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This is where we come to delve into the biblical text. Theology is not our foremost thought, but we realize it is something that will be dealt with in nearly every conversation. Feel free to use the original languages to make your point (meaning Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic). This is an exegetical discussion area, so please limit topics to purely biblical ones.

This is not the section for debates between theists and atheists. While a theistic viewpoint is not required for discussion in this area, discussion does presuppose a respect for the integrity of the Biblical text (or the willingness to accept such a presupposition for discussion purposes) and a respect for the integrity of the faith of others and a lack of an agenda to undermine the faith of others.

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Can We Trust the New Testament? by J. A. T. Robinson

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  • #46
    Can We Trust the New Testament?

    Continuation of Chapter 2: FACTS AND FALLACIES

    MANUSCRIPTS AND MISTAKES

    This does not, of course, mean that we know precisely what the New Testament writers penned. The very wealth of evidence makes the sifting and sorting out of it a most complex task. But two things can be said. When everything has been taken into account, the number of variants that make any difference (let alone any important difference) to the meaning is extremely small. The English reader may test this for himself by looking at the marginal readings at the foot of the page in the NEB. (They were unfortunately omitted in the popular, in contrast to the library, edition of the New Testament when that was first published separately, but now they are there in the standard edition of the whole Bible.) There are two kinds of marginal readings, which represent possible, though not in the opinion of the majority probable, alternatives. One is introduced by a simple 'Or' and that indicates a different way of translating the same Greek text. The other is introduced by a phrase like 'Some witnesses read (or add or omit)' This indicates an alternative manuscript reading, and is alone relevant for assessing the difference which textual uncertainty introduces. Going through these latter will show how relatively rarely the meaning is affected. Thus in the book of Revelation (which no scholar, incidentally, would ever call 'Revelations': where does this popular image come from?) these can be counted on the fingers of two hands, and none seriously alters the sense.

    To be continued...

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    • #47
      Can We Trust the New Testament?

      Continuation of Chapter 2: FACTS AND FALLACIES

      MANUSCRIPTS AND MISTAKES

      The other thing that needs to be said is that almost certainly the original reading is in the vast majority of cases to be found somewhere in the existing manuscript tradition. In other words it has not been lost, so that we are left to guess or conjecture what it might have been. This is quite a different situation from that in many classical texts, where in the plays of Aeschylus, for instance, one of the main tests of the originality and judgement of editors is their ability to conjecture what the author might have written, since at so many points our existing manuscripts are quite evidently corrupt. There is a real difference here between the New Testament and the Old, where a glance again at the NEB margin will reveal notes like 'Probable meaning; Hebrew obscure'. There is nothing of this in the New Testament.

      To be continued...

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      • #48
        Can We Trust the New Testament?

        Continuation of Chapter 2: FACTS AND FALLACIES

        MANUSCRIPTS AND MISTAKES

        There are of course places where scholars come up with guesses about what the author might have written, and they may be right. But, as it seems to me, only about two conjectures in the whole text of the New Testament are at all compelling, both, as it happens, in St John. The first is in John 3.25, where the NEB reads, without any marginal note, 'Some of John's disciples had fallen into a dispute with Jews. The RSV, again without recording an alternative, prefers the reading 'with a Jew'. Bentley, the great eighteenth-century classical scholar and notorious Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, suggested that the original, now lost, read with Jesus'. This gives excellent sense―though no one can say that the meaning is much affected either way. Again in John 19:29 the NEB says of Jesus on the cross, 'They soaked a sponge with wine, fixed it on a javelin, and held it up to his lips'. The RSV, like all the other English versions, has 'put it on hyssop'. Now hyssop, the little herb marjoram, is totally useless for fixing a sponge to! What the NEB has done is to follow a reading which differs by only one syllable (HYSSO instead of HYSSOPO). It happens to occur in one, eleventh-century, Greek manuscript, though it is almost certainly there a clever conjectural correction. Yet I believe the NEB is right in supposing it is what the author of the Gospel meant to write. Whether he actually did write it we shall never know. We tend to assume that the autograph started perfect, but nothing of any length that I have ever written was without a slip of the pen! In fact I am inclined to think that on occasion St Paul would have been the first to correct what his best manuscripts make him say. For example, in Romans 5.1, I suspect he intended to write, 'We have peace with God', but Tertius who took it down (see Romans 12.22) may well have been responsible for the minute change, mishearing a long 'O' for a short, that now causes him to say, according to our best witnesses, 'Let us have peace with God'.

        To be continued...
        Last edited by John Reece; 03-24-2015, 08:59 AM.

