Why We Believe The Bible part 3 of 5 Pastor John Piper at Samuel Zwemer Theological Seminary

View Part 1  here– Inspiration, Inerrancy & Authority of the Bible

View Part 2 here- Which Books Make Up The Bible And Why? The Old and NewTestament Canon

You can read the notes here on the Desiring God site including Seminar Notes for the entire (5 part) series

Part 3 below: Do we have the very words written by the Biblical authors? and Does It Matter Whether We Affirm the Verbal Inerrancy of the Original Manuscripts?

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4. Do We Have the Very Words Written by the Biblical Authors?

Do we have any of the original manuscripts of the New Testament?

We do not have the actual piece of paper or papyrus or parchment that a Biblical writer actually wrote on.

How were the manuscripts of the New Testament preserved?

The first printed Greek New Testament was published 1516 by Erasmus. Before that, all copying was by hand. We owe our Bible to the meticulous love and care given by countless monks and scholars of the first 1500 years of the Christian era.

How many manuscripts of the New Testament writings do we possess today?

Over 5,000

As of 1967 the statistics were:

266 uncial texts
2,754 minuscule texts
2,135 lectionary portions
81 papari
5,236 TOTAL

How does this amount of evidence compare with other ancient writings of the same era?

We have no original manuscripts of any other writers from this period of history.
Moreover the textual evidence of other writings cannot compare with the wealth of New Testament manuscripts. For example:

Caesar’s Gallic Wars (composed between 58 and 50 bc). There are about 10 manuscripts available and the oldest is 900 years after the event.

Parts of the Roman History of Livy (composed between 59 bc and ad 17) is preserved in about 20 manuscripts, only one of which, containing only fragments, is as old as the fourth century.

The Histories and the Annals of the Roman historian Tacitus (composed around ad 100) are preserved (partially) only in two manuscripts, one from the ninth and one from the eleventh century.

The History of Thucydides (who lived 460-400 bc) is known to us from only eight manuscripts, the earliest belonging to ad 900, and a few papyrus scraps from the beginning of the Christian era.

The same general picture is true of Herodotus (who lived about ad 480 – 425).

Does this small number of manuscripts cause secular scholars to despair that we can know what these writers wrote?

As F. F. Bruce says:

No Classical scholar would listen to an argument that the authenticity of Herodotus or Thucydides is in doubt because the earliest manuscripts of their works which are of any use to us are over 1,300 years later than the originals. (Are the New Testament Documents Reliable, pp. 16-17)

So are you saying that the New Testament is the unique in having so many manuscripts?

Yes. No other ancient book comes close to this kind of wealth of diverse preservation.

What are some of the oldest manuscripts?

The oldest is a papyrus and comes from about ad 130 and contains John 18:31-33, 37f.

Two of the only full early manuscripts of the New Testament comes from ad 350, called Codex Sinaiticus because it was discovered in a monastery on Mt. Sinai.

Are manuscripts the only source of our knowledge of the original wording of the New Testament Writings?

No. In addition to manuscripts, there are quotations from the New Testament in very early writers outside the New Testament. For example, in the Didache and The Epistle of Barnabas and Clement’s letter to the Corinthians were produced around ad 100, and quote extensively from the New Testament writings.

The letters of Polycarp and Ignatius, bishop of Antioch, from about ad 120 contain many quotes from both Gospels and letters.

Do all these manuscripts create problems or solutions for getting back to the original writings?

The huge numbers of manuscripts of the New Testament results in two things: 1) there are many variations in wording among them because they were all copied by hand and subject to human error; 2) there are so many manuscripts that these errors tend to be self-correcting by the many manuscript witnesses we have to compare.

F. F. Bruce:

Fortunately, if the great number of MSS increases the number of scribal errors, it increases proportionately the means of correcting such errors, so that the margin of doubt left in the process of recovering the exact original wording is not so large as might be feared; it is in truth remarkably small. (The New Testament Documents, p. 19)

Is there a branch of Biblical Studies that focuses on this problem of getting back to the wording of the original writings?

Yes. The branch of Biblical Studies that works with all these sources to determine the best manuscript of the Bible is Textual Criticism.

Illustrations of Discrepancies and How They Came About and Are Resolved:

Misreading: Revelation 1:5

Marginal glosses: 1 John 5:7

Harmonization: Acts 9:6

Does the doctrine of inerrancy in the original manuscripts matter?

From our Affirmation of Faith:

We believe that the Bible is the Word of God, fully inspired and without error in the original manuscripts. . .

Yes, it matters, because it affirms the reality of objective, historical inspiration. There is an objective measuring rod for us to return to. To the degree that we come close to the wording of the original we come close to the very words of God. We are there for all practical purposes.

B. F. Westcott and F. J. A. Hort:

The proportion of words virtually accepted on all hands as raised above doubt is great; not less on a rough computation than 7/8ths of the whole. The remaining 1/8th … formed in great part by changes of order and other comparative trivialities constitutes the whole area of [textual] criticism … The words in our opinion still subject to doubt only make up about 1/60th of the whole New Testament. Substantial variation is but a small fraction of the whole residuary variation and can hardly form more than 1/100th part of the entire text. (The New Testament in the Original Greek, pp. 2-3)

F. F. Bruce:

The variant readings about which any doubt remains among textual critics of the New Testament affects no material question of historic fact or of Christian faith and practice. (The New Testament Documents, p. 20)

5. Does It Matter Whether We Affirm the Verbal Inerrancy of the Original Manuscripts?

5. Does It Matter Whether We Affirm the Verbal Inerrancy of the Original Manuscripts?

“We believe that the Bible is the Word of God,
fully inspired and without error in the original manuscripts…”
From Bethlehem’s Affirmation of Faith

To deny the verbal inerrancy of the original manuscripts would imply one of three things:

  • that we do not believe in verbal inerrancy at all, or
  • that we think inerrancy refers only to inerrant Biblical ideas, not to the very words of the Bible, or
  • that we do not believe the doctrine of verbal inerrancy is important enough to affirm.

