Can the Bible be Trusted?

The short answer is ‘yes’; the longer answer is ‘yes,…sort of; it depends on what you want to trsut.’  Coy Roper recently published an article explaining why the Bible should be trusted (and why some people need to be careful about how we criticize the Bible and Biblical scholarship).  In his article, he lists reasons why the Bible is textually sound (that is, in a textual critical manner, the texts resemble the originals).  I have listed his points and would like to respond to some of them.  He gets a lot right, but some of his points are a little dubious (if not downright apologetic).

1. None of the original manuscripts of most ancient books — for example, the works of Plato and Aristotle — exist.

Yes, this is true and in fact the copies we have of the NT manuscripts are much older and more closely paired to what the originals might have said (since they are not that far removed from them).  However, while this example suffices, we must remember that people don’t base their religious life on Plato while assuming the Republic was inspired by God.  When it comes to the Bible, however, many do and there are implications to these sorts of beliefs.

2. The original text of biblical books is determined by comparing ancient manuscripts and versions. Biblical scholars with all kinds of personal beliefs spend their lifetime trying to make sure that those who read the Bible can be reasonably certain that what they are reading is what was originally written.

That’s not entirely true.  “Reasonably certain” is a bit of a stretch; Comfortable, perhaps, but anything resembling a certainty is difficult.  Even with nonBiblical textual criticism, I don’t think anyone is reasonably certain.  There is much room for uncertainty, as textual critics will tell you.  (Just read anything by Bart Ehrman and the late Bruce Metzger)  We have strong evidence that textual corruptions, additions, and omissions not only happened in antiquity on purpose (allegedly, i.e. Eusebius’ woes about the alterations made to the texts by heretics) but also accidentally (we have evidence, especially from the Codex Sinaiticus–our earliest “complete” codex–where sections have been inserted or another scribe has offered notes in margins or corrections to texts made from the original scribes to those dating to the twelfth century in just one collection) where at times a scribe will copy things twice due to a phenomenon known as parablepsis.  Or in the instance where a scribal note ends up being included in the bulk of the text by a scribe who thinks it was an accidental omission by the previous scribe.

Scholars have the added advantage of checking multiple texts to produce a large amount of probability for a rendering of a text whereas scribes copied from one (and probably that was the only copy they had available to them).  If that copy had mistakes, those mistakes were copied as well (unless, that is, a scribe decided he didn’t like something, and he might make an adjustment at that point or leave a specific note in the margins).  This textual ‘trail’ is easy to express:

    [ARCHETYPE]
         |
    -----------
    |         |
   [X]       [Y]
    |         |
  -----       |
  |   |       |
  C   E       B
  |
 [Z]
  |
-----
|   |
K   M

(via)

As one can see from the graph above, we in fact have multiple texts from different sources and they are not all the same.  Textual critics need to determine which they feel best represent certain manuscript families and place them in some sort of family tree (like above).  But that doesn’t account for what sorts of mistakes or interpolations were included in the now extant copies of the texts (that is, the texts we no longer have).  While we have the P52 fragment, the earliest NT manuscript fragment available to us, it is dated late (if we’re to assume Christianity originated in the early-mid first century CE) and there is a great amount of distance between the time John might have been written and the time from when this fragment originates (25-50 years at the latest and depending on how you date Gos. John).  So there is definitely a lot of uncertainty.  So I am not sure why Roper wants to present this so authoritatively when there is still a great deal of problematic questions attached to recension.

3. There is more evidence for the original text of the Bible books than there is for any other ancient book. For the New Testament, there are thousands of manuscripts in Greek, some dating back to the second century.

This is a bit of a stretch as well since the majority of manuscripts we have (upwards towards 95% actually) date to after the 9th century CE.  Only a handful (a score maybe) date to before the fourth century and only two codices (incomplete) exist which date to the period following the Council of Nicaea (both are probably the result of funds from the empire after Constantine dedicated resources to the reproductive and distribution of an official and unified Bible).  A good portion of our source material, also, stems from late church fathers who wrote treatises on the texts they had which also show that some had access to different copies from what we have as well (see graph below).

NTDistributionv1

But this is all a bit of a false premise anyway, since every text has an original.  Whether or not they are available, whether they match the copies, is a completely different point all together.  So just saying ‘there is more evidence for the original text’ of certain books versus others is a complete non sequitur as well as being invalid logically, since every text, copy or not, is equally evident of an original (if there were not original, the text wouldn’t exist, copy or not).

4. The conclusion scholars have reached after considering the evidence is that those who copied the Bible books worked carefully to pass on accurate copies of the writings they regarded as inspired.

