Saturday, August 22, 2009

Scribal Errors, Christian Doctrine, and the Preservation of Scripture

Okay, I advertised it and I'm finally going to deliver. How can we have confidence that the Bible we have is the one that accurately portrays Jesus and really gives us the words he wanted us to hear? How can we defend the idea that the Bible we have today is actually authoritative and reliable, when so many intelligent people claim that its contents and the doctrines of Christianity were merely manipulated and controlled by the politics and money of a melded church and empire?
This is where the doctrine of the preservation of Scripture is important. No, I'm not talking about what you heard a Textus-Receptus worshipping, KJV-only dogmatist endorse, that time when you went to church hoping to be edified and left church really freaked out. I'm talking about the idea that a sovereign God who was willing to reveal himself through a written account of his workings would ensure that the message of that written work would be preserved well enough that readers through the ages could understand what God wanted them to know from it. As evangelicals, we approach the Bible with the assumption that God wanted to reveal himself so that we could know him, that he wanted to reveal his method of salvation so that we could be freed from sin and condemnation, reconciled with him and regenerated. And in our view of God as sovereign Lord of the universe, it seems ridiculous to think that a few scheming ecclesiastics and politicians could foil the plans of the Divine Master by editing and rewriting the Bible.
Makes perfect sense, right? Yet people inside and outside the church are being tormented with doubt as they hear the ideas in the dramatic, well-marketed presentations of Bart Ehrman, Marcus Borg and others following the prevailing winds of academic skepticism. So I propose, first of all, that we bring textual criticism out of the closet. Just explain openly and honestly that there are differences in the text and that the story of the woman caught in adultery and the longer ending of Mark probably aren't original, so that people know the church isn't trying to hide these things. It can easily shock people to hear that those two bigger, more familiar chunks of Scripture are contested. But what essential doctrines do they affect? To question the resurrection, you still have to do a lot of work to undermine the other gospel accounts. And the many other textual variants? Well, there is some interpretive significance for those texts, depending on which view of the variants you take. But do the essential doctrines of orthodoxy change based on variants? Nah. When one variant reads "Jesus Christ" and the other "Jesus," we're not dealing with earth shattering issues. Does the salutation of the letter we call Ephesians actually address the church in Ephesus, or was it a more general, circular letter with a blank in the text? Make your decision for interpretive purposes, but don't tell me that should make me stop believing that Jesus saves. With most of the variants, you just have to look at what the alternate readings are and it's plain to even the dullest knife in the drawer that they don't involve foundational issues.
So in reality, the fact that we have so many variations in copying details, yet uniformity on the texts our core doctrines are based on shows stronger reliability, not weaker. The message was transmitted by errant scribes, but the big ideas remain intact. I know that the story of the woman caught in adultery is a powerful and memorable anecdote, but let's prepare people to hear about the dubious nature of its inclusion in the text so that a skeptic's shock and awe campaign doesn't leave them confused and overwhelmed.
Now there is this pesky issue about the other gospels, the media-hyped "new" gospels that give the accounts rejected by the early church councils when they identified the canon of the New Testament. I think the simplest way to deal with these is to actually read from them. Then you run into stories about Jesus as a boy killing other kids who tattled on him or made fun of him, or the aphorism at the end of the gospel of Thomas that says a woman cannot be saved unless she becomes a man, or the account of a passerby just after the birth of Jesus stepping into the cave to verify that Mary was still virgo intacto after giving birth to the miracle child. A friend of mine read sections aloud to the teenagers at his church, and they responded by laughing at the contents of the other "gospels," not walking away from their faith because they were thrown into doubt. The historical details and time/place markers found in the canonical gospels show that they have a very different nature than the other writings.
Not only is their nature different, but the number of manuscripts and their nearness to the historical events is remarkable in comparison with other texts that are considered to be reliable. Daniel Wallace, in a really great journal article that I highly recommend (Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, March 2009, ), points out that "We have more than 1,000 times as many copies of the New Testament as we do of almost any Greco-Roman author. And the earliest of those copies comes within decades of the completion of the NT, while the average Greco-Roman author's surviving MSS do not show up for half a millenium." (p. 88) Yet how often do people question whether Livy wrote his works of history, and asking how we know it's what he meant to say, not an alteration that certain Romans produced to make their culture look better in history? It's when we're talking about divine revelation that this skepticism grows so much stronger and more caustic.
There's so much more involved with these arguments, but I'm writing a blog post, not a book. I think we ought to have thought about these issues because it seems likely that we and those we teach will encounter them in coffee-shop and over-the-fence conversations. And I guess this hunch is made more certain by the fact that it came up in one of my coffee-shop conversations today...