If we do not believe in the verbal inerrancy of the original manuscripts, then we deny the doctrine of verbal inerrancy entirely, and impugn the doctrine of inspiration.

Denying the inerrancy of the original manuscripts of the Bible means denying the inerrancy of Scripture entirely because there is no consistent way to affirm the inerrancy of our present Greek and Hebrew versions or our present English translations while denying the inerrancy of the originals. There is no reason to think that books of the Bible became inerrant in the process of being copied from errant manuscripts. So to deny the inerrancy of the original manuscripts is to deny the verbal inerrancy of Scripture entirely.

If we deny the doctrine of verbal inerrancy entirely then we also impugn the inspiration of Scripture, because it suggests that God inspired Biblical writers to say erroneous things. But since that creates a moral problem for God’s truthfulness, it suggests that God did not really inspire the books of the Bible.

Another reason for denying the verbal inerrancy of the original manuscripts is because we think inerrancy refers only to inerrant Biblical ideas and not to the very words of the Bible.

The first problem with this is that the Biblical teaching about inspiration is that it is an inspiration of the very words of Scripture. In other words, God’s inerrant ideas were given to us in words that God himself appointed. (2 Timothy 3:16; Matthew 5:17-18; 1 Corinthians 2:13; etc.) We would go against the teaching of Scripture to say that God’s ideas are inerrant, but the verbal assertions in the original manuscripts are not.

The second problem with asserting the inerrancy of ideas but not words is that it cuts ideas free from the means God has chosen to communicate them to us. I admit that a word is only a symbol for an intention. But to say that the intentions of God are true but have no sure connection with the wording of Scripture cuts us off from those intentions and makes them unknowable. God has given us access to his ideas through the words of Scripture. God’s words are the anchor of our thoughts in the mind of God. If we cut our minds free from those words, we will be adrift and have no sure anchor in the knowledge of God.

A third reason for denying the verbal inerrancy of the original manuscripts is that some do not believe it is important enough to affirm, even though they believe it is true. This is generally asserted by saying: “We don’t have the originals, so what good does it do to assert anything about them; we should make assertions about what we have.”

Suppose I wrote you a letter with careful instructions how to get to my house for an important meeting. And I asked you to share this information with others who need to come. Then suppose you scanned the letter into a computer twice on two different days, and then sent out the files in two batches of e-mails to those who should come. But suppose that in one set of e-mails the scanner misread the original and converted “Fanny Street” to “Parry Street” and in the other set “Fanny Street” came through accurately. Then suppose that the original letter was lost.

The people receiving the e-mails discovered that their instructions do not agree; so they come to you and ask which is correct. But you say that you have lost the original. Does anyone say: “Oh well, it doesn’t matter whether the original was correct or not; we’ll just guess?” No, some research is done. For example, a computer whiz tests the scanner and discovers that in dozens of tries it never converts a P to an F but often converts an F to a P. And it never converts “rr” to “nn” but often converts “nn” to “rr.” So you conclude that the original letter must have read, “Fanny Street,” that got converted to “Parry Street,” and not the other way around. And so you all get to the important meeting.

Now everyone getting to the meeting depended on the belief that the original letter was true and that every effort to get back to that wording was crucial – even though the original letter no longer existed. If the original wording of Scripture is not affirmed as inerrant, there would be little incentive to try to get back as close as possible in our text-critical studies, which form the basis of all our translations.

There is a strange cynicism that often accompanies this assertion that affirming the inerrancy of the originals is unimportant. It sometimes expresses itself with rhetorical questions like: “Don’t you think the Bible in your hand today is inerrant?” And thus this question postures as a higher view of inerrancy.

The answer to the question is: Our Greek and Hebrew versions and our translations are inerrant to the degree that they faithfully render the divine meaning that the words of the original manuscripts carried.
I believe this reflects a higher (= more accurate) view of inerrancy than is reflected in saying that every translation is inerrant and that the inerrancy of the original manuscripts doesn’t matter. The reason I say this is that translations differ from each other in some matters. So to say that they are all inerrant (in spite of their differences) is to weaken the meaning of inerrancy to the point where it loses objective reality.

On the other hand, to say that the inerrancy of the original manuscripts matters elevates the objective reality of inerrancy. It is a historical reality. God really did inspire the writings of the Bible so that his ideas were inerrantly carried in the words of the original manuscripts. This historical reality is an objective standard which we can approach through textual criticism. Without this conviction the contemporary versions and translations are set adrift in a sea of subjectivism with no objective standard to measure their faithfulness. Thus affirming the inerrancy of the original manuscripts is a higher, more faithful, view of inerrancy.

Therefore, let us rejoice to affirm, “We believe that the Bible is the Word of God, fully inspired and without error in the original manuscripts…”

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