A Proper Understanding of the New Testament Text

What the authors of Myths and Mistakes insist on is that it is neither necessary nor even possible to demonstrate that we can recover the exact wording of the New Testament. But what we have is good enough.

The above words by Daniel B. Wallace are the final sentences in his Foreword to the new multi-author volume Myths and Mistakes in New Testament Textual Criticism (Elijah Hixson and Peter J. Gurry, eds. [Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2019], pp xix-xx). I received a copy a few days ago, and I may provide a more comprehensive review of it at some point (beyond what I’ve written here), once I’ve read through all its contents.

I think all Christians, most especially those involved in any sort of apologetics, should at least be somewhat acquainted with the topic of New Testament (NT) textual criticism. This is the discipline of attempting to determine the original Greek text (aka the autographs) of the NT, from which we translate to English and other languages. And it’s important that claims regarding the authenticity of the NT text are not exaggerated, for this will only serve to damage the cause of Christian apologetics and Christianity at large. Some who are openly hostile to the Christian faith well-know there are extant Greek NT texts that do not agree with each other, and attempts to quell this fact will only lead to charges of a lack of integrity and/or intelligence among Christians.

The cult-like fervor of King James Version-onlyists (KJVO) is particularly damaging to the Christian faith. These KJVOs stubbornly cling to either a claim of the supremacy of the Greek text underlying the KJV (the so-called Textus Receptus [TR]) and/or the supposed superiority of the King James English contained in the KJV over against all modern English (and other language) versions.1 Adherents appear to be sincere in their desire to believe that God has preserved His words in a particular manner, but in their zeal and shortsightedness they take things too far.

Such an extreme view can be misconstrued as not unlike what we would find in the ‘automatic’ writings of occult works, such as those by Alice A. Bailey, in which she openly states she was the conduit by which an entity identifying himself as Djwal Khul (aka Djwhal Khul, The Tibetan, Master D. K.) channeled his words. Hopefully, no one in Christianity/Christendom believes God provided His words in such a manner. According to the Apostle Paul, “all Scripture is God-breathed (theopneustos: from theos = God; pneustos = breath, breathe)” (2 Tim 3:16);2 moreover, according to Simon Peter, “men, borne by the Holy Spirit, spoke from God” (2 Peter 1:21) and even Paul’s epistles are identified as Scripture (2 Peter 3:15-16). That is, Scripture is understood to be written by men under inspiration from God, as opposed to God dictating His words to these men verbatim. In other words, these men were active participants in the writing of the Christian Holy Scriptures, as opposed to passive recipients, mere conduits. Thus, it is not imperative that we have the exact words of the NT in order to understand what God had conveyed via His messengers.

In Hixson and Gurry’s Introduction is a salient point regarding the reliability of the Greek text we do have:

…Simply put, we believe the textual evidence we have is sufficient to reconstruct, in most cases, what the authors of the New Testament wrote. We cannot do this with equal certainty, of course, and the following chapters will discuss places where doubt remains significant…Nevertheless, we do think that even the most textually corrupted of our manuscripts and editions still convey the central truths of the Christian faith with clarity and power. In every age, God has given his people a text that is more than reliable enough to know the saving work he has accomplished through Jesus Christ.3

To that I can only add, “Amen!”

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1 The Achilles’ heel of the KJVO stance is the Johannine Comma (Latin Comma Johanneum)—interpolated verbiage found in the TR of 1 John 5:7-8 and in the corresponding English of the KJV/NKJV. See Daniel B. Wallace’s refutation of this as inspired Scripture here and here.

2 For an in-depth analysis on this one-time occurrence of this word (hapax legomenon), see George W. Knight III’s Commentary on the Pastoral Epistles, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1992), pp 444-450.

3 Hixson & Gurry, Myths and Mistakes, p 20. The accompanying footnote to this passage is worth presenting here (in part): In this we agree with influential English reformer William Whitaker, who could readily concede to his Roman Catholic opponents that “the fundamental points of the faith are preserved intact in this Latin edition, if not everywhere, yet in very many places.” This despite his opponents’ claims that the Latin text had final authority, a claim Whitaker vigorously opposed.

Biblical Inerrancy

Is the Bible, the Christian Holy Scriptures, infallible?  That is, is the Bible we take to church, read, and study free from all error?  Some claim it isn’t.

From my perspective, I believe that all Scripture is “God-breathed” [2 Tim 3:16] and is, hence, inerrant.  My Statement of Faith expounds on this:

The Holy Bible, in its original form, is the Holy Spirit-inspired [2 Tim 3:16], inerrant, and infallible Word of God [Prov 30:5; 2 Peter 1:20-21], complete unto itself. The Bible will never be superseded or supplemented by any other teaching [Prov 30:6] and nothing should be subtracted from it [Deut 4:2; Matt 5:17; Rev 22:18-19]. Its full counsel provides the way to live a complete Christian life [2 Tim 3:16-17]. [Emphasis added.]