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        • #49
          Can We Trust the New Testament?

          Continuation of Chapter 2: FACTS AND FALLACIES

          MANUSCRIPTS AND MISTAKES

          I have given these detailed illustrations partly to show again how little difference such variations make. There are however other places where it is a more important matter of judgement whether what is in the later manuscript tradition (incorporated in the AV) originally formed part of the true text or not. Here, first, are three examples of verses that all scholars would agree are missing from the best and earliest manuscripts.
          1. Matt. 6.13b, the doxology to the Lord's prayer: 'For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory, for ever. Amen.' This was clearly read back into the text of Scripture from its early use in liturgy, from which we are familiar with it―though it is interesting that it only got into the English Prayer Book as late as its final revision in 1662.
          2. Mark 16.9-20. These verses, describing Jesus' resurrection appearances, were evidently added subsequently (certainly not by Mark) from other early Christian records, because it was thought (I suspect rightly) that the point at which the best texts of the Gospel break off (16.8) was too abrupt to be intended as the original ending. The NEB margin registers other attempts to meet the felt need.
          3. John 7.53―8.11, This story, the woman taken in adultery, is certainly no part of the Gospel of John (from whose style it differs markedly). It is a piece of floating tradition (in some manuscripts it turns up after Luke 21.38). But that does not mean it is inauthentic. If fact it was probably felt to be too difficult (because too permissive) a story to be included in one of the finished Gospels―but too like Jesus to be thrown away.

          To be continued...

          Comment


          • #50
            Can We Trust the New Testament?

            Continuation of Chapter 2: FACTS AND FALLACIES

            MANUSCRIPTS AND MISTAKES

            Here are two instances where there is not such a clear case.
            1. Luke 23.34. 'Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they do'. Again this 'hard saying' is almost certainly not invented by the Church. If anything is, it is surely the ipsissima vox of Jesus. Yet it is missing from important manuscripts. It could well have been cut out by those in the Church who did not feel so charitable toward the Jews!

            2. Another doubtful passage is the so-called 'longer text' of the institution of the Eucharist in Luke 22.19b-20, with its addition of the words 'Do this in remembrance of me' and a further cup. Here it is probably a question of Luke or some subsequent scribe combining the liturgical traditions of different Christian centers, one of them being found also in Matthew and Mark, the other being like that cited by Paul in 1 Cor. 11.24f. Whether the second was added to or cut from the original text of Luke is a matter of very delicate judgement. On the New Testament panel of the NEB we decided after long discussion to omit it from the text (though I recall voting for it). The first edition of the RSV similarly put it in the margin, but the second restored it to the text! Yet ultimately it is not so important whether it was part of the text of Luke. For it was certainly part of the oral tradition of Jesus's words in the early Church.

            To be continued...

            Comment


            • #51
              Can We Trust the New Testament?

              Continuation of Chapter 2: FACTS AND FALLACIES

              MANUSCRIPTS AND MISTAKES

              Finally, there is a glaring instance of words which certainly never formed part of the true text of the New Testament. In 1 John 5.8 we read 'there are three witnesses, the Spirit, the water and the blood, and these three agree'. Someone later embroidered this to, 'There are three who bear witness on earth, the Spirit, the water and the blood, and these are one in Christ Jesus; and there are three who bear witness in heaven, the Father, the Son and the Spirit.' The words in italic occur in no ancient Greek manuscript and were correctly omitted by Erasmus from his pioneering modern edition of the Greek Testament in 1516. But when attacked for taking things out of Holy Writ he rashly wagered to restore them if anyone could produce a Greek manuscript with them in. A late one was found that did contain them, where they were translated back from Latin. So he agreed, and thence they got into the text used by the AV! But lest anyone should carry away the idea that the text of the New Testament is settled by bets, one should say that this is a totally isolated example. And in the end everything comes out in the wash: you will not find a trace of the interpolated words even in the margin of the RSV or NEB. But it does raise the question in the AV.

              To be continued...

              Comment


              • #52
                Can We Trust the New Testament?

                Continuation of Chapter 2: FACTS AND FALLACIES

                MODERN TRANSLATIONS

                At this point we reach the last link in the chain connecting us with the original words of Jesus. For not only was he first translated into Greek, but most of us depend on a translation of the Greek. Can we trust these translations?

                To be continued...

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                • #53
                  Can We Trust the New Testament?

