Text & Truth: can we trust the New Testament?

A book review of Revisiting the Corruption of the New Testament (Daniel Wallace, series editor).

Last week our son turned five, and simply judging by the gifts received, one would have to conclude the kid loves pirates, LEGO blocks, Star Wars and books. All of this is true; Dutch loves all things related to Yoda, pirates, and LEGO blocks. Further, multiplying the various interests together heightens his enjoyment of the subjects. A LEGO Star Wars set, a pirates books, and even a LEGO Star Wars book. If Dutch has heard a story before, you better not skip a single word as you read it to him the next time. He’ll make you back up the truck and re-read it.

Even for this young kid, precision and accuracy on words really matter. Especially on the subjects that really matter in life.

Same is true in Christian scholarship. Sadly, Christians of the conservative, Evangelical tribe have a poor reputation when it comes to precision and accuracy. Or, what I like to call care and thoughtfulness. Typical modern Christian are not known in broader culture for thoughtful engagement of life issues, for we can talk past one another a lot and embody more of a bumper-sticker theology than a humble orthodoxy and persuasive embodiment of truth. While we’re known for enthusiasm, it can seem a lot like rabble-rousing to some. Of course, you cannot please everyone, but being authentic goes a long way toward gaining credibility and a listening ear.

That’s why I get amped up when I see new books that are worth reading. Whether it’s the latest Tim Keller best-seller reaching the reading masses with solid theology, or some of the passionate and thoughtful. I find a renewed trend in “Christian” being much more than an adjective tossed to the front of religious products seeking a market. Really good Christian books are being published these days, so there’s becoming very little excuse for us not reading sound words that enrich the mind and awaken the soul. (Disclaimer: the book I am reviewing below has a considerable academic bent, and won’t appeal to everyone. That’s okay; sometimes it’s helpful to know that somebody is doing deep thinking and heavy mental lifting, and the contribution of this book will only help the tide of good scholarship flood the shores of culture.)

It’s a common notion that scholarly work lacks excitement, like how documentaries lack a plotline. Yet, that’s not entirely true, as evidenced not only by new persuasive documentaries like “Waiting for ‘Superman’,” as well as in the field of biblical scholarship. While all ‘new’ discoveries are actually ancient ones, there always is a story within the story. The particular field of textual criticism — finding, exploring and examining the real biblical text — is chalk full of twists and turns. How did monks and others preserve the New Testament text so well, even under persecution and adverse conditions? The story of how we got our Bible is only trumped by the crazy-awesome Story the Scripture unfolds itself.

That’s why it was a joy to read a new scholarly work, Revisiting the Corruption of the New Testament: Manuscript, Patristic, and Apocryphal Evidence (Text and Canon of the New Testament), published by Kregel Academic (2011, paperback, 288 pages, $29.99 list price).

Why the need for this book?

The publisher summarizes:

“In recent years popular culture has experienced a revival of interest in the early church and the beginning of the canonizing of Scripture. Extremely critical of the nature of the New Testament canon, however, many writers have suggested that the New Testament authors ‘interrupted’ Jesus and misquoted His message. This scholarly book presents a strong case for the historicity and accuracy of the Bible, refuting the accusation that the Bible is unreliable.”

How can conservative scholars respond to the accusation that the Bible is unreliable? It will take meticulous detail and research set forth in an accessible way. General editor Daniel Wallace sets forth the key questions in the series preface:

“Few would question that Jesus Christ is the most important figure in human history, let alone in Western civilization. Our primary sources for him are the twenty-seven books that we call the New Testament. There are numerous challenges that face historians, Christians, theologians, and skeptics alike:

  • Do the Gospels tell the truth about Jesus?
  • Are they historically reliable? Were they later documents, written by non-eyewitnesses in every case?
  • Was Paul’s view of Jesus contrary to the view of the early apostles?
  • Do the books of the New Testament contradict each other theologically or historically?
  • Were the letters purported to be by Paul, Peter, James, and Jude really written by these men?
  • Can we recover the autographic text of the New Testament with any reasonable assurance?
  • What about the other NT documents — is the authorship traditionally assigned to them accurate?
  • How should we interpret these books?
  • Are they normative for Christians today—that is, do they speak to believers authoritatively with reference to faith and practice?

(from the series preface, 13)

Each of these questions is vital, yet Wallace considers two areas foundational, supporting all the rest:

“First, can we recover the autographic text? … Second, should these twenty-seven books be treated with more authority than the myriad of books that were written by Christians in the early centuries after the death and resurrection of Jesus?”

These are issues of textual and canonical criticism, which is becoming more mainstream with each generation. Rarely do I mean an intellectually minded non-Christian who doesn’t have a view on the authenticity and veracity of the Bible. Yet, rarely do I meet a Christian who thinks about these things deeply. Few are equipped to graciously respond, yet as a pastor I hear the fleeting arguments routinely, especially among college students and retired folk.

