July 23, 2005

On the Defense of Scripture

Question:
I find it hard to place my absolute trust in the bible because I thought it was highly edited 100+ yrs after Christ and translated too and that there were meetings of the Roman Catholic Church where they purposely omitted certain sections and things. Also, what about those hidden gospels that were found? Like the gospel of Thomas? Now maybe to a Christian insider all these things have obvious explanations, but you must understand to the outside observer like me, its all information, who should I choose to believe?

Answer:
I can't blame you for having some confusion here; there are so many books, TV specials, and liberal professors who have worked very hard to undermine confidence in the Bible. In fact, I'm going to predict by the content of your question that you have read the Da Vinci Code. But in spite of what Dan Brown and his fans may believe, his depiction of history is not even respectable by (even rabidly) non-Christian scholarly standards there is such a thing as "good" and "fair" critical analysis, but that isn't it.

The problem that critics of the Bible have is that they do not have much to go on. It's not like they've found old copies of the four gospels that are radically different from what we have today. There are no old manuscripts in our possession that say things like, "Jesus showed compassion to the leper" rather than, "Jesus healed the leper" or, "I show you one way to the Father" rather than, "no one comes to the Father except through Me." And there are no "other gospel" manuscripts found that have been demonstrated to be from the first century or to be copies of something that existed at that time. Claims that the Bible has been tampered with are without empirical backing; they are simply assumptions based on "conspiracy theory" type thinking. The way it works is this: it is first assumed that the stories of Jesus couldn't possibly be true because of all the miracle talk, then an attempt is made to weave a tale as to how such miracles could have gotten in the text. And if any fairly old books, like the Gospel of Thomas, are found that have a less orthodox portrait of Jesus, then these are assumed to be earlier works. The fact that there is no time-tested and consistent story from the critics regarding what "really happened" in that first century (their story changes about every 25 years) is testimony that they are simply grappling with theory and not hard data.

There was a time in the past when critical scholars suspected that the New Testament (N.T.) documents were largely authored in the second or third century, but today most admit that they originate in the first century. I've even recently heard John Dominic Crossan (of the Jesus Seminar {a group of radically liberal "scholars"}) admit on TV that the gospels were written within decades after Jesus' death! And there is even less debate over the letters of Paul, most of which are taken to be from his own hand and are the earliest writings of all. This is a real problem, because Paul's writings contain the clearest of all presentations of classical Christian theology (the book of Romans is a theological masterpiece), which were not supposed to have "developed" until decades later. This is why modern critical scholarship is trying to find a way to drive a wedge between Paul and the other Apostles his testimony is just too...Christian like.

Some of the reasons why scholars have been forced to admit that the N.T. materials are first century works are the following:

1) Manuscript evidence. There is, by far, better and older manuscript support for the N.T. than for any other work of antiquity. If we considered other secular writers of the same era (e.g., Josephus, Pliny, Tacitus, Plutarch) we would discover that the most ancient copies of their writings that we possess are from more than 800 years after they were authored. In contrast, if we looked at something like the Gospel of John, we would discover that we have fragments of it from within 30 years after it was authored (presumably the late first century). And the Gospel of John is considered to be the last N.T. document written, so this dates the other writings even earlier! It is said that we have around 5000 ancient copies of the N.T. from around the Mediterranean in its source language Greek (that is to say, not translations but direct copies). Most of these documents vary only in syntax or due to common copyist errors.

2) Early Church Fathers. Besides the biblical documents, we also have the writings of the early leaders of the church from all corners of the Roman Empire. It has been observed that if one took all the biblical quotes in these documents, one could reconstruct most of the verses of the NT. And their quotes compare well against the N.T. documents themselves.

