How Textual Criticism Made Me Love the Bible Even More

This is the sixth and final article in a series of posts on Textual Criticism of the New Testament and the Church that ran through 2016 and into 2017. Part 5 can be found HERE.

If you have made it this far in my series on Textual Criticism, thank you and well done. I know this is a difficult subject for many, and for many more it is an uncomfortable subject. Questions about how we got the Bible and discussions about why the ancient manuscripts of the New Testament don’t all look exactly alike bother many Christians and raise even more questions about the truthfulness and integrity of God’s Word. I have tried to demonstrate that Textual Criticism should do just the opposite. Textual Criticism should give the Church confidence! That’s the impact it had on me. As you think through this idea, don’t forget some of the conclusions that we have reached thus far.

+ We cannot bury our heads in the sand and not engage with the Bible that God actually gave us. Questions about the Bible are, after all, some of the most important questions any believer can ask. It is our job as Christian leaders—teachers, pastors, small group leaders, disciplers—to answer their questions about God’s Word, including questions about how God gave us his Word down through the ages, intelligently and faithfully.

+ We have manuscripts of the New Testament from all across the history of the transmission of the text. Those manuscripts are remarkably similar to one another considering they were copied by hand for 1,500 years. And though scribes do sometimes make errors, most of those amount to nothing more than variations in spelling and are pretty easy to spot. No variant readings change anything about the person of Christ, the gospel, or Christian doctrine.

+ Our modern Bibles were put together with access to all of the manuscripts from across all of the centuries, and that’s how we know that the text of the New Testament has been brought down to us with a tremendous degree of accuracy.

+ All the best evidence indicates that the New Testament was never intentionally altered to say something that it did not originally say. The gospel, the teaching about Jesus, and the message of the New Testament are amazingly consistent across the manuscript history of the New Testament, across the books of the New Testament, and throughout all the English translations.

Given all that—I know this may come as a shock to many—it is fair for me to say that my years of study in Textual Criticism have actually made me love the Bible all the more, not doubt it. Sure, I’ve wrestled with difficult questions along the way, as all Christians do, but if anything, my belief in the Scriptures and faith in Jesus are stronger for the study and the struggle. To close this series, let me leave you with three observations from my own experience with history, manuscripts, and textual variation to encourage you.

(1) Textual Criticism put all my fears of a “conspiracy” to rest.

We covered a good bit of this in Part 3 of this series (“The Question of the Corruption of the New Testament”) but this impacted me so greatly as a young Christian, it bears repeating. As a new Christian in college, all of the critics of Christianity I heard gave me a steady dose of conspiracy theories: “the text of the Bible had been edited by the elites to solidify their political and economic power,” “the Bible was made up out of whole cloth to control people,” and so on. But as I began to study Textual Criticism, I quickly learned just how silly the conspiracy theories are. Texts that are “made up out of whole cloth” don’t look like the New Testament. The “messy” nature of having more than 6,000 manuscripts from all different times and all around the world, is exactly what you would expect to have if the original followers of Jesus wrote down what He said and did, and then lay missionaries copied those writings by hand and took them all over the world. There is no direct corruption, no solidification of power, nothing made up. What we see when we look carefully is the organic transmission of an ancient text by faithful people who believed it was true.

(2) Textual Criticism forced me know the Bible really well.

The ultimate goal of Textual Criticism is to try to determine what the author originally wrote when two or more manuscripts of the New Testament disagree. To engage in that pursuit required me to do two things. First, it required me to learn the Greek language, the language in which God’s inspired text is written. To be able to read the Bible in the language in which God gave it to us has dramatically increased my knowledge of His Word. Second, it required me to read the Bible very closely. Very often text-critical decisions are made based on internal evidence. Sometimes, textual critics must try to determine which reading sounds the most like the phrase John would write. This means reading John so carefully that they begin to notice how John uses articles and prepositions, which vocabulary words he prefers, and how John constructs his sentences. Had I not begun to pursue Textual Criticism as a discipline, I would likely have never read God’s Word that closely and with such an eye for the very words that God gave us.

 (3) Textual Criticism reminded me that all scholarship should point toward God’s mission.

One of the first things you will learn if you take a class in Textual Criticism is that the first few centuries of the transmission of the New Testament is where so much of the variation enters the textual tradition. Philip Comfort in his excellent book Encountering the Manuscripts says very candidly, “. . . scholars . . . have also characterized the transmission of the text in the early period as being ‘uncontrolled,’ ‘wild,’ and ‘unstable.’” That is a bit of an overstatement, as many textual critics will point out, but Comfort is careful to explain that the precision in copying in those first few hundred years, while actually quite good, is nothing like the rigidity with which the texts were copied into the later Byzantine period. Do you know why that is? It is because those earliest manuscripts weren’t copied by professional scribes living in monasteries as we often imagine. They were copied by lay missionaries as God’s Church began to take the good news about Jesus around the world. The earliest translations of the New Testament come about in this period as well, and they are equally criticized by modern scholars as “wild” and “uncontrolled.” That’s because these early versions weren’t made by professional translators. They were made by relatively ordinary people who wanted to have a copy of Matthew for their community, a community that didn’t speak Greek anymore. The Bible is about the mission of God. The Bible, when rightly read produces the mission of God in the Church, and the transmission of the text of the New Testament was driven by the mission of God in the world.

It is my prayer for myself and for all of my colleagues and students that all our academic pursuits might serve the Great Commission as faithfully as those first generations of believers did. We are truly blessed by God to have Greek New Testaments, Christian universities, Bible software, Greek and Textual Criticism professors, and the Internet. Those Christians would have loved to have had what we have, but they didn’t and they were still quite faithful to the mission of Christ. May our luxuries not make us complacent, but drive us to ever greater heights of faithfulness by God’s grace.

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