                  Continuation of Chapter 2: FACTS AND FALLACIES

                  MODERN TRANSLATIONS

                  The answer again is, overwhelmingly, Yes. The number of places where the translations are actually wrong is minute. But time and again modern versions follow a more reliable text, bring out the sense more accurately in the light of scholarly research, and above all communicate it in a language that makes it more meaningful for us. 'The conservatism of the committed' includes a strong investment in what Englishmen call the Authorized Version, Americans more accurately the King James Version. For it has never been authorized. In fact if I this time were to conduct a wager, I am prepared to bet that most of my readers, if asked what the title comes from, would point, if anywhere, to the words on the title page: 'Authorized to be read in churches'. Yet if they actually look this up they will find that what is says is 'Appointed (that is, assigned or provided) to be read in churches'. And this was altered from the title page of the earlier Bishops' Bible, which had 'Authorized and appointed to be read in churches'. So the 'Authorized' Version came to be called by the very word it omitted! In fact it simply acquired its authority by usage, and it took a long time to establish itself. In the 1662 Prayer Book, nearly sixty years later, not only were the Psalms still in the Coverdale version of the previous century but sentences from Scripture which the revisers themselves put in (like the 'comfortable words' in the Communion service) were not yet in the King James Version.

                  To be continued...

                  Comment


                  • #54
                    Can We Trust the New Testament?

                    Continuation of Chapter 2: FACTS AND FALLACIES

                    MODERN TRANSLATIONS

                    The AV is of course one of the priceless treasures of the English language and no one wishes to decry its beauties or see it lapse. It is however worth remarking how uneven a translation it is (King James's men worked largely as individuals, unlike subsequent revising panels). Its merits are usually judged on its purple passages―like 1 Cor. 13. But even this, the famous hymn, shows how derivative and indeed arbitrary a translation it was: at least eighty percent of the wording was taken over from Coverdale, and so far from 'charity' being the inspired original which modern versions have 'ruined' by substituting 'love', it was King James's men who went out of their way to change Coverdale's 'love' on this and practically no other occasion. But in between such great passages there are others where one wonders whether even those who translated it understood what they were writing: try for sense of the obscurer parts of 2 Corinthians! It is questionable too whether much of it was good idiomatic English of any age. I doubt if any Englishman ever used either the phrase 'fire of coals' (John 18.18) or 'coals of fire' (Rom. 12.20)―except in the latter case now as a quotation from the AV. Both are crudely literal renderings of the Greek, which in turn are crudely literal renderings of the Hebrew idiom―the sort of work that in school would be heavily marked down as translation English. Or take Luke 21.21: 'Let not them that are in the countries enter thereinto' (i.e., though you would not know it, the city of Jerusalem). Now 'the countries' was never English for the countryside: it just happens that the Greek for 'countryside' is a plural noun―so down it went.

                    To be continued...

                    Comment


                    • #55
                      Can We Trust the New Testament?

                      Continuation of Chapter 2: FACTS AND FALLACIES

                      MODERN TRANSLATIONS

                      I am not the least meaning to disparage―merely to detach the reader from dependence on what for Bible study is a very blunt instrument. For such is the attachment to the AV that many people still talk of it as though it were the original. (In fact when I was a student I remember fundamentalists who were highly suspicious if you went behind it to the Greek, just as there were Roman Catholics who took the same attitude to the Latin Vulgate). When the NEB came out people always were asking me, 'Why did you change that?' I found it difficult to convince them that we 'changed' nothing. We never started from the AV nor had it in mind at all. In fact it was probably easier for us to put it out of our minds (not that we tried to) than it would have been for any other group of Englishmen. For most of us had probably not consulted it in our scholarly work for years. Indeed when I tried to find a copy for quoting in the course of writing this, I couldn't find one in the house. I had to borrow from my neighbor!

                      To be continued...

                      Comment


                      • #56
                        Can We Trust the New Testament?

                        Continuation of Chapter 2: FACTS AND FALLACIES

                        MODERN TRANSLATIONS

                        From the point of view of trusting the New Testament, as opposed to reading the Bible 'as literature' (for which it was never 'designed'―despite the popular book of that title), I would urge you henceforth to equip yourself, if you don't have one, with any good modern translation. The American RSV and the English NEB have the authority behind them of official committees of the Churches. (For convenience I shall usually quote from one of these―though I shall often go straight to the Greek.) But there are others, like that of J. B. Phillips, The Jerusalem Bible or Good News for Modern Man, which have their individual freedoms and advantages. In the next chapter I shall be going on to speak of the 'the tools of discrimination' with which the scholar tackles his critical task. The least the laymen can do is to acquire and use the tool most accessible to him, a good translation in contemporary English―which is itself one of the most important end products of that long and laborious process.

                        To be continued...