This book was likely not on the wish list of most readers, nor in their short list of books to be read in 2012. Yet, I would say that for anyone wrestling with these questions — themselves, or in conversation with others — this book is excellent. Not since F.F. Bruce’s treatise (The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable?), published a four decades ago, have we had such scholarship set forth for the interested person to understand (on the issues of textual and canonical criticism). Clearly, Bruce’s book is more accessible, though Wallace’s is more specific to the questions being asked today.

What’s in the Book?

There are six main questions tackled in six chapters, each with an assigned scholar with expertise in that area:

  1. Lost in Transmission: How Badly Did the Scribes Corrupt the New Testament Text? (Daniel B. Wallace)
  2. The Least Orthodox Reading is to be Preferred: A New Canon for the New Testament Textual Criticism? (Philip M. Miller)
  3. The Legacy of a Letter: Sabellianism or Scribal Blunder in John 1.1c? (Matthew P. Morgan)
  4. Patristic Theology and Recension in Matthew 24:36: An Evaluation of Ehrman’s Text-Critical Methodology (Adam G. Messer)
  5. Tracking Thomas: A Text-Critical Look at the Transmission of the Gospel of Thomas (Tim Ricchuiti)
  6. Jesus as Θεός (God): A Textual Examination (Brian J. Wright)

If none of these issues interest you, then of course this volume will not either. Yet, there is bound to be someone reading this review who desires a look into the latest Evangelical scholarship written with an irenic bent and a humble conviction that the Bible is what we thought it was.

For the past few decades the Jesus Seminar and now Bart Ehrman have been lobbing scholarly attacks primarily at college students and those interested in finding reasons to undermine confidence in the biblical text. And they’re succeeding. Few people I know can quote chapter and verse why they don’t believe the Bible to be true, yet they often point to the vast “evidence” out there among scholars. What’s great about this book is that Wallace took the lead in engaging Ehrman’s questions, even sending advance copies to the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. This is a civil debate, taking scholarly form yet public engagement by a broader audience. The scholars do not appear to be talking past one another.

As mentioned, Daniel Wallace answers the main general question in the lead chapter, which is really a helpful tome on how to navigate between two polar attitudes — total despair and absolute certainty — when it comes to finding the biblical text we have received when compared to the original autographs. He adds we must consider three more essential questions:

  1. What is the number of variants—how many scribal changes are there?
  2. What is the nature of variants—what kinds of textual variations are there?
  3. What theological issues are at stake?

His introductory chapter — which is essential the transcript of his debate with Bart Ehrman (at the Fourth Annual Greer-Heard Forum) over the reliability of the New Testament manuscripts. As mentioned above in the table of contents, the additional chapters include Adam Messer looks at the patristic evidence of “nor the Son” in Matthew 24:36 in a quest to determine whether the excision of these words was influenced by orthodox Fathers. Philip Miller wrestles with whether the “least orthodox reading” should be a valid principle for determining the autographic text. Matthew Morgan focuses attention on the only two Greek manuscripts that could alter the way we look at the diety of Christ (potentially supporting Sabellianism) in John 1:1c. Timothy Ricchuiti takes us beyond the biblical text in tackling the textual history of the Gospel of Thomas, examining the Coptic text and the three Greek fragments, using internal evidence in order to determine the earliest stratum of Thomas.

A few pages are mostly footnotes

Brian Wright thoroughly examines the textual reliability of the passages in which Jesus appears to be called God, concluding that “the textual proof of the designation Θεός [God] as applied to Jesus in the NT merely confirms what other grounds have already established.” His main question relates to timing: When did this boldness to call Jesus Θεός begin?

(At least a foundational understanding of Koine Greek is needed to get the most out this book.)

Timely Polemics

While each chapter is superb, Adam Messer’s section is especially timely. In it he gives “An Evaluation of Ehrman’s Text-Critical Methodology,” responding to the latest and greatest arguments of the Moody-Wheaton-Princeton grad’s take on textual criticism. The chapter not only responds to Ehrman’s arguments, Messer also refutes the proposed strongest argument set forth. It’s an age-old practice in irenic theology, even godly polemics (traced at least as far back as Athanasius) to respond to the strongest arguments of your opponent and not quibble over their blatant weaknesses. Taking the high route pushes the conversation forward. (Furthermore, series editor Dr. Wallace sent advance copies of most of the chapters to Ehrman, asking for his response before publishing.)

FINAL WORDS

I agree with the publisher that “Revisiting the Corruption of the New Testament will be a valuable resource for those working in textual criticism, early Christianity, New Testament apocrypha, and patristics.” Five stars:

Disclosure: I received a free copy from Kregel for the purposes of writing this book review.

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