Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Accuracy of the New Testament, Part Three

In the previous three posts, we have seen that the rhetorically powerful statement of there being more variants in the New Testament than words in the New Testament bandied about by Bart Ehrman is really not a complete picture of the situation. In the first post, we have seen that 396,000 of the variants are truly insignificant, in that they are misspellings, transposed letters, accidental phonetic spellings, abbreviations, and style changes. We are left with 4,000 variants that are considered significant. This means that these variants are intentional changes that add to, or subtract from the meaning. Now before you get nervous about the accuracy of the New Testament, it is important to point out that none of these 4,000 significant variants affect any core Christian doctrine.

In the second post in this series, we reviewed five of Bart Ehrman’s “Top Ten Verses Not Originally in the New Testament.” We discovered that nearly all the modern English translations contain footnotes that tell the reader that there are issues with those particular verses. We also discovered that the variants found in Luke are unique to Luke, and we have parallel accounts with little or no variants of any level of significance.

Now we will continue reviewing Bart Ehrman’s “Top Ten Verses Not Originally in the New Testament.” Again the purpose is not to refute Ehrman. I do not posses the academic “chops” to do that. What I am attempting to do is show the reader the importance of discernment in reading Christian writers (liberal or conservative), non-Christian writers, and your own Bible reading and study. Understand that when I refer to Bible reading and study, I am asking the reader to make sure that he/she is not relying on verses with significant variants. The tools to go to this depth of study are available either in book form or on the internet. I encourage the reader to make use of these tools. They have strengthened my trust in the New Testament, and I am sure it will do the same for you.

6 & 7. Mark 16:17 & 16:18

As with John 8, I am going to deal with these two verses as part of the whole. These verses are part of what is called “The Long Ending of Mark.” This “Long Ending” stretches from 16:9-20. As with the Pericope Adulterae (John7:53-8:11) the modern translations footnote this section the earliest manuscripts do not contain this “Long Ending”.

As with the Pericope Adulterae, Ehrman seems to be relying on the biblical ignorance of the general public, and most Christians in order to “shock” them into doubting the accuracy of the Bible. While it is understandable that the general public is ignorant of these facts, it is inexcusable that the church should be ignorant of these verses. However, this is not a reflection of the church, but is in fact, a reflection on pastors that are either unable or unwilling to teach their congregations about the issue of variants in the New Testament and how these variants affect the accuracy of the New Testament.

As with the Pericope Adulterae, there is a great deal of emotional baggage that accompanies these verses, particularly among our Pentecostal brothers. It is interesting to point out that the cessationist preachers (those that believe that the sign gifts ceased at the death of the last apostle or at the close of the New Testament canon) often rail against this section of Mark, but preach the Pericope Adulterae as “gospel truth.” The inconsistency is striking, but who said preachers are consistent.

8. John 5:4

The NAS and the ESV footnote that this verse is not found in the earliest manuscripts. The NIV omits the verse altogether from the text, but also footnote that the verse is not found in the earliest manuscripts. It is interesting to note that no manuscript prior to 500 AD has this verse. There are multiple Greek manuscripts copied after 900 AD that have a mark that indicates questions about this verse.

Further, there are Greek words that are not found anywhere else in the gospel of John. This verse also has a large number of variants attached to it, i.e., there are a number of different versions of this verse in many Greek manuscripts. Based on this it was already determined to not be in the original New Testament many centuries prior to Ehrman’s list.

9. Luke 24:12

I was unable to find a footnote in the ESV or NASB; however I was able to find the problems with this verse by doing an internet search. The view of scholars seems to be based on manuscript evidence that this appears to be a 2nd century addition. There are also words, phrases and verb tenses that are only found in this verse and not in Luke or Acts. However, should our trust in the account of how Peter got to the tomb be eroded? No! We have a detailed account in John 20:3-10 that describes Peter running to the empty tomb.

10. Luke 24:51

As with Luke 24:12, I was unable to find a footnote about this verse in the ESV or NASB. However, two major manuscripts omit this verse, and this, like the other problem passages in Luke, is unique to Luke. We have parallel accounts in the other three gospels. The same applies here, as we have Acts 1:9 and its account of the ascension of Jesus.

OK, now you may be asking, “So what? Why should I know all this variant stuff?” The answer is simple. God commands that we be equipped to “defend the faith once and for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). He also commands that Christians “rightly divide the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15). Christians are also told that we should give an answer to anyone who asks your for a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15). Many people, including Christians have read Bart Ehrman’s books and had the trust in the New Testament shattered. These have told their friends, and their friends have told their friends, and by the time the truth is getting its boots on, as Mark Twain said, the lie has already encircled the earth. The purpose of these posts is to help you combat the distortions that Bart Ehrman has asserted against the accuracy of the New Testament manuscripts that may be mindlessly parroted by those who follow him or have been influenced by his sensationalistic rhetoric.

I hope that this mini-series within the larger series centered on Jesus will help you to improve your witness to skeptics and atheists. As well as strengthen your own trust in the accuracy of the New Testament.

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