That’s both true and false.  It is true that the scribes of late antiquity and the middle ages who penned the manuscripts that we have tended to work carefully, but they made mistakes.  A great deal of mistakes.  It is only by having the thousands of manuscripts we have that scholars can piece it together to reflect some semblance of ‘organized’.  It is also not true that the evidence scholars have reached is that the scribes felt the text had been divinely inspired.  This is a bit anachronistic.  We do have evidence of interpolations and of scribal mistakes and corrections by later scribes which didn’t fit earlier scribal corrections.  So at what point did the scribes feel the text was divinely inspired?  While they were scribbling in notes in the margins about how the earlier scribe messed up the exegsis?  It’s more complicated a matter than that.

Very few significant differences have been found in the comparison of thousands of Greek manuscripts. Textual critics agree that the modern Bible reader can be confident that what he is reading is essentially what was originally written.

That’s an overstatement of the evidence and simply false.  The differences between manuscripts can be something as simple as a few miss-copied sentences or whole sections which are completely missing or added which don’t exist in others.  And we don’t have the originals, so while we can make some very sound guesses about most of what is being selected, we just cannot be as certain as Roper makes it seem.  Scholars use the text under the assumption (some of it justified, some of it isn’t) that what they are citing is essentially the best guess but to suggest that what someone is reading is “what was originally written” is a fiction that is best left to books written by Christian apologists and not scholars.

5. Some passages are disputed, but none of them by itself determines any major Bible doctrine.

That is a good point.  Whether or not the text is what was in the original should not reflect whether we can trust the “Bible” since the Bible is not one book but many, collected over a long period of time.  Some texts have a lot of copies of, and of others there isn’t much to work with at all, and what is there have is used.  Some books are more generally accepted as being closest to the originals while others scholars hope they got it right.  So really the question “Can we trust the Bible?” really doesn’t fit the criticism.  I’m not sure why Roper chose to use that question to represent John Compere’s article (here) since Compere’s article didn’t really ask that question.

6. There have been many different translations of the Bible into English, but these translations generally agree. If one doubts that fact, let him compare several reputable English translations on almost any passage of scripture.

I’m not so sure that’s true.  An analysis of the English doesn’t always prove true and some of these passages are rather important depending on how one translates them.  For example, Gal. 3.1 (see Stephen Carlson’s analysis here).

7. No translation is perfect. However, when translations disagree, there is evidence to help the sincere student discover the meaning of any passage.

That’s a bit hyperbolic, don’t you think?  What ‘evidence’?  What makes a student ‘sincere’?  Sometimes there simply is no clear answer and we are resigned to accept that.

However, I do believe Roper makes an excellent point when he writes:

Mr. Compere seems to believe that those who preserved, copied, and translated the Bible were part of a giant conspiracy to delude the public — as if there are no honest Bible scholars whose aim is simply to determine the original text of scripture and to make its meaning known in the English language. Is such a belief likely?

I see this sort of mentality in a lot of atheists and secular individuals who look at the Bible like something evil when, in truth, it’s just a collection of books from the past.  I’ve raised these issues before and tried to impress upon others the value of the Bible as a part of the past that must be preserved and studied like any other collection of texts.  But Roper loses some ground when he concludes:

Perhaps those who cast doubt on the reliability of scripture do so because they do not like some of the “inconvenient truths” that the Bible teaches.

That’s a little timid towards what skeptics really think.  I’m not sure that it has ever been about those “inconvenient truths” (like stoning disobedient children, or killing someone who works on the sabbath, or praying for she-bears to come out and maul little children to death for mocking baldness?).  It probably has more to do with apostates feeling deceived and lied to about what many have come to believe are fictions and myths.  I am not really at liberty to get into any sort of debate about that since, as far as it goes, I just don’t care what people believe about it.  I know how I feel about it and that’s all I can comment on.  And that is really how Roper should approach these subjects, since he can’t possibly know what Compere’s perspectives are until he asks him and it isn’t really fair to generalize the way he does here.

But he does, once more, hit the nail on the head here to some extent:

[O]ne has to ask: Who is really closeminded? Bible believers? Or the critics of the Bible who use the scriptures in accordance with their predetermined ideas rather than following the facts wherever they lead?

I am sure it’s a bit of both, to be honest.  Not in terms of scholars, mind you, but the average lay person–believer or not–is generally ignorant about the facts.  Why?  Because they don’t have access to them the way scholars do and frankly that is something that has to change.  In a book I am now working on, I will be dealing with these issues in detail.  Suffice it to say that we are all a little guilty of not making the facts known to more people for less money.  It’s a crutch of academia that must be removed so that we can avoid missing the facts.  But even scholars can at times be far too arrogant in their claims and premises.  Roper, above, displays such tendencies and, while he is not completely wrong, should perhaps be less authoritative about his interpretation of the data and more cautious about subjects like this.  These topics should be approached in a way where those who don’t have access to the evidence won’t be misled into thinking that every scholar, everywhere, holds to these same positions.

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10 Responses

  1. 2. Sinaiticus was in use for forever (so to speak) so it’s no wonder later scrbes corrected it as the “majority” text type changed.