                        Comment


                        • #57
                          Can We Trust the New Testament?

                          Chapter 3: THE TOOLS OF DISCRIMINATION

                          How does a New Testament scholar set about sorting out 'What you can believe and what you can't'? I have put those last words in inverted commas because that is never how he himself would put it. He would want to ask, What does this story or this saying tell us? Perhaps it may turn out to tell us more about what the early Church was interested in than what Jesus is likely to have done or said―and be just as valuable and true for that. It may be important evidence for reconstructing the whole developing picture of first-century Christianity―which itself produced the Gospels. No more than the archaeologist will the biblical critic dismiss finds because they do not come from the most primitive strata.

                          But first let us look at some of the tools that he has available and which themselves have been fashioned and refined by patient and dedicated study.

                          TEXTUAL CRITICISM

                          To be continued...

                          Comment


                          • #58
                            Can We Trust the New Testament?

                            Chapter 3: THE TOOLS OF DISCRIMINATION

                            TEXTUAL CRITICISM

                            There is first the tool of textual criticism, which we looked at in the last chapter and so need not spend much more time on now. As well as providing a general presumption of what manuscripts are likely to give the best and most ancient readings, this also enables him to ask in a particular case, How can you explain the existing variations? Is one reading likely to be a correction, to ease what seemed to the copyist a difficulty? Is there any reason why this unusual choice of words or this hard saying should have been invented if it was not original? Is the longer reading an explanatory gloss or an expansion of a shorter one, or is the shorter one due to an accidental or even deliberate omission? Has the reading in one Gospel, originally distinct, been assimilated to the parallel passage in another, particularly in familiar sections where the scribe may unconsciously be harmonizing the two versions? Or is the eccentric text just a mistake?


                            To be continued...

                            Comment


                            • #59
                              Can We Trust the New Testament?

                              Continuation of Chapter 3: THE TOOLS OF DISCRIMINATION

                              TEXTUAL CRITICISM

                              There are no cut and dried answers. As a general working rule one can say that the shorter reading is to be preferred to the longer (on the ground that things get added to Scripture more easily than omitted) and the harder to the easier (on the ground that the easier is more likely to be a correction than vise versa). One could illustrate the preference for the shorter―and also the tendency of the scribes to assimilate―by the Lord's Prayer. We have already mentioned the way in which the doxology later got tacked on to the version in Matthew (6.9-15). But if you look at the version in Luke (11.2-4), you will see at the bottom of the page in the NEB a variety of other manuscript readings which expand his shorter and simpler clauses, usually to bring them into line with Matthew's. The preference for the more difficult reading is well illustrated in Mark 1.2f. which runs in the NEB: 'Here is my herald whom I send on ahead of you, and he will prepare your way. A voice crying in the wilderness , 'Prepare a way for the Lord; clear a straight path for him'"'. But the first half of the quotation ('Here is my herald... prepare your way), unlike the second, is not from Isaiah but from Malachi. Some knowledgeable scribe evidently spotted this and corrected it to: 'In the prophets it stands written'. This is the text followed by the AV. The RSV relegates this reading to the margin. The NEB thinks it so obviously secondary that it doesn't even bother to mention it.


                              To be continued...

                              Comment


                              • #60
                                Can We Trust the New Testament?

                                Continuation of Chapter 3: THE TOOLS OF DISCRIMINATION

                                TEXTUAL CRITICISM

                                Unfortunately, however, textual decisions are seldom so simple as that. A convincing case can often be made on both sides, as in the instance of the longer or shorter text of the Lukan version of the last supper I mentioned in the last chapter. And when does the harder reading become so difficult as to be incredible? A notable instance (of some theological importance) is to be seen in John 1.18. The best manuscripts, now strongly reinforced by the latest discovery of an early papyrus, instead of the familiar words, 'No one has seen God: the only begotten Son who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known,' read 'the only-begotten God'. This is so difficult even to translate intelligibly (see the NEB margin) that, against the judgement of recent editors of the Greek New Testament, both the RSV (even in its second edition)) and the NEB conclude that what John really intended to say was 'only-begotten Son'. Scholars too will diverge in their assessment of whether to pay more attention to the weight of manuscript evidence (in this instance unusually one-sided) or to the reasons why in any particular case poorer manuscripts may have preserved the better reading. In fact, for all the accumulated wisdom and knowledge, the state of play in textual criticism is probably as fluid at the moment as it has been for some time. Yet this is a sign of the softening of old dogmatisms (as in many of the natural sciences) rather than of chaos. It is not a reason for giving up in despair.


                                To be continued...

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