From: Defending Biblical Inerrancy Return to Home
By Roland H. Worth, Jr. © 2016
Objections from the Preservation of Scripture
I. The Existence of Textual Variants
A. The numbers are large—but vastly inflated by the method used
At first glance, the 250,000-300,000 New
Testament variants resemble a
With justice we can rightly argue that the total is arbitrarily inflated by the way the “variants” are calculated. Raymond F. Surburg reminds us (4-68f) that if a given word is misspelled the identical/same way 5,000 times this does NOT count as just one variant (which is all there really is) but as 5,000! Even though there is only one real difference envolved, the appearance is of something far more vast and alarming. It takes no great amount of meditation to recognize that using this approach will rapidly result in an awesome (and misleading) total number of differences!
Furthermore, when the name of individuals is involved (which is often the case), the spelling variations are often correlated with distinct historical periods of time (cf. 4-69): In other words, specific word spellings tend to dominate in certain chronological periods. In the modern age, we can see this pattern continuing when we compare certain King James Version words with the twenty-first century variant of the same words.
Even in my own lifetime there have been clear-cut and annoying changes. Two paragraphs above I wrote “there is only one real difference envolved.” That is how I was taught to spell it only a half-century ago. Now spell check has a hissy fit but has absolutely no problem with “involved.” A number of other words fall into that category and all within one person’s lifetime.
New Testament copyists wanted to copy things right. And if the old manuscript had “misspelled” it, why not change it to the right and proper spelling? Or, rather, the one that in their era was regarded as the correct one? Weren’t they intending to preserve accuracy rather than to make any genuine change at all?
Nor have we even raised the matter of how in the same period there may be varied spellings of the identical name being equally accepted as quite valid. In our own era, think of the varying ways to spell potential names of our children. In fact, one lady facing that question, asked others to suggest which seemed better of a wide range of choices, such as these (53):
Catherine or Katherine?
Chelsea or Chelsie or Chelsey or Chelsee?
Ashlee or Ashley or Ashlie or Ashleigh? . . .
Jesse or Jessie or Jessey?
Katie or Katee or Katy? . . .
Caitlin or Katelyn or Caitlyn or Katelin?
Rylee or Rilee or Riley?
Must we assume that the ancient world was insistent on absolute
identicalness of spelling on a regional basis within any country? In other words, would not variants be
accepted as normal without anyone thinking of raising the charge of “error” or
B. The differences are rarely significant
Even when readings rise above mere spelling variants, they often still alter nothing of importance. Can even the shrewdest mind—unless he be an advocate of mystical numerological interpretation—find any difference between the readings “the Lord Jesus Christ” and “Christ Jesus the Lord”? When the conceptual content is identical the conclusions exegesis can reach will match. They don’t alter the interpretation in the least.
That example is a theoretical that doesn’t actually exist, but it serves as a useful illustration to introduce those that do: It simply sounds like the kind of error that would pop up over a long period of time. Now let’s turn to readings that exist, starting from the most blatantly irrelevant to those that deserve a little more thought.
In discussing the matter, there are three basic Greek texts to choose from:
The Textus Receptus (TR), the basis of the King James Version. A fine text for its day but with a very limited basis in number of manuscripts worked from.
The Majority Text (MT) a/k/a the Byzantine Majority Text. Working from bulk of numbers envolved, this is the text most documented the most times. (Conservatives sometimes act as if the TR and the MT are identical. They aren’t.)
The Critical Text, a modern composite of what scholars think the text originally was. It does not follow any specific manuscript or even “type” of manuscript, but attempts to deduce what has the highest probability by the criteria they themselves establish.
In what follows we will limit ourselves to Gary F. Zeolla’s Analytical-Literal Translation and how utilizing various texts would have resulted in a change in his translation. Since we have limited space, we can only provide a cross section of many items of a similar type and we will work from the gospel of Matthew in particular. (47)
We gave a hypothetical illustration of two ways of saying the exact same thing. Now let’s look at some “real life” ones from Matthew:
1:6 David the king fathered vs David fathered (CT)
8:32a the herd of the pigs (MT/TR) vs the pigs (CT)
8:32b the whole herd of the pigs vs the whole herd (CT)
11:8 “royal houses” (MT) vs “houses of the kings”
13:4 the birds came and vs having come, the birds devoured (MT/TR) devoured (CT)
15:1 scribes and Pharisees vs Pharisees and scribes (CT)
We also mentioned spelling errors, so here are some from Matthew:
1:7: Asa (MT/TR) vs Asaph (CT)
1:8 Asa (MT/TR) vs Asaph (CT)
Amon (MT/TR) vs Amos (CT)
Beelzebul (MT/CT) vs Beelzebub (TR)
Then there are cases where the change/alteration is mere grammatical and nothing more (some overlap with the first category of differences):
4:5 sets (MT/TR) vs set (CT)
4:9 says (MT/TR) vs said (CT)
Jesus (MT/TR) vs He (CT)
[In context the “He” clearly being Jesus]
And Jesus (MT/TR) vs “And He”
[In context, again the “He” clearly being Jesus]
The disciples woke (MT/TR) vs
“His disciples woke” (CT)
[Again, contextually the same group of “disciples”]
the present age (MT/TR) vs this age (CT)
[What would “the present age” be BUT “this age”?]