    And sometimes one lucks out and gets a later manuscript copied from a far older manuscript. (miniscule 1739)

    If you want to scare people tell them most textual variants occur within a hundred years of the “original”.

    3. One should rather say we have more manuscript evidence for determining an earlier form of the NT (about 200 AD. Yes, if Revelation was written 95 AD that’s a gap.) than for any other ancient document.

    And don’t forget the Church Fathers are not in a state to be really useful for text criticism, being so massive a collection there is no critical edition of anywhere near all of them. It’s also very hard to know when a Church Father quotes or paraphrases, paraphrase being useless for textual analysis.

    4. Earlier scribes had unanimously difficult conditions to work under (environment, equipment). Later scribes had better conditions, but by then many didn’t red the language they copied, or not very well.

    Probably 400,000 variants, but only about 1% of those are really important. Yes, that’s still 4000 variants….

    “Confident” is a relative term. Usually the percentage quoted for the disputed portion of the NT is between 3 and 10 percent. Of course, if it’s the wrong three percent, that’s a problem. On the other hand, Bart Ehrman’s seeming quest for absolute certainty seems a bit unrealistic.

    5. Most of the time, an important text for doctrine with variants has a related text elsewhere that is not varianted.

    6. We haven’t addressed the Hebrew Bible, but I just this week had the experience of seeing several passages in Proverbs quoted in church where plainly multiple translations had only a rough idea at best what the language meant.

    A copy of the NET Bible can be a real eye-opener in church. And serve as a good free weight, as well.

  2. I can’t tell if you’re responding to me, Roper, or both, but either way I don’t think I disagree with anything you said. =)

  3. I’m waxing on about NT textual criticism, which I do do.

  4. The original manuscripts differed quite significantly from the versions that later became canonical. This is especially true as regards the (supposed) Pauline epistles. It is possible that more than a third of the content of the supposed Pauline corpus dates from the mid to late second century. The pastoral epistles are well-established to be late forgeries. But the situation is worse than that, as there are also extensive interpolations and redactions in each of the other Pauline epistles, except Philemon. Just to give a brief example, it is unlikely that Romans 1:2-6 and Romans 1:19-2:1,2:2b are by the same author who wrote Romans 1:7-18 or 2:2a.

    Several critical scholars have written about this, but one of the more accessible introductory articles on the topic is the 1928 article by Paul-Louis Couchoud, (only recently translated to English by Frans-Joris Fabri and Michael Conley.)

    See: http://www.radikalkritik.de/couch_engl.htm

    There are also good cases to be made that many passages in the canonical NT outside the Pauline epistles are also late redactions.
    For example, an earlier version of Matthew 28:18b-19 most probably lacked both the trinitarian formula and any reference to baptism. Instead, it would have simply read (here translated): “Then Jesus came to them and said, ‘Full authority in heaven and on earth was given to me. Therefore, journey forth and teach all nations in my name, instructing them to observe all that I’ve commanded you; and behold, I myself am with you all the days until the culmination of the age.”

    There is an abundance of passages that have been well-argued to be interpolations or redactions. The longer ending to Mark, and the story of the woman caught in adultery are merely two of the more well-known examples. Looking at the bigger picture, it becomes apparent that these are not isolated occurrences, but are rather evidence of a pervasive pattern. That so many of our extant manuscripts agree in their readings (although the differences they do have are not insignificant), is of little consequence in light of the probability that the vast majority of these manuscripts share common decent from a small number of third century Catholic manuscripts, which in turn were filled with copious theologically motivated deviations from the texts they derive from.

  5. There is only one proof God exists, so far as I know:

    Faith.

    If you don’t have it, there will always be insufficient evidence.

    If you have faith, no further evidence is necessary.

  6. I don’t think that factors into the discussion at all, Mikey…

  7. Tom, thanks for your generally even-handed analysis. I’d only add that a sincere desire to find and practice the morals of Jesus have a significant effect on one’s understanding of the biblical texts.

  8. [...] Let’s get ready with a few warm-up drills in the “general Bible” category. First up, James McGrath suggested some Online Resources for Biblical Studies, while Joel Hoffman alerted us to his latest project, a series of Exploring the Bible Videos. Meanwhile, Tom Verenna asked, “Can the Bible Be Trusted?” [...]

  9. Mike, thanks for the comment. I have no doubt that ones faith has an influence on their exegesis. The question is whether that exegesis is correct, historically vs, how correct the person believes it to be spiritually. In the world in which I research, both play a part, but one has to prevail more than the other. And by that I mean I try to determine, historically, the faithful exegesis of the authors of the books of the Bible, and I try to do that without letting any personal beliefs, opinions, or tact influence that determination. For most faithful interpreters, I’m afraid too many exegetical commentaries look more like apologetics than history.

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