3) Accuracy of the documents. There are stories of critical scholars who set out to prove the falsity of the N.T. documents, and eventually became believers themselves, by comparing them against the archaeology, cultural history, and literary styles of the first century era. It was thought that surely, if they were written in a later era, there would be technical slip-ups. Even those things that seemed to have been discrepancies have one-by-one, over time, come to be conceded as accurate. Wherever scripture can be tested, it usually comes out the victor. There are very few open issues remaining to be settled at this time.

4) Extra-biblical references. The Bible and the Christian community are not the only sources of information about the early church. Over time other Jewish, Roman, and Greek manuscript finds have been uncovered to support many points of data contained in the scriptures. For example: that Jesus existed, that He was tried and executed, that His followers continued after Him and claimed He was deity and resurrected, that they were dying for their beliefs, that Jesus' brother was the head of the Jerusalem church and was also executed, etc.

This deals (well enough for now) with the issue of those books we know as our New Testament, but what about those "other gospels," like Thomas, that were "left out" of the canon by the church? First of all, the idea that there was a council of the church that sat down with some 80 available gospels (as Dan Brown claims in his Da Vinci Code) and arbitrarily voted on which ones to include is a fiction. The closest thing to this are the various regional councils most notably the Council of Carthage (397) that simply "recognized" the commonly accepted list of books that had already been identified. The way that the "inspired" books came to be acknowledged was by perfectly reasonable and natural criteria, by which the other gospels that some people would like to squeeze in there (primarily Gnostic texts) fail to measure up. Here are some of the primary factors involved:

1) The book had to be a product of the first century church, and from those who were authoritative eyewitnesses to the action. If a book was from the hand of an Apostle, it was an automatic candidate. If it was from a sidekick of an Apostle (like Luke or Mark), or from those of the inner circle (like Jude or James), then it was a solid candidate as well. This is why the Gnostic books were so often written under the names of Apostles: to attempt to foster a sense of credibility.

2) The pedigree of the book had to be good. That is, there had to be high confidence that the book was actually from the time and author that it was claimed to be. We have various writings of the Church Fathers as a window into this dialog if we care to review their defenses. The backers of the Gnostic books failed to demonstrate a lineage back to the Apostles. And these books cannot be shown to be authored any earlier than the second or third century. Mention of such books in the writings of the Church Fathers (mostly critiques) does not even begin until later in church history. However, we do see some discussion about a few more reasonable candidates.

3) There were certain books that no one called into question, like the four Gospels, Acts, and most of the Pauline letters. Of those that were the subject of some debate, one standard of measure was that these should be consistent in theological content and quality with those having been already accepted. In comparison to the harmony of the four universally recognized gospels (which even the Gnostics didn't challenge) the others often sound like a tone-deaf choirboy. Here's one example from the Gospel of Thomas:

"Simon Peter said to them: Let Mary go forth from among us, for women are not worthy of the life. Jesus said: Behold, I shall lead her, that I may make her male, in order that she also may become a living spirit like you males. For every woman who makes herself male shall enter into the kingdom of heaven."

4) Another more subjective criteria would be what I might call the staying power of the book. An inspired book would be expected to have a certain popular following among the clergy and be profitable in the lives of believers and the history of the church. Perhaps I could use the analogy of pop music, in that decades later it is only the best-in-class that tends to get playtime on the oldies stations. The Gnostic texts were not so much pushed and stamped out of existence as they were neglected and abandon. The wheat survived over the chaff. And when the Roman persecutors came a-knockin' in search of contraband Christian materials, the priests and bishops were less than grieved to hand over certain texts as decoys.

For more information on Gnosticism, you can see my related post here: Regarding Gnosticism

Long before those councils that formally recognized the canon listings we find writings of the Church Fathers that include each of their A-lists as well as their habit of quoting only certain books as authoritative. And the selections of these writers line up very well with the modern Bible. In addition, I would point out the Muratorian Canon from the second century, which is an official catalog of accepted texts along with their historical setting. It was probably compiled to counter a fellow named Marcion, who was making an effort to discard and edit books that didn't fit into his theology (he didn't like the O.T. and any N.T. books that made positive reference to it). In fact, as it turns out, almost all the "disputed" books were ones that eventually DID make it in to the canon; the church eventually did more including rather than the often imagined excluding. The few that were seriously debated, yet not chosen for inclusion (like the epistle of Barnabas and the Shepherd of Hermas), are available to review today, and it's fairly plain to any who read them why they were bypassed (not that they contain contradictory theology, but simply don't fit well within the 4 criteria I mention above). Of Thomas and the other "hidden gospels" never even considered.