25:7 their lamps (MT/TR) vs. their own lamps (CT)
[What would “their lamps” be but “their OWN lamps”?]
Now that we have given a fair amount of space showing the type of examples that are so common, let us consider some that are more significant. (Not as significant as hostile critics might think but ones deserving respectful attention.)
Our source sums up our first example this way, “/ TR: in the middle of the sea – CT: a distance of many stadia from the land [a stade is about 200 yards or 185 meters]” (47). Now if they were “many stadia from the land” let us multiply 200 yards by however we define “many.” Isn’t the result “the middle of the sea,” or close enough to it to be readily used as a description?
(The reader may find quite interesting Philip W. Comfort’s New Testament Text and Translation Commentary: Commentary on the Variant Readings of the Ancient New Testament Manuscripts and How They Relate to the Major English Translations, a work that goes into detail on the evidence for varying readings throughout the New Testament. For this particular text see 48-40f.)
Zeolla deals with our second case with this summary, “/ TR: Because Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory into the ages! So be it!’ – CT: omits” (47). Philip W. Comfort surveys the evidence for the MT/TR as well as other variants that fall short of total omission. He insists that the prayer abruptly ended after the petition for deliverance from evil but his contention is hardly enhanced by the admission that “a longer form of the Lord’s Prayer may have been in use as early as the end of the first century” (48-16).
Nor is his case encouraged by his candid admission that there is something like a psychological compulsion to utilize the words because they seem so overwhelmingly fitting and appropriate, “Why do people feel compelled to end with this assertive doxology? Probably for the same reason that motivated some early scribes to add it. This profound prayer invites a glorious , uplifting conclusion—especially in oral reading” (48-16).
And in passing it should be remembered that the attribution of “the kingdom and the power and the glory” to Christ through succeeding ages is a claim few would think to deny was made. (Accepting it personally might be a different matter for many of them.) Hence we have a conclusion fully consistent with other teaching of Scripture and, even if not originally found in the current text, does faithfully represent the teaching of the Bible.
The one example given by Zeolla that does appear to have genuine doctrinal significance is the exception clause:
/ TR: without cause – CT: omits
19:9 MT/ CT: [but] not for – TR: except for
If you believe that Jesus could not have ever authorized divorce for anyone for any reason you are either going to deny the existence of the exception clause in these two passages or put a significantly different meaning on it than it appears to have. When Philip W. Comfort (48-12) deals with he oddly zeroes in on “and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery” but totally passes over the legitimacy of the exception clause itself. If the exception clause does authorize divorce and if the woman is the one doing the divorcing for sexual immortality, one would logically anticipate that in the case of remarriage she herself would not be committing adultery.
When we turn to 19:9, Comfort accepts the textual genuineness in both passages, “The only way for the man not to be held culpable [of adultery, RW] is if the woman was unchaste, which is what nearly all the manuscripts say and which is affirmed in .” (48-57). If “nearly all the manuscripts say” the exception clause, then it’s genuine.
That does not deny that the passages create a series of difficulties in interpretation that were likely never intended in the first place. But we have two thousand years of exegesis and not all of that exegesis has had fidelity to the text as its main basis but development, instead, of what it “must” be teaching.
Even without what comes after the exception clause about the invalidity of remarriage without adultery being the cause of the divorce, in the absence of the exception clause reason being present in a given case those consequences would still seem to be logically inevitable: implicit condemnation. At most those adding words make explicit what would always have been implicit in the first place. It would become a matter of whether we get there because the text directly asserts it or because it clearly implies it.
Our conclusion on variant readings is a simple one: vastly overstated in significance. Rarely important in application to doctrine and real life for other passages will deal with the same or closely related matters. Will those having an emotional spasm in horror please take their xanax. We may not have all the fancy—and often irrelevant—degrees that you have to hide your hostility to God behind, but we are still quite capable of telling a good argument from a bad one.
C. The New Testament stands above all other ancient works in textual integrity
Jona Bendering—from whose work the next three paragraphs draw their reasoning--effectively argues that for any ancient work to survive it had to be considered of major significance to a substantial body of people. Otherwise there was no particular reason for it to be regarded as worthy of preservation. Furthermore, it had to have users able to handle the significant cost of obtaining papyri and paying a skilled copyist. A papyri volume had to be copied once a century in order to assure it remained in circulation; parchment could be delayed longer but not indefinitely. Books would be far more likely to drop out of existence because of the lack of such an audience than any intentional destruction. .
Little or no readership automatically translated into the ultimate disappearance of a work. Gnostic style works which tended to appeal only to a narrow spiritually “elite” folk (or, at least, were regarded as such in their own minds) would be easy to meet such a fate.