However, I submit the following for consideration. Craig A. Evans’ book Fabricating Jesus [2006, InterVarsity, Downers Grove, IL] is an apologetic against those who would claim the Gnostic “Gospels” (so-called) are a (or THE) form of authentic Christianity. Evans notes that Bart Ehrman, a ‘former Christian’, became an agnostic and somewhat amenable to the Gnostic position, thinking Christianity merely won out over Gnosticism by political wrangling, in part because Ehrman lost faith in the inerrancy of Scripture by studying the text of Mark 2:25-26 (among others).

Here’s the passage in the NASB:

25 And He said to them, “Have you never read what David did when he was in need and he and his companions became hungry; 26 how he entered the house of God in the time of Abiathar the high priest, and ate the consecrated bread, which is not lawful for anyone to eat except the priests, and he also gave it to those who were with him?”

While each translation/version of the Bible differs a bit (naturally, as some are more literal, such as the NASB and ESV, while others are more dynamic, such as the NIV), each one contains the essence of the above.  Evans comments:

Jesus has alluded to the story of David’s receiving consecrated bread…from Ahimelech the priest (1 Sam 21:1-10). David was fleeing from Saul, and when Saul learned that Ahimelech had assisted David and his men, he murdered Ahimelech and most of his family. Abiathar escaped and eventually succeeded his father as priest (1 Sam 22:1-10). Because Ahimelech – not his son Abiathar – was the priest when David and his men ate the consecrated bread, we have a mistake, technically speaking, either made by Jesus himself or by Mark (or perhaps by someone who passed on the story). [p 31]

Now let me state quite clearly that I don’t think for a nanosecond that Jesus made a mistake! And, I don’t think Evans does either. Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe [Making Sense of Bible Difficulties 2009 (1992), Baker, Grand Rapids, MI] explain how to understand this passage in the following:

First Samuel is correct in stating that the high priest was Ahimelech. On the other hand, neither was Jesus wrong. When we take a close look at Christ’s words, we notice that He used the phrase “in the days of Abiathar” (v. 26), which does not necessarily imply that Abiathar was high priest at the time David ate the bread. After David met Ahimelech and at the bread, King Saul had Ahimelech killed…Abiathar escaped and went to David (v. 20) and later took the place of high priest. So even though Abiathar was made high priest after David ate the bread, it is still correct to speak in this manner. After all, Abiathar was alive when David did this, and soon following he became the high priest after his father’s death. Thus, it was during the time of Abiathar, but not during his tenure in office. [Pp 175-176.  All emphasis in original.]

I don’t know about you dear reader, but this explanation does not seem satisfactory to me. This would be akin to saying “in the days of Herod Antipas” while referring to a particular time, say 10BC, which was actually during the reign of his father Herod the Great. Sure Antipas was alive, but he was not yet Herod.

In any case, this does not destroy my faith in Holy Writ as my faith is in Jesus Christ and His Atoning death, burial and Resurrection, which are verifiable historical facts (just ask former skeptic Lee Strobel). I can only guess why the Markan account is written as such. Perhaps it is a scribal error which was replicated in both the Textus Receptus (Latin for “received text”, the Greek text undergirding the KJV and the NKJV) and the Critical Text (the Greek text from which most, if not all, other modern Bible versions are largely based), which has been carried forth to this day?

We do not have any of the original NT documents.  We do not have any of Paul’s original letters from his pen (or the pen of any of those who acted as a scribe for Paul from his dictation) or any of the original Gospels from the Gospel writer’s own hand.  Consequently, we have copies – hand-scribed copies – of these precious documents.  We have copies of copies, thus increasing the likelihood of changes from the original texts due to copyist error or even by a scribe’s misguided attempts at “correcting” the original.  It is for all these reasons that my Statement of Faith has the qualifying phrase “…in its original form…” in the selected portion used above, referring to the inerrancy of Scripture.

However, rest assured; we have more copies and fragments of the New Testament than any other literary work from this period.  In fact, many more.  This is where the importance of the ongoing research known as NT Textual Criticism1 – an art as much as a science – comes into play.  These multitudes of NT documents enable the textual critic to arrive at what is most likely the original text in the large majority of cases.  However, there are differences of opinions as to just what is the original text among textual critics on some Biblical passages.  A basic overview of the process of textual criticism and its ramifications will be discussed in future articles here on CrossWise.

1 J. Harold Greenlee [Introduction to New Testament Textual Criticism (Revised Edition). 2010, sixth prtng (© 1964 Eerdmans; © 1995 Hendrickson), Hendrickson Publishing, Peabody, MA] defines textual criticism as, “the study of copies of any written work of which the autograph (the original) is unknown, with the purpose of ascertaining the original text” [p 1].  An easier read as an introduction to NT Textual Criticism is Greenlee’s The Text of the New Testament: From Manuscript to Modern Edition [2008, Hendrickson Publishing, Peabody, MA].