Let me end this point with a lengthy quote from the church historian Eusebius who wrote in his Ecclesiastical History (325 AD) the following assessment. I include it because it is an early writing from a highly respected source that well summarizes much of what I have been saying here (not that it is the only or earliest such text).
First then must be put the holy quaternion of the Gospels [Matthew, Mark, Luke, John]; following them the Acts of the Apostles. After this must be reckoned the epistles of Paul; next in order the first former epistle of John, and likewise the epistle of Peter, must be maintained. After them is to be placed, if it really seem proper, the Apocalypse of John, concerning which we shall give the different opinions at the proper time. These then belong among the accepted writings. Among the disputed writings, which are nevertheless recognized by many, are extant the so-called epistle of James and that of Jude, also the second epistle of Peter, and those that are called the second and third of John ... Among the rejected writings must be reckoned the Acts of Paul, and the so-called Shepherd, and the Apocalypse of Peter, and in addition to these the extant epistle of Barnabas, and the so-called Teachings of the Apostles; and besides, as I said, the Apocalypse of John, if it seem proper, which some, as I said, reject, but which others class with the accepted books. And among these some have placed also the Gospel according to the Hebrews ... all these may be reckoned among the disputed books. But we have nevertheless felt compelled to give a catalogue of these also, distinguishing those works which according to ecclesiastical tradition are true and genuine and commonly accepted, from those others which, although not canonical but disputed, are yet at the same time known to most ecclesiastical writers we have felt compelled to give this catalogue in order that we might be able to know both these works and those that are cited by the heretics under the name of the apostles, including, for instance, such books as the Gospels of Peter, of Thomas, of Matthias, or of any others besides them, and the Acts of Andrew and John and the other apostles, which no one belonging to the succession of ecclesiastical writers has deemed worthy of mention in his writings. And further, the character of the style is at variance with apostolic usage, and both the thoughts and the purpose of the things that are related in them are so completely out of accord with true orthodoxy that they clearly show themselves to be the fictions of heretics.
So far I've dealt with the origin of the text, the reliability of its transmission, and the selection of the canon, but what about our modern translations? Did the contents of the original writings get accidentally or intentionally corrupted during "all those translations and retranslations?"

First, remember that I mentioned that we have numerous very old texts in their original language. This means that if anyone happens to know the Greek language of the time (or Hebrew, in the case of the O.T.), then they do not even need to concern themselves with the various translations. The skeptical Greek scholar may compare these source materials against your average Bible translation for himself to see how faithful the translators have been. The translation issue is not one of the objections raised by informed critics; they are more concerned with the integrity of the early source language materials. There may have been times and places where translations were problematic, as in Martin Luther's case where the only available text for his German translation was the Latin Vulgate, but modern translators have a wealth of source language materials from which to work. And most modern translations DO begin with such materials; they are not simply translating translations of translations.

Our present translations are better than at any time in the past. Some target a style that is more technically accurate (like the NASB) and some attempt to be more readable and conversational (like the NIV), but harmony of meaning is rarely compromised in any (the "paraphrase" translations being the farthest from the mark). The bottom line is, there is good reason to be confident that what we read today in our modern Bibles accurately mirrors what the authors actually wrote. Of course, one can always argue that these authors were liars or mythmakers, but then some answer must be given as to why they would be inclined to invent a fiction that gained them no material advantage (unlike Muhammad or Joseph Smith) and cost them their lives to defend.

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