Newer work would tend to replace older work: if a newer and allegedly better volume appeared—and the ancients weren’t without a mentality like ours that “newer” virtually must equate to better—then the earlier compositions were that much more likely to be abandoned by sponsors from their reproduction favorites. Also most folk simply had no practical use for a voluminous analysis of a “narrow” subject and found these newer summaries / compilations far easier use for the bulk of their own purposes. Why take the time to preserve the earlier material unless they were the favorite of a family or group with the funds to produce a new copy? (49)
Even works of famous men—some with amusing (to us) titles have disappeared. From the historian Suetonius, for example, we are lacking his Lives of Famous Prostitutes and Dictionary of Invectives (49) along with a significant number of other works.
For the historian Tacitus’ “Annals are preserved in two copies, but as the copies are partial and do not overlap at all, for any given passage there is only one manuscript). Indeed, there are instances where all manuscripts are lost and we must reconstruct the work from excerpts (Manetho; the non-Homeric portions of the Epic Cycle; most of Polybius, etc.)” (50).
Take a relatively relatively modern but well known work—Beowulf. It survives in one burned copy; two centuries old transcripts make its publication possible, but both of them have their own problems (50).
Then we have volumes where we have much of the entire work—but. (Ah the eternal “but!”) Consider the famous ancient Gilgamesh Epic. As one scholar writes (one can almost see tears flowing), “This exists in multiple pieces, recensionally different, in multiple languages, from multiple eras, with some of the later versions incorporating material originally separate, and not one of the major recensions is complete. Here one has to step back from the problem of deciding how to reconstruct and first settle what to reconstruct” (50). In comparison to the Bible, the scriptures are a textual non-Buddhist nirvana (“the state of perfect happiness and peace”).
As a historian I find all this quite interesting, but it serves well as an introduction to our next point: Unlike such cases where our problem is scarcity of resources, here we have a vast variety of resources to work from. The Bible leaves behind it a well documented, extensive “paper trail” spreading deep into the past. In other words it provides us with far greater resources to work from.
The simple fact that we have many manuscripts to argue from tells us something else of vital importance: the scriptures were thought of as of such great importance to be copied—and copied generation after generation, yet again. Taking into consideration such factors as these we can understand why the New Testament is, textually, the most extensively and accurately preserved book of antiquity.
The amount of significant textual variance in real dispute is minimal. Norman L. Geisler has summarized various scholars’ conclusions on this matter:
1. Westcott-Hort estimated that only one-eighth of all variants had any weight and only one sixteenth rise above “trivialities” and can be called “substantial variations.” This would leave the text over 98 percent pure.
2. Ezra Abbot estimated that nineteen-twentieths (95 percent) of the variants were “various” rather than “rival” readings and nineteen-twentieths (95 percent) of the “rival” readings make little difference in the sense of the passage.
3. Philip Schaff calculated that of the 150,000 variants known in his day only 400 affected the sense, only 50 were of real significance, and not one of these affected any article of faith.
4. A. T. Robertson said that the real concern is about one-one thousandth of the text (i.e., the text is 99.9 percent pure of significant variations).
When this is compared with Homer’s Iliad where 5 percent of the text is in doubt, or the Mahabharata which has 10 percent corruption, it may be safely concluded that the Bible is the most accurately translated major work from the ancient world. (5-257. Paragraphs numbered differently in original source; final two paragraphs are one in the original.)
D. The question of the Old Testament
Although there is a great deal of talk about the “textual corruption” of the Old Testament as well, the “numbers argument” against its textual accuracy is not as developed as in regard to the accusations against the Second Testament. In a different work Geisler (in conjunction with Nix) suggest three reasons for the lack of textual discrepancies among the Hebrew manuscripts as contrast with the Greek New Testament (6-360):
First, there “are fewer manuscript copies;” therefore we would expect fewer discrepancies. Second, the Masoretes who preserved the text “labored under strict rules” to guarantee the preservation of a consistent, unvarying text from one generation of manuscripts to the next. Third, “it is believed” that they “systematically destroyed all copies” that contained detected “ ‘mistaken’ and/or variant readings.”
It should be noted that the savaging of the concept of Divine revelation and inspiration began with the Old Testament. Only after it was well developed, did similar hatchet jobs on the New Testament emerge as proof that one was on the cutting edge of semi-believing “scholarship.” Yet if the argument from an imperfect text of the New Testament is to be taken as seriously as these folk would have us, then the existence of a far more consistent Old Testament text should have them speak far kinder words of that Testament.
Of course, they don’t. The real problem is Divine revelation and inspiration is simply not permitted—period. Regardless of the degree of textual stability. Truth be told, the Old Testament—probably due to a far greater time span for speculation to play games in—is subject to even savager disrespect not merely as to inspiration but even the basic moral integrity of the writers.
