrine of inerrancy therefore directly concerns our present manuscripts as well."
As Jesus notes in Matthew 5:18 "For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished."
Preservation is that first anchoring point in bridging our argument "to" inerrancy. By establishing that we have the actual words that left the pens of the prophets and apostles, we can look ahead to the remaining key ideas: reliability of the text, Jesus' teaching and inerrancy itself.
Conclusion for today
In arguing "to" inerrancy, we begin by noting that the Old and New Testament books enjoy a remarkable preservation of their wording. No other ancient literature, religious or otherwise, enjoys the continuity we find between the original source and existing copies and translations. Whenever talking to skeptics, we begin with modest claim of preservation. Since we can establish the wording of the Biblical text, what follows next is to establish whether or not the text is reliable. In the next post, we will explore the reliability of the New Testament text (we could also remark about the reliability of the Old Testament, however, we are aiming for brevity in these posts, since we're introducing the subject of "arguing to inerrancy").
1. Wayne Grudem. Systematic Theology. Zondervan. 1994. ppgs 72-73. Readers can consult a free electronic download of Grudem's work here: file:///C:/Users/mahlo/Downloads/systematictheology-waynegrudem-091005230347-phpapp02.pdf