For example: Moses did not write the Torah (Genesis to Deuteronomy) or, if he did, precious little of it. It is “really” composed of the J, E, D, and P document streams. We say “streams” because each of these underwent varied stages of expansion and elaboration before all of these were united in the Torah we have today. The scenario requires multiple generations of religious but unscrupulous hypocrites who were willing to make a lifestyle of lies (pretending that Moses had written it) while reinventing the document streams over centuries while pretending it had always been the way it was in its latest incarnation. (Now they weren’t going to admit it was all a pile of lies, would they? They had to pretend nothing had changed or the basis of their own authority would have been undermined.)
Laying aside these annoying claims that virtually make “prophets” and “priests” synonymous with “liars,” it would still be good for us to examine the degree of textual changes that did occur by examining the Hebrew text in comparison with that rendered into other languages. Because they exaggerate the significance, doesn’t eliminate the propriety and need to examine the degree that variances did occur.
It is when the Hebrew is compared with the
Greek Septuagint and the Samaritan Pentateuch, that significant disagreements
are found. Although there are about
6,000 differences between the Samaritan Pentateuch and the Hebrew Masoretic Pentateuch, some are clearly theological in intent—such
Although it would be wonderful—due to the c. first century dating or earlier of the Dead Sea Scrolls--to have even an even larger number of partial or full Hebrew texts that are a millennium older than the Masoretic Hebrew to work from, we unquestionably have still been blessed with a significant body of material from that source:
The greatest scroll is Isaiah, preserved completely and in good condition. Apparently it can be dated at about 125 B.C. Some fragments are older. Portions of Job, Jeremiah, Samuel, and Psalms can be dated to 200 B.C. or earlier. One portion of Psalms is unofficially dated at about 300 B.C. A copy of Ecclesiastes dating from 150 B.C. is of special interest because some extreme critics have insisted that Ecclesiastes was written at a much later date. Copies of Daniel dating from the second century B.C. are significant because they are so close to the crucial date of 165 B.C. when critics claim the book was written. (51-66)
What is specially significant is not differences with the Masoretic, but how much it reflects the same textual tradition. Humans might miscopy, but deliberate changes to alter intent were clearly frowned upon or it would have happened far more often.
Although we have a quite defensible text,
it was the accurate preservation of the New Testament that is most
essential to the maintaining of a Christ-centered faith. If we were still under the Mosaical Law—where even minute items of life and temple
worship were precisely regulated—we would have been faced with a significantly
different problem, not due to having a “debased” text but because it
would be the Testament where our interests were most centered. Even if that had been the case, we would still
have a text quite adequate to ground our practices and behavior in—just not the
volume of evidence we would ideally prefer.
II. The Lack of the Original Autographs
A. Is it inherently improbable that revelation would be protected down to the words and yet the preservation of the original manuscripts (“autographs”) not be provided for?
Why did God protect the substance and content of these writings down to assuring that appropriate words were used and then let them perish? If they were that imbued and endowed with Divine guidance, why did He not arrange for them to be miraculously preserved so that 100% accurate copies could be reproduced from them in all generations thereafter?
Although we’ll deal with this more a bit later, here let us stress that such reasoning confuses revelation and preservation. They are two very different things. The need for one does not require the need for the other. If the originals were not fully accurate in all ways, their preservation in unblemished form would not make them one iota more useful. On the other hand, if the originals were closely guided even in regard to their verbal expressions, modest “damage” of the type that has occurred will not interfere with the text’s ability to communicate God’s will.
Those who advocate mere “thought” inspiration are not profited in the least by this argument for they are faced with the same question: Why did God not arrange for the record to be preserved perfectly so that all future generations would be sure to get the “thought” intended?
Indeed, in “verbal inspiration” we have a perfect communication of the Divine will; in “thought inspiration,” by its very nature, we have an IMperfect communication of the Divine will. In such a case, surely mistakes in transmission can do hideous damage—potentially compromising the very SUBSTANCE of the message since it is only “buried” somewhere within it. In contrast, when Divine guidance even assured that only the right words were selected, errors in transmission (at most) can only eat away at the edges, leaving the substance little harmed (or, in our judgment), not harmed at all.
If God had indeed done something alone the line of what semibelievers say He “should” or even “would” have done if scripture’s inspiration was as deep rooted as the Bible teaches—if He had, for example, chosen to carve the entire Bible on Mount Rushmore and a few other mountains the way He had carved the Ten Commandments on tablets for Moses on Sinai--would that convert them into evangelicals? Would it convert them into that much despised (and often misrepresented) category called Fundamentalists?
Or would they simply find some other way to avoid the personal commitment that flows from adopting the premises we are advocating? Could it be that the will to DISbelieve is so strong that it seeks out scholarly “substantiation” rather than being produced by it?
You see the root problem is not whether the text is an immaculate match with the original. It’s the belief that God would (could?) ever give a law binding upon the human race. Especially one that branded some (much?) of the critics’ preferred modes of thought and behavior not as avant-garde but morally reprobate?
B. Since the “autographs” no longer exist, is the controversy a needless and useless one?
Although the autograph does not exist, what is virtually the identical text does. This is especially true of the New Testament, as already seen. Many who casually embrace assaults on inspiration of the Biblical text do so without recognizing that—consistently applied—it even undermines credibility in salvation by faith: As Theodore Engelder noted many years ago, by their logic you could never prove the universal truth and application of John 3:16 “because the original which is supposed to have contained these words is no longer in existence” (7-193). This would, of course, hinder only some of the critics and not all.
As to the accurate preservation of the text, we should always remember that there were inherent and ongoing pressures pushing Biblical scribes to preserve full fidelity to the texts they were working from. For example, those books that explicitly claimed to be the voice of God speaking, obviously would be treated with the respect due if God were verbally addressing the copyist. Since he would hardly dare (or feel it proper) to challenge the words personally spoken by God to himself, he would naturally be inhibited against altering God’s discourse when given to the writer he is copying. It would seemingly require a brazingly hard-hearted individual to act otherwise.
A second factor lay in the moral strictures of both testaments against lying and in favor of truthfulness. Both of these would be involved in creating a consciously different reading than that of the manuscript being copied.
A third force in favor of preserving maximum accuracy in transmission surely lay in the Biblical text’s demands for faithful preservation of what had been recorded and altering it in no manner. These admonitions are given so broadly that they include altering the religious practice being described and altering the text itself. Either way the original provisions would have been changed and the Scriptures vigorously weighed in against ever doing such:
Deuteronomy 4:2 “You shall not add to the word which I command you, nor take from it, that you may keep the commandments of the Lord your God which I command you.”
Deuteronomy “Whatever I command you, be careful to observe it; you shall not add to it nor take away from it.”
Revelation 22:18 For I testify to everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: If anyone adds to these things, God will add to him the plagues that are written in this book; 19 and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part from the Book of Life, from the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book.
When a manuscript was copied it was to be done so accurately, that the copier could follow its teaching without any doubt that he was doing the Lord’s will as recorded in the original:
Deuteronomy 17:18 “Also it shall be, when he sits on the throne of his kingdom, that he shall write for himself a copy of this law in a book, from the one before the priests, the Levites. 19 And it shall be with him, and he shall read it all the days of his life, that he may learn to fear the Lord his God and be careful to observe all the words of this law and these statutes, 20 that his heart may not be lifted above his brethren, that he may not turn aside from the commandment to the right hand or to the left, and that he may prolong his days in his kingdom, he and his children in the midst of Israel.”
These kind of admonitions surely rule out any intentional changing of the text to alter its doctrine or teachings!
Any tendency of the Christian to play games with the text would be further hindered by his recognition of the gospel system as irrevocable and unchangeable, so much so that even an angelic messenger would be under the curse of God if he attempted to change any of its precepts:
Galatians 1:8 But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed. 9 As we have said before, so now I say again, if anyone preaches any other gospel to you than what you have received, let him be accursed. 10 For do I now persuade men, or God? Or do I seek to please men? For if I still pleased men, I would not be a bondservant of Christ.
Or if you wish a rendering a bit more colloquial, try this one from Today’s English Bible:
Galatians 1:8 But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel that is different from the one we preached to you, may he be condemned to hell! 9 We have said it before, and now I say it again: if anyone preaches to you a gospel that is different from the one you accepted, may he be condemned to hell! 10 Does this sound as if I am trying to win man's approval? No indeed! What I want is God's approval! Am I trying to be popular with men? If I were still trying to do so, I would not be a servant of Christ.
In light of these perpetual, ongoing underlying pressures, it is not surprising that the Biblical text has been preserved with amazing faithfulness. To its scribes and copiers, it amounted to a virtual sacred duty.
Some critics insist that upholding perfect autographs for the Bible books but conceding that what we have falls short of that level is nothing but a mere “apologetic device.” It is dismissed as an intellectual cop-out: It is argued that by creating an “inerrant” original—which we don’t have access to—that we have created a situation in which the Bible can never be fairly tested. Contradictions can never be proven real because they can all be dismissed as “textual corruptions” rather than problems originating in the original texts.
Go back and quickly review our short discussion of purported contradictions. You will observe that for most points of controversy there is no reason to invoke the originals. They are just as likely to have been found there as well! So the argument might eliminate some “differences” from consideration, but still leave many others open to contest. Most of them are resolvable by common sense and a careful consideration of what the existing text has to say.
The problem for semibelievers,
of course, is that reasonableness is not enough for them. They want absolute proof when human history
often does not provide it. Question
that? Read a few books on the hotly
contested issue of “who/what caused
C. Even in copied form, the Biblical manuscripts are authoritative for establishing truth.
Like us today, Jesus did not possess the original manuscripts of the Old Testament. Yet He cited it as authoritative for those living under it. In the temptations during the forty days in the wilderness, we find Him citing the text as reliable and binding no less than three times:
Matthew 4:1 Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2 And when He had fasted forty days and forty nights, afterward He was hungry. 3 Now when the tempter came to Him, he said, "If You are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread." 4 But He answered and said, "It is written, 'Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.' "
5 Then the devil took Him up into the holy city, set Him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6 and said to Him, "If You are the Son of God, throw Yourself down. For it is written: 'He shall give His angels charge over you,' and, 'In their hands they shall bear you up, lest you dash your foot against a stone.' " 7 Jesus said to him, "It is written again, 'You shall not tempt the Lord your God.' "
8 Again, the devil took Him up on an exceedingly high mountain, and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. 9 And he said to Him, "All these things I will give You if You will fall down and worship me." 10 Then Jesus said to him, "Away with you, Satan! For it is written, 'You shall worship the Lord your God, and Him only you shall serve.' " 11 Then the devil left Him, and behold, angels came and ministered to Him.
(Aside: Note that just quoting text was not enough. You had to take all the scriptures said into consideration. Hence in verses 5-7 when the Devil bends passages in a never intended direction, Jesus rebukes him by reminding him of what else the scriptures say, texts that would prohibit Him from doing what Satan wanted.)
If this were not enough, Jesus regarded the Scriptures as reliably preserved—even though He did not have the originals to read--or how could He confidently cite it as being fulfilled in His day and through Him? This time, two examples:
Luke 4:16 So He came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up. And as His custom was, He went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and stood up to read. 17 And He was handed the book of the prophet Isaiah. And when He had opened the book, He found the place where it was written: 18 "The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He has anointed Me To preach the gospel to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed; 19 to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord."
20 Then He closed the book, and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all who were in the synagogue were fixed on Him. 21 And He began to say to them, "Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing."
Matthew "And in them the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled, which says: 'Hearing you will hear and shall not understand, And seeing you will see and not perceive; 15 for the hearts of this people have grown dull. Their ears are hard of hearing, and their eyes they have closed, lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears, lest they should understand with their hearts and turn, so that I should heal them.'
16 "But blessed are your eyes for they see, and your ears for they hear; 17 for assuredly, I say to you that many prophets and righteous men desired to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.
Note here that there was such a thing as predictions hundreds of years before they were fulfilled and that they had been so accurately preserved that the people could read the words for themselves in the prophet Isaiah. Nothing removed that would change the application. Nothing added that would prevent the text from being rightly applied. In short, a usable and reliable text to discover what God intended even though the autographs were missing.
Surely this is vivid testimony to how accurately the text had been preserved to that time. The fact that the text has continued to be accurately preserved, therefore, allows us to treat it with the same respect and authority that Jesus did toward the inherited text available in His day. (Yes, this is in regard to the Old Testament and not the New, but does anyone really intend to make an argument that He was to leave His apostles in a situation where their words would be less truthfully passed on?)
To supplement what we have introduced, Greg L. Bahnsen presents an effective summary of a broader scope of evidence than we introduced above and it is well worth your attention (8-7.9f):
When New Testament writers appeal to the authority of the Old Testament they, just like we today, used the texts and versions which were ready at hand. Jesus preached from the existing scrolls and treated them as “Scripture” itself (Luke -21).
The apostles used the scriptures which were in hand for arguing (Acts ) and demonstrating points (Acts ); their hearers checked the apostolic proclamation by searching the Old Testament scriptures which they presently possessed (Acts ). Because their opponents shared a belief in the functional authority of the available manuscripts of the Scriptures, Jesus and the apostles battled on the common ground of the extant copies without fretting about the autographs themselves.
This is illustrated in the present imperative to search the scriptures as testifying of Christ (John ) and in the rhetorical and leading questions “Have you not read. . . ?” (e.g., Matthew 12:3, 5; , 42; Luke 10:26). It may very well be true that the “holy writings” which Timothy had known from his childhood [and which Paul clearly regarded as authoritative and reliable, RW] were not only copies of the Scripture, but the Septuagint translation at that. Still they could make him wise unto salvation.
Treating the Old Testament as authoritative in this manner implied a conception of its inspiration far beyond that of the mere “thought” hiding behind the words. If even the originals were only “inspired” in a vague and elusive sense, people in Jesus’ day could easily have dismissed it as so contaminated by the personality and psyche of the “revealer-prophet” that the Divine element had been thoroughly pulverized into tiny fragments . . . if it continued to exist at all. By approaching scripture the way He did Jesus bore testimony to an implicit doctrine of inspiration far stronger than many moderns wish to admit.
did not undermine or cause Jesus to reject a strong inspiration doctrine;
therefore it should not require us today to do so either. To use the example suggested by Bahnsen (8-7.19), even a
Our English translations aren’t inspired but those that are faithfully and reliably translated come from a text preserving such a revelation. In short we have every reason to believe that God holds it as having the same authority for us as the inspired original and as being the functional equivalent of the inspired original, i.e., not inspired itself but fully adequate to convey the inspired message even in salvational details.
(A limitation: But one must remember that from “modern speech” and “paraphrases,” we may get useful insights into interpreting the text, but they fall significantly short of what we are describing here--versions that are intended to strictly adhere to the intent and words of the original. Those that do the latter are faithful to the underlying text in the original languages and we can embrace it as just as authoritative as Jesus and Paul utilized the preserved Hebrew and Septuagint in their own day. Some may say this is an overstatement. Perhaps—but if it is, it’s not by much!)
D. Why did God not miraculously preserve the original manuscripts?
Up to now we have been concerned with the impact (if any) of the lack of autographs on the authority of the scriptures and on their original full inspiration. Having dealt at sufficient length on those matters, it is appropriate to also offer some suggestions on why God chose to allow the original documents to perish. Since God has not seen fit to reveal an explicit answer to this question, all we can offer is speculation—but reasonable and logical speculation we hope it will be.
There was an obvious danger that the manuscript would be turned into an idol. Rather than leading humanity closer to God, the manuscript could easily become so respected, revered, and even “worshipped” that the text’s contents would become secondary. If “saints’ relics” could be so abused in the Middle Ages, does any one doubt what would have happened to a truly original Biblical manuscript?
The opponent of verbal inspiration commonly hints or alleges “bibli-idolatry” as an objection to our view, overlooking the fact that his or her own insistence upon the preservation of the originals—if it had been done--could easily have produced the very phenomena he so forcefully condemns—worship of the object . . . rather than reverence for its inspired contents which is what is actually needed.
Let us think of the apostles in particular. Those who read Paul’s autograph epistles were unlikely to fall into this trap, being too immediately involved with the actual man.
But later, as this faith became less virile, might they not have been tempted to make of the material document that came from Paul’s hands a sort of relic, even a fetish? The example of the brazen serpent which became an object of worship and which was finally destroyed by Hezekiah should cause us to reflect on such a possibility (Numbers 21:8-9; 2 Kings 18:4). (9-138f)
A second possible reason for non-permanence lies in the fact that the preservation of the original autographs would have required not just a one time miracle, but a continuing miracle. The “longest” miracle on record was the providing of manna for four decades during the Wilderness Wandering (Exodus 16:35)—and that wasn’t really one miracle but, rather, a daily one, over 12,000 of them to cover the period of time (double manna was provided one day a week so Sabbath collection would not be necessary.)
That was an aberration from the normal custom which was when the miracle was a one time event, though the results (such as in Christ’s healings) were permanent for the person’s lifetime. For the autographs to have been preserved would have required what? A 3,000, 3,500 year or longer continuous miracle. Something without precedent.
In fact a series of miracles to
produce that single result of preservation would be required. First would have been to make the physical
manuscript indestructible. Then to guard
it against its suppression—for surely losing accessibility would
accomplish the same result as destruction by aging. Which would mean protecting
it from its overwrought enemies as well as overwrought friends. (Of the latter think of the foolishness from
rival clerics that goes on at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre
Faced with such, does any reader really believe that it could have escaped becoming an object of reverence crossing the line into worship? To protect mankind from its own excesses the originals had to perish from age. The Scriptures were given to lead us, instruct us—not to bow down before and treat it as if it—rather than the God and Messiah it instructs us about—is to be adored and treated with supernatural respect.
Next we come to the implicit Biblical assumption that God only does for mankind what it can not do for itself. In spite of all of our many imperfections, preserving the Bible was amply within our range of abilities. Since there was no pressing need or necessity for God to act miraculously, He did not do so.
One would think that the semibelievers who wish to minimize the miraculous element in God’s Biblical-age conduct would find it so odd and incredible that He abstained from performing a three thousand-plus year miracle of preserving the Biblical autographs! Here they demand a miracle but when they read of real ones of healing and raising the dead at Jesus’ hands, well those are misunderstandings, exaggerations, distortions, pious legends. “The legs of the lame are not equal.” An old, old adage. But still true today.
The value of the danger-of-idolatry argument has been tempered, in part, by those who have noted that though this may explain the fate of the original manuscripts it does not completely explain why the text of the original was not immaculately preserved. The second and third responses above—it requiring ongoing miracles and how God does not do things needlessly for us but only legitimate necessities—has great relevance to this slightly different objection as well.
Indeed, the rebuttal raises a further problem: How possibly could the text be preserved without transmission blemish without the original manuscripts also being preserved to prove that the uniformity was due to accuracy rather than conspiratorial destruction, at some stage, of all deviant readings?
Bahnsen (8-7.27f) suggests an additional reason for the text being allowed to become as it is: An “imperfect” text serves the purpose of protecting us from a superstitious approach to the study of its contents. A verbally perfect text could easily be abused through a medieval type cabbalistic “interpretation” in which every letter and word possesses a “mystical” meaning as great as—or greater than—the significance of the words themselves.
III. “Missing” Epistles and Books
Although it is reasonable to believe that God did not ordain for the survival of every book written by His apostles and prophets, the actual evidence in behalf of their having been such is often exaggerated and its significance thoroughly misunderstood.
The mysterious epistle to
Why then did “
Assuming the epistle was originally general
rather than city-specific the reference to obtaining the Laodicean
epistle may only mean that the copy Paul sent to them was easier for some
reason for the Colossians to obtain than the identical one sent to
1 Corinthians 5:9 is another text commonly introduced to prove the lack of survival of some apostolic writings: “I wrote to you in my epistle not to keep company with sexually immoral people.” Some take this to be an “epistolary aorist” by which Paul, in effect is saying: You’ve just read my words about excluding the incestuous couple from the congregation (verses 1-8); you have no business associating with such “brethren.”
If you wish far more, and in scholarly detail, please consult my Torah Commentary on First Corinthians 1-6: Interpreting the Text in Light of Its Old Testament Roots (part of a four volume in detail commentary; as of the current date it is still available on line at biblicalresearchresources.com). Let me quote from one particular relevant paragraph:
If the lost letter reconstruction is valid, it raises the serious question of why was it permitted to vanish? The only two options are that it was either intentionally destroyed or accidentally lost by the Corinthians. Neither is particularly appealing. The destruction scenario seems to imply an astounding lack of moral scruples, far beyond anything Paul attributes to the Corinthians. (“We don’t like what you’ve written so we are going to literally wipe it out of existence.”) The second provides profound problems for any believer in Divine providence.
Another problem is that the hyper-critics confuse having a complete revelation of the Divine truth and having every occasion on which each of those truths was written about. These are actually two dramatically different things. Hence even assuming that there are “lost” epistles and “chronicles,” does that have any real impact on our confidence in the inspiration of the “surviving” works--contents that were shaped down to the word level? I think not.
First, let us consider the Old Testament. A cardinal—and often overlooked fact—is that the Law of Moses was just that: LAW, the foundation and bedrock for the entire Jewish system. The prophets did not exist to invent new law, but to call men and women back to the already existing Mosaical Law. Among the passages that refer to the essentially conservative rather than innovative nature of the prophetic ministry are such texts as these:
Isaiah To the law and to the testimony! If they do not speak according to this word, it is because there is no light in them.
Jeremiah 9:13 And the Lord said, "Because they have forsaken My law which I set before them, and have not obeyed My voice, nor walked according to it, 14 but they have walked according to the dictates of their own hearts and after the Baals, which their fathers taught them," 15 therefore thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: "Behold, I will feed them, this people, with wormwood, and give them water of gall to drink. 16 I will scatter them also among the Gentiles, whom neither they nor their fathers have known. And I will send a sword after them until I have consumed them."
Daniel "We have not obeyed the voice of the Lord our God, to walk in His laws, which He set before us by His servants the prophets. [Note how the prophets did not write new law; they reminded of old, ignored Law, RW] 11 Yes, all Israel has transgressed Your law, and has departed so as not to obey Your voice; therefore the curse and the oath written in the Law of Moses the servant of God have been poured out on us, because we have sinned against Him. 12 And He has confirmed His words, which He spoke against us and against our judges who judged us, by bringing upon us a great disaster; for under the whole heaven such has never been done as what has been done to Jerusalem. 13 As it is written in the Law of Moses, all this disaster has come upon us; yet we have not made our prayer before the Lord our God, that we might turn from our iniquities and understand Your truth.”
Hosea 4:6 My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge. Because you have rejected knowledge, I also will reject you from being priest for Me; because you have forgotten the law of your God, I also will forget your children.
Such texts are representative of a central but often overlooked strand of prophetic thought: Restoration to the Mosaical, pre-existing standard was their goal; not invention of a new system nor the writing of something new and passing it off as the Lord’s.
Hence the prophets for all of their importance in moral exhortation and preparing the people for the Messiah, functioned primarily as advocates for what already was and was being ignored. That role did not require the preservation of all their writings. Nor did the providing of a prophetic foundation for the Lord and the New Testament require that all their prophecies be preserved—just the ones the Lord had determined were the most useful and significant.
Now let us consider the New Testament. Jesus promised a complete revelation of Divine truth (John -15). He never promised the writing or written preservation of every occasion on which the same item of Divine truth was written or preached. Harm would be done to the completeness of the New Testament revelation only if some doctrine were omitted that was not taught elsewhere in its pages. Of such there is not the slightest evidence.
Which brings us back to another observation I made in my First Corinthians commentary relevant to the discussion of 1 Corinthians 5:9:
Another approach to the matter is to concede that the text is lost but not the central argument: Paul tells us what the content was in verse 9--don’t associate with the immoral. If we know the content and if we have Paul’s more elaborate development of the subject matter, was there any need to preserve the original? Indeed, except in the most “literalistic” of senses, can we even speak of it being truly “lost?”
Furthermore the doctrine that the inspiration of the New Testament is Divinely superintended even down to accurate word choice is not affected in any way. Every variant in the way a doctrine was verbally defended and presented did not have to be preserved in writing for their oral presentation to have been supernaturally overseen. What was vital was that the core doctrines themselves were preserved.
Why then should we feel obligated that every written presentation of the same truth had to have been preserved? Would not the same reasoning show that we can have a complete and reliable presentation of God’s intents and purposes without it? In short, whether all inspired written presentations of New Testament age prophets and apostles were preserved is, indeed, a fascinating intellectual issue. But, whichever way we answer the question has no real impact on the nature and fullness of what has been preserved for us.